Purpose of this blog

Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Now That's Riot Control

 Recently I've been volunteering with a local Police museum. This has gotten me interested in some of the early policing stuff, so today I'm going to have a look at something that is always a controversial subject, arming the Police. Of course, we'll be doing it in a historical style, and there's some interesting turns, like the attempt to make the existing technology less lethal and improve safety.

The first UK Police forces were formed in the final years of the 18th century, their jurisdiction was the Thames River, and were in part privately funded. From the start, these forces were armed with swords to help protect the shipping trade.

In the 1820s when the land-based Police were formed swords were provided. These were similar to the later swords but had a squared-off hilt. You will see these swords termed either ‘cutlasses’ or ‘hangers’, both names mean the same thing, but cutlass is used for this type of sword in a maritime sense and hanger on land. 

Police in Bristol in 1877 practising their sword drill. Note the several individuals out of uniform? I suspect these may be Special Constables, who were members of the local population recruited as needed, a bit like the sheriff deputising people in the Wild West.

 The hangers were only to be issued when two Justices agreed they should be, mainly for the protection of the constable. The Cutlass could only be worn at night, or when serious civil unrest was expected, although Specials were not allowed to be armed with them.

One such example is the story of Parish Constable James Beech in Staffordshire. On the evening of Thursday, the 4th of August 1843, Constable Beech arrived at the house of John Vaughan, the gamekeeper for Apedale Hall. About 2230 Vaughan and Beech left to patrol the grounds looking for Poachers. About 0200 the next morning a pair of servants at the hall were woken by a voice yelling ‘Murder!’. Upon investigation, they found Vaughan, collapsed in a road and covered with blood. Loading him into a chair they carried him to his house and a surgeon was summoned. Others were woken and a search was carried out for Constable Beech. His was found at the site of the attack, along with the stock of a firearm and its gun-lock. Although the best efforts of the surgeon were applied, Constable Beech was dead, he had been stabbed with his own cutlass. Three men were arrested, including one who had offered threats of violence to Vaughan previously. Two of these men, Benjamin Spilsbury and James Oakes, would be convicted of Wilful Murder, and thus were either hanged, or more likely transported to Australia.


Close up of the safety, on a partially drawn hanger.the button on the hilt is pushed by your thumb. It is attached to the bar of metal that turns into a hook. When the sword is fully in the scabbard, the hook (or maybe latch?) is tucked under the brass end piece of the scabbard, and held there by the spring. To draw the sword you use your right hand to grab the handle, then use your right thumb to press the button which withdraws the latch allowing you to draw freely.

Because of similar incidents happening to constables, and prison wardens who were also equipped with the same style of hanger, a new pattern was brought out around the 1860s. This had a safety catch that locked the hanger into the scabbard and could be released by pressing a spring-loaded button with the thumb on your right hand. The sword was worn on the left-hand side, which meant that the button faced into the constable’s body giving it an increased layer of protection against being drawn by an assailant.


Some of the museums swords. The top one is the standard Police hanger, with the blade similar to the one dating back to the 1820's. You can clearly see how they reduce in length but increase in curve. Equally, I think the latest one has a steel, not brass, hand guard, which would presumably be to make it cheaper.

The interesting thing about the Police hangers is that they are said to be unsharpened. Most swords are mechanically sharpened after manufacture. However, the Police hangers are said to have not been. This, in turn, means they would be less lethal than a normal sword. As you can see from the examples on display there are several different patterns, that become shorter and more curved. This may be down to the increasing curve being better for slashing. Slashing wounds could be considered to be less lethal than stabbing ones. Thus, by increasing the curve of the sword you obtain more effective slashing attacks, but do not increase the lethality of stabbing ones, which are consequently harder to do.


The last recorded use of a Police hanger was during the Tottenham Outrage of 1909, when during the hue and cry against the two armed robbers and the running gunfight and tram/car/foot/cart chase between the Police and offenders. Police hangers were issued, although not used due to the presence of the large number of firearms.



Thank you for reading. If you like what I do, and think it is worthy of a tiny donation, you can do so via Paypal (historylisty-general@yahoo.co.uk) or through Patreon. For which I can only offer my thanks. Or alternatively you can buy one of my books.


Image Credits & Sources:

For a bit more on Police hangers see this website.