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Sergeant John Harrison 1817 - 1896

John Harrison was one of the earliest and most long-standing Waterfurlong Gardeners and was seemingly always on hand when trouble broke out. As he works on his plot we see his career progress from constable to sergeant, through to a still-active retirement. 

John Harrison has humble beginnings, born in 1816 in what is then the village of Walton on the outskirts of Peterborough, to William, an agricultural labourer, and his wife Elizabeth.


At 19 John marries Peterborough girl, Ann Ball, and six years later we find the young couple living with their two sons in Fen Lane, one of the poorest areas of Peterborough. John, like his father, is working as an agricultural labourer and how he makes the transition to police constable is unclear. Perhaps he starts off by taking 

advantage of new openings for part-time (and poorly paid) constables following the 1842 Parish Constables Act, which is passed in response to unrest associated with the Chartist movement.  

We know John was tall for his day and age, as the minimum height requirement 

for police constables was 5' 10".

Exeter Court, Stamford

At the time the Harrisons lived there, Exeter Court was severely overcrowded. It was later completely rebuilt. (2)

At the time of the 1851 census John has recently been appointed police constable by the Stamford Corporation and the Harrisons are living in Exeter Court off St Peter's Street, with their three boys, William, George and John and one-year-old daughter, Susan. A few months later we find the first reference in the Mercury to PC John Harrison, when a poor bystander John calls on for assistance is bitten so badly by a prisoner that amputation of the finger looks inevitable.

It seems likely John acquires his first Waterfurlong garden soon after moving to Stamford, as Exeter Court has only small, paved yards and in September 1853 we find John winning first prize for a dish of 12 dessert apples in the Stamford Floral and Horticultural Society show.  

John receives only one further mention in the Mercury until he is promoted to Sergeant. It describes a violent and rather bizarre incident involving a serial offender:

'Fred King was convicted of violently assaulting police-constable Harrison in his endeavour to quell a disturbance created by his mother, Susan Plowright: he was fined 10s and costs, which he paid. Susan Plowright was charged with gross assault upon PC Harrison, whose face was extremely disfigured by the defendant's nail. The woman's conduct was so violent that the force of three policemen was requisite to take her to the stationhouse, and she appeared before the Magistrates with the blood which had profusely fallen from Harrison in her attack on him on Saturday night still upon her face, as she declined to wash herself or allow anyone to wash her when in custody. The offence being fully proved, she was fined 31s and costs, and committed for 21 days' imprisonment with hard labour in default of payment. This virago was only released from gaol after imprisonment for several days on the 11th inst for a similar attack on PC Sanders.' Stamford Mercury 26 September 1856 (1)

Sometime between September 1856 and September 1857 John is promoted to the rank of police sergeant and for ten years barely a month goes by without mention of him in the papers, apprehending poachers, drunks and petty thieves, cautioning users of foul language, hauling pimps and purveyors of unfit goods to justice and chasing after stray cattle and army deserters. 

At home the family has grown by two, with daughters Ann arriving in 1853 and Elizabeth in 1857. And 1857 also sees further horticultural success for John, when he wins prizes in the town show for a dish of peas and two bunches of outdoor grapes.

Assault and Battery

The 'virago' attack of 1856 is the first of many assaults, threats and injuries:

30 Nov 1857: 'Knocked down with fists and kicked whilst on the ground then pelted with stones' (1)by a mob of youths trying to rescue one of their ringleaders, whom John and PC Dalrymple have arrested for lighting fireworks and throwing 'fire-balls' on Red Lion Square.

21 Dec 1860 Threatened with a shotgun by Henry Yates, 'well-known poacher' of North Street when John attends a disturbance. 'The brutal violence of this fellow has been lately of such a character to cause some uneasiness to the police, having on several occasions threatened to shoot Harrison or do him other bodily harm.' (1)

15 Nov 1861 Threatened by James Ross, who will not allow anyone to search him whilst in custody. Ross says: "Harrison, I'll do for you, if it costs me my life." 'The conduct of the prisoner was of a most ferocious character and [Sergt Harrison] therefore sought protection from the magistrates.'(1)

4 June 1862 John and Sergt Johnson attacked by a group of poachers in Broad Street, including the notorious 'Salt Jack' Marshall, 'a well-known gaol bird.'(1)

Occasionally, the boot is on the other foot, as in November 1858 when labourers Francis Pridmore, Robert Blades and William Waterfield go on a drunken rampage through the town's pubs:


'[They] entered the New Salutation and called for some beer, which was supplied to them in a pitcher with some drinking glasses. They broke the glasses and refused to pay for them, and Mr Bird refusing to let them go away without paying for the damage they had done, Pridmore immediately struck him on the face; and on George Allen, who is ostler at the inn, going to the assistance of his master, he also was struck by the defendant a violent blow on the face and knocked down...

Blades was then charged by Mr Potter, landlord of the Seven Stars [now part of Harrison and Dunn], with entering his house on the same day about dinner time, and upsetting the table with the dinner on it, breaking crockery, and damaging the eatables to the amount of 1s.1d. The defendant, who, it appears, with several others, was going about the town in a beastly state of intoxication, assaulting people and damaging property, went into the Seven Stars and called for some drink, which Mrs Potter refused to draw, Blades being at the time drunk. He then asked for some dinner, which was also denied him, whereupon he exclaimed, "Then I will give you some," and took hold of the table, at which were sitting two women, and upset it, throwing the contents on to the floor among some sand, spoiling the victuals, and breaking the dishes and plates. The defendant said he went into the house and asked for some beer, when one of the girls put her arms round him and asked him to stand a quart, and in his endeavours to free himself from her grasp he turned the table over. He (the defendant) supposed there was some ill-feeling existing between himself and Potter, because he would not go and steal some fowls and rabbits for him, and that was the reason he had brought him before their Worships. He also stated that the two girls in the house were kept for prostitution, and that he himself could prove it.

In consequence of complaints having been made during the day of assaults, [PC Briggs] received information to proceed with sergeant Harrison to take the drunken fellows into custody. They went to a public house in North-street called the White Horse, where the parties were drinking, and apprehended the ringleader, Blades. While they were conveying Blades from the house, Waterfield put out one of his legs, caught hold of Briggs' arm, and attempted to throw him down. Sergt Harrison then took Waterfield into custody, but he resisted and became so violent that Briggs, after he had seen his prisoner in safe keeping, returned to assist Harrison, when he received a kick on the legs from the defendant. Waterfield, in defence, said he did not put his leg out to throw Briggs down; he was merely swinging his leg backwards and forwards, and was taken aback to receive a tremendous blow from sergt Harrison between the eyes and nose, which nearly knocked him off his chair. When he got part of the way to the station he refused to go any further, thinking that he had been very ill-used and had done nothing for which he ought to go gaol: sergt Harrison then came up and beat him about the head with his staff. He called witnesses to prove the truth of his statement. Sergeant Harrison denied striking him, and said that no more violence was used than was necessary.' Pridmore, Blades and Waterfield were all heavily fined with the default of 14 days' imprisonment with hard labour if unable to pay. Stamford Mercury 19 November 1858 (1) 

John's worst beating comes in February 1864 when he is pistol-whipped by William Cox in Waterfurlong. 

1850s Constables' Companion and Guide

Theft At The Vicarage

On 16 January 1859 Thomas Elsom, a travelling 

cutler from Wolverhampton, and George Bull, a basket-maker from Birmingham, break into the house of the Rev E Davys, Vicar of Peterborough, whilst the family is at church. The pair is eventually apprehended in Birmingham and tried at Peterborough for stealing numerous items of silver-ware valued at £800, including an ink-stand given by the parishioners of St Martin's, Stamford, where Rev Davys had formerly been curate.

On the night in question, the Vicar's cook, Maria Thompson,


calls in the police when she notices two men standing by the gate in the moonlight and realises the house has been burgled. By the time the police officer arrives the thieves have absconded with their haul. 


The Mercury reports that John Pawlett, landlord of the Anchor Inn, St Martin's, Stamford, gives evidence: 'He remembered two men coming there on the 19th of January, between the hours of 8 and 9 in the evening, and inquiring for a bed. They handed a small carpet-bag and a great coat to the landlady at the bar, and went and sat down in the kitchen, each of them having a top coat on: they asked for cold meat, and were told they could not be accommodated with that, and they had chops and ale. One of them was tall, the other short. The tall one had a great coat on, and carried the bag. He handed me a sovereign in payment, and I gave him the difference. Mr and Mrs Henson, sen, were in the kitchen. Old Mr Henson was rather in drink, and addressing the two men said, "There has been a robbery at the parson's at Peterboro': are you the gentlemen as did it?" They made no reply, and moved into another room, where the chops were set out for them. They shortly after rang the bell and called for two glasses of ale, which witness supplied, and in serving it to them he looked them both hard in the face, and suspecting all was not right he went to the police-station and gave information to sergt Harrison, who shortly after arrived in uniform, and went into the room where the men were.' (1)


For reasons that the reporter chooses to glide over, Sergt Harrison observes the men trying to get into the pub cellar but lets them go on their way unchallenged and fails to examine the carpet bag and overcoat they leave behind them. The Peterborough police receive further intelligence from Birmingham, where they then conduct 100 house-to-house enquiries, eventually tracking the suspects down in a pub called the Stone Cross. They telegraph Sergt Harrison who finally checks the carpet bag and discovers not only the whole haul but also a set of double skeleton keys and a pick-lock instrument. He travels to Peterborough and uses the keys to unlock the doors that have been accessed by the burglars, before heading by train to Birmingham to identify the men in custody. 

The numerous witnesses are unanimous that the men in the dock are the same they saw in Peterborough and Stamford, despite the fact the tall one has shaved off his beard and moustache. Under cross-examination Mrs Pawlett, landlady of the Anchor, stands her ground: "I am aware that for a man to have his large bushy whiskers shaved off very greatly alters his appearance, but it does not alter his features. My husband has no whiskers but if he were to be absent from home a short time and return with large bushy whiskers I should still know him." (1)

The Mercury is bemused by Rev Davys's reaction to the case.'During an adjournment ... the prisoners were regaled with sandwiches by the Vicar, who seems disconcerted by the proceedings, and so far as he is concerned would have sacrificed his plate rather than prosecute the men.'(1)


The prisoners are both committed for trial at the next quarter sessions. 'Great praise is due to chief constable Bailey for his untiring exertions in prosecuting this case.'(1) Unsurprisingly, John Harrison comes in for no such commendation, which possibly spurs him on to do better next time round.


The next 18 months brings two of the biggest cases of John's career - one a high-profile theft (in which he doesn't exactly cover himself in glory), the other a grisly murder investigation, which earns him a pay-rise from 23s a week to 25s a week.

market shambles, Stamford

The tiny Stamford police station was located next to the market shambles (now the library) on High Street. The town's fire engine was also housed 

there. (2)


Burnt Corpse in St Martin's Murder Mystery


'A ring, the inscription on which was the first clue to a dreadful murder committed in St Martin's, Stamford, in spring of last year, was found on Wednesday in the river Welland near the George-bridge. It will be remembered by most of our readers that in the month of March, 1860, Miss Elizabeth Pulley was missed by her neighbours for a few days, and that upon her premises being entered by the police, her dead body was discovered, partly burnt, in one of the back rooms of her residence. It was first thought she had fallen in a fit while lighting her fire, and that she had thus incurred the burns which marked her corpse, but subsequent inquiries proved that she had been strangled, and that her clothes were then set on fire by the murderer.


A few days after her burial two young men, named March and Munton, in the employ of Henry Corby, carpenter, living in St Martin's, observed in his workshop a brass-bound box secreted on a ledge. Curiosity prompted them to examine its contents, and among several coins and rings which it contained was a mourning ring inscribed "Thomas and Elizabeth Pulley." Munton mentioned the discovery to his mother, who spoke of the circumstance in other quarters, and the rumour that the box had been examined reached the ears of Corby. He endeavoured to persuade Mrs Munton that there was some mistake in the report, and asserted he had no such box. The police, however, learnt what had transpired, and Superintendent Ward having consulted the Mayor, apprehended Corby, and instituted a close search of his house and workshops. The box had been removed and destroyed, and though some portions of the brass binding were discovered in a firegrate on Corby's premises (indicating that the box had been consumed) none of its contents, nor any other of Miss Pulley's property, could then be found. Corby, after undergoing three examinations, could not face a fourth, and he contrived to hang himself in his cell on the morning he was to undergo his final examination.' 


Sergeant Harrison's Evidence

'I am a sergeant of police. On Monday the 19th of March, I was directed to enter the premises of Miss Elizabeth Pulley, who lived in High-street, St Martin's. I went in company with Mr George and constable Dalrymple, borrowed a ladder, and scaled the south wall adjoining Mrs Wallis's premises. I got over into the garden, and then opened the garden door, and let in Mr George and the Rev Joseph Place.(Dalrymple, Mr George, and myself) then went down to the house, and found the passage door wide open, then looked into a room on the left hand side, of the back entrance, and saw nothing there. We then looked into the opposite room, the door of which room was partly open, and there I saw the body lie. The body was Miss Pulley's. The body lay from three to four inches from the grate front; the grate is on the east side of the room; there was a hearth -stone. Deceased lay with her head partly on the hearth-stone, and her body lay in a slanting direction in front of the grate, and from the shoulders downwards was on the floor. The floor was an oaken one. The head was turned over left towards the fire-grate.

In Thomas Stevenson's Principles and Practices of Medical Jurisprudence (1873) Miss Pulley's case was cited as what, at first glance, might appear 

to be 'spontaneous 

human combustion'. 

Stevenson argued spontaneous human combustion should never be assumed and 

only proposed after  

meticulously examining the evidence and ruling out all other potential explanations. 

At this point Captain Haycock suggested that other witnesses who were present should retire from the court, a course usually adopted in cases where a serious charge is preferred. The witnesses intended to be called, with the exception of the medical gentlemen in whose case there was no objection, then withdrew. 


Evidence resumed: The body lay upon its back with the legs crossed; the body was partly dressed, and a bonnet was on the head; the bonnet was partly burned. The remains of the clothing showed that deceased had been full dressed. A candlestick (I now produce) was lying between the left arm and the body; the nozzle of the candlestick lay pointed towards the body and fire-place; I did not notice spots of grease; the clothing of deceased was burnt from both arms and partly off the body at the top part; the lower limbs were not burnt at all; the face appeared as though the ashes of some covering 


Unlike the theft at the vicarage case, John comes in for high praise: 'Mr Hopkinson, who attended before the Magistrates and at the Inquest, called the attention of the Bench to the indefatigable exertions on the part of Sergt Harrison during the investigation of this case. He felt it his duty to state that owing to that officer's zeal they were enabled to trace some most material evidence, which would have justified them in committing the prisoner for trial, had he lived.' Stamford Mercury 20 April 1860 (1)


John tackles other strange cases, from the paralysed woman he finds sleep-walking in St Paul's Street, to the deserter from the 36th Regiment of Foot hiding in the town, to the labourer arrested for indecency after his clothes are stripped off him whilst drunk in a field, to the dodgy landlord of the Marquis of Granby who runs a smoking, drinking and gambling den for schoolboys.


In July 1861 John wins third prize at The Stamford and Neighbourhood Floral and Horticultural Society annual show for best-cultivated allotment garden. He has also joined the newly-formed 15th Lincolnshire Rifle Volunteers; in 1863 the Commissioned Officers' Prize of £1.10s is awarded to 'Colour-Sergeant Harrison.'

like a veil, lying over the lower part of the face, had been placed over it; the eyebrows were partly singed; I did not touch the body; the upper portion only of the face could be distinctly seen. A bonnet which deceased had on was partly burnt away. The right arm was partly elevated, and part the fingers, at the first joint, were burnt off; the rest of the hand as though baked; the left hand and arm was not so much burned; there were some ashes from the clothing between the left arm and the body; the body did not appear to be elevated from the floor in the least.

An inquest was held the same evening, and the jury viewed the body about half-past six; I accompanied the jury to the house and unlocked the door for them. No one but myself and Mr George had been in the room before the jury went there. I did not again see the room until Thursday, the day deceased was buried. I was present at the post-mortem examination of the body, which was the body of Miss Pulley.' Lincolnshire Chronicle 30 March 1860 (1)

Lincs Rifle Volunteers Marching on Frozen River Witham 1861

In 1859 a scare about war with France swept the country, exposing the inability of the small peacetime regular army to defend Great Britain as well as the vast colonial Empire. On 25 May the Government sanctioned the formation of a corps of Rifle Volunteers. Uniforms, equipment, drill halls and most weapons were provided at private expense or by public subscription.

In 1864 John is badly beaten in the incident in Waterfurlong and from that point on we hear less and less about him - perhaps he is given more desk duties. In 1867 The Stamford Mercury reports that he takes out a summons of his own:

'Thomas Witherington, aged 6, was summoned for throwing stones and seriously injuring Elizabeth Harrison, daughter of Serjeant Harrison, giving her a black eye. Sergt Harrison said he should not have summoned so young a lad, only the boy had been several times cautioned about throwing stones but appeared to pay no heed: moreover, he was frequently annoying and endangering the family of the miller at Mr Gilchrist's mill in Bath-row. The Magistrates said they did not see how they could well punish a boy so young as the defendant, whose mother said he had only just turned six years. Sergeant Harrison said he believed the lad was nearer 9 years than 6, and added that he would ascertain the real age before next Saturday, if the Bench wished. Some of the Magistrates seemed to think the woman was deceiving them as to the boy's age, and adjourned the case.' (1)

The 1871 census shows John and Ann have moved to No 1 Austin Friars Lane, where three of their younger children are still living with them; John who is working as a printer/compositor, Ann, who is a dressmaker, and Elizabeth who is a general servant. The only other things we learn of John in the 1870s are the fact he has risen to quarter-master in the Rifle Volunteers, winning 50 marks for his shooting prowess in 1871 and that he brings a prosecution against a carter's lad for ill-treating a horse carrying manure to the gardens.

In 1883 John scoops two prizes in the town's horticultural show under the cottagers exhibition category: a first for his parsnips and a second for his spring-sown onions. The following year the Watch and General Purposes Committee of the Stamford Corporation minutes: 'It was resolved that such sums as had been determined by ex-sergeant Harrison to be reasonable be tendered to the occupiers of gardens near Uffington-road whose produce had been damaged by sheep.'(1)

Meanwhile, Daughter Annie is still living with John and Ann 'helping in the home' and the family also has two grandchildren living with them, teenage Elizabeth Harrison and her younger brother, Alfred.

In 1885 John Harrison junior, who is now living in one of the newly-built cottages in Waterfurlong, applies unsuccessfully for admission to the freemen of Stamford: 


'The claim disallowed was of John Harrison, jun, of St Peters-terrace, who claimed in respect of seven years' servitude as apprentice in the borough, but it appeared that only part of such time, from the 21st April, 1866, was under a deed of apprenticeship, and therefore, that there were not seven years' apprenticeship and service thereunder.'(1)


John senior's wife, Ann, dies in 1887 and the year after her death John advertises two 'very good' gardens to let in Waterfurlong; whether it is grief or illness or simply the fact he no longer has a large family to provide for that causes John to sub-let them we do not know. We lose him in the 1891 census when daughter Ann is shown living alone in West Street on parish relief, but John seems to remain in the town as his death is recorded in Stamford in October 1896.



(1) The British Newspaper Archive © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. All Rights Reserved.

(2) Kind courtesy of the Lincolnshire Museums Service.

An entry in H Deverill of Banbury's 1883 seed catalogue for 'Laxton's new long-pod bean, John Harrison' may well represent the highest possible expression of gratitude to John for his 'wilful laxity', particularly as Laxtons only rarely named one of their introductions after an individual. 

Then in August 1877 we come to John's involvement in the arrest and dramatic prosecution of renowned horticulturalist and fellow Waterfurlong gardener, Thomas Laxton. The fact the Stamford police take ten months to apprehend Laxton does not stand them in good stead with the higher echelons of the Linconshire constabulary.

By 1881 John has retired on a pension of 18s 4d - three-quarters of his final salary. He remains active, both in his garden and in assuming responsibility on the Corporation's behalf during the summer months for 'preserving the respectability of bathers on the Meadows.'(1) Quite what the latter entails is unclear.

Copyright © Karen Meadows 2018

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