From early mediaeval times until the 19th century, the maintenance of law and order in Richmond was largely the responsibility of the Lord of the Manor through his Court Leet. The Court Leet was presided over by the Steward of the Manor or his deputy. The Steward was the judge with all administrative matters such as the empanelling of the jury and the election of officials being handled by the bailiff.
The elected officials of the court were the constable, headborough (chief of the 10 men who made up the jury of frankpledge) and the aleconner who was the forerunner of the present day Public Protection Officer, responsible for the quality of the ale and beer and also for ensuring that they were sold to the proper weight and measure. Richmond, Ham and Kew each had their own officials. The constable was responsible for supervising the "Watch and Ward" under the Statute of Westminster 1285. This was the forerunner of our police service, the "Ward" being daytime patrols and the "Watch", night time ones. He was also responsible for inspecting alehouses and suppressing gaming houses, the apprenticing of poor children, the supervising of the settlement or removal of vagrants and beggars, the welfare of the poor, the collecting of taxes, the supervision of military arms supply and military training and ensuring the upkeep of the local means of punishment. In other words, he was the equivalent of the local council and the police. It was a considerable undertaking and a highly unpopular job. In 1631, Edward Monday "obstinately refused to perform his office." The court records show that the constable was not exempt from being brought before the Steward for failing to carry out his duties and was subject to punishment. In Richmond those duties relating to the poor were dealt with by the parish constable of whom more later.
The Steward had the power to fine or make an amercement and to punish by means of the stocks, pillory, ducking-stool or whip. In the Richmond court rolls there are references to all of these. The pillory stood on Richmond Green following an order of 1631 and it was still in use 130 years later when Daniel Bland was put in it on two Thursdays in succession before being sent to jail for assaulting an infant with intent to rape. The stocks were erected near the Town or Great Pond, now the site of the Dome Buildings at the junction with George Street, Sheen Road and the Quadrant. There were also others at Ham and Kew. The ducking-stool was also by the Town Pond - we find Constable Thomas Coggdall was in perpetual trouble during the 1630s for "converting this to his own use and not maintaining it properly" and there was at least one whipping post that stood on Kew Green.
Fines were fixed and unalterable, amercements were imposed at the discretion of the jury. Failure to pay meant the distrainment of goods or cattle. These were put in the pound. The "pound overt" (open pound) stood on Pest House Common, the site in Queens Road being near the present "Lass of Richmond Hill". This was used for animals and it remained the responsibility of their owners to feed and water them. The "pound covert" (covered pound) or pound house was near the engine-house which stood on the site of the clock tower building in Sheen Road, close to Waitrose supermarket. Perishable and damageable goods were stored there.
Of the instrument of final punishment, the gallows, there is but one mention in a newspaper cutting. In 1767 Richard Mihil was executed on Richmond Hill for the murder of his brother Robert whom he had stabbed to death in their father's bakers shop in George Street.
Amongst the crimes tried by the Richmond Court Leet were assault and battery; infringements of "fair trading" laws such as baking of unwholesome bread and the sale of musty beer; nuisances such as disturbing the neighbours, the dumping of rubbish and sewerage on the highway or in the pond or ditches, the stopping up of footpaths and thoroughfares; and "building" infringements such as the erection or demolition of buildings and the digging of gravel without permission or allowing property and fences to fall into a ruinous state.
It was illegal to keep bulldogs and harbour people who may become a charge on the town. It was also unlawful to refuse to pursue a felon when required - in 1638 Christopher Towne was presented by a jury for this - and to refuse to assist the constable with a prisoner. Failure to carry a "hue and cry" was also a punishable offence - this was the method by which a person wishing to make an arrest could call on the rest of the manor to join him in pursuit. Everyone was obliged to join the hue and to cry aloud to attract other people's attention. It was illegal to start an unnecessary hue. Public participation in the arrest of criminals was encouraged by a system of fixed awards made from a special fund.
The crimes that attracted the greatest coverage in the late 17th and early 18th centuries were those perpetrated by footpads and highwaymen who frequented the roads leading out of town, particularly that leading to Putney. Their presence was responsible for many men going about armed after dark and there are reports of deaths caused by pistols going off accidentally through the jolting of the carriage.
The law and order situation was somewhat confused in Richmond by the fact that the Manor covered 3 parishes, each with their own vestry that had the duty to elect constables and maintain law and order. Presumably there was a working agreement as to the duties that were undertaken by the manor constables and those by the parish constables. In practice it appears that the parish constable was responsible for the "social" and "military" aspects of the work. In 1651 the constable presented to the Vestry certain strangers and inmates who had crept into the parish and were likely to be a charge on the parish and in July 1654 "several persons were ordered to remove tenants out of their houses, or give a bond to the Churchwardens, to save the Parish against expenses to be incurred for their relief" and Thomas Raymond was ordered "to remove his wife's mother out of the parish within a fortnight."
A small watchhouse and lock-up can be seen in the "Prospect of Richmond" map of 1726, standing in the wide part of George Street near the junction with Duke Street. By 1730, there was a new watchhouse with "a convenient house…to contain the two fire engines" adjacent to it
The first Act to regulate the government of Richmond was passed on 30 April 1766 entitled "An Act for the Relief and Employment of the poor, and for repairing the highways, paving, cleansing, lighting and watching the streets…" It provided for the appointment of the Minister, Churchwardens, Justices of the Peace…residing in Richmond together with 31 trustees who were to be responsible for implementing the Act. In 1768, the Parish Trustees appointed 2 able-bodied men to watch and patrol the streets, by 1772 there were six men on regular watch and that number was doubled in1783 and 1785 saw the introduction of a "nightly watch within the said parish."
It does not appear to have been very successful for in 1785 a further Act was passed "for making new provisions for the relief of the poor…and watching the streets…" and the trustees were replaced by Vestrymen. This seems to have been much more successful, or perhaps the clerk was more efficient, for from this date there are detailed minutes of the Vestry meetings. The first meeting of the newly-constituted body was at The Greyhound Inn in George Street, thereafter they met at the Parish Room in the churchyard. However, this was not convenient and on 7 June 1790, it "was resolved that it is expedient to build a new Vestry Office and that the spot on which the houses now stand on the ground purchased for the purpose of a new burial ground is the most convenient place for that purpose." The surveyor or architect was Mr Faulkner and it was built by Thomas Taylor for £282.20 which included £2.20 for demolishing the old buildings. The furnishings were:
The first meeting in the new office at the corner of Vineyard Passage and Paradise Road took place on 11th April 1791.
The time of the Vestry was largely taken up by the relief of the poor and by provision of a new workhouse on Pest House Common in Queens Road to replace the one in Petersham Road. The old workhouse occupied Rump Hall in Petersham Road (then Lower Road) which the Vestry had leased for some 30 years.
However, they also had a duty to maintain law and order in the town and one of their first acts in this direction was on 24 April 1786 when they ordered "that the surveyor give notice to the inhabitants who leave out carriages… in the streets, highways…that if they cause such obstructions in future this Vestry must be obliged to levy the penalties upon them for their neglect.", the precursor of parking problems in Richmond.
In 1787 the beadles were sent to remove the stage of a mountebank and threatened to prosecute him while Robert Tasker was let off with a caution for allowing his swine to roam the streets.
In 1793 the Vestry had to deal with problems caused by an influx of emigrants from France. There was a "complaint…that some idle and disorderly persons have of late made a practice of assaulting and grossly abusing several of the foreigners resident in the town without cause… it is ordered that the beadles be particularly attentive in the discovery of such persons." - who would then be taken before the magistrates. The magistrates were appointed by the county and the two resident in Richmond had a seat on the Vestry. Offenders were taken before one of them sitting in his own home - throughout the latter part of the 18th century there is frequent mention of offenders being taken before Sir William Richardson at his home on Richmond Hill (later known as Doughty House).
In 1794 John Thatcher, apprehended by the Sergeant of the Night for stealing malt from Edward Collin’s brewery, was taken before the magistrate and later sentenced at the Guildford Assizes to 7 years transportation. Offenders were generally sent by the magistrates to Southwark Jail to await the assize – which could be held in one of several different towns in Surrey including Reigate, Dorking and Guildford. Sentences included transportation for stealing to hanging for murder.
The Vestry was empowered to send men to Bridewell Jail for failing to maintain their wives and families and to the House of Correction at Kingston for embezzlement and assault. The Vestry did not punish blindly as Edward Brown and George Barley discovered in 1829 when, having expressed their regret at having obstructed and assaulted one of the watchmen and made a public acknowledgement of their misdemeanour by circulating a handbill, all further proceedings against them were suspended.
One of the first tasks of the reorganised Vestry in 1785 had been to order the erection of a watchhouse and on 30 December 1793, it adopted Mr. Justice Bonding’s system of watching and laid down a rota of ‘beats’ to be walked by the watchmen.
By 1829 the watch was in its final years. Barnes had been the only part of the present borough to come within the Metropolitan Police area when Wandsworth or "V" Division was formed in 1830. But Richmond was added to the Metropolitan Police area on 13 January 1840 and the Vestry was relieved of its duty in that direction, other than collecting the Police Levy. They did not completely give up their responsibilities however, and warned the police in February 1840 "to suppress the nuisances which occurs on Shrove Tuesday in every year occasioned by a football being kicked through the public streets and thoroughfares of this parish to the great annoyance of all persons desirous of passing quietly through the same and to the detriment of the shopkeepers in Richmond."
In 1849 the Vestry Hall was enlarged and the police (magistrates) court was added. The watchhouse had been closed in 1841 when the police station, in two converted cottages in Princes Street (the cottages were demolished in 1966 to make way for Waitrose’s supermarket in Sheen Road) was opened. It later moved to a new building at 35 George Street, which had been purchased in 1867 and opened in 1871 before taking up its present home in Red Lion Street on a site acquired by the Council in 1912 for £1,625.
In 1895 the old Vestry Hall, which in 1859 had witnessed the enquiry of the Coroner into the poisoning of Isabella Bankes and, on 31 March 1879, the beginning of the prosecution of the arch-murderess Kate Webster, having outlived its usefulness and been replaced for all except its magisterial duties by the new Town Hall in Hill Street (Richmond became a borough in 1890) was pulled down and replaced by a new Magistrates Court and mortuary which opened in October 1896. This building was greeted with mixed feelings; according to one local paper "the universal opinion been wasted upon appeared to be that if the exterior…is not exactly calculated to inspire respect mingled with admiration, the interior is very well adapted to for its purpose. …No money has ornamentation." While Robert Ward, one-time contender for a seat on Richmond Council, asked "Who are the people to be hanged…for inflicting on Richmond that disgraceful building of the new Court House." This building was replaced by the new Court House opened in Parkshot, on the site previously occupied by Parkshot Rooms and the swimming baths, in 1975.
In 1989 the Richmond and Twickenham Police divisions amalgamated to form the Richmond upon Thames division.