The Butcher of Barclays Hollow follows the story of an unlikely policeman who is called upon to solve a murder in a small, rural village. Set in a time when the police force in the UK was sporadic at best, the novella explores the difficulties of solving a large scale crime as well as the general public’s distrust of police.
But where did the idea come from? What prompted me to journey back to the very beginnings of the police force to write a new crime story?
In today’s post, I’m going to take you back in time to 1855 to explore what influenced me to write The Butcher of Barclays Hollow and the unfathomable world in which it is set.
Where did the idea come from?
Like most of my ideas, I stumble across the concept for The Butcher of Barclays Hollow when reading another book.
The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is a factual account of the murder of a toddler at Road Hill House in 1860 and the subsequent investigations by a Scotland Yard detective, Jonathan Whicher. Whilst reading this book last summer, I became intrigued by the constant references to the inefficiency of the local police forces in rural areas. In particular, I was interested by a comment from the author, Kate Summerscale, who suggested that a large number of constables in the years leading up to 1860 were not only volunteers, but also unpaid.
The concept for The Butcher of Barclays Hollow sprang to my mind almost immediately. I had often wanted to write a story set in England during the Crimean War (1854-56) – don’t ask, it was just a time period that I found interesting – and I was keen to find another story premise where I could follow a detective who wasn’t really a detective. The idea of have a local villager volunteering as a police officer to investigate a murder was one that ticked all the boxes and so I set to work bringing the idea to life.
What sort of state is the police force in at the time?
In 1855, the police force is in a bit of a rough state. Whilst there was a relatively large police force in London (having been established in 1829) and a provision by which local magistrates could create police forces for individual areas, there were very few constabularies in rural areas. In fact, by 1855 there were only 12,000 policemen throughout the whole of England and Wales and only 36 counties out of the 54 that had seen fit to establish constabularies.
In Dorset, where I decided to set the village of Barclays Hollow, the Dorset County Constabulary was only established in 1855 – but the existing law did not require counties to set up such police forces.
However, in 1842 something had happened that would be a huge influence on my story. The Parish Constables Act was passed in response to the Chartists Movement – a working class movement that aimed to extend the right to vote beyond just those who owned property – who presented a petition to the House of Commons, which was then rejected leading to widespread unrest.
The Parish Constables Act allowed Justices of the Peace to appoint local parish constables. It was of these parish constables that Kate Summerscale was referring to in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. Apart from being part time, these constables were also appointed and poorly paid – if they were lucky to be paid at all. For the most part, these posts tended to attract those people who weren’t prepared to risk their lives to protect others and, in some instances, were easily corruptible.
Why was the police force so slow to build?
The police force in London had been so successful in cutting crime and increasing the detection of criminal acts that it is a wonder that the idea of a large police force didn’t come to the rural communities sooner.
But, despite the successes of the police force, many people didn’t look to fondly on the new crime fighting organisations. Some saw the police constabularies as an arm of the government, aimed at enforcing the new Poor Law – a law that created the disgusting workhouse scenarios that we know from such literary classics as Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist – or for beating down the Chartists Movement.
Others saw the idea as an expensive waste of time whilst others just couldn’t be bothered to co-ordinate between boroughs and counties to get the service up and running. All of this was compounded by the fact that there was no governmental oversight to ensure the inspection or regulation of these constabularies, which led many to not bother or create a token force.
That was until 1856, the year after my story. The 1856 Police Act addressed this lack of oversight in the constabularies and the County Borough Police Act essentially forced the whole country to set up police forces that reported directly to the government.With these new acts came new money – grants that were awarded based on the efficiency of individual forces – and a shift of focus from the prevention of crime to detection.
In the wake of these changes, 239 police forces were set up and the Modern Police Service was born.
So, there you have it, the police force of Britain in 1855 was a very lax, complicated and inefficient beast, but little more than a year later changes were about to happen that would create the police force that we know today.
I can’t think of a better time to set a story…
The Butcher of Barclays Hollow is due for release later this year.