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John James Magee  The police years

Borough, Greenwich, Brockley 1866-1894

What can they have been thinking, John James Magee, miller’s assistant and Catherine Eliza Warner, spinster, as they stood in the church of St. George the Martyr in Southwark to be married?  He was only nineteen and she was only eighteen and, moreover, pregnant.  Not an uncommon start to marriage for the day, but not a particularly auspicious one either.  And yet they remained married for the rest of John James’ life - just short of fifty years.  So let us hope that they married for love and stayed together out of mutual affection at the very least.  The options for doing anything else were minimal of course, but there seem to be no signs of them living apart at all in the records.

And then we have yet another of those early marriage tragedies and the first baby dies - this is the third one in a row that I have written about.  The child, a girl, Ann Elizabeth on the registration, Elizabeth Anne at the baptism, was born in April and died in the last quarter of 1867.  They were married on the 23rd September, 1866 and just over a year later they were burying the baby who had, presumably, initiated the marriage.  A baby named after both of their mothers - both Anns.  Today, unless love was the reason for the relationship, that would have been the end of it, but no they soldiered on.  Hopefully, as I always say, because they wanted to be together.

I only have the registration index reference for the death, so I don’t know much about it, other than that it was registered in Greenwich which includes Deptford, which is where they were when their next child, Catherine Eliza, was born on 20 May 1869.  She was not baptised until August, so maybe they were nervous.  Their address is Wilcox Place, which is in the Deptford/New Cross/Brockley area.  Actually it no longer exists - no doubt it was one of those small courtyards with tenements and lodging houses - like the alley pictured at left.  Anyway here they were, John having progressed to miller, rather than miller’s assistant (at least that’s what it says on the baptism record), and Catherine a successful mother at last at the grand old age of twenty one.  And I have just noticed that Catherine the baby was born on her mother’s own birthday.  What a twenty-first birthday present - no wonder the baby was given her mother’s names.

John James and Catherine had seven more children, although, tragically, two more died in infancy - John James (1870), Anny (1872), William (1874), Henry Thomas (1877), Florence (1879), Charlotte (1881) and then, my grandmother Maud(e) Beatrice, born in 1884.  Catherine was only 36 when her last child was born - an age at which today’s mothers are often just embarking on motherhood.  And John, himself was only 37 - so in his prime.  But the family is really Catherine’s story and I will write it in due course.  Some of what I know is on the following page - The Children.  I cannot find any further baptism records for the children, but this may simply mean they have not been published online, rather than a decision not to baptise.

As a police constable, which he remained, all of his time on the force, he would have had a ‘beat’ which he had to know intimately.  He had to:


"possess such a knowledge of the inhabitants of each house as will enable him to recognize their persons. He is further expected to see every part of his beat once in ten, or at least fifteen minutes, unless in such cases as it may be deemed necessary to remain in a particular place for a longer period, to watch the conduct of some suspected person.“   Sketches in London by James Grant 1838 (from Victorian London).   Whether he chatted up the serving girls on the way, as the following extract implies is a thought to ponder on I suppose!  


”The London policeman ... knows every nook and corner, every house, man, woman and child on his beat. He knows their occupations, habits and circumstances. This knowledge he derives from his constantly being employed in the same quarter and the same street, and to - and surely a mind on duty bent may take great liberties with the conventional moralities - that platonic and friendly intercourse which he carries on with the female servants of the establishments which it is his vocation to protect. An English maid-servant is a pleasant girl to chat with, when half shrouded by the mystic fog of the evening and with her smart little cap coquettishly placed on her head, she issues from the sallyport of the kitchen, and advances stealthily to the row of palisades which protect the house. And the handsome policeman too, with his blue coat and clean white gloves, is held in high regard and esteem by the cooks and housemaids of England. His position on the beat is analagous to that of the porter of a very large house; it is a point of honour with him, that nothing shall escape his observation.”  Saunterings in and about London by Max Schlesinger 1853 (from Victorian London).

Meanwhile, John James, on the 25th July 1870 enlisted in the police force.  Why did he do this?  He was now the father of a little girl, and expecting another child (who turned out to be a son).  Maybe the police paid more than milling.  He had the basic qualifications - and they were pretty basic:   “The regulations demanded that recruits should be under thirty-five, well built, at least five feet seven in height, literate and of good character.”  However, it wasn’t quite as simple as just turning up:


“The course to be adopted when a person wishes to become a member of the metropolitan police force, is sufficiently easy and simple. He has only to present a petition to the commissioners, accompanied with a certificate as to good character from two respectable householders in the parish in which he resides. Inquiry is then made relative to the parties signing the certificate; and it being found that they are respectable men, whose testimony as to the applicant’s character may be relied on, his name is put on the list of eligible candidates for the situation whenever a vacancy shall occur. I need scarcely say that, before appointment, the party is examined by a surgeon, to see that he suffers under no physical defect which would prevent the efficient discharge of his duties. It is also requisite that he should be under thirty-five years of age, and that he be five feet eight inches in height. The average time which an applicant has to wait, after his name has been inserted in the list of persons eligible to the office, is about eight weeks. Should, however, a party deem it an object to get appointed with the utmost practicable expedition, he may succeed in the short space of ten or twelve days, by getting some personal friend of either of the commissioners to use his influence on the applicant’s behalf. The usual form of a petition and certificates from rate-payers, and so forth, are dispensed with in such cases. All that is necessary on the part of the applicant is, that he be able-bodied, the proper height, and not beyond his thirty-fifth year.”  


A quick Google search seemed to say that in 1870 the height requirement was raised to 5ft 8ins, and the police were also given a pay rise of a shilling a week.  The London police force was becoming more respected, and so maybe it became an attractive profession for a young, strong, and relatively tall man.  He joined P division which is the Camberwell (sometimes called Peckham) district - a little to the west of where he was living maybe.  I am not entirely sure how far east it extended, although I think it bordered on a Greenwich division.  

He stayed with the police force for just under 25 years, which is significant.  He left on 5th April 1894, just over three months short of 25 years.  His youngest child was only ten years old.  At that time he was working in Y Division which is Holloway or Highgate (depending on which source you use), and extends as far out as Enfield and Barnet.  Either way it was a long way from home, as the family were still living in south London - East Dulwich in 1891.  Maybe he had to temporarily leave home.   Did he want to be away from home?  I suppose it is possible that Catherine moved with him - the census was only taken every ten years, so he could have been anywhere in between those years.  He was forty seven when he left the force, so hardly at the end of a working life. 


Now after the Police Act of 1890, 25 years service in the force guaranteed you a pension.  Prior to that pensions were granted on a discretionary basis.   So was he pushed out just so they wouldn’t have to pay the pension?  Did they post him far away from home, so that he would give up?   According to the Metropolitan Police Archives he received a pension of £43 5s 4d (I assume this is for a year).  In today’s terms this is equivalent to £2,591.24 or AU$4,206.50 - not anywhere near enough to live on I would have thought.

Police records are incomplete, and, of course, Murphy’s Law decrees that our John James does not fall into the group with the most complete records.  All we have is his joining attestation, giving us the date, his warrant number - 52916 - and his signature; and his entry in the register of leaving, which has a few other things, but not much more.  Most significantly are listed his conduct certificate - a 3, which apparently means Good and is third in a range of 5, so pretty average - not good, not bad; and he was just a Police Constable on leaving, in spite of his daughter Maude claiming that he was a retired Police Inspector on her marriage certificate.  Whether this is Maude talking up her father to her more middle-class husband, or whether her father had lied to his family, we shall never know.  I suspect the former is the true situation.  The family must surely have known what rank their father was.  Whatever the case, twenty-five years as a police constable with no promotion is surely indicative of something - though probably nothing more desperate than ‘ordinariness’ - something that many of us would probably own to.  He does not appear to have been sacked, or earned any reprimands, so we can only assume that he either had no ambition, or was just not a star as a policeman.  He was a policeman at a time when crime was more common than today I think.  This is the time of Jack the Ripper after all and even though that is obviously an extreme, the case did highlight the sordid nature of life in the metropolis.  Maybe he had just had enough.


Old Deptford History: a blog dedicated to the history of Deptford - some interesting bits and pieces

London Metropolitan Police History :From the Friends of the London Metropolitan Police. Includes advice on finding records of your police ancestor

Victorian London: Follow the prompts to find lots of contemporary pieces about the police

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