NEIL R. A. BELL,
Volunteer Historical Archivist at Leicestershire Police
Artwork by Peter Spells
I’m delighted to welcome widely respected student of the Jack the Ripper case Neil R. A. Bell to this month’s blog. His book Capturing Jack the Ripper: In the Boots of a Bobby in Victorian London is a must-read for anyone fascinated with the case and policing in the Victorian Era. With Adam Wood, he also wrote and published the reproduction of Sir Howard Vincent’s Police Code (1889). You may recall my Coppering by the Code article in September’s blog in which I chose my top five quotes from the book. Although it must be said I could talk to Neil for hours about all of this, the focus of our chat today is Leicestershire Police’s historical archive and his role as its voluntary Historical Archivist.
Could you tell us little more about yourself and the archive?
I live in Leicestershire but remain an international man of mystery. I have authored a few books around Victorian era policing and crime, appeared in a few documentaries and podcasts regarding the Whitechapel Murder cases of 1888 and how those crimes were policed. And advised on numerous historical tv programmes for the BBC and other independent production companies.
I am also the voluntary historical archivist for Leicestershire Police and, for my regular day to day job, I work as a Court Clerk/Usher at the Leicester Courts.
What would you say are the most rewarding and challenging aspects of working with the archive?
There are quite a few rewarding aspects.
One of the most rewarding is the archive itself, and the constant education it gives me. I learn so much by researching its material and engaging with so many interesting people when doing so.
Another is the interaction I have with a few ex-police officers, who share their experiences and stories and add the personal touch to our history. However, one of the greatest pleasures is speaking with descendants of past officers who are sadly no longer with us. To show document material or items of kit once connected to their ancestor gives me great pleasure.
I must also add the donation of material is like Christmas Day all over again. It’s an honour to hold items that once belonged to former officers, and I consider us custodians. Being a police officer is not merely a job, it’s a way of life. And that impacts on the officer’s family too, be that spouses, partners, parents or children. So, when items are donated, we are not merely receiving a police hat (for example) from the late 1950’s, but rather “my late husband’s hat” or “Dad’s police hat”. Its personal, and it’s important to acknowledge that.
The most challenging is undoubtedly the collating and cataloguing of our material, because it is so fractured across many locations. Leicestershire Police was born from three police authorities: Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland. So, our heritage material is scattered across Leicestershire and Rutland, be it in museums, private collection or at various police stations. Most of it is uncatalogued, or records have been lost. Which has meant that we are essentially starting from scratch when it comes to recording the material. I know we have lost some important historic items over the years and that frustrates me greatly.
The reason why we have lost so much is due to the decision made many years ago to disband our archive held at Force Headquarters. A grave and unfortunate error, which has resulted in the loss of some of our heritage. I’m very thankful to our friends at the Leicestershire & Rutland Records Office, who agreed to rescue some of that historic material, and have maintained it ever since. Their work and advice have been most welcome. Gratitude also goes to individual former officers who have also collected and maintained items, many via funding from their own pockets.
Another challenge (which thankfully is being addressed) is to educate senior constables as to, firstly, the need to preserve their forces history. And, secondly, how powerful a tool that history can be in education, engagement and understanding, both internally and community wise. Afterall, their force is reflective of the community in which they serve. Or rather should be.
How do you think policing has evolved over the past 100+years?
The main ethos of policing in the UK, as laid down by new model police creator Sir Robert Peel in 1829 with his Peelian Principles, has remained the same. I don’t think that has altered at all. Still very community orientated. Though work needs to be done to maintain that orientation.
Evolution has come in terms of science and technology, especially the rapid advancement in recent years. Technology has aided so many different aspects of police work. Forensic, investigatory, communications, etc. However, what also needs to be considered is the growth of social media. This has enabled the police to communicate with the public and press alike in real time. Some would argue that this hinders police work, and if done poorly that is certainly true. However, it is undoubtedly a wonderful engagement tool. Of course, this changes the dynamic of archiving, as material is easily preserved with no concern of deterioration.
Which entry into the archive do you find the most fascinating and why?
Everything fascinates me. That said, the personal handwritten notes of PC Alfred Hall do hold a particular interest. PC Hall was the first officer at the scene of the Stretton Parva murder of Bella Wright in 1919, in what was to become known as the Green Bicycle Mystery. His private notes give us an insight into his thought processes and investigatory techniques during what was the early stages of a high-profile murder investigation. He also provides us with his personal thoughts on the sensational trial of the accused, Ronald Light as well as his thoughts on Light’s Advocate, The Great Defender Sir Edward Marshall Hall. They make fascinating reading.
Why is it so important to conserve the historical archive of Leicester Police?
Leicestershire Police has been part of the Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland communities since 1836, 1839 and 1842 respectively. It is important to know our past role within the community, and how we have developed over those many years to our current role. This helps us understand from where we have come and where we need to go. It gives us direction.
The reflection of our past enables us to celebrate our successes, upon which we should always look to build, as well as analyse our failures and seek improvement. That is imperative when seeking in which direction the police should build.
As Alan Bond, the last Chief Constable for Rutland once said, “The Past is our heritage, the future is our responsibility”.
Can members of the public access the archive? If so, how?
Unfortunately, not all the collection. It is something we are working on.
However, a lot of our documented items are held at The Leicestershire and Rutland Records Office in Wigston, Leicestershire. And material can be seen at the Abbey Pumping Station in Leicester as well as the Rutland Museum in Oakham.
I’d like to thank Neil for taking the time to chat with me today. I found his answers absolutely fascinating, as I’m sure you did, too. I will definitely be paying a visiting to Rutland County Museum to see some of the material from the archive. The history of policing is a passion of mine, and I relished the opportunity to get an insight into the heritage of a police force outside the capital.
~ T.G. Campbell, November 2021