Our Missing Nightwatchmen

A little while ago, we were alerted to the fact that a book of 1830s Belper nightwatchmen’s reports was up for sale. We asked the seller to send it to us so we could see if we wanted to buy the book and the answer was definitely yes!

The book details nightly goings-on in Belper between 1833 and 1836. At the time, the cotton spinning company of W G & J Strutt employed 2,000 people in its Belper mills. With so much invested in the town, it also ran its own mini police force in the shape of half a dozen nightwatchmen. As well as checking the water levels and the new-fangled gas lighting, the nightwatchmen also silently patrolled the town to apprehend any ne’er-do-wells.    

A Nightwatchman with his lantern, as depicted by George Woodward in this cartoon from 1800

The book gives a revealing glimpse into what went on in Belper after dark, giving us a very vivid feel for how this pioneering millworkers’ community rubbed shoulders with a much older set of inhabitants, including Belper’s nail-makers.  The watchmen’s base seems to have been by the bridge and they noted the poachers crossing the bridge with a dog onto the Duke of Devonshire’s land. There was also a lot of drunkenness and fighting going on, particularly on a Saturday night!

What makes this book such a gem is that the watchmen were part of the local community and knew most people’s names. You can see some names coming up over and over again, kicking up a noise whilst drunk, lying dead drunk in the street, or having a fight: Uriah Holmes, George Blood, Mr Kiddy the tailor and many others all feature in the book.  Take this example:

“Saturday night Sep 26th [1835] at 12 ¾ Old Billy Hunt & his son Billy making a great disturbance at their own house.  Thomas Bird who lives at next door came out and threw a stone at window which took several squares and he then ran away followed by young Billy up Bridge hill and down the Green Walk when they both jumped into the Garden of John Kiddy and were making a great noise when I came up and  made them to go home.”Nightwatchman George Gratian

The book is on sale for £3,000 which is more than we can afford, so we have set up a crowdfunding campaign with Belper Historical Society to buy it and bring the nightwatchmen home. It will then be kept safe at the record office, where it will also be freely available for everyone to look at. 

There are some fantastic rewards up for grabs for anyone who contributes to the crowdfunding, including exclusive access to an online talk by Adrian Farmer of Belper Historical Society telling the stories of the nightwatchmen and the people they apprehended. Adrian will also be leading some unique guided tours of Belper, literally walking in the footsteps of the nightwatchmen. 

“Sunday morning June 28th [1835] at 3 Josiah & John Woodward, George Marshall (Mrs Marshall’s son) and 4 others drinking and singing at John Barnes – the liquor (Ale and Rum) were had from Samuel Wards at 1 o’clock.” Nightwatchman Samuel Taylor

It would be a great loss to Derbyshire’s history if the book were to disappear into private hands again. You can help prevent this and bring it home: just go to the crowdfunding page, donate and choose your reward! 

Help bring the #Nightwatchmen home by donating to the crowdfunding appeal now at:

Our Missing Nightwatchmen – a Heritage crowdfunding project in Matlock by Derbyshire Record Office (crowdfunder.co.uk)

8 thoughts on “Our Missing Nightwatchmen

  1. Pingback: Out and About with the Nightwatchmen | Derbyshire Record Office

  2. Pingback: Our missing nightwatchmen have come home! | Derbyshire Record Office

  3. Wonderful window onto Belper’s history; it’s a pleasure to contribute towards its purchase. I’m guessing that at £3k the seller doesn’t have a long queue of people clamouring at his door to buy an item that is specific to Belper, so hopefully there is a reasonable amount of time for the money to be raised? Is the Council able to put any money into this purchase, or is it all down to community fundraising?

    • We are applying for grants to help us to buy the book if we can’t raise all the money through community fundraising, and we will also see what we can supply from our own budgets as well. We really want to be able to buy this book so we will pull out all the stops!

  4. I was interested to hear about the Belper Nightwatchman. My 3xg grandfather, Richrd Kirk, was the Night Watchman for Chesterfield around the same period. He is well documented.  His grandfather, Samuel Kirk, was the Beadle. Richard’s title changed to Town Crier (1795-1867). I have an oil painting of Richard in his uniform. Both Samuel and Richard were responsible for witnessing many of the weddings at the Crooked Spire where they are both buried.  I am in Calow and could pop over to Matlock to show you the oill painting if you would like.

    My extra notes:

    29 4 1837 – Richard KIRK was assaulted by Benjamin Cantril while on duty. He had to pay for Richard’s cape and coat to be repaired – cost 8s.

    At West Bars + wife Ann 1851 FREEHOLDERS  One Richard KIRK was a Freeholder of Chesterfield – was it him? From 1825, the eligibility was changed to men between 21 & 60, who qualified in one of the following ways : Freeholds worth 10 pounds a year   Leaseholds for 21 years or more, worth £20 Rateability as householder at £20  Occupier of a house with 15+ windows

    Lived in White Horse Yard when he died – Town Crier

    Following information from Brian Austin April 2001. 9th Feb 1837 – Council meeting awarded him 5/- for helping to arrest a deserter named Saunders.

    23 Feb 1837 (Watch Committee Notes) – Appointed constable and nightwatchmen for Borough of Chesterfield, i.e. he became a member of Borough Police Force.

    November 1840 appointed Town Crier by the Borough Council who provided him with a suit of clothes consisting of a blue coat with a scarlet collar, a blue waistcoat, trousers, a hat with a girdle and a pair of shoes to be provided annually.  He would be expected to be smartly turned out and a credit to the new Borough Council since the appointing of the town crier had been taken from the Parish Church Vestry because the position had fallen into disrepute.

    In 1841 he rang his bell to summon a meeting of Chartists was fined for doing this.

    He retired from the Chesterfield Borough Police and was given £5 since he had been a “good servant” for 26 years…Derbyshire Times, Saturday, 7th May 1864 P2C1

    Sept 1856 Richard Kirk unfit for duty as a watchman so given a fortnight’s notice.

    April 1866 – Retired from Town Crier position probably due to ill health…died just over 12 months later.


    Liz Youle

    • Wow – how lucky you are to have so much information about him. How big is the oil painting? We’d love to take a photo of it for our local studies collection if that were possible.

      • Hello Sarah. Sorry, I’ve only just seen your message. Which Local Studies are you talking about? If it’s Chesterfield, they already have a copy with a note that it should not be copied without reference to me. It’s 12″ x 7 1/2″

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