Book Review by Steve Matthews of Bookends.
John Kent was a very ordinary constable during the first years of policing in Cumberland.
He began his duties as Parish Constable in Maryport in November, 1834. His fellow officer, James Armstrong, was attacked by a drunken James M’Keevor. He’d threatened “I’ll have your life tonight.” Kent intervened to save his colleague. Kent dealt with the theft of a band box containing a silk veil from the quay as a lady was about to board ship. He arrested a naked drunk who had accepted a bet to walk through the streets of the town without his clothes on. He had to face down a potential riot when he attempted to apprehend a drunk at “the sign of the Grapes”. That was the way life was in a bustling industrial harbour town like Maryport in the 1830s.
In 1837, he came to live in Carlisle. He found work as a paviour, laying the cobble stones in the streets of what was then a thriving city and acting as a supernumerary constable, being ready to step in when the small police force needed extra assistance. He handled cases like the stealing of a silver watch from John Wightman or Susannah Melody’s theft of some items of clothing from James M’Analty. He also was faced with some more disturbing offences. The 64 year-old Joseph Butterworth was brought before the court on a charge of “having feloniously thrown upon Eleanor Ronson of Carlisle a quantity of corrosive fluid or other destructive matter whereby the said Eleanor Ronson was burnt and disfigured.”
Kent was appointed to the salaried staff when he became a night watchman later in the year in October. In the following February he showed exceptional personal courage when, armed only with a piece of wood, he overcame Thomas Donachie, who had attacked him with a knife. For this assault on a policeman’s life, Donachie received a sentence of a mere fourteen days of hard labour.
A policeman’s duties in those days were far more extensive. John Kent found himself working as both a public health officer and a fireman. He attended the major fires at Newlaithes Hall and at Naworth Castle.
He was involved in a case of arson when the Angel Inn in the warren of buildings in the centre of Carlisle was set on fire on 12th March, 1842. Soldiers from the castle were called in to fight the conflagration and the landlady, the widowed Mary Christopherson and her daughters were rescued from the bedroom windows. But the landlady herself, wanting the insurance pay-out, had set the fire herself, using mattresses and ripping up floorboards to aid the fire.
John Kent had “built up a reputation for bravery, tenacity and guile”. However, on 12th December, 1844, he was found to be drunk when coming off night duty and was dismissed from the force.
It was not the end of his career. He later served as a court bailiff and as a signalman on the railways. He ended his days, commended for his civility and unvarying good humour, as the attendant in the first class waiting room on Carlisle Station. John Kent died on 20th June, 1886.
His obituary in the Carlisle Patriot referred to him as “one of the most oldest and best known inhabitants of this city”. It said that “There are hundreds of men far past middle life who have vivid recollections of the big black policeman.” Kent seems to have encountered no racial discrimination throughout his long life and was seen as a respected pillar of the community.
John Kent’s life is important because he was Britain’s first black policeman. His life story is of great interest because it is so rare to be able to recover the biography of an ordinary man from the anonymity of history.