Content warning: this article contains themes of suicide that some readers may find distressing. Reader discretion is advised.
Some years ago, I found an article in the British Newspaper Archive about the tragic suicide of a police officer in Dartmouth. At the time, I was researching police officer deaths on duty on behalf of the Police Roll of Honour Trust, and as is common when searching digital archives by keyword, I found this example by accident. As I read on, I learned that a monument was erected in the officer’s memory, and I set off to Dartmouth to find it.
For an object over 12 feet tall made of polished dark grey Aberdeen granite, it was remarkably difficult to find. There are four cemeteries in Dartmouth, and none of the newspaper articles I read gave any hint as to which one it was. After much driving around on a very cold winter’s day, I found the obelisk at Longcross Cemetery on Townstal Road, tucked away in a corner of the graveyard. Towering above all other headstones, it was the largest object in Longcross, and despite being over 130 years old, remains in remarkably good condition, and is inscribed:
The base is inscribed with the words:
At the time of this article being published, it is the largest known tribute to a police officer in Devon and Cornwall, and behind it is the most tragic of stories. Police Sergeant Thomas Allin came to Dartmouth from Ilfracombe in 1886, having served in North Devon for many years as a PC. His posting at Dartmouth coincided with his promotion to sergeant, and he was the most senior officer in the town. Unlike the policing arrangements in other Devon towns, the police in Dartmouth were still governed by a Police Watch Committee, as the town was defined as a municipal borough by virtue of the Municipal Corporations Act 1835. This meant that although Sergeant Allin was a county policeman, he was accountable to the borough authorities under the general direction of the Mayor of Dartmouth. Friendly, proactive, and gregarious, Sergeant Allin was said to have had “a smile for everybody” and was the model policeman for a small, proud, and picturesque South Devon coastal town like Dartmouth.
On 26th December 1887, a fire broke out at the home of Dr Dawson in the Mount Galpin district of Dartmouth. As was common in the late nineteenth century, the police also acted as the fire brigade, and Sergeant Allin was notified about the fire by a member of the public whilst talking to one of the borough justices, Mr Tew, in the street. At the time, Allin was concerned about the safety of a woman who had been badly beaten by her husband and was asking Tew for advice on how to safeguard her. Allin excused himself from Mr Tew and repaired to the scene of the fire, where he found that the borough’s three constables had already attended and extinguished it. Seeing that all was under the capable control of his officers, Allin returned to Mr Tew, leaving PC Nancekivell in charge of the scene, and asked him to forward his report to him as soon as possible.
Dr Dawson, the owner of the house, had in his employ two men. One, a man of ‘unsound mind’, and another who was an attendant to the latter. Dawson told PC Nancekivell that the fire did not appear to be accidental, and without evidence accused the attendant of starting it. Nancekivell refused to arrest the man, and in his report to Sergeant Allin decided that the fire was probably accidental.
Unhappy with this decision, Dawson contacted his friend Major Jennings, a man well-connected with the police, in particular Police Superintendent Yardley at Totnes. Jennings wrote to Superintendent Yardley and complained that, in his view, the police in Dartmouth failed to carry out a proper investigation into the fire. Yardley arrived in Dartmouth on 27th December in company with Major Jennings and inspected the seat of the fire at the home of Dr Dawson. He came back again on the 28th for another inspection, and then marched into town and confronted Sergeant Allin.
Yardley accused Allin of neglect of duty and told him to expect disciplinary action. On 14th January 1888, Allin was informed by letter that he had been demoted to Police Constable 1st Class and was to return to Ilfracombe immediately. The notice was countersigned by the chief constable and the deputy chief constable. Allin at the time was a single man who lived in rented accomodation with his landlady, Mrs Dorothea Fogwell. He was left sobbing at the news and exclaimed to Fogwell, “I can’t go back to Ilfracombe without my stripes! I am sold like a bullock in Smithfield”.
Allin sought out of the comfort of his friends, and many of them rallied around him in support. Mr Tew even provided Allin some positive news that he would appeal against Yardley’s decision, and this improved his mood greatly. However, his grief was such that, on 15th January 1888, he drank a bottle of strychnine and died painfully in the arms of Mrs Fogwell.
Suicide in the late 19th century was a criminal offence (not repealed until 1961) and was generally regarded as a shameful act. Those who took their own lives were often given unceremonious burials in the middle of the night, however such was the high regard in which Sergeant Allin was held, and the actions of a certain police superintendent, there was an outpouring of grief amongst the townsfolk of Dartmouth. An inquest was held at the town hall in the following days, during which Superintendent Yardley was subject to hissing and booing from the public gallery. Yardley did not fare well when cross-examined, and expressed little regret at his actions, and appeared to show no emotion at all regarding Sergeant Allin’s suicide. Similar scorn was reserved for Major Jennings.
Although justice for Allin was the overarching theme of the inquiry, a point was made about the legality of Yardley’s actions, and indeed those of the chief constable (Colonel Hamilton) and the deputy chief constable (Captain Cunningham). It was written into the 1857 contract between the Dartmouth Police Watch Committee and the Devon Constabulary that all matters pertaining to police discipline would be dealt with locally. As such, Yardley’s intervention was considered unlawful, and a motion was made to review the policing arrangements in Dartmouth in the near future.
An interesting development during the inquest was the revelation that Dr Dawson, in the time between the fire and Allin’s death, had annulled his suspicions about the cause of the fire and had even written the suspect a testimonial so that he could find employment elsewhere. If Dawson had spoken up earlier, perhaps Allin would not have resorted to such fatal means of dealing with his grief.
On the day of Allin’s funeral, all flags in Dartmouth flew at half mast, homeowners drew their blinds and curtains, and every shopkeeper lowered their shutters as a mark of respect. Over a thousand spectators gathered in the churchyard, including members of the Royal Navy in full ceremonial uniform. A guard of honour was formed from members of the Devon Constabulary. It was said that the constable coffin bearers were moved to tears by the turnout. The coffin, made from polished oak and adorned with flowers, was borne with the inscription:
On 30th June 1888, a memorial funded by public subscription was installed at the gravesite. Today, it stands as an enduring tribute to a highly respected policeman who took his own life under the most tragic of circumstances. At a time when men’s mental health is topical, particularly amongst police officers, we remember Police Sergeant Thomas Allin.
Totnes Weekly Times 21 January 1888 pages 5 and 7
North Devon Journal 5 July 1888 page 6
Western Times 19 January 1888 page 4
Out of the Blue: History of the Devon Constabulary 1857-1957 by Hutching, Walter J.