Devon’s First Black Special Constable
It is sometimes important for police historians to consider ‘who was first?’ Whether it was the first female police constable, the first dog handler, or the first officer to undertake traffic duty. ‘Firsts’ are foremost in our thoughts as we document our history from the records and items held in the Museum of Policing in Devon & Cornwall.
For Black History Month, we look at the life and service of Cecil Wilberforce Rodgers, who we believe was the first Black man in Devon to join the Special Constabulary. Cecil’s name was suggested as an early pioneer by historian Abdul Maalik Tailor, a member of the Police History Society, who for the past thirty years has documented early Black and Asian officers amongst the British police forces. Contact was made with Mr Tailor after he posted a list of known Black and Asian officers on a Facebook page; this list included the name ‘Cecil Rodgers – Devon and Cornwall’, a name we at the museum were not familiar with. His middle name in particular bore great meaning in the story of the abolition of slavery, before his time, and he would play his part in continuing the eponym of the name in the ongoing struggle for freedom and rights for Black and Caribbean people.
The great social history resource that is ‘Ancestry.com’ revealed that Cecil was born in South Milton, near Salcombe, on 16th January 1899 as one of seven children to John Augustus Rodgers, a Jamaican cabinetmaker, and Susan Bessie Jarvis, a Kingsbridge seamstress. Cecil attended Salcombe school.
Cecil’s father was a Jamaican immigrant who came to England in the late 19th century. It is believed his father arrived in Salcombe as a companion to the son of a Jamaican plantation owner, who had sent his son to England to be schooled. John was a remarkable man; he was well-educated and was a talented singer, and often performed in the street in Salcombe with his guitar. He was a practising Methodist and a lay preacher and undertook work in connection with the Salvation Army. UK Census records and social directories reveal that John was a ‘cabinetmaker and upholsterer’ and had shops at Salcombe and Batson.
The 1939 England and Wales Register, which was a census undertaken on the eve of the Second World War, records that Cecil Wilberforce Rodgers lived in Plymouth and was a stonemason and Special Constable with ‘D’ Sub-Division of the Plymouth City Police. He lived at 8 Essex Street with his wife Frances, and 4 children. He later moved to Holdsworth Street.
In the Museum collections we have mention of Cecil working as Special Constable 295 in one of our charge registers for the Plymouth City Police in 1943. He was patrolling Union Street when, at 10:15pm on the 27/03/1943, he witnessed a man break the glass of the Palace Café, 93 Union Street. In the register Cecil is marked as the one who made the arrest and the convicted man had to pay the sum of £2. Unfortunately, the Special Constabulary registers have been lost or destroyed and we only hold very few personnel files for specials. This entry in the charge register is the only written records we have in the collection of Cecil; however, we do hold many images of Cecil in group photographs with his fellow officers at the Plymouth City Police during and after World War 2.
He, along with many other Specials, voluntarily put their lives on the line during the Second World War for the protection of our country. The job was especially dangerous in the city of Plymouth. It’s Royal Naval base and dockyard at Devonport made it a target for German bombs. The Police station at Greenbank was even bombed on 13th June 1943. Whilst others were being evacuated from the city Cecil and others like him chose to stay and protect the peace.
We also have an image after the war of Cecil (far left) receiving his long service medal along with 4 other colleagues. We are unsure of the exact date of this photograph, although it looks to be Chief Constable John Fawke Skittery who is shaking their hands and presenting the medals to them. This would place it between 1943-1965. It was the finding of this image that led us to discover more about Cecil’s interesting military past.
The photographs we have of Cecil in the collection clearly shows the wearing of medal ribbons on his tunic; two ribbons in the war time 1940s photos and three in a later photo, most likely taken after the war. We believe these are the British War Medal and the Victory Medal which were issued to British Army soldiers who served from 1916. The third ribbon likely denotes a police long service medal, which we know Cecil held due to his long career in the special constabulary up until his death in 1966.
Thanks to information provided by Cecil’s descendants, we know that Cecil served in the 2nd Battalion of the British West Indies Regiment under service number 2724. It was a matter of British Army policy in the Great War to group Black soldiers into one unit, and the latter regiment consisted of native men from the Caribbean islands and of British men of West Indies/Caribbean decent from the UK. By grouping men who were Black due to their Caribbean heritage with those native of the islands, it shows the regiment was very much a Black racial regiment rather than just men who were from the West Indies.
The regiment infamously rebelled towards the end of the Great War in an action known as the Taranto Revolt, and many were subject to court martials, including Cecil himself.
According to surviving documents, Cecil successfully appealed his court martial which was due to take place in Plymouth on 23rd November 1918, and left the military with his record unblemished, and allowing to keep his service medals. Others were not so lucky, with many receiving 112 days detention, 80+ days imprisonment and one execution. The revolt was the result of ignored complaints over poor pay, allowances, and promotions compared to White soldiers as the regiment awaited demobilisation in Italy. The action led to the creation of the Caribbean League from members of the regiment, which called for equal rights, self-determination, and greater union of the West Indies nations.  Cecil, being in the 2nd Battalion was fighting on the front line in Palestine at the time of the initial struggle of the revolt.  This may be why he won his acquittal, however when he returned to Italy he found his privileges taken away, the same as the rest of the Battalion. It is this struggle that may well have led to the awakening of self-determination in the Caribbean for independence and self-rule.
After the war, Cecil moved to Plymouth and found work as a monumental stonemason under Mr Cook in the Pennycomequick area of the city, who had a workshop at the rear of the GWR Institute. Upon the retirement of Mr Cook in 1945, Cecil went into business independently and was a stonemason by trade for the rest of his life, skills he passed on to one of his children. Cecil’s workshop was located on Cemetery Road (now Central Park Avenue). 
For many years, Cecil was first tenor in the Plymouth Clarion Choir and performed all over the country. During a tour of Wales during the Eisteddfod poetry and music festival, he was mobbed by a group of fans desperate for his autograph following a performance in Llangollen. Bemused by the attention, he signed whatever was handed to him ‘Cecil Rodgers, Plymouth Clarion Choir’. It was later revealed that the frenzy to obtain Cecil’s autograph was driven by the belief that he was a ‘famous Austrian conductor’, a mistake made by one avid audience member which then spiralled out of control. Cecil never did ask who it was he resembled.
The Torbay Express and South Devon Echo reported on 1st February 1964 that Cecil had said he had never found any active resentment towards him due to the colour of his skin by either his colleagues or the general public during his time as a Special with Plymouth City Police. He was also mentioned in the Coventry Evening Telegraph on the 17th May 1966 following his death at the age of 67. They reported that he was the first Special Constable in Britain and we have now told you his interesting and important story.
Sections of this article relating to the Museum of Policing in Devon and Cornwall’s archive collection were researched and written by Alistair Stone.
AbdulMaalik Tailor, Police History Society and owner of Halal Tourism Britain.
Bill Mallett. His donated collection relating to the Plymouth City Police was of incredible importance to this research.
The descendants of Cecil Wilberforce Rodgers who graciously gave their time to share anecdotes and photographs of Cecil with passion and enthusiasm.
Linda Weeks and Richard Weeks from the Kent Police Museum, for their assistance in verifying Cecil’s military service.
- ^ Liz Sibthorpe article ‘Abolition – a long way to go’, BBC – North Yorkshire – Abolition – A long way to go
- ^ 1911 Census
- ^ Salcombe Regis – Kelly’s Directory of Devon & Cornwall 1910, p661
- ^ Salcombe Regis – Kelly’s Directory of Devon & Cornwall 1914, p683
- ^ 1939 Register
- ^ Museum of Policing in Devon and Cornwall, Plymouth City Police Charge Register, (PA/1/8/2/1/7), 1943
- ^ UK, World War I Service Medal and Award Rolls, 1914-1920 for Cecil Rodgers, Ancestry.com
- ^ ADM/194 Court Martial Registers (WO213 Judge Advocate General’s Office: Field General Court Martial and Military Courts), pages 163-164, fold3.com
- ^ The British West Indies Regiment mutiny, 1918 – Steven Johns (libcom.org)
- ^ Elkins, W. F. “A Source of Black Nationalism in the Caribbean: The Revolt of the British West Indies Regiment at Taranto, Italy.” Science & Society 34, no. 1 (1970): 99–103. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40401466.
- ^ Notices’ Western Morning News 9 April 1945