Devon and Cornwall police history: Unsolved crimes and criminal investigations

Some the arfefacts held by the Museum of Policing in Devon and Cornwall shine the spotlight on police history across the two counties.

Unsolved crimes often attract public interest, frequently becoming the subject of books, TV, and films, because of the mystery surrounding the perpetrator of the crime. Media portrayals that show unsolved crimes including dramas, documentaries and podcasts, such as: The Ripper (2020, Netflix) or Des (2020, ITV), often sensationalise the crimes and their perpetrators, as well as reopening emotional wounds for the victims and their families.

This exhibition explores the wider theme of unsolved crimes by looking at criminal investigation methods and equipment using the archive of the Devon and Cornwall Police Constabularies – highlighting police history in Devon and Cornwall.

Everyday Unsolved Crimes

The phrase unsolved crimes can often bring to mind the most serious and violent of crimes. The majority of unsolved crimes are the everyday, or small-scale crimes, which are more likely to go unreported. These could range from driving offences, missing or stolen property, or drinking related charges and domestic disputes. These sorts of crimes often are left unsolved, either because they are too hard, or because of a lack of evidence.

In many types of crimes, a crime scene is likely to be the best source of physical evidence to help solve a crime. To the left is an example of a portable Crime Scene Investigation Kit. This kit could travel with an officer to the scene, allowing them to start collecting vital evidence straightaway. Look through the images below to learn more about this kit.

Devon and Cornwall police history: Crime investigation kit.
Fingerprinting ink roller can be seen, as well as other fixings to hold items.
Second layer of internal storage holds glass pipettes and glass plates.
Interior holds small glass bottles, ink, rubber tubes and a dusting brush.
The Museum of Policing in Devon and Cornwall: Fingerprinting ink and roller.

The images below are of a Folmer Graflex Corporation Fingerprint Camera made approximately between 1917-1928. A specialised camera for photographing fingerprints that used a special level of exposure and photography techniques to take high-quality photos. The Folmer Graflex Corporation (Rochester, New York), made a range of specific photographic equipment for police and investigative use.

A Folmer Graflex Corporation Fingerprint Camera.

Serious Unsolved Crimes

Serious or violent crimes occur in smaller numbers, but are much more likely to be reported, and therefore investigated. There have been major changes to the way that the initial police response and criminal investigation is carried out, including the reporting on these crimes. The below image is a page from an 1886 edition of The Illustrated Police News. Through images, it tells the story of the triple-murderer James Hawke of Penzance, and of a very public perjury trial called the Crawford Scandal. Both of these events drew local and national media attention, and as such were turned into these sensationalist pictorials or feature articles that used the extreme aspects of the case to draw in the reader.

The Illustrated Police News – Saturday August 14th 1886.

Crime Investigation Over Time

The archive reveals how the methods of crime investigation have changed drastically over time, from the nineteenth century to the present day. The below document is a 1920 Criminal Report Letter, which details an officer’s account of finding a murder victim in Alphington. He writes how he was walking his usual beat route and happened upon the body of an injured man who was suspected to have been attacked. The officer was assisted by a local farmer, whilst more police and a doctor was called. In 1920 there was no emergency number to call, and communication between officers could be slow. It seems that the perpetrator of the attack was never found, and the victim died shortly after. An account like this can tell us a lot about the way serious crimes were handled at the beginning of the twentieth century, and how different it is to present-day policing.

1920 Criminal Report Letter.

Criminal Investigation & The Community

Criminal investigations are closely linked to the police’s relationship with the local community, because investigations are often heavily reliant on tipoffs and community knowledge. In the criminal report letter above, the police officer at the scene relied on the help and assistance of local residents to initially look after the victim, and to gain details on potential suspects. The Beat Officer would follow a specific, timetabled route around the local streets. Being on the beat meant that officers often formed close connections with the communities and were quicker to respond to, and get tip-offs about, a crime.

Below, is an image of a Beat Route Poster, which is stored in the museum’s collections. This would have been displayed in the Axminster station and shows the routes around Axminster and the local area. By the mid-1980s the beat was no longer part of regular policing, with police links to the communities instead being forged by outreach community events, and the presence of blue and white police cars for the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary.

Criminal Investigation Items From The Object Store

The large archives made it possible for this online exhibition to be made. Some of the materials in the collection are highly sensitive, so these could not be included. However, the sheer volume of items and documents means that there are many ways that the archive can be explored and examined. The collection also holds lots of unexpected items, such as a set of wooden stocks, and a huge collection of photographs and videos. The Brass Microscope came to the Museum collections directly from the Paignton Police Station, where it was found in a storeroom. Look through the images below to learn more about this Microscope.

Antique microscope box.
Ross Zentmeyer brass microscope.
Police history in Devon and Cornwall is showcased by the artefacts held by the Museum of Policing in Devon and Cornwall.
Police history in Devon and Cornwall: Microscope parts.

Local Significance / Ending Sentiments

The face of policing, and criminal investigation around unsolved crimes has changed greatly over the years. Methods such as ‘walking the beat’ have gone out, while a greater focus on forensic and scientific investigation methods have been brought in. Throughout all of these changes however, the importance on community knowledge, and the community relationship with the police, has not lessened. One of the best ways to solve unsolved crimes in local communities is to build strong police and community relations.

The Internship Programme With The University of Exeter

This online exhibition was made in collaboration with the University of Exeter by offering internships for students to gain experience and knowledge of the museum and heritage sector. For this project, the role was to make an online exhibition using the archive and object store collections of the museum, and to work alongside existing museum staff and volunteers.

Read more about the Museum of Policing in Devon and Cornwall artefacts and objects

Words by Cf Systems