Devon’s Heaviest Policeman

A contender for Britain’s heaviest ever policeman, a full two stone greater than Leicestershire’s ‘Tubby’ Stephens, is the Devon Constabulary’s Sergeant William Henry Towell Hannaford.

He was born in St Marychurch, near Torquay, in 1858 and joined the force as PC number 75 on 31st May 1878 , having previously served fifteen months in an unknown position on the Great Western Railway. He completed his probationary period in Exeter before being posted to Stonehouse where, in his own words, he “got more kicks than coppers.” Stonehouse in the 1880s was one of the most dangerous police beats in the county, and, on many occasions, he feared for his life whilst tussling with drunken naval ratings. The phrase, ‘as big as a Stonehouse policeman,’ which was coined often back in the day, could easily be credited to Hannaford.

It is safe to say that Hannaford was a portly fellow, which often hindered his ability to act swiftly. During a foot chase in pursuit of an escaped prisoner in Stonehouse, he tripped over a stone and suffered a severe injury to his knee. The damage was permanent and, although it did not prevent him from carrying out his police duties, he thereafter adopted a more sedate lifestyle which caused his weight to increase significantly. He was promoted to acting sergeant in 1893, and substantive sergeant in 1895, and transferred to North Tawton. He later spent six and a half years at Ashburton, nine months at Moretonhampstead, three years at Teignmouth and almost two years at Newton Abbot. Hannaford was often present at Newton Abbot Racecourse where his imposing figure was enough to keep things orderly on race day. During the visit of the Prince and Princess of Wales to Ugbrooke, Hannaford was tasked with looking after the Royal couple’s horses.

Sergeant Hannaford retired in the spring of 1905 after 26 years’ service. At the time of his retirement, he weighed over 26 stone. For a retirement gift, his colleagues had commissioned an armchair of extraordinary proportions funded by the superintendents and officers of the force’s E and F Divisions. Unusually for the era, his retirement speech was preserved for posterity, likely on a phonograph cylinder. The recording was gifted to his widow upon his death in 1909 and his voice was said to be quite recognisable when it was played. Although his weight was often the source of merry jest, Hannaford was a highly respected policeman, a devoted Christian and a loving husband and father. After retiring from the police, he remained active in the community as a member of the Newton Abbot branch of the St John Ambulance Brigade. He passed away in 1909 from natural causes and was buried in Newton Abbot. His coffin was borne by twelve police sergeants and placed on it were Hannaford’s police helmet and belt.

There have been several claims as to who Britain’s heaviest police officer was. The official record holder is PC John William ‘Tubby’ Stephens from the Leicestershire Constabulary whose notoriety earned him his own brand of ale (brewed by Everards). ‘Tubby’ served for 22 years in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and weighed 24 stone at the time of his death in service. If Hannaford was indeed over 26 stone as claimed by various newspaper outlets on the occasion of his retirement, then he rightly takes first place as Devon’s, and Britain’s, heaviest policeman.

[1] – 2004.05275 (Devon Constabulary Nominal Register) – South West Police Heritage Collections Trust.
[2] – East & South Devon Advertiser 2 December 1905 and 9 December 1905.

Words by Cf Systems