Barnstaple Borough Police was a small force of only fourteen officers, and when the Great War broke out in 1914, several joined the colours with the blessing of their chief constable, Superintendent Eddy. At the time, the office of police constable was not a reserved occupation and whether or not a police officer was guaranteed entry back into the force after hostilities was purely at the discretion police authorities. Policemen who swapped their blues for khakis did so at great personal and financial risk; the possibility of death or severe injury was high, and the pay of the lowest ranks of most Army regiments was 7 shillings per week compared to 30 shillings per week for a police constable. It was a case of weighing the strength of patriotic inclination against financial security – a very serious dilemma indeed.
PC Frederick John Pearce, from Braunton, volunteered for military service and took his military attestation in Exeter on 20th June 1915. He was assigned to the Corps of Military Police (Foot Division) and spent the majority of the war in Salonica, Greece. In letters home to family and colleagues, he wrote of the often ‘stirring’ events in the Port of Salonica, including the sudden and terrifying appearance of German ‘Zeppelins’ one day.
Barnstaple town contributed a significant number of men to the armed forces during the war, so much so that Pearce often encountered ‘lads from Barnstaple’ in Greece. As a military policeman, the transition from civilian to military life was perhaps smoother than others experienced. In one of his letters, he wrote:
“I have often been asked where I received my police experience, and I have always upheld the good old name of the Barum police force under the supervision of Chief Constable R.S. Eddy.”
The Corps of Military Police largely policed the Army overseas and dealt with any criminal offences committed by servicemen, including offences specific to the military domain such as desertion and malingering. Traffic control was also an important duty, often undertaken in torrid conditions amongst the ruins of war-torn towns and villages. For meritorious service, Pearce was awarded the Military Cross (MC) and was Mentioned in Despatches. At war’s conclusion he held the rank of sergeant major. After demobilisation from the Army, Pearce did not return to the Barnstaple police force, however continued in service as a policeman in the employ of Ilfracombe Urban District Council as one of the constables of the pleasure grounds and harbour from 1924 to 1933. As constable of the pleasure grounds, a fine balance between enforcement of the law and tending to the flowerbeds was necessary, and he performed both admirably. Ill health forced him to step down as a policeman, and on 19th January 1934 he passed away at his home address in Ilfracombe from natural causes. He left a widow, May, four daughters, and five sons.
Frederick J Pearce and his wife May Louise Scantlebury (Mr & Mrs Philip Stevens Collection)
The below photograph of the Barnstaple Borough Police force (© SWPHCT) in about 1908 is believed to depict PC Pearce, stood in the back row in the very middle.
My thanks to Mr & Mrs Philip Stephens for the information and family photographs of PC Pearce.
- ^ ‘North Devon War Items’ North Devon Journal 23 March 1916, p5