Redruth Police 1841-1857

Prior to the establishment of the Cornwall Constabulary in 1857, it was common for the authorities in towns which suffered sudden spikes in criminal activity, but had no police force, to call upon the large and well-established constabularies for help. Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, many Cornish towns borrowed constables from Plymouth Borough Police, as was the case in Padstow, St Columb, and Wadebridge.[1]

Redruth Clock Tower
Redruth clock tower which was used as cells in 1860.

In Redruth however, the authorities looked to the capital for assistance, and in 1841 appointed Robert Lilly as head constable directly from the Metropolitan Police. Lilly was a former soldier and served for many years after demobilisation as a policeman in London. From the outset, Lilly faced significant hostility from the townsfolk of Redruth.

The criminal underclass had operated with impunity for so long that the sudden appearance of a lawman in uniform was viewed as an affront. He was often the brunt of vile taunts and physical assaults, and he was even harassed in his own home. Pay nights were the worst, when drunken men gathered outside his house and called out to him to fight them.

On the evening of 30th October 1841, Lilly was at home with his wife, two children, and Constable James Robinson (the parish constable of Pool). Around twelve men appeared outside and began their usual drunken antics, and Lilly went outside and confronted them. Eight or nine of the men set upon Lilly, knocked him to the ground, and beat him severely about the head and body.

Lilly’s daughters saw the terrible assault and cried out “Murder!” which prompted Constable Robinson to leap to his colleague’s assistance. Robinson fought the men off quite fiercely, inflicting blows to the heads of two of the assailants with his staff, which in those days was akin to wielding an ornately painted table leg!

Lilly survived the assault, but suffered for many weeks from cuts, bruises, and swelling to his head. After the men were convicted of assaulting him, their assailants frequently harassed him as he went about his rounds. A man named Goldsworthy was amongst the group that set upon Lilly that evening; he assaulted Lilly again during a violent confrontation outside the Plymouth Inn on 24th June 1843.[2]

Charles Tregonning succeeded Lilly in 1843 and served for many years until the policing of Redruth was deferred to the Cornwall Constabulary. In 1847, Tregonning investigated a dreadful case of child neglect whereby Jennifer Bolitho, a mother of four, starved her new-born baby until it died.

Tregonning visited the Bolitho household on 22nd February 1847 and saw that the child was in a very bad way, having not been fed for several days and the mother unable to breastfeed because she too was severely malnourished. She was also unable to keep a fire burning and there was no soap in the house to clean the child. He arranged for the delivery of some loaves of bread from the Redruth Union Workhouse, however the child eventually died from malnutrition and Bolitho was brought up on a charge of murder. Bolitho was acquitted on the grounds that her severe destitution rendered her incapable of caring for the child.[3]

In 1853, Tregonning and a policeman named Thomas Hodge arrested a man for a robbery committed at Redruth Railway Station. Superintendent Richard Armitage, the head constable of the West Cornwall Railway Police, falsely claimed to have instructed Tregonning and Hodge to make the arrest in a statement made to the editor of the local press. This enraged Tregonning, who took to writing an open letter to Superintendent Armitage in the Royal Cornwall Gazette: [4]

“We do not desire the slightest credit for anything which we have done in this matter, we have only done our duty, but this is not the first time a that a certain ‘Superintendent’ has stickled for heroic and sagacious conduct in the detection and apprehension of offenders, taking credit for acts which he never performed, and by fallacious insinuations, showing that his interest is to undervalue the meritorious acts of others”.

Royal Cornwall Gazette

To openly air such a bitter spat between two senior policemen was a rare occurrence and spoke volumes about the ill feeling between the two. Although Armitage held the rank of superintendent, his domain was limited to all railway lines and stations owned by the West Cornwall Railway Company, and he had no authority over members of the police in the towns.

The formation of the Cornwall Constabulary in 1857 brought an end to the independent policing of Redruth. PC Tregonning did not pursue a career in the county police and found work as a copper miner. He died in 1865, aged 63, and was buried at St Euny Churchyard, Redruth. [5]


  1. ^ Plymouth Borough Police Watch Committee Minutes 1840-1845 – ACC1645-145 – Plymouth & West Devon Record Office
  2. ^ ‘Cornwall Epiphany Sessions’ Royal Cornwall Gazette 14 January 1842, page 4
  3. ^ ‘Charge of Murder’ – Dreadful Destitution – Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser 3 April 1847, page 6
  4. ^ ‘Robbery at the Redruth Railway Station’ Royal Cornwall Gazette 27 March 1857, p7, col.1
  5. ^ Charles Tregonning Death Record –

Words by Cf Systems