Sugar plantations, Caribbean Slavery and Cumbria Police
Britain’s first black police officer.
This piece of news demonstrates the deep multiculturalism of the British people. And it’s a tale about the son of a Caribbean slave who walked the beat as Britain’s first police officer almost 180 years ago.
Whilst studying pieces of memorabilia relevant to Cumbria Constabulary I came across an old painting: the origins and copyright of which are not known.
In a story that demonstrates the deep roots of British multiculturalism, it transpires that the first black police officer was PC John Kent, who worked in Carlisle from 1837. He was the son of Thomas Kent who was brought to work on the estate of a Cumberland landowner returning from duty with the colonial civil service in the West Indies. PC Kent is depicted wearing a Top Hat in the picture. The image of Carlisle Cross - in Carlisle city centre - is partially visible in the background of this painting.
But behind this image lies a clue to Cumbria’s dark history of slavery. Whitehaven, in West Cumbria, thrived during the early 1700’s when its ships would set sail laden with goods from Cumbria and the North West of England. Their first port of call was Africa where they traded goods for Negro captives. They then shipped their cargo of slaves across the Atlantic to the West Indies where Negros were sold to work in plantations.
The ships then returned to Whitehaven with their captives chained below deck. The journey from the West Indies in those days took about 12 to 15 months dependent on the weather. On arrival, ships docked at Whitehaven harbour laden with rum, sugar, spices and tobacco. It is said that Whitehaven’s elegance is actually owed to the wealth slavery brought to the area and this is seen in its architecture and street names. Indeed, in the 1730s and 1740s the tobacco trade in Whitehaven was second only to London.
(Whitehaven’s Maritime Festival takes place every year in the harbour)
Cumbria County Council’s archives provide evidence of Cumbrian-owned plantations, slaves and of captains from across the county who sailed out of Whitehaven or Lancaster. The Lowther and Senhouse families bought plantations in Barbados, while the Jefferson family was known for its Antigua plantation. Lowther Street and Senhouse Street are street names that are prominent throughout Cumbria.
It is also known that the luxury lakeside Storrs Hotel in Windermere was once the home of John Bolton: a Cumbrian ship owner who operated out of Liverpool and who made a fortune from slavery.
But eventually a lack of sugar-refining facilities in the area – and the growth of many ports in the North West and elsewhere – led to the demise of the Atlantic trade so far as Cumbria was concerned. This occurred round about 1760-1770 and Cumbria became the home of many slaves that had been freed when Cumbrian ship owners and families returned home with their servants as a result of the tobacco trade faltering and evolving in a different direction.
John Kent, the first black policeman in Britain, served in Carlisle. He was the son of slave Thomas Kent who was one of those brought back to Whitehaven and later won his freedom. Thomas took his name from the slave ship ‘Kent’ which docked at Whitehaven. His son, John, was born in Carlisle in 1795.
Indeed, a black figure on the streets of any North West conurbation in those days would have been a rare site. Even in the 21st Century such a siting is something of a rarity. Half a million people live in Cumbria but only about 0.4% (2,000) are recorded in the last census as ‘black Britons’. This means their ethnicity is of black African or Caribbean origin.
John Kent began working for Carlisle Corporation laying paving stones in the city centre. He first appeared in police records of the time as a ‘supernumerary constable’ or a ‘probationer constable’ when he joined on 17th August, 1837. In October, that year, he was made a permanent constable.
In 1841, PC Kent was in the thick of the action when a constable was murdered by a blow to the head as an election crowd got out of hand in the city centre and overwhelmed the Chief Constable and about eight of his officers. It is recorded that PC Kent gave evidence against the accused at Carlisle Assizes. He was known across the city of Carlisle as ‘Black Kent’. It appears he was a valuable and somewhat notorious member of the force with a generation of children brought up to hear their parents threaten them with ‘Black Kent’.
However, the officer was sacked in December, 1844 for being drunk on duty. This was quite common at the time due to the lack of clean drinking water in the city. Excess beer consumption appears to have replaced the presence and desire for clean water.
The last record I could find relevant to PC Kent was a reference to him then gaining employment in Carlisle’s citadel station working on the railway station platforms.
Now, when I walk through Carlisle I hear the sound of dozens of voices from countries around the world. Fortunately, none of them are slaves.
With thanks to an old friend, George McCrone, a retired superintendent of Carlisle police who inspired my research into this short article.