Joseph Davidson Sowerby was the Chief Constable of the Plymouth Borough Police from 1892 to 1917. Inspired by work recently conducted by Plymouth University into offending in the early twentieth century, Police Staff Mark Rothwell has written a piece on his life and career in the Devon & Cornwall Police constituent force. Roman numerals in the text relate to external references, a list of which can be found at the bottom of this post.

Chief Constable Joseph Davidson Sowerby of Plymouth Borough Police; year unknown. Image copyright of the Historic Collections of Devon & Cornwall Police

Joseph Davidson Sowerby was born in Yorkshire in 1863, one of three children, to Thomas Sowerby and Deborah Davidson, and as a young man worked as a teacher with the Leeds School. In 1881, he joined the Leeds Borough Police, at age 18. By 1891 he had reached the rank of Chief Inspector, and had additional responsibilities as the Town Clerk. As a Chief Inspector he established himself as a very successful crime investigator, and brought many serious offenders to justice, including a high profile murder case. It would be his dedication, sharp mind and fortitude that would, later in his career, bring considerable change to the Plymouth Borough Police. Coupled with his relative youth (he was 28 years old when he became Chief Constable) he energised the small force and transformed it into a highly organised and efficient operation.


By 1892, Sowerby had aspirations of leadership and applied for the Chief Constableship of Worcester Constabulary. He made it to the final six candidates, but was not successful. Undeterred, he turned his attention to the Westcountry. Sowerby was successful in his appointment, and was sworn in as Chief Constable of the Plymouth Borough Police by the Plymouth Police Watch Committee on a salary of £300 per annum. He was also appointed Chief Fire Officer, as was common at the time (v). The Committee notified the Chief Constable of Leeds Borough Police, Mr F.T. Webb, by telegram that he had been successful in his application (vi). As a token of goodwill, his colleagues in Leeds presented Sowerby with a gold keyless watch (vii). Sowerby moved in to 21 Salisbury Road with his wife, Francis, whom he had married in 1889 in Wakefield, Yorkshire.


Sowerby believed in having a happy and well-paid workforce, and immediately made changes to wage deductions imposed on his officers by previous Chief Constables. At the time it was instructed that new constables would have one shilling a week deducted from their pay, enforced out of “fear that he might run away with his uniform.” In scrapping this rule he handed back over £500 to his officers. The Plymouth Borough Police in the 1890s was chronically short of equipment, and some officers found themselves in the position of not being able to restrain offenders during arrests, owing to a shortage of handcuffs. As well as supplying extra handcuffs, Sowerby ensured more oil lamps were available for night duty.


1973.0001.001 swearing
Sowerby’s initiatives included the prevention of bad language. General Order 881, 12 April 1911, reads; ‘Members of the Force must pay special attention to the above urinal with a view of putting a stop to the bad language of the men who frequent it.’ Catalogue number 1973.0001.001

High on Sowerby’s priorities was the crackdown of drunken behaviour and illegal betting, and in 1894 he led a sixty-strong force of officers in a series of raids on betting establishments across Plymouth (viii). He would head a similar operation in September of 1912, which focused on the prohibition of whist drives. He was said to have felt indifference towards the prohibition, but made it clear he had no choice due to a recent change in law (ix).

In 1909, Sowerby led an investigation into the death of Plymouth Argyle FC trainer Nicholas Arthur Wallis. Professional footballer Mr E. McIntyre was implicated in the crime and it was discovered that after McIntyre had accidentally killed Wallis during an altercation, he had fled to Newcastle (x). Sowerby sent Plymouth Inspector Tucker to Newcastle to arrest Wallis and on returning to Plymouth he was charged with manslaughter.


Sowerby was known for rewarding his officers generously, both in recognition of good work and for occasions where officers retired, were promoted or transferred to other police forces. In August 1907 he and Mrs Sowerby travelled by train to London to present recently transferred Plymouth officer Mr F. James with a solid gold English lever watch bearing the inscription “Presented to Mr F. James by the Plymouth Constabulary and friends, on his appointment to the Chief Constableship of Hastings. March, 1907.” Mrs Sowerby presented Mrs James with a large silver salver bearing the inscription “Presented to Mrs F. James by members of the Plymouth Police Force and friends, as a token of esteem upon leaving Plymouth. March, 1907.” Only three years prior, Sowerby had awarded the same officer with a solid gold double Albert chain, with inscription, in congratulation of his promotion to Superintendent in 1904 (xi).


Sowerby had few critics, but on occasions where his status as Chief Constable was called into question he would respond with only the best interests of his officers in mind. In 1907, he was publicly criticised by the Reverend Arthur Robinson, who had recently been arrested for an offence against a woman whilst at church (click here for a review of the case in The Western Times, 1 November 1907). A Detective Morrish had affected the arrest, although through cross-examination in court it was decided that the arrest was wrongful, and he was released without charge. Reverend Robinson complained to the Chief Constable, and received a written response admitting that the Detective’s arrest was wrongful. Significantly though, Sowerby did not see fit to make a formal apology, which infuriated the Reverend and caused him to take to the press to vent his anger (xii).


Sowerby's handwritten General Order from 2nd December 1913, ahead of the arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst
Sowerby’s handwritten General Order from 2nd December 1913, ahead of the arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst. Catalogue number 1973.0001.001

In December 1913, Sowerby led a contingent of officers to the Plymouth Dockyard to intercept the Cunard ship SS Majestic, which had just arrived from New York, USA. On board was Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, whom had been campaigning in the United States. She was arrested at the docks and taken into custody, and Sowerby personally escorted her to Exeter Gaol by car (xiii).


In a measure designed to anticipate war in Europe, a decision was made to amalgamate the borough forces of Plymouth, Stonehouse and Devonport, and in 1914 the Plymouth Borough Police came under the sole leadership of Joseph Davidson Sowerby. This would be a precursor to further expansion in 1928, when the Plymouth Borough Police became the Plymouth City Police when Plymouth achieved city status. Sowerby though, would not play a part in this. Sowerby retired on 31st March 1917, as many others would do in the country due to the “stress of war work.” He died in 1925, aged 62 (xiv). Following his death, his widow Francis Sowerby moved back to Leeds, however his son John continued to live and work in Plymouth, residing at 3 Stangray Avenue (xv).


Sowerby’s legacy was one of positive change and youthful leadership, with introduction of ideas that could have been considered as ahead of their time, such as allowing women to join the Special Constabulary. This would be upheld by his successor, Mr Herbert Hards Sanders, who would resist the Police Watch Committees calls for the abolition of women in the police by allowing two women to serve as regular officers with the Plymouth Borough Police.

© Mark Rothwell 2015; all images © Historic Collections of Devon & Cornwall Police


(v) Kelly’s Directory of Devon 1902

(vi) Yorkshire Evening Post 13 July 1892

(vii) Yorkshire Evening Post 5 October 1892

(viii) Northampton Mercury 20 April 1894

(ix) Derby Daily Telegraph 27 September 1912

(x) Western Times 29 March 1909

(xi) Hastings & St Leonard’s Observer 31 August 1907

(xii) Lancashire Evening Post 12 December 1907

(xiii) Aberdeen Journal 5 December 1913

(xiv) Births, Marriages and Death – Joseph Davidson Sowerby

(xv) Western Morning News 24 June 1948

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