A Pair Of Coppers In The Family

There’s something both delicious and disconcerting about finding your family imitating your books. My maternal great-grandfather had been the landlord of the Victoria public house at the bottom of Roundhay Road – the place Annabelle Harper owned. His tenancy was later, in the 1920s. But that was deliberate on my part, I wanted the connection.

However, given that the Tom Harper books start off with Leeds police in 1890, it came as a surprise to discover I had two Victorian coppers in the family.

Matthew Lamplugh (the name was his great-grandmother’s surname) Nickson joined the force in 1865, when he was 21. He remained a constable, but rose in stature, even with a few disciplinary problems. He was 5 feet 10 inches (about 1.8 metres), with brown hair and light brown eyes, and a “florid” complexion, sworn in as PC 631. A year after joining, he moved to the brand-new fire brigade (one of 16 who made up the initial force under the police); or, rather, he was one of those policemen detailed to attend fires. By 1868, the police fire brigade was a group apart, working out of Centenary Street, close to the Town Hall, In November 1869, the record ends abruptly: “Died”. Sadly, I’ve been unable to discover how it happened.

He had a few disciplinary problems – fined in 1868 for being under the influence when off duty, and drunk on duty in 1865 and under the influence in 1867.

The uniform was changing around the time. It’s quite possible that when he started on the beat, Matthew dressed like this (not a million miles from a uniform of a bosun in the navy):

However, it soon became this:

One he became a member of Leeds Police Fire Brigade, he’d have dressed like this.

This photograph, taken in 1870, show the Leeds Police Fire Brigade with their engine. It had been bought in 1867 at a cost of £42. Anyone who knows Leeds can spot where it was taken, next to the Town Hall steps, with one of the lions in the background. It’s a little poignant to realise that these men, now long gone themselves, went into danger alongside Matthew. They knew him, laughed and joked with him. There’s no record that he ever married.

Richard Nickson became a policeman in 1888. He was 26 by then, a fully-qualified plumber who’d severed an apprenticeship. His father had died when he was young and his mother, Mary Caroline Nickson, carried on the successful painting and decorating business for several years. However, in 1877, when Richard was 16, still an apprentice, she married again, to George Heathwaite, who lived across the river in Hunslet. He was a master dyer with his own business, employing eight men. As was the way then, Mary Caroline either sold or gave up her business. The 1881 and 1891 censuses both show Richard living with his mother and stepfather in Hunslet.

He was 5 feet 10 and ¾ inches, blue eyes, brown hair, and a “fresh” complexion (interesting to see the number of former soldiers, especially soldier musicians, who joined up at this time, although there was no police band until 1924) and a qualified plumber.

His uniform would have been an early version of the one familiar to so many.

Although Richard was promoted to First Class Constable within a year, he wasn’t without his disciplinary problems – losing equipment, being late, being absent from duty, drunk on duty.

In 1891 he was promoted to the Good Conduct Class, ironic as he’d been punished for being late and also for vanishing from his beat for 30 minutes, a grave offence.

But what was likely the final straws fell in 1892. In February he was stopped a day’s leave for being absent from his beat for an hour and 20 minutes. The following month he was fined 3” for “abusive language to a female and making an admission of acting immorally”.

His police career ended with him resigning (no date given) and he seems to vanish from all records after that, although someone with a similar name did die later in October 1895 in Sculcoates, part of Hull. Very curiously, a Richard Nickson, the same age and the same father’s name, had married a woman name Ada Humble in Hull in 1883. Yet in the 1891 census, she’s not shown as living with him in Hunslet. Is it the same Richard? After resigning from the force, maybe as an alternative to being fired, did he go back to her in Hull?

We’ll never know. But it’s all fascinating.

Mind you, if I discover I had a relative from the earlier part of the 19th century who was a thief taker, I’ll be very worried.

12 thoughts on “A Pair Of Coppers In The Family

  1. I always enjoy reading your novels and articles. Having discovered my own family were Leeds born, dyers in early nineteenth century Leeds, I was delighted to find your books which gave me some idea of the city they would have known. Cracking stories too, of course.

    Regarding Matthew Nickson, I was wondering if you had obtained his death certificate? The cause of death might help solve the mystery behind the tantalising. ‘ died ‘

    1. Hi Helen,
      Whereabouts in Leeds were your family? Early 19th C it was a much smaller place, of course. I’m really pleased you enjoy the books – I try to bring the place alive.

      I haven’t gone after Matthew’s death certificate yet. Part of the problem is that the only reference to him dying that I’ve found is in the police record, and I only discovered that at the weekend. But more digging and who knows…I’d love to get death certificates for all those relatives, but I think they’re £10 each – and not even sure if they’re available at the moment. But it’s a very good idea.


  2. Helen Clappison

    Hi Chris,

    Good to hear from you.

    My family came from Steander which I think is the area where The Crown Point Centre is situated. I wonder how different Leeds will be in another two hundred years.

    The Holts were baptised at Leeds Parish Church – Bank was a frequent address – and my GGG grandparents are buried in the cemetery that now lies within the precinct of Leeds Uni. The original burial records are in the Parkinson Building. I had a fascinating morning there, years ago, going through them.

    Death certificates are available as a PDF from the Gro Gov site. £7 each and delivered in just a few days. As you say, how wonderful it would be to have them for all our ancestors. At least copy Wills are very much cheaper.

    All the very best


  3. Steander is part of the Bank – Richmond Hill as it’s called now, really. A lot of Irish lived there in the 19th century, and even had their own church, St Mary’s, built after the potato famine. But if they were baptised at the Parish Church, they must have been Protestant. A friend of mine is doing her PhD on St George’s field, as that cemetery was known. Fascinating place.

  4. Helen Clappison

    Thank you for the information about Steander. That’s very helpful. St George’s Fields will be a wonderful subject for a PhD. I hope she considers having it. published.

  5. I have no idea if she will, honestly. A curious little aside, Pablo Fanque, mentioned in the Beatles song For The Benefit of Mr Kite, is buried there, too, with a big memorial. Also, I think the Leeds artist Atkinson Grimshaw.

  6. Helen Clappison

    I didn’t know about either of those being buried there. I wonder how many other well known people are there too. The online burial records are excellent, giving more info than is usually the case, including the cause of death. Am l right in thinking though that the records made of the grave inscriptions when many of the headstones were moved, are missing ? I have a feeling there were two sets, one of which was destroyed in a fire and a second set that’s vanished. Such a shame.

  7. Ah, I can’t help you on records of those inscriptions, I’m afraid. I’ve never really looked at that. Definitely a pity if it’s true. None of my relatives were buried there, for most of them it was Beckett Street Cemetery. Sorry.

  8. Helen Clappison

    Beckett Street Cemetery is another wonderfully atmospheric place. Even more so than St George’s Fields. I doubt my ancestors would have had a headstone. They died young of consumption and their children were distributed amongst various relatives. They probably had a healthier upbringing than if they had stayed amongst the Leeds dyers. Your books have taught me so much about the history of Leeds as well as being fascinating stories. Thank you.

  9. I have two ancestors there in unmarked graves, a relaive in a guinea grave, and some where members of the family share a grave. Going there, learning from the Friends of the Cemetery and uncovering the graves was quite something. I have another ancestor in Harehills Cemetery, but there’s nothing left of the inscription on her headstone now, sadly. The dyers weren’t destined for long lives, given their trade. I’m glad I’ve done something to make you feel you’ve walked the streets here.

  10. Helen Clappison

    Finding the family grave would indeed be a special moment. The very first family grave I visited ,after I started my research, was that of my great great grandfather who is buried in Undercliffe Cemetery in Bradford. Now that is a magnificent place. Standing by the grave, and knowing that some of what I could see would have been exactly the same as when his family stood there for his burial, almost exactly hundred years previously, was really quite eerie.

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