The black police officer who pounded the beat 150 years ago

Click to follow
The Independent Online

For those with an interest in the history of multiculturalism, the name Norwell Roberts has an enduring resonance. He was, most people agree, the first black police officer in the UK after joining the Metropolitan Police in 1966.

But Mr Roberts, who had a 30-year career with the Met, rising to the rank of detective sergeant, and who also contributed to the seminal film about black Britain, The Windrush Years, found himself upstaged yesterday when it was revealed that the son of a Caribbean slave walked the beat more than a century before him.

In a story that demonstrates the deep roots of British multiculturalism, it transpires that the first black police officer was actually 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.

The surname Thomas adopted was in recognition of the county where he landed late in the 18th century. John was born near Carlisle around 1795.

A black figure was a rare sight in that corner of north-west England at the time and even before he joined the police Mr Kent would attract crowds as he worked laying pavements for the city corporation.

Constabularies were formally established in 1835 by the Home Secretary of the day, Robert Peel, although Carlisle had already had a unit of around 20 officers paid through public subscription for 10 years.

Bob Lowther, a former detective superintendent who has researched the history of the old Carlisle City Constabulary, traced Mr Kent through police records. He first appears as a, "supernumerary constable'' or probationer, joining on 17 August 1837. He was made a permanent constable on 26 October.

In 1841, he 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.

Known across the city as "Black Kent", he was clearly a valuable member of the force. His obituaries tell how he was so well known that a generation of Carlisle children were brought up to fear him.

The National Black Police Association (NBPA) attaches huge significance to the discovery of his career, which it says is totally unexpected.

"The significance is that while we had people of colour joining that far back, it took until 2003 before we had the first black chief constable [Kent's Mike Fuller]," said David McFarlane, NBPA's national co-ordinator.

"A lot of people are under the misapprehension that black people only arrived here during the Windrush years [1940s and 1950s], or when the Asians came in the 1970s, but people of colour have been in this country for centuries.

"There was a black Roman emperor, black soldiers on Hadrian's Wall. These things are not taught in our schools and people are not aware of them, we have always been a multicultural country."

PC Kent's career did not end on the same high note as Detective Sergeant Roberts, who received the Queen's Police Medal for his 30 years of service.

He was sacked after just seven years with the Carlisle constabulary for being drunk on duty - a common occurrence among officers at the time. A lack of clean drinking water in the city is often blamed for excessive beer consumption. "He had reported late for duty two or three times," said Mr Lowther. "I don't know if drink had anything to do with that, but the force had had a new chief constable who had posted notices saying that anybody found drunk could expect severe punishment. On 6 December he came in intoxicated, so he was taken before the watch committee." The young officer was duly disciplined and his services were dispensed with on 12 December 1844.

Mr Kent's story will be told in a BBC TV documentary narrated by the historical novelist Philippa Gregory and screened in northern England on Sunday.