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Watchman Richard Cooke

In 1822, prior to the formation of a modern police service, Wolverhampton, like many towns, was policed by a system of Watchmen and constables, who patrolled the streets throughout the night. Richard Cooke was one such watchman. Armed with his spring rattle, he perambulated the streets of the town charged with dealing with all forms of crime and disorder that he, on his own, could manage. On Sunday, 20th January, 1822, Watchman Cooke was called into the Hen & Chickens Public House, where a number of local colliers had been drinking. There had been a dispute with the landlord concerning a glass which one of the men had slipped into another's pocket. The landlord sent for Watchman Cooke who entered the premises and suggested that the group pay for the glass. A sensible proposition. Shortly thereafter, the glass re-appeared and the men had their money returned. All seemed fine but as they left the public house the group had an argument with some Wolverhampton Boys, and Watchman Cooke, who was still in their company asked if they intended to kill the boys. Watchman Cooke 'sprung his rattle' to raise the alarm and was soon joined by two more watchmen. They detained a man named Meek, but the group turned upon the watchmen in an attempt to rescue their friend. Unfortunately a pile of stones lay nearby, ready for paving, and the group hurled stones at the watchmen who still held Meek in their custody. An enormous 3 pound stone struck Watchman Cooke on the head and he wheeled around and placed his head against a wall. Witnesses held one of the offenders say 'What a big stone I have thrown; as dig as I could have gainly thrown'. In these circumstances, the watchmen freed Meek; they were in fear of their life. The group of men then left seemingly rejoicing in their victory. Watchman Cooke was taken home and lingered until the next Thursday when he died in a state of delirium. The group had heard of the serious condition of Watchmen Cooke and fearing that he would die they absconded from the area. However two were caught in Derbyshire and another pair in South Wales where they had been working as colliers. There had been a wide public outcry and rewards were offered for information leading to their apprehension. There was a price on the head of each man. The suspects were all arrested and appeared at Staffordshire Lent Assizes in March, 1822, charged with the wilful murder of Watchman Cooke. All but Meek; who was actually in custody when the fatal stone was thrown, were convicted of the capital offence of murder. And each man knew the likely sentence would be death, and Mr Justice Richardson delivered it to them. However, a number of prominent people, including the coroner, signed a petition supporting the good character of the men and went to the court the following day. Mr Richardson allowed them into court and spoke to them, and granted the men a reprieve.