Carlisle may not be at the top of the list when it comes to claiming 'firsts'. A quick search on the internet reveals the city to have the first Royal Mail pillar box on the British mainland and to have the first theatre lit by electricity, but its notable daughters and sons are little known outside North Cumbria. One name that deserves wider acclaim is that of John Kent, Britain's first black policeman, who tramped the city's streets during the reign of Queen Victoria, apprehending villains and keeping the peace.
Kent's story was scored out of the harsh environment of the industrial revolution. It begins with the docking of a slave ship, the Kent, in Whitehaven. Among its passengers, was a young man named Thomas who belonged to the owner of a plantation in Jamaica. Upon reaching these shores Thomas was unshackled, though he continued to work for his former owner as a servant at Calder Abbey. The Caribbean survivor married Eleanor Pickering from Low Hesket and the couple had ten children, christening one of them John.
The rapid growth of the Kent family mirrored that of the nearby city of Carlisle where tall chimneys were creeping higher up the smoky skyline. By the time John came of age, great mills full of workers spinning cotton, weaving ginghams and checks, printing calico and making cotton twist had largely replaced the cottage industry of handloom weavers.
With impending adulthood, John Kent grew big and strong and his physical attributes wer in demand in a growing city. Among his first jobs was laying pavements for the maze of new streets. Renowned for his strength, people gathered round to watch the tremendous blows he struck with the paviour's beater. Still, John aspired to better things than beating pavements and soon he moved on for a time to employment as a watchman in Maryport.
Meanwhile, England’s industrial cities were becoming increasingly overcrowded, squalid and dangerous and the city fathers began to search for men of good character to walk the beat. In the same year that young Victoria took her new role as Queen, John matched himself against the requirements of the Carlisle City Policy Force and found himself well suited to the role. The job description of the day sought men, 'under 40, well over 5ft 7’ without shoes, able to read and write and free from any bodily complaint to take on the role of Constable'. Kent, now a Peeler, as early policemen were known, was issued with a dashing high collared, swallow tail coat of blue and carried his oak stick in the long pocket of his coat on the first night he set off to walk the familiar pavements. His strengthened stovepipe hat proved to be a useful aid when he needed to climb or see over walls. His pair of white gloves were useful protection when he needed to seize a stray dog and his wellington boots were made of thick leather. Over the years that followed, John Kent would tramp at least 20 miles a night on routine patrol, carrying only little wooden rattle for use if he needed to call for assistance. In the great tradition of the British police service he carried no pistol or rifle. Official meal breaks were not provided so he carried his bait under his hat.
Like others in the force, ‘Black Kent’ wore snazzy white ducks in the summer. These were not regulation issue but they were suave and he was wearing them when he had his portrait painted as The Mayor’s Sergeant, a picture which he hung proudly on his wall.
Looking the part was secondary to upholding the law and protecting the public and John's seven year career took him into all manner of dangerous situations. He was called to help fight the famous fire at Naworth Castle, passing bucket after bucket of water through a long night until the flames were brought under control. On another occasion he arrested two coiners who were tampering with the Queen's currency. He handcuffed the first suspect to the fire-grate in his own house, and left him under the supervision of his wife, arming her with a pistol (unloaded) and telling her to shoot the felon if he tried to escape, while he set off after the second villain. There was also the time when an election crowd became unruly and a fellow Officer was struck on the head and died. Kent was close at hand and provided evidence at the ensuing murder trial.
After 7 years in the service, his career sadly ended when he was dismissed for being drunk on duty, falling foul of a new abstemious policy. This may have been a harsh punishment as most people drank beer at the time because clean drinking water in the city was a rarity and the threat of cholera had not subsided.
The rest of John Kent’s career was spent in the service of the London & North Western Railway Company. When the young Edward VII arrived on the Royal train at Carlisle's Citadel Station and spied Kent at the window of the south side signal box from the Royal train he was heard to enquire ‘Is that Uncle Tom’s cabin?’ Readers of the novel of the same name, with its challenge to how Americans saw slavery, would probably have found it hard to believe that in a single generation the son of a freed slave would become a notable and brave policeman in his father's adopted land.
The signal box is still shown on old railway plans as Kent’s Box and John Kent’s ancestors in the Parish of Hesket are proud of his legacy. Not only was John the son of a man who thrived after slavery, he was also Britain’s first black policeman and a fine Cumbrian to boot.