The killing of Sergeant Hately

The killing of Sergeant Hately

Stephen Wade tells a tales of danger to law and order at the Alnwick hiring fair in the late 19th century

Stephen Wade, social historian

Stephen Wade

social historian

The hiring fair was a very old institution in English history, dating back over the centuries to the reign of Edward III; later, in the Tudor period when affairs concerning masters and servants were regulated more forcefully, days were named on which labour could be hired, and the High Constable of the shire would define terms of pay and working conditions.

A hiring fair in the north of England
A hiring fair in the north of England in 1881, from the Illustrated London News TheGenealogist

The annual fair then became a major event: we know from social history and from literature that the hiring fair, or mop fair as it was sometimes known, became an occasion when labour was hired for a year from Michaelmas to Michaelmas. Men and women would stand in line, set to show off their trades and skills, so that, as LW Cowie has described, ‘cowman had a tuft of cowhair, carters a piece of whipcord, shepherds a tuft of sheep’s wool and thatchers a fragment of yellow straw, while servant-girls carried a mop or wore a white apron.’

The token was taken when the individual was given work, but of course that description suggests a smooth, organised system. In fact, the fairs were occasions at which drink might flow too freely, competition might become too heated, and old jealousies and resentments might explode. No doubt the hired men and women, when the ‘fast-penny’ was pressed into their hand to seal the bargain, felt in need of something to wet their whistle. All around them were the amusements of the fair, and fun was in the air. Pleasure could easily transmute into aggression.

At Alnwick in Northumberland at the March Fair in 1875, the jollification changed into a riot, and in the midst of the violence and unrest was the constable. As one account has it: ‘&helli;the said [Sergeant] John Hately came to his death whilst in the execution of his duty in endeavouring to quiet a disturbance which took place&helli; on the hiring day of the 6th of March.’ He left a widow and eight children.

indenture document for the arranged apprenticeships of the Hately children
The legal indenture document for the arranged apprenticeships of the Hately children
document of assignment of the Hately fund for the family
The document of assignment of the Hately fund for the family

What was given least consideration was the safety of an officer. Hately was hit by a stone, flung at him from the crowd, and he died of the injuries sustained. Here was a brave man, standing out and being counted, as it were, in the struggle to maintain order and reason. He paid for that bravery with his life. What had the law done to organise and streamline the force around him?

The most significant legislation came in 1856 with the County and Borough Police Act. After the report of a Select Committee on Police in 1853, it was made compulsory for county forces to be created and for some amalgamations to be effected. To supervise this, special offices were created to be called Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Constabulary. The report of 1853 had stressed the vagrancy problem, as that was considered to be a major cause of crime, and in the larger rural counties we can see the implementations of his Act taking that into consideration. In Lincolnshire, for example, the report on the Lincolnshire Constabulary by the Chief Constable in 1857 given to the Joint Police Committee lists the strength of the force: the area of Lindsey had seven superintendents and 43 constables; Kesteven had one superintendent and 20 constables; and Holland had one superintendent and 16 constables. The magistrates met in 1856 ‘convened by the Lord Lieutenant and held in the castle of Lincoln in October, 1856 for the proper taking into consideration the Act 19 and 20 Vic. Cap. 69 to render more effectual the police in county boroughs of England and Wales.’

As to the important features such as ratio of police officers to population in the counties, these varied greatly. In Norfolk, for instance, there were 196 officers in 1856, a ratio to the population of 1/ 3451. In Dorset there were only 12 men at the time. Essentially, the police officer at the time of Hately’s death had no hope of assistance in times of trouble: later in the century, there were death and burial clubs for most constabularies, and superannuation came in. Some forces, such as Hull for instance, had superannuation funds as early as the 1860s, but for many, if the worst happened it was a case of charity and humane responses to personal tragedy. Hately’s force did have a superannuation fund, but with eight children that was hardly adequate. Still, as a deed of 2 May in 1875 states, £81 was given ‘as a gratuity’ from the police superannuation fund ‘after providing for the immediate wants of the widow and family’.

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The constable was a vulnerable figure. Hately tried to stop a riot. The result was that the reputation of the hiring fair for trouble and disorder was confirmed, and the community was left with a widow and eight orphans to somehow help and supervise. Documentation shows that there was, in fact, the most stunning and impressive response to the sergeant’s violent death. Notices were posted across a number of parishes. The aim was to ‘raise a fund for their immediate and future benefit’. Subscriptions were called for at banks and stationers’ shops. The response was massive and overwhelming.

printed list of the subscribers to the fund
The printed list of the subscribers to the fund, with their location and the amount of their contribution given

By 21 June 1875, when the trustees of the Hately Fund arranged to meet, a sum of £743 1s 4d had been raised. A list of subscribers between May 15 and May 27 that year has no less than 39 people, and they had given sums as small as one guinea, up to large amounts such as £5 from a C.W. Orde. By June a huge list was issued, properly in print, listing several hundred donations of sums between 2s 6d down to one shilling. His Grace the Duke of Northumberland, at Alnwick Castle, gave £25 – a four-figure sum in today’s values.

letter assuring the investment panel
A letter assuring the investment panel that their £600 would make a considerable profit in time

The records of the work undertaken on behalf of Mrs Mary Hately by the trustees show what could be achieved, in those dangerous days before proper social welfare and support, by sheer energy and commitment, done in recognition of a deed of courage. In fact, what the trustees did was what every right-thinking person of wealth did at the time: invest in railways and in the government. Everyone was doing it, from the Rothschilds downwards. A letter from the trustees describes the matter:

It is also declared that the said trustees shall have full power to invest the Trust funds in government or real securities or in Railway Stock, where the whole capital has been called up&helli; and that all indemnity clauses under the statute (22nd and 23 Victoria Chapter 35) to save trustees from risk, shall be considered as incorporated&helli; into this deed.’

It was decided that the Trust should last ‘19 and a half years at least’ and in the formal agreement concerning the fund’s investment, there was a remarkable degree of attention given to Mary’s welfare, separate from a long list of trust sums held for all the children. The deed says that all sums not apportioned for the children are ‘for the benefit of the said Mary Hately for her life for her sole and separate use only and not to be subject to the debts or control of any husband she might have&helli;’

Mary Hately was 40 years old when her husband died. She must have been astonished at the local response to the sad death of her husband, of course. The result of that flying chunk of rock at the hiring fair highlights two important and fascinating mid-Victorian elements of social history: the fragile nature of every community in tough times, when hard farming work ground down the working population to seek consolation in drink and in high-jinks, and naturally, the dangerous nature of those guardians of law who faced the trouble head on. There was solidarity when tragedy followed, and Mary Hately would have noticed that, aside from the huge sums given to her by tradesmen and professional people in her community, there was a very large sum of over £27 raised by the men at the Northumberland Constabulary; what stands out, apart from the £7 paid by his superintendent, is the £7 12s 5d from a simple constable – PC Spence. We have to speculate that this man was a close friend indeed, maybe the man who grew up with him in the force.

Read Stephen’s article about the Newgate Calendar, and Stuart Raymond’s on vagrancy, in our new print edition, available from

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