173 : Robert Branford, 1817-1869 : London police superintendent.

Yet again Stephen Bourne has uncovered a fresh aspect of Britain’s black history.

Robert Branford was born in Stoke by Nayland in Suffolk on 6 May 1817. This area on the Suffolk-Essex border is often known as Constable Country (after the English landscape painter). The Metropolitan Police’s Heritage Centre also states his service number was 14153 and he was 5’ 11” (very tall for the period). He moved to Valentine Place near Blackfriars (south London), with his wife Sarah, and was recruited into the Met’s ranks on 24 September 1838. Branford was stationed at Southwark’s Stone’s End Police Station in Montague Street, which used to run parallel with Borough High Street.

Bourne found Branford from a brief reference to him in Clive Emsley’s The Great British Bobby, A History of British Policing from 1829 to the Present (London: Quercus, published in 2009. A revised edition starting in the 18th century was published by Quercus in 2010). Emsley describes Branford as “half-caste” [i.e. mixed race]. His source was former Met chief inspector Timothy Cavanagh, whose memoir Scotland Yard Past and Present. Experiences of Thirty-Seven Years was published in 1893 (London: Chatto and Windus). Cavanagh wrote that Branford was “Not an educated man: but what to my idea was of much greater importance, he possessed a thorough knowledge of police matters in general. I should say he was about the only half-caste superintendent officer the Met ever had.”

Branford was promoted to sergeant in 1846, became an inspector in 1851 and superintendent of M-Division (Southwark) in 1856. He retired in 1866.

His mother’s name was Hannah, and his step father is listed as Daniel, according to the Heritage Centre’s documents, which noted Branford had black hair, dark eyes and a dark complexion. Census records also show that Branford and his wife lived in Weston Place in Bermondsey, and shared a house in Rotherhithe with another local bobby. The officer then lived in Brunswick Street in Newington – now the site of Falmouth Road – before he retired in 1866. There are no children on the census. On retirement he and his wife moved to Little Waldingfield, a village in south-west Suffolk.

Robert Branford died three years later on August 14, 1869. His cause of death is noted as “disease of the kidneys”. Sarah then worked as a domestic servant until her death in 1881, aged 51, and was buried with her husband.

No photograph of Superintendent Branford has been located.

I am most grateful to Stephen Bourne for permission to use his research, published in Southwark News, 22 September 2016.


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