a celebration of
100 years of federation

Clerk met his match as
police chief laid down law

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Historian Fred Hughes writes....

One of the key jobs to be filled by the new Stoke-on-Trent council in 1910 was that of Town Clerk. It was all very tentative and uncertain so councillors brought in the clerk to neighbouring Staffordshire County Council Mr Eustace Joy to advise them.

“Eustace Joy became Stoke-on-Trent’s first acting Town Clerk,” explains Potteries historian Steve Birks. “His job was to steer councillors through the minefield of civil law and administration. There was so much business that the first meetings were held on a daily basis. There was even some talk about all-night sittings but that was squashed on account of Mr Joy having to commute between Stoke and Stafford.”

It wasn’t long though before a short list of candidates for the permanent post was drawn up.

 “In those days the Town Clerk had to be a lawyer and wear a wig and gown on official business,” continues Steve. “The councillors in 1910 decided that the candidate should not be older than 45 and of course male. The annual salary was set at £1000 rising to £1,250, a cut above the £800 the clerks to the existing six town councils were paid. The other big post to be filled was the position of Chief Constable. The man they appointed was the police chief of Hanley, Roger Carter. Then there was the location of offices to be arranged. Mr Carter was allowed to stay at his Hanley office in the Town Hall while chambers for the Town Clerk were found at Stoke Town Hall. The new constitution was next on the agenda and that certainly wasn’t going to be resolved overnight.”

The new constitution had to define the Town Clerk’s duties. And here councillors gave a wide scope to the new man. One wonders now whether the councillors were a bit reckless in the freedom of responsibilities they handed to the office. Certainly the consequences of handing too much power to one man would soon come to haunt them.

 “The new Town Clerk was Edward Burgess Sharpley,” says Steve. “He was 35 and already held a similar job in his home town in Lincolnshire. Sharpley was seen as a bit of a whiz kid and a great catch for the new council. He was young and enthusiastic; extremely popular with friends but extremely disliked by his enemies. Certainly he made friends in the beginning. But he mostly out-served them by the end of a long career of 35 years. It’s reasonable to say he was in complete control of Stoke-on-Trent and directed both his staff and the councillors in an authoritarian manner. In the hands of Mr Sharpley unelected civic power was awesome.”

One department Mr Sharpley insisted upon leading was that of criminal prosecutor in police courts. It was an archaic system that gave the Town Clerk overall control of who should or should not be prosecuted – a role these days undertaken by the Crown Prosecution Service. And it’s worth remembering that on the whole the magistrates’ list was mainly filled by the same councillors who were already being directed by Mr Sharpley in civic matters. It was a situation dangerously loaded with suspicion and bias and one that prevailed until the arrival of a new Chief Constable in 1936, an equally strong character named Frank Bunn.  

Frank Bunn - Chief Constable in 1936
Frank Bunn - Chief Constable in 1936

“Mr Bunn was in charge when I joined Stoke-on-Trent City Police in 1947,” says retired Stoke-on-Trent City Police officer Roy Matthias. “He was he was a magnificent leader, highly thought of by his men and city leaders alike. He accomplished a great deal for law and order in Stoke-on-Trent. His appointment was inspirational and he brought a breath of fresh air into what must have been troubled times, although he never let it interfere with his performance.”

Confrontation between the new Chief Constable and the Town Clerk was inevitable and instantaneous. While Roger Carter had been a diplomatic policeman described in the Sentinel’s obituary as a ‘kindly and genial man,’ there’s no doubt he fell under the influence of the Town Clerk. According to police historian the late Alf Tunstall, Mr Sharpley appeared to run the council like some feudal baron overseeing his possessions, which included the police service. Frank Bunn instantly objected to this authority and said so. The outcome was a very messy public enquiry concerning abuse of power and public standards.

“Records indicate that Sharpley had a marked disregard for another’s feelings,” Alf told me. “Mr Bunn on the other hand was a strong character, a barrister in his own right, the professional equal of Sharpley. He taught his men respect and honesty as well as crime prevention and detection.”

Bunn’s own version of these confrontations is well documented in his memoirs. Suffice to say that it might have been Sharpley’s self-assuredness that brought him before the stipendiary magistrate in 1943 to be found guilty of indictments over the misuse of petrol during wartime. He was fined for the proven cases but lack of criminal intent enabled him to keep his job. Mr Sharpley retired in 1946, a pioneer of federation and civic administration.


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3 Mar 2009