Museum Musings: Early Prince Albert Police Service

Photo courtesy of the Bill Smiley Archives, Prince Albert Historical Society. This is the first dedicated police station in Prince Albert. It stood on Avenue B between 10th and 11th Streets East.

by Fred Payton
Prince Albert Historical Society

After assuming control of the former Rupert’s Land in 1870, the Dominion government was not overly interested in encouraging the establishment of municipal governments within its new territory.  It was not until 1885 when communities such as the newly incorporated town of Prince Albert were able to elect a representative council.  Consequently, the first election of a town council did not occur in the Nisbet settlement until November 18th, 1885.

It goes without saying that there was considerable business to be addressed by the new council, but many of the issues which concerned residents were not addressed effectively.  One of the major issues which the residents felt had been inadequately addressed included the need for effective policing of the new town.  There was still a small detachment of North West Mounted Police located in the community, but they were mostly concerned with enforcing liquor laws.  The people of Prince Albert were more concerned about controlling the animals which ran at large in their community.  Packs of dogs, pigs, and cows not only threatened the safety of citizens, but were responsible for damaging and even destroying the community’s gardens.  The newly elected council, determined to deal with the concerns of the electorate, chose to appoint a town constable who was expected to restrain the dogs, impound wandering pigs and cows, and remove manure from the streets.  William Dilworth was appointed as Prince Albert’s first constable on December 7th, 1885.

There was, however, a small glitch in this response to the community’s expectations.  Well, actually, there were two.  First of all, there was no bylaw precluding those concerns which the constable was expected to address.  That left him trying to “sweet talk” the locals into abiding by a non-existent law.  Secondly, even had there been a bylaw to preclude dogs, pigs, and cows from wandering at large, there was no pound or pound-keeper where these miscreant animals could be enclosed.

Dilworth lasted two weeks, after which Prince Albert’s first constable resigned.

It did not take long for the town to replace Dilworth.  On December 14th, 1885, the town hired another constable, a man named Scotty Westwood.  He gladly (and perhaps glibly) declared his willingness to assume the duties required by the town council, although he expected “a wee extra price” for restraining dogs and impounding cattle and pigs.  But he felt that his first priority should be to deal with the lawless and unsavoury characters who would pass through town, and to keep drunks off the street.  All these individuals, he declared, would be escorted to the North West Mounted Police guard room.

The locals were not, however, impressed with Westwood’s priorities.  Drunks and unsavory characters were not their concern.  What they wanted Westwood to do was to take the animals, dogs and pigs and cattle, off the street.  They also wanted the transient traders to be controlled.  These were the citizens’ priorities.  When Westwood was confronted by council regarding his previous promises, he responded in the same manner as William Dilworth.  He, too, resigned.

The council thought there would be no problem replacing Westwood, but soon discovered their error.  When no one took on the job, disturbances became common place, and more and more transient traders were coming to Prince Albert.

The council decided that the Dominion government should be called upon to step in to assist.  A request for 200 Mounties was therefore forwarded to Ottawa.  The quick response was that the small local detachment existent in the community should be capable of handling the town’s problems.  No additional Mounties would be sent.

In April 1886, a third man was appointed to the position of constable.  W.A. Giles assumed the role but, he too, resigned within a month.  His replacement was William Dixon, the caretaker of the newly constructed building in which the constable’s office was housed.

Given the instability which plagued the town and its attempt to provide a level of policing acceptable to its citizens, it must have been a relief when the newly elected council, under Mayor James McArter, passed a bylaw to restrain and regulate dogs.  The bylaw required dogs be licenced, and that they be muzzled and leashed when amongst the public.  A further bylaw authorised the construction of a pound and the hiring of a pound-keeper.  Now the constable had the right to impound dogs and, if they remained unclaimed, to destroy them.

The town council passed another bylaw more in keeping with the type of duties a constable might expect.  It allowed him to arrest individuals for maliciously breaking windows, shutters, or blinds, for defacing signboards or participating in acts of graffiti on buildings, walls, or fences.  Other offences for which the constable could arrest individuals included destroying bridges and sidewalks, throwing stones, being drunk in public, cursing, or causing a fight.  Trees planted for shade or ornament could not be destroyed; nor could a person cause a disturbance in or near a church.  Persons involved in prostitution could be locked up for a maximum of 90 days, unless willing to pay a fine.  Finally, the bylaw allowed the constable to detain any person seen to be indecently exposed, including bathing within town limits.  One presumes that this meant bathing (or swimming) in the river or any other body of water, but did not preclude a person taking a bath within the confines of his or her own home or other habitation.

In September 1886, with these bylaws in place, Prince Albert’s first constable, William Dilworth, applied for and was once again hired to fill the position. He also assumed the position of pound-keeper, officially became the licence inspector, and was assigned to report unsafe conditions in both private and business establishments.  He was also required to fill holes in the roads, and to remove manure from the streets.

In 1887, a further bylaw was passed, this time creating the positions of health, street, and fire inspectors.  A pound-keeper was hired, but Dilworth was still required to capture and transport animals to the pound, and he continued to destroy unruly dogs.  The constable was also expected to act in the position of the other inspectors when those positions were vacant.

Eventually Dilworth and the members of the town council became disenchanted with one another when he refused to explain his whereabouts one evening when several thefts occurred in the town.  Dilworth left the position, and he was replaced by yet another constable, this time David Williamson.  Williamson soon left the position over a disagreement regarding who was entitled to the licence fees which he collected.  Reluctantly, the North West Mounted Police took over policing the town, and displayed their displeasure by fining a number of the local saloon keepers for failure to hold the appropriate licences.

Again, the town hired a new constable, John Offord, but he soon resigned when he realised that his duties conflicted with those of the Mounted Police.

In June 1888, the town council finally attempted to properly define the constable’s duties, and in September of that year they hired Peter Robinson on a three-month probation.  He proved to be capable in providing the policing which the citizens expected of him, but the divide between the town constable and the Mounted Police grew wider.  Robertson was taken into custody by the Mounties one night when he was trying to break up a brawl outside the Queen’s Hotel.  Threats were made to sue the Mounties but, as the town realised that they would require the Mounties to provide policing should their constable’s position become vacant, no further action was taken after the town received a letter from the commanding officer promising the Mounties would no longer interfere in the town’s policing unless requested to do so.

In 1890, after the arrival of the railroad, there was a rise in criminal activity in the town.  This led to a period of cooperation between the Mounties and the local constable.  Things apparently ran smoothly, and Robertson made monthly reports to the town council.  However, in 1893, the council decided to place the constable under the direction of a committee controlled by a group of aldermen.  The committee was called Fire, Light, Water and Police.  The constable’s responsibilities were increased to include a number of duties, such as eradicating weeds, inspecting and repairing sidewalks, culverts and drains, overseeing the piggery, and removing dead horses and dogs from within the town’s limits.  Robertson saw this as a regressive step, and resigned.  Once again, the Mounties policed the town, this time until 1895.

In that year, a special police committee was established, removing the constable from the previous amalgamated committee.  Three men, a chief constable, an assistant constable, and a special constable were hired.  This ensured that policing would be stable, as when one man resigned, the next in line would step up.  A fourth man was hired, another special constable, who acted as the town’s scavenger, responsible for removing dead animals and clearing manure from the streets.  All four men were accountable to, and directed by, the police committee.

In 1900, Robert Jones became the first man to be hired in the position of Police Chief.  Although the Police Service had become more professional, the citizens were not happy.  They expected the police to enforce the bylaws against transient traders and crooks, but felt that they themselves should be left alone.  When two constables were asked for their resignation, Jones submitted his resignation.  Council accepted the resignation on the condition that Jones remain until he could be replaced.  He agreed, but the town never bothered to advertise for a replacement.  Eventually his resignation was withdrawn and he remained in the position until 1906, when he retired.

Alex Forsythe and B.J. McDermott followed Jones in the position of chief, and in 1910 A.E. Danby was hired and appointed chief of police.  He brought years of experience and considerable knowledge to the position, and during his leadership the Service’s first dedicated building was erected.

The earliest years of the Police Service were made unstable as a result of bureaucratic mis-steps.  In my next column, we will follow it through its most unstable period, a result of the poor state of Prince Albert’s finances.