Henry Kerslake (inset) with Sir Leonard Dunning inspecting the Southend Constabulary in 1920 (Image: Newsquest)
In 1913 Southend got a new police boss. He was Henry Maurice Kerslake and he was a fascinating figure.
Kerslake was in charge of the newly formed Southend Constabulary. He was the first-ever chief constable and was awarded an annual salary of £400 per annum. He beat 84 other applicants to get the job.
Born in Colchester, Kerslake was aged 35 at the time of his post, and had transferred from Dewsbury where he’d been in charge of the force there.
He would stay at Southend until 1935 and during that time he would steer the force during a period of immense growth. But his Victorian military style and no-nonsense demeanor irked a lot of people at times – including his own officers.
In 1917 Kerslake was embroiled in a fiery row with his special constables. When a volunteer officer based at Southchurch gave a speech criticizing Kerslake, the chief constable demanded he retract his words. When the special didn’t, Kerslake stripped him of his post – causing an outcry.
That same year Kerslake was summoned to court for assaulting Arthur Schrynemaker, the proprietor of the town’s Theater Dr Luxe cinema. The pair had an argument about buckets of water not being full in the cinema in case of fire.
There was clearly a history of bad feelings between the two men. Schrynemaker accused Kerslake of pushing him but the case was dismissed.
One of the biggest queues that ever formed outside the police court happened in September 1933 and involved Kerslake – but for all the wrong reasons. For more than an hour before the court even opened a huge line of people gathered to gain admission.
The reason was, there was an explosive case set to be heard which would see an ex-Southend copper accuse Kerslake and the entire Southend force of “corruption and wickedness”.
Former detective sergeant James Stent, of Dryden Avenue, Southend, was summoned for “scandalous writings and words” against the force and in particular Chief Constable Kerslake. Stent denied the charges and during the court case he accused Kerslake – who had sacked him over discipline issues – of a number of crimes, including that he took bribes.
One of the bribes he said he took was £2,000 to allow gambling to go on at the Kursaal. Stent’s charges against Kerslake had been investigated by a watch committee and he had been vindicated, but Stent wasn’t having it.
Stent had joined the Essex Constabulary in 1910 and was transferred to Southend Borough Police in 1914. He was later promoted to detective sergeant. During the court hearing Stent said: “You cannot believe one word a policeman says.”
He also claimed: “The whole of Southend police force, from the chief constable to the junior constables, is a force of corruption and perjury.”
Kerslake gave evidence that Stent was dismissed after being found guilty of two offenses against discipline. Stent also accused fellow Southend constables of going on long lunches on tourist steamers on the pretext of searching for overcrowding.
But it was Kerslake that he saved most of his venom for: “Kerslake is the most tyrannical man in the world, he is a tyrant,” he yelled in court.
“I am not a man like him who pinches his neighbors’ cabbages!”
Stent admitted that in the past he had threatened to shoot Kerslake for being a “wicked, wicked man”.
Ultimately, Stent was found guilty by a jury and ordered to enter into a bond for £100 and to find sureties of £50.
He could not scrape together the money and so a few days later he was arrested and sent to prison in London for four months.
As he stepped into the Southend Police van, which was to take him to London, he yelled out that he had not been allowed to say goodbye to his wife.
Kerslake, however, showed some empathy and gave the order for her to be allowed to come to say goodbye.
In a twist, however, four years later the court of appeal granted Stent a £300 judgment for false imprisonment over the sureties issue. By this time Kerslake had retired.
During his time on the force Kerslake was particularly strong on juvenile crime and drunkenness. He believed lax parenting was the cause of youngsters going off the rails and saw the cinema as a negative draw to the young.
In 1916, speaking about rising youth crime, he said: “The main reason for this perplexing state of affairs is weakening parental control through the fathers being in the army; the darkness of the streets, thereby leading to pilfering; and the craze for attending cinema exhibitions.”
He called for Boy Scout groups and church groups to do more to help.
Kerslake, however, clearly had a softer side. In 1916, when one of his bobbies, Charles Gillings was killed in action in France, Kerslake wrote a series of sympathetic letters to his family.
Gillings had joined Southend Constabulary in 1914 and was an exemplary officer. When the war broke out he was enlisted with the 8th Battalion, the Royal Highlanders. He was twice wounded in battle, but while tending to a wounded in Longueval he was struck by a shell and died. He was just 26.
Kerslake wrote to his family offering his condolences over the tragedy and it must have been a genuine moving letter as Charles’s brother wrote back to him: “Please allow me to express to you our grateful thanks and deep appreciation for your most kind and sympathetic letters to our parents in their bereavement, which I assure you is a source of great pleasure and deeply appreciated by all of us.
“I feel that the least I can do, on behalf of all of us, is to let you know that of all the letters received by our parents, the ones which you so kindly sent are the most treasured.
“My father particularly treasures them very very highly indeed and is so proud of them that he always carries them about with him. It his greatest pleasure is to show them to anyone who may make a reference to the death of our dear brother.”
Despite his running a tight ship crime statistics surged during the years Kerslake was in charge, although that was inevitable due to the colossal expansion of Southend at this time, both a place to live and to visit.
In 1919 there were 572 crimes committed in the town but by 1925 the force had its worst year since it was formed with the highest-ever number of offenses – 899. Shop burglaries and drunken crimes were high up on the list.
But Kerslake was as tough as he could be on the accusers, and his work to rid Southend of unwanted drunks eventually paid off. In 1933 figures showed how seaside resorts were faring when it came to booze-fueled attacks. Southend’s number was 6.2 cases per 10,000 people. This made it one of the best-performing towns. Blackpool’s number was 14.7 and Hastings came out the worst at 17.3.
A year before he retired, Kerslake’s wife Maude – a respected physician and surgeon – died. Maude was a surprisingly liberal partner for such a traditional husband.
The couple had a home in Victoria Avenue and Dr Kerslake had a private practice. She had supported Southend Ambulance Brigade, was associated with Dr Marie Stopes’s clinic in London, and had quite liberal views for the time when she came to birth control.
She was much-loved by the Southend community and when it came to her funeral, a huge police procession followed her cortege. Her pet dog Pip also came to the church gate to bid farewell to his mistress.
The Kerslakes had a son and daughter.
Perhaps the death of his wife was the catalyst for Kerslake to step down from his duties because in 1935 he did just that and resigned.
He was succeeded by George Robert Crockford as chief constable for Southend. But he only lasted three years in the post before retiring due to ill health. He died two years later, aged 60.
Henry Kerslake died in Hampshire in 1954 aged 76.
Crockford and Kerslake marked the last police officers at Southend to have been sworn in during Queen Victoria’s reign. It was very much the end of an era – but the beginning of another.