Carlisle’s John Kent was UK’s First Black Policeman
A recent documentary has sparked wider interest in the life of John Kent, a police officer in Carlisle in the 19th century, as it emerged he was first black man to join the UK force. This incredible, yet little known, story has even attracted the attention of comedian, Lenny Henry; he is said to be plotting a dramatisation in which he will star as John Kent himself.
There is one woman, however, whose history of researching the life of John Kent goes back much further. Until her retirement, Susan Dench was Head of Archives at the Carlisle Archive Centre and her interest in the history of black people in Cumberland began back in the 1990s.
Susan explained: “It’s a bit of a difficult subject, black history and in the 90s people were still a bit sensitive about it.”
She continued: “I have found since I have done it though, that people are really quite interested and I still go out and give talks about black history and about the Kent family; particularly if it’s October, Black History Month. People are always interested and the first thing they say is ‘I didn’t know anything about this at all’.”
John’s father, Thomas Kent, a black African, arrived in Whitehaven as a victim of the slave trade in the late 18th century. He is believed to have worked as a servant at Calder Abbey in West Cumbria for several years, under a man known as “Nabob Graham of Rickerby”. Thomas later married a local girl and they had ten children, including John. Records show that John was baptised in Hesket in 1805, although the exact year he was born is . John grew up in the local area, marrying a girl from Longtown named Mary Bell. Watch Committee records show he was appointed a probationary constable in the Carlisle City Police Force on 17 August 1837.
In his book, ‘140 Years of the Carlisle City Police Force’ published in 2011, Bob Lowther notes the significance of a black person living in Carlisle at this time, let alone as a police officer. He explains how John, who was more widely known as “Black Kent” became something of a household legend; used to frighten misbehaving children. However, according to an article in the ‘Cumberland Pacquet’ newspaper, John was “a quiet and inoffensive man, with a positive fondness for the children who were brought up to regard him as an ogre.”
On page 44, Bob said: “A black person would have been an extremely rare sight in 1866, even more so in 1837. When I served in the city police in the 1960s it would have been possible to count the ethnic population on one’s fingers. A black policeman then would certainly have turned heads.”
Susan’s notes taken from Watch Committee records show that John received a number of punishments while in the force; for being late on duty, falling asleep on duty and being found in a public house while on duty. On 12 December 1844 he was finally dismissed from the police force for drunkenness.
In the 1851 census, John is stated as working as a signalman on the railway and his obituary in the Carlisle Patriot on 23 July 1886 wrote “During the last seven or eight years of his life Kent was the attendant at the gentlemen’s first class waiting room at the station, where his civility and unvarying good humour made him a favourite with everyone.” John died on 19 July 1886 at his home in Carlisle and was interred at Carlisle Cemetery where his unmarked grave remains.
On page 48, Bob commented: “He was there, as usual, until a couple of days before his death. John Kent had quite literally, worked all of his very long life. He was truly a remarkable character.”
Susan’s extensive research has played an integral part in enabling others to discover more about the remarkable John Kent; myself included, for the purposes of this article. However, her work is not yet complete. Back in 2006, she took part in a BBC documentary which managed to trace the descendants of Sarah Kent, John’s sister to a local farming family. Susan believes there must be many more connections to the Kent family across Cumbria and has so far uncovered possible links in Maryport, Silloth, Scotby and Workington.
She said: “People are getting much more willing to talk about it, which is all to the good.
“I have kept it going since I retired, in that I have made it known that if anybody finds anything at all, I would be very glad to add it to the file. The file lives in the record office and is there for anybody to look at, so you never know, maybe other people will turn up.”
Thanks to the Carlisle Archive Centre.
Additional reading: ‘140 years of the Carlisle City Police Force’ by Bob Lowther.