William Beardshaw - Death of a Sheffield Policeman July 1855

Like many other articles on this site, I came across this event purely by chance. There is a web-site that has been set up to honour those policemen and police women who have died whilst on duty. Sadly the site only gives very rudimentary information about the incident that led to the loss of life and so I thought that whilst I had access to contemporary nineteenth century newspaper reports, I would try and add a little more information. I was also rather surprised to find that there was a dearth of information in many of the traditional resources available.

The first death of a policeman to occur in Sheffield was on 22th. July 1855. The term "policeman" in this context is rather a misnomer. Without going into the detail, policing the towns in the mid nineteenth century was far removed from modern day policing - a current website neatly sums up the national and local position

"The 1835 Municipal Corporations Act introduced ratepayer democracy to the several hundred self-governing towns of England and Wales. The only compulsory statutory duty of the newly-elected councils was to select a watch committee from their number to run the police force. In this self-confident, prosperous, and autonomous urban world, most boroughs introduced uniformed 'new' police forces, or took over existing (often very efficient) forces. The committees had complete power over the activities and composition of their forces. This reform in the towns was matched by rural areas through the introduction of the county police in 1839/40, through acts which gave counties the power to introduce police forces       ..policing power was largely exercised by local government, and the boroughs of England and Wales fiercely protected the police powers exercised by their elected watch committees. These powers were symbolic of the city's independence, and police forces were crucial exercisers of executive power locally, concerning poor relief,...."

As the newspaper reports state William Beardshaw, is better described as a Watchman rather than a Policeman. The details of the incident are related in the Daily News' report of the York Winter Assizes dated 14th December 1855



James Burke, 22, and Cormack Dunlevy, 32, were indicted for the murder of Wm. Beardshaw, at Sheffield on 22nd July last.

Mr. Hardy and Mr. Johnstone, conducted the prosecution. The prisoners were defended by Mr. Dearsley.

Mr. Hardy briefly stated the case. The person who came by his death on the 22nd of July, by the hand of someone was a man named Beardshaw who was acting on that day for the first time as a watchman in the town of Sheffield. It appeared that a man named McCormack was supposed to have been committing a robbery in the shop of John Shannan, who charged him with the offence. McCormack  escaped but was shortly afterwards apprehended in the neighbourhood by a policeman and irons were put on his hands and legs in consequence of his violent conduct. About a thousand of McCormack's fellow countrymen (Irishmen) were assembled near the place where he (McCormack ) was apprehended an on the policemen attempting to put him in the cab, for the purpose of conveying him to the police station, he called out to the Irishmen "Will you see me taken" or words to that effect.  Immediately upon this, an attack was made on the police, stones and brickbats being thrown by the mob, and McCormack  was rescued, but apprehended at a later period in the evening, when it was discovered that he had employed the time which had intervened from his rescue in removing the irons which the police had put upon him. In the course of the melee Beardshaw, received the injuries which caused his death and another policeman named Dickinson was also severely injured. The deceased was at the time in the execution of his duty, taking into custody a man charged with a serious offence and if the prisoners were two of the parties who attempted to rescue this man by violence they must be considered responsible for the effects produced by such means as they employed. It would be proved that the prisoners were extremely violent; they were seen by many witnesses to throw stones and use other violence to the police. This was not the case of a private disturbance between individuals; here were police officers in the execution of their duty, and he (the learned counsel) should submit under the correction of his Lordship, that anything that was done to them resulting in death would bring the offence within the crime of murder.

Mr Baron Martin dissented from this view of the law; to convict of murder the intention must be brought home to the person committing the crime.

Mr. Hardy said that after this intimation from the learned judge, he would abandon the capital offence, and charge the prisoners with the manslaughter of Beardshaw, merely.

The witnesses for the prosecution were called. Amongst these - Jane Jubb, deposed that on the night in question she saw Burke throw a stone in the melee and on a companion saying to him " Get out of the way, you have hurt a watchman" he exclaimed with an oath that he would kill the watchman. - Geo Rushton, a police constable, proved that he saw Dunlevy, throw stones twice at the police; he was twice hit - John Hill also saw Burke throw stones and heard him say that he "would kill the --------- watchman". He was assisting in conveying Dickinson, who had been injured to the infirmary when Burke struck him (witness) over the back with a stone in a stocking, and he also stabbed him in the right arm with a knife - Thomas Chapsey, proved that Burke kicked two policemen who had been knocked down in a gutter. - Samson Barker, police constable, deposed that when McCormack was being put into the cab, he and Beardshaw, were knocked down. Beardshaw, put his hand to his head and said "Oh, my head!" - Samuel Lindley saw the riot. Bothe the prisoners were present and they appeared to take a very active part in the disturbance - Mr. Wright, surgeon, proved that the deceased's skull was fractured, and the consequent extravation of blood on the brain was the cause of death. The wound was such a one as was likely to have been produced by a stone.

Mr. Dearsley, on rising to address the jury for the defence remarked that he would yield to no man in struggling to the last for a client when there was anything like a fair chance of success; but when there was not he would not do it to please any client. The question was, were the jury satisfied that the witnesses who had spoken to the prisoners throwing the stones and striking persons were to be believed. He had no instructions that he could shake their credibility and without such instructions it would be improper for him to do so. Therefore all he could say was this; The night was dark, there was no light, and it was within the range of possibility, and that was all, that some of the witnesses may have been mistaken.

Mr. Baron Martin told the jury that there was no evidence of murder at all, and the jury found the prisoners guilty of manslaughter".

The newspaper then proceeded to outline a further case against four other persons, that arose out of the same incident


William McCormack 32, Patrick Charleston,19, Michael Finnerty, 46, and Robert Smith, 38, were indicted for a riot at Sheffield, on the 21st July last.

Mr. Hardy and Mr. Johnstone, were for the prosecution. Mr. Dearsley, and Mr Shepherd defended the prisoners .

The circumstances were very similar to those stated in the previous case; in fact, it was in the course of this disturbance that the poor fellow whose death has just been inquired into, was killed.

Several witnesses were called to prove the particular part which the prisoners severally took in the transaction. They were heard to urge the crowd onto violence, and themselves throw stones, and were heard to vow vengeance against the police.

All the prisoners were found guilty

Mr. Baron Martin in sentencing the prisoners, said that he had made his mind up to make an example of them, in order that the people of this country might see that the law and the law should be upheld if possible. Here were six men belonging to a large body of people resident in this country - he alluded to the Irish - who obliged to leave their own country because of its poverty, came over to this country, where they enjoyed better wages and other great advantages which they could not have at home, and yet they could not keep quiet, but must needs display their gratitude by breaking the peace of this country and indulging in all sorts of riot and acts of violence. He considered Burke the worst of the party engaged in this transaction, he having thrown the stone which in all probability killed the policeman, and also having struck another man with a stone in a stocking and stabbed him in the arm with a knife. The sentence upon him, therefore, was, that he be transported for fifteen years. As to Smith he considered him quite as bad, he having beat a man whilst he was almost dead, and then sworn upon the remonstrance of his own daughter, that he would murder him; but the law would not allow him to give the same punishment as Burke. He however should give him two years imprisonment, with hard labour; and the four other prisoners Dunlevy, McCormack, Charleston, and Finnerty, must be severally imprisoned for 12 months with hard labour.

The actual proceedings seem rather strange. Burke and Dunlevy, enter the court facing a CAPITAL charge of the wilful murder of a policeman, and yet after hearing all the evidence and being found guilty of manslaughter, the two prisoners receive sentences of 15 years transportation and 12 months with hard labour respectively. Given the circumstances surrounding the death, a manslaughter verdict was probably the correct one, although the actions of Burke in striking another man with a stone in a stocking and stabbing him in the arm with a knife, does suggest a degree of pre-meditation. This coupled with his alleged vow that he "would kill the --------- watchman" indicates to me that Burke was relatively fortunate to receive the sentence he did. And Dunlevy, who was also guilty of the offence of manslaughter, looks as though he got just 12 months with hard labour. Rather a large disparity!. Still this was nineteenth century Victorian "justice" and prejudice and disdain were never far below the service.

If you can supply any further information on the murder and its aftermath, please contact me.   


The other Policeman to die a violent death in Sheffield during the nineteenth century was

PC Samuel Pidd Gibson Died 24 February 1872, aged 33 - Died of a fractured skull received during an arrest in a hostile crowd. There is  a report of the subsequent court case in the Leeds Mercury dated 6th April 1872 which gives details of the incident

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This page was last updated on 04/04/14 14:12