The first black police officer to be employed in Plymouth was a man by the name of Cecil Wilberforce Rodgers.
He as a Special Constable for Plymouth City police, essentially a volunteer Police officer – but given that he was the first to hold such a position, a milestone in our city deserves recognition.
Lisa Berry Waite, of the Devon and Cornwall Policing Museum, said: “I think what we are trying to do, not only for Black History Month but more broadly we are trying to share and preserve the voices of those who have traditionally been unrepresented. It was actually one of our volunteers Mark Rothwell [who discovered that Cecil was the first black Police officer in the city.]”
The name ‘Cecil Rodgers’ was given to Mark and as this was not a name he was familiar with, he got in touch with the museum archivist and it then became their research project to learn more about him.
The great social history resource that is ‘Ancestry.com’ revealed that Cecil was born in South Milton, near Salcombe, on 16th January 1899 as one of seven children to John Augustus Rodgers, a Jamaican cabinetmaker, and Susan Bessie Jarvis, a Kingsbridge seamstress. Cecil attended Salcombe school.
The policing system was very different then in comparison to now, as Lisa explained – but was no less dangerous than things are today, if not more so.
“Plymouth City Police was its own Police force and Cecil was a Special Constable for Plymouth City Police,” she said.
“We don’t have a lot of records which relate to the volunteer side of things, but we know that in 1939 on the England and Wales register – which was basically the census before World War Two- that he came up there. We think he joined just before 1939.
“He did a lot of patrols which was obviously quite dangerous at the time as Plymouth was bombed quite a lot because of the naval hub.”
During Cecil’s time in the force, he dealt with one particular incident where he was on patrol in March 1943 where he witnessed a man break into the Palace Cafe. He was the man who made the arrest and the man convicted was ordered to pay the sum of £2.
Unfortunately, the Special Constabulary registers have either been lost or destroyed and the museum only hold very few personnel files for specials. This entry in the charge register is the only written records they have in the collection of Cecil.
Three months later, the Police station in Greenbank was bombed, while Cecil was part of the team to help evacuate people, and he stayed for the duration to further protect the city.
Cecil’s connections to the force extend far beyond the Police as information from descendants of his show he served in the 2nd Battalion of the British West Indies Regiment under service number 2724.
At that period it was British Army policy to put all black soldiers into one unit. Years later, Cecil’s unit revolted, known as the Taranto revolt. Although he was subject of a court martial he would later appeal this decision successfully and was able to keep all his medals and his service record remained intact.
Cecil moved back to Plymouth following the war and found work as a stonemason which he did until he passed away. Cecil died on May 17 1966 at the age of 67.
An article on Cecil can also be found on the Policing Museums website here.
Sections of this article relating to the Museum of Policing in Devon and Cornwall’s archive collection were researched and written by Alistair Stone.
Thanks also goes to: AbdulMaalik Tailor, Police History Society and owner of Halal Tourism Britain.
Bill Mallett, who donated his collection relating to the Plymouth City Police. This was of incredible importance to this research.
The descendants of Cecil Wilberforce Rodgers who graciously gave their time to share anecdotes and photographs of Cecil with passion and enthusiasm and finally to Linda and Richard Weeks from the Kent Police Museum, for their assistance in verifying Cecil’s military service.
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This content was originally published here.