The First Surrey County Police Officer to be Killed on Duty

Tread soft on the stones that lie under your feet
And hark to the story they tell:
For they speak of a hero, who died in the street,
‘Tis the spot where brave Donaldson fell

Inspector William Donaldson has the unfortunate distinction of being the first Surrey police officer to be killed while performing his duty. Donaldson was killed 29 July 1855 following a brawl in the King’s Arms, Haslemere.  He was buried in St Bartholomew’s Church, Haslemere, and his funeral attended by senior officers including four Divisional Superintendents and  a column of thirty-two constables, all wearing ceremonial mourning sashes.

William Donaldson was born in Alloa, Scotland, in 1807, marrying Janet Clement in 1835. He moved to London following his marriage in order to join the newly created London Metropolitan police, becoming an early ‘Peeler’, and was stationed in Bermondsey from 1835–1838. He set up and policed Dorking from 1838–1851 when he was transferred into the Surrey Constabulary initially serving in Chobham then Leatherhead and Horley. He can be found on the 1841 census living in South Street, Dorking, but the 1851 census has the family living in Bridge Street, Leatherhead. Following a brief period of service in Horley, Donaldson was stationed in Haslemere by November 1854.

A postcard of the High Street and Town Hall, Haslemere, showing the King's Arms Public House, c.1905 (SHC ref PC/75/14)

A postcard of the High Street and Town Hall, Haslemere, showing the King’s Arms Public House, c.1905 (SHC ref PC/75/14)

On Saturday 29 July 1855, Donaldson and his constable, James Freestone, checked on the King’s Arms Public House in Haslemere to ensure the strict licensing hours were adhered to.  The pub was full of ‘navvies’ who were working on the London to Portsmouth railway and who were celebrating with their fortnightly wages.  Following the two policemen’s encouragement to drink up and vacate the premises, a brawl ensued resulting in the arrest of David Smith who was duly locked up in the ‘cage’ in the town’s Market House.  When some of Smith’s allies presented themselves demanding his release, a fight broke out and Inspector Donaldson was struck over the head with an iron bar.  He managed, with help, to walk back to his house in Cow Street, but died of his injuries at 3 o’clock on Sunday morning.

Click on the images above to see larger copies or click the following links to see pdf (PDF ) copies of the documents:

entry for William Donaldson in the first appointment book for Surrey Constabulary (SHC ref 9152/1/2/1/1)

entry for James Freestone in the first appointment book for Surrey Constabulary (SHC ref 9152/1/2/1/1)

Donaldson's Blue Plaque – Haslemere Town Hall. Image courtesy of Jo Pelham

Donaldson’s Blue Plaque – Haslemere Town Hall. Image courtesy of Jo Pelham

A ‘ Rememberance Ceremony’ is held in Haslemere every year. It is held at Midday on the last Sunday in July and is one of Haslemere council’s official events and is aptly known as ‘Donaldson Day’. The event is hosted in the town hall by the town mayor, with both local councilors, local dignatories, representives of the surrounding councils, a strong police presence including both retired and current officers plus a senior officer from Mount Browne, also members of the public and relatives.

Records at Surrey History Centre

Thanks to grants from the Friends of the National Libraries, Surrey History Trust and an anonymous benefactor, the Occurrence Books for the time Donaldson was stationed at Dorking were purchased from Christies in June 2014.

Before the establishment of Surrey Constabulary in 1851, policing in the county was carried out very much on the initiative of the parish or town.  Fortunately, through the survival of the occurrence books, Surrey History Centre has a record of the administration of local community policing in Dorking before the formation of the County Constabulary, detailing as they do the day-to-day activities of Superintendent Donaldson and his two constables as they carried out their duties between 1838 and 1849.

There are three occurrence books in all, each one providing a wonderful insight into the misbehaviour, misdemeanours and petty crime of local characters in what was then a small provincial Surrey market town.  One delightful entry at the beginning of the volume states:

Thursday 27 Dec 1838: “I patrolled during the day and was very sorry, nay enraged to find that PC No 2 Jonathan Lewin had conducted himself very improperly by calling at a number of places for his Christmas Box, I was told by a lady not however as a complaint as she said that they had always been accustomed to give to the watch, but merely that she thought that I would like to know what he got.” (SHC ref 9350/1)

An extract from Dorking Police occurrence book, 12 Nov 1838 - 2 May 1841<br/>(SHC ref 9350/1)

An extract from Dorking Police occurrence book, 12 Nov 1838 – 2 May 1841
(SHC ref 9350/1)

Click on the image above to see a larger copy or click this link to see a pdf (PDF ) copy of the document.

A more detailed biography of William Donaldson and the events leading up to his death can also be found in Inspector William Donaldson (1807-1855) – The First Surrey County Police Officer to be killed while on duty by Henry F. Pelham (2015). Mr Pelham is the great great grandson of William Donaldson. A copy can be found in Surrey History Centre library collections.