Sir John Dunne (1825-1906)

Sir John Dunne

Written by Kevin Grice

Occupation: Chief Constable

Early Life, Education and Family

John Dunne KB DL JP was born on 12 February 1825 in the village of Boley in Queen’s County (County Laois since 1922) in Southern Ireland. His father was William Dunne and his mother was Julia O’Kelly before her marriage.  In 1898 Sir John Dunne (as he had by then become) wrote his own entry for Dod’s Peerage of that year in which he asserted that both his parents were of noble lineage, his father as a direct descendant of the famous ‘Brittas’ Dunnes and his mother as a member of the equally famous O’Kelly family of Aodh, Slain, Magh Druichtain and Rathascul in Leinster. Neither assertion is correct. His father was in fact descended from the ‘Darby’ Dunnes who had nothing of note to report in their background and his mother had no proven connection to the ancient O’Kelly family at all. Indeed there is no known copy of one of the reference books upon which Sir John Dunne purported to rely to prove these connections and another has been discounted as an accurate source of Irish lineage. Why then did John Dunne prove so economical with the truth as to his background? His biographer Alan Bryant suggests that from quite an early age John Dunne decided that an aristocratic background which offered major-generals, deputy-governors, high sheriffs and politicians (not to mention a castle or two) looked a lot better on his curriculum vitae at a time when backgrounds were vitally important if one wanted to reach high office in one’s chosen career. Furthermore his family were Roman Catholics in an era when such affiliation still carried a taint of discrimination, so nobility may have been seen as in some way as diminishing the impact of this.

William Dunne was not however of poor stock but was lower middle class. His family had lost substantial land in Boley as a result of the 1798 Rebellion but he owned and ran a business known as the Fruitlawn Woollen Mill in the village and his first wife Rose Grace did provide an interesting entry in the family history as she was the grand aunt of William Russel Grace, the first Roman Catholic Mayor of New York (1881-1882 and 1885-1886); it was he who accepted the Statue of Liberty as a gift from France. William and Julia had four sons of whom John was the youngest. His elder brother William (1821-1872) also emigrated to England and became pastor of St Patrick’s Catholic Church in Walsall in Staffordshire until his early death. 

Life for the young John Dunne would therefore have been comparatively comfortable for one growing up in a small village in Southern Ireland in the 1830’s and he would certainly have had the opportunity of receiving a sound education, since there was a school house near to the family home in Boley and, perhaps surprisingly, all bar the elderly of the village spoke fluent English. However, once again, John Dunne decided in later life to embellish his history. In the same 1898 entry in Dod’s Peerage he stated that he had been educated at Montabuan and Dublin. The former was a prestigious French public school and there is no record of his attendance there; indeed the cost and the travel involved makes it most unlikely. His inability to speak French also strongly militates against this. Furthermore John Dunne cannot have attended Trinity College Dublin or indeed any other college or university. The Catholic Church in Ireland forbade its adherents from attending Trinity until well into the twentieth century. Castleknock College opened in Dublin in 1833 and was in the forefront of Irish Catholic tertiary education thereafter but again John Dunne cannot have attended there because, at the age of only fourteen, in 1839 he set off for England on the Dublin to Liverpool Ferry and from there travelled to Manchester to become a police officer.

Early Police Career

Alan Bryant suggests that John Dunne went to England with many others who were emigrating to America but that he chose instead to join the fledgling Manchester Police Force after seeing a newspaper advertisement. He may have had to lie about his age (constables were not recruited until aged fifteen) but as he was by then six feet tall and well-built, he was accepted initially as an ‘Expectant Constable’ or reserve officer (whilst also acting as an office clerk) before becoming a full time constable in September 1839. He was involved in many riots and skirmishes in the town (Manchester was not a city until 1853), arising from the Chartist movement, the immigrant population, the urban poverty and the appalling living conditions for many (as recorded by Friedrich Engels in 1844) which gave rise to a very high crime rate, particularly amongst juveniles. Drink was also a major contributory factor and prostitution was rife. In 1842 the General Strike or Plug Plot Riots tore Manchester apart and in August that year John Dunne decided that his career in the Manchester Police was not proceeding as he would have liked, so he moved to Chelmsford to join Essex Police. By the age of seventeen, he already had a vast amount of experience of life as a constable.  

John Dunne then climbed a steady career ladder within the constabularies of England. In Essex (1842-1849), he was promoted to Inspector as well as serving as an auxiliary to Customs and Excise officers and he was part of the team investigating the murder of PC George Clark in Dagenham in June 1846, a crime still unsolved today. In August 1848 he witnessed the public execution of Mary May for the murder of her brother, an event which attracted over 3,000 spectators. It was one of only two occasions when John Dunne attended the execution of a woman and her protestations of innocence from the scaffold left a lasting impression upon him. His second such experience occurred soon thereafter during his short stay with Bath City Police in 1849-1850 when he was present at the execution of seventeen year old Sarah Thomas at Bristol Prison. Her last moments were traumatic for all concerned as six prison officers had to drag her screaming to the scaffold; amidst the mayhem the prison governor is reported to have fainted.

In October 1850 John Dunne accepted the post of Superintendent with Kent County Police and at twenty-five years of age, he may have been the youngest holding this rank in the country. However he found the parish constable system archaic and inefficient and was to subject it to fierce criticism. After a stay of just thirteen months, he returned briefly to Essex before in 1852 becoming Chief Officer of Norwich City Police (a position equivalent to Superintendent in a county force). Again however he found the force ill-organised and his attempts at reform saw him fall foul of his Magistrates and Watch Committee; his trenchant criticisms of them in his evidence to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Police in June 1853 widened the rift and John Dunne resigned his post in Norwich the following month. He had for the second time left a post as a matter of principle. 

He was out of work then for a year until in July 1854 he was appointed as Chief Officer with Newcastle-upon-Tyne City Police. Again he found the force deplorably disorganised and the system rotten to the core. By dint of his hard work and application of proven principles, John Dunne brought it into such an efficient state that when he left in December 1856 he received a glowing commendation from the Chairman of the Watch Committee. He increased the detection rate from 45% to 83% and the crime rate itself dropped significantly. However his most taxing task was probably to deal with the Great Fire of Newcastle in October 1854, as his post automatically made him head of the town’s fire division. Many warehouses on both sides of the River Tyne burnt down, a gunpowder ship exploded and one police officer and one fire officer were killed. John Dunne himself was near enough to be knocked over by the blast but was uninjured. The County and Borough Police Act 1856 was however soon to lead to many Watch Committees looking to establish a new county force for their area and on 1st January 1857 John Dunne took up the post of Chief Constable of the joint police forces of Cumberland and Westmorland. He was still only thirty-one years of age.

Police Career in Cumbria

Thus began John Dunne’s forty-five year tenure of office in Cumbria, a term unparalleled in police history before or since. Immediately before he took over, the areas in question had just 41 police officers based in the main population centres of Carlisle, Whitehaven and Kendal, assisted by a few part-time parish constables and the occasional help of a number of felon societies; all to police a population approaching 220,000 and where Irish and navvy riots were common. John Dunne’s first reform was to organise a county police force to oversee law and order throughout the two areas and initially he had 64 men to do so, a number he immediately increased to 107. He began by surveying all the districts in question to determine requirements, then produced a handbook of police duties for all ranks and in turn recruited accordingly. By the end of his term as Chief Constable the constabulary under his command had risen steadily to 240 men, organised into effective divisions across the two counties with police stations established in all the main areas. There was also a criminal investigation department with resources to match, although John Dunne’s underlying philosophy was always crime prevention rather than detection. He introduced rigorous training for all ranks and required all his officers to adhere strictly to regulations which he himself drew up and enforced. He wanted his men to give evidence in court without bias or prejudice and insisted that the qualifications necessary for service included high character, physical power, great energy and intelligence, all qualities he himself possessed in abundance. His strategies were to serve as a model for many forces for years to come.

John Dunne had to deal with many serious crimes during his time as Chief Constable but three are of particular note for his personal contribution and two came early in his time at the helm. The first was the Ann Sewell murder case of 1860. Ann Sewell was found in a locked Embleton farmhouse with her throat cut. A knife was in her hand and initially suicide was suspected. However John Dunne attended the scene and, contrary to the medical opinion then available, asserted that the wound in question had not been caused by that weapon. He also highlighted that Ann Sewell was right-handed but that the knife was found in her left hand. After discovering that the farmhouse door could be locked from the outside as well as the inside, John Dunne felt that a local man, George Cass, was responsible and he was put under surveillance. He had a sum of money on his person equivalent to that stolen from the victim and for which he could not account and in due course he was arrested and tried for the murder. John Dunne gave damning evidence against him and he was convicted and publicly hanged at Carlisle on 21 August 1860. It was one of the first cases in the country where the evidence of a Chief Constable proved pivotal and it set a precedent for the greater involvement of the chief officer of police in high profile crimes. 

The second case was the murder on 22 November 1861 at Botcherby of Jane Emmerson, a seventy-two year old crossing gatekeeper by an engine driver named William Charlton. He killed her for her money and other possessions but there was initially little to connect him to the crime. John Dunne instructed that a plaster cast be made by Joseph Pickering, a local sculptor and artist, of footprints at the scene of the attack and they were found to match those of the accused precisely. This damning but innovative evidence secured the conviction and William Charlton was hanged on the south wall of Carlisle gaol on 16 March 1862 before a crowd of several thousand; it was the last public execution in the city. Again the personal involvement of the chief officer had proved critical.

The third case was the notorious robbery of Sir Frederick Graham at Netherby Hall in Longtown on 28 October 1885 in the course of the investigation of which Police Constable Joseph Byrnes was shot and killed and three other officers were injured. The death of one of his officers hit John Dunne hard but he had the presence of mind to organise that, upon their apprehension, the gang responsible were interviewed by officers from London rather than his own force so as to preclude allegations of partiality. Three of them were convicted and hanged. The newspapers of the day reported how great kindness was shown to all the wounded constables not only by the Chief Constable but also by the public and John Dunne received a personal letter from Queen Victoria expressing her deep regret at the occurrence. PC Byrnes’ funeral in Penrith was attended by over 3,000 people but remarkably he was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave and he did not receive a permanent memorial gravestone until 2006.

Serious crime was however not John Dunne’s only concern as he had to deal with a serious outbreak of cattle plague in 1865/6 and tackle increasing poaching and vagrancy. His response to the former was to author a system of stamping out disease by slaughtering affected cattle and those in contact with them; this procedure was universally followed thereafter and still forms the blueprint for tackling such pandemics today. His response to the latter was hard line and involved numerous detentions and the seeking of exemplary penalties under game law and licensing law reforms which he introduced. His force also acted as inspectors of weights and measures, collected the rates, surveyed roads and bridges, inspected markets and impounded stray cattle. They also went out to assist with fire-fighting duties including the massive blaze at Slater’s Cotton Mill in Carlisle in January 1871 which John Dunne himself attended. The constabulary also had to investigate the frequent mining explosions in West Cumbria many of which caused fatalities. All of this was achieved by John Dunne’s force with increasing distinction.

He only sought to leave once, putting his name forward for the post of Chief Constable of Gloucestershire in 1865 but he was not appointed. In 1867 he survived a serious train crash when returning to Carlisle from London. Forty years after his senior appointment, John Dunne was made a Deputy Lieutenant of Cumberland in February 1897 and in that year presided over a meeting of all Britain’s Chief Constables to decide as a body how they should celebrate the Queen’s long reign. In time he presented the Jubilee Address to His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales on behalf of all the police forces of Great Britain. Later the same year, on 22 June 1897 John Dunne found himself on one knee before the sovereign in person when he was knighted in recognition of his outstanding value as a public servant; he also received a monogrammed gold watch from the Kaiser on his visit to Lowther Castle soon afterwards. Sir John Dunne was also a recipient of the King Edward VII Coronation Medal on 9 August 1902 when he attended Westminster Abbey. He retired on 31 August 1902 at the age of seventy-seven. He was not only the oldest and longest serving Chief Constable in the country, he was the oldest and longest serving police officer of any rank anywhere in Great Britain, having served in total for 63 years.

John Dunne was a most unusual Chief Constable in two regards. Firstly he had been promoted through the ranks and secondly he had not served in the military, as had twenty-two out of twenty-four such appointees in the period 1856-1880. However he was a man of huge experience in all policing matters and displayed great energy, tact and discretion. He was actuated by the highest sense of honour and ‘a firmer, bolder or more determined man to support those members of the police whom he thought were right, they could not wish to find’ (Judge Stephenson quoted in Carlisle Patriot 12 January 1906). He had become perhaps the most important and influential police officer in Victorian England and many of the laws and practices he introduced were to remain in place during the twentieth century. He was a vociferous proponent for improving police effectiveness through co-operation and consistency and his legacy in that regard can still be felt today.

Marriage and own family

In 1867 John Dunne was 42 years of age and an eligible bachelor. His annual salary was equivalent to in excess of £100,000 at today’s values, on top of which he claimed expenses. He had moved from his quarters in the Carlisle police headquarters in Lowther Street to Moorhouse Hall in Warwick near Wetheral, which he rented. It was a fine 18th century house and had a cottage in the grounds for staff. In that year he began to court Mary Barnes (1830-1898), the eldest of the four daughters of Dr Thomas Barnes MD (1793-1872) (qv) of Bunkers Hill and Tring Park in Hertfordshire. Her father was a well-known Carlisle physician and also a magistrate and he may have introduced the couple at a formal legal dinner. Mary Barnes was an heiress in her own right as her mother Anne (1802-1871) was the daughter of John Ismay, of Whitehaven, one of the founder directors of the White Star Shipping Line and her uncle was William Kay, a wealthy Whitehaven merchant, who had died in 1865 leaving her a substantial legacy. John Dunne married Mary at All Souls Church, Langham Place in London on the morning of 1 October 1868 but the couple then rushed back to Cumberland where their union was lavishly celebrated at the Queens Arms Inn in Warwick-on-Eden that evening. With his ‘wonted generosity and kindness’ the groom invited the whole village to partake of an extensive supper. John Dunne purchased Moorhouse Hall shortly thereafter and the couple lived there with their extensive staff of police support and domestic help.

On 5 January 1870 their first child Henrietta Julia Mary (1870-1956) was born at home as were their sons Francis Plunkett Neville (1871-1931) on 6 April 1871 and Gerald Fitzgerald (1875-1955) on 5 January 1875. The choice of Christian names for his sons by John Dunne is illuminating. The first was named after Major-General Francis Plunkett Dunne (1802-1874) and William Plunkett 4th Baron Plunkett (1828-1897) who became Archbishop of Dublin, the latter after many members of the ‘Brittas’ Dunne family from whom John Dunne claimed descent. The desire to enhance his lineage was all too obvious. His daughter was however simply named after her grandmothers and mother. In 1872 Mary Dunne inherited a share in Bunkers Hill upon the death of her father but more importantly also the entirety of the Bunstreux Manor estate in Hertfordshire which her father had purchased the previous year after the sale of Tring Park to the de Rothschilds. That estate was valued at £40,000 or about £8 million at today’s values and John Dunne now had the wealth to accompany his status and supposed lineage. He added ‘Esquire’ to his name that year to mark this. In time he inherited Eden Mount at Wetheral (built 1872 by Ferguson of Carlisle) from his wife upon her death in 1898 and lived there until his own death seven years later.

All three children made good marriages. Henrietta was privately educated and initially remained at home to help care for her parents and in particular her father in his later years but seven months after his death, and relieved of this burden, she married Percy Sheete Lawrie on 15 August 1906 in London. Her husband was a District Inspector with the Royal Board of Agriculture and they lived both at his family home in Sussex but also at 15, Queens Gardens in Hyde Park, attended by a large staff and where they raised two children. Francis (or Frank) was educated at Marlborough and Heidelberg University, served with the Westmorland and Cumberland Yeomanry in both the Boer War (commanding the last detachment of the Volunteer Company of the Border Regiment to sail for South Africa) and in the First World War, rising to the rank of major; he later also became a member of the Royal Board of Agriculture. He married Laura Constance Helder, the youngest daughter of Sir Augustus Helder (1826-1906), solicitor and MP for Whitehaven and they lived at The Oaks in Dalston then Loppington Hall in Wem in Shropshire. They had no children. Gerald was educated at Cothill House, Oxford then Musselburgh, Edinburgh, served as a lieutenant then captain in the Dragoon Regiment in the Boer War then the 2nd Hussars Regiment and married Mabel de Burgh, the widow of Hugo de Burgh who was killed at the Siege of Wepener in Orange Free State in April 1900. They went to live in Kildare in Ireland from where her first husband’s family originated, farmed an extensive estate and had thirteen children. The family contained many distinguished soldiers including General Sir Eric de Burgh (1881-1973) whose grandson Chris (born 1948) wrote a song in his memory entitled ‘Old Friend’; Chris de Burgh is however probably more famous for his 1986 song ‘Lady in Red’. Bryant suggests that by 2014 there were probably in excess of five hundred individuals who could claim to be directly related to Sir John Dunne,

Later life

John Dunne retired on two-thirds pay or about £93,400 per year at today’s values so was able to live very comfortably at Eden Mount. In January 1903 he was made a Commissioner for the Peace in Carlisle and he attended the Quarter Sessions for the next three years. He died on 5th January 1906 as a result of running for a train. In August 1905 he had attended the Dublin Horse Show and on his return journey had occasion to run for a train at Crewe Station. The exertion affected his heart and he was thereafter largely confined to his home and for several weeks to his bedroom, where he died. His funeral was a lavish society affair with a list of mourners reading like a ‘Who’s Who’ entry for Cumberland. Judge Stephenson, the resident judge at Carlisle, paid an extensive tribute and reports of his death were found in newspapers as far away as New Zealand. The Barrow News of 11 January 1906 ran an editorial about him headlined ‘An Interesting Career’. He was buried in the local cemetery in Wetheral. His probate showed that he left £44,851 or more than £8 million at today’s values. He had come a long way from a small mill village in Southern Ireland.


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