New book charts history of Leith Burgh Police on merger centenary

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A new book has been published which chronicles the days before 1920 when Leith had a Force to be reckoned with.

Timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the amalgamation of Leith and Edinburgh on November 2, The History of Leith Burgh Police focusses on the years between 1771 and 1920 when the Leith had a completely separate law enforcement unit to the Capital.

Alongside the story of the town’s police, Leith’s history is laid out from its earliest days up to the passing of the controversial 1920 Edinburgh Boundaries Extension and Tramways Act, which saw Auld Reekie fuse together with the port and four Midlothian parishes to the south.

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Contained within are fascinating stories of officers’ valour, violent Hogmanay riots, dockers’ strikes and the execution of pirates at Leith Sands.

The book comes with a sense of authority in that it was produced by two long-serving and distinguished former officers, Gilbert T. Wallace and Gerard McEwan.

It is a history that is especially close to the heart of Mr Wallace, whose own father and grandfather were serving officers in the Leith Burgh Police at the precise moment of amalgamation with Edinburgh.

Leith Burgh had its own police force between 1771 and 1920.Leith Burgh had its own police force between 1771 and 1920.
Leith Burgh had its own police force between 1771 and 1920.

"My father joined the Leith Burgh in 1919 after returning from the First World War,” explains Mr Wallace, 86, who hails from Newhaven. “He was in there for a year before the merger and he finished his time with Edinburgh City Police.

"And my grandfather on my mother’s side, he was in the Burgh Police for 29 years, and then did one year with the Edinburgh force – maybe that’s how my father met my mother.”

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Near the start of the book, the authors tell us about an ingenious method deployed by Leith Police to tell if someone was intoxicated or not.

The officers would demand the person recite the tongue-twister, “the Leith Police dismisseth us”. Get it wrong, and the individual would likely be spending a night in the cells to sober up. Astonishingly, the phrase became famous as far away as Australia and New Zealand.

Gilbert T. Wallace.Gilbert T. Wallace.
Gilbert T. Wallace.

Ex-Met officer Gerard McEwan has spent much of his retirement collecting police medals and memorabilia and runs his own website dedicated to researching the history of Scotland’s police forces.

Despite having more time on his hands, Gerard, 65, says the coronavirus lockdown has been a bit of a road block in terms of getting the book finished.

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He said: "We’ve been working on it since the start of the year, but, because of Covid, it’s been a bit restrictive, as you can’t actually go into the city archives or the national records of Scotland, so it’s been difficult.”

Prior to amalgamation, Leith Burgh Police had just shy of 175 officers, with Edinburgh boasting a far larger force of around 600-700.

PC Gerard McEwan pictured in his Met Police days.PC Gerard McEwan pictured in his Met Police days.
PC Gerard McEwan pictured in his Met Police days.

In compiling his research, Mr McEwan discovered how the merger meant many established and successful Leith Burgh officers lost their livelihoods.

He said: "It was actually quite an effective police force before, but a few of the senior officers were axed. One of these was the last chief constable of Leith, John McLeod. He had the ominous task of getting the force ready for amalgamation, but it was made clear to him there was no job for him in the new force.”

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A century on from the amalgamation, Mr McEwan says the strong identity of Leithers can still be felt, but reckons it was especially potent when he was serving in Edinburgh.

He said: “A curious thing, when I first joined Edinburgh police, my sergeant, he’d served in Leith and always referred to it as Leith. Nobody ever referred to it by the formal version, D Division. It was always just called Leith.

"To this day you’ll find folk that will say they come from Leith rather than Edinburgh.”

Mr Wallace and Mr McEwan are hopeful that the book will generate healthy sales and have promised that £4 from each copy sold will go towards cancer research.

Priced at £12 including postage, copies of The History of Leith Burgh Police can be ordered by emailing [email protected] or [email protected].

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