Job Atkinson: sorting out Washington’s wrong-uns in the days before police

In days of yore there were no police forces as we know them today.

Sunday, 10th April 2022, 4:55 am

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Durham Constabulary was not formed until 1839 (Sunderland Borough Police in 1837), so in the early 19th century the job of protecting the public from drunks often fell to the beadle.

Beadles would deal with brawlers, coarse language-users, petty theft - generally what is sometimes today called “low-level crime”.

A beadle was a church official in a village and an important figure therein. Dealing with wrong-uns was only part of his job. Other duties might include collecting tithes and digging graves.

Washington Village, looked after by the redoubtable Job Atkinson in the 1800s.

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However, popular culture has not been generous to beadles, notably the appalling Mr Bumble in the 1838 novel Oliver Twist.

In about 1800, Washington Village had a very notable example of the species, Job Atkinson, who was employed by the Holy Trinity Church.

Little is known about his personal life, but he seems to have been a no-nonsense kind of gentleman. Indeed, beadling was no life for a nonsense kind of gentleman and Job is not remembered for chuckling and tomfoolery.

His best known punitive measure was to place scallywags in the stocks, which were between the church and the blacksmiths shop, now the Forge restaurant. The stones in which the posts of the stocks were sunk are still there.

Job would clamp hobbledehoys and ne’er-do-wells into stocks for purposes of restraint, punishment and public humiliation.

More than a century before television, you could pop along to the Washington stocks with family and friends for a diverting afternoon of outrage-letting and jeering at miscreants.

Stocks were last used in Britain in 1872. Whether this represents progress is a matter of conjecture.

Job, who must have been a well-constructed sort of bloke, occasionally dealt with more serious criminals by chaining them to the oven door in his house until the authorities arrived from Gateshead.

He would also incarcerate drunks and ruffians in the vault behind the medieval doorway; to the left of patrons leaving the Washington Arms pub. No one knows exactly how old the doorway is, although its age is in the centuries. Regrettably it was bricked up in 1947.

These were more religious times, so the beadle was presumably named after the prophet Job, star of the Book of Job, in the Old Testament, and noted for his patience. This is not a virtue that Job Atkinson is known to have shared.

Eventually he was forced to give up the beadling game due to advancing age. He was replaced by a younger man who had a salary of 20 shillings a year.

Perhaps Job was envious of these riches, or the youth of his successor. Maybe he thought the young man an unworthy replacement. It could even be that Job had had a few.

Whichever, one day the new beadle was sitting on the wall which surrounded the village pond, now the site of Washington’s war memorial.

For some reason Job took exception to this loafing, sneaked up behind his nemesis and shoved him squarely in the back and into the pond.

This earned the embittered Job a spell in the stocks. The irony was not lost on anyone. But at least it’s one of the reasons why he is still remembered more than 200 years later.