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John Kent: UK & Cumbria's First Black Police Officer

This month Hollr is sharing Cumbria’s hidden black history stories to celebrate Black History Month 2023. Come back every Tuesday evening to read more.

John Kent (pictured on the left) was born in Low Hesket, a small village just between Penrith and Carlisle, at the turn of the 19th century: August 17th 1804.

His father Thomas Kent was a seaman from the West Indies who went to live in the coastal town of Whitehaven where he worked at Abbey House as a slave to the Senhouse family.

Thankfully for John’s father he was later given freedom and was able to work as a seaman again.

Growing up John was the youngest of his large family and had nine brothers and sisters with some of them unfortunately dying in childhood.

In his adulthood at the age of 37 John went on to marry Mary from Longtown: a market town just south of the Scottish border in Cumbria.

John was a man of good regard and was described as a “quiet, inoffensive man” as well as a “a big powerful man” who worked for the local authority laying down paving slabs.

At the age of 33 John was appointed to the newly formed Carlisle City Police Force.

Cumbria Police posing next to John Kent’s plaque in Maryport. Photo credit: Cumbria Police

John was an extremely accomplished police officer who was well respected in the area and had made several arrests during his career. One of the most notable arrests he liked to talk about was that of two coiners (people who counterfeited coins).

The arrest happened early within his career where he chained one of the perpetrators to a fire grate in his own house whilst leaving an unloaded gun to the coiners wife instructing her to shoot him if he tried to escape whilst he pursued the other coiner.

Another story tells how in 1841 he was on duty policing an election crowd in Carlisle city centre when it turned into disarray and with the crowd becoming more unruly one of John’s colleagues was struck on the head by one of the crowd and he sadly passed away.

John was able to ensure his colleague got justice when he appeared in court to give evidence of the incident which was later dubbed as a ‘murder’.

For years people wrongly believed Norwell Roberts of London (pictured above) to be the first black police officer in the UK.

While it is true that he was the first black police officer of the Metropolitan Police in London, the title of the first black police officer is held by John Kent.

Once John retired from police duties he worked as an attendant at the London and North Western Railway companies at Citadel station (now Carlisle train station) until his death. Some report that John died at the age of 80/81 and others have claimed he was 91.

John Kent received two obituaries. One from the Carlisle Journal read ‘Black Kent is Dead’. The other by the Carlisle Patriot said “Death of a Carlisle Notable” and added “one of the oldest and best known inhabitants of this city best known as Black Kent’.

John Kent’s life was the subject of the book ‘Britain's First Black Policeman: The Life of John Kent A Police

Officer in Cumberland 1835-1846’ by Ray Greenhow which honours his life and legacy.

John Kent was really respected by the city of Carlisle and during a time where the abolition of slavery had just passed a few years after John’s birth in 1807.

Not to mention, there were still enslavers who carried on trading illegally which makes John’s story all the more impressive.

He was not only a freeman, but a black man who had a position of power when racial tensions were so high even after the abolition.

Did you like hearing John’s story? Let us know in the comments below!

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