Keeping the Peace - Glimpses of the Past with Karen Webster
Though gone for many years, a small building located on the south side of King Street, just west of Queen Street had an arresting aspect. This building was the Blyth jail, which was built in1878, just one year after the incorporation of the village of Blyth. At that time, the population numbered around 850 people.
The jail consisted of four tiny cells with a pot-bellied stove in the centre of the building. It wasn’t as secure as modern-day structures and prisoners often broke bars to achieve their freedom. To give prisoners exercise, the village constable would take them for a walk on the Blyth fairgrounds located two blocks east of the jail.
Many men have held the position of Village Constable or Village Chief. The Huron Expositor of March, 1882 reported that “Mr. Kruse, Chief Constable of Blyth for many years has been smitten with Manitoba fever and is departing for Winnipeg.”
James Davis, was an Englishman who arrived in Blyth with his wife, Elizabeth, and two sons between 1872 and 1876. During Davis’s tenure, the justice of the peace was William Drummond, the man who conceived the idea of making his father’s farm into a town plot. Court hearings in the early days were held in Industrial Hall, where the Hotel Lux is in 2021.
Although much of Constable Davis’s duties focused on locking up drunks and tramps, there were some more exciting times to be had. The Huron Expositor in November of 1889 tells us that “Mr. Davis, chief constable of Blyth, had a very close call the other day. He dropped his revolver on the floor when by some means it went off, the bullet passing through the bench on which he was sitting. His escape was almost miraculous, as the bullet passed between his legs as he sat on the bench.”
Also that same year, a serious crime that Davis investigated was when the stable of Mr. A. Sloan was entered and someone cut off the manes and tails of two of his horses. As well, some pieces of harness were cut. James Davis, died in 1898 of appendicitis at the age of 53 years.
A man by the last name of Barr was noted as in charge in 1903.
A subsequent constable was named Westlake. The Blyth Standard of June, 1907 relates that “Chief Westlake arrested a person on the main street for being drunk and disorderly and he appeared before Magistrates Milne and Wilford, who fined him $5 and costs. He is still in the cooler while his friends are trying to collect enough money to let him out.”
A more serious crime occurred in 1908, when the private bank of James McMurchie was robbed of approximately $1,100. Some unfamiliar men had been seen in the village the day previous to the robbery. The safe had been forced open by the use of two blasts.
Because the weather that night was very windy, the blasts were unnoticed until the next morning when Mr. McMurchie arrived. The safe had to be replaced and a vault was added. Someone was later arrested in Milton and a trial in Goderich was likely.
Also in the list of men who served as village constable was John Ferguson. While in Blyth, he also was a firefighter. His career later took him to Goderich for six years then on to Exeter where he became part of the County of Huron Police Force. In 1949, he was called to Grand Bend to help escort a highly agitated prisoner to the jail in Goderich. In the course of restraining the prisoner, Ferguson suffered a heart attack and died.
All in all, there was not enough crime in Blyth to keep one man busy fighting it, and the constable took on other responsibilities. Some of the other duties of the Blyth Constable when John Cowan held the position in 1938 included: Chief of Police for the village; Clerk of the scales – when farmers wish to use the scales they must look up the chief; Sanitary Engineer- health of the village; see that the grounds of the town’s Memorial Hall are kept in order; see that the interior of the hall is always kept clean; must be present when council meets and weed inspector. The remuneration for village constables was not great and these men often had other vocations such as auctioneer, farmer, street superintendent and bakery employee.
Some other constables were men called Summers (1910 era), Jack Staples (around 1950), Jack Bailey (1953-1961), Fred Gregory and James Warwick, who assumed the office in 1964.
In 1944, the police commission of Huron County ceased to employ a traffic officer and created the position of a fourth county constable to be stationed in Blyth. Other county constables were John Ferguson, Exeter, Elmer Snell, Seaforth and Charles Salter in Wingham.
Today, Blyth is protected by the Ontario Provincial Police as part of a county-wide area with headquarters in Clinton. These officers receive extensive training that previous lawmen in Blyth would not have had access to but are unlikely to know the citizenry as well as the early constables did.
With a nod to Blyth: A Village Portrait, Susan Street, editor, 1977, the digitized newspapers of the Huron County Library and Museum and the files of the Blyth Repository of History.