Harry Coles was born in 1866 in Devizes Wiltshire, the son of a labourer. On 1 January 1888 when he married Harriett Randell, Harry was an attendant at the County Asylum in the town. While living in Devizes the couple had two sons Clifford (1889) and James (1890), baptised a month before they moved to London, where Harry joined X’ division of the Metropolitan Police in September 1890.
In the early hours of 13 January 1897 PC Harry Coles 340X was on his routine patrol in Kilburn when he saw two powerfully built men acting suspiciously near No.91 Brondesbury Villas. The old hob-nailed boots which could make a noise as a policeman approached had been replaced by rubber-soled boots, so PC Coles was able to get right up to the men in the dark. When they saw him one of them tried to hit the constable with a jemmy before they made off down the street towards Woodville Road. There they climbed a fence onto the London and North Western Railway (today’s London Overground). PC Coles pursued them and a desperate fight with truncheon and jemmies took place on the tracks. The men split up, but Harry managed to pin one to the ground until the second one returned and grabbed him round the throat and began to throttle him. The constable’s helmet was smashed by more jemmy blows but it saved his life as he fell to the ground. His assailants repeatedly kicked and beat him about the head before dragging him unconscious through the mud to the side of the lines. They ran off into the dark, believing he was dead.
PC Coles regained his senses about two hours later and staggered to the railings where he was found by a police sergeant who took him to the police station in Salusbury Road. Here his wounds were attended by Dr George Robertson the divisional surgeon who lived in Kilburn Park Road. Harry returned home and was placed on sick leave for over three months. At the time Coles was living in Kilburn at 152 Gengall Road with wife Harriett and his sons. He did not know the identity of his attackers, but there had been numerous burglaries in the neighbourhood.
People in Kilburn were horrified when they heard of the attack and a subscription list was quickly opened to raise money for PC Coles. His pocket watch had been broken in the fight and it was decided to recognise his gallantry by giving him an inscribed gold watch. This was presented to PC Coles with a purse of gold coins, by Alderman Halse, a wealthy City solicitor and magistrate who owned No.91 and several other houses in Brondesbury Villas.
Two weeks later on 29 January Detective William Burrell and DS William McArthur followed two men in the Harrow Road at 12.30 on Friday night. They watched as the men went to 7 Sunderland Avenue, a small jewellers shop owned by Mrs Christina Doner. The detectives heard the sound of an iron object falling on the pavement before the men walked off. The detectives followed and arrested them several streets away. Returning to the shop the police found a jemmy and marks on the door lock. The men were Frank Ridler 32, a gas stoker, and William Routledge 28, a painter and decorator, both from Cirencester Road off the Harrow Road. They were charged with attempted breaking and entering. One of the men was identified by PC Coles as his attacker. They were tried at the Old Bailey on 8 March 1897 for the attempted burglary; Ridler was sentenced to 18 months hard labour and Routledge got 9 months. But they were not charged with the attack on PC Coles, presumably because there was insufficient evidence against them.
The police records show Frank Ridler was born in 1864 in America. He was 5 feet 9 inches tall, with brown hair and several tattoos. He had first been sentenced for a month in a reformatory when he was aged 14 for larceny. Then in 1894 to 10 months imprisonment in Wormwood Scrubs, again for larceny. William Routledge was born in Brighton in 1868. He was 5 feet 11 inches, with brown hair and he also had numerous tattoos. He was later sentenced to 6 months for fraud (1898) and 18 months hard labour (1901), for an attempted violent robbery.
Several months after the attack Harry returned to work where he resumed his old patrol in Kilburn. By 1911 he was stationed in Ealing, also part of X Division, and in the census he was living in Venetia Road, South Ealing. By then his eldest son Clifford had also joined the Met and was stationed in Central London.
After the statuary 25 years service, Harry retired in December 1915 with a pension of £64 14s a year (worth about £4,200 today). A newspaper article dubbed him ‘The Animal’s Friend’ noting that during his years as a policeman he had secured over 1,300 successful convictions for the mistreatment of horses and dogs.
Harry said his fondness for animals was the result of being brought up on a farm where aged just eight, he had been lowered down a 60-foot well to rescue a sheep that had fallen in. In 1911, he had been given a medal from an admirer for his humane work and in 1916 he was presented with the silver medal of ‘Our Dumb Friends’ League’ which became The Blue Cross in 1950.
As far as we can tell, Harry seems to have moved to Bristol where a Harriett Coles died in 1925, and a Harry Coles died in 1932.
Acknowledgements: we would like to thank Rory Geoghegan from the Centre For Social Justice for the picture of PC Coles.