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William Pullin - A Merciful View

Updated: Mar 8, 2018

In memory of Bristol policeman PC Richard Hill - Murdered in the Line of Duty


This tablet was erected as a mark of esteem by his brother officers and inhabitants of the city. A brave man: PC Richard Hill was not forgotten.

" An inspector, a sergeant, and a policeman would go down together for mutual protection, even in daylight. The same state of affairs prevailed in Gloucester Lane, where they would throw a policeman in the river. "

Following the murder of policeman Richard Hill tens of thousands of people lined the streets of Bristol to pay their respects. We look at the reason for this very public display of sympathy Bristol had not seen anything like it for many years. That spring morning in 1869, tens of thousands of people lined the streets. The pavements of Old Market were jammed 10 deep and they stood shoulder to shoulder along Temple Street.

Every window and every doorway along the route was crowded - but it was all so quiet you could almost hear a pin drop. For this immense crowd was there to pay a silent tribute to PC 273, Richard Hill, a young Bristol constable who had died in the line of duty. In a stupid, senseless assault, committed by a half-drunk youth, he had been stabbed to death in a Gloucester Lane pub. But because PC Hill had displayed the sort of courage and commitment to duty that everyone expected from the police force, the whole city turned out to attend his funeral. Behind the plain, unadorned hearse walked six young bachelor constables, men who had been fellow lodgers with Hill - who was only 31 when he died.

Behind, in the cortege, rode a weeping girl, the woman he was to have married that same week. Then marching slowly, their white gloves swinging in unison, came 160 uniformed policemen. Trained by Mr T Ellicott, the drill instructor to the Bristol force, they walked four abreast Bringing up the rear were some 18 sergeants and three inspectors. Chief Superintendent Hancock was waiting on the Bath road - at the gates of Arnos Vale cemetery where PC Hill, the man the whole city mourned, was to be buried.

The murder that had shaken the city in April 1869 was no domestic one - common as they were in those times. In fact, if the victim had not been a policeman, it would have been forgotten long ago. Constable Hill, off duty and in plain clothes, had been strolling through Gloucester Lane, St Judes, near Old Market - not the sort of place for respectable folk to linger.


A contemporary journal described it as 'a place of unsavoury repute, notorious as a den of tramps and one of the worst districts in the east end of the city'. The policeman had heard a scuffle and then seen 19-year-old sawyer William Pullin lashing out with his fists at a West Street baker called Curtis. Curtis had apparently intervened when he saw Pullin and his mates ill- treating a donkey in Waterloo Street. The sawyer, who had been drinking, then turned on him. PC Hill grabbed his attacker by the coat collar but, as Pullin wriggled like an eel, he and the constable were pulled off the pavement and through the door of the nearby Three Horse Shoes pub.


Pullin, who was quite a muscular young man, grabbed hold of the bar counter and one of the beer engine handles and defied PC Hill to break his grip. Then, as the landlord came running downstairs to see if he could be of assistance, Pullin muttered an oath that he would stab any man who dared to come near him. Now that the heat of the moment had passed, the baker, Curtis, mildly suggested that perhaps they should let Pullin go. But the constable was determined, come what may, that Pullin should go with him to the nearby St Philips police station. As Hill tightened his hold on his man there was a sudden flash of steel. PC 273 flinched but didn't let go. No one in the pub realised it then but he had been stabbed in the groin and had less than half an hour to live.


Bleeding profusely, he collapsed to the floor. Onlookers administered brandy and then summoned a horse ambulance while a squad of fellow constables - hurriedly called from the local station - arrived to arrest Pullin. But they were too late to save their colleague's life. Next day - in a Victorian city inured to violent crime - the news of the murder of a police constable burst like a bombshell. 'Shocking Tragedy in St Philips' screamed the headlines. 'The Gloucester Lane tragedy strikingly shows the dangers which a policeman constantly runs in the prosecution of his vocation', proclaimed the leader writers.


Even the other big news - that the three Grace brothers had just knocked up some glorious cricket to give Clifton a remarkable 329 runs win over Gloucestershire - did little to brighten the gloom which spread over Bristol that April day. Foolish Pullin, who had tried to throw away his blood-stained clasp knife as he was marched to the police station, stood trial at the next Bristol Assizes. Although he pleaded 'not guilty' the verdict was a foregone conclusion. But because of his age the jury added a strong recommendation for mercy to their 'guilty' verdict. And they weren't alone - many other people throughout the city thought Pullen should not hang.

They argued that if he had meant to kill PC 273 he would have stabbed higher - in the vital parts of his body - and not his leg. Some 3,000 people packed St Philips' hide and skin market to hear the pleas for mercy and eventually a petition against his hanging was signed by 7,000 people and sent to the Home Secretary. A merciful view was taken and a reprieve from death was granted. So Pullin, wearing his uniform of broad arrows, was sent off to start a life of penal servitude - and to vanish from the annals of recorded local history.


But the memory of murdered PC Hill lives on, one of the half-dozen policemen killed on duty since the force was set up in 1836. And it is enshrined in a fine marble memorial - surmounted by a tall helmet and paid for by his fellow policemen - which can be seen to this day in the foyer of Old Market's Trinity Road police station. Originally in the now reconsecrated St Philips church of the Holy Trinity - which stands just across the road from the police station where he once served - it reads: 'In memory of Richard Hill, police constable of this city, who was murdered whilst in the execution of his duty in Gloucester Lane, 24th April 1869, aged 31 years, and was interred in Arnos Vale Cemetery.

With thanks to Paul Townsend - Brizzle born and bred


More reading:

William Pullin's great great great niece restores PC Hill's grave 140 years later