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  • Karen Hamilton-Viall

Robert Branford - The First black Metropolitan Police Officer

A couple of years ago, I read an article about Robert Branford, the first black police officer to join the Met in 1838, in the Southwark Division. The Met was still very young at this point, having only been formed in 1829. His life has been researched by Stephen Bourne, a social historian who specialises in black history. Branford went on to become Superintendent before retiring from the service to the village of Little Waldingfield, Suffolk, in 1866 and dying just a few years later in 1869.

I couldn't get the idea of Branford out of my mind so when I came to write my novel, The Curious Life of Ada Baker a year or two later, I decided to include him as one of the characters. He is in fact the only character in the book who is based on a real person. Although the novel is set in the modern day, Branford is called back into service, because in life he had been an exceptional policeman. The main protagonist in my novel, Ada Baker, is a talented psychic, who is the seventh child of two seventh children. She can see, hear and interact with the dead, letting them occupy her body, so she can utilise the skills they had in life. She shares her home with three bored ghosts who spend their days watching murder mysteries on the TV and think that it'd be a great idea for Ada to use her powers to help uncover the murderer in an unsolved local crime. Ada, like Branford is also of mixed heritage. The novel is set in the fictional town of Sudfield, which is loosely based on the nearby market town of Sudbury and other places in the surrounding area. In hindsight, it might have been a good idea to base it on all real places, but I had been inspired by my favourite writer Adrian Bell, who also lived in Sudbury at one point, and made up names for the places in his books, which were actually based on real places.

I've been wanting to visit Branford's grave for a while now and today seemed like the perfect spring morning to visit and pay my respects. I picked a delicate bouquet from the garden of some of my favourite spring flowers, flowering currant, Leucojum (summer snowflake), Pulmonaria and a little Rosemary for remembrance.

It was a glorious sunny morning, as we trundled into Little Waldingfield. I could see why Branford would want to retire here. Even now, it's a peaceful, sleepy sort of place, with a lovely feeling about it. There are currently only 300 souls living in the village, so in Branford's day, it must have been little more than a hamlet. It is only a few miles from the glorious timber framed village of Lavenham, which Branford must have visited. We parked up outside the front of the 14th/15th Century church and made our way around the edge, searching for his grave. I had a rough idea what it looked like, as I'd seen a photo. We found it tucked snugly around the back of the church. I said a quiet prayer in my head to Robert, telling him of my inclusion of him in my story and hoping that he was happy with it. Then I placed the flowers on his grave, which he shares with his wife, Sarah. There was a lovely row of ancient looking cottages which lined the edge of the churchyard and looked across towards his grave. I wondered whether one of these had in fact been Branford's home, as there were very few houses of the right age in the area.

We decided to venture inside the medieval church to see what else we could find. It had a lovely airy, light and welcoming feel to it with lots of medieval features. The most impressive for me, as a medieval historian, were the two massive medieval chests. The more ornate carved chest, I think was probably 15th or early 16th century. The other is a hewn timber chest and the lid is curved and carved out of a tree trunk. I have seen a similar example which was dated as 15th century but it could have been earlier. They would probably have been used to store valuables, vestments, communion cups or money.

There is also a delightful window in the church made up of fragments of broken medieval glass. The original windows having been destroyed during the Reformation of the church in the 16th century. There's also a very splendid medieval font and some stunning later 19th/early 20th century stained glass windows dedicated to local people.

I hope Robert Branford, wherever he is now doesn't mind me including him as a character in my book, or the fact that I've brought him out of retirement! He has a small role in this book, as the idea of including him came quite late in the day but I hope to include him more in Ada's future adventures. God bless you Robert. May you rest in peace.

You can find out more about Stephen Bourne & his books here:

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