The man at the heart of my latest true crime investigation is PC Nicholas Cock, the victim. He was patrolling his regular beat in the vicinity of Chorlton-cum-Hardy, when he was shot dead whilst pursuing a suspected burglar. I have been piecing together his story, which sadly was cut short.
Nicholas Cock was born in 1856 in Cornwall. He was the youngest of nine children, with four brothers and four sisters. By the time he was born, his brother, also named Nicholas, had died aged eight, of ‘brain disease’, which could have been meningitis. His father, Nicholas senior, was a lead and copper miner, and both he and his wife Elizabeth were illiterate. The Cock family lived in the villages near St Ive, not far from Liskeard. In 1861, the two oldest sons were both working down the mine and a daughter was employed as a copper dresser. Six years later, 59-year-old Nicholas senior died of dropsy, swelling caused by kidney or heart disease. Young Nicholas was just 11 years old.
By the beginning of the 187os, teenage Nicholas was also working as a copper miner. As the decade wore on, many Cornish mines closed and, like thousands of other miners, Nicholas lost his job. He then moved to Durham, where he found employment as a collier with a large mining engineering firm. Just before Christmas in 1875, at the age of 20, he joined the Lancashire Constabulary. He was stationed at Chorlton police station, in a quiet suburb of Manchester.
The young police officer was 5 feet 7 1/2 inches tall. He had grey eyes, brown hair and a pale complexion. According to contemporary newspaper accounts, he was a strong man, of medium stature but ‘very powerfully built’. Known locally as the ‘Little Bobby’, because of his youth, he had a reputation for sticking to the rules. Some locals found him officious and even ‘zealous’ in his pursuit of law breakers. On his death, the local press stated equivocally that ‘on the whole (he) had conducted himself well.’
In the early hours of 2 August 1876, after stopping briefly at the edge of his beat to chat with a colleague and a passing law student, PC Cock was left alone. Seconds later he encountered a man who appeared to be fleeing an empty house after a burglary attempt. Constable Cock went to arrest the suspected felon and, despite knowing that the man was armed, made a grab for him. The burglar shot wide to warn him, but PC Cock was undeterred, and the second bullet caught him straight in the chest. He died of his injuries soon after.
Nicholas Cock is buried in the old cemetery of St Clement’s Church, on Chorlton Green. Although his elaborate headstone has now been removed for safekeeping, his final resting place is marked with a simple stone. Whilst I was researching PC Cock, I received a copy of his police record, which includes his ‘date of removal’ from the force due to being ‘Shot whilst on duty’. The rather cold, official statement makes his untimely death seem even more tragic.