Willcocks, Sir Richard (1768–1834), yeomanry officer and policeman, was born in 1768 at Palmerston (Palmerstown) near Chapelizod, Co. Dublin. His parents' names are unknown and his own surname is variously given as Willcocks, Wilcox, or Wilcock. He became a Dublin police magistrate prior to the 1798 rebellion, and had an active role as ‘Capt. Willcocks’ under the town major of Dublin, Henry Charles Sirr (qv), in arresting many leaders of the brief rebellion of Robert Emmet (qv) on 23 July 1803. Willcocks himself was wounded in an attack that evening by insurgents on Arran Quay while en route between Palmerstown and Dublin Castle. Several of his assailants were subsequently executed (17 September) in Palmerstown.
Almost immediately after the rebellion, Willcocks established and commanded (until 1809) a company of the Palmerstown Yeomanry, a unit whose military role (in the absence of a statutory civil peace-keeping force) was increasingly dedicated to police and security duties. Willcocks was also appointed special magistrate in 1807 by the chief secretary, Arthur Wellesley (qv), and deployed by Dublin Castle in ‘disturbed areas’ of agrarian distress throughout the country. He earned respect even from critics for his unusual sensitivity to the social and economic causes of rural violence, especially faction-fighting. When responding to a crisis, he tended to act on visible rather than reported circumstances. In 1808–9 he was one of two special magistrates appointed to quell disturbances in Co. Limerick and Co. Kerry. As his responsibilities extended to areas of the south-east (particularly the counties of Waterford, Tipperary, and Kilkenny, but also counties closer to Dublin) the necessity for specific police legislation became apparent.
In July 1814 the chief secretary, Robert Peel (qv), obtained a controversial peace preservation act, establishing a disciplined emergency (i.e. temporary) ‘peace preservation force’ (PPF). Willcocks successfully applied to become one of its ‘chief magistrates’. He was the earliest to be sent (in September 1814) to an officially ‘proclaimed’ barony, Middlethird, Co. Tipperary, with headquarters at Cashel. As one of Ireland's first professional chiefs of police, he was supported by a uniformed, mounted troop of twenty former cavalry sergeants. He and his force became known as ‘Peelers’, a soubriquet subsequently applied to police in general. Their enemies included the Shanavests and Caravats, among many agrarian factions active in depressed regions, particularly in Co. Tipperary. Willcocks's even handling of the agrarian crisis was remarkable under the volatile conditions of 1814–15, given both the violence of the factions and the hostility of many magistrates and vested interests towards a local levy for maintaining the PPF. Although it was increased in 1815 by sixteen extra constables (on foot), Willcocks clearly understood the risk he took, following the murders in 1814 of a magistrate and a tithe proctor in the same barony. His effectiveness was potentially undermined by the temporary status of the force, as the hard-won peace preservation act only allowed it to operate during a serious crisis.
A year after Willcocks's appointment, the PPF remained small and confined to Co. Tipperary. He might have been withdrawn had it not been for Peel's intervention and Willcocks's timely handling of the murder in November 1815 of another local magistrate. His authority and personnel were rapidly reinforced and extended to the adjacent barony of Clanwilliam until a replacement magistrate was found. He won eager support for his restoration of order, even from former detractors. By May 1818, although the PPF had been extended into proclaimed baronies in ten counties, Willcocks remained in Tipperary, his success indicated by the local lifting of the insurrection act, and its gradual relaxation countrywide.
When Peel returned to London in August 1818 after six years as chief secretary, Willcocks observed mounting hostility to the PPF where its presence grew in disturbed areas (especially from 1820). The situation prompted calls, even from himself, for reintroduction of the insurrection act. He suspected that public hostility stemmed from over-zealous policing in some areas. He was proved correct in October 1821 with the assassination of Richard Going, chief magistrate in Limerick, notorious for his aggressive use of the PPF. In November Willcocks took charge in Limerick (based at Rathkeale), calmed the situation, and restored some public trust in the local police. At length, under Henry Goulburn (qv) as chief secretary, the constabulary act replaced Peel's peace preservation act in August 1822. The PPF was absorbed into a permanent, county-based constabulary for all Ireland, and in November Willcocks was allocated Munster as one of its four provincial inspectors general, answering to the lord lieutenant. He commanded with improved discipline and organisation, supported from May 1825 by a code of standing orders.
In Limerick and most of Munster, by consensus of the local magistrates (who waived their prerogative), Willcocks was granted the right to choose recruits. In 1824, conscious of the delicate balance of peace, he criticised the alleged political interference of the Catholic Association and the young priests of Limerick in pacified parts of Munster. Towards his own, he was a strict disciplinarian who abhorred heavy drinking, criminality, and blatant sectarianism in the constabulary. Although he never fully excised these evils he brought greater respectability to a force whose opponents and critics were many. He looked forward to the creation of a more clearly defined Irish police force with a single inspector general in overall command. Retiring in 1827 on health grounds, he was knighted in recognition of his services. Sir Richard returned home to Palmerstown, where he died 7 April 1834, survived by his wife, Lucy Willcocks, three sons and at least two daughters. He was buried at the cemetery of St Laurence's Church of Ireland church, Chapelizod, where his youngest son, William, was rector. Jim Herlihy, Royal Irish Constabulary officers (2005), gives an account of the extended Willcocks family.