By Simon Glyndwr John
My father Dai John, from Swansea, joined the Metropolitan police in 1929 and served until 1968. He served as a Police Constable (PC) at Tottenham Court Road Police Station (The “Nick”) from 1929-1938. From 1937 -1968 my parents, my sisters and I lived in the police flats, now Bloomsbury Terrace, in Huntley Street, WC1.
Until Lord Trenchard became a reforming Police Commissioner in 1931 work conditions for the ordinary policeman were often unpleasant. A policeman walked the “beat” for eight hours, controlled traffic, gave directions and from time to time arrested people.
But a key part of a PC’s work was knowing your superiors whims and what punishment one could expect for misdemeanours committed whilst on duty. My father said that promotion for sergeants and inspectors depended on how many constables they could catch breaking the rules – not on how many crooks that were caught.
In 1929 the only set of traffic lights in London was at Ludgate Circus just below St. Paul’s Cathedral. Traffic, therefore was controlled by constables on “point duty.” When PCs were officially on this duty they wore blue and white gauntlets; otherwise they were expected to control traffic as and when necessary as part of their beat duties.
“Yorky” Horner, so named because he was from Yorkshire, was on official point duty outside Great Portland Street Underground Station, the furthest post from Tottenham Court Road Police Station. Yorky was relived for lunch, a forty-five minutes break, so he set off to the canteen at the “Nick.” Yorky arrived back at his post outside Great Portland Street Underground ten minutes late. He was fined three days pay. My father reckoned that it took fifteen minutes to walk each way between the Nick and Great Portland Street. Then he had to queue for food possibly giving a grand total of five minutes to eat his grub.
In those days policemen always walked at a snail’s pace (if I ever walked with my father it took all day to go nowhere, absolutely maddening). Why did policemen walk so slowly? Probably due to total boredom. The smallest beat was literally round a shop called Bourne and Hollingsworth: west side Berners Street, north to Eastcastle Street, west to Adam and Eve Court, then south to Oxford Street before turning east to Berners Street – a grand total of maybe two hundred yards. Imagine walking round that for eight hours.
Being unaware of a superior’s whims and moods could have unexpected consequences. One day there was traffic congestion at the junction of Montague Place and Gower Street. My father said the congestion was a couple of cars and a few horse-drawn carts. An unnamed constable on his beat was standing watching this “jam” with his arms folded. An inspector, a fanatic about traffic, happened to be doing his rounds when he saw what the PC was doing.
The inspector said, “Why are you standing there doing nothing about this jam?”
“What jam, sir?”
“Oh, it’s like that, is it?”
The following day the constable was transferred from Tottenham Court Road Station all the way to Devonport (Plymouth) Naval Dockyard, also policed by the Met.
In those days particular attention was paid when constables paraded for night duty: about twenty PCs went out at 10 p.m. from Tottenham Court Road. On parade the PCs had to hold up their whistle, notebook and reel of cotton for their sergeant to inspect. PCs used to tie cotton across doorways, steps, and alley entrances. If the cotton was broken then the policeman knew something was up.
Testing whether shop doors were locked overnight was a major job for the PC on his beat. Failing to do the door test could be punished. One morning a shopkeeper returned and found he had not locked his door (although nothing had been taken). Upset that the unlocked door had not been discovered, the shopkeeper complained to the Police Commissioner. The relevant constable was found and fined two days pay.
My father was a rugby player and if you played for the Metropolitan Police you were allowed half a shift off work. One Saturday my father was to play at Exeter, travelling by train from Paddington. My father was on early turn (6.am – 2.p.m) and his sergeant grumbled about having to give Father time off. He was a miserable sergeant who then put my father on a beat which had a late lunch. My father, being fond of the kitchen, asked the sergeant if he could change to a beat that had an early lunch otherwise, he would have to travel on an empty stomach. The sergeant said, “No”. My father left his beat ten minutes early and travelled to Exeter, having eaten. That meal led to my father being fined two days pay and any promotion was blocked for three years. My father never left his beat early again.
Playing for another team did not get this time-off concession. My father played for London Counties versus the 1935-6 New Zealand All Blacks. On the Friday before the game, fourteen of the London team trained together; the exception was my father who was on point duty at the junction of Goodge Street and Tottenham Court Road. Somehow the Evening Star or Standard found out that my father was not allowed to train and so they wrote a feature on him. This feature included one photograph of father on point duty and another one of my father sitting at the kitchen table, in uniform, being poured a cup of tea by my mother using the silver teapot that did not see the light of day again till my elder sister got engaged in 1963.
Simon Glyndwr John is author of “Queen of Clubs” and the first chapter can be read at http://simongjohn.com/queen-of-clubs/read-chapter-one/