Button-up tunic, stiff boots, Wareham
Ray Sansom was a Police Constable in Wareham from 1948 to 1953. These recollections are an an extract from his autobiography: If you want to know the time ask Ray.
Published in September ’11
I left school at fourteen years of age and somehow I convinced a local builder that I had the wherewithal to become a carpenter’s apprentice. I was handy for getting pots o’ paint, a ladder or two, handling requests for ‘Rubber-nails’ and ‘Boot-lace oil’ or fetching a scaffold plank (on my bike). I once passed a policeman on point duty when I was riding my bike around the corner at the same time as holding a long plank on my shoulder. Guess what? End o’ plank swinging knocked his helmet off! Words like I’d never heard followed… and it was instant justice in them days!
When I was eighteen, I got called up and eventually served with the Coldstream Guards in Belgium and Germany, driving tanks until the war ended, then I was posted to Palestine (now Israel) until returning home.
On 15 September 1947 I applied to join the Dorset Constabulary, so off I go to Dorset Constabulary Headquarters, a bit apprehensive because I had yet to sit my entrance exam and interview and, even before de-mob, I had tried brushing up my arithmetic and dictation, which were still at a fourteen-year-old’s 1938 level.
I must have somehow given all the right answers; 6ft 4ins, some campaign medals and a good army reference probably helped, so I went to see ‘Ernie’ in the clothing stores and was duly fitted out with an old-style seven button tunic with stand-up collar, button-up greatcoat, truncheon and cuffs. Plus a pocket book: ‘not fer yer shoppin – don’t you dare to put pen to it yet!’ Well, what with all that and a pair of new stiffish boots you had to stand up straight.
After six weeks’ training, I qualified at Falfield in Gloucestershire and became Probationary Constable 250, of the Dorset Constabulary. I had to submit a request to the Chief Constable for his permission to get married – to Joan, a Wareham girl, born-and-bred – at Wareham Lady St Mary’s Church, on 4 August 1948. I was successful in asking to be stationed at Wareham after serving about eight months at Dorchester. Joan was everything that a country policeman’s wife had to be, putting up with my duties round the clock, never knowing if I would return as expected, quite often having to just expect me when a call was complete. Sadly no radios, no house phone at that time (not even a long piece-a-string) and then, later, when there was a phone, as the village policeman’s wife she was expected to answer it, know all the answers and completely without reward!
Joan and I initially lived in a small terraced house, with her mum, in North Street, Wareham. At the west end of the terrace an incline presented itself. It is a bit of a steep ‘Up’ and it’s called Shatters Hill (p’raps cos you’m shattered when you get to the top). The old Police Station stood in South Street, and there were just four Police Constables, ‘Sarge’, the Inspector and one car – which belonged to ‘Sir’ – so, apart from Shanks’s pony, push bike it was.
Most days, just the public office was manned – in two eight-hour shifts from 7.30 in the morning until 11.30 at night; market days were covered by Police Constables from nearby country stations.
The daily routine was: open up, clean the offices, polish floors (with dollops of wax and heavy buffer) and light the coal fires. One morning I was busy cleaning ‘Sir’s’ office; for this you had to put ‘His’ chair onto the desk when polishing the floor. There was a chain and bowl light fitting above and I was so intent on getting the chair legs onto the desk amongst trays of this ‘n’ that, that the light-bowl came free of its chain with a mighty crash, smashing into lots o’ pieces! ‘Sir’, rudely awakened from his slumber upstairs, appeared on the landing using words I will not divulge here.
One particular day, I was stopped on my way home by an agitated chap on about a man locked in the public toilets. Down I went. All doors were nicely shut and a voice whimpered ‘I c-c’a-an’t get out… the d-door w-won’t open.’ Sure, it was stuck, but I s’pose ‘e found door open ‘n’ went in without ‘Spending a penny’ to spend a penny?
One night, just as I was going to plug the phone overnight to the live-in Police Constable, a call comes through from a local solicitor (also the Coroner for East Dorset): ‘Quick, quick, I’ve just come home and there’s two men in my bedroom.’ It appears that two had broken in, taken a bag of swag up the road, hid it under the hedge and them come back for more.
Well, unusually there was, that night, another Police Constable on late foot patrol. He was up at the town crossroads and I told him about the situation. ‘OK,’ he says, ‘you go on up and I’ll come quick as I can.’
This house was about a mile or so, at the end of the built-up-area so I said I wanted him outside in case they jumped from the window. We resolved the problem with the Police Constable sitting on my crossbar and me peddling with difficulty. Mission accomplished: the Coroner brought us and the prisoners back. Next day a cartoon appeared on the Charge Room notice board with the motto: ‘Wot? Two on a bike?’
At that time we were having a problem with a young local youth, whose favourite pastime (as leader of the local mob) involved getting his mates to visit the public bar of the nearest public house to find him the next ‘client’, who would be informed that ‘Someone wants to see you… out back.’ After several complaints about the injuries received, it resulted in Tony being arrested, charged and committed to our custody, pro tem. We had three custody cells off the station yard at the rear; Tony went into No.1, the food flap was quickly shut and he was left to his own thoughts with just the required hourly check via the eyepiece, a light on at night, of course, and an obscure glass block window at high level. Back at Court he was given a conditional discharge requiring future good behaviour. He later explained that the three days solitary ‘nearly did my nut in!’ That chap changed for the good, always passed the time-o’-day and became a useful member of the community.
Now and then, with no rest days or holiday absences, we patrolled by bike until early morning, sometimes almost to our boundary. One morning, about 2.00, I was some three miles out on the main road leading to Poole; it was deadly quiet and the roadside was bordered by dense, tall rhododendron bushes. In the darkness I could hear the ‘pad, pad’ of someone approaching. Waiting until the appropriate moment, I switched on the pencil beam of my torch, lighting up a young man walking quickly along the centre white line. ‘Oh, you frightened me to death!’ was his astonished reply. He was a soldier from a nearby army camp who had missed the last train from Poole and was walking back. Asked why he was walking along the centre of the road, he said: ‘I don’t like them tall bushes, they frighten me.’ I actually agreed with that when I shone my torch on him that night!
Another day, a man came running in: ‘Quick, quick; bad accident up West Street.’ he said (the road leading to Wool and Bovington Tank Camp). I sped over to find a double-decker bus that had been heading for Weymouth when a huge tank transporter towing a multi-wheeled trailer (loaded with an Army tank) came round the bend from the opposite direction. No spare road! Transporter jack-knifed, tank took out the front wall of a terraced house and the bus was pushed back across the road into a milk float. Bus passengers? Well, some lost their front teeth on the hand rail in front! I had to draw a plan, measure up, take numerous longhand statements and submit the whole lot as soon as possible.
Back at the desk, while I’m answering the phone, in comes a holiday maker from roaming the Purbeck Hills and he has a large piece of cloth with something (a snake) wriggling inside. ‘Please, I found “this” up on the heath and thought it might be dangerous,’ he spluttered. Covering the phone I politely advised that he remove his ‘find’ promptly from the desk, to wherever and, yeah, quickly!
In those days we would have to issue movement licences authorising the taking of farm animals back to the farm, and people coming in from abroad to work here came in with their passports to be issued with an Alien’s Registration Book with a copy of landing conditions attached and a photo. We made out a card and checked at end of the period whether they were still in residence so we would know where any non-UK residents were at any time. Funny how things change.