In My Father’s Words
03/07/1938 – 18/10/2018
Reflection 1956/Penned 2008
It was not the best of times, nor was it quite the worst of times. Nevertheless, the times were hard. East London had been sorely, savagely tested during the Second World War and had come through the fire stronger. What doesn’t kill you, strengthens you may well have been the motto. The physical scars of the War remained for a long time in London generally and in the East End in particular. The bomb sites had been cleared for the most part, but empty shells of buildings still rose gaunt to the sky while the urban flora and fauna flourished. Long lines of prefabs stretched with military like precision in all directions. Many remain today, a testimony to their designers.
The men of the East End were hard, and the women harder. It was in the fourth year of the reign of our Sovereign Lady Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II when I arrived in the East End. I was eighteen, and in retrospect, very wet behind the ears. I didn’t know just how naïve I was, but I had been raised a Catholic in an Irish Republican family but in my own mind I was British, not Irish. I had been brought up not to drink, and to believe that women were there solely to act as wives and mothers. I would eventually be disabused of both these notions. I was a virgin, a status I would endure for another year.
When I graduated from the Police College at Hendon I was posted to Hackney. It was a white working class suburb at that time, but its journey into a coloured ghetto was even then beginning. Hackney was solidly Labour voting and had a large Jewish community, many of whom had fled from Hitler’s Europe.
When I became a full time police constable, the War had been finished for twelve years, but in the East End of London a different kind of war was still going on; the war of the gangs. People like the Krays and the Richardsons were in the Premier League of villains, vicious, evil and murderous thugs. Killings and beatings happened frequently, with handguns as the weapon of choice. Lower down the scale, but only just, was the use of the cut throat razor to inflict appalling injuries. In one notorious incident a man in a pub had his head blown apart with a shotgun. The man standing next to him at the bar, and still spattered with the brains and blood of the dead man, solemnly told the police he had seen nothing. The climate of fear was a dark cloud hanging over the East End.
In Hackney we had our own gang, the Morriseys, the Leyton Orient in the villains’ pecking order. Once, on stopping one of the Morrisey boys in his car at about three in the morning, he asked me what I wanted. I replied that he was a known criminal, and I wanted to search his car for stolen property. He laughed. “If I had had any stolen property in the car, I’d have run you down.” He meant it, too.
After about two years at Hackney I had graduated from being a police officer to being, in police parlance, ‘a good copper.’ There was nothing I might meet that I felt I couldn’t handle.
Hackney was a good ground. Its police were the normal mix of good, and bad. Some were very good and one or two were very bad. We were, however, bound together by a common bond of brotherhood. It was us against the world, the whole bloody lot, civilians, the tow rags, senior officers , politicians, the lot. We had all been instilled with the founding principles of the Force; “The primary object of an efficient police is the prevention of crime, the next that of detection if crime is committed. To these ends and the preservation of public tranquillity must all the efforts of police be directed.” We were determined to follow these 1829 principles by the book. If we couldn’t do it by the book, we would still do it.
We policed riots at pop concerts in Victoria Park and at the Hackney Empire. We dealt with floods when the River Lea burst its banks, assisted the Fire Brigade in their difficult work and the Ambulance Service in their’s. We directed traffic, patrolled the night streets, drove too fast in our Wolseleys and on our Velocettes. We saw children across the road to school and picked up the dead and the injured from the roads. We ventured away from Hackney to have fun on a Sunday morning at Petticoat Lane and kept the strikers and the owners apart at Covent Garden in the Market strike.
We stood outside South Africa House at the time of Sharpeville, trading blows with the demonstrators, and listened to Bertrand Russell speaking at his Easter CND rallies in Trafalgar Square. We joined the 100,000 protesters singing along with Pete Seeger, ‘We shall overcome.’ We kissed the girls at midnight on New Year’s Eve in the same Square.
We attended post mortems, and got to know the nurses at Hackney and Homerton Hospitals so well that many of the lads married them. We got bored witless at two in the morning with the streets quiet and four hours to go before knocking off time. We attend burglaries and reported robberies and thefts and gave evidence at Old Street or North London Magistrate’s Courts. We got to know the magistrates and justices, and to become trusted by them. We learned the strange ways of the law.
“You are charged with being drunk. How do you plead?
Any trouble officer/”
“No trouble, sir.”
Or as an alternative: “Any trouble officer?”
“He was shouting and swearing, sir.”
We told mothers that their son was dead, or wives that their husband had been killed. We dealt with suicides and backed each other up in fights. We played football and cricket together, and occasionally had a drink.
For eight and a half years I worked in this drab place, which I grew to love, with these men. No women were involved; they spent their time on women and children. I depended on some of these men, if not for my life, then for my physical well being, and they on me. Looking back we were like a choir. We always sang from the same hymn sheet, were always word perfect, in time and mostly in tune.
Written by B.M