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Tales of a Thames Copper
The Road to Wapping Pier


There is a perceived wisdom, which tells us that “You know when you are getting old, because all policemen start to look like school kids.”
This is not something that has never concerned me greatly……Until recently.
The truth is that all my colleagues at Wapping Police Station….Even the ones who are in the middle of their service years strike me as all looking so very much younger than me.
And there is a very good reason for that……
They all ARE a lot younger than me!

Here I am, past fifty years old and having served thirty years in the Metropolitan Police. Looking back, I wonder, “Where did all the time go?”

Let me take you back to a mid morning in August in 1973. I was a fresh-faced young police officer. Nineteen years old (but looking about sixteen) and I am sitting nervously in front of the chief superintendent of West End Central Police Station.
I had just arrived from Hendon having completed my sixteen weeks of training and he was questioning me about my hopes and aspirations for the future. He seemed a nice enough chap and I began to relax as he talked to me. He asked me if I intended to take promotion?
I told him that I may well do that in the future. (I never did get around to that.) He asked me if I was considering specialising, after all, the police was like the Army or the Royal Navy….Specialising in a particular branch was a bit like learning a new trade in the armed forces.

He then began to go through a list of specialist branches within the police. Would I perhaps like to join the C.I.D, Traffic Division, Dog Branch, Mounted Branch……and so it continued. It slowly dawned on me that he actually expected me to make a choice there and then as to what I wanted to do in the future. This was a problem……I had watched ‘The Sweeney’ and did not see myself as a C.I.D officer. I couldn’t drive a car (a skill that I never did get around to mastering. I am assured that I must be the only copper in the whole world who can’t drive!) So Traffic Division was an unlikely prospect.
I have always had a healthy dislike for big dogs and particularly Alsatians that bite, so the Dog Branch was out of the equation.
Mounted Branch? No, I certainly did not see much fun in sitting seven foot off the ground on a ton or so of horseflesh and attempting to negotiate the traffic of London’s streets.
My interviewer was starting to slow down with his list and I was desperately searching for something that I might actually like to volunteer for….

“How about Thames Division, perhaps?” His question was almost apologetic. The River Police? ….Now there was something to consider. I didn’t know much about boats (Unless you count a couple of terms at school, canoeing on the River Lea) but how hard could it be? “Yes sir, that’s it. I think I would like to have a go at Thames Division.”
“Really?” He replied. “I don’t think that I have ever had one of my officers ever apply for Thames Division before.” I smiled to think that I had made his day. “Well done, Jeffries, ….That will be all.”

I stood up, shook his offered hand and made for the door. As I opened it I looked back and saw him writing something on a piece of paper. When I sat down for my second interview the following year, the chief super asked me if I had made any plans for my future application for Thames Division?
I explained that although I was still interested, I thought I needed several more years experience before making that career move. I thought at that time that I would probably never hear of Thames Division again. I was wrong.

Looking back after all these years I now realise the impact that interview had on my whole police career. If that chief superintendent had not asked me what I wanted to do during my service, if he had not listed the various branches and pressed me for some sort of response, I very much doubt that I would ever have considered the River Police as a possible career and my life would have been completely different. The truth is that I chose Thames Division all those years ago because simply because I could not think of any better alternative at the time…..
It was to prove to be a very fortunate choice indeed. The annual appraisal and assessment interview is something that has to be endured by all police officers. For the most part you go in front of a senior officer, he looks at your yearly report that has been prepared by your sergeant and then he tells you whether he is satisfied with your progress….or, of course, not. During my service, I have had both types. The older you get, the more of a game it all becomes, particularly as you are sometimes on first name terms with the senior officer reporting on you!

The next fourteen years passed happily enough for me but they have absolutely nothing to do with the Thames and so they are a story for another occasion. Let me fast forward the narrative to yet another annual appraisal interview some fourteen years later, in 1987.

I was now attached to what was then called the Diplomatic Protection Group (DPG). By now, I was married and had two young children. I knew the senior officer conducting the interview fairly well and having read through my report, he told me that he was happy for me to continue in my present role for as long as I wanted to. He then ended the interview by the simple expedient of closing the file and began to chat.
“How are the family?” As we chatted I told him that I had no idea how long I would stay on the DPG. The money was good but because I was not a driver my duties mostly consisted of standing outside the embassies and consulates, which abound in our capital. After four years, the novelty was beginning to wear extremely thin.
“Didn’t you once express an interest in Thames Division?” He asked. “Were you really serious about that?” I smiled and told him the full story of my first interview. I rather expected him to laugh, but he didn’t.
“I am a great believer in instinct.” He said. “I think it is entirely possible that you may have been thinking along those lines even though you have never realised it…..I think that something like Thames Division might actually suit someone like you. It is a small unit, very personal and it would present a whole new challenge to you. There is also one big advantage to it as far as you are concerned. It won’t matter one bit that you can’t drive a car….because you could learn to drive a boat!”

I certainly could not disagree with him on that point. “There is one thing that you should seriously consider, Bob.” He added. “You are now approaching the half way point of your service. This is something of a watershed in our job.
If you are considering a change then I would suggest you specialise and officers who go to specialist units tend to go between ten and fifteen years of service. If you leave it much longer then you may find it hard to get any branch to accept you.”

It was valid point and I thanked him for the advice. I spent the next few days thinking hard about my future.

A couple of days later saw me patrolling in a car as R/T operator with a close friend. He asked me how my interview had gone and I told him about the comments made by our governor. “I never knew that you wanted to be a Water Rat?” He said.
“To be quite honest, I had almost forgotten myself.”
“What do you know about Thames Division?”
“Erm…..Not a great deal, actually.”At this my friend checked his watch. “I think it’s about time that we sorted ourselves out a cup of tea” A couple of minutes later saw us on the Victoria Embankment pulling up outside Waterloo Pier Police Station. I did not know it at the time but it is one of the very few floating police stations anywhere in the world.
“I imagine that you should be able to get some information about Thames Division here.” He said. We crossed the pavement and walked down the steep slope of the brow, which was caused by the tide being low at the time. Unknowingly, we set off an alarm which was designed to warn officers working on the pier that visitors were approaching. We were met by a middle aged sergeant peering at us through the metal shutters. “Can I help you gents?” I explained who I was and asked if he would mind answering a few questions and telling me a bit about the River Police. “And I suppose you will be wanting a cup of tea as well, will you?” We both agreed that tea would be most welcome and the sergeant smiled for the first time.

“So then, son, are you ex Mob?”
“Er….Sorry…..Mob?”
“I mean, are you ex Royal Navy?”
“No Sarge.”
“Merchant Navy?”
“No Sarge.”
“You’re not an ex Bootneck, are you?”
“Bootneck? No….At least I don’t think so.”
“I mean, were you in the Royal Marines, son?”
“No, I’m afraid not.”
“I see.” Said the sergeant…. “What sea going experience do you have then?”
“None really….Not as such.”
“Well lad, I don’t want to dampen your obvious enthusiasm, but the fact of the matter is that almost everyone on the division is an ex seaman of some sort…..It’s pretty well a requirement of the job. I am afraid that the chances of you being accepted are virtually nil.”

“Oh, I see. Well, never mind. At least I know now and can start to think about something else” We both finished our tea and returned to our patrol. For the rest of the shift I was can remember feeling rather subdued. Until the interview a few days earlier, I had not actually thought about Thames Division for years. But now, having been finally told (Or so it seemed) that I was destined never to be accepted onto the division I was left with a feeling of….disappointment.

And I suppose that should have been the end of the story. However, it was only the beginning. A few months later saw me back at Waterloo Pier. This time I was not asking questions but asking to use the toilet. I had been posted to a public order event on the Victoria Embankment and we had been told that we could use the pier to have a break from the crowds. Having made use of the facilities. I made my way into the canteen and there saw a face I recognised. It was an officer who until a year or so earlier had worked on the DPG with me, although at a different base. He was now very obviously a Thames officer and I was obviously very puzzled. “I had no idea that you were in the Royal Navy.” I said.
“I wasn’t.”
“Hang on….I was told that they only accept officers with previous marine experience.”
“Ahhh…. That WAS the case until the past year or so. The management have had a bit of a change of heart over that idea……The fact of the matter is, just because you have, lets say, been a steward on a merchant ship? That is no indication that you are going to be good police officer on the Thames. Most of the officers taken on are still ex seamen of one sort or another but at least they are now prepared to consider applications from people with no experience at sea.”

I asked him if he knew how often they invited applications for constables?
“Actually, I think they are going to be in Police Orders this week!”
“Are they really?” I could hardly wait to get back to the base to find the latest edition of Police Orders…..and sure enough, there it was. “Applications are invited from officers with more than two years service for the position of constables on Thames Division.” What I needed then was a typewriter!

I presented my application form to my sergeant and asked him to check it over for me. He looked at it and said “What the Hell is this?” I carefully explained the position and he read it through again. “Are you really serious about this, Bob?” I nodded. Well…this is no good at all! Trust me I have done lots of applications over the years and this is not what is required.” My feelings were considerably dented. I had taken ages knocking out what I thought was a well presented application, it was neat, accurate and in good English….
“And deadly dull and boring.” He interrupted.
“I doubt if this will get past the paper sift.” I bit my lip…..
“Look, leave it with me for a day or so and I will have a look at it for you, OK?”
I agreed and left the application in his hands.

The next day he had a big smile on his face as he called me into his office. “Have a read of this.” He handed me a new application. He certainly employed a different style than mine. From having had “no previous experience” ….PC Robert Jeffries now appeared to be a cross between Nelson, Drake and Raleigh. In fact, if this application was to be believed….they all rather paled in comparison to me!
The report did not actually tell any outright lies about me….. it just left a very great deal to the imagination. “Well, are you impressed? He queried.
“It’s not quite what I expected, Sarge”
“No, maybe not…..But I promise you this…. It will get you through the paper sift and onto a shortlist for the board. After that it is all down to you. You will notice that I have left in the bit where you said you have a keen interest in the history and workings of the Thames, so I have not altered it completely.”
That is true. Sarge…..
But what about this bit here where you say….
“I have taken part in a wide range of water related activities and currently hold competency related qualifications in several boat related sports.”
“Yeah, and what’s wrong with that? You told me that you had done canoeing at school, didn’t you?….Trust me, Bob. This will get you a board, after that….. it will be plain sailing!”

And he was right too. The application went through unquestioned and a couple of months later I was summoned to Wapping with several other hopefuls for the interview day. First of all we were all taken to St Georges Pool to undergo the swimming test. This was the only pre-requirement for working on Thames Division. Every officer had to be ale to swim. We were told that they were not looking for Olympic standards, we merely had to demonstrate that we could actually stay alive if we did happen to fall in.
This was an easy test for me. I had been a strong swimmer since childhood and even played a bit of competitive water polo in my younger days.
After the swimming we were paired off and asked to wait in our pairs in the canteen. We were then called down to the waterside to demonstrate our ability in tying knots, and rowing a dinghy. The knots were simple. I had learnt them all in my days as a boy scout and had been practicing them for weeks by using the microphone cables on the old style Storno police radios.
The rowing was a little more difficult. When I had been told that I would have to undergo a rowing test on the assessment day, I was not unduly worried. After all, I had rowed several boats on lakes over the years. Then someone asked me if it might not be a little harder on a tidal river?
I decided to seek a little help and arranged a practice session at Waterloo Pier. I arrived early but the chap I had made the arrangement with was otherwise engaged. Fortunately, another officer agreed to help me out and ten minutes later I was pulling a pair of oars from the down river end of the pier towards Waterloo Bridge, against a strong ebb tide. “How far can we go?” I asked.
Well now, lets just see about that, shall we…..But unless you want to end up at the estuary, you had better pull a bit harder on those oars!”

About fifteen minutes later and I had almost reached the arch of Waterloo Bridge. I was sweating. Another ten minutes of even harder rowing and I was through the arch and almost exhausted having gone all of fifty yards. “Right ho…I want you to pull as hard as you can on your left oar and stop rowing with your right. The bow turned into the tide and we shot back around the abutment of the bridge. In a few seconds we had been taken by the tide the same distance it had taken nearly twenty five minutes for me to row. “Now, keep rowing hard or we will be swept down.”
I eventually made it back to the safety of the pontoon, my confidence rather dented….this had been much harder than I had anticipated. My instructor did not seem too worried though. “Well done, that was fine for a first effort.”
“Really?”
“Yes, you did fine for your first go, some people can’t even make way against the tide. I reckon you will be OK.”
I left the Pier feeling a great deal better than I did while trying to pull the dinghy through the arch on that ebb tide.

At Wapping on assessment day, I awaited my turn with my partner. Three pairs had gone and returned. Some looked confident, others less so. The pair that went before us had been gone about fifteen minutes but only one returned. His partner, a Scouser, was nowhere to be seen. “Where is your partner?” I asked.

“I’m not sure, I rowed first and the sergeant told me to row up against the tide to the engineers pontoon. Then he told me to return, which I did. He warned me not to go too far out into the river because the tide is too strong.” When I finished I got out to do the knots test and let the other guy do his rowing. I was concentrating on the knots but I heard the sergeant shouting at him to pull the other oar …..The last I saw of them, they were drifting down towards Greenwich and I don’t think the skipper was too impressed.”

Our Liverpudlian colleague walked in about fifteen minutes later looking rather sheepish and disappointed. Then said with a large grin “Well, I’m afraid that wasn’t too successful.” The entire canteen burst out laughing. The lovely thing was that he was laughing louder than anyone. His name was John Gibson.

My partner and I walked down to the pontoon. I was called over to show my skills at knot tying. My examiner was Kevin Keith. Kevin was something of a rarity. He was the last Thames officer to hold a Waterman’s ticket. Before entering the police he had completed his waterman’s apprenticeship, which lasts for six years. By the end of that time would be Watermen are expected to know the river backwards. Kevin had completed his apprenticeship and worked on the river before joining the Met police. However, soon after joining he returned to his beloved river as a Thames Division officer. Upon his retirement from the police he would return once more to his former trade and work for one of the pleasure boat companies. Kevin asked me to tie a series of knots. Reef knot, fine, no problem. Bowline once again, no problem. Then came the sheet bend. As I tied it he smiled, “Were you in the Boy Scouts?”
“Yes, why?”
“You tied that knot with the bight of rope upwards…..most boy scouts seem to tie it like that. Seamen tie it with the bight down…but yes…that looks fine.”

Now came the rowing. I clambered into the dinghy and the sergeant in charge clearly did not want a repeat of the earlier incident. His instructions were precise. “You will push off from the pontoon and then start to row up river. Once you are clear of the pontoon I want you to pull harder on the right oar, that should take you to the slacker water near the shore. When you are in the slacker water I want you to row up to the workshops where I will tell you what to do next. Do you understand?”

“Yes.” I understood. I pushed and started rowing as soon as I could.

My earlier practice had stood me in good stead and I made it quickly to the end of the pontoon. When clear, I glided over to the north shore and then the progress to the workshops was easy.
“OK. Now I want you to pull hard on the left oar. That will take you into the tide and by the time you have turned around to face back up river you should be back near the starting place. I want you to row the boat back to the pontoon and leave it in the same position as when you got in. Understood?”

“Understood,” Four pulls on the starboard oar took me into the current, eight more turned me right around and I was about eight yards from the pontoon about half a dozen pull saw me glide into the berth against the tyres. I felt very smug and pleased with myself. “OK, that’s all. Go back to the canteen please and send the next pair down.” Was that it? Not even a “well done.”

The sergeants name was John Gospage and I was later to find that he was one of life’s gentlemen….but, I still think that he could have been a bit more encouraging when considering my efforts to give him a smooth ride.

So far, so good. A spot of lunch then the board in the afternoon.

It was a nervous wait. Eventually I was directed to enter a large office. There I saw the Thames Division Superintendent, Ted Allen, His second in command, Chief Inspector Clive Chapman and the third man was a senior officer from H Division. I didn’t know him but as soon as he spoke he displayed a strong Glaswegian accent. My main concern was that that the tall stories told on my application might come back to haunt me. I need not have worried Ted Allen scanned my application. “I see that you have lived in Greenwich.”

“That’s right sir, after my marriage, our first home was married quarters in Greenwich.”
“I also see that you have a strong interest in history.”
“Yes Sir, That’s right.”
“Good, So if I ask you a question about the history of Greenwich, you will be able to answer it?”
I was beginning to smell a rat. “I will try my best Sir.”
“On the waterfront at Greenwich, between the pier and the Naval College, there is a monument, do you know it?”
“Yes Sir, I do know it, but I have not got a clue who it is for.”
“Mmmm I see. So you don’t know that much about history then, do you?”
“No Sir, It would appear not.”
“Does the Bellot Memorial ring any bells?
This was a silly question not to know. Even as I sat there I could picture the large red stone pillar with the word BELLOT inscribed on it. I later found out that Bellot was a young French sailor who lost his life during the expedition that was sent to attempt to rescue the explorer, Franklyn.
The Glaswegian spoke next. “Do you know what a ‘Fast Tapper’ is?”
“No, Sir. I have never heard that expression.”
“Well, I think you have just met one in Mr. Allen.” This seemed to amuse the three men on the board and I was happy to smile at the joke even though I suspected that it was at my expense.

There were a few more questions, which I fielded with out too much trouble. Then, just as I was getting ready to leave the room, Mr Allen spoke again.
“PC Jeffries, just before you go, I see from your application that you do a lot of water sports.”
“Yes, Sir. I do enjoy sports.”
“What about rowing, have you ever rowed?”
I decided that since I had rowed twice now on the river and lived to tell the tale, I was entitled to answer in the affirmative. “Yes, Sir, I have done a bit of rowing.”
“And if you were to be accepted on the division, would you consider rowing for us?”
“Certainly, Sir, I would be pleased to give it a go.” As I walked out of the door, still smarting from the history question, I had the distinct impression that my final answer was the most important of the whole board.
The rest, as they say is history. A few weeks later I was told that I had been accepted for the next intake of recruits to Thames Division and that I would transfer in the spring. April 1988 saw me starting my new career as a Thames Division officer. I was now a member of the World’s oldest police force and proud to be so.

By the way, one of the other five recruits to make it through the selection process and make up the Class of 1988 was John Gibson, the chap who went drifting on the tide during the rowing assessment. When we all sat down together and recounted the story, he told us that at the time he was quite sure that his problems in the dinghy had ruined his chances. Some years later I asked Clive Chapman about the board. He told me that there was never any chance of John not being accepted onto the division. In fact, his name was one of the first on the list at the end of selection. Apparently, when John went into the office for the interview. He sat down, smiled and all four of them just burst out laughing…..and they did not stop laughing until the interview ended. They all agreed that there was just no way they could pass up the opportunity to get a natural wit like John down to Wapping.
There would be many highs and a few lows in the weeks, months and years to come. I shall recount some of them in the next chapter.

 

Bob Jeffries

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