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of a Thames Copper
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.
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.
“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.”
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?
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…..
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.
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.
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?”
“So then, son, are
you ex Mob?”
“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 asked him if he knew how
often they invited applications for constables?
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….
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!
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.
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.”
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?”
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.
“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.”
sir, after my marriage, our first home was married quarters in Greenwich.”
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.
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.
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