Our feature ’Ello, ’ello ’ello, about the police in Bugle 1090, has drawn a response from readers far and wide, and former police constable Don Shipman from Oldbury, who rose to the rank of Chief Superintendent with the Birmingham police force, has provided us with a fascinating insight into pounding the beat in Oldbury over half a century ago.
Don writes, “It was August 1958 when I first arrived in Oldbury as a young police constable.
I had spent 13 weeks at Mill Meece Police Training College at Eccleshall, an important time in my life, not only for my career, but it was also where I met my future wife Sheila who was attending the same course from her home in the Wirral.
“Coming from the green fields and wide open spaces of south Worcestershire, I thought I was entering a alien world. There was a constant haze hanging over the town, only clearing after the annual fortnight holiday had begun. Men were heaving red-hot bars of metal in the rolling mills and the thump, thump of the drop forges shook the ground. There was a constant smell in the air from the chemical factories, and to top it all I couldn’t speak the language! “The police station was then situated in Church Street, a building that had been built in the early 1800s as a court house, and in my time the court rooms still occupied the upper floor.
“As a single bloke I was given a room at the back of the premises in the single men’s quarters.
“For the first week or so I was accompanied on patrol by an experienced officer who showed me round the area and, most importantly of all, told me where I could get a good cup of tea.
“It was during these initial patrols that I became acquainted with canals for the first time, and was immediately smitten.
Oldbury was surrounded by them, every which way you turned, and they were still busy with commercial traffic, both motor-powered boats and horsedrawn.
In the fog you could hear the distinctive sound of a Bolinder engine chugging towards you, as the maze of towpaths often provided a short cut between ‘meets’ if you were running late.
“As a young bobby I was required to parade for duty 15 minutes before my shift started (no pay!). At the parade you would be asked to produce your ‘appointments’ – truncheon, hand-cuffs, notebook and whistle – to show you were properly equipped and then you’d start your beat. A piece of paper handed over before you left the station gave the time and location of your ‘meets’, which would be roughly on the hour, and for easy referral I kept this information in my helmet.
“The ‘meets’ were usually at a telephone box (no radio, only your trusty whistle to summon help if needed) or somewhere previously specified where contact could be made. I would remain at my ‘meet’ for ten minutes and occasionally the sarge would come out to make sure everything was OK. If you were needed for any purpose the officer at the station would ring the telephone where the ‘meet’ had been arranged, so you always carried with you a supply of pennies for the old push button A and B phoneboxes, just in case you had to ring the office in return. If you were needed and were some distance away you’d have to hop on a bus or stop a car for a lift, and cars in those days were few and far between.
“One of the beats covered Oldbury town centre and during the morning rush-hour you had to stand on the traffic island, direct the vehicles, and control the pedestrians crossing the road. You also had to keep your eyes peeled because the superintendent, who would be driving up Birmingham Street, expected a clear run round the island, and woe betide you if he had to stop, for what ever reason. From the traffic island you could see the front of the police station, and if you were needed during traffic duty a green light would be lit outside the front door.
“One of the most important items you had with you while on duty was your pocket book, and each day you had to record details of your duties, listing the time and place of your ‘meets’ and details of any incidents you had to deal with. I can well remember the first motorist I had to book because it was nearly my last. A lorry had come round a corner and as it did its load of steel sheets slid off the back of his truck, narrowly missing me where I was standing.
“Pounding the beat may sound a little monotonous, but every day was different. On one occasion I was sent to a local pub where the licensee hadn’t been seen for a couple of days. This was not unusual, so I was told, because he opened his door to customers when he felt like it.
The premises was unlocked and nobody answered my call, so I went upstairs and carefully opened a door. The first thing I saw was a leg leaning against one of the walls. With my heart pounding like the clappers I entered the room and there was the licensee lying in bed. He was unwell and hadn’t had the energy to get up, and it was his artificial leg that was up against the wall.
“One of the rare occasions I had to draw my truncheon happened during voting at a general election. In those days police constables were routinely posted to a polling station in case there was trouble, and on this occasion it was located at a local church hall. A problem arose when the staff locked the door to the kitchen and therefore couldn’t get in to make a pot of tea. I was asked to assist, so I drew my truncheon in anger, broke a glass pane in the door and released the lock.
Needless to say, within minutes I was enjoying a strong cup of tea.
“If you were the office constable on nights you could put your feet up. However, there were duties to perform, including the cleaning of the office, and on the early turn it was your responsibility to sweep the pavement outside the police station.
“Looking back, I reckon every day I was pounding the beat in Oldbury was time well spent and by far the best way to get to know your neighbourhood and your neighbours. The range of tasks I undertook stood me in good stead for the rest of my police career, and my abiding memory is of the friendly and helpful nature of all the people I came into contact with.
“As I walk round the Black Country Living Museum today, there are constant reminders of my time in Oldbury; the corner hardware shop is based on Nash’s Ironmongers, which stood next to the police station, and from where the shelves and many of the contents came; the cake shop and sweet shop are based on buildings that once stood on Birmingham Street in front of the bakery that is now at the museum; and four of the new buildings on Old Birmingham Road came from the bottom of Oldbury which were opposite the new police station.
“And they say that nostalgia is not what it used to be?”
Are there any more former police officers among our readers? Please share your stories with us. Contact jworkman@blackcountry bugle.co.uk, or write to Bugle House, 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL