In the grand plan of history, the tiny Southampton Harbour Board Police Force (SHBP) may not have figured greatly. Yet it was one of the earliest dock police forces authorised by Parliament; at no time did it have more than seven officers and lasted for 133 years. It began in 1847 deriving its powers from the Harbour, Docks & Piers Clauses Act of that year, with an establishment of just one sergeant and six constables. Its jurisdiction included Southampton Town Quay and the Royal Pier, which had opened in 1833, and up to one mile from the town quay clock. That took in the whole of the city centre! The officers worked out of a small office on the quay. In 1954 the Harbour Board received its own charter and the police force adopted the new arms as the centrepiece of their helmet plate. Around 1970, the force came under the wing of the British Transport Police for administration purposes. BTP maintained a strong police presence at the nearby Southampton Docks but the SHBP officers continued to wear their own insignia and remained loyal and proud of their patch until the end.
Located between the Eastern and Western Southampton Docks, the Town Quay was a small dock complex in itself. Passenger ferries served the Isle Of Wight and plied between Hythe and Southampton, across Southampton Water, as they still do today. Occasionally, small ships, such as Isle of Wight cargo boats or flower boats from the Channel Islands, berthed on the quay. The whole area has more recently been re-developed into waterfront restaurants and smart offices.
In the 1950s the force suffered a blow when it lost one of its young officers. Pc Brian Thorne had been a docker before joining the force; he was a tough red- headed bloke of 17 stone and had been a champion weightlifter. He was a gentle giant though, unless he got riled, and was a good man to have around when the going got tough. Then on his beat one day, he twisted his foot on the Town Quay. A simple enough injury but it led to severe backache, eventually diagnosed as bone cancer in the lower spine, apparently irritated by the twisted ankle. He died three weeks after being admitted to hospital leaving a wife and his two young boys; he was just 33 years old.
The pier included a pavilion and at that time it was frequently used for dances or concerts but with no alcohol allowed in those days, there were rarely any serious problems. There were plenty of bands and celebrities appearing at the pavilion and the officers kept a watchful eye on them all. The officer in charge in this period was Sergeant Leitch, a six foot taciturn ex-marine with only one eye; he spent much time keeping a watch from the office.
One of the stories of the time involved the star of the show – Billy Fury, a young rock and roll singer. When Pc Alfred Hanks, who had joined the force in 1950, went to the pavilion at the end of the night to lock up, he found Billy sitting alone on stage tinkling away on the piano, apparently in no hurry to leave. After several attempts to persuade the entertainer that the evening was over and it was time to go, Alfred lost patience and was obliged to give Billy a helping hand off the stage and out of the door!
One memorable night occurred in May 1976 when Southampton Football Club had won the FA Cup against the odds. A celebration dance took place at the Mecca dancehall on the Pier and it kept the Town Quay Police and assisting British Transport Police officers busy. The winning team were there and the FA cup itself was on show. The evening started with a bang when one of the Saints’ young gladiators, who had already clearly been celebrating, demolished the pier gates with his new Ford car. Nevertheless, there was still some serious celebrating to be done and the ‘old cup’ was filled with some awful brandy punch many times. Of course the police had to maintain a presence to ensure there was no trouble, it’s just that there seemed rather a lot of them that night!
Another, more important, duty of the SHBP was to switch on the navigational transit beacons on the end of the pier and the quay. As the pilots were bringing the big ocean-going liners up Southampton Water, they used the beacons as a guide when they came to turn the vessels and line them up for berthing at the Ocean Terminal.
It was the proximity of the sea that led to Pc Alfred Hanks being commended for bravery one dark night in March 1975. A ship-keeper, Fred Adlington, heard cries for help coming from the water just before 9.30pm. Pc Alf Hanks commandeered a nearby dinghy and rowed out directed by Pc William Jurd who was shouting instructions and using a powerful lamp from the pontoon. But Alf found only one oar in the dinghy so he had to scull- something he had never done before- which made progress particularly difficult. It took about ten or fifteen minutes to reach a man who was found hanging onto a buoy about 150 yards out from the quay. Three sailors from HMS Wessex had got hold of another boat, but it had no oars at all. They attempted to reach the man by using a piece of wood as a paddle but the strong current prevented them from getting to him. The man was nearly unconscious when Alf finally got him into the boat and began the scull back. Thirty-five year-old Christopher Lewis, living at the Salvation Army Hostel in Oxford Street, was taken to Southampton General Hospital and later discharged. Pc Alf Hanks received a presentation pen set for his courageous act and was commended by BTP Chief Constable Eric Haslem.
The Southampton Harbour Board Police slipped into obscurity in 1980, having been reduced by the sergeant and one constable. The remaining constables – Alfred Hanks, Charlie Saunders, Fred Tiller, Bert Walton and John (Jack) Whale all retired. The Royal Pier was becoming unsafe for public use and the average age of it’s remaining officers exceeded sixty years. It was the end of the road for this small but fiercely proud and independent band of officers.
When the force was disbanded in 1980 a full uniform set was donated to the Southampton Tudor House Museum and the Harbour Board Flag was given to the City Museum. BTP adopted the policing responsibility for the Town Quay. Well for another five years it did anyway, until the British Transport Police Dock Divisions themselves slipped into obscurity.
This article has been drawn from much valuable information supplied by Mike Hanks, the son of Pc Alfred Hanks, BTPHG member David Caplehorn and ex-Southampton Docks officer Dave Drury. I am grateful for their help.