Communications - the early years

by Robert C Davison, Co. Down, Northern Ireland

The short paper by Chrissie Dunn was an interesting insight into the modern methods of Control Room work and caused me to muse on the situation when I joined BTP as a Cadet in 1963. When I was seconded to Birmingham New Street after completing the Cadet Course at Tadworth in 1964, it was one of my duties to ‘man’ the communications such as they were in those days. What I am going to relate was probably common to most of the larger police posts throughout the country.

New Street Station was about to undergo dramatic changes, as the place was about to be demolished and rebuilt, ready for the new age of electrification. However, in 1964 there were three police offices on the station. The Sub-Divisional Office (known as ‘128’ after its telephone extension on the B.R. network) was where the Inspectors were based along with a ‘clerk’ who was ostensibly a ‘light-duties’ Constable called Alfie. The office was on Platform 1 and had a fairly large general area with desks and filing cabinets. The Inspectors had their own office adjacent, and then alongside their office was the mess room, and the communications / locker room. In this room was the high-tech radio system of the time – the Pye radio control for the police cars that were fitted with radios. The control box was the standard Pye model of the time, an oblong varnished wood box with a green metal fascia. A speaker grill and the on-off switch were on the fascia, along with a couple of lights which indicated when the system was switched on, and when a message was being transmitted. Messages were sent by pressing the switch on a green plastic speaker unit atop a metal tube attached to a round base. This allowed the transmission ‘stick’ to sit on the desk when not in use. Police radio enthusiasts will no doubt correct any inaccuracies here! There was also a G.P.O. (as it was then!) telephone, enabling calls to be made ‘outside’ the railway network. Phone calls from the B.R. phones went through the B.R. Telephone Exchange in those days.

Sergeant ‘Ted’ Smith was responsible for Communications, Transport and Dogs and he worked from ‘128’ and mainly in plain clothes. There was no ‘control room’ as such and I believe that manning the phones and radio was very much an ad hoc arrangement, being dealt with by whoever was in the office. The same situation would have applied in ‘53’ (again the B.R. phone extension) which was the office the Duty Sergeants and the Constables worked out of. This was at the front of the Station on a level with the ‘front yard’ where the taxis, delivery vehicles and short-wait parking were dealt with. ‘53’ had a number of B.R. phone extensions and a G.P.O. line. Entrance to the office was from a ‘common corridor’ and there was a large old-fashioned high desk just inside the door. It was the sort of desk that railway clerks would have worked away at whilst standing up. A bank of uniform lockers was used to segregate the front office from the Constables desks at the rear. Here they could do their reports.

‘54’ was the office of the Policewomen who carried out uniform patrol duties and had a plain clothes section of ‘mature’ women who carried out ticket fraud enquiries. They were commanded by Woman Sergeant ‘Bobby’ Staniforth who was an extremely competent officer, who I believe had previously been in the Army before joining the BTC Police as it was pre-1963.

Of course, all this was before the days of personal radio’s so when you went out on the ‘patch’ the only contact you had with the office was by making a call from a ‘railway’ phone, if one was handy! No doubt this was why the whistle was issued, as it was a means of summoning assistance. Hardly practical on a busy railway station though where whistles were going off all the time!

After completing my Recruit Course at Tadworth in 1966, I transferred to Coventry which was under a Detective Sergeant, Ted Birkett. He had a Detective Constable, Roy Timms, and there were two other uniform Constables, Mick Cooper and Dick Patch. Both Mick and Dick resigned and were replaced by Les Booth (a transfer from BTP Manchester) and Chris Cooper. We were lucky to acquire a personal radio (the old Pye two-piece as seen on ‘Z Cars’) which was tuned in to the Coventry Police (pre-West Midlands Police!) ‘A’ Division wavelength. This was a security measure courtesy of the G.P.O. because the Glasgow to Euston mail train made a stop at Coventry in the early hours to off-load high value mail. Previous to us getting our own radio, the local ‘bobby’ had to attend and accompany us whilst the H.V. mail was dealt with. The new arrangement was extremely advantageous to us as it meant that we were in permanent contact with our colleagues in the City, and were able to respond to calls that were previously dealt with by the local police because they couldn’t always contact us! The only other BTP post that I was aware of that had this sort of arrangement in the late 1960’s was Goole Docks.

On returning to Birmingham New Street in 1970 I found a major change to the arrangements for ‘command and control’. Personal radios were now in general use and the new Police Office had all officers under one roof. It was just unfortunate that a flight of stairs had to be negotiated to get into the office. However, just inside the main door was a Public Counter and the Information Room. Here were the consoles for the personal and car radio’s and a number of telephones both ‘internal’ (i.e. B.R. network – direct dialling) and GPO lines. There was also the huge Fax machine. As the Police Office was open 24 hours a day and had the Public Counter, it had to be permanently manned, so there was always a Sergeant or Constable (male or female) in the Information Room. How things had progressed in 6 years!

Following promotion to Uniform Sergeant on the LT (London Transport Division) in 1971, I encountered an entirely different Information Room – but that’s a whole other story.