Charlie 61 and Other Stories

by Viv Head

Charlie 61’ was the call sign of the British Transport Police general purpose patrol Ford Transit at Cardiff Docks. General purpose patrol vehicle? In 1970, it was the only patrol vehicle; the CID had a Ford Escort van with fold down seats in the back and that was it. The Ford Transit was a deep navy blue livery and was delivered new in 1969. It was the first BTP vehicle in South Wales to be fitted with a Pye ‘Cambridge’ radio set. And it had wooden bench lockers in the back for emergency equipment underneath and passengers sitting on top. With the development of a fitted radio and all the gear, the younger officers in particular, took a pride in the vehicle. However it lacked any police signage or a blue light. The incumbent inspector, Ivor Bromley, was petitioned regularly to have signs put on but he was old school and resolutely declined. Ah, but then he went on leave and while the cat’s away…

Pc John Murphy and Pc Viv Head visited local suppliers and bought a selection of ‘Police’ signs and a blue light out of their own money. The adhesive signs were attached while the inspector was absent and a friendly garage fitted the light. They waited with baited breath on the Monday morning of the Inspector’s return, feeling sure they would get a rollicking, if not served with a discipline notice. But the Inspector chose to look the other way; he will have noticed of course but nothing was ever said about the matter.

And so, ‘Charlie 61’, properly dressed, served its tour of duty at Cardiff Docks with dignity over a number of years. One is tempted to say with integrity, but that might be stretching things too far perhaps. There are some stories that can never be told and dear old ‘Charlie 61’ may have had a hand to play in one or two of them. But it attended many a road traffic accident, hauled prisoners to and from the police station or court, turfed unwanted prostitutes off the dock and occasionally gave a lift to seamen making the long walk to the dock gate. Seamen came from all over the world, often arriving at Tiger Bay with no words of English except ‘Nor’ Star’, a notorious local club and ‘Jiggy-Jig’, that utopian state that can be had in exchange for a few pounds in the North Star Club.

The career of the first ‘Charlie 61’ came to an abrupt end one dark evening. The docks at night could be a hazardous place whether walking or driving and you had to know your patch. The danger of a momentary lapse was masterfully illustrated when a young Pc was driving along the dockside one particularly dark night. He attempted to run over a cast iron mooring bollard used for tying up big ships. As a contest it was rather one-sided, the mooring bollard moved not an inch but it took out ‘Charlie 61’s sump, front suspension and the gearbox in one clean hit. And that was that.

In the interim, the police borrowed a Landrover as a temporary replacement. For many of the younger officers it was the first time they had ever had the opportunity to try out a four-wheeled drive vehicle in rugged conditions and it was surprising just how much attention the foreshore got in the way of police patrols. But with thick cross-ply tyres and no power-assisted steering it proved hard work over an eight-hour shift. Officers even began to look forward to foot patrols.

Later, the Divisional Superintendent’s highly polished and cherished Ford Zephyr was the cause of some embarrassment to one young Constable. This car was fitted with a removable magnetic blue light connected to the cigarette lighter (the Superintendent it seems did not always need to be identified as such.) The officer had been detailed to escort the Secretary of State for Wales on an official visit to Cardiff Docks. Unfortunately, the ministerial helicopter arrived early and the party set off before the police escort arrived. In due course, the officer hastily intercepted the official limousine at an early stage along the route.

When he caught up, the car was stopped outside the Dockmaster’s Office at the Pierhead. The Secretary of State was inside officiating and this gave the officer the chance to speak to his chauffeur. It was made quite clear to him that he should have waited for his police escort vehicle before setting out on tour.

Shortly afterwards, the convoy got underway, only to find that within fifty yards, the big shiny Zephyr stopped dead in its tracks – half way across a single carriageway swing bridge, and it emphatically refused to re-start. The bridge was now completely blocked and the officer was obliged to do something. Sheepishly, he switched off the blue light that I wished I had never put on, and, in full uniform of course, got out to push. The big car was more than he could manage and so, keeping the Secretary of State waiting, his chauffeur got out to give him a hand. Together, they pushed the big Zephyr off the bridge and onto the side of the road. To his eternal credit, the chauffeur didn’t utter a word!

The replacement ‘Charlie 61’ came in the form of a slightly smaller Austin J4 van, much to the disgust of most of the officers who drove it. Once again it had sliding doors although they were not an issue this time. For one thing though it was painted in the two-tone blue colours of the Docks Board, but in the main it simply did not have the street credibility of the Ford Transit. The criminal fraternity also loved the Trannie and even they wouldn’t stoop so low as to creep around in an Austin J4. The police posts at Newport and Barry had also taken delivery of these unpopular vehicles and Sergeant Allen Botwood took the Newport van when he went to arrest a suspected thief who lived in a local terraced house. ‘Chummy’ was not at home when he got there and so the officer waited outside to see if he would turn up. Sure enough, a few minutes later along came the suspect. He got out of his car, casually glanced at the blue, but otherwise unmarked, police van and went to his front door. Sergeant Botwood was soon standing beside him to make the customary invitation.

Good God a copper. I thought that was the baker’s van” was the suspect’s response when he was told he was being arrested. Word of this soon got around to the officer’s colleagues and the much unloved Austin J4s became known throughout the sub-division for evermore as ‘The Bread Van‘.

By and by the vans were routinely being signed and fitted with blue lights. But when the Cardiff Bread Van was in the garage having a service, it got signed in an entirely unexpected manner. The premises were broken into overnight and on finding a police van, the miscreants took the opportunity to express their thoughts. They spray painted the words ‘F**K OFF’ in very large letters along the side. That part of the van was re-sprayed to get rid of it of course but looking sideways along the panel, from either the front or the rear, the words could still be clearly made out, and that’s the way it stayed. Officers were not too worried about this, even driving around the city streets, because it expressed their own sentiments about this unloved beast very well.

The experiment with the Austin J4 was short lived at that time; when the next ‘Charlie 61’ was delivered it was back to the Ford Transit, much to everyone’s relief. They were easy to drive, comfortable and had good road-holding. A dozen officers were sent for a day’s duty in support of officers at Fishguard, a round trip of more than 200 miles – the Ford Transit carried them safely and comfortably.

When a Hillman Avenger saloon car failed to stop one night, the chase was taken up as the officer jumped into ‘Charlie 61’. The car was soon over-hauled and forced to stop with the officer and the fleeing driver ending up scuffling about in the roadway, much to the amusement of on-lookers. The officer got his man thanks to the nimble agility of the Ford Transit – the fact that the car had half a ton of stolen coal briquettes in the boot had nothing at all to do with it and it did not stop the officer from crowing about his masterly driving ability.

‘Charlie 61‘ continued its eventful career until the police were withdrawn from the docks in 1985. But this particular incarnation had an even more abrupt end than its bollard-bashing predecessor. In 1980, Pc David Reardon was on night duty when he was driving ‘Charlie 61‘ along the north side of the Roath Dock. In the darkness, he misjudged the edge of the dock with the result that the vehicle slid over the side and sank into the coal black waters. Over the years many drivers of vehicles had made similar errors and most inevitably ended up as fatalities, especially if it took place at night. It was extremely fortunate in this case that Pc Reardon was an ex-submariner and he used his training to good effect. He waited for the cab to fill with water, opened the door and swam to safety. His colleague that night should have been the dog-handler Pc John Mellor, who was not a strong swimmer, but fortuitously, the officer had reported sick and was not on duty. Sergeant Kevin Walker’s face was a picture when Pc Reardon trudged dripping wet into the nearby police station to report that he had ‘lost’ the police patrol van in the dock.

Charlie 61‘ has long gone now but it is not forgotten by those whose business it was to share its duty. It is as well that such an inanimate object cannot talk, but if it could, the story it could tell would be very much longer than the one recounted here.