Glyn Davis recalls

The reminiscences of an ex-Southampton Docks Officer

I was born in Templecombe, Somerset on 3rd December 1932, my Father and Grandfather were Steam engine drivers on the Somerset and Dorset Railway and worked between Bath and Bournemouth. At the age of 5 years I went to the small Church of England School in the village.

When war broke out in 1939, I was 7 years old and so we children did not go far out of the village. We started to get evacuees from London and Southampton and we thought that they were from the moon. The London lads would say thinks like “Hello me old cocker, how you diddling?”. The Southampton lads called everyone “Mush” or “Nipper” but we all soon got on together. I think that they enjoyed the open countryside.

On 5th September 1942, a lone German Junkers 88 dropped four bombs from a low level with no warning. Three of the bombs struck between the school and the railway station but the fourth fell in front of the parcels office. Thirteen people were killed and five of them were railway workmen. The School was also badly damaged. The cruellest blow was to the Howe family who lived alongside the track which went from Templecombe Station on the London side down to the Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway yard. They lost their Grandmother, married daughter in law, daughter and a four-year-old Grandson. 10-year-old John Howe, a school class mate was the only survivor. The two husbands were out of the house at the time. They are all buried in Templecombe Church graveyard. I still remember those 3 or 4 seconds roar of the plane, the bomb blasts, the acrid smell of cordite and the complete silence afterwards.

I left school at the age of 14 years in 1946 and my dad had decided to leave the railway and to buy a small holding in my mother’s home area of the New Forest. For some reason, this fell through and we moved to West Wellow. Instead of being a farmer’s boy, I had to find a job.

I took a bus into Southampton and went to the Youth Exchange in my best suit. I was still just 14 years of age. The man there asked me how I would like to work for the Southern Railway Police. The next thing I knew was that I was on a number 9 tram to Southampton Docks. He phoned the Docks Police office and was sent to the Docks. I went through the main Dock Gate to the old Victorian type house with a blue lamp hanging outside. Until then, the only policeman that I had seen was our Village Bobby PC Willis and he frightened us to death and so I was a bit bewildered. I was taken upstairs by Mr. Smith, a busy little clerk.

I found myself in quite a large room and sitting behind an old desk was Superintendent Dodson, a Victorian looking man in a suit, not a uniform. He asked me a couple of questions which I answered in a strong Somerset accent. He loved the West Country and knew the area that I had come from. Instead of asking about my education he seemed more interested in my village. I told him that I lived next door to the Manor Farm and had helped during the War by collecting eggs and cider apples which helped to press. He asked how this was done.

I said that we fed the apples into the press and that the “Bugge- e-e- r- rs” (a Somerset Bugger lasted about 5 minutes) often jammed. I was horrified when I realised that I had sworn in front of a Policeman. Little did I know. I thought “That’s it”. Instead he burst out laughing which went on for ages.

The next thing that I knew was that I got the job. I later asked Mr Smith why he chose me in place of some other lad, probably better qualified. His answer was that the Superintendent thought that I would fit in better. So, in 1947 I became a Messenger, the forerunner of a Police Cadet at the age of 14. I took to it like a duck to water. I soon learnt to use the old second-hand plug in telephone switchboard (a PABX system) which had recently been fitted. It had frightened everyone to death with all of its plug-in cables. The Chief of Police in London would have been speaking to Supt. Dodson and would suddenly find himself speaking to a cleaner asking for a new mop head!

Most of the Police Officers were First World War men with just a few Second World War men who had recently been demobbed. I was soon referred to as “Nip Davis”, a name that stayed with me throughout my police career. As a messenger, I would often go around the Docks with the beat PC and attend thefts.

In the outer office was a safe room with a large 4-inch-thick outer door and a solid steel inner door. Both were very heavy. Inside were several small safes (and some big ones) which were used by Dock tenant and shipping companies to store large amounts of cash overnight. In that safe room was a Webley .38 revolver and bullets which would be used by Constables guarding the silver and gold bullion. In later years, I carried this gun whist on bullion escorts. Thomas Cooks had a safe and in it they stored all their cash for exchanging.

Because we were always short of Police Officers, I soon found myself being put out on Customs Barrier. I had a blue and white armband which was pinned to the sleeve of my uniform type suit with a flat cap with a shield-shaped badge thereon. Most mornings, I would cycle to the large cargo sheds and unlock “Double Dutch” type locks on the railway wagons. These wagons had come from Nine Elms and were loaded with valuable goods.

In 1948, the Southern Railway was nationalised and we became the British Transport Commission Police. Passenger liners started to take on new routes with many famous people, film stars etc. crossing the Atlantic. I managed to sneak out and see many of them including Winston Churchill, General Montgomery, Laurel and Hardy, Bob Hope, Judy Garland and David Niven.

After a few months, they took on a new lad called Hugh Baigent and we worked early and late turns. The next four years were probably the most rewarding of my life; I learnt so much from all of my elders. The First World War men were very different from the World War Two men, they seemed far more tolerant of situations. They would mutter and mumble under their breath whereas the WWII men would voice their views strongly. “I was on 44 crossroads traffic yesterday, why the bloody hell am I on it today?”

A lovely old PC, Jack Lansdown who was old enough to be my Great granddad, told me that he had been in the Navy at the start of World War One but he volunteered to join the Royal Flying Corps. As an observer behind the pilot he said that he had a camera on one side of his cockpit and a bomb on the other side. He said that the camera never worked and that the bombs never exploded when he threw them out!

As I approached National Service at 18 years of age, I was given advice by Ex. Army, Navy and Airforce men. Most of it was how to get out of things, salute it if it moved and to paint it white if it didn’t. With all of this advice I think I could have been Chief of all the Armed Services.

I joined the RAF, passed through The RAF Police Provost training at Pershore and became a “Snowdrop”, patrolling London. Later I took over the absentees and deserters Section and was based at Titchfield in the South of England. I never regretted those two years.

The day after demob I went and saw Superintendent Dodson about joining the BTC Police. He said that because they were so short of men I could start next week. I was fitted out with a spare uniform, sworn in and started the next week on 2nd March 1953. No one ever mentioned an entry exam and so I must have been the only officer never to take one – probably too late now!

J.G. Davies - Warrant Card image.

J.G. Davies – Warrant Card image.

Every morning Bill Lanham, a very old dogs body man would take about a dozen accumulator (acid) batteries to be charged for the night watch to use. They gave about one candle power, pretty useless in poorly lit Dockland. Bill was I think and ex-gateman or flagman with the railway. The rest of the morning he would spend in the toilet which meant that we would have to check that he was OK. A weak reply would say “yes”.

As I have already mentioned we had the old Webley revolver. The PC doing the escort would go to the safe room and get the gun from the small Police safe along with 5 or 6 bullets. This safe was also used by us to store lost or found valuables. The silver and gold bars were unloaded from the Union Castle Line ship which ran a regular service between Southampton and South Africa and loaded into Bullion Vans. If the loading was completed in time, these vans would be attached to the rear of the Boat train and taken to Waterloo Railway Station. If they were not ready, they would be bought to the Eastern Dock, parked behind the Police Office and leave the Docks at about 6.50pm and go to Nine Elms Railway Depot. Having arrived at Nine Elms, we would walk up the track to Waterloo Station (10 to 15 Minutes) and travel back to Southampton on the paper train where we would arrive at about 6am.

Another PC that I worked with was Vic Hennen. His father worked for the Ministry of Food in the Docks and whenever an immigrant ship left port, the immigrants had to hand in their ration books. Vic dad would collect them and deposit them in the Police Safe until he could take them to his office the next day.

My Police duties included doing the beats. We had 5 beats in the Eastern Docks and 2 in the Western Docks. Shipping duties included traffic on the roadways and inside the Dock shed, customs duties and keeping people collecting passengers out of the Customs and baggage areas.

One place that had to be policed was the ships gangway at the Ocean Terminal and whenever a ship arrived from America, all the women seemed to think that they should kiss the “Nice English Policeman”. That would get the dockers asking “Can we have a kiss”. Interesting life. Having “come ashore” from The Queen Elizabeth or Queen Mary, they went into a very large waiting room which had a W. H. Smith’s book shop, a long, licensed bar and VIP interview rooms. When all of their baggage was unloaded from the ship they would pass into the baggage hall, collect their cases and go through the Customs inspections. It was a very strict routine in those days.

Aquilla Airways, a break way company from BOAC, flew their Sunderland Flying Boats from 50 Berth until 1958. On the Dock gates, you got to know people and there was one of their female stewardess’s who would ride her scooter through the Gate and always say hello. One day this had happened, she boarded her flight and after take-off at about 9pm, it crashed onto the Isle of Wight. All were killed. The cars that belonged to the passengers had been garaged with Andrews Shipside Service and were still there for many weeks after.

Elders Fyffes had a regular service bringing bananas to 25 Berth. The stalks of bananas were unloaded to the shore on a conveyor belt and loaded into box wagons. Any stalks that were over ripe were loaded into an open which was stored next to a 12-foot-high boundary wall. The local children got to know about all of these bananas in the wagons and they would throw a rope over the wall to get at the fruit. We would have to get rid of these children and so we would walk up towards them and hear a cry of “Copper”. They queued up at the rope and the bigger boys would go back over first followed by the smaller ones. This gave us time to push the little ones back up the rope and over the wall. They had probably wet themselves but hung on to their banana. These loaded wagons would later be taken to the Western Docks and emptied into what is now the container Berth which is all situated on reclaimed land.

Whilst repairing the quayside at 38 Berth and prior to building a new terminal there, a crane bought up from the sea bed, what appeared to be an unexploded bomb. It was about 3 feet long, had a lot of seaweed on it, a few barnacles and a plug in the side. Everyone ran away from it. Bob Sim, a very laid-back Sergeant, originally from Devon and myself went to investigate this item. Bob with his great-coat undone with his hands on the coats pockets wandered up to this thing with me walking several feet behind. We were not sure what it was and so we evacuated that end of the Dock and called for Bomb Disposal. They took about two hours to get to us from their base on Salisbury Plain and on arrival did not know what it was. He checked with his base unit with a full description of this thing and about an hour later he was advised that it was U.S. container used for D Day stores and was not explosive. We never did know what was inside of it but the Bomb Expert thought that I could have been full of Coca Cola or the like!

On 16th February 1983, I was designated as the Police Constable for Southampton Town Quay and the Royal Pier following the retirement of PC. Dick Allen a BTP officer who had previously been assigned. The British Transport Police took over the policing of these two areas after the last days of The Southampton Harbour Board Police, a force that had existed since 6th May 1839 and which was disbanded in 1980. They had jurisdiction for a 1-mile radius from the Town Quay. At this location, I was in charge of traffic for the Isle of Wight ferries which, during the summer period was very heavy, did follow-up enquiries in respect of thefts and general patrols of the area.

After my retirement from the British Transport Police in 1985, I continued to work in the legal system by becoming a Court Usher in the 5 town courts of the New Forest. I did this work for 8 years and although my main court was at Totton, I would go to the other courts about twice a week. As usher, I would open up and get the court room ready for The Clerk of the Court to arrive from Lymington. When the court was open, I would sort out the defendants, witnesses and solicitors and ensuring that they all appeared in the correct Court. I had to swear in the witnesses and some of them, due to nerves perhaps would say “Nothing like the truth” instead of “But the truth” which caused some amusement to everyone. I enjoyed those years and found that everyone respected the Court Usher, even the defendants.

Soon after starting this job I had to go to Lymington Court, a place that I had never worked before. Usually at Totton Court, after about 3 cases I would collect all of the papers and leave the courtroom in order that I might take them to the office staff. However, at Lymington Court, because they had more staff there this did not happen. The Clerk of the Court was a fine old Dickensian character and so after the third case was heard, I collected all of the papers and went to take them to the office. I turned and bowed to the Court, opened the door and immediately found myself in the cleaners’ cupboard. I walked into buckets and mops. It must have sounded like the start of World War 3. I returned into the silent courtroom somewhat sheepishly, with a yellow duster hanging over my shoulder. I bowed, found the correct door and exited. Very embarrassing! The Clerk said “I wondered what you were doing Mr. Davis”.

At the smaller courts, it was the Usher who ran everything outside of the courtroom as there were no office staff unless as happened occasionally, an office clerk from Lymington would arrive and help us.

Because most of the witnesses had never been to Court, they found it very daunting. I would take them into the room and explain where and what the people would be and help put them at ease. I retired from this job when all but one of the Courts were closed and all cases then were heard at Lyndhurst Court. In retirement, quite often people who I had dealt with or helped would stop me in the street and thank me for what I had done.

During my service, I had become friends with PC Ian Oliver who in the 1990’s was a BTP Schools Liaison Office. He said that he was going to Templecombe Primary school and give a talk. He obtained permission from Inspector Bob Wilkinson and took me in his Police Van to the School with the permission of the School Headmaster. I was introduced to the children as being an ex-school member and was made most welcome. That took me back.


By (John) Glyn Davis

First appeared in Retired Lines,  Autumn 2017.