The History of the BTP Scenes of Crime Department

by Martin Thurston


Prior to 1984, there was no official Scenes of Crime Department within the BTP.   In those days, the force was offered occasional specialist courses from Home Office Police Training Schools, i.e. Drugs and SOCO courses and returning officers especially those from SOCO courses would often try to put into practice what they had learned.

   Some divisions appointed a full time SOCO, Scotland, North West (D.C. Gordon Dowling at Liverpool), South West (D.C. Dennis Giggs at Cardiff) and L.T. (D.S. Ken North at Baker Street).   Some other divisions allowed a trained officer to do SOCO work on an as required basis, subject to work commitments e.g. Euston D.C. Phil Layer and the North East.   However, there was no centrally recognised SOCO Dept as was the case with the Dog Section and most SOCOs had to beg, steal and borrow their own equipment.

   In 1982 I was a D.C. at Kings Cross and was asked by my D.I. Harry (the hat) Avis if I would like to be considered to attend a SOC course that had been offered to the force.   In an earlier five years as a D.C. at Stratford, I had regularly called out Met SOCOs to a wide variety of crimes and had become very interested in their work, so I told Harry that I would love to attend the course.

   A few weeks later I found myself sitting in a classroom at Hendon Training School with P.C. Bob Edwards (BTP Bristol) and officers from other U.K. and worldwide Police Forces.   On the first day we were told that when we leave at the end of the course, we will feel confident to deal with a murder scene on our own.   I’m sure I won’t I thought to myself, but the day I left, after having passed the exams, I knew that I could deal with a murder scene as a SOCO alone.

   Upon my return to division, I was reminded by the governors that there was no SOC Dept, I would not be doing any SOC work and that my attendance on the course was just for knowledge to benefit my job as a detective, so I settled back into my role as a D.C.

   A week or so later I had to take over a case from uniform officers.  I decided that some of the exhibits needed to be forensically examined so took them to the Metropolitan Police Forensic Laboratory at Lambeth. After queuing up, I finally reached the counter and approached one of the receiving officers, not really looking at him.   Before I spoke he said, “You’re BTP from Stratford aren’t you”.   Looking at him, I vaguely recognised him but did not know from where.   I told him that I was indeed BTP but was from Kings Cross but had spent five years at Stratford.   He told me that he and all the SOCOs on ‘K’ Division (Met) knew me as I was always calling them out to BTP jobs, and they thought I would make a good SOCO as I always showed an interest in what they were doing.   I told him that I had just returned from a SOC course at Hendon.   He asked me if I knew Phil Layer (Euston part time SOCO), I replied that I did (although I actually didn’t at that time).   He told me that Phil got all his equipment from Lambeth, adding, “So I suppose we’ll have to supply you also, George the old D.S. in charge of SOCOs for ‘J‘ and ‘K’ is now here in charge of stores, so when we’ve finished I’ll take you along to see him”.

   After dealing with my submission, I was taken along the corridor to an office and introduced to the D.S. who I instantly recognised as having used on the Stratford district and had also called at my home when it was burgled a few years previously.

    George told me that he was happy to supply and replenish me with all the forensic equipment I needed, with the exception of the carrying cases (he gave me the address of their supplier) and the fingerprint kit which was supplied from the Fingerprint Dept at NSY.

    Upon my return to Kings Cross, I spoke with D.I. Harry Avis and C.I. Frank Holding, and they were both very supportive, telling me that if I could get a good deal on the carrying cases, I could take the money from petty cash.   I arranged a meeting with Phil Layer who knew the Head of Fingerprints at the Yard and he told me to contact him and mention his name (Phil was an ace mumper who could acquire anything).

    I telephoned the Case company, a firm in Camden Town called Bell Boy International and told them that the BTP were thinking of starting a SOC Dept and we wanted to try out their forensic cases. Hoping for a later large order, he agreed to sell me just one set at the same price that the Met paid for 50 sets. The following day I went to Camden Town with an envelope of cash from petty cash and acquired the cases, my first pieces of SOC kit.

   I went back to Lambeth Lab, returning with swabs, body bags, various sizes of nylon and polythene bags, and many other items required by the ’professional SOCO’.  I began to fill my carrying cases.

   Upon contacting the Head of Fingerprints at the Yard, it was suggested that I spend three days with them to again run through lifting and other methods of fingerprint retrieval and to get a better knowledge of chemical treatments.

   The governors readily agreed to me attending this free bespoke course and after three days with the Fingerprint Dept on the 8th floor of the Yard, I left with a bag full of different dusting brushes, different coloured aluminium powders, tape, cobex sheets, format plate and all the documentation required for submission of lifts and items to be chemically treated.

   After filling my fingerprint case, I was ready to attend my first scene.   I began visiting just one or two scenes a week, but word soon got round that the division now had a SOCO and I began to be called more often. I still had to get permission from the D.I., but commitments allowing, I was permitted to go. The breakthrough came when I attended a burglary at Ponders End Booking Office and found numerous fingerprints which were identified to a local burglar. Shortly after, I attended a burglary at the Booking Office at Oakleigh Park, where I recovered fingerprints and blood from the scene, both of which were identified to another local burglar.

   The governors now realised that my services were of value and one day I was called in by C.I. Frank Holding who told me that Peterborough had a small van which they did not want and was being replaced by a car.   Did I want a van to carry my gear round in? Of course I said “Yes” and shortly after took possession of a blue Bedford van. It was marked with the then chequered band and force crest on the door, which had to be retained, but at least I had a van.

   I was given an area of the Uniform Office at Kings Cross to store equipment and my life as a part time SOCO continued steadily.

   One day in 1983 I returned to the CID office at Kings Cross to find my D.S. Terry Livingstone alone in the office talking to a man I did not recognise.   Terry stood up and said “Sir, this is D.C. Martin Thurston our SOCO”, then indicating the gent continued, “This is Mr OGRAM, The Chief Constable”. The Chief shook my hand and asked me what I had been doing. After telling him, he then asked me about a new fingerprint technique which I had not heard of. I told him that I did not know about it and he informed me that he had attended a meeting of Chief Constables a week previously where he learned about it. I then continued with my duties and the Chief duly left the office.

    The next part was told by ACC Ian McGregor at the first SOC conference at Tadworth and he confirmed to me that I was indeed the officer.

    Mr McGregor was called in to see the Chief who told him that he had just returned from a Police Office where he had spoken to the Divisional SOCO who did not know about this latest fingerprint technique. He went on to say that if the SOCO was not keeping himself up to date with current techniques, he should not be a SOCO and should be replaced. Mr McGregor was told to speak to Head of Scenes of Crime and find out why that SOCO was not keeping himself up to date.

    As soon as Mr McGregor started to make enquires, he found out that there was in fact no official SOC Dept within the BTP and that all the SOCOs were doing it of their own volition and generally begged, borrowed and stole their kit. There was no-one in overall charge who SOCOs could go to for advice and information.

   Upon informing the Chief of this, he was instructed to go away and set up a Scenes of Crime Dept., without increasing the establishment of the force.

    Mr McGregor decided to establish a SOC Dept at FHQ and found that there was a DS and two DCs posts which had not been filled for several years at Manchester, Nottingham and Newport, so he had them transferred to FHQ. The only suitably trained D.S. was Ken North from Baker Street who when asked, readily agreed to head the new department and suggested Phil Layer and me as the DCs. We of course also readily agreed to join and set up the new SOC Dept,

   On 1st April 1984 (yes, April fool’s day), we walked into FHQ at Tavistock Place and were shown a small office which we were to share with D.C. Ken Stenning, the driver and go-for for D.C.S. John Innes (our immediate boss).   We went into the garage at FHQ and obtained three dusty old desks which we took up to our office.   As we were setting them up, the phone rang, and it was a job for the Kings Cross Division. Leaving Ken and Phil to it, I then attended the first crime scene for the New Force Scenes of Crime Dept. with a car borrowed from the Information Room.

   We were not given a van for our use, so with the authority of John Innes and to the annoyance of the FHQ CID, we regularly borrowed one of their vans until a few months later, we were given a fully fitted out Ford Escort van for our exclusive use, much to the further annoyance of the FHQ CID who lost the allocation of one of their vehicles.

   Although the London area benefited from a full time SOC service, all other divisions then had to appoint a SOCO either full or part time with D.S. North from FHQ overseeing them.   Mr McGregor played a huge part in the development of SOC, including seminars where outside speakers attended, and officers were able to chat about their problems etc.  He arranged for dark rooms to be constructed at FHQ (old gents toilets) and was very supportive of the dept.

   All film development and printing was done by hand for several years. Over or under development of b/w could often be compensated for when printing, but not so with colour film and we were doing more and more colour.   The timing and temperature were critical and there were many times when the colour of the final prints was not as it should have been. Although we kept asking for colour processing equipment, we were always told that there was no money available. However, when Peter Whent arrived as Det Chief Supt., he was instrumental in us finally getting fully automated colour processing equipment, after I had been castigated at the Old Bailey for the quality of my colour photographs in a case I dealt with involving the abduction and rape of a young boy.

   Over the years things went from strength to strength with a move to a purpose modified building in Leeke Street, Kings Cross, with its own large garage where we were also able to examine vehicles and large items of property.   By then Ken North had retired and D.S. Tom Staunton had taken over. Tom arranged for an increase in the number of SOCOs and the transfer of the ‘L’ Area SOCOs to us and designed the facilities for the new building. Shortly after designing the layout and prior to the move, he was seconded away for six months. I was made A/DS in charge of SOCO and had to arrange the move to the new building and to equip the new Fingerprint Laboratory.

   I took D.C. Kevin Flynn (one of the new SOCOs) off some operational duties in order that he could go through the Home Office Fingerprint Manual to list all the scientific measuring and mixing utensils that were required for all fingerprint treatments, plus chemicals required. The list amounted to hundreds of items including a drying cabinet. Expecting FHQ to reduce the list to about a quarter of what was required, I was amazed when everything was approved, and I was able to go ahead and order everything.

   I obtained a licence in my name from HM Customs and Excise in order to obtain certain restricted chemicals for f/p treatments.

   All the documentation required for the new Fingerprint Section was designed in Thailand. Prior to going on holiday to Phuket, I obtained f/p documentation from several forces including the Met, Essex, Kent, Surrey, Sussex, Beds, West Yorkshire and Greater Manchester Police (GMP)  Over several evenings as the sun set over my bungalow overlooking the sea, I formulated our documentation and upon return from leave, arranged for Registry at FHQ to have it printed.

   We finally opened Leake Street and when shortly after opening, the chiefs from the Home Office Police Research Facility came to visit, they said that it was the best Scenes of Crime Facility they had seen in this country, everything had been done according to Home Office recommendations. When word got round about our new facility, I was proud to be able to show senior officers from other forces including the Met, GMP and Durham around the premises. We had a proper Fingerprint laboratory and all the modern technology to examine items for fingerprints and photograph them. Thanks to DCS Peter Whent who was very supportive of us, we now employed two Fingerprint Experts (part time), Ron Cook and Frank Reid (both ex Essex Police) to identify prints, two photographers/darkroom technicians Martin Baugh and Spencer Allen, a clerical officer, Mark Gordine, six SOCOs, DCs Martin Thurston, Roger Richards, Nigel Huxter, John Lovegrove, Kevin Flynn and PC Colin Darling with DS Tom Staunton in charge. Although civilians, Spencer and Mark were a tremendous asset in assisting the SOCOs and helping make such a success of SOC.

   We had three vans, much more equipment and were able to cover the whole of London North, London South and London Underground areas, plus assist FHQ specialist CID squads anywhere in the country.

   In 1999 civilianisation began and I was the first to be replaced, eventually retiring in 2001.   A few years later SOC moved from Kings Cross to new premises in the Old Street area, with a larger staff.  How different and more professional than when I left Hendon in 1982.

   When asked what sort of things I dealt with as a SOCO in the British Transport Police, I tell people I dealt with everything from examining chocolate/gaming machines for fingerprints to burglaries, robberies, armed robberies, suspicious fires/arsons, Taking without consent and Take and Drive Away TWOC/TDA (road vehicles and railway locomotives}, train crashes, suspicious deaths, murders, bomb explosions and everything in between. Apart from an obvious murder and terrorism, I generally dealt with a crime scene alone.

    I am proud to think that I had a small part to play in helping to push the BTP into the 20th and 21st centuries.