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Wartime memories of a Policeman in Bedford Part One - Policing in Bedford 1939-1942

by bedfordmuseum

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Contributed by 
People in story: 
Mr. Arthur Thomas 'Tom' Clarke
Location of story: 
Bedford, Bedfordshire
Background to story: 
Civilian Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
11 October 2005

Wartime memories of a Policeman in Bedford Part One — Policing in Bedford 1939-1942

Part one of an oral history interview with Mr. Arthur Thomas ‘Tom’ Clarke conducted by Jenny Ford on behalf of Bedford Museum

“I was born in Coventry on 2nd April 1915. My parents moved to live in Bedford shortly after my birth albeit with a 12 month period living in Bournemouth. In 1925 we moved to Oxford. After schooling in Bedford I went to the Wesleyan Higher Grade Central school in Oxford and then passed the second part of the 11 plus and I went up to Magdalen College School. I must say the public school did me the world of good although it didn’t do me any good classically. After leaving school I had various jobs in Oxford, I travelled about, mainly dealing with people. 1939 I returned to Bedford. I think it was the latter end of 1938 I had applied to Bedford Police Authority. I passed everything and the authorities told me to go back home, have my teeth done and get back as soon as I could. I’d had a lot of friends in the Police in Oxford, they used to come into the shop and I had made various applications for the Force. I have always been the sort who will step in and take hold - I’m Aries. Anyhow it came to Bedford and they had to find me various jobs about Bedford until I went on the training course which would have been in August 1939 and then war was declared. The fellow that I was with at the training school he said to me, ‘I’m going to send a telegram to my wife, do want me to send one for you?’ I said, ‘No, don’t bother.’ I eventually changed my mind and we sent a telegram and as it turned out it was a good job I did send that, otherwise I would have found the wife in my bed!

Well, duties then — although not fully trained — we were thrown out onto the streets. You were a Policeman you had got to do the job. And it was done reasonably well - there were no complaints. I dealt with a lot of people. Some people didn’t like me. There again I made a tremendous number of friends because if anyone was committing an offence I would put them on report if they took it reasonably I would say to them write a letter of apology to the Chief Constable. And in nine cases out of ten they got away with a caution.

Now Bedford during the war - basically it changed Bedford. You had all these Air Raid Warden’s posts, people got to know each other. You got the Wardens going around, you had the Police, you also had the Fire Service, everyone was helping everyone. Even, well it was old habits that publicans had on nights — it happened quite frequently that the publican would leave a bottle of beer outside the back door of his pub. Making sure that the Copper would visit his premises at least to get his beer. By the time the war came there were very few things like that. But the thing was that the Policeman’s job changed tremendously at that stage because the Policeman took control. Now if an incident occurred, when I say an incident I mean a bomb drop, the first Policeman on the scene took control. He sent for what services were needed, recoveries, fire, wardens anything, he was in charge unless it developed into a big complication for which Senior Officers from the various services would come together.

You never knew when that was going to happen, you had lots of training on that. There was a lot of competition with that, with the training. It helped you. You learnt to ‘take hold’. Where people just — a Policeman was there ready up front. On a warning, as my wife has mentioned when the parachute mines dropped there was a warning. I was on duty and my instructions were I had to go to Priory Street air raid shelter. There was a big air raid shelter underground in what was Priory Street Recreation Ground and you were just there to make sure that everything was in order, everything was calm. There were quite a number of air raid shelters in Bedford. There was one in Faraday Square. That’s off what was known as the White City off Elstow Road. There were three big ones on St.Peter’s Green, there were three or four big ones on the corner of Bedford Park which is now where Robinson Pool is. Schools had their own shelters but we didn’t go in those. I can’t quite think of where any of the others where. But in addition to doing our normal patrol at work you did your eight hours and you did voluntary work. I found myself doing a number of hours metal working, machinist at a small works with a family that we eventually became very friendly with in Melbourne Street. You did anything and everything.

The thing I should mention here there was a Police Station which is non existent at the moment in Horne Lane, immediately against the Town Hall was the Police Station. This has now been destroyed to make way for a car park because at that time the Bedford Borough joined up with the County Force. The County Force was the control. But this was 1947 so that didn’t affect the war.

You never knew what you were going to deal with during the war and oh, there were some funny incidents. I know of a case of a Policeman, he was well known, he saw a rat in the High Street, he got his truncheon out and threw it at it. It bounced off the road into E. P. Rose’s window. The window needless to say went for a ‘Burton’. And you see a Copper has got to think, what does he do? He finds a half brick, his excuse was - it was thrown up by tyre of a lorry going through. There was a pub in the centre of the town which had these folders, rollers (roller blinds) and if you were on night duty in that area and you hadn’t got much to do you used to wander around that area about half an hour after closing time and it was amazing the sights you saw through there! Oh, you’d see sights.

Now I had myself a very bad name at one time, do you remember the old Igranic Works, off Elstow Road? Elstow Road, just right at the bottom of the bridge. Well if I was on that shift there when they cycled out of the factory - everyone used to have cycles in those days, everyone that came into Bedford. You can just imagine what it was like — they came out — whoosh! They wanted the whole ruddy road to themselves. Yours truly, I’m an awkward old bugger, when they came out I used to stand there on the white line with my bike! They’d all got to funnel!

Mind you discipline in those days was much better and there was much more co-operation. There is one story I always tell about London Road, two boys coming up the street, playing football across the road, there wasn’t much traffic in those days. But I’d got nothing to do. ‘Come here!’ Asked them their names, writing it down on a bit of paper in my notebook and ‘Right, youngsters what am I do with you? You’ve got three alternatives; either I report this to the Courts, I report this to your parents, I report it to your Headmaster.’ Now the Headmaster of these boys, he had an arm that was known to be very, very strong, I said, ‘Which of these I am to do?’ ‘J. J. Voyce, please sir!’ I said, ‘Right, behave yourselves.’ One of them was a Prefect. He took his badge out and put it in his pocket. Oh, for about 10 days I saw them walking up the road eventually they crossed over the road, ‘Excuse me sir, what did J. J. say?’ I said, ‘Hasn’t he dealt with you yet?’ ‘No, sir!’ ‘How long have you been expecting it?’ ‘Oh, about a week.’ I said, ‘Right, go on then, that’s cleared it up.’ Mind you that did a ruddy sight more good than going into Court. The boys always treated me with respect after that.

Talking of wartime duties, Police, soon after the declaration of war we were armed and we had to attend on the various services places. I had to stand - I had to go to the Electric Light Works which was then in Prebend Street. I actually saw that open. If there had been any warning of landings by parachutists our job would have been to go up the chimney because they had steps there. The Post Office was similarly covered by armed Police and the various essential places were dealt with like that. We were armed with revolvers — we didn’t have training, it was common sense. In those days a Copper was common sense, you were trusted in those days with Gerry likely to do anything. You see the same as today, you’ve got Coppers going round in pairs, they’ve got wireless, please Sergeant, what shall I do? When I was on the Beat you used to go out on one of the country routes, Harrowden, Elstow, covering all that area. You were quite likely -you might see a Sergeant or an Inspector once in the eight hours. If you had to deal with anything you dealt with it yourself, you didn’t ring up and ask. You had to be a Policeman.

There were three outside Beats, Harrowden and Elstow. Now you wouldn’t remember the fact that there used to be a bridge at the end of London Road which took Mile Road. Well just there, there was a Police Box. Now there was another one on Elstow Road about 200 yards before you got to Mile Road, that was that one. Queen’s Park and Biddenham, the Biddenham Police Box was right on the bend of Biddenham Corner which is quite well known. Queen’s Park Box was and still is the Gas Works, Ford End Road. Putnoe and Goldington there was the Police Box. The Putnoe one was in Kimbolton Road where it joins with Putnoe Lane and the Goldington one was the eastern end of Goldington Green.

When I first joined the Force I didn’t tell them that I had been in Bedford because in those days you didn’t join a Force where you were resident, you went in as a stranger. I hadn’t been here for 12 years. Anyhow some of the clever Sergeants and Inspectors used to, one was very keen on sending me out to Goldington, I was in plain clothes until I got my uniform. ‘Go out to Goldington, find Goldington Box and ring us in.’ Did I hell, I got a bus, I’d got a key to the Box went and sat in there and then after a good time ring them up! ‘I got here. I’m going to walk back around the river. I might, I don’t know what time I shall be in.’ I knew more than a lot of them.

Well in Bedford itself you would have about six foot patrols and then three cycle patrols. Sometimes two would be joined together. High Street Number One was always on it’s own. Number Two, which was east of High Street going down as far as Newnham Avenue. The river on the other side, Goldington Road north and south, that was Number Two, that was always on its own. Three and four, three was what we know as Black Tom, Clapham Road area. Four and five would have been east of High Street coming up to Ashburnham Road, the Railway, now that was the foot patrols. The cycles as I said were Harrowden and Elstow, Putnoe and Goldington, Queen’s Park and Biddenham. That was the cycle patrols generally speaking. But often it had to be doubled up because there were only 60, just over 60 members of the Force in those days. My number was 59.

There were three duties. First duty, ‘early turn’, you are on 6am to 2pm; 2pm to 10pm; 10pm to 6am. And the point was you were always paraded a quarter of an hour before the hour, if you weren’t on parade you were late and as like as not you were sent home and told to come back on the next shift. The discipline was pretty hot!

The plane that crashed in the Greyfriars area, I can visualise it now! There was a church, I can’t remember it’s name and that plane almost came, I didn’t actually see it but I saw a lot of the reports, it came down sideways and it hardly did any damage. It went in like a passage way between the church and the houses. I think if I remember rightly the plane was an Airacobra. But I wasn’t on duty that was when I was in the Army. Oh, yes I was called up into the Army. The Police Force was a Reserved until August 1942.

We were married in February 1942, I had my call up in the August 1942 and my first son was born in May 1943.”

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