My Police Story

St James's Street
Photo by John Leach
Michael Welch
David Rowland private collection
Young people dancing to Lonnie Donegan in March 1958
Bert Hardy/Getty Images
Elizabeth Taylor in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, 1958.
Photograph: Everett Collection/Rex
Graham Hill driving the legendary Lotus at Silverstone in 1958
Associated Newspapers
Max Bygraves
The dashing presenter, seen here in 1958,
England's stars - Bobby Charlton among them - return from a frustrating 1958 World Cup in Sweden.
Buddy Holly and The Crickets UK Tour 1958
Miss England 1958 Dorothy Hazeldine
16th October 1958: The first Blue Peter show with presenters Christopher Trace and Leila Williams.
The first baton relay in 1958. L-R Chris Brasher, Roger Bannister (with baton) and Chris Chataway at Buckingham Palace.

This is my story about whether or not to join The Brighton Borough Police Force; and later as a member of the Sussex Police stationed at Brighton from June 1958 until February 1985.

I suppose the story starts way back during the early months of 1957 when as a young 21 year old I was working for Sainsbury’s at their branch in St. James’s Street.

There were a number of nice people working there at this time; among them was a Mrs. June Penn. She was married to PC Peter Penn, a serving Brighton policeman and they lived in Rock Street, Kemp Town.

I started to get quite friendly with them and it was June who suggested that I should give up my job with the company and join the Brighton Police. I had never had this occupation in my mind; in fact I had a secure job and was probably frightened to leave the security of this job. My father had advised me to get a secure job and once you have such a job, then hang on to it, as it would see you through your working life.

Gradually, the idea grew but I was still not sure about making the change or probably more to the point, thinking would I really be able to do the job of a policeman? This was at a time when a certain sense of mystery surrounded the Police. I had never been in contact with them before except on one occasion when one chased me for being noisy, well that was the only thing I could think it was for.

On several occasions over the next few months the suggestions continued and gradually the idea really started to grow; now I was becoming interested. I asked more and more questions and as the weeks and months passed I asked a continual stream of questions aimed at Peter Penn. He was extremely helpful and I spent many evenings at his home and eventually asked him what I had to do to join and about getting the application forms. I can recall sitting at home with the forms on the table, pen poised and then still not being sure if I should go ahead.

A bad day at the Sainsbury’s

By this time almost a year had passed and it was towards the end of March. I was still desperately arguing with myself whether or not I should go ahead and then after one particularly bad day at the Sainsbury’s branch I finally decided it was time to give it a try, close on 14 months had now elapsed since the first suggestion had been made.

I filled in the forms and posted them to the Town Hall Police Station and waited for a reply. I was living in Dinapore Street at this time sharing an old house with my wife’s grandparents, having two rooms on the first floor and sharing the kitchen.

One day there was a knock on the door and my wife’s grandfather shouted up the stairs, “it’s for you David.” I came downstairs to find a policeman standing there. I wasn’t quite sure what to do or what he wanted. I invited him in and we went into the front room. My wife soon appeared with two cups of tea.

Pc Michael Welch

The policeman, in fact was Pc Michael Welch. I didn’t know him at that time but in later years we became good friends. (He had more success in his police career than I did, in fact he rose up through the ranks to become a superintendent. However, it’s nice to say that he never changed, the same ‘ole Michael.’)  In later years he recalled that it was the first time he had interviewed someone wishing to join the police, having been given no specific instructions just some vague guidelines, probably from his sergeant. He asked me why I wanted to join the police and said words like that I was in a rut, and I wasn’t likely to rise any further at Sainsbury’s. I believed that I would have better prospects within the police and no doubt better pay. I asked about police accommodation as living where we were, two rooms upstairs and a shared kitchen wasn’t too satisfactory. I hadn’t been married long then, and we had been gazumped on a flat in St.Lukes Road, that is why we had to live where we were. I recall we had a lengthy discussion and then it was my wife’s turn. In those days your wife had to be ‘checked-out’ to make sure that she was of good character and a ‘fit and proper person’ to be a policeman’s wife. Michael seemed to be happy with our answers and he reported back to say that I was a suitable candidate for the job. His report certainly did the trick. (So for all my former colleagues, who wondered how I was accepted, now you know, its Michael Welch’s fault)

It seemed a lifetime of waiting, each day I hoped the postman would bring me some news about an interview or something positive. Eventually I received a positive reply, an invitation to attend the Police Station for an interview.

The interview

I can recall dressing up in my very best clothes and setting off in great trepidation to the Town Hall Police Station on a sunny afternoon? I was quite a skinny guy in those days and about 6 feet tall, I knew that height meant a lot to becoming a policeman.

I nervously waited in the outer room at the Police Station with two other young guys around my age. I knew that we were all in the same state of mind, all anxious to give of our best and to join the ranks of the Town’s Police.

I seemed to have been waiting for a long time; my nerve all but shattered and eventually was called in to see the Superintendent, a large elderly man sitting behind a very tidy desk. ‘Sit down’ he barked, indicating a chair in front of his desk, this did nothing for my nerves.

I could feel myself becoming a quivering wreck and I knew that somehow I had to pull myself together. I felt very uncomfortable and I almost changed my mind whilst in the waiting room. I pinched my right leg so hard that the pain was almost unbearable but I believe it did the trick as the pain took away my nervousness.

Personal questions

I was asked a few personal questions like how long have you been married. What sort of house do you live in? Has your wife, her family or your family ever been in trouble or have a ’record?’ A few more similar questions followed and then the question I had been dreading, ‘Why do you want to be a policeman?’ I recall mumbling something about I wanted to be involved with people and help the community in general’ ‘Yes, but you could do that without being a policeman’ he said.

By this time his attitude had softened and I was at last beginning to feel a little easier but was I giving the right answers to the questions, was I doing enough to be accepted? He said, ‘I take it you know what the wages are?’ I replied, ‘Yes Sir, I think it is £10 a week’ ‘No, that’s not quite right, it is £9.10s but you will get a rent allowance on top of that. It will probably make it a little more that £10.’ A few other general questions followed and he said, ‘how long a notice to you have to give at Sainsbury’s? I then firmly believed that I had done enough to get the job. ‘A week Sir, I said in a much brighter and firmer voice, ‘just a week’ ‘All right then’ he said as he scribbled something down on his pad. I then expected him to say that I had got the job and sat there waiting. He looked up from his desk and said, ‘what are you waiting for, lad? I said, ‘sorry Sir, I didn’t realise you had finished.’

I got up and as I was about to leave through the door, when he called out, ‘we‘ll let you know’.

Quite an ordeal

I left his office and as soon as I got outside I breathed a sigh of relief, I had found it quite an ordeal and hurried home to relate the events to the family.

A short while later an official looking letter arrived at home and I was half afraid of opening it, I feared a rejection but to my surprise and delight I had been accepted, – subject to a medical. Well, I was almost a policeman. The letter said that arrangements would be made for me to attend the Brighton General Hospital in Elm Grove for a chest X-ray and also a full medical examination by the Police Surgeon who had his surgery in Princes Street opposite the Registry Office.

I went to work the next morning feeling 10 feet tall, I used to ride my cycle to work every day and I must have thought about nothing else as I cycled along the busy roads through Brighton out to George Street, Hove. (I had been transferred to the Hove Branch of Sainsbury’s by this time) I was dying to tell someone at work but I knew that I mustn’t say anything; I hadn’t actually got the job, although I was pretty confident and it was looking pretty much as if I would get it.

The medical

I received further letters that gave me the times and dates for the medical side of the interview. I decided that I would have to have a sick day from work for the visit to the hospital and then tell the manager that I had a doctor’s appointment. I first went to the hospital for the X-ray, having first phoned in ‘sick’ and about a week or so later attended the doctor’s surgery. I went home knowing that I had done all right at the doctor’s, as he had told me that I was fit and well. It now all hinged on the result of the X-ray that the doctor would receive and then send his report to the Police. These were rather exciting days although I didn’t fully acknowledge it until some while later.

The day came when another official looking letter arrived on the doormat, this time I was feeling fairly confident but then again there are always those little niggles at the back of your mind, that you may have somehow missed a small point whereby you wouldn’t be accepted. I opened the letter with my fingers crossed and there it was in black and white, I had been accepted, together with the starting date, I was going to become a policeman. I was very excited, now I was going to be somebody, someone who is looked up to in the community. I said to myself that I was going to be the best policeman that Brighton had ever had, — the very best.

I kept walking across the lounge imitating the policeman’s measured walk, backwards and forwards and saying, ‘I am going to be a policeman.’ I was just so happy and excited.

I then took breath and suddenly realised the enormity of what I was about to do. It would be a complete change of lifestyle, from being a shop assistant to the massive task of being a policeman. This was truly a daunting prospect. I would soon be changing my 9-5 type of job for a job where I would be working on shifts covering days, nights and weekends something I had never done before. The doubts flooded back, suppose I couldn’t do this job, what would I do? But deep down I knew I must give it a try, everyone I knew convinced me that I could do it.

I signed the form, which was my acceptance for the job and now there was no turning back. It had all happened so quickly; from the time I applied until the time I was accepted was a matter of a mere four or five weeks. I went to work with the view of giving a weeks notice but during the morning something happened which was to change things.

I was on the bacon counter and in those days whole sides of bacon weighing 60 or 70 pounds were hung on large silver hooks above the shelves at the back of the counters for display. There were times when these sides of bacon were needed to be removed from the display, boned and cut up into rashers and joints for the customers. We tried to avoid having to do this during the times that the shop was open but occasionally this couldn’t be avoided. I was able, due to my height to remove these sides of bacon from the display by myself. This entailed unhooking the hook from the display rail by means of a long pole with a hook on one end. It was almost impossible to do this without both height and practice and this morning proved to be one of those times.

I was very busy in the preparation department on the first floor of the shop and I had a young strong lad working with me. I said to him, ‘go downstairs and get someone to help you get a couple of sides of bacon down from the display.’ Eagerly he went downstairs and returned with one of the smaller sides. He went back downstairs and a short time afterwards I heard some sort of commotion coming from the shop. I heard his voice and that of one of the under managers. Then the under manager came upstairs and started to rant and rave at me for allowing the lad to get the sides of bacon down on his own.

What had happened was that while getting down the second side of bacon, it slipped and fell off his shoulder and struck the leg of a female customer. It really wasn’t such a big incident but nevertheless it shouldn’t have happened. I explained to the under manager that I had told the lad to get some help and didn’t know that he hadn’t. This didn’t satisfy him and he continued to rant and rave at me. It wasn’t long before both our voices were raised, trying to out-shout each other. I told him to go away as he was acting like a kid. He then came up close to me in a threatening way and I pushed him away. I think that is what he wanted me to do, I pushed him again and he then made a comment about me.

I just saw red and before I knew what was happening the small push and shove led to me striking him. To this day I cannot understand why I wasn’t suspended but I wasn’t. I was told however, that the Area Manager was coming to see. Well I knew what that meant. The area manager and I never really hit it off and I thought he would have great delight in sacking me. It was then that I told them that I would be leaving at the end of the week. The Area manager, Mr. Phillips never came to see me but I did see him a few months later after I had joined the Police and after he had parked his car on double yellow lines in Dorset Gardens outside the St James Street Sainsbury’s branch. I took great delight in offering him some advice about where his car was parked.

The end of the week soon came and at last the big adventure was about to start, but first a short holiday just to make a break between jobs. I had now left the Sainsbury’s but I still had doubts about whether or not I had made the right decision, not that there had been much choice; but there was no turning back now. This was it.

It was now halfway through June 1958 and I was soon due to attend the Magistrates Court at the Town Hall to be sworn in as Police Constable 127 Rowland.

My starting wages were £9.10s plus a rent allowance of another 25 shillings per week. My wages at Sainsbury’s at this time was £10.10s. That meant I had taken a small drop in pay. The difference being that my position at Sainsbury’s was as a senior salesman, an equivalent position of being around No. 3 in seniority in the shop with very little chance of going higher. To do this you had to be a ‘Yes man’ and that is something I wouldn’t or couldn’t be. The position in the Police Force at this stage was that I was at the bottom and could only go higher, or rather not go lower. I knew that to achieve a higher rank meant that exams had to be passed and that you weren’t at the mercy of whether or not your face fitted, – or at least that is what I thought? DavidRowland

Welcome to the Finsbury Publishing

David Rowland has just launched his 15th and final book, “The Spirit of Winsome Winn II”, all about the B-17 Flying Fortress which crashed at Patcham after being hit by anti-aircraft fire over Germany.

No Comments

Start the ball rolling by posting a comment on this page!

Add a comment about this page

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *