A Policeman's Lot.

Photo:1939. the sandbags were eventually replaced by a blast wall
Black Rock swimming pool in 1939
Seven Dials in the 1950s
A Brighton trolleybus in Elm Grove
Until the formation of the Borough Ambulance Service in 1948 it was a Police responsibility to provide ambulances for Brighton. This 1942 photograph shows the Police ambulance with three drivers from the wartime Women's Auxiliary Police Corps
Sussex Police

The main story has been taken from an article in the Evening Argus of Tuesday 7th November 1989.

Police Constable William (Bill) Cowen served for 30 years as a policeman in Brighton. He was a rather tall man, a bit on the lean side and quite an amiable type of man.

He joined Brighton Borough Police in 1939 and after little more than a few short months was called up for military service. He returned to Police duty in 1946.

Bill’s strongest memories of his post war police duties are of spending cold and wet nights patrolling the streets in Brighton, that is as well as the very stern discipline and slow promotion for those who wished to get on. In those days you had to check every shop door to make sure the doors were locked, almost all patrolling beat constables have tried doors while they were half-asleep to find it unlocked and they fell in the shop. You would then have to wake the shopkeeper up and tell him to lock up his shop. We also had certain houses to check. When people went away on holiday, they would inform the police of the dates they would be away, a note would be entered in a book and the information passed onto the beat. It was then the beat officers job to check that property at least once a night, usually twice to ensure it wasn’t broken into. If you hadn’t checked the property the inspector would want to know why, if it was broken into and you didn’t notice it then you would be seen by the CID officers where you explained why you didn’t find it.

When you worked on the Black Rock beat, twice a night you had to climb over the fence surrounding Black Rock swimming pool and check that out to make sure that hadn’t been broken into. It was broken into several times a year. (One night it was pouring hard most of the night and I had checked out the kiosk in the pool and it was secure. I took a chance and didn’t visit the pool for a second time that night. I went home after my shift and was called out of bed and made to go to CID HQ to see the Detective Inspector, as the place had been burgled. I never missed a visit after that, when I was on that beat.)

A sergeant needed service and experience because he was something of a father figure to the young constables. He certainly needed the gravitas and similarly most inspectors didn’t get the rank until they had served around 15 years or in some cases even more. As a bobby on the beat you might not go anywhere near the police the police station at the Town Hall until the Friday evening pay parade. During the late 1940’s I was earning about £5 a week which was a good wage then.

Pay day

However, to collect your wages you had to call at the police station at 5.30pm and you had to wear a collar and tie, bear in mind this was in your time. Even in the heat of summer, you couldn’t turn up wearing a smart open-necked shirt. You would be sent home and told to dress properly.
Brighton used what was referred to as the ‘Box system,’ where the beat bobby would book on by telephone, make a note in the police box where he was patrolling and then set off on the route he had just written. You had to make sure that you were back again in time to ring the operator for any messages and if necessary to make out any reports.

You were assigned to a specific beat for a 6-week period, although having said that some bobbies were on the same beats for years. I covered the Seven Dials beat for over 3 years, every day I was on duty. Nights could be murder, especially the terrible winter of 1947. That winter there were two feet of snow and ice on the ground. Our uniforms were very good quality and we had a generous boot allowance. It worked out at 3 shillings a week. That money was for you to pay for any repairs to your boots or to buy a new pair of boots. You were not allowed to wear shoes, boots were good for your feet and the sides of the boots supported your ankles. Patrolling your beat would often entail walking overall 4 or possibly 5 miles per 8-hour shift. Quite often that would also mean walking home after you had booked off duty.

Baby it’s cold outside

I recall one night I was working the Western Road beat from 6pm to 2am. It was in the winter time and there were flurries of snow throughout my shift. At the time I was living in North Woodingdean and at 2am I booked off duty and I was hoping I might see a friendly police car going my way but no such luck. It was freezing cold as I set off on my long walk home. I didn’t see any vehicles of any description going my way. I reached the bottom of Elm Grove and looked up towards the top. It was an awful long way up. I eventually reached the top of Elm Grove and looking over towards Woodingdean, it was another world. There was about 2 inches of snow laying on the ground. I carried on feeling so cold. I eventually reached my home about 4.20am and had to knock my wife up from her night’s sleep as I was so cold I couldn’t unlock my front door. I just sat in the chair, shaking and so cold. I did go to bed but it was about 6am as far as I can now remember. That is the other side of Policing in Brighton.

Bill continues with his story, ’As I said the uniforms were of a really good quality but one night I was patrolling near the race-course and it was absolutely ‘tipping-it down’ I was soaked to the skin. It was late evening and I had to eat my sandwiches in the police box, unfortunately the small box-heater had broken down and the box was freezing inside, but at least it was dry, although I wasn’t.

It didn’t take long for you to get to know certain people and usually the residents were very nice, the police too were very friendly and that made sure there was plenty of respect for the Police. Of course in those days there were no radios and you were completely on your own and had to make your own decisions and hopefully you had got them right. Should you get yourself into any trouble, then you hoped to get help from members of the public or they would ring the police and tell them you needed some help at that stage.

The most popular crime

Another thing, the crime-pattern was different at that time. The most popular crime was probably ‘burglary, and there were lots of them. Other offences such as Rapes and sexual offences were very rare and a murder was very exceptional. Another popular offence would be pick-pocketing, especially up the race hill during the race days. We had plain clothes officers there specially to catch these people. Sometimes, we would get a bookmaker welshing on his customers and make off with their winnings. At that time, it was the Police who ran the Ambulance service, well up to 1948, when the National Health was born. Mind the ambulance would only turn out to emergencies in the street, such as a traffic accident or someone run over.

I remember that when I got married I had to ask permission of the Chief Constable and my wife and her family were all subject to being checked for any criminology in the family. If there was, permission to marry was refused. Then you had a choice, leave your girl-friend or leave the Police Force, – quite simple. That applied to all ranks although probably at that time we were just young constables.

Another thing, I have just remembered that if one of your cases went to court and was dismissed by the magistrates there would be hell to pay from the senior officers. They wanted to know every detail of how you lost your case. In their eyes it meant you hadn’t done your job properly. Mostly it hadn’t anything to do with you how or why the case was dismissed. ‘Oh boy’, those were the days, however did we put up with it, but we did because that was the way of things in those days.

Bill Cowen, retired in 1970 as a chief Inspector, still at Brighton but it has to be admitted that he did well for himself. He oversaw massive changes to the way Policing was carried out as we all did, well for those who joined in the 1940’s and 50’s, me included. Many of the changes were for the better, but most certainly a large number were not, especially for the Public, overall it was the Public who lost out and that is sad, after all the Police are here to serve the public but sometimes I wonder if Modern-Day policing is aware of that fact.

The main story has been taken from an article in the Evening Argus of Tuesday 7th November 1989.

Written and researched by David Rowland, a former Police Officer with Brighton Borough Police and also with Sussex Police.


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