Stories from the book, 'The Police in Lewes.' Part 20
In 1950 and up until the establishment of a locally based home Office Radio workshop at Lewes, all vehicles and static radio links were dealt with by the Home Office Establishment at Cranbrook, Kent. The first radio workshop was situated at West Street, above the archway leading to Sun Street, and Rodney Ash remembers the engineer as Harry Hurrell. This temporary workshop closed when purpose built accommodation was taken into use near the old garage block at Malling House.
The initial lack of wireless repair and maintenance facility in Lewes meant that all vehicle radios that needing such attention had to be taken to Home Office workshops at Cranbrook in Kent. At this time most 4-wheeled vehicles were radio equipped, though motor cycles were not.
The first motor cycle in Lewes to be equipped with police radio was a headquarters traffic motor cycle and in 1956-57. PC John Scutt was summoned to headquarters to meet Superintendent Ted Pilbeam who had overall responsibility for the traffic division. John was instructed to take the motor cycle to Cranbrook as it was to be equipped with radio. He was also instructed not to use the new radio when it had been fitted, and to return straight back to Lewes police Headquarters and to meet Superintendent Ted Pilbeam again.
While John was at Cranbrook he watched as the radio was fitted and he started his journey back to Lewes. En route he frequently tested the radio to see whether there was any reception ‘black spots.’ Back at Lewes he reported to Superintendent Ted Pilbeam that the radio had been examined and the superintendent decided he would ‘broadcast to the nation.’ This is why he told John not to use the radio, he wanted to be the first one to use it. He picked up the microphone and saying to all KB units that it was an historical occasion, and that he was making the very first transmission from a motor-cycle. Little did he know that PC John Scutt had stolen his thunder several times during the previous half hour or so when he did some tests on his way back to headquarters in Lewes?
Sub-Divisional police stations were equipped with radio receivers but not transmitters. In the case of Lewes, the key personnel at Race Meetings and similar type events were supplied with very bulky ‘Pye Cambridge’ radio transmitters.
This equipment was in the form of a back-pack, which until the battery ran out, were quite effective. However, by the late 1950’s some progress had been made and events, such as ‘Bonfire night, 5th November resulted in Home Office engineers arriving prior to the actual day and installing transmitter equipment which then enabled communications to be established with most parts of the town.
The first truly mobile radio equipment arrived at West Street in the early 1960’s when ‘Pye’ two-piece equipment arrived at the police station together with a base station, which had to be sited in the Public enquiry office. The batteries had to be re-charged daily and it was a bit of a hit or miss affair with frequent mislaying of the batteries, the transmitter or the receiver. On more than one occasion there were insufficient equipment to supply all personnel who were on duty. This was certainly not helped by some items only being recovered from overcoat pockets after the return from annual leave of the wearer or ‘days off.’
The week that this equipment became ‘operational’ ‘B’ section were on night shift and as it quickly became obvious that there were a number of ‘black spots’ for reception in the town. Home Office engineers carried out some research in various areas in Lewes. This actually involved the beat officers trying out their equipment in the most awkward and inaccessible places. One memory is Don Marsh transmitting and inviting the Station officer to guess where he was and what was happening. It was then 3am in the morning. The Station Officer and two colleagues joined in trying to guess where Don was? They had several guesses between them. Eventually they gave up without finding the location. The actual location was in the vicar’s vestry at St. Michael’s Church high Street, where the toilet was being flushed, giving the location away. Another good vantage point for transmissions was the external projectionist’s room at the top of the Odeon Cinema, Cliffe High Street.
As time went by radio equipment became a lot more reliable and sophisticated for both the officer and the vehicles. At one stage of this development it was often possible to speak on the car radios with other police force networks as far away as the north of England – this was very novel and interesting for transmitter and the receiver of messages.
However, by the 1970’s communications had moved on enormously, in fact quite unrecognisable to the previous 20 years. It was in the 1970’s that ‘panic’ buttons had been installed in most vehicles. They were more than helpful on the rare occasion that they had to be used when the car crews urgently wanted urgent help. Most times when the button was pushed was by mistake but it did act as a good exercise making sure that urgent response would be forthcoming.
One such incident, which was very embarrassing for the rural sergeant occurred in late November 1978, on the occasion of the Chailey Bonfire society’s annual bonfire parade. The procession always used the main A275 road from Mill road through to Cinder Hill. As this could be more than a little risky in the dark, the police always provided a vehicle to both the front and the rear of the procession, together with attendance at the bonfire and firework area itself.
This particular night was bitterly cold and quite frosty and it wasn’t the sort of weather that you wanted to be standing around for several hours, there certainly wasn’t any enjoyment in that. At the end of this particular evening, as always, he benevolent sergeant thought to provide his ‘troops’ with a nip of whisky to warm ‘the cockles.’ En route to the event he decided to ’see out; the Royal Oak at Barcombe. As he pulled up at the pub the locals were already making their way out and home. The sergeant wound down the car window then leaned across the front passenger seat whereupon a number of ‘rustic heads’ and tried to get in. Mind full of the whiskey bottle on the seat he shouted, ‘Mind that whisky bottle.’ This was quickly followed by HQ Operations Room controller saying,’ Are you alright Charlie 424? - You certainly sound as if you are! While leaning across the seat the sergeant had accidentally pressed against the ‘panic’ button with his knee and the Force network in the eastern part of the county got entirely the wrong idea about a small bottle of whisky. When he got back to the station, he had a bit of explaining to do to the section inspector who wanted to know about the panic button call.
One unofficial use of the radio occurred quite regularly when a certain crew of ‘Tango6 unit’ booked off on the radio at the end of their 6pm – 2am shift. They were two members of the police ‘pop group’ which were based at Lewes and they sang a musical rendition of booking off shift. . The pop group were very talented and got as far as an audition with an agent and that was with a view to a recording contract. The audition was carried out in the clubroom at the police station when the agent bought drinks for all and sundry, but sadly, in the end there was no contract for the police group. The group included PC Maurice Wicker of West Street. The musical efforts continued for quite a while after this, but slowly declined, presumably due to lack of contracts.
Written and researched by David Rowland with a huge amount of grateful assistance from the book ‘The Police in Lewes.’