Colourful tales of policing Cumbria in the 1960s

Date: Friday 8th December 2017

THE changing face of policing was the subject of a talk to the Probus Club of Penrith at the town’s Roundthorn Hotel by club member John Sharpe, of Clifton.

The focus of the talk was the 1960s and the public face of the police — the bobby on the beat.

With police recruiting posters of the day extolling personal qualities like common sense and a sense of humour, the speaker had seen university and national service in the Army when he joined the Cumbria force at Penrith. That was early in 1963 — the year that would be notorious for events like the Profumo affair, the great train robbery and the assassination of US president John F. Kennedy.

Assigned to foot patrol at busy Kendal after a few months at the training centre at Warrington, Mr. Sharpe was soon looking after a section of the town on his own, equipped with the standard baton, handcuffs and whistle — but no personal radio or protective clothing and no chance of backup, apart from the public.

So there was every incentive to cultivate people’s support and present a positive image with a dignified bearing and a smart uniform. “Look the part or you’ll make the job hard for yourself” was the parting shot from the training centre, while “the policeman is a reality that the most ignorant can comprehend” was still in the text books in 1963.

Late shifts at first gave freedom to find your way about in the dark without the public knowing you were lost. But then of course the pubs were turning out. An early encounter with an aggressive drunk led to a threat by him to “knock your block off” and a noisy walk to the police station (no radio and no backup remember), with a ten shilling fine (50p) for drunk and disorderly at next morning’s court.

More positive encounters were people with requests for help like “Nearest petrol?” and, perhaps more surprisingly, “What’s early closing day in Morecambe?” and “Can you give me directions to London?” — over 250 miles away and pre-motorway. Early police ethos was to befriend anyone in trouble.

Patrolling alone one dark night Mr. Sharpe found two Lancashire youths in a car in circumstances that led him to think they were up to no good. Deciding they had to go to the police station about a mile away for further checks, the only way to do it was to use “their” car – again of course, no radio and no backup. At the station the night sergeant decided in his wisdom to “chase” the two suspects and give priority to dealing with the aftermath of a fatal road accident.

It turned out next day that the car had been stolen from Blackpool and the two lads in it were “of interest” to police in various other ways as well. All very galling for a keen young probationer.

Mr Sharpe recalled street incidents like accidents and illnesses falling to his lot, along with domestic disputes and sudden deaths followed by attendance at post mortems. All in all, town foot patrol in the 1960s was a miscellany ranging between periods of inactivity and sudden challenge.

But Kendal was on the main A6 north-south road and near the main rail line. Always in the background was the possibility of something big turning up. It happened on 8th February, 1965 — a night to remember.

Mr. Sharpe was off duty around 11pm when he learned of a big search for an armed man who had fired shots at two of his police colleagues. Back in uniform and joining the hunt, he and others — all unarmed — reached Oxenholme railway station at 2am to find a nightmare scene.

Three policemen had been shot and one of them was lying on the station platform, shouting out in agony with a bullet in his back. All three were badly injured and one of them died soon after, aged 33.

By this time reinforcements were arriving — many from other police areas — and firearms were being issued. The speaker had been familiar with guns in the Army without seeing them used in anger, and he had not expected that in rural Westmorland.

Soon after daylight that February morning the hunt for the gunman ended when he was brought down by a rifle shot in the leg by a local policeman. He then turned his gun on himself but survived both shots, to be ruled unfit to plead at his eventual trial for murder and ordered to be detained for life “at Her Majesty’s pleasure”.

Foot patrol at Kendal ended in April, 1965, with Mr. Sharpe’s transfer to motorcycle patrol at Penrith — and, if anything, an even more eventful spell of police duty on pre-breathalyser roads among some seriously drunk drivers and fatal accidents occurring around four times as often as they would 50 years later.

Then there were arrests for taking vehicles and two others within the space of a year for attempted murder.

Personal radios for foot patrols and then computer systems would change the police job immeasurably, before the once-familiar bobby on the beat would start to disappear in the 1990s.

Mr. Sharpe’s talk was well received by Probus members, who remembered the 1960s clearly.

With his allotted time for the talk running out and issues still arising from the floor, he referred questioners to his new book The Police and Me, reviewed recently in the Herald and available from the Hedgehog Bookshop, Penrith, and other outlets in the area.