ALL THINGS CONSIDERED: Trainees at London's police school were rough around the edges
Born in 1925 in Croydon, England, Ed Pearson volunteered to join the British Royal Air Force at the age of 16 and during World War II served in India and Burma. His blog continues here upon his return to the UK.
Training to become a London, UK policeman in 1947 differed greatly from today. We didn’t receive firearms instruction or use computers to aid in investigation and we weren’t assigned fancy cars equipped with GPS. No, the London bobby walked the beat and learned indispensable skills such as how to stop a runaway horse.
That exercise was not as simple as the training manual made out. The first step was easy enough - “Run in the same direction as the horse.” Next, you were to grab the reins at the side of the horse’s head, which would encourage the animal to slow down to a gentle trot.
On my first attempt, I ran with all my might and managed to catch up to the horse and grab the reins, but instead of slowing down, it took off at an even faster pace causing my legs to fly up behind me as I hung on for dear life. After I’d repeatedly kicked myself in the arse, the nag decided it’d had enough fun and came to a stop.
The recruits were a rough and tumble lot, most not far out of their teens and having spent the previous years in wartime conditions. We lacked social graces, to say the least, and a good part of our training was in the pursuit of making us gentlemen and a credit to the force.
There were bad habits to break, to be sure. During the war, troops would occasionally be invited to dinner events and it became customary to return to camp with knives and forks for use in the mess hall. After mealtime at the police college, cadets would be inspected when filing out, just in case cutlery had inadvertently been pocketed.
If you lived close to the college, you were allowed to go home at the end of each day; otherwise you lived in a barrack called a section house during training. Since we would be working a six-day week, we trained six days weekly. It was a pleasant surprise when I eventually joined the Toronto force and discovered I’d only be on duty five days a week.
Since the vast majority of recruits were ex-servicemen, we were experienced in the operation of firearms, but London police don’t carry service revolvers, so that was a wasted talent. Mind you, we were issued truncheons made of lignum vitae, being the hardest wood around, which could do a fair bit of damage to a noggin when necessary.
Our uniforms were designed to protect us. If was difficult for suspects to attempt strangulation while resisting arrest since we didn’t have collars and ties to pull. Our tunics were studded rather than buttoned and instead of raincoats with belts and buttons that could be grabbed, we were issued capes. Mind you, I found the iconic bobby helmet of no great use as it was easily knocked off.
When it came time to be outfitted, we were given an allowance for boots and sent to a uniform store to pick premade pants and tunics that we hoped would fit well enough. What a far cry from the Toronto police force, where we presented ourselves at Tip Top Tailors to be carefully measured for our uniforms.
The most valuable preparation for police duty wasn’t learned at the college. It was after graduation, when we were each assigned to walk the beat with a long-serving constable, that we really learned the ropes. One of my first nights out with my veteran partner took an unusual turn.
Spying a man with a suitcase who was acting suspiciously, my partner remarked intuitively, “He’s up to no good.” Having caught the attention of the coppers, the man dropped the suitcase and took off running. We were quick to the chase, with my partner grabbing in his pocket to retrieve his police whistle.
Thing is, he happened to keep his tobacco in the same pocket and somehow jammed that into his mouth instead. Next thing I knew he was choking and we lost precious moments while I thumped him on the back to dislodge the obstruction. Funnily enough, I remember the wad taking flight from his mouth, but don’t recall if we ever nabbed the suspect.