The River Tyne Police

God help you if you fell in with all your clobber on!

Back in 1965, the River Tyne Police was a private police force controlled by the Tyne Improvement Commission which itself was established by an Act of Parliament in 1850. The force was generally under the guidance of the National Police Regulations, although some Acts of Parliament did make special reference to the ‘River Tyne Police’.

Broadly, the River Tyne Police had the responsibility for patrolling the River Tyne, Albert Edward and Tyne docks and the Shields ferry. The headquarters was at the Mill Dam, South Shields with the River Health Authority occupying most of the upper floors of that building. There was a large second station on the Gateshead side of the Swing Bridge with others at Albert Edward Dock, Tyne Dock and on the North Shields Ferry Landing. There was another cabin on the South Shields Ferry Landing used mainly as a store and the CID were housed in the old Custom House on the Mill Dam.

In those days and from what I can remember, the force consisted of a Chief Constable, a Chief Inspector who was also the Deputy Chief Constable, four Inspectors, around ten uniformed Sergeants, a Detective Sergeant, nearly forty Constables and two Detective Constables.

Leaving the Chief Constable and his Deputy out of the equation, the office was manned by a Sergeant and a Constable, with another Constable employed to walk the river frontages reporting on the condition of the structures. All worked 9am to 5pm. The rest of us, when at full strength, worked a three shift system being 6am – 2pm, 2pm – 10pm and 10pm – 6am on a 7-day rota worked thus. At 10 pm on a Monday, the night shift started for seven consecutive nights finishing 6am the following Monday. The rest of that day and the following Tuesday were your days off. Wednesday and Thursday you were back to work on the 2pm – 10pm shift. Friday morning saw you back after a quick change to the 6am – 2pm shift and this you worked until the following Tuesday. The Wednesday and Thursday were your next two days off. Friday through to the following Tuesday we worked 2pm – 10 pm with another quick change to the 6am shift for Wednesday and Thursday, then a long weekend, being Friday through to Sunday before starting the whole process again on the Monday night. Those of us who worked the lower reaches of the river, Swan Hunters downstream, took our turn in working the boats, docks and ferries, but when sickness and holidays took their toll the Ferry Landing would be first to go to a two shift system, 8am through to midnight and then the two docks followed on the same system. The boats, wherever possible, were kept fully manned.

The work was quite diverse as is all police work. We had a measure of road traffic to deal with as well as thefts, burglaries, fights, deaths and rescues and of course, we helped many a foreign seaman out of a jam. Training in those days started with a three months basic course at the Police Training Centre at Newby Whiske near Northallerton, followed by a two-week refresher course at the end of your first and second years at RAF Dishforth.

Not being a local lad I had to take my entrance exam at my local police headquarters which I did in September 1965. At the beginning of October I was invited to attend the Mill Dam for an interview, following which I had a medical and eyesight test at the Ministry of Transport and Aviation Centre in the Old Custom House building where I was told that I could tell red from green and my sight was good enough to see a ship coming.

I reported for duty at the Mill Dam on the 29th October 1965, but unfortunately I had to wait a month before I could go to Newby Whiske for my initial training, so lodgings were arranged for me for the next 4 weeks up on the Lawe Top at South Shields. It was a strange place, full of students who wrecked the place. On my first day, my landlady asked if I liked egg sandwiches to which I foolishly said ‘yes’ so for the next 4 weeks my lunch consisted of two slices of bread in which nestled a cold fried egg with black frilly edges, delightful.

Not daring to let me out of their sight, I was restricted to 9am – 5pm Monday to Friday, always working with another officer or in boats with the rest of the crew. Towards the end of my first week, there was a major incident in the engine room on an old steam dredger of Readhead’s when an escape of steam caught the crew and one poor stoker died from burns due to scalding, my first fatality and a hard lessons learnt.

On my return from Newby Whiske, I was full of new found wisdom, some of it useful and some of it not so useful. I was given my own personal locker, placed on watch rota and given a crash course on card games such as ‘Black 5s’ and ‘Solo’ and thereby gradually integrated into the force. The Mill Dam became home for quite a number of years. Looking back it was some place. The Chief Constable had his own loo inside, the Inspectors had one loo outside in the yard with a key and the rest of the troops had the other also in the yard. We had coal fires throughout the offices, all cleaned and bunkered by the various station officers on duty throughout the 24 hours.

If you were scheduled to be in the boats, the South Shields men on the morning shift usually arrived around 5.30 am and having signed on, would get those of the night shift who lived on the north side of the river back to either Albert Edward Dock or the North Shields Ferry Landing and at the same time picked up those who were coming on duty.

Once we had accounted for everyone, we were back to the Dam where a hot drink was brewing and we had time to read the reports from the last time we were on duty. The first patrol of the day was a quick sweep up and down the river, refuel the boat and then back to the Dam for breakfast that the station officer had cooked and, believe me, some of them struggled to know what a pan was let alone be capable of producing a decent meal, but beggars cannot be choosers. Some of those who read this will remember a certain constable whose sweat often ran from his forehead into the burning fat in the frying pan that most of us used to bring eggs to boil!

After breakfast we would take buckets of hot water to the boat, then to the South Ferry landing and get the boat scrubbed down and brasses cleaned. Then it was time to get afloat, firstly up to Wallsend to meet with the Gateshead crew, then to the TIC Howden Yard to pick up stores and have any minor repairs carried out. While we waited, up to the canteen for more drinks. Then it was a drift downstream to the docks and piers before calling in at the North Shields Ferry landing to visit the officer there before collecting the North Shields officers and ferrying them to the Mill Dam ready for the back shift.

It may seem a little idyllic this lifestyle, but in those days these boats had none or very little heating and the cabin had half doors only with a canvas dodger covering the opening. The Sergeant usually had the seat on the starboard side facing forward, then the helmsman, then the poor old constable sitting behind him facing aft usually catching all the weather blowing into the cockpit. How did we keep warm? Great coats, uniforms, jumpers, thick woolly socks and boots, gloves, scarf, hat and a piece of canvas around the legs. Definitely, not all beer and skittles and God help you if you fell in with all that clobber on.
If stationed on the docks life was a little easier. Wherever possible we worked the three shift system. The Inspector would usually set up meets with you at the furthest point on your beat and while you walked through whatever the weather threw at you, he would arrive by boat or car, give you a wave and disappear back into his shell and head back for a warm office. Having said that, some were real gentlemen whilst others were definitely not!

For those on the Ferry landing there was a very little cosy cabin with a potbellied stove, sink, table, seating and a small desk that you had to stand at to fill in the logs etc. It was always the responsibility of the officer to ensure that he had the stove lit and kettle boiled for when the boat crew arrived. If the Sergeant could not warm his derrière then there was hell to pay. Having said that, most of the time it was just good old bluster and just part of the game played out. Where did we get the coal from? The ferries, it was best quality steaming coal and it was always my pleasure to get the stove and chimney glowing red from top to bottom so that the Sergeant complained that it was too hot.

The Gateshead lads just undertook boat duty and they patrolled from Swan Hunters as far up as they felt it necessary to go.

Was it a cushy number? In some respects, ‘Yes’, but we had our moments. Fatalities, both young and old, male and female, fresh and weeks cum months old corpses. Fights, woundings, injuries, break-ins, thefts, assaults, life saving and just general assistance and anything in between.

Were our facilities good? Sometimes, but at other times we worked in Dickensian conditions. At the lower end of the river we had a morgue on the Fish Quay and another behind the Mill Dam. This latter building had a slab, no hot water, a leaky old hosepipe to wash down bodies and slab, no ventilation apart from an open door and a single light bulb. We got a guinea in those days for the recovery of a body usually split between three of us. Less than 35p each, less tax of course, for handling a corpse that could be up to 6 months old. No wonder we became a little hard bitten.

Towards to end of the RTP we got a new fibreglass boat that was faster, had full doors and proper heating. Unfortunately, the Sergeant that took the boat out for nearly the first time hit an underwater pile and twisted the keel. It never ran very smoothly after that!

What was the river like? The sewage works was not in existence. Crude sewage flowed into the river at many points. The piston effect of the tides never really cleared the river of rubbish upstream of Swan Hunters. The same debris that flowed downstream came back up stream when the tide turned. Hydrogen Sulphide in the air in the summer turned the brass work black.

At the Mill Dam there was a sewer discharging slaughterhouse waste straight into the Mill Dam Cut where we moored our boat. Low tide was all guts and blood on the rocks and steps with the rats growing fat. High tide and the Cut was a red sea.

This is where I will end. The more I think about the years on Tyneside the more I remember and the stories I could recall, but many of those stories should never be told. Most of the men I worked with were a credit to their profession, honest men and it was my pleasure to serve with them and I am sad to say that I doubt if there are many of them left.

In 1968, the Tyne Improvement Commission ceased to exist and the River Tyne Police was transferred to the South Shields Borough Police for about two months before being amalgamated as part of Durham Constabulary. We of course lost the docks and ferries but gained the River Wear. Some years later, Northumbria Police Authority swallowed us all up and in 1976 I left the police and took up another more rewarding career.

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