Some White Watch Charactors

SOME WHITE WATCH CHARACTORS.
Brian Sinclair was posted to the White Watch Hammersmith somewhere around the mid 1970s at the time he was approaching forty years of age with a little bit of middle age spread, and was somewhat set in his ways. He was a late entry into the fire brigade, and had served quite a few years in the Merchant Navy, attaining the rank of Boson’s mate or Lampie, this basically I believe is the name for the chief store man for the front end of a ship, the forecastle, which so I was informed was amongst other things the paint store. Now Brian never quite lost his chief store mans attitude to work, he had eyes for the small minute details in life, which quite suited me, because I tended to surge along on the crest of the waves regardless, and Brian would dot the I’s and cross the T’s behind me. He was quite a character in his own right, as different from me as chalk and cheese, they do say that opposites attract, in this case they did, and we worked well together. Another insight to his character was when the brigade imposed quotas on our outside activities, fire inspections, hydrant inspections and such like requiring a monthly return. Now these quotas at a very busy fire station like Hammersmith were virtually impossible to achieve. At the months end returns routines in the office, Brian was complaining loudly to me, it’s just not possible to get the correct numbers for the return Guv, we will never be able to achieve them. In reply I said to him, “have you got the form there in front of you” yes came back the answer, “right how many fire inspections are required”. Ten he replied but we have only managed to do seven, OK in the appropriate box write down the number ten, the bosun’s mate in him started to protest, but I cut him short saying Brian I am going to sign the form just do as I say, and so we carried on down to the bottom of the form, giving the required numbers in the boxes. Then I gave him one of my little gems of wisdom telling him “Brian by not filling in all these little boxes with the right numbers, we are implying that all those senior officers back at brigade headquarters don’t know their jobs, and know nothing about life at the sharp end. So all we have to do is write the correct numbers in those little boxes, and every body is happy. We certainly had no queries or recriminations on my laisse faire system of completing monthly returns.
I think most of the white watch of that period, would remember Brian for our musical evenings on the night shift, when I would play the guitar, and Brian played the spoons. He would be remembered for his rendering of the song ‘matchstick men’ the L S Lowry song, which he accompanied me on guitar with the spoons and sang by him with great gusto, and then the whole watch joining in the repeat choruses. He also had another little trick in which he carefully folded a hankerchief into the shape of a little mouse with a tail holding it in the palm of his hand then with a surreptitious flick of his finger it would leap up his arm, this one never failed to amuse the ladies.
There was a bit of a downside to Brian’s career as a fire officer, in that he was considered to be unlucky. Every fire officer no matter how skilled or experienced always needs just that little bit of extra luck to see him through both his career and to keep him safe from injury. It seemed that whenever I was away from the station for an extended period, on leave or on a brigade course and Brian was in charge, something usually of a calamitous nature occurred. On one occasion he attended what would appear to be a simple house fire a settee or couch was quite badly damaged by fire, which was quickly extinguished with a hose reel jet, with some smoke logging of the premises. This would appear to be one of the classic causes of these fires, careless disposal of smoking materials. Satisfied that this was just a simple routine fire, Brian duly filled in the paperwork and went back to the station. Unfortunately, at the time when this fire occurred the occupant of the house had been asleep on the settee, and it had been him that rushed out of the house as the firemen arrived. He had made his own way to the nearby Charing Cross hospital, where he subsequently died from his burns and other complications. As a result Brian having no knowledge of all this, he was unable to give any detailed information of the fire or events to the Coroner, which was rather looked down upon. Never the less, this information did not go above station level, to the upper echelons of the brigade, and Brian survived this little episode unscathed, which in itself was considered to be quite lucky.
On another occasion when I was on long-term sick leave, which eventually resulted in my leaving the brigade, Brian was again in charge of the station. A fire call was received to the Avenmore Trading estate, now this is not as the name would suggest, a sprawled out series of buildings of one or more stories in height. Instead this was a big old Victorian estate of congested brick built warehouses three and four stories in height and a known high fire risk area. The call came in on a night watch in the winter and it was dark outside. The caller stated that from her apartment at the rear of the Avenmore estate, she could see flames flickering in one of the buildings there. This being Hammersmith’s fire ground, the pump sub officer Sinclair in charge, and the pump escape leading fireman Geoff Bayley were ordered on to the fire. Upon arrival at the Avenmore estate Brian made contact with a security man in a gatehouse at the entrance to the estate. The security man told Brian that he had no knowledge of the fire call, but that somebody was burning rubbish on a bonfire at the side of one of the buildings, and directed him to it. There Brian found an unattended bonfire smouldering and flickering away, not satisfied that this was the fire the caller had actually seen, he did something that even I had never done before. He got on the radio to fire control, and asked to be able to speak directly to the caller herself. Unfortunately the fire she had first seen had died down, and she was uncertain of its origin, but she eventually agreed that it was the bonfire that she had actually seen. So Brian sent the stop message alarm caused by burning rubbish and returned back to the fire station. Well of course you may have guessed it by now, an hour or so later there was a make pumps twelve at the Avenmore trading estate. Another fine Victorian period building gutted, another useful car park for the occupants of the crowded estate provided. Sadly though this one went all the way to the top, the discipline code was invoked, and Brian and the leading fireman were both charged with negligence. The discipline hearing was presided over by the chief officer himself, he being a bit of a shit, in my own personal opinion, I being somewhat prejudiced perhaps, knowing the man of old, found them both guilty. This man the chief, could not have spent more than two years riding the red engines, before starting his ascent up the greasy pole of promotion, what did he know about life and tribulations at the sharp end. Before sentence was to be announced character witnesses were called, there were two assistance divisional officers and three Station Officers, all long time served experienced officers, all gave Brian and Geoff Bayley glowing character reports. I had even travelled in sixty miles from my home in Berkshire from sick leave to be there. These character witnesses may have helped, for they could have both been dismissed from the brigade. Instead they were given huge stoppages of pay, and Brian was posted away from Hammersmith, to the nether regions of the ‘D’ Division. Two promising careers blighted for the want of just that little bit of luck. As it turned out, although it vastly increased Brian’s travelling time, he spent the most of the rest of his days, riding in charge of the Emergency Tender stationed at his new fire station. This machine did not go out that often, and when it did Brian would never again be in overall command of the incident, to be put at risk again. Geoff Bayley spent the remainder of his time until retirement, as a leading fireman at Hammersmith.
Another of the Hammersmith white watch characters would be Charlie Woodroff he had initially been posted from training school to a quieter fire station. After serving the one-year mandatory probation period at that station, promptly put in a written request for a transfer to a busier fire station. Then in due course arrived on the white watch Hammersmith, where he took it like a duck to water. I will always remember him for a tale told more fully in a previous book. When we were both involved in fire in a fish and chip shop, where the deep fryer was alight and had spread to the fume duct. The whole shop was filled with that thick acrid smoke that fat fires produce; we were both lying on the floor attempting to extinguish the fires. Charlie was coughing his heart out, and his nose and eyes were streaming with mucus and tears, whilst I was relatively unaffected. Then turning to me he said to me the words that I never forgot “for fuck’s sake Guvnor, cough will you”, quite naughty swearing at Station Officer but I forgave him. Charlie was a great fan and participant of rugby football, and bore the physical evidence of this; his two top front teeth were false ones. He was not what one usually imagined rugby players to be, six foot tall and four foot wide. Instead he was around the same height and build as myself, around five feet seven inches tall and medium to slim build. He also excelled at the après rugby activities, singing the songs and giving all the actions to them, and could be relied on to entertain us with performing them, at any watch function or event. He began to emerge as a strong character during his first year on the station, when he learned and adjusted to all the little different Hammersmith’s ways of doing things. He obviously trusted me though, for in later years he got into a minor little scrape with the police, and in a private conversation with me asked for advice. He was advised by me to give his occupation as local government employee, then to move in with his granny’s (on paper at least) to avoid the local press tying him in to the fire brigade. In the event nothing came of all this subterfuge, for he was merely given a police caution.
Like a lot of other firemen before him with a couple of years in the job, promotion was to be elevated to the position of mess manager, and this Charlie aspired to. The watch mess managers job was firstly to collect all the mess monies due for that period, in itself quite a tricky thing to achieve, blood out of a stone comes to mind. Then to shop and provide the food required for the next tour of duties, for which the brigade paid him a couple of hours overtime money. We only had a civilian cook on day duties, on night watches the mess manager would provide and actually cook the meals. At some later stage Charlie got voted in, yes voted in, as deputy mess manager. This meant that when the actual mess manager was absent or on leave etc, Charlie took over his duties, and I must say he was quite good at it. Unfortunately some thought that he was a bit dictatorial, in that we got mainly what he wanted, not what they wanted for their suppers. So that when a vacancy occurred for the main mess manager’s job, there were two contenders for the position, Charlie and a much senior fireman. Now this in itself was most unusual, two contenders for the mess manager’s job, normally someone had to be actually persuaded to take the job on. Now I might be the Station Officer, in overall command of the station and possibly I favoured Charlie, but the watch mess is a very democratic thing, a ballot was called for. I was very aware that the normal show of hands might cause disharmony and split the watch, so I ordered a secret ballot to be held. All gathered round the mess table were given a two inch square of paper and told to write the name of their choice for mess manager on it, fold the papers up, and place them into my hat. Then with all due ceremony I unfolded the papers one by one and announced the names, and the senior fireman won by a narrow margin, but as nobody actually knew who had voted for whom, the watch harmony was retained.
Now most fire stations in the brigade, indeed around the country, in the weeks before Christmas arranged some sort celebration, a night out for drinks or dinner whatever. Some of the outer London stations where travel distances were not so great might even arrange family events with wives and children. Inner London stations tended to have stag or watch events, drinkies down the pub, or special dinners whilst on duty, white watch Hammersmith did both. Down the local pub after second day duty, because then we did not have to get up early the next morning, being on night duty that day. Then on a carefully selected night duty prior to Christmas, one thought to be a quite night for fire calls, a special dinner on the station. Now a normal supper on nights would be something plain but bulky, spaghetti bolognaise, egg chips and beans, hamburger and chips and suchlike. For our Christmas dinner though, something more exotic and expensive was on the menu, steak mushrooms, egg chips and beans. Previous Christmas dinners at Hammersmith had been pretty mundane affairs, a slightly different menu and perhaps a paper party hat and a cracker. This year things were going to be different; Charlie Woodroff was going to be master of ceremonies and arrange it all. He had noted that the year before I had come down to supper smartly dressed and wearing a black bow tie I had made from a black brigade issue necktie. I had stood out like a throbbing digit amongst the rest of the watch casually dressed in the usual ‘T’ shirts and work wear brigade issue clothing.
The night of the dinner arrived, a surreptitious telephone call had been made to the officer of the watch at fire control, pleading that they did not send us on any boring relief jobs etc, for the next couple of hours. At the very beginning of the shift another telephone call had also been made to the staff sub officer at divisional headquarters, This man had previously served at Hammersmith, so a little bit of nepotism took place. Could he please refrain from sending any of our firemen or drivers out on standby duties at other fire stations for the night duty, to which he duly complied. Lastly being as we had virtually a full compliment of the watch on duty, two of them even came back in off leave for the occasion, I took the mess manager of off the run for the event. This was a very important move, for if we received fire calls in the early evening, he could carry on preparing the meal. Then secondly and equally importantly, if we received a fire call during the meal, he would remain on the station to salvage the dinners by putting them all in the warming oven.
Attired in my number one rig with my bow tie on I entered the mess room, I was amazed. The usual tatty old Formica mess tables were covered with pristine white tablecloths. These looked to me very much like Station Officers issue bed sheets, almost certainly my own bed linen, purloined from the laundry store down below. All place settings were in place, as opposed to collecting our cutlery as we collected our meals from the kitchen. Two bunches of plastic flowers in half pint tumblers on the tables, and then three bottles of wine spaced along the table, all interspaced with plates of bread rolls. Then as the men arrived in the mess room they had all made an extra effort, all had been scrubbed up clean, and were wearing smart freshly laundered brigade shirts, and ties. Quite a few of them had acquired bow ties most them of the exotic variety, multi coloured, flashing lights on them, and even one that went round and round, quite putting my home made bow tie to shame. Instead of collecting our meals from the kitchen as usual, we were directed to take our places at the table, where our meals would be served by himself and the mess manager, unbelievable! Pearls before swine I thought to myself. We were quickly served and Charlie and the mess manager joined us at the table. Some of them men had already begun to eat when I banged on the table with my spoon saying, “I will now say grace”. I could see the sheer surprise looks on their faces, for I was not renowned for being overly religious, before now. They all paused their eating and I said grace “thank you lord for our wonderful meal of steak egg chips mushrooms and baked beans” then adding “please lord please don’t give us any fire calls until we have finished eating it” which seemed to go down pretty well with the men.
Immediately after the meal Charlie had another little surprise for us, each man was presented with a wrapped up gift, which had to be opened one by one in front of us all. A great deal of thought had gone into these little gifts, for each one was personal to it’s recipient. Each one was reflected in the nature, habits, or nickname of the person who received it, and caused much humour around the table. I can only remember two of these gifts, one was to Sub Officer Brian Sinclair and the other was to myself. Brian’s was a little toy furry mouse; “to save wear and tear on your handkerchiefs,” he was told by Charlie. My present; well you need to know, that some months previously, my motorbike on the journey home was shunted up the rear, on the M4 motorway, causing me quite serious injuries. The motorist that hit me alleged that I did not have a rear light, so that he had not been able to see me, which was later disproved. My gift was a small parcel around two inches square, which when I opened it revealed a box containing a small twelve volt, motorcycle rear light bulb, “just in case Guv” was Charlie’s remark.
Later as the evening progressed we had the old rugby songs and antics again, I got out my guitar, Brian his spoons and Matchstick men resound throughout the mess once more.
Some time later Charlie Woodroff had a change of mind, like others before him he decided he did not want be just the mess manager anymore, instead he wanted to be a leading fireman. Part of the procedure for promotion to this rank, is a knowledge of station admin and office routines. Now to gain this knowledge like others before him, he would in his own stand down time, come into the station office and help us with the routine admin work etc needed for promotion. This was the very beginning of his rise through the ranks to become a much liked Station Officer on the white watch at Hammersmith in later years. He virtually took my place there, serving for many years in the rank before retirement. Sadly I missed his retirement party, but some time later I was told by a man that was there, that Charlie in his very moving retirement speech gave me all the credit for motivating him, and then inspiring him to follow my style of leadership.
I suppose in recounting some of the old Hammersmith white watch characters, I cannot really leave out one quite significant one, myself. In these modern days I would be described as one of the old fashioned smoke eating, authoritarian Station Officers from back in the days of yore, a Dinosaur even. Well leaving out the authoritarian bit I suppose I was, but it seemed to work at the time. For seventeen years the white watch Hammersmith was a happy ship, and the only time personnel left would be on promotion and retirement. Not only was it a happy ship, but a very professional and proud fire fighting one as well. When I was first posted to Hammersmith, there were fifteen fire stations in the division, with only five senior officers to cover all three watches, so that one rarely saw a senior officer on the station. When I was on duty, the station was my fire station lock stock and barrel. From ordering the toilet paper to getting essential repairs and maintenance to the fire fighting equipment and fabric of the station itself. Quiet frankly as time went on I moulded the station and men to my ways and I set a pretty high standard. Then as time moved on again, my ways became their ways, and people that did not do things their ways, became the outsiders. Firemen standing by from other stations would be brusquely informed by the troops, we do things this way at Hammersmith mate. Yet on the other hand I was very relaxed with them about station routines etc, as long as the work got done, which it invariably was, I did not interfere or fuss, they could all be trusted. Conversely they trusted me, we could have fire inspection booked for 2pm, and the best part of the dinner hour had been taken up with a fire call. They would turn to at 2pm for the inspection, thus saving face with the occupiers of the premises, instead of having to cancel. I would make sure the time was returned, by giving them extra stand down time when convenient. This could sometimes a bit difficult to explain to a visiting senior officer, when what should have been a working period, the men were all playing cards whatever.
Without a shadow of a doubt I was an old smoke eater, and quite proud of it actually. It may have been the twenty or so roll-up cigarettes a day, or latterly the ounce of shag in my old Peterson pipe that had pickled my lungs, and made me quiet good at it. Alternately it could have been my early fire fighting days when we rarely wore breathing apparatus that started me on the road to acquiring leather lungs. More likely, it would have been that I had years and years of experience, done all these things hundreds of times before, so that on most incidents my heart rate thus my breathing rate, were only just above normal. At many a smoky fire with not too much heat, the firemen wearing compressed air breathing sets would be walking around upright. I would be on my belly where the smoke was thinner, and also the air clearer. I would be me that saw the fire first, unseen by them their heads up in the thicker smoke, then tugging at their leggings saying it’s over there, it’s over there It also helped somewhat that I was operationally the most experienced officer/fire-fighter on the station. It was only after I retired, for they certainly would not say it to my face, I found out that such was their trust in my expertise, that they would follow me anywhere come hell or high water. As time went by and Station Officers on the other watches would be posted away from the station, I became to be known as mister Hammersmith.
I was entrenched enough to have my own discipline rules. On the rare occasion a fireman digressed for example came on night duty, obviously a bit under the weather alcohol wise, I would give him the choice. Be sent up the road, which meant reporting him to divisional HQ, which in turn meant a lot of paperwork, and a senior officer attending the station promptly, or take my punishment. Now because being sent up the road punishment could invoke stoppage of wages, or even the ultimate punishment, being posted away from Hammersmith, they invariably accepted my punishment. They then being sent home from duty, and days leave deducted from their leave card. Without fail the very next shift they would come into the office, and offer their humble apologies and thanks for my punishment, as opposed to the more draconian official one. As an additional punishment they would then be scorned by their watch mates, for breaking the self imposed Hammersmith code of behaviour.
On one occasion though I was faced with a different dilemma, it was a night shift duty and I had a standby driver from an adjacent fire station driving my machine the pump. Around half an hour into the shift we picked up a fire call, some minutes into the journey I noticed the driver was driving somewhat erratically. After a further couple of minutes my mind was made up, the man was either unwell, or under the influence of alcohol. I instructed him quietly but firmly pull over to the side of the road, somewhat puzzled he did so. There in no uncertain manner I told him “get out of the driving seat and get into the back of the machine” initially he started to query why, but my stern manor told him no argument was going to be brooked. I took over driving the machine both to and back from the incident. Arriving back at Hammersmith, I called him straight in the office, telling him you are drunk and unfit for duty, at first he denied it, but it was patently obvious he was. He then gave me his rather flimsy excuse, at his home fire station that night duty, there five drivers on duty, and he was not down to drive. Thus he had got carried away at lunchtime and perhaps imbibed too much, not expecting a stand by duty that shift. Now I had a problem, we were a driver short, if I did it by the book and sent this man up the road, this would involve reams and reams of paperwork, then me having to attending discipline hearings at brigade HQ, what for me what was another stations problem. I had an idea, I would telephone his home station, and explain the problem to them, and ask if another driver one of his mates, would come to Hammersmith to relieve him. Apparently none of his mates were prepared to do this, which does not say a lot about the standing of the man at his home station. So I must admit I took the easy way out, not fancying reams and reams of paper etc, just to solve another stations problem. I called him back into the office telling him tersely that apparently he was considered such a shit back at his home station, that none of his mates were prepared to help him out. I let him digest this for some minutes, and then quietly told him what I suggest is this. That he go out of the office, then two or three minutes later come back in and tell me he had been suddenly taken unwell and that he wanted to go off duty sick A somewhat cavalier action I admit, but problem solved, we called up ‘D’ divisional HQ, told them the story of the man going sick, and other driver was posted in for the night. At a later date when I met up with the man once again, he quietly proffered his profuse apologies and thanks for my actions that night, hopefully he learnt from the experience.
This same neighbouring fire station in my opinion fell far below my quite exacting standards, both in behaviour and on the fire ground. At any structure fires near their borders they would make up the third machine on the attendance. We had been called to a house fire close to the border with this other stations fire ground. The fire was a fairly routine one, a small fire back room of the house hose reel in use. I was outside talking to the drivers, the fire pump was thundering away, a hose reel snaking into the house when the third machine drew up. I saw something I would never have thought to see in the London fire brigade. Casually sauntering towards me were three firemen, not wearing their belt axes or helmets, and with the tops of their fire tunics turned sideways and buttoned down. I think a little bit of red mist descended over me, for I snarled at them “and just where do you think you are going”. Taken aback by my aggressive manner they reply meekly “we are the take machine Guv”. I again snarled at them “right get back on your take machine and fuck off” adding “if you ever come on my fire ground again dressed like carnival clowns, instead of full fire rig I will start writing, and send it all the way up to Brigade Headquarters”. Suffice to say the word got around; they never did come on again dressed like clowns, instead as we like to say, were always thereafter fully belted and spurred.
For quite some years on the white watch Hammersmith, a card game similar to contract whist had been in vogue, the men would spend hours of stand down time playing this quite skilful game. On a night duty immediately after supper the table would be cleared and a game commenced, by using two decks of cards up to eight men could take part. But more usually two schools would play, each having a different skill level. This card game required a great deal of skill plus memory, plus a modicum of deviousness as well certainly helped. In this game if you succeeded in making your contract bid you scored a number of points, and the player with the most points at the end of the game was the winner. They would play for around a penny a point the difference between their score and the winner’s score. This meant that even with the most horrendous luck, even after playing for an hour or so, the most you could lose would be a pound or two. The rumour had it, that this same adjacent fire station mentioned above, heavy gambling sessions took place involving such vicious card games as three-card brag and poker, and that quite considerable sums of monies were won and lost. In my opinion a sure way to cause watch disharmony, and bad feelings. So when I came into the mess room later one night and found a standby fireman from that same station, and three of our younger firemen playing poker, and a considerable amount of cash on the table, I called a halt to it. The standby fireman started to protest, “you can’t stop us playing cards, where does it say in Brigade Orders that we cannot play cards in our stand down time” I looked him straight in the eye and told him quite slowly and deliberately “It’s not Brigade Orders or regulations that will stop you it will be me” explaining “if you don’t stop this heavy gambling session, I will go downstairs put down the station call bells for a station fire drill” “The fire will be in this mess room and kitchen, and in the ensuing melee, this mess room table will be knocked over” adding tersely I am prepared to do that as often as need be, until you stop high stakes gambling. One of the Hammersmith firemen knowing me, and knowing that I meant what I said, said quietly “Ok Guv we will finish this hand then pack it in”.
Having one of those old time smoke eating Dinosaur Guvnors on the fire station could sometimes bring unexpected benefits to the firemen stationed there. On day duties the buzzer on the telephone on my desk sounded, the duty man below said “an inspector at Hammersmith police station wants to talk to you Guv”. The call was passed through to me and I answered Station Officer Wilson, the caller introduced himself as inspector Brown at Hammersmith police station. He reminded me that we had met often in the past at more serious incidents on the manor. Having got the introductions, over he went on in a more serious note, saying, “I have got a little problem”. Then going on to explain “a local café proprietor has made a complaint that one of your firemen, had been demanding free take away food on the grounds that he is a local fireman”. Telling me “this is actually a very serious offence, demanding food or services with menaces” he let this information sink in with me then adding. “If you can personally assure me that the matter will be dealt with most sternly at your end, I am prepared to let the matter finish there”. He gave me the fireman’s name, which I knew to be a relatively junior man on one of the other watches. I explained to the inspector that man was a junior fireman on another watch, but went on to assure him that I would put the fear of God up the man. Now I had a little bit of a problem myself, if I were to report the events to his Station Officer, as I should really do. This Station Officer not being of the hairy arsed smoke eating breed would probably start writing and send the man up the road, resulting in his ultimate dismissal from the brigade. In my opinion the young fireman did not warrant that, I knew that he had been led astray by one of the senior firemen on his watch, who had a habit of doing exactly that demanding free take away food. By chance the young fireman and his watch were due on duty that very night at eighteen hundred hours. So I instructed our duty man in the watch room as soon as this young man came on the station, to tell him to report to me in the station office. At the same time telling my office staff to leave the office when he came in. The young man duly arrived in the station office somewhat puzzled as to why he had been summoned. I was seated at my desk, he was standing in front of me, I enquired gently of him “do you like being a fireman, do you enjoy the job” in reply he naturally answered yes I then challenged him “are you hoping to make it a full time career” again answer yes. I then told him “unfortunately I don’t think that is going to be possible” the blood drained from his face slightly, and an extremely puzzled look came over his face. I then told him of the conversation with the police inspector and that he had been charged with obtaining food and services with menaces, at first he did not fully understand. Then I added to the drama by telling him this was exactly the type of criminal offences the infamous Kray twins got up to, extortion, demanding monies and services with menaces, he went an even whiter shade of pale. Then when I informed him that if found guilty of this offence it would mean immediate dismissal from the brigade, he must have felt that he was already on his bike. So I took my time let all this sink in, before informing him what a lucky man he was. I hammed it up a little bit, telling him that me and the police inspector were old buddies and him like me, being of the old school, that for this reason and this reason alone, the inspector was going to let me deal with the matter. The relief on his face was patently obvious, his whole career and future had just been taken away from him, then given back again in the space of a mere few minutes. So with a promise from him to mend his ways, and never to go into that particular café ever again, then for him to whisper in the ear of the senior fireman that put him up to it in the first place, the matter came to an end.
Lastly of the white watch characters, Old Arthur, he was in fact one of the very first of the watch characters, to stand out on my initial posting to Hammersmith. He was around fifty years of age, quite stoutly built, and had a very genial nature. He was very much the old man of the watch, and had been for quite some years the mess manager. He was also on permanent light duties meaning that he did not participate in drills or go to fires, by reason as he put it, he having a dodgy pair of knees. Arthur was quite an asset to the watch other than his outgoing genial character, he being on light duties meant that we always had a man on the watch could go off the station for shopping whatever. Just as importantly he would remain on the station when we attended fire calls and could adjust the timing of meals for our return instead of being spoiled. In those days one of the messages back from fires would be in the form of a post office land line back to the fire station, my instructions would be simply to tell Arthur we will be back in half an hour, and to get the dinner ready. I remember one of the first conversations I had with him, it was over mess table when he asked me “do you like a drink Guvnor”. I immediately knew the reason for this casual enquiry, the white watch had a portable bar on wheels which was kept locked away in a store cupboard, and Arthur was asking in a round about way was this practise going to be allowed to continue. Knowing this I gave some deliberate thought to my answer before replying simply “all things in moderation Arthur” a big smile came across him face as replied “oh good we had heard you like a little drink, can I wheel the bar out after supper”. It would appear the old jungle drums had been beating once again, one or two telephone calls having been made, asking what the new Guvnor at Hammersmith was like, prior to my arrival.
This portable bar that was the property of the white watch only, had been purloined/gifted from the Olympia exhibition hall, where it had been professionally made as a portable bar for one of the exhibition stalls. It was basically a wooden structure around four feet high, and mounted on supermarket trolley type wheels. It carried a single keg of beer, a gas cylinder, and a beer pump, and was agreed it could be brought out from it’s store on night duties after evening supper. One night when the office cum watch room was situated on the ground floor of the fire station, Arthur decided to chance his arm. At around seven thirty I heard the rumble on the concrete floor above of the bar being brought out. I waited for the rumbling noise to stop then buzzed the mess room telephone Arthur’s cheerful voice replied “mess room” I simply and quietly said “take it back Arthur” and his cheerful voice said “right O Guvnor” and the rumbling noise passed back over my head in the opposite direction. One of the tales that he liked to recount was that back home where he lived in the London borough of Kingston, he lived a few doors along from the local public house. It was his habit when off duty around lunchtime to go into this pub, clutching a shopping bag, then saying to the barmaid “pound of potatoes please Margaret” to which Margaret invariably replied, “Arthur this is a pub we don’t sell potatoes”. Then with a feigned look of astonishment on his face say “oh really, oh well then being as I am here then, I will have a pint of bitter please”. It was known that Arthur had been married for many many years to his no doubt long suffering wife. It was around the mess table one time when the firemen were discussing the merits and demerits of marriage, one the firemen turned to Arthur asking him “you have been happily married for a long time Arthur, what’s your opinion”. He pondered for a while then saying happily married emphasising the words happily married. He uttered the words happily married again then went off into deep thought, at which point the fireman lost patience saying “oh come on Arthur you must have been happy for the first two bloody weeks at least, surely”, to which there was no immediate reply, although a faint reminiscent smile did appear upon his face.
Arthur soldiered on for quite a few years on light duties, which certainly would not happen in these modern times. Quite a few senior officers when visiting Hammersmith would enquire is Arthur on duty, then pop upstairs to the mess room for a quiet chat about old times. Arthur do doubt having served with them back in the days when they were mere firemen, plus the fact that white watch Hammersmith were renowned for being free and easy, with cups of coffee or tea etc, no matter how exalted the recipient might be in rank or status. I think one of the reasons Arthur was able to remain so long in the job on light duties, was in those times, the brigade was more sympathetic to long served fireman’s welfare. Secondly the brigade was vastly under strength, and in those far off days nobody it seemed wanted to be firemen. Or perhaps more correctly, nobody could afford to be firemen, on the low wages paid at that time.
This final little tale I am going to keep short, for it involves for it a rather deep secret of my time in the job. It is the tale of the time that I got detained by the CID the metropolitan police detectives. Now I am not myself biased against these fine gentlemen, but suffice to say their nickname bestowed upon them by the ordinary PC on the beat is ‘the Creeping Insects Department’. The day started out innocently enough, for I was staying over on the station between night duties. As was my routine at around ten o’clock I went to the local library, just down the road from the fire station. There I would choose a couple of books, then return to the station officers bunk room on the second floor of the station, for a quiet read. It was again my routine at around one thirty to go to the Laurie Arms a few doors along from the station, for two pints of bitter and a cheese roll. Then back to the bunkroom at the station for an hour or so’s snooze before showering up and going back on duty that night.
I cannot remember why but for some reason, possibly I had arranged to meet another fireman there that this day, I was to go to the Distillers Arms some hundreds of yards distance away. There all on my own some cuddling my pint I was bored, glancing across the bar into the lounge bar opposite I saw some faces I recognised, it was a group of CID detectives from Hammersmith police station. They spotting me and knowing me from previous fires or incidents beckoned across for me to go and join them. I really should have known better, but I was bored and all on my own, so I crossed bars to join them. This was in the late 1970s at which time the CID were renowned, for to put it rather crudely, being piss heads. But no harm could possibly come from it, because it was only half an hour before three o’clock when the pub shut, or so I thought at the time. Another thing the CID were renowned for, was lock in’s this is where the pub landlord does not like to throw them out at closing time, just in case they take umbrage, then at a later date come back and make life difficult for him, regarding the drinking and licensing laws. So there it was, a lock in, fate accomplai, sods law, weak willed little me was detained by the CID. It was quite a jolly little session, until it was time for me to go to work, then I realized I was well into my cups. Back at the fire station, I sneaked in via the side door and went straight upstairs to my room. Once there knowing that we had enough officers on duty that night and would not require a stand by officer, I telephoned down to the office below. The white watch sub officer Brian Sinclair answered and I and I told him “Brian I am ever so slightly indisposed, could you put me down for emergency public holiday leave tonight with divisional HQ, knowing full well that our Ex Hammersmith man stationed there would OK it. Then telling him firmly, make sure it is deducted from my leave card, and to make sure the men know that a days leave has been deducted. I stayed upstairs in my room for the whole shift, and then sneaked off the station early in the morning to go straight home.
You cannot keep secrets on a fire station for long, and the word would soon spread, no doubt greatly exaggerated, “you will not believe this but apparently the Guvnor has gone and got himself well and truly pissed”.
The next day duty I quietly asked Brian what had been the reaction of the men to my little escapade. He gently smiled saying, “well Guv one or two of them did remark, that you are not so bloody infallible after all then”.
Another amusing little incident involving detectives occurred whilst at my home in Berkshire. I live in a medium sized village with a population of around 3400, in which I play a fairly active social life. One dark day my village made headlines in the national newspapers. A retired bookmaker well known in the village, and reputed to have lots of cash and a collection of gold coins in his home was brutally murdered.
According to the gossip, and the papers it was a particularly brutal murder, and a high profile murder investigation was under way. It seemed that every public house in the village had one or two strangers, surreptitiously lounging around sipping half pints of bitter, and either reading or doing the crosswords in the papers, trying to pick up the village gossip. One or two of the local wags thought to liven the affair by enquiring quietly at the bar did any body want to buy some gold sovereigns. They soon stopped that little lark when the nonchalant strangers whipped them away to the local police station pretty sharply. It seemed that only joking officer was not good a good enough excuse, and they were threatened with the serious charge of wasting the police’s time. It had been announced that house-to-house enquires were to be conducted around the village. So one evening around nine o’clock there was a knock on my front door, and outside stood two smartly dressed men, I did not actually need to examine the proffered warrant cards I knew straight away who they were, detectives on enquiries. I invited them into the house, and when they were seated comfortably in the front room, my wife asked would they like a cup of tea or coffee. I knew from my own fire brigade experiences that when they both replied “yes please madam” we had already been accepted as decent upright honest citizens, and more importantly our standards of hygiene and cleanliness and had been judged high enough for them to safely drink our tea and coffee, without acquiring a dose of the galloping whatsits.
The enquiry commenced with them asking me where was I at around ten o’clock on the Tuesday night the murder occurred. This was easy for it was my habit when not on night duties at ten o’clock to go down to my local club for a beer and I told them this. We had just got to the point where they were asking me had anyone actually seen me there, when my wife said quite forcibly “oh no you did not”. Turning back sharply to her I said “oh yes I did, I always go down the club at ten o’clock” she repeated back “not on that night you did not”. The two detectives were now being ignored; a full-scale domestic altercation was developing between me and the missus. After a few more Oh yes I did’s, and a few more Oh no you didnt’s I lost patience telling her Pat this is a bloody murder inquiry, you trying to get me involved. Never the less she firmly stated “you did not go down the club at ten o’clock that night”. Totally frustrated I turned to the defectives saying “alright officers, she’s got me bang to rights, I done it” then holding my hands toward them “put the cuffs on lets go”. Whether the two detectives were enjoying this bit of theatre or not I don’t know, but then and only then did she explain. You could not have gone down the club at ten o’clock that night because you took me late night shopping and we did not even get back to the house till ten o’clock. Amazing wasn’t it firstly she had me virtually banged up in cuffs and off to police the station, then she had just given me a cast iron alibi, why couldn’t have just simply said that in the first place.

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