Evening all! Our boys in blue

POLICE in the Great Yarmouth division are, I am sure, too occupied with operational duties and the impending enforced money-saving reduction in numbers to take heed of the fact that 2011 is a significant year for our local boys in blue.

So, despite the fact that I do not expect bunting to be decorating the frontage of the Howard Street North headquarters, or an invitation to drop on my doormat to any civic acknowledgement of the celebration, I cannot let the occasion pass unrecorded.

What are these anniversaries?

Well, 2011 marks 175 years since the actual formation of Yarmouth Police, replacing the long-established system of watchmen.

Also, exactly a half a century ago next month, work began on building those town centre premises that housed our self-contained borough force – augmented by the Gorleston station – until the major amalgamation of the Norfolk, Norwich and Yarmouth constabularies in 1969. The HQ on the corner with The Conge continues to be the main police station in our borough.

As that conjoining of the county, city and borough forces was over four decades ago, there is no officer still serving who was in Yarmouth police when the three became one to form Norfolk Joint Police – later to evolve into Norfolk Constabulary; but there remains a dwindling number of retired and ageing ex-borough personnel who were once among Yarmouth’s finest.

One is former sergeant John Calthorpe, of Gorleston, who has passed to me the booklet and programme for the official opening of the Yarmouth headquarters in March 1963. The VIP ceremony, that included the inspection of a guard-of-honour, was performed by Henry Brooke MP, then the Home Secretary. The building cost �111,330 – hardly enough to buy a beach hut in Southwold nowadays – plus �6000 for furniture and other equipment.

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Those present included the mayor of Yarmouth, John Birchenall, plus the chairman and vice-chairman of the borough watch committee responsible for policing, Fred Debbage and Frederick Page. Mr Debbage handed the Home Secretary the key and invited him to unlock the main outer door and enter the building. Mr Brooke unveiled a commemorative plaque in the entrance hall before being conducted around the new HQ by Chief Constable Charles Jelliff to see its facilities and talk to police and civilian workers.

At that time the borough force comprised 107 men, four women and three cadets, supported by 11 civilians.

During the history of the force since its inception in 1836, “lack of adequate accommodation has prevailed,” said the brochure. The fledgling force was housed in the Gaol House in Middlegate Street for six years before moving to the rear of the town hall, but in 1879 this building was sold and demolished, necessitating another change, this time to converted premises next to Row 36 (which linked George and Howard Streets and was popularly known as Neal the Shoemaker’s Row or Mouse the Pawnbroker’s Row).

Similarly,these too proved inadequate as police functions and responsibilities increased.

An editorial in the Mercury 100 years ago was scathing about council opponents of the scheme to enlarge and improve the joint police and fire station, declaring that the same argument about the burden on the local ratepayers was advanced to combat every new public venture.

The current premises were “scarcely a credit to the town” and might well be condemned by higher authority as unfit for their role, argued the Mercury, declaring that the performance of both services would benefit from upgraded headquarters.

Hence came the building of a new police and fire station in Middlegate Street, accommodating those twin roles because the constabulary was responsible for the fire brigade. As the force expanded, the CID and policewomen were housed in a nearby property.

When the wartime National Fire Service was founded in 1941, our police relinquished part of the dual-purpose HQ and requisitioned a private hotel for its displaced personnel. After the war ended, the brigade took over the whole of the Middlegate Street premises, thus necessitating the acquisition of a building on South Quay near the present Nottingham Way to become a temporary police station. “Temporary” turned out to be 15 years; but the spanking new Howard Street North HQ was well worth the long wait.

In those days most policemen trod the beat, walking smartly at regulation pace around all parts of the borough. We local journalists also had our beat: heading along Howard Street several times a day to call at “the nick” in person, seeking information about crimes and incidents.

We were on excellent terms with police of all ranks, and we trusted and respected one another’s priorities and needs, enjoyed the occasional drink in The Copper Pot (the licensed bar in the HQ)...and were sometimes snooker fodder for their expert players on the full-size table there. In the Seventies Mrs Peggotty and I used to play badminton with the police club in an upstairs room in the long-gone Park Baptist Tabernacle.

The role of the police seems different now from my days of working with them in Yarmouth, but I think overall the general public remains respectful and grateful, despite the fact that the constabulary has a lower profile, and the imposition of targets means offences like minor burglaries have a low priority.

I am sure that both sides share my view that there was no need for our county police hierarchy to adopt trendy so-called mission statements like Our Priority is You and its predecessor, Keeping Norfolk Safe, both stating the obvious.

Capital punishment is back on the political agenda, with a call for MPs to vote on bringing back the death penalty gaining support on a government petition website. Home Secretary Henry Brooke MP, who opened the new Yarmouth “nick” during his incumbency from 1962 to 1964, was the last holder of that office of state to have the final and awesome power of life or death over condemned murderers.

The last two victims of capital punishment were two young men who battered and fatally stabbed a man while stealing from him. Their appeals were rejected by judges; Home Secretary Brooke refused to interfere with the course of justice and would not reprieve them, so they were hanged, the last judicial executions to take place in Britain.