Meeting Reports: 2018 - 2019

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Thurrock Local History Society Meeting: 21 Sep 2018: My time on the beat – when policeman had feet by Peter Layzell

For our first lecture of the season we invited ex policeman Peter Layzell to give a talk on what it was like to be on the beat in the Essex Police. He had started as a cadet, training in Oxfordshire in 1960, aged 19. He joined the regulars at Colchester, was promoted to sergeant and served at Billericay, Basildon, Corringham and finally Southminster on the Dengie peninsular where he was the longest serving sergeant in the county, declining promotion.

There were 120 police at Billericay and he was one of three men working on C shift. He walked long distances or cycled everywhere, with no radios and only one police car. There was only a whistle for help and a truncheon (known as a stick); this was kept in a special trouser pocket, which was not good on a cycle! When a constable arrested someone they had to get them to the station. Officers were given a pair of handcuffs which were difficult to use, although the ratchet type are now provided. The prisoner had to be compliant or physically subdued and it was a disciplinary measure to lose a prisoner. Sometimes miscreants went to the police station of their own accord.

As there were no radios or police boxes like those in London, he had to report to a telephone box at pre-arranged times, to obtain new information. Sometimes a fight was over before he got there.
Most constables were ex seaman and wore similar uniforms. The tunic was worn in all weathers and used to have a high collar; one pair of trousers and two shirts with 8 separate collars were provided, together with a tie, which was later changed to a clip-on one. They were also issued with a gabardine raincoat, the lining of which used to crack and let in rain. PCs also had a greatcoat which was warm as toast in winter, but absorbed water in the rain, and a cape. The cape was nice to wear but had to be removed when making an arrest and could be stolen. The helmet showed authority and Peter said he lost his in the road on his first day on his own when it got knocked off by a low shop blind.

A humane killer was provided at each police station for badly injured animals. He had to help at road accidents to stabilise casualties, although they were given no training for this – the last one being just as bad as the first – but now there is help. He also had to deal with ‘domestics’, the attitude to which has changed over the years. He felt he was lucky to have had a life in the Force, although it was difficult dealing with suicides, accidents and death. They were told to ‘pull themselves together and get on with it’.

This was a very interesting lecture, an eye opener as to how the police force operated in the past and Peter Layzell told of many incidents in his career like arresting celebrities and chasing a lad in a stolen car who went round a roundabout four times, just to get chased!

Thurrock Local History Society Meeting:  Friday 19th October           Coalhouse Fort WW2 - the story of the Wrens and Naval Detachment by Kevin Diver

At our October meeting Kevin Diver, a local historian, treated us to many photographs of the Sea Scouts, Women’s Royal Naval Service (Wrens), other naval personnel and civilians who carried out the serious and important job to defend London’s river at Coalhouse Fort during WW2. The fort was known as HMS St Clements and had two 5 ” guns from HMS Hood, with a brick observation post on the roof. It was surrounded by trees and camouflaged from the air with netting. Their main task was monitoring the degaussing or de-magnetising of our ships which passed along the Thames. This was a process whereby the magnetism that had built up on the ships, which could be detected by the enemy, was neutralised by magnetic coils. They used Aldis lamps and semaphore to communicate with ships and even gave a degaussing demonstration to Russian delegations.

The radar tower, disguised as a water tower and built in 1940, detected submarines; next to it was searchlight equipment. This helped vessels to navigate the mine field in the Thames. The sea scouts and Wrens enjoyed their work and some marriages occurred between Wrens and the naval staff. They lived near Tilbury Hotel at first, later moving to the vicarage opposite St Catherine’s church. The vicarage was cold, with poor quality food; staff picked mushrooms and foraged for berries etc. to supplement rations. They were plagued with mice and rats but it was cosy and hospitable, almost like a holiday camp. The naval ratings had pets such as goats and rabbits. It was a relaxed atmosphere and not strict on uniforms.

The Wrens came from different backgrounds and some signed up just for the uniform, especially the tricorn hat which was worn by officers. Leading Wren Eileen Grimley was good fun and full of life – she had 30 ditties, for singing at parties. One of the Royal Marines, Black Jake (or Jack) was a colour sergeant and put the fear of God into his marines with strong discipline. However he had party piece when he sang ‘this old shirt of mine’ and stripped naked. One of the RNVR reserve was ‘Peter’ Potter, deputy editor of the Daily Express.

This illustrated lecture gave us an insight to the work carried out Coalhouse Fort in WW2, Kevin providing photographs from an archive he was able to access. The photo was taken in 1942.


Thurrock Local History Society Meeting:  Friday, 16th November Essex Nurse on the Front Line by Tim Luard

At our November meeting the society was pleased to invite Tim Luard (ex BBC correspondent in China) to give us a talk on his great-aunt, Kate Evelyn Luard, known as Evie by her family and recently awarded a green plaque. He said now we have come to the end of WW1 commemorations, we mustn’t forget what it was to serve.

He remembered being taken to tea in Colchester to visit his great-aunt. Tim told of her life through the copious letters she wrote to her family. Kate was born in 1872, tenth of 13 children of the vicar of Aveley. It was a happy and active family, entertaining each other, giving concerts in the church. The girls helped in the village, visiting alms houses etc. and were educated at home, the boys being sent to boarding school. However, Kate attended Croydon High School for Girls and wanted to be a nurse by the time she left, working to support her studies at King’s College Hospital in London.

Kate served in the Boer War, returning home after two years. She said it was a great experience despite the flies, dust, bad weather and shortage of nurses. She sent amusing letters to her sisters, describing her work and leisure. On returning she worked in London hospitals and enlisted in the Queen Alexander Imperial Military Nursing Reserve Service at the beginning of WW1, one of fewer than 300 nurses serving at home and abroad. The voluntary nurses (VADs) were at first awkward with trained nurses; she said they were charming, but hopelessly inefficient.

She was 42 when WW1 started and was immediately allocated to Dublin, travelling on the City of Benares, a packed ship. She travelled to France and was assigned to transport across the Channel, casualties lying on straw. She later worked in a field hospital, the nearest to the front line a woman could get. She got to know her patients who were plucky despite appalling wounds, helping them to recover and sent many letters for them, also distributing cigarettes and sweets etc., including ‘Birch butties’ and biscuits. It was cold and dirty with no hot water with make-shift units and basic equipment. Body lice and fleas were a problem as was backache. She was In charge of 40 nurses and 100 orderlies and promoted to Sister in October 1915; Kate also spoke French, German and studied Hindustani, attending top brass meetings. She walked in the countryside on her days off and attended concerts.

Kate always wanted to be at the sharp end and was described as a fire eater and a bit of a dragon. She sometimes broke down in tears, but her faith gave her much comfort. Her many letters brought black and white into full colour and was constantly inspired by the courage of the injured. Miss Luard was awarded the Royal Red Cross medal 1st class, and was decorated at Buckingham palace in May 1919.

She never married and spent the last years of her life at West Birch but continued to travel to Talbot House, a rest home for soldiers, and was involved in Toc H. She also looked after her ailing father and died aged 90 in 1962. This was an excellent lecture, a tale of courage with wit and humour. The new edition of her second book Unknown Warriors will serve as a fitting tribute to her service.



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