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The Thames Specials

As in many organizations, volunteers are needed and play a meaningful role. London's Metropolitan Police have utilized volunteers for many years, they are known as "Specials" (Special Constables) and Thames Division was no exception.

When I joined in the 1950's, the Thames Specials were about 100 strong, all volunteers and all experienced yachtsmen, a good knowledge of boats and boat-handling was a pre-requisite for membership. Our training was rather informal and was aimed mainly at learning the laws of the river and by-laws of the Port of London Authority. We went out in a police launch to familiarize ourselves with its characteristics and handling.

waterloo bridge

After this training we were divided amongst five Thames police stations that patrolled the 50 miles or so of tidal waters of the Thames. Erith station was in the wide estuary to the east, Richmond was in the west, where at Teddington at low tide, there was not enough water to accommodate a police boat!

We were equipped with 30ft launches powered by a Lister Diesel engine that gave a speed of 10 knots.

The photo shows a patrol launch of the 1960's (with cabin doors). The 1950's launch was open to all the elements!

On patrol we monitored the 2-way radio system operated by Scotland Yard's Information Room.

Although we worked alongside the Regular Police we, as Specials had our own organization. In charge overall was a "Special" Commandant, then came 3 Inspectors, several Sergeants who were known as skippers, and the rest were Police Constables.

thames divers

We used regular police launches but went on patrol as a "specials" crew comprising a skipper and two PC's.

Our duties were mainly at week-ends when we did a full 8-hour shift, usually from 2pm to 10pm but we could be called for duty at any time.

In this group photo, on the extreme right is Gibbs, he was in charge of Public Works in London and was responsible for Big Ben. I am seated next to him.

One of my dear friends was PC "Boggy" Knight, an ex RN Commander and while with MSC was head of The Dogs Home Battersea. Boggy retired to Folkestone and died in the 1990s.

I was assigned to Waterloo Pier on Victoria Embankment, which was the only floating police station in the world. It was almost under Waterloo Bridge and it was there for a reason.

Waterloo Bridge was known as the "jumpers" bridge. If someone was going to jump it was more often than not from that bridge, goodness knows why!

victoria embankment
This photograph of Waterloo Pier (Station UW) was taken from Waterloo Bridge. Note the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral in the background.

Each patrol boat had a radio call number which also identified the "beat." A call from the Yards' Information Room would alert us to a problem to which we would respond.

We may hear that a person was reported as having jumped from Battersea Bridge. At full throttle we would head for the spot and start our search. It was not unusual for Scotland Yard to radio us later that the person or persons had been picked up by a private boat and give the name and location so we could collect the jumpers who, without doubt, would be suffering from shock.

The best treatment for shock is a hot bath and that is exactly what our procedure was. Having wrapped the wet body in a blanket and radioed an advance warning to our Station, it was full throttle to Waterloo Pier, which was equipped with a special bathroom.

By the time we arrived the bath was all ready filled with warm water and being on wheels it was pulled away from the wall giving easy access all round. Willing hands would take the body from us and without ceremony dump it into the bath fully clothed. An ambulance would also be standing by in case of injury.

This bathing procedure was the same for males or females and I remember one London newspaper giving us a bad time when they reported, no doubt on a slow news day, that the Police were bathing women. What they did not say was that they were fully dressed!

Commandant Matthews and Inspector 'Dicky' Dick

Starting from Westminster Bridge, where the Palace of Westminster (the Houses of Parliament) is located and which incorporates St. Steven's Tower, more popularly known worldwide as "Big Ben," my beat took me up river past Charring Cross, Blackfriars, Chelsea, and Battersea to Putney Bridge.

It was a very active beat with a lot of interesting things going on. Unlike today, all the wharfs, cranes, barges and tugs were operating and there was a lot of movement of large sea-going vessels in and out of the Port of London. This commercial traffic keep us alert.

The photo shows Commandant Matthews with Inspector Dick. "Dicky" was a great friend of mine, he was with the North Thames Gas Board and he brought a photographer to Waterloo Pier to take pictures for what I believe was the NT Gas Board Newsletter or Gazette, some of them are reproduced here.

David van Vlymen on patrol

That is me in the photo and the towing-post is in full view. That towing post was very much needed when manoeuvring with a 100 ton barge in tow! I also remember rescuing a canoeist stranded on a large buoy in a fast running river, you really have to know how to handle a launch for that.

I have to mention the tugs and lightermen who handled the barges. The skill of these men was legendary and I never tired of watching them perform. Ships in the Port would unload cargo into barges, 6 or 8 heavily laden barges would then be towed by a tug which would be required to deliver a barge to a space at a riverside wharf or warehouse. It was done by using the flow of the river.

At a precise moment the lighterman on the barge at the end of the line would let go the tow-rope and then, using just one oar as a rudder, would skilfully guide and manipulate that heavy barge precisely into its designated space at the wharf. This was a river skill that, for decades, was handed down from father to son. The tug skippers and the lightermen were teams whose talents were taken for granted and whose jobs have now disappeared from the river for ever.