Walter William Oliver, his career in his own words
Memoirs of Walter William Oliver
After leaving military service in May 1929, I had applied to join the Hertford County Constabulary and had a preliminary interview and measurements at Watford Police Station.
In September the same year, I was summoned to Police HQ at Hatfield. I overslept and missed the train but managed to arrive just in time as all the 8 applicants were filing into the courtroom for medical examination and interview for the 8 vacancies.
Towards the end of the afternoon the names of the 8 selected were read out, I was amongst them together with Stan Johnson, my future brother in law whose father had served in the force and died after 15 years service after contracting TB. He worked in Wales to help out with the strikes at the time and died at Watford where he was stationed.
During the 5 months training, one was sacked as not likely to make the grade. I enjoyed the training which included attending night classes at the local council school.
In February 1930 aged 24, I was posted to Harpenden as Pc 44 and Stan to Hertford. I reported for duty the same evening at Harpenden and was sent out to find my way round in the dark on my own. I soon became lost and had to ask the way back. The following day I was shown round by an old hand and soon learnt where to get a cup of tea. Within a few days a young woman came dashing up to me on her cycle and reported that her lodger had cut his throat in her bathroom but worse was that he was still alive. I was near to the station so a doctor was summoned and an ambulance from St Albans. I went to the house and wrapped a towel round the young mans throat and went with him to the hospital. He was an Australian student and had tried to kill himself because Australia had lost the test match.
Very soon after that I attended a double fatal accident, two old ladies wearing dark clothing walking on the road in Holly Bush Lane, Harpenden. They were knocked down by a local resident whose car was only showing side lights. The coroner at St Albans was complimentary on my report but did not agree with my opinion that some blame was attached to the old ladies for walking on the road which was dimly lit.
In 1931, while at Harpenden, I married and rented a house on the estate of Halley Stewart. I had to show £40.00 before being permitted to marry and had to produce this amount to show my Sergeant.
At Harpenden, I attended post mortem examinations ordered by the Coroner and assisted the doctors to carry them out. I was usually awarded a couple of shillings from the doctor’s fee of two guineas. I became quite conversant with the inner workings of man.
After two years at Harpenden, we were moved to Bishop’s Stortford. Our cottage in Elm Grove Road was one of the worst police rented houses in the County. We were over run with mice which came from a neighbour. I trapped some and coming in one morning at 2 a.m, and carrying a candle into the bedroom to inspect the traps, I caught my big toe in the leg of my too long pyjamas, tripped and fractured it. You can imagine how this went down with my colleagues at the Station but it was true.
Nearly all my day duty was spent on traffic control at The Corn Exchange Crossroads, a difficult narrow junction at which the authorities traffic signals could not be installed but where they have now been working well for many years. After a year or so, the Chief Constable inspected the cottage and considering it unsuitable we were moved into a newly built rented house in Orchard Road, Bishop’s Stortford.
It was during these early days at Bishop’s Stortford that on one occasion I saw a ghost. It was midnight and I was in North Street trying the door handles for security and as I came to the last one at the junction of Hadham Road and Northgate End I saw a man standing in the road looking intently along North Street quite unaware of my presence. There were no other persons about as was usual at this late hour and I walked towards him to ask him who he was and what he was doing there. As I approached him, only a few feet away he suddenly disappeared before my very eyes. I looked around in vain but there was nobody about. I then realised I had seen an apparition, something most uncanny and I was a little frightened but didn’t mention it to anybody for I thought they would ridicule me. The intelligent, intent look on that face I shall never forget. The dress I can’t remember in any great detail but the general appearance was of a Victorian gentleman. Some years later at Watford, George Dear then a Chief Superintendent, but who was a PC at Bishop’s Stortford at that time said to me “Walter, did you ever see the ghost at The Chantry ?” I was very surprised for it was in front of that building that I saw the ghost. I told him what I had seen and he said he had the same experience.
In 1938 we had two children and I was promoted to Sergeant. In 1939 World War 2 broke out and the first bombs dropped in Bishops Stortford across the western perimeter of the town doing little damage. While we police officers were investigating a local resident discovered a hole beside a tree near where we were standing. It was an unexploded bomb. We quickly sealed off the area and had only reached the end of the road before the delayed action bomb exploded leaving a large crater and fallen tree across the road.
Raids became more frequent there after we were shaken by many explosions and could see the reflection in the sky of huge fires in London. One evening with PC Cotton we went to investigate enemy activity when Jerry dropped a bomb in the field besides us and we jumped into a nearby ditch and were covered in earth and stones. PC Cotton broke his ankle but this was one of many narrow escapes. One night in Potter Street, I heard two bombs whistle by, but no explosions. We found the craters on The Meads near the railway footbridge and one was quite large, the other down to the chalk subsoil. I climbed down into this hole and could hear water dripping down the well like shaft beneath me. I must have been standing only on a raft like platform of soil and clay. I very soon got out and reported my suspicions to the Air Raid Precautions Controller who concluded that the bombs had exploded. About an hour later there was a huge explosion which shook the town and the flash lit up the sky. I returned to the site and where I had stood in that hole, was now a very huge crater.
In 1942, I was posted to Hatfield where we lived in Beaconsfield Road next to Police HQ. During this time, I was kept very busy day and night and spent long hours investigating crime, bomb incidents and also did some lecturing to A.R.P personnel on the range of German bombs on which I was kept up to date. During the early hours of one morning in October 1944 during a flying bomb attack one exploded close to our home. We heard it coming and grabbed the kids and scrambled under the old oak dining room table just as it exploded. The explosion was terrific and we could not breath for what seemed like minutes in the vacuum created by it and I thought we would all die of asphyxiation. When we came out from under the table the windows and doors were blown in and the fireplaces out and soot and glass were everywhere. My neighbour, another policeman, was lying injured in his garden. The row of cottages in Endymion Road close by were blasted wide open and the occupants trapped. Nine of our neighbours died that night. One little boy, who was holding his baby brother near a window at the time of the blast was blinded and the baby killed.
Police HQ had been truly blasted that night, something that the old timers in the Force had often wished but never thought it would happen! For a long time we were fed communally in a nearby hail but most Policeman’s wives and families were evacuated from their damaged houses. Along with the acting Chief Constable, Abel Camp, we stayed living under a tarpaulined roof.
With the end of the war, great changes were under way. Abel Camp declined the Chief Constableship and Lt Col Young a regular PC serving with the Control Commission in Germany was appointed with Abel Camp becoming his Deputy. Young bought the force to be one of the most modem in the country, probably expedited by the fact that Greater London was spreading northwards into Hertfordshire.
One evening when hostilities had ceased I was on duty in Hatfield when a call came through to say The Aberdonian Express had derailed outside the railway station. After arranging a local alert for police and ambulances I went to the scene and the locomotive was lying on its side belching steam, the track was ripped up and the coaches badly damaged. A Scottish soldier was trapped under an upturned coach and a length of rail lay across one of his legs which had to be amputated. I received a commendation from the Chief Constable and the General Manager of the railway for my efforts that evening.
In 1947 at my request, I was posted to Watford and lived in Balmoral Road and after a few months I was sent on a senior detective training course in Yorkshire. It lasted for 3 months and was very intensive but I qualified and on my return was posted to Rickmansworth to take charge of the sub division there. We were given a new detached police house there with a fair sized garden. The station at Rickmansworth was very small and inadequate so a new one was built, unique at the time because of it’s nature of the construction being partly prefabricated and with much glass and it included a recreation room and a bar. The new station was opened by Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, later Lord Kilmuir, the Home Secretary of State. I was later responsible for showing many people around this new building. One of which was the Mayor of a German city who was accompanied by a young German who I thought a somewhat typical young Nazi. On the way round the building, I pointed out the towns war memorial where a bronze British lion is pinning down the German eagle. I told them that at the time of threatened invasion this memorial had been dismantled and hidden to which he gave an uncomfortable leer. The Mayor was a jovial chap and was later photographed at the door of the station holding my truncheon and wearing my helmet. The sub division consisted of 27 policemen and a police woman, Mrs Williams. It extended eastwards to the Watford Borough boundary, west and north to the Buckinghamshire boundary and south to Northwood. An area of 22 square miles , with a population of 30,000. During my 8 years at Rickmansworth, there were some serious crimes including a murder including a poor demented mother who strangled her three year old daughter and endeavoured unsuccessfully to commit suicide. By this time, my son John became a police cadet at Watford and my daughter Joan had met and married a police officer from Reading. I was approached by the Deputy Chief Constable Mr Camp with a view to transfer to St Albans and promotion to Chief Inspector where I was transferred to Watford Police Station and retired with a pension in September 1955 aged 50 after completing 26 years service.