A Policeman’s Lot 13….”If you can’t take a joke, you shouldn’t have joined!” 

It is a very little known fact….Policemen do have a sense of humour!….On occasions that sense may be slightly weird….Some might even say warped….But nonetheless it DOES exist…..And the occasions when it tends to exhibit itself most are during the long hours of a night duty….In my early days in the Metropolitan Police a tour of night duty would last for a full 4 weeks….And those long hours, when the rest of the world slept, seemed to bring out the best (and the worst) of that humour….One particular type of humour was traditionally loved and appreciated above all others by police officers in the 1970’s….The Hoax, trick or Prank!…..Three pranks stand head and shoulders above the other more mundane wind-ups…..The very best pranks are true works of art!

The classic prank, hoax or trick must have three very basic requirements….First of all (of course) they have to be believable…..Secondly, they should be backed up by some sense of official validation and lastly they require a gullible victim.

The validation aspect was quite easy to get around….In those days non urgent communications were passed between police stations by teleprinters….For those who have never heard of a teleprinter then you can think of it as a typewriter that is connected to a telephone line….Every police station had a teleprinter and the beauty of them was their official status…..If it was on the teleprinter then it HAD to be genuine….Except, of course, it didn’t!….A teleprinter message did not necessarily come from Scotland Yard or another police station…..It was possible for a qualified teleprinter operator (such as perhaps, myself) to manufacture a “Less than genuine message” which could give even the most seemingly unlikely task, a genuine and official appearance.

The first prank dates back to the summer of 1973 and it took place on ‘A’ Division which bordered my own ‘C’ Division and included locations like Downing St. and Buckingham Palace…..The Queen’s daughter, Princess Anne was about to be married to Capt. Mark Phillips and the night before the wedding a teleprinter message was ‘Sent’ apparently from Scotland Yard and it read. “On the occasion of the wedding of Princess Anne to Capt. Mark Phillips tomorrow, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is pleased to send them a traditional wedding gift of several royal ducks from Her Majesty’s Royal Parks. May an officer be deputed to attend St James’ Park tonight to count exactly how many ducks are on the ornamental lake so that Her Majesty will know how many ducks can be included in the gift.”

The night duty relief paraded and came up to the front office to book out their personal radios and the young WPC whose patrol took in St James’ Park was handed a carbon copy of this ‘Official’ request….She was told that there was no real hurry as long as she completed the “Duck Count” by the end of her tour of duty…..But what keen young officer could resist a Royal task direct from Buckingham Palace?…. So off she went to immediately count her ducks.

Nobody heard from her for about two hours…..At around midnight the Communications officers called her up on her personal radio, asked her location and whether she had completed her task? She replied “I’m still at the lake and I’m standing on the bridge….So far have counted 130 ducks….But I think some of them have swum under the bridge and I may have counted them twice….They all look alike!”

They advised her to stick to her task….At about 2am she returned to the station for her refreshments and reported that she would have to return to the lake afterwards to complete her task and it would help if other officers could assist her count by shooing the ducks away from the bridge so she didn’t count them twice…..It was at his point that the duty inspector took pity on her and told her that the 130 she had already approximated would be quite sufficient….. As far as I’m aware she may never have been told the full story.

The gullible victim of these wind up’s is usually a young probationer fresh from training school….But sometimes much more experienced officer can be the target….But for these tricks to be successful the hoax has to be exceptionally well planned and executed and the ‘trap’ had to be very well baited…..Such a prank took place in the Summer of 1979. 

Readers may remember that at that time there was a large NASA space satellite orbiting the Earth names SKYLAB….the satellite had been in orbit for many years but in 1979 the plan was to end its mission, bring it out of orbit and and let it disintegrate as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere….All went well until the satellite failed to do as it was told and and instead of returning in a controlled “Burn Up” it was announced that SKYLAB would descend uncontrolled and since it weighed 77.5 tons. It was unlikely to completely disintegrate on re-entry….And they had no idea where it might end up!….This sparked huge media interest at the time and I suspect there were many SKYLAB hoaxes by police officers around the world….But this one was at our adjacent station on ‘C’ Div, Vine Street and the target was a a highly excitable and voluble Scottish PC….I shall call him Hamish. Hamish was a nice guy, but he tended to do everything in a great rush and he rarely took time to think or examine a situation….In short, he was an ideal target to be pranked.

The perpetrators went to enormous trouble to get this right….One of them attended a car wrecking company and obtained part of a large vehicle chassis….This was then knocked about until it no longer resembled a motor vehicle….It was sprayed silver….roughly painted with the letters SKYL….They even transfer printed a US flag on it….Finally it was subjected to extreme heat and burning….It was then covered with a tarpaulin and put in a van….. The night went as any other and Hamish came into the station for his refreshments….Before he left to continue his patrol he was summoned to the Communications Office and shown the “Latest SKYLAB update form Scotland Yard” (On a teleprinter message, so there could be no doubting its authenticity) It read “The latest information received from NASA indicates that SKYLAB will re-enter the atmosphere very soon….It had been hoped that any wreckage would fall into the Pacific Ocean but latest predictions from NASA indicate that it will track across the Atlantic on a course that could take it over London….Debris falling on London cannot be discounted and any officers coming across such debris must treat it with extreme caution”…..The trap was finally baited with the words….”We’re just letting people know Hamish…..The chances of it falling around here are a million to one against!”

About an hour later the Communications Officers called him on his radio….”Are you anywhere near Green Park, Hamish?”

“Aye, I’m very close by in Piccadilly, why?”

“Without saying too much Hamish….Regarding that teleprinter we showed you earlier….Have you seen or heard anything unusual where you are?”

“No, Nothing at all.”

“OK…. We have had a report that something may have happened in Green Park….Can you go in and have a thorough search…..It’s probably nothing at all though.”

While Hamish had been enjoying his refreshments the perpetrators had driven their van to a deserted Green Park and unloaded the wreckage….”This will never fool anyone…..SKYLAB would leave a huge crater!” The other officer had more faith.

Hamish entered the park and after about twenty minutes saw the tangled wreck of silver painted, scorched metal….The letters SKYL together with what remained of the American flag convinced him….”Charlie Victor from 123…..It’s here….in Green Park, I’m standing right by it.”

“Are you sure Hamish?….It could be anything!”

“Not at all….There’s no doubt about it!”

“OK Hamish…..Stand by where you are….The Duty Officer is on his way to you.”

The Duty Officer was standing next to Comms Officers as they were all giggling in the Communications Room…..”I’d better go and put him out of his misery, hadn’t I?”

“Do you have to Governor?”

“Yes, I think we’ve spent enough time on this particular prank already!”

When he arrived in Green Park he saw Hamish standing a respectful distance away from the wreck….Let’s have a look, shall we Hamish?”

“Do you think that’s wise, Guv?”

“I think it’s safe Hamish…..I don’t think that NASA included parts from a Vauxhall Victor into the real SKYLAB…..I’m afraid you’ve been hoaxed.”

Hamish returned to the station murmuring dark Celtic oaths under his breath.

The Duty Officer had the final say on the matter…”And whoever is responsible for this little charade had better go and remove that mess before it gets light and the Park’s Police find it!”

The last hoax happened the following year at West End Central and the victim was once againa young probationary officer recently out of Training School…..Now, due to the nature of these tricks, most people might feel a little sorry for the victims….But it’s fair to say that nobody felt the slightest sympathy for this particular victim….He came from a public school background, had a university degree and let everyone know that he was destined for the senior ranks in the police force….He was also thicker than the proverbial ‘Short Plank’…..Once again….A perfect potential candidate to be pranked…..I shall call him Dick.

The opportunity arose in the early hours of a Saturday morning….Refreshments had been taken, it was about 0400 in the morning, dawn was breaking….And the boredom was showing….Dick was told to speak to Communications before he went out…..When he did so he was shown the usual teleprinter message which read.

“Intelligence has been received that a planned demonstration at the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square that afternoon will be infiltrated by radical anarchists who are looking to exploit the planned, peaceful demonstration for their own violent purposes…..Please may an officer be deputed to examine the area around the embassy to assess whether there are any items lying around that could be used as weapons against the officers policing the demonstration.”

It has to be said that young Dick was not keen on the job….Frankly he considered it beneath his dignity. “What about the Diplomatic Protection Officers who routinely patrol the embassy? Why on Earth can’t they do it?”

“That’s exactly because they ARE Diplomatic Protection Officers, Dick….Their job is to protect the embassy….Not to concentrate on looking for potential weapons that could be used as missiles against the  officers policing the demo.”

With a high degree of bad grace Dick made his way to the US Embassy and began his investigation….And what he discovered shocked and alarmed him to the core!…..It was a good job that he HAD been selected to check the area over…..It was a proverbial death trap for the officers who would be policing the demo later that very afternoon….He began to make extensive notes of all the loose rubble and ‘street furniture’ that may constitute potential weaponry in the hands of dangerous Anarchists.

Now at Grosvenor Square in those days there was a small police box which was linked directly to the police station….All he had to do was to pick up the handset and report all this over the phone…..Nobody would have been any the wiser and the prank would have been long forgotten many years ago…..but NO!…. He decided to recite his very LONG list over the radio….And it took him a full five minutes…..Then the Communications Officers asked him to repeat certain parts of his list…..Everybody listening was suffering from fits of hysterics as he went on and on and on……

Eventually the Duty Officer had heard enough and called a halt…..He then called Dick back to the station…..When the hoax was explained to him Dick was furious that he should be treated with such contempt…..The Duty Officer (a tall rugby playing Welshman who didn’t have much time for degree holding graduates on course for accelerated promotion) smiled at him and said to him “Listen to me Boyo….There is a very old and very good saying in this police force that you will do well to remember if you want to go a long way in this Job…..””If you can’t take a joke, then you probably shouldn’t have joined.”””

And truer words were never spoken!

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