A Policeman’s Lot 24….A funny thing happened to me on my way to Wapping. Part 2.

And so it was that I found myself parading at Wapping Police Station in a neatly pressed uniform and polished shoes with eleven other applicants, all of whom were nervously awaiting the day’s events on the selection day

We had all been given advance notice of how the day would proceed and what we would be expected to do during the day….Some of us had even taken the trouble to show our faces at the various river police stations in order A) to show interest….And B) To hopefully have a go at what promised to be the most awkward of all the physical tests….The rowing test…..Like most people I have taken out a rowing boat on various lakes and ponds during my time….So how different could it be to row a police dinghy on the river Thames?….The answer is “Lot’s!”….When I turned up at Waterloo Pier before the selection day, I had hoped that I could persuade someone to take me out for a practice row….Unfortunately that was not possible….But they did give me plenty of advice “Whatever you do on the day….Keep the dinghy head to tide and pull as hard as you can!”

The  selection day was to be divided into three ‘Tests’. The first was the swimming test. All twelve of us were taken up to the local swimming pool and told to swim around the around the pool (any stroke), up one length, across the width, back down the other length and so on until told we could stop….We were told that that speed was not important….they just want to see that we were  competent swimmers in the unlikely event that (should we be accepted) we should find ourselves in the water…..This test held no worries for me as I had always been a keen and competent swimmer….Not particularly fast….but steady swimming was not a problem for me…..Everyone seemed to cope with this test pretty well.

One test down and the second test came before lunch….For this we were split up into six pairs…..We were all told to wait in the canteen until our names were called….When summoned we would be led down to the pontoon where we would undergo a rowing test and a knot tying test…..One of us would go out in the dinghy with a sergeant to instruct and examine us while the other applicant would remain on the pontoon and be tested on tying some basic knots……My partner was to go first in the dinghy and I was introduced to Kevan who was going to test my knot tying credentials….Once again, I was not too worried about this test as I had been a Boy Scout in my youth and knew the difference between a reef knot and a sheet bend….Although Kevan did look at me strangely when I tied my bowline around my waist and then lifted it over my head when I presented it to him….”That isn’t a bowline!” He declared.

“I think it is,” I uncertainly offered.

He looked at it doubtfully and turned it round a few times in his hands. “Why did you tie it around your waist?”

“Because that’s the way I was taught in the Scouts”

By the way he was shaking his head and tutting, I could see that he was not overly impressed with my ropework skills…..But at least I had managed to tie the knots more or less as they were supposed to be.

I later discovered that Kevan was a rare breed of men who had spent almost their whole life on or around the river….He was one of the very few officers on Thames Division who also held a valid Waterman and Lighterman’s licence….What Kevan didn’t know about working on the river Thames simply wasn’t worth knowing….And over the years I would benefit greatly from his knowledge (and immense patience)…. I also discovered a very good way to annoy him which never failed to amuse the other officers we worked with….Kevan was particularly keen on the rope skills that he learnt as a trainee lighterman (Someone who works on cargo barges or lighters) and as part of the training process he would randomly hand a trainee a length of rope and tell them to tie a specific knot….One day when we both part of a boat’s crew, he handed me two lengths of rope and said “Tie me a sheet bend.”

I made one end into a ‘Bow’ took the other length around the back and recited “The rabbit comes up the hole, around the tree and back down the hole.”

Kevan was not usually given to demonstrative behaviour but this was too much….”NO THE BLOODY RABBIT DOES NOT COME UP THE HOLE, ROUND THE TREE AND BACK DOWN THE HOLE AGAIN! ….I’M TRYING TO TEACH YOU HOW TO BE A MARINER!”

When Kevan saw the broad grin on my face and that the other crewman had tears of laughter running down his face, he finally saw the joke…..Sort of…..”OK you two can have a good old laugh at silly old Kevan….But I’m only doing this for your good!….Bloody rabbit comes up the hole!…..Why do I bother?”

Anyway….back to the day of the board….My knot tying was completed and I now swapped places with the other applicant and I was told by the sergeant (John) to step into the dinghy which was secured facing up river. “OK, are you ready?” I nodded. “Right, listen carefully….The dinghy is facing bow into the ebbing tide…..When you are ready, I will let go the line and push the bow away from pontoon….I want you to use the oars to pull us away from the pontoon and take us up river towards the engineers pontoon….You will have to put your back into it as this is a heavy boat and the tide is running quite fast…..I want you to pull us about ten yards beyond this pontoon and then use the oars to steer us to starboard….(He pointed to the right so there was no mistake)….Once we get inside of the pontoon you will find the tide is a lot slacker and you will easily be able to pull the dinghy up towards the engineers pontoon….When we get there I will give you the next instructions….Are you ready”?

I nodded and said “Yes”

As soon as he let the head line go and pushed off….I could feel the tide start to turn the bow and I dug the oars into the water…..Having only rowed on lakes before I was surprised at how much effort I had to exert just to stay still….”Pull harder and make sure you stay head to tide…..row hard for that first ten yards and you will be fine.”

Once we began to make headway I began to feel more confident.

“OK, now you can row a little harder on your right oar and that will take us into the slacker water….It will be easy when you’re there.”

Sure enough the current was a lot slacker and John said “Right….That went ok….I’m going to ask you to row towards the engineers pontoon….Once the bow of the dinghy gets beyond the pontoon, the tide will start to turn it very quickly….What I want you to do is pull only on your left oar….Now the tide will be pushing you quickly down river at this point so you must keep pulling just that left oar until it has turned you in a complete 360 degrees and as we come abreast of the police pontoon again you should be facing up river again just as we started out……I want you to guide the dinghy into the same space that we came out of….I will secure the rope and this test will be complete….Understand?”

I had already watched my partner do the same manoeuvre so I already had a pretty good idea of what was required…..When the tide caught the bow I was again surprised at how fast the dinghy turned and I pulled the left oar as hard as I could so I had already spun the dinghy the full 360 degrees before we reached the top of the pontoon….”OK…Wait a second….NOW pull hard both oars and keep the bow into the tide but just edge us towards the pontoon….That’s good….You’re done….Step onto the pontoon, go back to the canteen and send the next pair down to us.”

We were both relieved to get past this test without a major mishap…..Not all the applicants had the same good fortune….The next pair down included a chap (John) about the same age as myself….John came from Liverpool and had a strong Liverpudlian accent he was also a natural comic and kept us all amused with his ready wit and humour…..The pair went down together but John’s partner returned to the canteen on his own about twenty minutes later…..”Where’s John?” We asked.

“He went after me for the row and I’m afraid he’s had a mishap…..You know when the sergeant says “”Pull hard on the left oar to spin the boat around?”


“Well I think he got confused and all we saw was the dinghy get swept down by the tide completely past the pontoon with the sergeant shouting “”NO…..PULL THE OTHER OAR”….. Kevan sent be back up here and said “I’m going to have to rescue them before they get to Greenwich!”

About twenty minutes later John walked rather shamefacedly into the canteen and smiled…”Well, THAT didn’t go entirely to plan, did it?”

We all smiled with him but we all thought “Thank goodness it didn’t happen to us!”

After that we had lunch in the canteen and the final test was to go before the interview board itself….We would all go one at a time into the office where there would be three senior officers, the Superintendent and Chief inspector from Wapping and a Scottish Superintendent from neighbouring ‘H’ Division who had one of the broadest Glaswegian accents I have ever heard…..I had a feeling that the exaggerations and embellishments that littered my original application form would return to haunt me….But nobody seemed particularly interested in that part of my application…..The Wapping Superintendent said “I see from your application that you have lived in Greenwich and that you are keenly interested in history….Is that true?”

“Yes indeed Sir.”

“OK. On the riverfront just in front of the Royal Naval College, Greenwich is a large stone obelisk….What’s the history of that.”

“I know the monument you are referring to Sir….It’s made of a reddish stone.”

“I know that….But what’s it’s history?”

I realised that my bluff had been called and decided that honesty was best in the circumstances….”I know the monument, Sir, but I’m afraid I don’t know what it commemorates.”

“Ah….So you are not quite the expert that your application suggests then?”

I smiled “So it would seem Sir…..Just as a matter of interest, Sir, what does it commemorate?”

“I haven’t got a clue….You’re supposed to be the historian, here!”

At this point the Scottish Superintendent interjected….”In Glasgow we have an expression where we can refer to someone a “”Fast Tapper””….Have you ever heard that phrase before Laddy?”

“No Sir….I’ve never heard that before.”

Really?…That surprises me….because I think YOU ARE one!”

“Really, Sir?….Why thank you very much.”

“It wasn’t meant to be a compliment, Son!”

“Oh, I see!”…. I had the feeling that it was all rather getting away from me…..But right at the end I WAS able to snatch something out of the fire when the Chief inspector said “I see on your application that you are a keen sportsman….Tell us about that.”

At last I was on firm ground and I gave chapter and verse about swimming, rugby, running, race walking….All good strong police related sports.

The Chief inspector looked thoughtful…..The major sport on Thames Division is rowing…..If your application to join the division WAS to be successful….Could you be persuaded to join our rowing team?”

“Well it would be a whole new skill for me to learn to learn, Sir….But I would certainly be willing to give it a try.”

And with that, the board was ended….I left the room and returned to the canteen….I was relieved to hear that none of the others were particularly confident either.

About a month later I received a phone call at home with the message that my application to join Thames Division had been successful and that I was to parade at Wapping at 0900 on a Monday morning in early April  1988 to commence probationary training which would last a year.

And with that move, my career in the Met. Police changed completely. In future posts I will be telling of my experiences as a Thames Division officer.

When I walked into the canteen on that first day I met the five other officers who would join me as the Class of ‘88….One of those officers was John, the officer from Liverpool who had got his rowing test so spectacularly wrong….I delighted but just a little surprised to see that he had also made it through selection.

Many years later I was having a chat with the chief inspector who had been on the board that day and I reminded him of what happened on the day…..”We were all surprised when John made it through the board.”

“Were you?….I can tell you now that John’s name was the very first on the list of people who we HAD to accept….Those boards are not like today’s boards….Really we were just making things up and looking for people who showed enthusiasm and might have an aptitude for the work….And one thing we were looking for was an invisible quality whereby we might say….””He will make a good Thamesman!””…..When John stepped through the door for his interview board after the rowing disaster….we all looked at him….and smiled….Then all four of us just burst out laughing….And John gave the best (and funniest) board any of us had ever seen….His place on the division was NEVER in doubt!….Of all the applicants it was John who had that invisible quality….The simple fact was that we can teach people to row and drive boats….But we can NEVER teach that quality that John had.

A lot of water has passed through London’s bridges since that day….But John and I are still in touch….And he remains one of the funniest men I’ve ever known.

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  1. Do seem to recall many years ago, whilst on a tour was taken to St Peter’s Square in front of a big building with a balcony: we all dutifully stood around while the guide droned on, and two people came out onto the balcony. I turned to the fellow tourist I’d been chatting with — an American, and asked him ‘who are they?’ ‘Not sure,’ he said ‘the guy in the white robe’s a stranger, but the one next to him is Scouse John.’
    Could they be the same?

    1. I think there’s a venerable and ancient joke in there somewhere Dick….Having said that, If it applied to anyone….Then John (or Gibbo) would indeed be a prime candidate!

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