North Berwick | Police

One of the earliest recollections I have of the police in the 1940s was in the context of the bona fide traveller; it was an offence to drink alcohol in the area you resided on a Sunday, so to overcome this problem the over-18s had to travel a distance of at least three miles to licensed premises in order to get a drink. A visitors’ book for that purpose was by law, kept on the premises for all travellers to enter their names and addresses and it was regularly checked by the local police. It was an offence under the Licensing (Scotland) Act if this law was contravened.

The regular mode of transport for the police at that time in North Berwick was pedal cycles and public transport – ie buses. The police were entitled to travel free whilst in uniform. By the 1950s, the force was becoming mechanised and the local police took delivery of a Norton 500cc motorcycle, which meant that those officers not in possession of a motorcycle licence had to take a test. In the early 1960s, Gullane police station had a motor scooter, namely a DKR Dove 125cc. However the Gullane policeman, Stanley McLean (stationed at Gullane for 25 years) had endless problems and the machine was more often in the garage than on the road.

North Berwick then progressed to a mini van, then the first of the Morris 1000s and so on. These vehicles are known as pandas due to the two-tone blue and white colour. The public in the 1980s were becoming concerned about the lack of police officers patrolling the streets and in 1984, the pedal cycles were re-introduced. This allowed an officer to patrol a larger area in the burgh, while a panda could cover the outlying district. The total beat area in the North Berwick section is approximately 23,000 acres, stretching to Gosford (near Longniddry) on the west, to Ballencrieff on the south and Whitekirk on the east, and bounded by the river Forth on the north.

The average strength of North Berwick police was approximately twelve officers with at least two being on duty at any one time. There were also two civilian typists who worked either a day shift or back shift. Three working shifts provided the manpower, ie day shift (6am-2pm), back shift (2pm-10pm) and night shift (10pm-6am), and of course there were always two officers on two days off per week. The two sergeants also worked shifts, ie 9am-5pm and 5pm-1am.

As North Berwick police station was badly in need of refurbishment at that time, it was decided to close the station while work was in progress for approximately six months. Temporary accommodation was acquired at 26 Dunbar Road at the unoccupied premises of the East Lothian Co-operative Society (now a dwelling house). The policing certainly improved thereafter with the introduction of more reliable and efficient communications. With a new radio mast on the roof of the police station, personal radio reception was greatly improved.

There were originally four cells in the station, and one was made into an interview room, one a storeroom and two left for prisoners. Later the community constable was introduced. He, or she, was (and remains) a very high profile officer whose duties include visiting schools, giving talks to various organisations, attending council meetings etc.

The biggest change in policing occurred in 1975 when regionalisation took place, and the then Lothian and Peebles Police Force amalgamated with Edinburgh City, Berwick, Roxburgh and Selkirk and became known as the Lothian and Borders Police Force.

Until the 1970s a regular job for the police was to visit the local abattoir to ensure that the slaughtering of animals was done in a humane manner. A register of animals for slaughter also had to be examined. The abattoir was where the Safeway supermarket is now situated.

Another unusual job for the county police was to visit farms in the area and supervise the dipping of sheep and again to check registers.

If there was a suspected outbreak of any notifiable disease on any farm, ie anthrax, swine fever, foot and mouth etc then the police were responsible for the issuing of the appropriate forms governing the movement of livestock and prohibiting entry to premises.

After regionalisation, all of these jobs were (and are now) carried out by government inspectors from the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

In the 1940s the crime rate was not so high as it is today and any crimes were usually committed by locals. The crime pattern has changed dramatically in the past few years mainly due to the travelling criminals. Highly mobile, they usually target holiday resorts, similar to North Berwick, where even families and gangs would operate. It has been known for organised criminals to travel from the Newcastle area and further afield to commit crime in the burgh. The most frequent crime carried out regularly, summer and winter, is theft of golf clubs and equipment usually from unattended parked cars. As North Berwick area is a Mecca for golfers with two courses in the burgh and a further 15 in the county there is ample opportunity to steal from the careless golfer.

Now that supermarkets are in most towns a large percentage of crime is by shoplifting.

Another type of theft, OLP (Opening Lockfast Places) occurs regularly in the summer when visitors’ cars are broken into and articles, which are visible, ie handbags stolen. Intruder alarms are now being fitted as standard to new houses and similarly older houses in the burgh have been updated, which has caused a drop in the number of housebreakings.

One main factor is the shortage of police manpower. This is often due to long-term sickness, officers attending court, or courses, or for other reasons. This often means that there is only one police constable on duty. Then, if available, a constable from either Dunbar or Haddington will assist; likewise it is quite common for a sergeant in North Berwick to be responsible for Dunbar and Haddington, during his tour of duty. As each station is approximately ten miles apart then at least 30 miles is covered each shift. At weekends, usually the busiest, the two-man night shift is supported by the back shift officers, working two hours overtime, until 1am.

The only other method of increasing the station strength is by the use of special constables, but this is not always practical. The use of drugs in the burgh is on the increase, and cannabis is easily obtained, and the most widely used. Most drugs change hands in local public houses. The drug squad based in Dalkeith regularly attends and visits licensed premises.

The consumption of alcohol by the under age group is very much on the increase, and youngsters can be seen drinking in public parks and on the beach, most weekends. One of the reasons is that children have far more money to spend. The situation has got out of hand, so much so that the council is preparing a byelaw prohibiting drinking alcohol in public places at weekends.

Until a few years ago the station was constantly manned during the day shift and back shift but this was usually a waste of manpower. The new system operates much more efficiently, for instance if a member of the public telephones the unmanned station, the call is automatically transferred to divisional headquarters at Dalkeith. The officer or clerkess receiving the call immediately contacts the local officer by means of personal radio and the matter is attended to. Similarly, if someone calling at the station finds it closed, then a free public police telephone situated outside the office can be used to the same effect.

Uniforms and equipment worn by the police have changed over the years. In the 1940s a basic uniform was issued along with a notebook, whistle and baton. Nowadays, the police officer has a navy blue jersey with the police logo, replacing the tunic, and the equipment now includes notebook, handcuffs, personal radio, larger baton and CS spray (no whistle!)

There have been a number of major incidents at North Berwick; these include the following:

  • 1970s: a diesel passenger train crashed through the buffers at the railway station, stopping short of Menzies bookstall, caused by brake failure – no person injured.
  • Body in the Boot: a car parked at Blenheim Hotel was found to have body hidden in the boot. Two men arrested.
  • Seacliff farm: murder and suicide.
  • The Dr Barnardo’s Children’s Home at Glasclune burned to the ground, willful fire raising. A 15-year-old inmate charged with offence. £350,000 damage.
  • 1971: a local hotel porter murdered hotel receptionist. Body was found on 9th fairway at West Links. The accused was jailed and released 1981 (pled guilty to culpable homicide).
  • 1980s: small tanker ‘metanol’ carrying a cargo of sulphuric acid sank off North Berwick. Crew rescued – no injuries.
  • Murder outside Redholm, Greenheads Road, where estranged husband stabbed his wife to death, when attempting a reconciliation. Both had been drinking. Accused pleaded guilty to culpable homicide and was jailed.
  • 1982: a diesel passenger train crashed through the buffers at the new station and stopped in the car park, two people were slightly injured. Possible cause – ice on the track.