Harold Brust was working as the personal attendant to Sir Francis Villiers, British Ambassador to Portugal, when, on 1st February 1908, he witnesses the assassination of King Carlos of Portugal.
At the subsequent funeral in Lisbon, he met Scotland Yard detective, Superintendent John McCarthy, who persuaded him to leave Lisbon for London with a view to joining the Metropolitan Police.
BRUST JOINS THE METROPOLITAN POLICE
In his memoirs, titled I Guarded Kings, Brust recalled how, three weeks after meeting McCarthy, he sailed away from Portugal to:-
“become a serving policeman, a “man in blue,” tramping the hard pavements, rattling the doorknobs, walking my allotted “beat” like every other lowly constable, for only by hard work in the ranks can one rise to the detective service of Scotland Yard.”
A SOUND SYSTEM
Looking back on his start with the police, Brust had nothing but praise for the system whereby the only way to become a detective was to start as a beat constable and work your way up.
As he recalled in his memoirs:-
“It is a sound system.
As a patrolling constable one learns the bedrock facts about police work, one becomes part of the great machine which enforces the Law, and one sees aspects of life that otherwise would be missed.
All this training is valuable experience, of great use in after life. I would not have missed it for worlds.
Behold me, then, an apprentice on the lowest rung of the London Metropolitan Police ladder, learning fast – and, moreover, an apprentice who had been the subject of letters from an Ambassador to a Home Secretary, 1 Cork helmet on head, lantern on belt – P.C. L 317, and proud of it.”
A “MAN IN BLUE”
Brust then goes on to devote a whole chapter of his memoirs to his time on the beat, patrolling the streets of Lambeth and Vauxhall.
His recollections provide a vivid insight into the challenges and tribulations that faced the everyday beat constables, as well as leaving the reader with a huge amount of respect for himself and his brother officers.
The chapter is titled “A Man In Blue,” and it reads as follows:-
“Dirty pavements, sordid streets, malodorous back-alleyways; grey river-mist, thickening at times to a sooty fog-blanket; thunderous clangour of tram-cars, rattle of brewers’ drays over cobblestones, jangle of barrel-organs, and running through this orchestration, like the motif through an opera, the hoarse, strident voice of the Cockney.
This was the stage on which I moved as a Metropolitan police-constable.
A startling contrast to the discreet, carpeted environment of the British Embassy in Lisbon, to the Royal Palace of the Necessidades, to all the suave atmosphere and trappings of regality and diplomacy from which I had come.
THE STREETS OF LAMBETH AND VAUXHALL
As a “Man in Blue” I patrolled the streets of Lambeth and Vauxhall, where the only palaces were the gin-palaces, garish with light and nightly the scene of shrill-voiced revelry and fist-fights.
I was posted for uniform duty, at the age of twenty-five, in the month of October, at the beginning of one of those old-time bitter English winters.
The police officers in charge of divisions in those days were not exactly like those which we may expect nowadays from the modern Police Training College at Hendon.
Rough and ready men, reared in the hard school of patrol-work in the toughest quarters of London, they met life with the gloves off; a sprinkling of them were ex-non-commissioned officers of the British Army, and their idea of discipline was to keep the new recruit “hard at it” in the process of “breaking him in.”
A GNARLED AND RUGGED OLD BOBBY
My first tour of duty was in Lambeth Walk, under the tutelage of a gnarled, rugged old “bobby” who had spent most of his life there, and he gave me many tips which subsequently proved of the greatest value in dealing with the petty crooks who abound across the bridges on the south side of the River Thames.
I fear that I did not look at all a “typical” policeman.
My belt had to be tightened to the last hole to fit my waist, and I was the object of much comment from those masters of sly satire, the kerbside costermongers.
AN UNSHAVEN HEAVYWEIGHT
I was not long in finding trouble.
One night I was summoned to deal with a man who was using threatening language to patrons in a public-house in Tyers Street.
Not without trepidation I marched into the public bar, finding the threatener to be a burly, unshaven man who looked round fiercely at my entrance.
Sternly I ordered him out.
He scowled, spat on the floor. “Do yew knaow ‘oo I am? ” he demanded.
I said that I knew him but did not care, and told him to get out before I chucked him out.
He drew himself up.
For the moment I thought he was about to make a fight of it.
Then with a grumbled:- “All right, copper,” he pulled on his cap and slouched through the door and away into the night.
Two or three occupants of the bar gazed on me with awe.
“Don’t yer knaow ‘oo ‘e is? ” asked one. “Blimey, ‘e’s an ex-‘eavyweight champion wot’s come dahn in the world!”
My ignorance of his identity had given me the necessary boldness to deal with the situation.
He must have thought I knew him all the time, and felt capable of tackling him, hence his meekness.
It was my first little triumph as a dealer with malcontents.
DECOYED TO A HOUSE OF ILL-FAME
After two weeks or so of patrol duty, complaints were received that men and women from houses of ill-fame in our division were active in inveigling victims into these dens and robbing them.
I was told to keep a sharp look-out for taxi-cabs passing through Lambeth and district, in which women decoys might be travelling with men “picked up” in the West End.
One night, or rather morning, for it was past 2 a.m., I was munching a quiet sandwich during a halt near the Oval when I was startled by a shout from a passing cab.
The taxi-driver pulled up his vehicle, and began to argue with somebody inside.
I walked over.
Inside the cab was a very important and presumably respected business magnate from the North of England, in the clutches of two women thieves quite well known to the men of my division.
The magnate complained that he had been robbed of a gold watch and chain and his note-case.
I ordered them all out, and took the three to the police station, so that the women might be searched.
Alas for my hopes of restoring the stolen property. The search revealed nothing at all in the shape of evidence. I learned later that it was the trick of cab thieves to drop the plunder en route to the station; often a confederate is tagging along behind ready for such a contingency, and quick to recover the loot. Undoubtedly this was what had occurred.
Through lack of evidence the women were acquitted, and I was suitably admonished by the detective in charge.
Warehouse thieves gave us much trouble.
They were burglars, sometimes alone, sometimes in gangs, who systematically raided the warehouses which flank the Surrey side of the river.
Often when the alarm came to the station we had to go out prepared to scale walls and climb roofs in order to close in on or pursue these daring gentry.
One of the biggest thrills of my blue uniform days came on a night in January after some three months’ service.
It was a night of intense cold, and a wind that pierced the thickest uniform like a stabbing sword was whistling round street corners.
I had paraded for night duty at 9.45 p.m. according to routine orders, and police orders were read out to us in the parade shed. One item was more than usually stressed as “important and urgent,” and small wonder. It ran:-
“Escaped from B Insane Asylum, man aged thirty-five, powerfully built. Homicidal Maniac. Dark blue suit, wearing carpet slippers.”
With this to occupy our minds, we marched out to our lonely patrols on the frosted pavements.
Now police-constables are by no means the stolid, knee-bending, cook-kissing numbskulls which certain comic operas and cartoons make them out to be; they are human beings, with just as much imagination as any other fellow.
Imaginations were at work that night.
Every shadow seemed a lurking menace, every stealthy footfall brought one idea rioting in the brain – “Is it him?”
At 2 a.m. I sought a sheltered corner and lit a tiny pocket spirit lamp under a tin of cocoa-and-water, to fashion myself a breakfast.”
I had turned into a small mews, which has now been demolished to make way for the far finer and healthier buildings erected by the Prince of Wales on his Duchy of Cornwall estate thereabouts.
I had just downed the cocoa and got my teeth well into a sandwich, when from the end of the mews I heard a sibilant sound.
My heart skipped a beat, and I gulped down the rest of the sandwich in one piece, for it was the sound made by slippered feet.
I challenged the oncomer.
With a volley of oaths he sprang at me from the shadows, and we grappled.
Fortunately for me, my sergeant was standing at a nearby corner and heard the noise of battle. He came pounding along, and between us we managed to hold the captive until other men arrived with a stretcher. The slippered maniac fought like a wild-cat, but at last we had him strapped down and were able to take him to the station.
INJURED IN THE LINE OF DUTY
Another escaped lunatic was arrested by Sergeant Lewis and myself at 6.3o a.m. one dark Sunday morning in Newington Causeway.
We saw the man gesticulating wildly in front of a shop window.
We walked over and questioned him, at which he dived one hand into a side pocket of his overcoat and whipped out the biggest cook’s knife that I have ever seen.
To this very day, on the index finger of my left hand, I bear the scar made by that knife as it struck, nearly severing the top joint.
A CHRISTMAS EVE ENCOUNTER
Down in the Lambeth district of London, as the shadows of dusk crept down on a Christmas Eve, I was patrolling my “beat,” grateful for the heavy blue uniform and overcoat, the thick constabulary boots and cork helmet which kept out the cold. Snow was falling in lazy, eddying drifts, and before long I was transformed into a walking “snow man.”
Most people were indoors, basking by warm fireplaces, drinking port, feasting at the “groaning board,” pulling crackers and playing with their children.
I stamped my feet on the frozen snow to keep up a flagging circulation, flapped my arms, blew on my numbed fingers, and glanced not a little wistfully at the lit windows of the houses on either side.
Many of the houses had been let off in “flats.”
My feet made a soft crunching sound on the snow which almost deadened footfalls, and as I marched along I saw a khaki-clad soldier standing outside a house and staring up at a window. He was obviously just “home on leave,” with bulging kitbag on shoulder.
The window-curtains had been drawn aside.
A woman and a man were visible, embracing fondly under a hanging branch of mistletoe.
It was a pretty little scene, and I envied the lucky gentleman above.
The soldier had not heard my approach.
To my astonishment – “I’ll murder the swine!” he ejaculated fiercely, and began to mount the steps, muttering frenziedly.
“Stop a minute”, I broke in. “What’s the trouble?”
He turned, bitterly.
“That’s my wife up there, with another man”, he burst out. “‘Ere I am, back again from foreign service, and I find my missus up to these Christmas capers.”
That’s your house? ”
“Sure! Think I don’t know the number of my own flat, mate? Three blessed years I’ve been away, and this is what I get! I’ll go up there an’ throttle the life out of that dirty ——.
“You keep calm,” I advised him. “Let me handle this.”
It was as well I did.
For, to the soldier’s great relief, the woman in the flat was not his wife at all, though very like her.
His wife, in order to make a little extra money, had sub-let the flat and taken a situation as housekeeper with a family in a nearby street, until her husband should return.
I shudder to think what might have happened had the soldier gone up alone and the apartment door had been opened by the man, who was a perfectly respectable married fellow residing there with his lawful wife.
A few minutes later the “Tommy” and his spouse were united, and if they insisted that I swallow a glass of warming wine at the kitchen door before bidding them a “Happy Christmas,” who was I to refuse? I did not report this sequel.
A CHRISTMAS DAY TRAGEDY
I touched tragedy on a Christmas Day.
I was patrolling on the Thames Embankment, London, in the grey dawn, and saw the flash of a torch from a police patrol-boat.
The report was that the men in the boat thought they had seen a human head protruding from underneath a barge.
It was only too true.
A girl’s body was recovered from the river and I helped take her to the mortuary.
Her sorrowing parents travelled all the way from a little Derbyshire village to identify the body of their missing daughter – pour souls their “Christmas dinner” that day consisted of a sandwich each on the train.
Thus the days of my novitiate passed. I was broader, fitter, and growing well-grounded in the work of policing slums.
I was eager, I made all the errors of eagerness, but I was learning fast.
Sometimes I wondered whether after all I had done a foolish thing in exchanging the semi-tropical conditions of Portugal for the vile winter weather of England.
My days there were not so distant, and memories were still strong.
But I stuck it out, waiting for my chance of promotion into the higher service of detectivedom.
The chance came at last.
One day I was sent to Tower Bridge police court to interpret for a German prisoner.
Afterwards, Mr. Rose, the stipendiary magistrate, told me that I ought to be at Headquarters, with my qualifications.
So far I had never troubled Superintendent McCarthy, whose remarks in Lisbon had inspired me to join the London Police Force.
But I guessed that when I was deemed sufficiently “broken in” I would be approached from that quarter, and I was right.
McCarthy sent for me, and in June, 1909, I joined the staff of the Special (Political) Branch at Scotland Yard.
My real life work had begun.”