The song “If you want to know the time ask a policeman” was a hugely popular Victorian music hall song that was intended to be anything but flattering to the Metropolitan Police.
The lyrics were written by Edward Rogers and the tune was composed by Augustus Durandeau.
But, it was the music hall comedian James Fawn who made it a huge hit.
Here is the song’s story.
THE HISTORY OF “ASK A POLICEMAN”
Edward William Rogers was born in Newington, London, in 1864.
He began a music hall career in the early 1880’s and appeared on stages countrywide in various sketches which, as he would be the first to admit, were, to say the least, mediocre.
In fact, he soon learnt that his talents were better suited to writing, as opposed to performing, and he began penning the lyrics to ditties that others would perform.
Then, in 1888, he got his big break when he wrote the lyrics for a song entitled, “If You Want To Know The Time Ask A Policeman.”
Augustus E. Durandeau added a tune to Rogers’ lyrics; and, when the music hall comedian James Fawn (1848 – 1923) included it in his act, it became a massively popular number, and, within three years, the sheet music had sold a remarkable half a million copies.
JAMES FAWN THE COMIC SINGER
The comic singer James Fawn was frequently billed as “The Prince of the Red Nosed Comedians”, and he was most famous for his ditties on drink, drunks, publicans and, from 1888, police officers.
He would come onto the stage suitably attired for the character he was portraying.
So, for example, for his popular “toff” character he would don top hat and tails and sing his song, interspersing the lyrics by hiccupping, after which he would turn to the audience and apologise by claiming that “… it must have been the lobster I’ve eaten as I’ve hardly drunk enough to drown a fly!”
ASK A POLICEMAN
From 1888, his most popular song was “Ask A Policeman” and audiences would attend his shows expecting to hear him sing it, and they would express their extreme disappointment if it was left out of his act on any particular night.
The song itself was filled with references that reflected the Victorian working-class mistrust of the officers of the law, and made mention of several preconceived prejudices and urban myths that the audience would have “got” instantly, and which would have drawn guffaws and roars of laughter.
Take, for example, the first verse and chorus:-
The police force is a noble band, that safely guard our streets.
Their valor is unquestion’d, and they’re monarchs on their beats;
If anything you wish to know, they’ll tell you with a grin,
In fact, each one of them is a complete “inquire within.”
If you want to know the time, ask a policeman.
The proper Greenwich time, ask a policeman.
Every member of the force has a watch and chain, of course,
How he got it, from what source? ask a policeman.
KNOWING NODS AND WINKS
James Fawn would have sung the song dressed as a police constable, and each line of the lyrics would have been accompanied by a knowing nod and a wink.
Now, for us, the above lyric doesn’t sound too bad, but the line that would have instantly hit home with the audience was the line about every member of the force having a watch and chain “of course.”
There was an urban myth that police officers – who were mostly drawn themselves from the working classes – would be only too happy to arrest a gentleman, even if he was only slightly tipsy, in order to relieve him of his watch whilst he was in police custody!
The Victorian music hall audiences would have lapped it up, and would, no doubt, jeer and cheer as Fawn delivered the line.
POLICEMEN AND DRINK
Another common accusation against the patrolling beat constables of the 19th century was that they were partial to a drop of alcohol, particularly to while away the tedious hours of night duty.
Consequently, so the rumour went, the person who knew all the pubs that would be open at the most ungodly of hours, was the local policeman, a rumour that is reflected in the second verse and chorus of the ditty:-
And if you stay out late at night and visit regions queer.
Thanks to those noble guardians, of danger you’ve no fear;
If beer you want, and stores are closed, go to the man in blue.
He’ll show you where the side door is, and tell you what to do.
If you want to get a drink, ask a policeman,
He’ll manage it, I think, will a policeman,
He’ll find out the secret way, where you can, both night and day,
Get a cocktail right away, can a policeman.
THE POLICEMAN AND BROTHELS
Another temptation to which the patrolling officers were said to succumb was that offered by the local prostitutes and brothels.
Indeed, by 1888, the Metropolitan Police had been mired in several scandals – such as the Miss Cass scandal, and the Clapham Common blackmailing scandal – both of which had been extensively reported in the newspapers in the summer of 1887 and both of which involved the police and alleged prostitutes.
Prostitution was seen as a huge social problem by some sections of Victorian society, and it was frequently reported that many prostitutes had run away from low paid jobs in the homes of “respectable” citizens to pursue their lives of vice on the streets and in the brothels.
Of course, with his knowledge of the streets, houses and businesses, the local beat officer, so the rumour went, “got to know” all the local prostitutes, and knew where all the houses of ill-repute were in his particular district, a knowledge which is inferred in verse three of the song:-
And if your hired girl suddenly should leave her cozy place,
Don’t publish an advertisement, her whereabouts to trace;
No matter what the neighbors say, if you wish her to trace.
Go ask the fellow dressed in blue, he’ll soon find out the place.
If you don’t know where she’s gone, ask a policeman,
Or where from you she’s run, ask a policeman.
He may say some dude did try to make her from home fly.
You’ll know better bye and bye from that policeman.
POLICEMEN HID FROM CONFRONTATION
Another charge that was frequently levelled against the police was that they were never around when you needed them.
Indeed, it was rumoured in many of the rougher districts of London that, should trouble start, the policeman could always be found hurrying rapidly in the opposite direction from where the trouble was taking place, which is the subject of the next verse and chorus of the song:-
And if you’re getting very stout, wish to be trim and nice,
No need a doctor to call in, you just take my advice;
Go in for running all you can, both morning, noon and night.
And if you want a pattern, watch a policeman in a fight,
If you want to learn to run, ask a policeman,
When a battle has begun, watch a policeman,
Round the corner he will go, swift as an arrow from a bow.
He don’t care to meet the foe, does a policeman.
LEAVE YOUR WIFE AT HOME
Since police officers were out on their beats at all times of the day and night, and since it was part of their remit to get to know all the local residents on their particular beat, there were numerous music hall songs and jokes about police officers and stay-at-home wives, which is what the last verse and chorus of the song made reference to:-
Or if you’re called away from home, and leave your wife behind.
You think, oh, would that I a friend to guard the house could find;
And keep my love in safety, but let all your troubles cease,
You’ll find the wished for safeguard in our honest, good police.
If your wife requires a friend, ask a policeman,
Who to her wants will attend, ask a policeman,
Or if manliness you’d trace, on a guileless honest face,
To take care of wife and place, get a policeman.
TEASING THE POLICE ON THEIR WAY HOME
By the time James Fawn reached this final chorus his audience would have been joining in with the lyrics, roaring with laughter at the inferences, and shouting all sorts of comments and obscenities at the stage.
And, no doubt, as they made their various ways home from the music hall, any policeman they chanced upon was in for an awful lot of teasing, and you can’t help feel that many a Victorian constable must have come to rue the day that Edward William Rogers, had put pen to paper and scribbled out the lyrics to “If You Want To Know The Time Ask A Policeman.”
HE WAS NOT AMUSED
Some officers, no doubt, took the ribbing they received in good humour.
But some showed themselves to be a little less thick-skinned on the subject, as is evidenced by the following story that appeared in The St James’s Gazette on Friday, 6th December, 1889:-
“James Hall, of Battersea, is a hewer of wood; Police-constable 259 V is a man with a nice taste in harmony.
Good Master Hall amused himself as he tramped at night along the York-road by singing, “If you want to know the time, ask a policeman.”
The song itself was certain to hurt the feelings of a dignified policeman; and it seems to have been badly sung, which naturally went to the heart of an accomplished amateur like 259 V.
When the constable ordered the hewer of wood to desist, he, with proud British independence, refused.
The next scene took place upon the ground; and the next but one at the police station.
However, the musical wood-cutter has been discharged; 259 V being but little consoled by being told that the charge was “trumpery.’’
But, if only somebody would establish musical censorship of the streets!”
USED IN ADVERTISEMENTS
Of course, the huge popularity of the song meant that its potential for advertising was soon spotted, and by November, 1889, the Waterbury Watch Company were advertising their timepieces in various newspapers referencing the lyric.
An example of their adverts is this one, which appeared in The Globe, on the 22nd of November, 1889:-
IF YOU WANT TO STOP THE TIME ASK THE JUDGE!
By December, 1889, James Fawn had the sole right to perform the song on any stage in the country – or, at least, that’s what he thought.
However, Messrs Francis Brothers and Day, the publishers of the sheet music, apparently, didn’t quite see it that way, and they continued to licence other artistes and theatres to perform the song.
Not impressed with this, James Fawn decided that it was time to ask a judge, and he sued them.
The case was reported in The Era on Saturday 7th December, 1889:-
“ASK A POLICEMAN”
In the Chancery Division, on the 29th November, before Mr Justice North, in the case of Fawn v. Francis Brothers and Another, a motion was made on behalf of Mr James Fawn, the comic singer, the plaintiff in the action, by Air Cozens Hardy, Q.C., and Mr Boome for an interlocutory injunction to restrain Messrs Francis Brothers and Day, music publishers, of Oxford-street, from authorising, permitting, or allowing a song called “Ask a Poiceman” to be sung in any theatre or music hall without the previous consent of the plaintiff.
The words of the song in question were written by E. W. Rogers, and the music was composed by Mr Augustus Durandeau.
THE SOLE RIGHT
Mr James Fawn obtained the sole right of singing or permitting the singing of the song in public and provision was made by which a notice protecting his right was printed on all copies of the song.
The defendants purchased for a sum of £10 from the author, the composer and Mr James Fawn, the copyright of the words and the music of the song, including the right of permitting it to be sung, subject as a term of the contract according to the evidence of the plaintiff, to the reservation that it was not to be sung in theatres or music halls without Mr Fawn’s permission.
NO FORMAL AGREEMENT
There was no formal assignment or evidence in writing of the terms of the assignment, except a receipt in a printed form provided by Messrs Francis Brothers and Day signed by the three assignees.
WHAT WAS AGREED
The receipt, as filled up, was in the following terms:-
“Received of Francis Brothers and Day, music publishers, of Blenheim House, 195, Oxford-street, ten pounds for the absolute sale of all our copyright and interest, present and future, vested and contingent, for this and all other countries of and in the song entitled “Ask a Policeman,” together with the right of representing or performing the same, or of causing or permitting the same to be represented or performed.”
On the margin the words,”This song must not be sung in theatres or music halls without Mr Fawn’s permission to be printed on all copies” were written lengthways.
THE COURT THEATRE
The defendants had authorised the performance of the song at the Court Theatre.
The plaintiff brought this action to assert his exclusive right to control the performance of the song at theatres and music halls.
The defendants, on the other hand, asserted their right to authorise the performance.
They denied that there was a term of the contract reserving the power of regulating public performance at theatres or music halls to the plaintiff.
Mr D. Warde opposed the motion.
JAMES FAWN WINS THE CASE
Mr Justice North considered the plaintiff was entitled to the order he asked for.
As to the proper construction of the document which evidenced the agreement, he pointed out that it did not profess to be an agreement; it was merely a receipt in a form kept in print by the defendants, who appeared to have a large number of similar transactions.
That being the case, he did not consider that the exact words of the body of the agreement, so far as it was in print, were of the same consequence as if they had been drawn up for the purpose of the particular transaction, with a view to the wishes of the parties in the particular case.
On the other hand, the note on the margin was written with a view to express the intention of the parties previously formed, and the exact terms were of more weight.
In his Lordship’s opinion, the plain meaning of the note was that the plaintiff should have the exclusive right he claimed.
There were circumstances connected with the conduct of the defendants which tended in his view to corroborate the version of the contract the plaintiff gave.
His Lordship instanced the fact that the defendants had authorised the public announcement that the song was sung by the permission of the plaintiff, and they had themselves applied to the plaintiff for leave to be given to the management of the Court Theatre.
The only difficulty his Lordship felt was upon the question whether the lessees of the Court Theatre, who were not parties, would be affected.
But, considering the cases that had been decided on the words of such injunctions he considered they would not be affected, and he made the order asked for.”
DEATH OF MAN WHO SANG “ASK A POLICEMAN”
Despite the fact that James Fawn was a massively popular performer, with a repertoire that included several other “hit” tunes, it was for “Ask A Policeman” that he was best known, and it was the number for which he was best remembered following his death in 1923.
The Leeds Mercury announced his passing under the above headline in its edition of Tuesday, 23rd January, 1923, before providing a brief obituary that read:-
“Mr James Fawn, the well-known music hall comedian, died at his residence in Brixton, London yesterday morning, after three or four months of illness.
Aged seventy-five, his last appearance was in October at a music hall in Shoreditch.
He leaves a widow and several children.
His best-known ditty was, “If you want to know the time, ask a policeman.”