Traffic Warden Hancock and the Union

jk3Traffic wardens can be rather grumpy sods.  It’s a job that attracts the grumpy.   In the early days, and it probably still is the case, they were employed by Police Authorities.   Which is almost certainly why they adopted the blue military style uniform.    Being grumpy sods they often had more grievances than the norm.   And therefore, for trade unions, they were fairly easy to recruit and to unionise.   Trade unions also attract the grumpy sods of the world.  they also, of course, attract committed labour activists, good socialists and defenders of the working class.  Like me.  But there are quite a lot of grumpy sods in the unions as well.  The employers of the traffic wardens, usually local Chief Constables, were not quite used to dealing with uniformed grumpy trade unionists making grumpy demands.  Relationships were therefore often quite fractious.

Traffic warden Hancock was the very essence of the grumpy uniformed officer that we all think of whenever we think of traffic wardens.  Which, thankfully, is not too often.   His patch was West Bridgford in Nottinghamshire and it ran from the city side of Trent Bridge across to the Nott’s County Cricket ground and out into the suburbs of well-heeled well-to-do West Bridgford.    He was a legend out there.   Tall, in his mid ‘50’s, probably about 15 stone, carried his weight well.  Ex-military I think for he had slashed the peak of his traffic warden cap so that it looked like that of a Sgt major in one of the regiments of guards, rather than like, for example the cap of a friendly bus conductor.   He wore fierce looking steel rimmed glasses and he had, this is the absolute truth, a small black toothbrush mustache.   It couldn’t possibly be a coincidence, nor an accident or a fashion statement, that he chose such a mustache.   West Bridgford motorists, or at least some of them, would wind down their windows, stick out their arms and salute him as they drove past.  I may have done it myself. At least once.  He had the most fearsome reputation and you just did not overstay your parking limit in West Bridgford.   You just didn’t do it.

I first engaged with him in rather strange circumstances.  It was nothing to do with the union.  I was at the time, a police photographer and would drive around the county in a blue ford van loaded with photographic equipment, visiting various scenes of crime.  Van had a blue light on top for we often had to get to road traffic accidents in a bit of a rush.    I was driving back to the Central Police Station in Nottingham, from a job in West Bridgford, body in the Trent as I recall.    Driving over Trent Bridge I saw, on the other side of the bridge, coming from the city, a mini car with the bonnet open and smoke pouring from the engine with the occasional lick of flame.  There was a woman in some distress taking stuff out of the car.  Now Police vehicles are quite rightly fitted with fire extinguishers, so I stooped the van on Trent Bridge and leapt out with the extinguisher and ran across and fired the contents into the engine.  There was no doubt I prevented it from developing into fully fledged ball of flame.   Oh I know I’m a hero, but let that, for the moment, pass.   As I stood on the pavement reassuring the distressed female up strolled, hands behind his back, traffic warden Hancock.

 

“Is that your van over there, you can’t park there you know?”

I explained to him that I was a hero (I may have blushed)  and had just put out this fire, that this lady was in distress and that it was an emergency.

“Trent Bridge is a no stopping zone sir, you will have to move that van, you can’t leave it there you know”

I looked him more carefully.  “ I’m a fucking hero you pratt, can’t you fucking see, this fucking engine is still fucking smoking you fucking pratt”  I did not blush.

“No need for that sir, I must ask you to move the van or I shall have to issue a ticket”

“You fucking what?”  I said.  And I considered hitting him with the now empty fire extinguisher.

I didn’t of course.  I left the scene muttering oaths and shaking my head in disbelief.   I had to fill in a form when I got back to explain why I had discharged the fire extinguisher and wrote on it that I nearly got a ticket from traffic warden number, well I can’t remember his number now, but I put in the form.  But nothing happened.

Trent Bridge looking towards the City. The red X marks the spot where the mini was burning.

Trent Bridge looking towards the City. The red X marks the spot where the mini was burning.

I have to admit that I dined out on the story for many years in many a Nottingham pub.   And it might have got a bit enhanced along the way, but it was true.

Many years later.  I mean very many years later, I had moved on form police photography, been to Ruskin College in Oxford and was now a full time trade union organiser for the National Union of Public Employees.    Nottinghamshire was my patch.  If you were low paid and in the public-sector, you were probably being organised by my office.   I loved it!

 

So one morning, I am in my stately offices at Sherwood Rise, busy organising away, when there is a knock on my door and who is it but traffic warden Hancock, who it turns out, was a member of NUPE.    He had been sacked from the traffic warden service and turned now to his Union for help.   He had handled the internal procedures himself, to disastrous effect, and now wanted us to represent him at an Employment Appeals Tribunal.

 

I did not tell him that we had met before!    I thought it discreet not to.  And anyway, if we did well for him at the Tribunal it would assist us in stealing more traffic warden members from our arch rivals who also recruited wardens, the National and Local Government Officers Association.   We were not of course supposed to poach each other’s members,   it was against TUC policy.    But the completion for grumpy traffic warden’s subscriptions was pretty intense.

There must have been great celebrations in the public houses of West Bridgford at the news that traffic warden Hancock had been sacked.   And I would  not have been at all surprised to hear that the Chief Constable had broken out the champagne.      The story was, as he told to me, that he was watching, “observing” was the word he used, a motor car parked in a disabled parking space, complete with disabled parking badge,  waiting for the driver to return to check if he was really disabled.   Upon observing said driver he noted in his book that said driver did not appear to be disabled.   He approached said driver and it was alleged by said driver that he said something to the said driver along the lines,

“You’re not a cripple sir, you can’t park here”

It turned out the said driver had a genuine disability and was highly offended. He and the local disability action group complained traffic warden Hancock to the Chief Constable who duly, and rather hastily, sacked him for gross misconduct.

 

The Employment Appeals Tribunal met in the Birbeck House building on Burton Street, and traffic warden Hancock’s case ran over three days with a lengthy adjournment after day one.  Traffic Warden Hancock wished me to press upon the tribunal that he was a very diligent and efficient traffic warden, that he had sixteen years of unblemished service behind him with a level of productivity in issuing tickets that was un-matched by any of his colleagues.   He told me he had records of every ticket he had ever issued since his first day of employment as a traffic warden and he produced a great box, in fact two boxes, full of black notebooks recording in his neat uniform handwriting, all such tickets;   time; date; car registration; type of vehicle; place parked, limitation period: excess period.   If any of his tickets had been challenged then there was a note about it in red.    The notebooks had a healthy scattering of red entries recording that nearly all such challenges were not upheld.

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My advice to him was that the notebooks should not be entered into evidence as they might be misunderstood and possibly not be very helpful to his case.   But traffic warden Hancock was quite insistent and so, upon his instructions, I advised the tribunal, at the end of the first day, that traffic warden Hancock had, in his time as a traffic warden issued, well I can’t now remember the full number, it was tens of thousands of tickets, and that he wished to put into evidence on the next day of hearing, his notebooks confirming this figure, as evidence of his diligence, efficiency, high productivity and his unblemished record as a traffic warden.

By the time the case came on for the second day of the hearing, some two weeks later, word of his diligent proficiency and his notebook record and his intention to put them into evidence had spread far and wide.   No news editor worth their salt could resist such a story and when we re- entered Birbeck House there was a sizable scrum of news reporters, photographers and TV film cameramen.     We held a brief and impromptu press briefing on the interior staircase of Birbeck House, the main question was a cacophony of “how many tickets?”     I counselled traffic warden Hancock, who was now glorying in his fame, just to say “quite a lot”, but they pressed him, charmed him, encouraged him –  and he couldn’t resist giving them the full number, possibly, for my memory is not too clear, it was 60,000.     They loved him!  They loved his little black mustache!  And there were lots of photographs taken with traffic warden Hancock looking stern through his little mustache holding a small stack of black notebooks and with the light of grievance in his eyes.

I did in fact persuade him that this was not all good and he should re-visit his decision to put the notebooks into evidence.    He somewhat reluctantly agreed.   Given my previous encounter with him on Trent Bridge then I would have enjoyed as much as any motorist, a public humiliation of an over zealous traffic warden.  But in the end he was a union member and I knew where my duty lay.   So the notebooks never went in.

To my astonishment, and to the astonishment of almost everyone in Nottingham, we won the tribunal.  They found the dismissal unfair and  directed he should be re-engaged.   Only person not astonished was Traffic warden Hancock. He absolutely believed, from the very beginning, that he had been treated unfairly and that justice would be done.

There must have been utter despair in the offices of the Chief Constable, they probably broke out the anti-depressants; and in the public houses of West Bridgford there would have been copious weeping into beer.    But it would be tempered by the interpretation of what re-engaged meant.    There was no way in hell that the Chief Constable was going to re-engage him as a traffic warden.  No way in hell.    After long and difficult negotiations during which the representatives of the Chief Constable were showing clear early symptoms of PTSD, they offered him re-deployment, on protected wages, as a boiler man, up at the new police headquarters in Sherwood Forest, which he reluctantly accepted.   If I had any sympathy, and I did not have much, then it would be for the boilers.

And that was it really.   He disappeared into the bowels of the police headquarters, shoveling coal.    I moved on, left the union and became a barrister here in Dublin.   Many years later, I mean many years later, I returned to Nottingham with a friend, a very senior person in the Irish legal profession, for a five day break, to watch England play Australia in a test match at Trent Bridge.    We didn’t have tickets but due to my nefarious contacts from the old days we managed to be made members of the Nott’s County Cricket Club which entitled us to free admission and the use of the member’s pavilion and its rather fine restaurants and bars.

Armed with our newly minted membership cards we approached the reserved entrance for the members only pavilion.   On the door, wearing a long white coat, checking the membership cards with officious scrutiny, was a tall, well-built, familiar looking man with a little grey mustache. Traffic warden Hancock.  He took my card.

“How long have you been a member sir?”

The correct answer was about half an hour. But he did a double take at the name and looked up

“Mr. McGuiggan!   How nice to see you, how the fuck did you get this”

“Hello John” I said “enjoying your retirement?”

“Oh, its good to see you” he said, giving me back my card, “enjoy the cricket”

We walked into the opulent comforts of the member’s pavilion and my friend asked if I knew that chap.

To my surprise, for it had been a banal enough conversation with Traffic Warden Hancock, I found myself rather moved and feeling quite emotional.

“He used to be the man round here for tickets” I said

“For the cricket?”

“Get me a glass of glass of champagne” I said, “and I’ll tell you all about it”

 

 

 

 

Miners Strike – Nottingham -1984

Miners levy doc Further ephemeral treasures from my archive shoebox.   This being a check list of the NUPE officers strike levy collected for the Nottinghamshire Miners during the 1984 strike.  The levy, £23.00 a week, was mandatory and was in addition to countless irregular payments, contributions and collections that were a constant feature of the period.  No doubt there were similar levy’s in dozens of workplaces and offices throughout the strike and it is a pity more of them were not kept.  The check list is a summary of arrears owing on the levy.  Everyone in fact paid up, it was just a case of chasing them across the five counties of the East Midlands!

The money we collected was quite substantial and was used primarily to support the families of miners out on strike.  They had no strike pay and all their usual allowances such as coal from the pit and so on had been stopped.  The support work in the field was organised by branch officers of the various pits and very significantly by the women’s support groups.   It was made much more difficult by the fact that most Nottinghamshire miners did not in fact strike and their was widespread resentment about those who actually did walk out.

There was a young woman organising the women’s support group, or more correctly she was one of the organisers.  I can’t quite recall her name.  It has been so many years now.  Cecelia, I think it was.  Anyway, she was an absolute comrade.  You would stand beside her in any struggle at all, and be proud to say you knew her.   She came up to my office once, on Sherwood Rise, looking for money.   She said she needed to buy some chainsaws so they could cut and distribute wood to the families no longer getting their coal allowance from the pits.     To be honest we never looked for reasons as why the money should be given out.  If they were bona fide involved in the struggle then we didn’t need reasons.  She had brochures and price lists for the chain saws and we gave her enough to buy four of the things.   About a week later the local paper reported that all the telegraph poles along the railway line from one of the pits supplying coal to the power stations had been cut through   I rang her up and asked her if she needed any more chainsaws!

There was other means of supporting the miners as well.   Part of my union organising brief was Nottinghamshire County Council Leisure Services Dept.   They ran adventure training for youths, took them up to the Lake District or to Wales for camping and so on.   I persuaded them to lend me some tents and a couple of tea-urns.  Can’t recall the pretext used but they didn’t ask too many questions.  Tents and tea urns appeared at the 24 hour picket lines in Cotgrave and Ollerton.  Never did get them back.  And to be fair to Leisure Services, they were not too bothered about it.

Miners christmas card

Towards the end of the strike young Cecilia, if that was her name, committed suicide.  I was asked, along with others, mostly women,  to speak at her wake which if I remember was in the co-op rooms on George Street.  We were all in a bit of shellshock over her death.  She was such a strong woman.  Such a young activist.  If she had lived she would have made the most outstanding contributions to her causes.  She already had.   I told the story of the chainsaws.  There was a lot of tears that afternoon.

A Duty to Execute.

A. A. Dickson

Captain, 2/7th Battalion, The Sherwood Foresters

‘A Duty to Execute’,

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ImageThis is Captain Arthur Annan Dickson of the Sherwood Foresters Regiment. It is the only known photograph of a British Officer who commanded one of the 1916 execution parties at Kilmainham Gaol. What is not known, with any precision, is which of the leaders of the Rising Capt. Dickson’s firing party shot, although it can be narrowed down to one of the four leaders who were executed on May 8th, namely Cornelius Colbert, Edmund Kent, Michael Mallin or JJ Heuston.Neither Capt Dickson, nor his men would have known of the identity of the prisoner they were ordered to execute. And in all probability they did not care. His soldiers, just a few days earlier had seen many of their comrades cut down on Northumberland Road and Mount Street Bridge. They had suffered some 183 casualties, officers and men. Some horribly wounded by soft nosed bullets, many of them dead.  Indeed when Capt Dickson told his men they were to form a firing party it was suggested to him by one of the survivors of the Mount Street Bridge battle that it was un-necessary for the men to dirty their rifles and Capt. Dickson was asked if they could just bayonet the prisoner instead.These were desperately young soldiers, many with less than eight weeks service in the army, still half civilian, but so brutalised by the street fighting they had endured that they had been turned by war, into heartless cynical killers. But they shot their prisoner in the early dawn of the 8th May with cold military discipline.

Capt. Dickson himself had had a narrow escape at the Mount Street Bridge battle. He had been in the thick of the fighting and seen many of his fellow officers and even more of his men fall to the fatally effective rebel fire. He had been shot himself, the bullet entering his tunic and smashing into and lodging itself in the spine of his Field Pocket Book. He ever after kept the Pocket Book as a souvenir of his narrow escape and his luck in Dublin.  

The Pocket book exists still, with rebel bullet still embedded in the spine, the book now placed for all eternity in the Imperial War Museum.  It must  surely be the most evocative Pocket book in all of Irish History for there never was, in eight hundred years of the British in Ireland a more eloquent or dramatic entry into a English Officer’s Pocket Book than that rebel bullet fired from the barrel of a gun from which grew the Irish Republic.

After the fighting and after the surrender of the rebel forces Capt. Dickson found himself stationed at Richmond Barracks guarding the surrendered rebel prisoners. On 3rd May he commanded a detail of soldiers that took some three hundred of the prisoners and marched them through Dublin to the docks and escorted them all the way to Knutsford Prison in Cheshire where they were to be interned. He had tea with the Prison Governor before returning with his men to Dublin to resume their duties guarding the remaining Prisoners.   And on May 7th he escorted another prisoner, this time from Kilmainham Gaol to Mountjoy. The prisoner was marched across the city in the early morning, before the military curfew was lifted,  She marched, according to his memoir, filed in the Imperial War Museum, dignified and determined, walking stoically along the middle of the dingy streets, with half-a-dozen soldiers keeping level on each pavement, her deliberate pace, a slow march for the soldiers. It was the Countess Markiewicz , the daughter of an Anglo-Irish landlord who married a Polish aristocrat and them became a fervent Irish nationalist. She had been second in command of the rebels that fought at the Royal College of Surgeons and was the only woman to be sentenced to death. Her sentence was commuted to one of life imprisonment on account of her sex. Had it not been so she may well have been shot by Capt. Dickson’s firing party.

On the 8th May Capt Dickson commanded his firing squad, firing one of the volley of  shots that were to signal the end of the eight hundred year involvement of the British inIreland.

After, when all the killing was done, the Sherwood Foresters left Dublin, in its smoke and rubble and marched into the country to spend the rest of 1916, peacefully, training in Ireland for the Great slaughter in France. They trained hard, digging trenches across the Curragh and practising for gas attacks in Flanders. Their life in Ireland was not without its compensations. The Officers rode out to tea in the grand houses of County Kildare; there was a concert party for the soldiers in Naas Town Hall. They went to the Galway Races. Their Dublin dead were replaced and their Dublin wounded returned. New drafts of soldiers arrived, now conscripted. They were all anxious to bring the training to an end and to join the war inFrance.

In early 1917 they left Ireland for the trenches. They would find that Flanders andFrancewould take a greater share of Sherwood Forester blood than hadDublin. 10,189 would fall before it was all over, including many who had survived the battles of the Rising.

Capt. Dickson, for the remainder of the war, commanded a Trench Mortar Battery. His Dublin luck stayed with him. In the photograph he wears two wound stripes on the lower left arm. Both from further narrow escapes. His hand was damaged in an artillery bombardment on the Somme.  In the photograph he carefully masks the injury.  And in 1918 he was shot through the neck by a German sniper in the killing fields of Gommecourt, Northern France, a shot which ended his war. He returned to civilian life, to Lloyds bank where he rose to be bank manager in a picture postcard English town.

Reflecting on his war, on his role as an executioner and all who had been lost in Ireland and in France, he became a Quaker and a life long pacifist. He died peacefully in 1979. In the early 1920’s he had written his brief, powerful and important memoir of the war*. It is but a few pages of handwritten manuscript and on his death it was placed in the Imperial War Museum in London, a tribute to the men he had lost and the men he had killed, together with that most evocative Dublin Pocket Book with the spine smashed by a 1916 rebel bullet, the bullet still embedded and making it, perhaps one of the most evocative footnotes in Irish History.

John McGuiggan

Winter of Discontent and the Nottingham Shire Hall

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In the bowels of the old Shire hall worked the unseen unsung servants that kept the ancient complex clean and who would break their backs shovelling coke into the great boilers deep in the cellars that warmed the courts and offices and public spaces of the busy crowded and noble building.  Low paid and of low status they never feature in the history books and memories, they clean and sweep as they have done for centuries, as they cleaned the urine from the shire hall steps when public hangings enthralled the masses, so they now cleaned and swept the cells, the judges rooms the courts, till the last days of the Shire Hall,  they cleaned and swept and shovelled coke, unseen and unsung.

 

In 1979 they were unionised.  Each and every one of the cleaners and caretakers and stokers was in the union.  And they knew they were of the lowest paid and of the lowest status.  It was to be these people, these ordinary humble people, from their corporation houses, their rented rooms, their council estates, these who were to carry the  union fight for a minimum wage, who were to make their stand against low pay.

 

In October of that year of 1979 the National Union of Public Employees was about to launch their great minimum wage campaign which developed, somewhat painfully into the national strike, popularly known as the winter of discontent.  Yes the cleaners and sweepers and shovellers of coal were discontented. Who wouldn’t be on less than 40 quid a week?

 

 As it happened, the launching of  national strike and the opening of the legal term neatly coincided.  It was decided, somewhere deep in the union, that the juxtaposition of the well heeled judges and counsel with the heretofore invisible cleaners and shovellers would be iconic of whole argument against low pay.   The cleaners and shovellers were persuaded to picket the shire hall on the very day that the legal term began.  Oh how they were so pleased to be asked!

 

On the appointed day the great and the good of the entireNottinghamestablishment would attend upon St Mary’s church for a service of thanksgiving.  They would then process along the High Pavement to the court, firstly the judges in their scarlet robes and long bottomed wigs, led by their tipstaff bearing maces, escorted by a military guard and followed by the Mayor and the Sheriff and the Lord Lieutenant and the all the Queen’s Counsel, and all the junior counsel in their wigs and their gowns, all in order of precedence and followed still, by the wives in fine new hats, costing several times more than a shovellers weekly wage.  And so they would process, down the High Pavement displaying their wealth and prestige and status to the all the world.

 

On the Shire Hall steps stood the cleaners and shovellers, picket formed, placards raised, declaring their strike, striking at last, against low pay.

 

Seen at last, heard at last, noticed at last, they shouted their wage rates at the £600 a day Q.C.’s, the well pensioned judges, and the ladies hats.  Policemen moved upon the cleaners and shovellers, pushed them back.  But you are strong when you navy for work, strong when your blood is up, and back they shoved, shouting for decent wages.  Their was a crowed, there were television cameras, there were policemen, a great melee ensued for the cleaners and shovellers held the main door to the Shire hall and the judges were approaching with their military escort, with drawn swords.   At the last moment the policemen, obviously working to a pre planned arrangement, opened one of the minor doors of the building and the great and noble procession passed into the ancient building, many amongst them bearing that very English slightly embarrassed and shameful grin so common to the confused middle classes.

 

It had been planned as an iconic opening to the Nottingham strike.  Afterwards they were to return to work and the campaign would move on to other targets, schools, hospitals and yes cemeteries.   But the shire hall cleaners and shovellers would have none of it.  They had struck a blow.  Their blood was up and no matter how hard the union’s officers tried to get them back to work, and in truth they didn’t try very hard, the cleaners and shovellers refused.  They stayed out. They kept the picket going.  They were out for the whole of the winter, the winter of discontent.

 

And so it was that the boilers remained unlit.  The public spaces, the offices of the court and the judge’s rooms remained unclean and un-swept.  The toilets stank.  Without heat the ancient building became as a great fridge with shivering judges and stamping barristers.  The courtrooms and public spaces became ankle deep in crisp packets, fag ends, old newspapers, discarded sandwiches and picketer’s leaflets.   Still the picket stood.  Many passed through the picket for they had pressing legal business to conduct within, but money was pressed upon the cleaners and shovellers as they passed. And sympathy expressed.  All through the winter.

 

Finally the great strike ended, not terribly successfully in terms of money; But for these unseen unsung heroes the moral value of what they had done would never leave them.  Nor would it ever leave the labour movement for it is the likes of those forgotten few, those humble few, that the eventual adoption of a national minimum wage was achieved. Perhaps the minimum wage is not as good and not as strong as those cleaners and shovellers would have wanted.  But without that fight there would be nothing.

 

A small forgotten story.  Not a story of the left but perhaps a story for the left.