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”