Looking back at the Camberwell police of yesteryear…

Katherine Johnston (13 February, 2019) In depth history

PC Harry Cole became Carter Street’s most famous cop

27909Camberwell Police Station in Camberwell Church Street

Outrage has been caused by the announcement that Camberwell and Kennington police stations will close this March despite south London’s continuing violent crime wave.

In a letter dated January 21, the Central South Basic Command unit – the now fully merged Lambeth and Southwark Police – confirmed that both Camberwell and Kennington police stations will officially close on March 31, with their officers’ last working day expected to be March 15.

The dedicated ward officers for Camberwell will move to Peckham Station, with officers from Kennington moving to Lambeth HQ.

The closure of the two stations  have prompted us to delve into our archives to look at policing in Southwark from yesteryear.

One of the best way to illustrate this is by looking at one PC Harry Cole, a familiar face to many as an old-time bobby on the beat on the streets of Walworth for more than 30 years.

Born in Bermondsey, Harry left school during the war when he was just fourteen.

After trying his hand first as a cricket-bat maker, soldier and stone mason, he eventually became a policeman in 1952, serving in Walworth at Carter Street station.

He was to become Carter Street’s most famous cop who was based there for the entire length of his service, from 1952 to 1983.

Local historian Stephen Bourne, who has written a biography of PC Harry Cole for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, said: “Often he was seen cycling through the streets of Walworth with his helmet at an angle, wearing a wide smile.

“When I was at school in Camberwell in the 1970s, PC Cole would visit and familiarise himself with us,” says Stephen.

“He would try and keep us on the straight and narrow and he was a local personality who broke down barriers.

“In many ways he embodied the qualities of a Safer Neighbourhood officer long before the scheme was launched.

“When I was a teenager growing up in Peckham and Camberwell in the 1970s, our local police stations had reputations for being among the toughest in south London.

“If we saw a policeman, we didn’t ask him the time, we just ran for it!

“In those days you didn’t mess with the police officers based at the station in Carter Street, off Walworth Road.”

Towards the end of his police service, Harry started a new career, as a writer, starting with Policeman’s Progress in 1980 and going on to publish eleven books.

Cole told his anecdotal stories with a unique wry, worldly humour, and the Policeman’s Progress went on to become a bestseller, capturing what life was like for an ordinary bobby on the beat.

In 1978 Harry was awarded the British Empire Medal for voluntary work and in 2006, two years before he died, Cole was honoured with a Southwark Blue Plaque. It was placed on the Charles Dickens Primary School in Lant Street where he was a pupil from 1934 to 1940.

PC Harry Cole

Although Carter Street police station ceased to be a cop shop in 1993, the building still exists, having been converted into apartments.

“Looking at old photographs of the station, which served the community for nearly 150 years, it is hard to believe it had such a tough reputation,” Stephen says.

“It looked more like a small country house than a place where villains were locked up. In 1994 the new Walworth Police Station opened in Manor Place.”

Cole is one of only a handful of police constables who have published books about their lives on the beat, so information about the day-to-day lives of London’s bobbies are hard to find.

However, Charles Booth (1840-1916), a remarkable Victorian who surveyed in detail the condition of workers in Victorian London, did encounter an officer in Camberwell, and made notes about him.

On September 28, 1899, he conducted a walkabout with PC Young, who was then based at Camberwell Police Station in Camberwell Church Street.

The station had only just opened on June 10, 1898.

Booth’s notes give us a snapshot of the officer: “Young has been in the force for fifteen years, and has been in this section for six. He is a solid, double-chinned policeman; intelligent, fairly communicative, in a district about which there was perhaps not very much for him to say. He is unmarried, having come to the conclusion that a constable’s pay is not sufficient to keep a wife and family on. He lives at the section house. He knew the district well.”

Further investigation at Southwark’s Local History Library reveals that, in 1899, PC Young’s pay was one shilling (5p) a week and in the 1901 census, PC Frank Young, age 41, from Bristol, is boarding with over twenty other PCs at Camberwell Police Station.

“In the 1890s, when PC Young was pounding the beat in Camberwell, the partnership approach to policing did not exist,” Stephen adds.

“Today, the situation is very different, a far cry from the 1970s when, if I saw a copper, I ran for it. Unless, of course, it was PC Harry Cole!”

Stephen Bourne’s biography of PC Harry Cole is now available online in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Find out more by visiting www.oxforddnb.com. Free access to the Dictionary is available in all Southwark libraries.

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