Saturday, 25 May 2013

Letsby Avenue

Regular readers will know that I have a soft spot for George Formby.  I find him a tad frustrating at times, but his cheeky songs and gormless ways are rather endearing.  And as a historical resource his films are really quite useful.  I recently watched ‘Come on George’ (1939) as part of some research that I have been carrying out into horse race betting on film.  I didn’t find a huge amount of gambling information here – although the betting mad policeman was an interesting character.  However, George’s lodgings in the film did lead me down another little path.

After getting a job in a stables, George needs to find a room to stay in locally.  A loveable young tyke of a lad who hangs around the stables and seems to be operating very much on the same wavelength as our hero offers a solution.  He lives with his grandfather, who happens to have a room going spare for lodgers.  The deal is sealed when the boy tells of his pretty older sister. What the boy omits to tell George is that his grandad is the village bobby and that his potential room is the police cell.  George is taken to a substantial looking house with a large, lush garden, maintained by the under-employed Sergeant.  The boy’s sister quickly turns the cell into a guest bedroom by utilising skilfully placed pictures and fabrics.  George accepts the room and the Sergeant and his grandchildren get a bit of extra spending money from his rent.

This is a little window onto how police forces used to be organised, before being rationalised into the set-up that we are familiar with now.  Once, most substantially enough sized villages did have its own police house, where the local bobby was permanently stationed.  Residents knew where to find the policeman as and when he was needed and in the days before telephones they could pop down and physically fetch him out.  This lack of a telephone is the key as to why this expensive method of policing was in force - that and the rarity of cars.  The bicycle is as far advanced transport-wise as the police got in the shires during the 1930s!

Constabularies did have to ensure the provision of a house as necessary, and I presume that this led to counties having uniform types of houses being built.  I know that here in north Derbyshire, I can instantly recognise the village police house in a town or village, even where it is no longer in use as police property.  Plain and utilitarian and with a broad-armed presence, they all have that same look about them.  I rather like to see them, there’s something comforting about them. 
A typical ex-police house in north Derbyshire
But the type of policing as shown in ‘Come On George’ is long gone.  His landlord/sergeant can let out the cell because he rarely has any crime to deal with.  Back then, everyone in these sorts of villages knew everyone else and their business so well that you might as well not bother committing a crime.  People would likely know what you’d done before you even did it.  Society has changed now.  There’s more to pinch, more distractions, more isolation and fast cars to get away in.  So the police have had to change too, to bigger and more centralised stations with fleets of fast cars and a helicopter to get around in.  Watch ‘Come On George’ and mourn the loss of the village bobby that everyone knew.

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