Retro: A police patrol officer’s memories

Sgt Les Barker with a cine camera used to film fatal accident scenes
Sgt Les Barker with a cine camera used to film fatal accident scenes

Former police patrol officer Les Barker, of Kettering, is writing about his time on the M1 motorway in the 1960s.

“In April 1956 I joined the Bedfordshire Police Force as a constable.

Police car driven by Les Barker when an M1 police patrol officer in the 1960s. Ford Zephyr Mk II NNL-140616-150611001

Police car driven by Les Barker when an M1 police patrol officer in the 1960s. Ford Zephyr Mk II NNL-140616-150611001

After the mandatory pounding the beat for about 18 months I became one of the first police officers to drive the recently introduced Velocette L E motorcycle, commonly referred to as the police noddy bike.

This motorcycle was almost silent running and ideally suitable for patrolling urban areas.

In October 1959 I was transferred to the road traffic division from where my story begins.

After attending a five-week intensive advanced driving course I proudly emerged with a first class certificate.

My first few weeks on the traffic division were mainly patrolling rural areas together with the A1 or A5 which were then mostly single carriageway.

The general speed of vehicles was really self-regulated by the type of cars of the day and the nature of the roads.

Accidents were mostly two-vehicle collisions at relatively low speeds but injuries were often quite severe with many fatalities due to the lack of any built in car safety features.

Many of the vehicles on the road at the time were already quite old and as the result were often not roadworthy, poorly maintained and potentially dangerous. In August 1960 the first MOT test as we know it today was introduced.

This would only apply to vehicles over 10 years old and only brakes, steering and lights were then tested.

In December 1961 the testable age was reduced to seven years and in 1967 to the current three years.

The condition of tyres was not included in the test until 1968.

Seat belt legislation was first introduced in 1983 for front seat occupants and in 1991 for all rear seat passengers.

Interestingly, national statistics show that in 1960 with only 4.5 million vehicles on our roads there were 6,970 fatalities.

This figure peaked to 7,985 fatalities in 1966. In 2012 now with over 28 million vehicles on the roads fatalities were reduced to just 1,754.

Only five per cent of all fatalities occur on motorways.

This remarkable reduction in road fatalities is most likely due to the many safety features now built in to modern cars, the introduction of seat belt legislation, far safer road construction, more stringent MOT testing, and the introduction of the national speed limits.

The M1 opened in November 1959. I now recall those early days.

After spending the first few weeks of being on general traffic patrol duties in February 1960 I was transferred to the recently formed M1 motorway traffic patrol team.

A proud moment but little did I realise just what I was about to experience.

The vehicle chosen for patrolling the M1 and adopted by most other forces was the Mark 2 Ford Zephyr.

The car had been converted from a saloon to estate by Abbott of Farnham.

It was fitted with a 2.5 engine, three-speed column change gearbox and disc front brakes with rear drums.

It had no power steering or servo assisted brakes, it had cross-ply tyres with inner tubes and a big problem had a dynamo type generator charging the battery which I will return to later.

The car had, on a good day with a following wind a top speed of 88mph and could reach 0 to 60 in 17 seconds.

However, because of the extra weight of the body conversion and the very heavy equipment we carried, these figures were considerably reduced and you would be lucky to reach a top speed in excess of 70mph.

Because the car was fitted with cross-ply tyres with the extra weight carried over the rear axle for which the car was never designed it was difficult to control particularly on wet road and the rear end could easily break away.

The equipment we carried consisted of 12 cones, four rigid metal police accident/slow signs, six battery lamps with red domes, first aid kit, four blankets, broom, shovel, tow chain, fire extinguisher, two orange non-reflective waistcoats, and the all-important puncture repair kit.

The car was all white with police written across the bonnet and tailgate, there was a small revolving blue light mounted on the roof and a police stop sign on the rear screen.

Mounted on the front bumper there was a loud hailer and single spot light.

It had a bulky communications valve radio which took a considerable drain on the car’s battery.

Radio reception was often poor and there were many blind spots with no signal.

The car was not fitted with a siren but had powerful twin horns which replaced the then standard horn.

Our earlier pre-motorway patrol cars were mainly the Wolseley 6/90 saloons.

These were all black and identified by a small police sign mounted on the boot and another on the radiator.

There was a Winkworth bell fitted on the front bumper which was designed to be electrically operated but being exposed to the elements the bell frequently failed to work.

A piece of string attached to the bells clapper and fed into the cabin saved the day.

I do know that some of our colleagues in neighbouring counties still had the Winkworth bell fitted to their early Ford Zephyr motorway patrol cars.

Not sure, though, if they carried a length of emergency string in their kit!

You might now like to imagine the sight and sounds of a police motorway patrol car racing to the scene of an accident flat out at 70mph with the police observer frantically tugging on a piece of string with only the sound of the clanging bell alerting traffic to create a clear passage. Laughable but did it ever happen?

The M1 opened in November 1959 as a three-lane carriageway with a hard shoulder. There were no street lighting, no cat’s eyes, no central crash barrier, the carriageways only being separated by a flat grass verge and worst of all no speed limits.

The hard shoulder was only 8ft wide and was not constructed to carriageway standards. If a heavy goods vehicle pulled on to the hard shoulder it would protrude into the nearside lane and invariably sink in.

It was not until the 1980s that the hard shoulder was widened to 12ft and rebuilt to carriageway standards.

There were emergency telephones situated at every mile which could be used by members of the public to summon assistance in the event of breakdown or incident.

There was also a very basic form of fog/incident warning system every mile which consisted of a wooden pole situated to the rear of the hard shoulder close to each emergency phone, on which was fitted two car type amber fog lights mounted above each other with power supplied by a 12 volt battery placed at the foot of the post.

These signals were operated by police using a hand-held radar type gun which needed to be aimed at a receiver placed between the fog lamps or manually switched on which meant having to stop at each signal on route.

Alternatively on the way to an incident it was the observer’s job to aim the radar gun at each receiver as we passed, hoping to activate the two fog lights which then flashed.

This was not an easy task in a moving car, particularly in the dark or adverse weather conditions.

There was also a problem as the unsecured batteries were being regularly stolen.

At first they were being replaced but on finding over time that the lights served no real purpose as a warning device, were mostly ignored, and frequently failed to operate, they went out of use being replaced later by electronic display signs which could convey basic messages to drivers.

But even in those in the early days they had still had to be individually switched on manually or by radar gun.

However, now being mains operated we no longer had problems with batteries being stolen.

We now had a wide straight road of 72 miles with no speed restrictions or safety features which very quickly became an attraction for the boy racers of the day who would drive their motor cycles and cars at breakneck speeds often racing with each other.

It was also used as a test track by motor and tyre manufacturers, racing cars on test, endurance testing, and anyone else who fancied a burn-up.

It was reported that AC cars had been testing their new Cobra at speeds of up to 180 mph!

Private cars of the time were just not designed for the sustained high speed they were now being subjected to and there were numerous breakdowns with blown engines and tyre failures.

It was also apparent from marks on the grass area dividing the carriageways that some drivers were taking advantage of there being no crash barriers and were carrying out dangerous U turns. With no previous experience of motorway lane discipline many drivers were constantly changing lanes without warning and many drivers were hogging the offside lanes, causing other drivers travelling at a greater speed to carry out what is known as undertakes.

Remember too that before the introduction of the modern flashing indicators sometime in the late 1950s very many older cars using the motorway still only had the semaphore type trafficators fitted.

These were small amber arms which popped out from the door pillar at the side of the car.

Frequently the mechanism would either fail to operate or would open and then jam open. The car would continue the rest of its journey with the trafficator stuck out giving the false impression to other drivers that it was about to carry out a manoeuvre.

Hand signals for drivers of even older cars were still the order of the day.

I wonder if any of today’s drivers would know the hand signal a driver would need to give to indicate that he was intending to turn left or the signal needed at a cross roads to indicate the intention to drive straight ahead.

Even as late as the 1950s and 60s most major junctions in towns at busy times were manned by police officers standing in the middle of the road directing traffic. I know, I’ve done it.

It was therefore essential that drivers of that period knew their hand signals and of those used by the police.

As a new motorway patrol officer I quickly realised that none of us had any experience of how to deal with the situation.

With no speed restrictions and with the road being used by many as a race track there was nothing we could do to prevent what was happening.

We knew there was a major incident just waiting to happen and it was only a matter of time before we were to be called upon to deal with a major accident.

Our previous experience of dealing with accidents on so called ordinary roads meant for nothing.

This was something completely new without any procedures or guidelines in place which we had to learn to deal with. It was to say the least a daunting prospect.

My first few days passed without incident just some debris on the road to remove, and standing on the hard shoulder watching the passing traffic really close at speed brought it home to you just how dangerous it was to be working on this type of road particularly at night.

It wasn’t long before I had my first real taste of what it was going to be like to become a motorway patrol officer.

It was around 8pm on a cold foggy winters night in late March 1960 when on standby at our police post at Toddington we got the call to a serious accident involving two heavy goods vehicles about five miles north of our position.

On arrival at the scene we found the two vehicles had completely blocked lanes 1 and 2 with debris scattered over lane 3.

I was driving and positioned my car at an angle behind the crash scene.

With no markings of any sort on the side of the car the only indication that it was a police car protecting the scene and alerting approaching traffic was simply an all-white estate car displaying a small revolving blue roof light with restricted visible range.

Because as previously mentioned the car was only fitted with a dynamo type generator it was necessary to keep the engine running to charge the battery, unlike the later alternator fitted to cars from the mid-sixties, a dynamo/generator even though ours was upgraded, would only provide sufficient charge when the engine was running at fast speed. At tickover only minimal charge if any, would be produced.

I knew from earlier experience that if the car was stationary with power being provided from the cars battery for the radio, headlights and blue light that the battery would quickly lose power and eventually fail.

I have on more than one occasion in the past enlisted the aid of members of the public to give me a push start after my battery went flat after attending an accident. W

hich as you can imagine was most embarrassing.

It was essential that I kept the patrol car engine running continuously. If the engine was switched off I knew that we would not have sufficient battery power to restart it.

I was also aware that the engine was likely to overheat.

On arrival at the accident it was my task as the driver to go immediately to the crashed vehicles to assist the injured while my colleague’s job was to place out the warning signs and then cone off the area.

He would also switch on the hand-held battery lamps which displayed a steady red light, this he would wave at approaching traffic with the hope that they would alert drivers to the hazard ahead.

At this time we did not have any high visibility reflective clothing, not even a white top to our caps.

The orange waistcoats we were supplied with served no useful purpose in the dark.

Attempting to alert approaching traffic dressed entirely in dark clothing on a motorway with no street lighting or speed restrictions simply by waving a small red battery lamp was extremely dangerous and scary.

Certainly traffic was far lighter than we have today but with no speed limits and with no understanding of motorway lane discipline drivers of the time had no prior experience of driving on this type of road and were often driving far too fast for the type of vehicle of the day with poor headlights and dodgy braking systems and were just not prepared or able to respond to the unexpected hazard.

There is little doubt that this type of driver behaviour was the main cause of the multiple motorway accidents we experienced in the 60s and 70s sometimes involving hundreds of vehicles travelling too fast without regard to the conditions and simply crashing in to one another.

At the scene of the accident we were attending it was obvious to me that one of the drivers was dead and the other seriously injured.

I returned to our patrol car to summon help hoping that we were in an area with radio reception and that there was still sufficient charge in the cars battery to power the radio.

Luckily on this occasion there was and an ambulance and recovery vehicles were summoned.

However, while waiting for their arrival the headlights on my car started to dim. I was forced to switch them off to save the now failing battery leaving only the blue light and radio having to rely on my colleague to use the lamps displaying a red light to alert approaching traffic of the hazard.

Remember there was no street lighting and no advanced warning signs, only the basic twin fog lights previously mentioned.

On this occasion my colleague may have either missed hitting the target with the gun as we drove to the scene or the receiver itself or lights were faulty and had not operated.

More likely the batteries had been stolen.

It must have been at least 45 minutes before I heard the clanging bell of the ambulance as it made its way to the scene.

Most ambulances still did not have blue lights or sirens but simply the same type of Winkworth bell as used by earlier police vehicles. On its arrival I was surprised to find that the driver was on his own. There were of course no paramedics in those days and only very basic first aid would be applied at the scene.

Ambulances were really then only used as a means of conveyance, not as today when double-crewed they carry full medical equipment and able to provide on the spot emergency treatment not only at the scene but on the journey to hospital. I had to help place both the injured driver and the deceased driver in the ambulance and they were taken off together to hospital.

I should explain that however obvious it might be to a layman that a person is deceased, until such time as he or she is examined and death is certified by a doctor, that person must be presumed still to be alive. It was always the accepted policy to convey the obviously deceased persons from the scene by separate ambulance transport whenever possible.

Such persons would not be taken into the hospital but a doctor would come to the ambulance and certify the death. The body would then be taken straight to the mortuary. Over the following months and years I attended many hundreds of accidents both on and off the motorway.

Many were multiple collisions with fatal injuries.

Over a period of time you have to learn to distance yourself from the emotional challenges that you have to face on a regular basis and it has to become just part of the job.

However, of all the fatal accidents I have been called upon to deal with over the years one in particular, which happened on the motorway, did have a profound effect on me at the time and despite my then considerable experience in dealing with such accidents the circumstances were so horrific that I actually had some nightmares over it.

I never ever told anyone of this as I felt that I had exposed a weakness in my character which I was not too happy with.

Luckily I was able to move on and put it behind me. I had originally been intending to incorporate into my story an account of just a few of the more serious accidents I had dealt with and investigated over the years including the one previously mentioned, but soon realised that some of the details I was recording would not make pleasant reading.

I have therefore decided not to proceed with this particular section and they will remain locked in my memory.

By far the worst job any police officer will have to face in his career is the need to inform a family of the death of a loved one in a road accident.

Having to do this myself on many occasions I know this is something you can never harden to.

There was also the additional unpleasant task in then having to arrange formal identification of the deceased usually at a hospital mortuary.

In 1965 an experimental 70mph was introduced on the M1 and made permanent in 1967.

In 1973 street lights were provided and central crash barriers were erected.

Carriageway lanes and edge of lane markings now incorporated reflective cat’s eyes.

We also had the new dot matrix automatic linked warning signs operated from a central control which provided far better instant advanced information for drivers.

All these measures together with far more efficient clearly marked patrol cars, better radio communications and personal safety equipment considerably improved the situation for us and dealing with accidents and incidents from the mid-70s onwards now became far easier and very much safer, particularly appreciated by all of us who went through and had to deal with the challenges of those early motorway days.

Before we move on let us just briefly recall the massive motorway accident which my colleagues had to deal with.

On March 17, 1972, in thick fog on the M1 north of Luton an accident involving over 200 vehicles occurred when nine people were killed and 51 injured.

The road was closed for many hours while the crashed vehicles, some burned out, and vast amounts of debris were removed.

I was not on duty at the time of the accident but later as a traffic sergeant in the accident investigation unit I used a film copy of the scene provided by the BBC to show at lectures I gave to young officers both in my own county and others to provide some idea of having to deal with multiple collisions.

One of the greatest administrative problems arising from having over 200 drivers involved was the then legal requirement to issue each driver initially with a notice of intended prosecution within 14 days, all having to be hand written and posted off. In the event no prosecutions were undertaken.

The law regarding such notices for accidents was later amended.

As sergeant qualified accident investigator over the years I have attended very many fatal accidents on all roads throughout the county, many far too graphic in their detail for me even to wish to recall.

In each case I carried out an in-depth investigation for later presentation at court or inquest.

Even several years later as civil claims arising from the accidents started to make their way through the system I was still being required to give evidence mainly at the Royal Court of Justice in London called by legal teams engaged by insurance companies defending or supporting compensation claims.

I also filmed and later made video recordings of the scene of the accidents which I then used to show to other police officers, ambulance and fire personnel as part of my presentation into accident investigation procedures.

I had been hoping that some time during my time patrolling the motorway I could recall something humorous to include in my story but try as I might nothing comes to mind.

I did not find it at all funny for instance to remember what happened to my colleague and I in the severe snow blizzards in late December 1962.

But this is what happened – judge for youselves.

When on standby at our police post on nightshift in late December 1962 at around 3am we received a call from HQ to leave the motorway immediately and return to base.

Very heavy snow falls were forecast and all roads would become impassable. The motorway was now effectively closed to all traffic.

Making our way along the motorway heading home the snow became increasingly heavy and we were finding it extremely difficult to get any grip.

Because we had to travel so slowly no charge was being put into the battery and as the headlights started to dim we lost radio contact and finally the car just ground to a halt.

The battery was now completely flat. With deep virgin snow now covering the whole width of the carriageways, centre strip and verges it became strangely disorientating and difficult to identify exactly what lane we occupied.

It was really weird.

Without any radio contact the only way now to summon help was to use one of the emergency telephones, this would be anything up to half a mile from our position.

After a great deal of deliberation we finally decided to toss a coin, the loser to leave the car and walk to the phone.

Luckily I won and my colleague somewhat reluctantly left the car and headed off into a wall of snow and was quickly lost to my view.

It was about an hour later when suddenly a snow-covered figure with icicles hanging from his nose, eyebrows and cap, came into view trudging through the knee deep snow.

Yes, it was my colleague, absolutely frozen through and initially unable to speak. He was able to convey the fact he had made it to the phone and that help was on the way.

As the hours ticked by and being freezing cold we were forced to wrap ourselves in the unwashed blankets we carried in our kit.

Using these particular blankets was not a pleasant thought, knowing that their main purpose had in the past been to cover dead bodies shielding them from public view.

Apparently and unknown to us at the time a landrover had been despatched from HQ to rescue us.

Although being a four wheeled drive vehicle and despite numerous attempts, it was unable to climb a steep hill on approach to the motorway.

It was not until around 11am, some 8 hours after getting stuck, that a snow plough and breakdown recovery vehicle managed to reach us and we were loaded and taken to our base where we were placed in front of a fire and allowed to slowly thaw out over a period of several hours.

Some of our colleagues on hearing of our plight thought it was quite funny and a few rather crude drawings with captions started to appear around our base supposedly to depict the scene as they saw it.

However as I, and most certainly my colleague, did not at the time consider it to have been a laugh I could not include the episode in my story as an example of early motorway humour!

Secretly we did have to smile at some of the drawings.

Since my retirement in 1986 after 30 years’ service I am told that we no longer have accidents, only collisions!

As an old-time copper brought up with accidents, in my book that’s how they will always remain.

I hope that you have enjoyed this brief account of my experiences as a police motorway patrol officer of the 1960s together with and a little bit of motoring history.

Believe me I have loads of tales to tell.

I have certainly enjoyed looking back at those early days in my career. Sadly, very many of my colleagues of those times are no longer with us.

Now at 82 years of age myself and spurred on by recording these memories I intend now to write the whole story of my 30 years as a police officer before I too head off to that great motorway in the sky!”