Rear Window / Rough Justice: The police punch that troubled Parliament

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The Independent Online
AT ABOUT 10.30pm on a December Saturday in Thurso on the north Scottish coast, two police officers called into the Bay Cafe in Swanson Street, a popular spot for local teenagers.

A group of boys greeted them with jeers and laughter. A 15-year-old, John Waters, was asked for his name and refused to give it, so the older officer took him by the arm and warned him to mind his manners. The boy replied: 'You buggers think you can do anything because you have a blue uniform.' The policemen left.

Moments later the boy ran after them and shouted: 'You bastards tore my jacket.' The older officer said he didn't think so, but that if he had he was sorry. He again warned the boy about his behaviour and by his later account received the reply: 'You think you're a smart fucker.'

As the boy continued to use abusive language, the officers led him to an alley, where he received a blow in the face. They then charged him with using obscene language and molesting the police. He called them 'Gestapo bastards'.

Later that night, after the boy had been taken to the doctor with a bleeding nose, a cut lip and bruising, his father lodged a complaint, accusing the two officers of assault.

These events, which occurred in 1957, bear striking resemblances to the case of Steve Guscott, the Minehead policeman in the news last week for hitting a boy he caught tormenting pensioners. But the sequels are very different.

PC Guscott, to a chorus of protest across the country, was brought before magistrates and fined pounds 100 for assault. Avon and Somerset police received 600 angry calls, furious editorials appeared in the press and a friend of Guscott insisted that he had merely acted 'like an old-fashioned bobby'.

In the Thurso case, however, the police investigated the matter and took no action. The boy's family mounted a campaign which was taken up by the local Independent Conservative MP, Sir David Robertson.

A year later Sir David, with the backing of 170 MPs from all parties, caused a row during Scottish questions in the Commons. The Sunday Express backed his call for an inquiry, saying that the boy, who had been chatting with friends in a cafe, was 'marched to an alley where he was later found bleeding, bruised and unconscious'.

After a Cabinet discussion, the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, set up a tribunal of inquiry under Lord Sorn which heard evidence from more than 40 people before reporting in April 1959.

The boy, it concluded, was not a bad boy - 'he gets a good word from his teachers and from an officer in the Boys' Brigade' - but he was cheeky and on the night in question used shocking language.

A claim by the younger police officer, PC Gunn, that 'he thrust his right hand out to the wall and the boy's face came in contact with it' was rejected. The tribunal concluded that he 'became exasperated by the boy's behaviour, and perhaps by a struggle on the part of the boy to get away, and that he struck him an impulsive blow'.

In answer to public concern that the police had failed to deal with the matter properly, the tribunal insisted that the father's complaint had been properly investigated. The case had not come to court for the sound reason that, under Scottish laws relating to uncorroborated testimony, there would have been no chance of a conviction.

All this was greeted with sober satisfaction by the press. The Times noted that the young constable had been subjected to 'sore provocation', but it added: 'That does not excuse what happened in the alley . . . For a policeman so far to forget himself is doubly culpable; he is answerable not only to the courts for assault but to his superior officers for a breach of the discipline of the force.'

Whatever has changed in the years that divide the Thurso and Minehead cases, it is not boys, or the police. In Thurso the charge did not come to court and there was widespread public concern that a cover-up of police violence had taken place. In the Minehead case the officer was convicted and there was concern that he was being punished for using good, 'old- fashioned' police methods.

But these 'old-fashioned' methods - the notion that in the old days a bobby gave a young troublemaker a clip round the ear and that was that - have always been old-fashioned.

The late C H Rolph, journalist and former police officer, was bemused by this all his life. When he joined the force in the 1920s the golden age was already in the past, and he wrote much later: 'I have never been able to date the ear-clipping period . . . but it is embedded in English middle- and working- class folklore as immovably as King Alfred and the cakes.'

(Photographs omitted)