Obituary: Sir John Inch

Tam Dalyell
Monday 29 November 1993 00:02

John Ritchie Inch, police officer: born Lesmahagow, Lanarkshire 14 May 1911; Chief Constable, Dunfermline City Police 1943-49; Chief Constable, Fife Police 1949-55; Chief Constable, Edinburgh City Police 1955-76; CBE 1958; CVO 1969; Kt 1972; married 1941 Anne Shaw (one son, two daughters); died Edinburgh 22 November 1993.

FEW MEN have occupied the position of chief constable of police for over a third of a century, or for some three-quarters of their lifetime in police service. And rarely if ever has a police officer served for over two decades as chief constable of an important British city. John Inch was successively chief constable of Dunfermline City Police in 1943-49, of the Kingdom of Fife Constabulary in 1949-55 and of the Edinburgh City Police in 1955-76. A dominant man of imposing physical presence, Inch was as the years went by both an authoritative and increasingly authoritarian chief of police and a considerable Edinburgh and Scottish persona, a figure of consequence in the capital.

A local authority leader, Sir George Sharp, once sighed to Inch that it was the third evening function he and his wife had been to in one week and that they were going home to rest. Inch unsympathetically observed, 'What are you complaining about George? I go to three functions a night,' and so he did. And police public relations benefited greatly as a result of his extraordinary energy and presence.

I am struck by the number of ex- police officers who served under him who have used to me the identical expression 'You knew where you were with John Inch' or 'At least there was no messing around. He was as straight as a die. But he would back an officer if he thought that that officer was doing his best, energetic and acting in good faith, even if he was in a spot of difficulty.' This was important as Inch became infinitely more experienced in a senior position than any of those around him.

Inch was born in 1911 of a mining family in Lesmahagow, Lanarkshire, and he had the good fortune to be selected at the age of 11 to go to Hamilton Academy, a remarkable school enjoying a formidable academic reputation in Greek, Latin and mathematics and acting as a magnet for the most academically gifted youngsters of Lanarkshire.

Part of a large annual Hamilton contingent going to Glasgow University, Inch graduated MA in a rigorous law school. Wise enough not to flaunt his academic achievement when he joined the police station at Bellshill in 1931, Inch was promoted to sergeant in 1936. Though this was rapid advancement at the time, Inch maintained that no 'high- flier' should be excused at least five years as a constable on the beat. High-fliers had to earn their spurs. And no graduate should imagine, Inch believed, that he or she was on account of a degree per se entitled to preferment.

Inch studied while he was a constable and added a Batchelor of Laws LLB to his qualifications. Throughout three decades of power and police patronage he encouraged those who had striven to improve their qualifications while serving as a police officer.

In 1938, at the age of 27, Inch was promoted to inspector and put in charge of the training of recruits in the populous county of Lanarkshire. Typically, he studied to qualify as an ARP instructor. On the outbreak of war, he became the organiser of civil defence in Lanarkshire. Civil defence was to be a lifelong concern, though unlike some zealots he realised the limitations of civil defence in the face of modern weaponry.

To become chief constable at 32 in 1943, even in wartime conditions, was highly unusual but, as head of the Dunfermline force, Inch was far junior to David Baldie, Chief Constable of Kirkcaldy, and to Victor de Savi, Chief Constable of the then Fife County Constabulary, one of whom was expected in 1949 to become head of the new combined Fife police forces on amalgamation.

Chance and farce intervened to Inch's advantage. Amongst the selection Savi, a very small man and diminutive by the standards of chief constable, emerged from an evening official function in Coupar, the county town. Seeing a lorry parked where it ought not to be Savi in plain clothes barked at the driver to shift his vehicle. Understandably the burly driver responded 'And just who might you be, little y'un?' 'Don't you know, I'm the Chief Constable]' The driver by this time was bristling at the aggressive behaviour of this nark and snarled back 'Well, wee man, if you be the Chief Constable, I'm the Queen of Sheba]' Alas, Savi insisted on taking the matter further in the cold light of morning. A large-scale local authority hoo-ha ensued. Supporters of Baldie were rash enough to say that Savi deserved the ribald answer since he was in mufti not in uniform and was unfit to be chief constable.

While Fife laughed, the supporters of the two candidates became hot-tempered on the Queen of Sheba incident; it got quite out of proportion. The result was that, as a compromise candidate, Inch slipped into the important new post. 'Had it not been for the Queen of Sheba,' he would muse later, 'I doubt if I would ever have become Chief Constable of Edinburgh.' Success in integrating the Fife forces made him a powerful choice for the plum job at Edinburgh at the age of 44, in succession to Sir William Morren.

An outstanding police innovator Inch was not. He was an exceedingly efficient police commander, albeit increasingly autocratic as the years in control went by, who oversaw new policing methods such as unit beat policing, the development of outstations, and mobile forces in particular areas. He played a notable part in setting up the new Lothians and Borders police headquarters in Edinburgh. Sir John Orr, later Chief Constable of Lothians and Borders and himself a distinguished police commander, remembers Inch as being most positive and able to get things going. He was quick to spot any flaw in a case and his officers went to enormous pains to know their case before appearing before him to be interrogated. Inch enjoyed life hugely and not least the royal visits in which he was involved in Edinburgh. He was appointed CBE in 1958 and knighted in 1972 - but no honour gave him greater pleasure than the CVO, a personal recognition from the Queen, in 1969.

Sport was an important part of Inch's life. An excellent shot, a skilful fisherman, a powerful sprinter in his youth and subsequently a proficient golfer, he took a keen interest in all aspects of football and football crowds in days when 65,000 people would pack into Easter Road, the Hibernian ground, or 55,000 to see Hearts at Tynecastle. I have vivid memories of being given a place in the back of his police car to go to Glasgow for evening matches and then following in his slipstream as he strode up to the directors' box at Hampden, Ibrox or Celtic Park.

But most vivid of all is an evening in September 1969 when the organising committee of the Commonwealth Games was getting into a great fandangle. As a member I had begun to wonder whether under the chairmanship of the very decent and benign Lord Provost, the late Sir Herbert Brechin, we were capable of staging the games in Edinburgh at all. Suddenly, Inch took over the meeting. Incisively and with a clear mind as to what had to be done about difficult topics such as the velodrome for the cyclists, he pulled things together. Indeed, I doubt whether without Inch's personal commitment the friendly 1970 Commonwealth Games would have been the riproaring success that they turned out to be.

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