Living off the land

“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen, nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery. The blossom is blighted, the leaf is withered, the god of day goes down upon the dreary scene, and—and, in short, you are for ever floored. As I am!”

~ Mr. Micawber in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield

Making ends meet was always a problem. Without overtime, which was rationed like water during a drought, a lowly police constable had a very hard time making any end meet, especially if he had children and his wife wasn’t working.

If you were stationed in a town or city then the chances of adding to your income with a bit of judicious moonlighting were slim. Coppers had to declare any other work and get express permission from their ‘governors’ to do anything outside the job, and they really didn’t like doing that. But there were some old and trusted traditions which added a little to the family coffers, if only by subsidising a bit of lunch now and again or easing the burden in some other way, such as a small discount on your children’s shoes or on the servicing of your car. It all made a difference.

It was the old custom of “mumping”, in which the true skill of the hunter-gatherer comes into its own. It is a tradition as old as policing.

For example, a constable on foot patrol might inquire of some market trader or local purveyor of provisions, such as a baker or greengrocer, as to their general well-being and that of their establishment. A brief, genial chat would ensue, after which the merchant would insist on the copper accepting a few tokens of gratitude for the officer’s care and concern.

This would only happen once a week and a careful rota was maintained by the three shifts so their depredations would not overlap. Like tickling a trout, gently does it; the copper who got too greedy could ruin it for the whole station, so the practice was treated with respect. Shopkeepers regarded this mild form of extortion as a sort of civic duty which greased the wheels.

In return a copper would turn a blind eye to the occasional double-parked vehicle while deliveries were made or bets placed. On rare occasions, for a valued provider such as a publican or butcher, indiscretions such as driving home ‘three sheets to the wind’ were dealt with without recourse to any boring paperwork or any other inconvenience, always providing it didn’t happen too often.

The cornerstone of all policing in the olden days was keeping property secure and people safe. And that was done by coppers walking the beat day and night, week in and week out. ‘Shaking hands with door knobs’ was the constable’s lot during a night duty. Ensuring that business establishments under your wing were well-guarded from the attentions of lout or miscreant meant the shopkeeper slept sounder and the cost of his business insurance did not go through the roof. You were doing your job in the cold and wet, warmed by the knowledge that virtue would have its rewards. Done right, it was a symbiotic relationship in which everyone benefited for just a couple of rashers, a nice bit of cake or some other toothsome tribute.

Of course other police departments had their own unique methods of mumping. The CID were possibly the most richly rewarded, although on the downside some of them did end up in jail because of it. Traffic Division*, those self-styled princes of the police service, had a variety of scams involving back-handers from breakdown recovery companies and the like, but the one I witnessed first hand that impressed me with its shear panache was known as ‘The Missed Break‘.

On any given night, from about 7 p.m. onwards, an Indian or Chinese restaurant would be quietly serving its customers. Trays of food would make their fragrant way to the diners, there was the gentle buzz of conversation as people enjoy their meals, and all was calm. Suddenly the front door would burst open and two coppers rush in. They would stand as if ready to do battle with any rotter who might not only be disrupting the Queen’s peace but threatening the lives of all who were in the establishment. These guardians of the law would look round with fearsome intent, stunning all the diners into silence and apprehension.

Then out would come the owner, consternation and worry writ large on his or her features. There then followed a tale of daring-do from the coppers as to how they got an alarm call telling them there was a serious disturbance in this very restaurant and they had rushed from the nick to here. It had, however, obviously been a false alarm.

Breathing huge theatrical sighs of relief, they informed the still-dazed owner that, on account of this establishment being very dear to their hearts, they had dropped everything, just everything, to get there as quickly as they could. Such was their haste and dedication that their own meal, which they had been just about to partake of, had been binned, ruined, or given to beggars on their hurried way out. Comments such as ‘smells so good in here’ or ‘gosh that looks nice’ accompany their sorry tale.

Needless to say, the owner would express his sincere thanks for the promptness of their actions because he knew his restaurant was always liable to get turned over, and having the old Bill arrive double-quick can really save on furniture and windows. He would then insist on replacing the meal these dedicated guardians of the law had missed. He got a bit of a shock when he was told there were two more blokes in the car outside, but very soon a couple of well-filled carrier bags were brought from the kitchen and handed over with effusive if not entirely convinced thanks.

While this charade was being played out, the diners (once they realized there was no real danger) enjoyed the show. If the coppers did a really good job they might even get a round of applause or an offer of a free drink (on one occasion, I believe, an easily impressed young lady slipped a copper her name and telephone number written on a napkin).

Of course this behaviour plays hob with the established pattern of mumping as practiced by the local coppers, which is why traffic division, who cover a huge swath of the county, are as popular with the local police as were the Vikings during Saxon times. Like those earlier invaders, traffic cops come under cover of darkness, loot and pillage, then bugger off to their vast labyrinth of trunk roads and main highways where in some secret lay-by they consume their ill-gotten gains. The bastards.

Now if you had a rural beat the world was much more fruitful (and with vegetables, too, come to that). You didn’t have a variety of shops to mump from, but you did have the whole landscape of your beat from which to forage for your larder.

In the season, there was mushrooming on early turn (6 a.m. to 2 p.m.). The dew would still be fresh in woodland and hedgerow as your morning patrol took in the known places where fungi lurked.

On late turn (2 p.m. to 10 p.m.) you might set a few snares on rabbit runs near convenient lay-bys or field entrances where you could park a police car out of sight and then go back in the morning to check the yield. On a good night you might set six snares and bag a full half-dozen bunnies; some for the pot and a couple to trade with other coppers. One copper I knew in the back end of the county kept bees and was always good for a swap of a dressed rabbit for a jar of honey.

Road kill was not to be sneered at, either. Early turn in the darker days, or at the end of nights (10 p.m. to 6 a.m.) during the summer months one could often find some fresh-killed game birds that were not badly damaged. No hedgehogs though, I never tried those.

Now if you really got lucky, a small deer might ask for a lift and find its way to the oven via the back of your police mini-van. Not often, but occasionally, and you always know a copper who would butcher the carcase for a share of the spoils.

Then there were the rural pursuits of gun and game. All the farms in my manor had shoots during the season but few could afford gamekeepers. So a good rural beat copper would do his bit to keep poachers off their land and, in return, be allowed to do a bit of rough shooting of vermin, just to help keep the balance of nature, you understand. Nothing at all to do with a fine rabbit or pigeon pie; that was just a by-product of local law enforcement and good neighbourliness.

I knew one rural copper whose police house was in a village in the borderlands to the north of the county who hardly had time for policing once the shooting season started. From the beginning of October to the beginning of February all crime stopped in his manor whilst he attended to his keeping duties over the land belonging to one of our noble peers. This copper was a big bloke and had a very short temper so if any miscreant did cause problems during the season he was dealt with in a somewhat ‘direct’ manner, without any paperwork other than a possible sick note he might have need of next day. This copper was as good as gold at other times, however, and had a relaxed view when it came to drinking and driving and other rural pursuits.

Some of the big organised shoots did have keepers and they certainly appreciated the copper who would back them up if it came to mixing it with gangs of poachers. Even if the call came in to the police house when you were off duty, you would put your tunic on and get picked up by the keeper, making sure you had your stave and any other item of ‘personal protection’ you fancied.

In return there was always a brace of the best dropped into the police house after a shoot. And, if you found yourself around the back of the ‘big house’ when the ‘guns’ were readying themselves for a bit of supper prior to a port-soaked drive home and you happened to mention from what roads you would certainly be absent later that night and any other dangers that might lurk in the shape of police patrols you knew of, then a couple of fine plump birds and a bottle of claret were not unheard of.

Many coppers even earned a bit by doing some beating on driven shoots. You didn’t earn much, but you worked alongside the locals who forgot your occupation as the day wore on and you shared in the brambles and twigs and the threat of some bloody fool of a shooter nearly plastering you all with pellets as he missed a low flying bird. You became a countryman then, not a copper, and were more part of the community because of it.

If you were ‘well in’ with some of the local keepers and landowners you would get a day’s shooting on ‘keepers’ day’ at the end of the season. That was a real treat, and once again you were part of the community you served and part of the seasonal traditions of the countryside. Not only but also, you picked up a lot of useful gossip along the way.

The times I am writing about were decades ago, but I can still remember what a joy it was to drive around a beautiful landscape as dawn broke and the birdsong filled the air like a quarrel in a flute factory. Or to walk with measured tread around the empty streets of a town, smelling the wood smoke as people lit the kindling on their fires and the milkman trundled by on his electric cart, the sound of chinking bottles the urban equivalent of the dawn chorus.

The way of the ‘mump’ didn’t just provide an extra morsel on the kitchen table; it was an ancient custom based on mutual trust. British coppers have always been civilians in uniform. Part of the community, we never carried firearms as a normal part of our equipment and relied entirely on our wits and experience to keep the Queen’s peace. Considering all that, what’s a piece of cheese between friends, eh?

* Traffic Division in the UK is a county-based force that have all the fast cars and wear peaked uniform caps all the time — even in bed, or so it’s claimed. They would equate to the state police in America or storm troopers in Europe. They also are the best drivers on the road, deal with all the motorway pile-ups, and are an elite force. There is always a waiting list to join them and the selection process is rigorous, hence their institutional arrogance.

I would like to dedicate these few words to another cop I know. A real sheriff who carries a gun and has kept the peace in his part of America for decades. Ed Tillson, the ‘guv’nor’ to those privileged to know him.

7 thoughts on “Living off the land

  1. I don’t claim to have taken part in any of these enterprises but they do have a familiar ring of authenticity about them having shaken hands with door-handles and walked the unlit industrial estates and watched the sun come up over the open fields.


  2. You paint some wonderful pictures. I particularly like “the birdsong filled the air like a quarrel in a flute factory”. Sadly, with my nocturnal nature, I rarely experienced that even by choice.


  3. I and my daughters met you today in Wincanton. It was good to talk to you and I’m glad I looked you up, as although my intention was to see your artwork, your stories are gold. Please keep writing them down, as stories like these get lost so easily.


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