Escort Duty

1962, September: Fred Smith: Circus elephants: Together with other constables, (Frank Beer, Ken Tizard, Mervyn Saunders and Robin Young) I risked life and limb to man between us, two Triumph 650cc Thunderbird motor cycles (call signs J65 and J66) attached to the then Guildford Police Station in Woodbridge Road, (now flattened into a car park). Due to the fact that each machine was equipped with VHF radio we were assigned to a wide variety of tasks from crime and traffic incidents to sudden deaths and missing persons.

This little story concerns another type of task – the escort. One Sunday evening in September 1962 whilst working the late shift the Duty Sergeant Osman (Ossie) Wright) called me into his office with the news that during that evening I was to go to Billy Smarts Circus, which had been performing on the outskirts of the town, for, as he described it, a very special escort assignment.

On arrival, and doing as instructed, my attention was directed to a large man wearing a white Stetson hat, brown leather tasselled jacket, riding breeches and boots, seated on a huge, brown and white, horse. Being unsure if I should say 'howdy' or not, I copped out and merely enquired if he was Billy Smart.

I should explain here that I was also wearing, as part of the uniform issued to police motorcyclist in those days, riding breeches (often disrespectfully referred to as 'windjammers' by the local yobs). Looking down at me and seeing a similarly attired kindred spirit, he confirmed that he was indeed the circus owner and explained that there would be a short delay before I could commence my task.

Whilst filling in time before the 'off' I observed gangs of men completing the dismantling of the big top with all of its long poles, ropes and canvas being loaded onto large, long trailers. Also a variety of four legged animals were being herded into large cage-like vans. As I was thinking there was plenty here to escort, up galloped Billy with the news that I could commence this task.

Needing to know which vehicle would be leading the convoy in order for me to get into the right position I was just about to check this when he said 'here come my girls' and from behind the parked vans appeared six huge elephants walking in line and holding each others tails with their trunks.

On enquiring of Billy as to which van they would be travelling in you could have knocked me down with an ivory tusk, when he, looking rather amused, and explained that they would be walking along the road right behind me on route to Guildford Railway Station in the town before being transported by train to the next venue.

I should explain here that due to the unforeseen delay daylight was now rapidly fading and I was faced with the prospect of carrying out this escort in darkening conditions. Whilst elephants have large heads and short tails, they of course are not equipped with either front or rear lights. On voicing my concerns to the 'Governor' he explained that the animal handlers would be walking along with them to keep them under control and in line.

Being greatly concerned about this situation I radioed to Control at HQ to see if assistance from other vehicles could be forthcoming but with negative result. The journey along the reasonably wide and well-lit Guildford By-pass, as it was in those days, was not too difficult with the 'girls' padding along almost silently, in spite of their great weight, some distance behind me.

Billy had explained that they could not stop suddenly (no brakes fitted) and might break into a run if frightened. Because of this alarming fact and in order that the noise of the motor cycle engine should not frighten them it was necessary for me to travel some distance ahead of them.

By now it was darker and some motorist travelling from the town centre to the By-pass tended to use this road as an unofficial racetrack. To my horror this began to happen with some cars hurtling towards the approaching 'elephantine' procession. The motorcycles in that era where only equipped with the normal headlights (no blue flashing lights etc.), and with a white plastic faring with POLICE printed on it and certainly nothing as high tech as a PA system.

My frantic hand waving with my black leather gauntlets for oncoming vehicles to keep to the nearside appeared to have no effect as it became obvious that they could, not see me, and my task. Due to this alarming fact I was forced to stand up on the bikes footrest and gesticulate more vigorously.

At the height of this activity a motorist slowed down and lowering his window said "What's up officer?" To this polite question (ah, those were the days), I responded with "Please keep over, the elephants are coming." His face was a picture, as they say, as he digested this news and a complete look of puzzlement spread over it as he continued on.

I then looked behind me and realised that, because of the now completely dark conditions, there appeared to be nothing behind me, certainly no elephants. They were there none the less with the continuing 'padding' noise present, now punctuated with the occasional loud 'plopping' sound, confirming this.

They were not the only scared ones there that night I can assure you. To cut a long story short I can report that we all arrived safely at the railway station and the 'girls' were safely loaded into the trucks and went on their way.

I later learned that a report of an apparently mad police motorcyclist shouting something about elephants as he travelled along had been received at the police station. I also heard that some of the residents of Walnut Tree Close experienced a bumper crop of rhubarb that year. Well it's an ill wind as they say.

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