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Diary of a Heritage Manager – #WeAre50 Blog 1: The force of a thousand macs

Published on | #WeAre50, General

At the museum we celebrate the past 200 years of policing, often focusing on older heritage, rather than more recent history. This year we are using the 50th Anniversary of West Midlands Police as a chance to shine a spotlight on the past 50 years.

I recently met with a small group of retired and serving officers, with a staggering combined length of service of 313 years (plus 21 as police staff). I’ve also been in correspondence with some retirees now living abroad, and have gathered some thoughts from officers who joined in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s on what their experiences were like of the amalgamation.

For those not in the force at the time, you can probably imagine what it was like being part of one of a number of organisations forced together as part of government boundary changes and economies of scale. I mean, it makes sense, doesn’t it? To aim for less than 50 police forces, rather than 200+ (with an equivalent number of Chief Constables, HR departments, admin teams etc) but many officers on the ground would have initially only experienced problems and not seen any of the wider benefits. All of a sudden, you were thrown together with colleagues who essentially did the same job as you, but with different uniform, different kit and equipment, different policies and different ways of doing things. As one retiree says ‘in Coventry, they didn’t even speak the same language as Birmingham and the Black Country’!

The kit back in 1974 largely consisted of a radio (the two-piece Pye Pocketfone) a whistle (depending on where you served previously), a wooden truncheon (with a smaller version for policewomen) and if you worked in Birmingham, a small medical kit containing a bandage and a sling. D shaped handcuffs would be found in various places such as the glovebox of the Panda car or the back of a desk drawer. These were not personal issue: if you encountered a problem on the streets you were expected to talk your way through it. Officers wore blue shirts, trousers tunics, great coats or macs. Female officers wore skirts and carried a simple black handbag.

Some officers had only recently endured an amalgamation with the old Black Country forces of Walsall, Wolverhampton and Dudley merging to create West Midlands Constabulary in 1966. And Coventry having merged with Warwickshire in 1969. As a former West Midlands Constabulary officer put it, some of the more seasoned officers were still complaining about the first merge when the second one came along. Helmet plates and badges were not changed in bulk immediately in 1974, and some officers wore the insignia of their old force for many years afterwards – in some cases right through the 1980s! Due to the various different tunics, coats and macs in use at the time of amalgamation, West Midlands Police was often referred to as the force of a thousand macs.

Poster detailing the 1966 merger of the West Midlands Constabulary.

Birmingham City Police drivers were called in at midnight on 30th March 1974, issued with a chequered band for their hats and then sent back out again as West Midlands Police officers.

It was also apparently not uncommon to hear officers speak as if they were still part of the previous force, for example: answering the phone as Coventry City Police. Did the public have any idea all this change was happening? Or did they just expect their local police, to simply BE their local police? Anecdotally we’ve heard that in the more rural areas policing was quite informal and community based. Officers tended to know the families of young people involved in low level offending, and they could often be kept out of the criminal justice system through working together with family members. All of a sudden, a large influx of officers from across the West Midlands area were policing wholly new locations, with no local knowledge of the people or places, which meant these arrangements couldn’t continue. It was seen as good practice (and ultimately would help with achieving integration as one West Midlands force) for officers from one force area to be posted to another.

The newly created force motto of Forward in Unity neatly highlights the ambition for officers across the force area to work together as one team. Whilst the amalgamation itself took place overnight into the 1st April 1974, achieving consistency of uniform, insignia, process and working practises took much longer, but the ultimate result is one force serving the people across the West Midlands, and making best use of resources and equipment to keep its communities safe.

At the museum we will be researching and sharing information about how West Midlands Police has evolved over the past 50 years, and will be meeting with serving and retired officers to discover more about some of the key people and events from this time period, as well as showcasing modern technology and sharing some of our serving officers’ stories.

You can read more about our 50th anniversary celebrations here and follow us on Facebook, Instagram, X and TikTok for more stories and pictures.