KEVIN GORDON - Keeping the aliens out of Newhaven

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I joined the British Transport Police as a cadet in 1973. I was stationed at Brighton but, for a few months during the summer of 1974 and 1975, I had to work at Newhaven Harbour.

The police station there was attached to the harbour headquarters but there was also a small hut at the North Gate (now the main entrance to the docks). Both were manned 24 hours a day.

There were also Special Branch officers from the Sussex Police and Metropolitan Police but they had an office elsewhere.

The sergeant in charge was a lovely chap called Eric Robinson (known to all as ‘Robbo’) and as you went into the main door, his office was on the left. On the right was the constables office where there was a desk which held the Occurrence Book and the Telephone Message Book (known as the OB and TMB). There was a clattery telex on which we received APW (All ports warnings) from Force Headquarters and a charging point for radio batteries.

In those days we used the Pye Pocketfone which was in two parts – a transmitter and a receiver. They rarely worked.

Further back there was a locker room, mess room and the Aliens Room. This was like a comfortable cell with bunk beds, table and chairs and a small black and white TV.

Whenever a ferry arrived there needed to be four BTP officers on duty. One at the North Gate, one in the main office and one to stand at the bottom of the gang-plank (a popular duty in the days when ladies skirts were short and it was a blustery day!)

The fourth officer was detailed to go on board the ship and liaise with the ship’s purser. His duty was to detain any aliens.

The purser was responsible for conducting immigration checks as the ferry travelled from Dieppe. Passengers had to complete a small card giving details of their passports. Anyone who did not have a passport was deemed to be an ‘alien’ and upon arrival at Newhaven would be detained, handcuffed and held in the Aliens Room.

There was never any attempt of communicating with these people, there was no interpreter and I don’t recall one person claiming political asylum – to be honest we wouldn’t have understood them if they had! I also don’t remember any female aliens. The detainees would be given a good meal (a matron was employed on an ad-hoc basis) and then later put onto the next ferry back to France.

Occasionally, one of the aliens would ‘cut up rough’ and would have to be accompanied back to Dieppe and handed directly over to the Gendarmerie. This was also a popular duty as it involved getting some overtime, even though on the return duty an officer could cadge a cabin and have a sleep for the four hour return trip.

Parliament passed the Aliens Act in 1905. It was the first time that any control was placed on immigrants entering the UK. The act was passed after pressure from the “British Brother League” a right-wing pressure group who campaigned against immigration, complaining that Britain was a “dumping ground for the scum of Europe”.

Actually most immigrants who arrived at this time were Jews escaping persecution from Tsarist Russia and many were wealthy.

After the act, a person could be refused entry to the country if (a) he did not have sufficient means of decently supporting himself (the usual test was that he was in possession of at least £5 or (b) he was an “idiot or a lunatic”.

The pursers of ferries were tasked with establishing the credibility of passengers, although the French pursers refused to do this, complaining that they were not qualified to make an opinion on a person’s health or wealth.

Because of this, waiting rooms at Newhaven were commandeered so that checks could be made on arrival. (The very first ‘Immigration Offices’). In November 1906 the The London Brighton and South Coast Railway, who ran the harbour, tried to off-set the cost of these rooms (£129.11.00) to the French, but they refused to pay.

Interestingly, it was only the third-class passengers who were subject to immigration controls, presumably it was thought that if a first-class passenger, (there was no second class) could afford the trip to England, he automatically had sufficient means and was not likely to be an ‘idiot’.

By the 1970s when I worked at the harbour, there were no class distinctions, and of course the majority of ferries had no aliens to worry about. Several of the old dock policemen at that time had worked there since the war and knew every member of the dock staff and the crew of the ships.

If there were no aliens, they would have a sneaky drop or two in one of the on-board bars or buy some duty-free cigarettes from the ferry shop. This was not strictly legal but who was going to stop a policeman as he left a ferry? The lockers of most of the docks policemen were half full of smuggled cigarettes! One particular policeman I remember was PC ‘Chippie’ Carpenter, a lovely fellow who could entertain you for hours with stories. He wrote his pocket book with an indelible pencil (I remember him licking the end of it). His pocket book was completely illegible and when Inspector ‘Rocky’ Mountain visited from Brighton he complained that he could not read one word.

Chippy loved the ‘Alien duty’ and on more than one occasion I saw him as he returned from a ferry, tunic over his arm and singing as he proceeded back to the police office in what was definitely not a straight line!

The British Transport Police left the harbour in 1984 but the old Police Station is still there but is now boarded up and I presume destined for demolition.