The big Reorganisation of Local Government, took place in 1974, and preparation for it started in 1973. Five authorities; Letchworth, Hitchin Urban, Hitchin Rural, Baldock, Royston, were to be condensed into one, North Hertfordshire District Council, which meant a big upheaval and threatened many staff cuts. All jobs were ‘up for grabs’ and we had to apply for what we thought we had a chance of getting. I didn’t rate my prospects as very good at all. There were five Lettings Officers (one for each authority) and we all applied for the one vacancy. The other four were all younger than I was, all had far more experience than me but worst of all, the interviewing officer was TACT, the Hitchin Urban manager, who had turned me down for a job a few years before. However I was successful and became Principle Lettings Officer, the applicant from Hitchin Urban was made my assistant, the ones from Baldock and Royston transferred to the Finance Department and the chap from Hitchin Rural became redundant. I never understood how I made it and can only think I must have been the best of a bad bunch. However I did and my responsibilities increased overnight. Reporting direct to TACT I was in charge of reception, lettings and transfers but not rebates any more and my staff had increased to six. Miss Ridley had gone and the whole situation was a far cry from what it had been in her day. April 4th 1974 was the big day and, due to a great deal of long hours and unpaid overtime, by my Secretary Mary Whitworth, a new assistant Pauline Horton and myself, we were the only department of the council to be up and running on Day 1. All files, from the five authorities had been integrated into our new system, we were ensconced in our new offices and ready to go. Laurie Chapman the man from Hitchin was my senior assistant and had responsibility for the Hitchin area including the villages in that area. Pauline had Baldock and Royston including the villages. Mary, my secretary had been upgraded to Lettings Assistant and taken over the Letchworth area and we had been allocated two typists and a receptionist.
My brother Albert who lived in Slough died in 1974 and sister Annie came down from Oldham to stay with us and we travelled together to attend the funeral. On our return to Letchworth we found that our house had been broken into, a lot of damage caused and money and property stolen. Although nothing could be proved, a dissatisfied applicant, for council accommodation had threatened me. . I had explained that he was on the list and would be offered in his rightful turn. He was recently out of prison, said he wanted to go straight and it was people like me who were stopping him. He said he knew where I lived and ‘would pay me a visit’. When I told the police of this they had no doubt that it was him but could not do anything just on my word. They knew of the man, he was dangerous and they could not guarantee my family’s safety or mine if I made any formal charges against him. However a few weeks later the two policemen involved came to my office with a request, “ would I cover any damage that might be caused to a council flat when they went to arrest a certain person?” I agreed to do so after consulting with Alan Ashling, who was in charge of the repairs department. In the event no damage was caused to the property but I did learn that the person had his ribs in plaster for some time following his arrest.
The Government had suggested that local authorities take over responsibility for homeless families with effect from April 4th, coinciding with re-organisation and TACT decided that it was logical that Lettings should do this. He detailed me for the job and told me to let him know what I would need in the way of staff, accommodation etc. I had obviously been too clever, my section had completed the changeover and in his view, would be able to cope. Social Services, who had been responsible for these families previously, assured him that there was unlikely to be more than 8 or 10 applications each year so no problem. (In the event applications soon exceeded 300 each year). I asked for a delay until the 1st July and then be allowed to do the job for a couple of months before submitting my request for staff etc. The fact that local councils were now dealing with the problem of homelessness was widely published in the media and we were immediately flooded with applications. One in particular involved a couple working in a hotel, they got married at the registrar’s office, called a taxi and went to Hitchin Area office, to declare themselves homeless. Although we were not properly organised in the early days there was sufficient reason for me to tell them, sorry---no way. By 1st July it was obvious I needed a sub-section with it’s own officer to deal with homelessness and quite a lot of accommodation, both permanent and temporary and my submitted request for these was agreed without any argument. If I had realised it would be that easy I would certainly have asked for more. All ‘short life’ properties, i.e. those scheduled for demolition and re-development were turned over to me and TACT, always far sighted, started to look around for buildings large enough to be converted into hostels. My big priority was a new member of staff and I gave this very serious thought, my experience of the last three months helped me to decide just what type of person I needed for the post. Strong enough to face belligerent forceful applicants and to be able to, tactfully say no, when necessary. Ability to sort the genuine claimants from the chancers. Willing to work call out duties probably evenings or weekends. Brainy enough to interpret the rules, regulations and guide lines coming regularly from central government. My idea of a suitable person was an ex-policeman or an ex-army sergeant and, discussing this with TACT he seemed to be of a similar opinion. We placed adverts in the local press, the job centre and in Opportunities (a magazine circulated nationally through local government and housing associations) and got a very big response. I sorted an initial short list for approval by TACT using mainly the thoughts on suitability given above. As an afterthought, to counter any possible suggestion of being biased against females I added two lady applicants, my short list was approved and we called eight people in for interviews. The interviewing panel was chaired by TACT supported by his Deputy Housing Manager, Mr Clifford and myself. After all interviews had been completed we separately considered our own notes overnight, then met to compare the following morning. I started off first, with the admission that all my ideas of the most suitable person were completely wrong and I wished to take on the 24 years old lady applicant. I don’t remember Mr Cliffords reaction but will never forget TACT’s. “If you had not picked her, you would never have conducted any more interviews for new staff”.
Miss Sandra Smith, the young lady appointed, proved to be a very good choice, we worked well together and formed the nucleus of a sub section, Homelessness, that became the busiest in the department. TACT decided to rename the section Special Management and I was designated Special Management Officer. A couple of the larger older properties were converted for multiple occupation and we continued to look for properties we could use for hostels as demand was continuing to increase. The first conversion we made was to a property we acquired in Royston that was attached to the old Police Station and had been the home of the sergeant in charge. This was converted to five bed sit units with a communal kitchen, a fixed charge added to the rent to cover the estimated use of gas and electricity. Although we were charging our tenants for these two services we the council were not being billed by the energy suppliers. It was then discovered that the previous occupier i.e. the police sergeant, had been connected to the meters in the station.
On New years Eve 1974 which was a very stormy Saturday night with heavy rain and gale force winds, Jean and I joined our next door neighbours for a friendly drink to ‘see the New Year in’. Returning home at about half an hour after midnight I received a telephone call from the office instructing me to report to Town Hall immediately as there was an emergency on. Not knowing how long this emergency would last I decided to be prepared and took a large thermos flask of coffee. On arriving at Town Hall I found my boss already there and he had also come prepared, with a bottle of whisky, a lesson in the type of thinking that gets one to the top. We set up an emergency desk to take calls and organised men to deal with all the damage caused to council properties, windows, chimneys, walls, roofs. Working till about 4am then went home for a break and recommenced at about 9am to work till late evening. The following day, Monday it was work as usual. Two members of staff were very upset because they had been ‘left out’, Mary my secretary and Mick a maintenance supervisor, we had tried to contact them but were unable to do so. The point is, as office workers on an annual salary, they would not have been paid to turn out but in those days we were a team. The hourly paid manual workers of course did get paid overtime. One of the more seriously damaged properties was a pair of aluminium bungalows where the wind had lifted the roof. Our men covered the buildings with tarpaulin sheets and roped them securely as a temporary measure and Sandra Smith and I arranged accommodation for the tenants. On Monday the local press arrived to interview the tenants who were full of praise for everything that had been done for them. The reporter was not very interested, all he wanted to know was “is there anything that the council didn’t do?” The tenant told him that if he dared to print anything derogatory regarding our service to her she would personally sue the paper. In the event the paper did not mention any of the work we had done.
One of the first big jobs for the new North Herts Council was to bring the houses in Baldock up to a reasonable standard, as they were in a far worse condition than any of the houses of the other four councils. This involved my section as many tenants had to be moved to temporary accommodation while work was carried out, in some cases to permanent places as the properties were to be demolished. Our new officer Sandra Smith visited some flats to interview the tenants and spotted problems that had not been found by the surveyors and resulted in an extra two blocks of flats being demolished. While taking some councillors to see what we had achieved on newly modernised properties I took them into a house where the tenant was just returning from his temporary house. I explained how it had a new kitchen (with fitted cupboards), bathroom, central heating, new doors and windows, everything newly decorated. All for an extra £1.00 per week on the rent. The tenant was asked what he thought and his reply, “ thirty years I have lived in this house and always had a left hand draining board. This ******* council have changed it to a right hand one”. Interviewing another tenant in Baldock I noticed a gap of some two or three inches, between the edge of the stairs and the wall of the house, obviously to me, it meant the wood had warped and I reported this to repairs section. Principle Building Surveyor, Alan Ashling congratulated me on spotting the defect and then explained there was nothing wrong with the wooden stairs it was the outside wall of the house that was bowing out. The reorganisation of local government was a good thing for Baldock council tenants.
Compared with large towns we were lucky in that we did not get a lot of problems with squatting and I was able to cope successfully with the only three cases I had to deal with. The first was a property in Hitchin, the tenant had died and a distant relative, a man aged about twenty, moved in with a number of friends of a similar age group. With my assistant Laurie Chapman I went to the address and tried to get them to move out. Two men answered our knock on the door from the upstairs window, one holding a growling Bull Terrier and the other a handbook. Everything we said was looked up and a reply read from this book which was entitled “The Lambeth Guide for Squatters”. We were not very good, their book beat us completely but after wrecking the place they left of their own accord a few days later. My second experience occurred on the Jackmans Estate in Letchworth, where a young couple had illegally taken up occupation of a first floor flat. This time I attended ‘mob handed’, being accompanied by the Letchworth Area Officer, a carpenter, a police sergeant and a woman police officer. The woman occupying the flat refused to answer the door so we asked the carpenter to open it, which he did in something like five seconds, using a small screwdriver and a claw hammer. No noise, no banging, no damage to the door or the lock. I have never trusted a Yale type lock since. Once inside the policewoman talked to the girl and after a few tears took her off, back home to stay with her mother. The Area Officer and I put the few pieces of furniture outside and then started to put linen, clothing etc. in plastic bags. There were a number of jumpers and cardigans in the airing cupboard that I was clearing and when I picked up a black one it gave me the shock of my life, it was cat that jumped over my shoulder into the room. Luckily the door was shut so we were able to catch and return it to the young couple we had evicted. My third experience was the most scary and involved evicting a troublesome tenant from Ridgeway, the Homeless Hostel in Royston. This lad and his girl friend were really hard and had given the hostel warden and Sandra Smith a lot of trouble. A few days earlier they had armed themselves with a crate of empty milk bottles, which they used to throw at police who had called on some other matter. Again I went ‘mob handed’. Sandra Smith and I, two bailiffs and two policemen. The police parked fifty yards down the road, to be called should we experience trouble. The tenant, probably because he realised he was outnumbered, gave us no trouble he and his partner just walked out. He left all his furniture in the flat and I gave him seven days to clear it. Four weeks later it was still there and I discovered that the couple were living in a hostel for the homeless at Waltham Cross. Discretion being the better of valour I wrote informing them that they were now responsible for storage charges, we needed the space, so I was arranging to deliver the furniture to Waltham. He must be there to accept delivery and would have to settle his debt to the council or we would take the furniture back and have it stored privately at his expense. My simple little ruse worked, when we arrived at the hostel he was, as I expected/hoped, nowhere to be seen so we dropped the goods and returned home. No abuse, no threats, no thrown milk bottles, and a good day in fact.
Meanwhile with our homelessness work we eventually found, in Knebworth, a Church of England boys home that was coming on to the market. This seemed to be ideal for our purpose, all we had to do was persuade councillors that it was essential to purchase it. This involved quite a number of Saturday morning visits taking councillors to inspect it, explain to them what we needed and show what we could do with the building. Six councillors each time, three in my car and three in TACT’s. About one hour in the building followed by one hour in the Roebuck pub, all the time trying to hammer home our point. We were obviously successful because when the full council considered the purchase 48 voted yes, only 2 voted no. The reason for the no votes was that the 2 councillors involved represented Knebworth, it was a ‘not in my back yard situation’. At a later date when we applied to purchase a second hostel, in Royston this time, it was unanimous, all 50 councillors voted yes. This was very satisfying knowing that we were doing a job that met with the approval of 100% of members, it is not often that Labour and Conservatives agree to that extent.
Homelessness, even with Sandra Smith doing a grand job, still took up a lot of my time and I was lucky to have staff who coped well, with standard lettings and committee work and, a wife who put up with my long and often unsociable hours. I was doing a job, for the first time in my life that I really enjoyed and it more or less took over my life. There were compensations though, my outcast days at work had long gone. My colleagues now were a good bunch and we, including our wives, had a very good social life with dances, meals, swimming, house parties, etc. We were all keen on our work though we did get a lot of criticism from our wives for ‘talking shop’ so often. On one occasion we came in for a real nagging, four men chest deep in water at the swimming pool, discussing work.
Preparation of the hostel at Knebworth and engaging of staff to supervise the running of it was a time consuming task and when it became operational provided plenty of problems. Mr & Mrs Long who were appointed resident wardens had no previous experience but did a wonderful job. The good work they did was largely responsible for the reputation of the place, which enabled us to get the 100% backing of the councillors for the purchase of the Royston hostel mentioned earlier.
Interviewing of persons claiming to be homeless could sometimes be quite difficult, so when interviewing in the office we always took simple precautions, like removing items that could be used as weapons, e.g. staplers, hole punchers, rulers etc. but this did not stop one chap throwing the telephone at Laurie Chapman. One particularly irate family created a big fuss in the reception area of Town Hall, refusing to leave and making threats against Miss Smith. For Sandra to get out of the building from her office, she had to go through reception, obviously dodgey, so Alan Ashling and I put her out through a window at the back of the building. She was now safe and eventually the troublemakers calmed down and went off.
Applications for special consideration were discussed at Area Committee meetings by councillors who then gave officers instructions as to how these were to be dealt with. One case involved a couple in a tied farm cottage and we were advised that the wife had threatened the farmer with a shotgun. One councillor said this couple should be interviewed in the office for safety but the decision of the committee was that they should be treated as any other applicant and interviewed in their home. Discussing this with TACT we decided to be brave, we would do the interview, instead of the lady Lettings Assistant. I went to the address, to leave a letter making the appointment and to get an idea of what the place was like. Nobody in when I arrived but there was a dog kennel as big as a garden shed, with a chain attached strong enough to hold very big dog. I did not get much confidence from that so posted the letter through the door and left without any delay. On keeping the appointment some days later, we interviewed a nice polite couple who had a softie of a dog and thought how silly we had been to worry. The couple got a favourable report and were re-housed in Letchworth. A few weeks after moving to Letchworth the wife attacked her husband and he needed hospital treatment, so were we silly?
There were many incidents at Knebworth that called for support, from either Miss Smith or myself, usually occurring at night again making me appreciate Jean’s placid nature as she never complained. A letter received from local MP Ian Stuart said he had been asked to find out why we were teaching our dog to be racist, to growl at black people but be friendly to whites. This didn’t take too long to solve but made us realise just how careful we had to be. A young single mother, who had been given a room for herself and baby, had her boy friend, who was a very big black man (we will call him ‘X’ for convenience) who had a reputation for violence, visit. Mr Long explained that it was OK to visit as long as no trouble was caused. The man then asked, “If there was trouble man, could you deal with it?” and was told “If I can’t, my dog can”. This was a laugh because Mathew the dog, was the softest golden retriever you could possibly find. ‘X’ said that dogs were no trouble to him, he would just grab them under the jaws and shake them, after which they would never give him any trouble. We did not have any problems from the couple and they moved out after a very short time. However soon afterwards a young black girl told Mr Long that she was frightened of Mathew because he growled at her and this also happened with another black girl and an Asian family. We came to the conclusion that this had been caused by ‘X’; Mathew was associating all coloured people with the rough treatment he had probably been subjected to without our knowledge by him. Soon after this we gave accommodation to a single mother with a Nigerian partner and Mr Long thought it would be wise to advise him to be careful of Mathew, as although he had never attacked anyone, he did growl at coloured people. The man immediately wrote to his MP as above. I wrote to Ian Stuart explaining what we thought had happened and invited him to visit us to see how we worked and to see for himself that there was no discrimination or racism in anything we did. He was too busy to accept my offer for himself but sent his agent to see us. That caused me a full day, taking the agent round, followed by two further full days, taking the MP’s wife, Debbie Stuart, to see what we did. Their reports back were evidently satisfactory as TACT received a letter from Ian Stuart, full of compliments about the work his staff were doing. Our tenant, who was intent on getting a British passport, continued to write to Ian Stuart and even flattered him to the extent of calling his newly born son Ian.
Another young couple with a tiny baby caused us a great deal of trouble and worry. The warden, Mr Long, realised that every time there was knock at the front door of the hostel this lad was terrified, so much so that on more than one occasion he actually messed himself. The reason for this became clear when the police came to arrest him, he had been involved, with three other lads, in the indecent assault and murder of a middle-aged woman in Hitchin. Mr Long notified me and together we persuaded the police to hold off arresting the lad long enough for us to find a new address for him to be arrested from. Our purpose being to save the hostel from getting a bad name, which would have reflected on all the other tenants and probably, on any other hostels we might have in the future. The police co-operated and I arranged for a couple of trucks with men, to move the belongings of the lad, his partner and her baby to a property in a street in Hitchin. This served our purpose but as we were putting her furniture into the new address two social workers arrived to assist the girl and check on the well being of the baby. One of these women was very scathing about these ‘council bosses who sat in ivory towers in the Town Hall’ saying, “if they were to see what we are seeing now, they might be more merciful”. I was too cowardly to admit that it was I who had made the decision.
As mentioned earlier Jean was very easy going and never nagged but I had promised to redecorate the hall of our bungalow and was taking a long while to get round to it. At last one Sunday morning I got the dustsheets down and got as far as dipping the brush into the emulsion when Sandra came to see us. So it was an early coffee break. Then the phone rang and the caller asked me if I was the council officer responsible for homeless families. On confirming this I was told that there was a gas leak emergency in Hitchin. The police and Fire Brigade were in attendance and there were some 40 potentially homeless families. As I only had a couple of small rooms vacant I did not know what I would be able to do, for the first time since being responsible for homeless persons I was completely out of my depth. So I rang TACT, “nothing to do with you it’s a Civil Emergency, ring Mr Kelly” he said. Mr Kelly was the Chief Executive of the council and he took over without any trouble except that he appointed me as his man on the spot. Sandra was appointed his Aide-de-Comp and told to report to his office immediately. I was instructed to get down to Hitchin and investigate. Bang goes the decorating. At Hitchin I was told that some other council man was dealing with the matter and it turned out that Herts County Council had been alerted, before we were informed and had already arranged some 50 or more beds in the local college. However it also turned out that the families had been interviewed and all had made their own arrangements to stay with relatives and friends and our services were not needed. I reported back to Mr Kelly ‘who stood us down', I went back home to Sunday lunch and decorating and Sandra went home. 6pm and the phone rings again, the police this time, to tell me that one of the families has been told that they cannot stay with their friends overnight. A husband, heavily pregnant wife and two toddlers. I still hadn’t completed my decorating but had to turn out again, get Sandra out and we put the family in our hostel in Royston.
One Monday afternoon just before we finished work my boss TACT decided to give me another little job to do. This was to give a talk at the local college, to factory workers who were due to retire in the near future and I was to talk for 30 to 45 minutes on ‘Council Housing for Elderly Persons’. I was very apprehensive about this and did my best to get out of it but could not. Afterwards I wondered if he should have been doing the talk but had ‘pulled rank’. Then he really hit me, the talk had to be given Wednesday afternoon which meant I had one and a half days to put it together and it was something I had never done before. After tea that Monday evening I scribbled notes and then got Jean to listen and be my audience while I timed it. No matter what I did I could not seem to make it last more than ten minutes, so worked at it again in the office on Tuesday, eventually stretching it to about fifteen. Very apprehensive, on Wednesday, just before the talk was due to start at 2pm, I went over to the Black Squirrel and bought a double brandy. No problem, I went to the college talked my head off for an hour and found that I had talked myself into a regular job. These talks were held at regular periods for the factory workers of ICL and also for Borgwarner. ICL ones were the best and held some in hotels and some in colleges at Cambridge and Woburn. The firms didn’t pay me but I enjoyed wonderful hospitality, joining with the workers at free bars and top class lunches. Borg Warner had smaller groups and held their sessions in the boardroom, entertaining me in the works canteen.
It was about this time that the council took over Woodlands Hostel in Baldock with the intention of demolishing it and replacing it with a modern purpose built development. Woodlands were a collection of wood and asbestos huts that had been used to house workers, directed into the area during the war. Originally capable of accommodating 600 it had been allowed to run down and was currently housing about 160 single persons, mainly casual workers, in very grim conditions. Majority of them had been there such a long time they knew nothing better and were more or less institutionalised. They paid the weekly charge from their DSS allowance and anything left over was theirs. Nothing to worry about they had a bed, 3 meals a day and no bills coming in. Buildings not occupied were beyond economical repair and the government department responsible had decided to close it and leave our council responsible to re-house the current residents. This was obviously a big problem and we were going to need extra accommodation to solve it. TACT had a clever policy of educating councillors, (similar to the way in which we had got support for the purchase of the hostel at Knebworth), Alan Ashling, Principle Building Surveyor and I became the teachers, we would take selected councillors round the district to let them see what the Department did and what we needed. One councillor in particular, Cllr. Emsall was very upset at the living conditions at Woodlands and pressed strongly for it’s replacement. The design and development of Beech Ridge took about two years and involved much work from my section, as the council had only agreed to a new building big enough to accommodate 120 persons. We had to find somewhere for 40 and bearing in mind that all these were single, fairly old, had no furniture and few ever having had to cater for themselves our task was very difficult. One chap was allocated a one bedroom flat and my staff scrounged furniture and bedding for him. He was unable to manage because it was much too big for him so we moved him to a tiny bedsit. He was still unable to cope as he was not capable of buying food, paying rent and household bills, everything was just too much for him. Another we put in a bedsit, Connie, was in her 80’s. She went to the hostel every day pleading to be allowed to move back in. Those were two we had thought would be able to cope. A number of those we were sure would not manage we arranged to transfer (without my boss or the Council knowing) to a similar type of hostel in St Albans, that was being run by the same private contractors. A couple of years later it was the turn of St Albans council turn to build a new hostel, when the government decided to shut their old one down. They came to Letchworth for advice and actually used the same building plans as we had used for Beech Ridge. Their Housing Manager was not very polite to me, he knew I had been responsible for lumbering him with such a lot of unfortunates.
One of the first cases I had to allocate to the old Woodlands was a woman who arrived at Town Hall Letchworth just as staff were leaving for lunch. She arrived with two taxis and the drivers carried from their cabs about twenty bin bags of her belongings, which they stacked at the side of the front entrance and then drove away very quickly. The call went up from staff, who thought it very funny, ‘Mr Fitton you’ve got a customer’. I managed to stop Sandra going to lunch and so had help to deal with the woman. Enquiries to police and social services revealed that she was known to them and although mentally ill, not bad enough to be detained. This put us in the situation that we had an obligation to find accommodation for her as she was classified as a person at risk. I arranged for a truck from our depot for transport and Sandra and I labelled and numbered all the bin bags, the sewing machine, attaché case and all the other bits and pieces for the driver to load and take to Woodlands, while I took the woman and Sandra in my car. On reaching the hostel we allocated her a room and then helped to carry her possessions in. Half way through doing this Sandra, so honest and so naive said “Mr Fitton one of the bags is missing”. I took the attitude that with all the confusion of the day we had obviously not numbered them correctly, told Sandra to ‘shut up’ and then removed all the labels from the bags. Poor Sandra was upset by my action but it saved a lot of trouble and, as there was no come back later, I was probably right. This woman became an absolute menace in the hostel, making a fuss of many of the old men and getting a lot of money from them, she also on one occasion stripped off all her clothes and ran naked through the grounds. Discussing her at a Social Services Seminar I was advised by one of the officers from Fairfields Mental hospital to refer her to them and they would arrange to have her sectioned. When I mentioned her name he retracted immediately saying “She’s not mad, she’s bad”, something I already knew.
Another unforgettable case occurred when I interviewed, in my office, a young couple with a two year old baby, who were applying for a council house, I explained that they would be housed in their rightful turn, they accepted this and went out. I left my office for a few minutes and returned to find the young child sat in my chair, no sign of the parents. Strange how some people think it is their right to have children but it is up to the council to provide for them. My remit did not include providing accommodation for abandoned young children so I immediately rang Social Services who came a couple of hours later and collected the child. The girls in the office meanwhile thoroughly enjoyed playing nursemaids and we found out later that the parents had sat in the Library across the road watching while their baby was taken into care.
The lengths that some tenants would go to and the lies they told to get what they wanted never ceased to amaze me. One young woman tenant went to the Maintenance Section making a fuss about outstanding repairs and said that Mr Fitton had authorised a lot of work to be done at her house. I was brought in to see her and, without introducing myself, explained that Mr Fitton did not have the authority to arrange repairs, it was nothing to do with him. She assured me he had and told me so many lies and got so agitated that in the end I felt so sorry for the state she was in I couldn’t bring myself to tell her who I was. I thought afterwards I should have done but at the time was more concerned that she might have a fit or nervous breakdown if she was shown up.
Homelessness with three hostels under resident supervision and twelve multiply-occupied properties, all delegated to be managed by Sandra Smith, who had adequately justified our choice of an assistant, was now successfully running. I was still involved but mainly in after hours call out cases as I never considered it advisable to allow Miss Smith to deal with these on her own. One example of what we had to deal with was when a 2 ton Luton bodied van, which had been converted for a family to live in, fitted with beds and a solid fuel stove, was parked on the A505 in Letchworth. The police investigated, decided the van was stolen and confiscated it. They also arrested Mr Gray the occupant and took him with the van to Hitchin. Mrs Gray with two young sons was left on the side of the road for us to look after. When I got the call I decided to go to Hitchin police station first to get as much detail as possible and was informed that Mr Gray had been released but not the van. I was also told that he was a very angry man and should be approached with caution. Returning to Letchworth Miss Smith and I found the family in a bridle way off the A505 and Mr Gray, with a machete, was cutting saplings from the hedgerow to make a bender tent for them. We offered to put them up in a hostel until their problems could be resolved but Mr Gray rejected this very strongly. Miss Smith asked him what Mrs Gray would think about it and was told “ women don’t think. I think for my family”, all the time slashing away at the hedge with his machete, it was quite frightening. They stayed in the bridle way, sleeping in the bender tent he had made, for 4 or 5 days during which time we had arranged offers of accommodation in a farm cottage and employment, only for him to turn them down. The police finally accepted that the van had not been stolen and it was returned to them.
Another example of a night call out came one Saturday when Miss Smith was on leave. A man claiming to be homeless was harassing a councillor who lived in the very lonely rural hamlet of Dane End, and I was asked to ‘do something about it’. My son Barry volunteered to come with me for company and off we went to find an extremely worried councillor and his frightened wife being shouted at by a very belligerent man. I had great difficulty getting him to listen to me and he made it clear that he was not going to be ‘locked up’ in any hostel. I conferred with my son and we agreed that if we could get the chap in my car Barry would drive and I would sit in the back seat, behind the passenger, ready to grab him by the neck if he gave any trouble. However he noticed us whispering together and started shouting about ‘council heavies’ (actually we were both over 15 stones at the time). He must have thought we were about to give him a beating or something and he goose-marched off down this dark country lane giving Heil Hitler salutes and shouting “Zieg Heil Zieg Heil”. We had relieved the councillor of his trouble but stayed on for a while in case the man returned which happily for us he did not. However I learned some time later that the man had gone to an elderly couples cottage a few miles away and terrorised them for three or four days.
A call from a councillor to deal with a man in the town centre threatening to commit suicide was received at about 10.30pm just as we were preparing to go to bed. So Jean went to bed and off I went to see what I could do. Finding nothing in the town I called in at the police station. There, lying on the tiled floor in the reception were two men, fast asleep. The copper in charge confirmed that one of these was the cause of the suicide threat. It turned out he was well known, he was being harassed by children where he lived in London and often did this to get away from them. The police advised me to take no action they would give him a travel warrant, send him on his way in the morning and he would be OK for another few months. However this had taken up quite a bit of time and I didn’t get home until midnight, there to find that Jean had been woken up at 11.30 by the councillor wanting to know what I was going to do about the call he had made earlier. So I made myself a drink, waited to give him time to get to bed (and hopefully asleep), then rang him to report that I had successfully dealt with the problem.
Copyright Eric Fitton © 2008 page last updated 17/11/2008 18:06