The reporting sergeant at Bow Street Police Station did not mince his words.‘Look, you n****r,’ he snarled. ‘I’ll see to it that you won’t finish your probation.’ To say I was shocked would be an understatement. It was my first day with the Metropolitan Police and I’d been so proud and excited. Not any more.
All around me the other officers in the room looked away.Nobody stuck up for me – in fact, I thought I could see some of them smirking behind their hands.
I’d known that being ‘s first black police officer was not going to be easy.But nothing had prepared me for this.
What you are about to read is completely true. My aim isn’t to make people feel sorry for me. All I want is to describe how things were: to take you back to the bad old days of the Sixties and Seventies, so that we can learn from them.
I often find myself disagreeing with people who say Britain is as racist as ever.Anyone who says that has no idea how bad it was to live as a black person in London back then.
I wish I could take people back and show them what it was like to walk down the street and have people shouting ‘Oi, n****r!’ or ‘Oi, Sambo!’ at you.I remember talking to a bloke once who said: ‘Me and my wife, we don’t like black people.’
I said to him: ‘How many black people have you ever met?’ He said: ‘None. But I guess you seem all right.’
I’m sure other black candidates must have applied to join the Met in the late Sixties but none of them had been successful.But for reasons I don’t know, the Home Secretary of the time, Roy Jenkins, had approved my application, and I was in. What followed was a 30-year career of incredible highs and some pretty dreadful lows. There were plenty of times when things were so tough I found it hard to keep going.
ON THE BEAT: Norwell Roberts, the first ever black policeman in the Metropolitan police force, pictured on duty in London in September 1968
Looking back, I’m staggered by some of the things I had to put up with in the early part of my career.But I have no doubt that these things would have happened to whoever was the first black police officer in the Met. In spite of everything, I’m glad it was me.
A couple of mates I’d trained with at Hendon Police College had been posted to Bow Street, too, and I was looking forward to learning the job alongside them.But suddenly I found that they weren’t speaking to me any more. These were people I’d shared laughs with all through our training but now, at work, they refused to have anything to do with me.
Only when we got back to the section house, the accommodation for single police officers where we were boarding, did they acknowledge my existence again.
With the benefit of hindsight I can understand how they felt – we all do what we think is in our best interests.They wanted to be popular and they thought ignoring me would help.
Later, I’d find out they’d been told not to be seen talking to me by an older constable at the station. It was this man who was responsible for organising a campaign of sustained racist abuse against me that would, over the next few years, take me to the brink.
One day another older PC told me where I should park my car.When I did exactly as he said, it ended up being towed away.
The ten shillings that I had to pay to get it back was a very significant sum in those days. They must have had a good laugh at my expense back at the station. On other occasions the side of my car would be scratched or its tyres would be slashed.One day I returned to the vehicle to find that the keyhole had been filled with matchsticks and chewing gum. It was then I decided to start walking to work.
Wearing my uniform with pride became increasingly difficult – I’d get to the locker room to find that someone had ripped the buttons from my jacket, or I’d find it stuffed behind a cupboard, filthy from being scuffed around on the floor.
In those early years my appointments book, truncheon, whistle and helmet would all disappear on a regular basis – they would turn up a day or two later or be handed back to me by the sergeant, who was no doubt in on the ‘joke’.
People often refer to the loneliness of the long-distance runner but that’s nothing compared with the loneliness of a black man in a police canteen in 1967.
Norwell pictured centre, on a routine march with other recruits at Hendon Police College training
I’d always looked forward to mealtimes when I was at Hendon, but at Bow Street my isolation became obvious.I vividly remember approaching the canteen one day in my first few months in the job. I could hear laughter coming from the room – it sounded like there was some sort of party going on.
However, as soon as I entered and walked up to the counter, the laughter stopped abruptly and I could feel 60 or 70 pairs of eyes boring into me.After trying to join my colleagues at a table, only to find myself looking at their backs, I gave up and sat down on my own.
Still, I’ve always tried to count my blessings; in this case, I was glad that the catering staff were nearly all black, otherwise I might not have got so much as a cup of tea.
At the end of a shift, I would feel so wretched that I’d often go back to the section house, lock myself in the bathroom and burst into tears.To make matters worse, it soon became clear that the station bully seemed to have been tasked with deliberately making me so miserable that I’d leave the force.
It was well known that he disliked all black people, not just me – I heard one of the other policemen tell the story of him opening up a black prisoner’s head ‘like a pork sausage splitting in a frying pan’.
But I had something to prove.I wanted to succeed even more than they wanted me to fail.
My fellow officers would do anything to avoid going out on the beat with me. But somebody had to do it. That was the way young recruits learned the ropes.
Walking through Covent Garden, then a thriving fruit and vegetable market, with a veteran constable one day, I noticed the gaggles of porters and traders falling silent as we passed, then start chatting again when we’d gone.
As we made our way back to the station, one of the stallholders plucked a banana from a large stem and thrust it into my colleague’s hand.‘Here’s a banana for your monkey,’ he said. A hush descended, with everyone watching to see what would happen.
I decided the only thing to do was to tackle this horrible incident head-on but with no aggression or anger. I grabbed the banana from my colleague, peeled it and ate it in a couple of bites, with everyone staring at me.I then tossed the peel back to the stallholder, leaving him gobsmacked. The story spread around the market like wildfire and went some way towards helping me build a relationship with the people who worked there – though it did not seem to make my colleagues hate me any less.
As my troubles at the station continued, I was grateful I was beginning to make friends on the beat and I’d often get invited into people’s houses for cups of tea.In my eyes, this was the essence of good policing: I got an insight into what the public were thinking, and they got a policeman they could trust.
Meanwhile, I was getting the hang of the job. One of my most satisfying arrests as a young copper happened one night when I was flagged down by a cab driver.He told me that he had just been paid with a forged £5 note and he thought the culprit was nearby.
Hysteria: Norwell restrains fans at The Beatles’ Let It Be premiere in 1970
I jumped into his cab and we soon spotted the bloke.
I arrested him, hauled him into the back of the vehicle and took him to the station. He initially claimed he hadn’t done anything wrong and when I searched him, I found nothing. But I noticed he had dropped a cigarette packet on the floor of the charge room.
My instinct told me to retrieve it and I found another couple of forged fivers hidden inside. As this was a criminal offence, I handed the matter to the CID.
In those days, a good arrest like this should have been noted on my record of work.But you won’t be surprised to learn that this did not happen. That kind of thing occurred time and time again. I remember arresting a famous actor who was appearing in a play at the Strand Theatre. He went through my signal to stop, so I pulled him over and reported him.
Then he said: ‘If you nick me, I won’t send any more free tickets to the station.’ In those days, the theatres would send any spares to the police.I arrested him anyway. But needless to say he never ended up in court.
Low-level corruption such as this went on all the time. There might have been more serious stuff going on as well, but if there was, it was above my pay grade.
I was dealing mainly with petty crime, although I did have one brush with a major player from London’s gangland.
I’d been standing around at Bow Street Magistrates’ Court one day when I noticed a little chap on the other side of the waiting room.He stood out from the crowd – he was dapper and well groomed, with a handkerchief in his front pocket. It was Ronnie Kray.
At this time, he and his twin brother Reggie were in their pomp and known throughout London. I asked him what he was in for.
‘They’ve f*****g got me for going through a red light,’ he said.
He was really annoyed, because after everything he’d done, he’d been nicked for something as trivial as that.
IT was obvious things were not working with my superiors.In one of my reports, my sergeant observed that I kept myself to myself in the canteen, did not mix with other officers, was a bit of a loner and did not get on with members of the public. He concluded he didn’t think I would last a year.
After I’d put up with this sort of treatment for several months, I asked for a meeting with the chief superintendent, at which I suggested that I thought there was a ‘clash of personalities’ – a polite way of saying that my bosses were complete and utter racists.
I was allocated a different sergeant and inspector and my reports started to improve.But the racism carried on.
On one sad day I was on duty outside the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden when a panda car went past. As it did so the driver shouted ‘Black c***!’ at me at the top of his lungs out of the open window.
I could hear the other two policemen in the car laughing.I felt utterly wretched, especially when I noticed that members of the public who had heard were walking on by, their heads lowered.
Wouldn’t it have been nice if one of them had gone into the police station, which was across the road, and made a complaint?But society was not ready to take that step.
We’d been taught at training college that ‘idle and silly remarks were unworthy of note and should be disregarded’. But this? Surely I shouldn’t be expected to ignore it. I walked across the road to the police station and told the chief superintendent what had happened.But instead of being sympathetic, he was curt and dismissive. ‘What do you expect me to do about it?’, he said.
I thought to myself: ‘I’ve lost. I’ve allowed them to get under my tough outer skin.’ Until then, I’d always managed to hide my upset with a smile.But I couldn’t do it any more. I said ‘Nothing, sir’, and left the room, before dashing back to the section house and crying so much I thought the bath would fill up with my tears.
There was no one for me to turn to. I couldn’t even tell my wife Wendy.If she’d known what was going on, she’d have been worried sick every time I went to work.
I can talk to her about it now, but she didn’t find out about Bow Street for years.
I remember wondering if it was worth putting up with all the pain. I’d had plenty of opportunities to lift the lid on the maltreatment I was suffering – I’d even been summoned to Scotland Yard to talk to the deputy assistant commissioner in charge of recruitment.
He’d asked me if I had any problems, but I lied and told him that everything was fine.I’m not sure he believed me. I remember him pausing, as if he wanted to ask me more. I smiled at him, trying to convince him I was happy. I just didn’t want to be seen as a failure.
Many years later, I found myself wondering whether I could have done things differently.
I Am Norwell Roberts, by Norwell Roberts (pictured), is published by Two Roads on June 9 at £16.99
In 1999, when the Macpherson Report into the investigation of the murder of Stephen Lawrence revealed the Met’s ‘institutional racism’, several newspapers asked my opinion.
I did not think then – and nor do I think today – that the killers of Stephen Lawrence could have been convicted earlier if I’d done anything different way back in the Sixties or Seventies.
While I do wish I’d spoken out more about racism during my early years, it would not have made any difference.It was not the right time.
By the early 1970s there were two other black officers in the Met. But one of them, Michael Ince, was tragically killed when his panda car collided with an emergency response vehicle as they rushed to the same callout on Oxford Street in February 1971.He was 25.
I remember quite clearly hearing about it when a disgusting police officer – the bully I’ve previously described – ran into the front office in Bow Street, jumping up and down while holding a newspaper report of the accident and shouting ‘One down, two to go’, while looking me straight in the eye.
His mates laughed and jeered raucously.Although I was used to having to put up with all sorts of verbal abuse, hearing him say something so callous was a real shock. It made me feel sick, as if I’d been punched in the guts.
Even faced with this provocation, I still felt unable to confront him, knowing I lacked the necessary support from my supervisors.There was a complete disconnect between the messages that were being sent down from the top – the Home Office was saying ‘We need more people like Norwell’ – and the racists in the police force who made life for black officers unbearable.
By then I had been in the Met nearly four years.It had been truly hellish but gradually, despite the abuse that still went on, slot gacor gampang jackpot I was being accepted. The barriers slowly broke down, as my colleagues realised that they didn’t have any reason to avoid speaking to me.
Gradually, they invited me to join their card games.To start with, they would stitch me up and take my money but I chose not to complain – it was good to be included.
Things eventually came full circle – the blokes who swore they would never speak to me when I joined came up to me after work to ask if they could buy me a drink.In fact, some of the people who gave me the most stick to start with were the keenest to be friends with me.
You may be wondering why I didn’t quit the police in those early days, and I often ask myself the same question. Maybe it was plain pig-headedness, but every instance of adversity gave me the incentive to keep going.
The more the bullies wanted me out, the more certain I was that I should stay.And I felt that I owed something to the people who had given me the chance to join the police and to the wonderful members of the public I’d come into contact with.
I remember a couple of old ladies tentatively approaching me while I was on duty outside the South African embassy.One of them planted her face about six inches from mine and said: ‘Can you tell us the way to the post office?’
I could tell that they were wondering if I understood them – and more importantly, if they would understand my reply.‘Up there, love – second on the right,’ I said, giving them a big smile. They both gave a start and the other lady said to her friend: ‘Cor blimey! He’s one of us.’ The first lady put her hand on my arm and said: ‘Nice to meet you.’
By the end of my time at Bow Street, I’d made many friends in the area.All the harsh treatment I endured in the station was vindicated by something the Met Commissioner, Sir Robert Mark, said in 1972, while he was answering questions about an annual report:
‘I believe the person who has done more to promote good relations between the [black] communities and the police is PC Norwell Roberts.I think we have cause to be grateful to him and to the way he faced the strains and hostility from both sides.’
As of March this year, there were more than 5,000 black officers in the Met. Things are far from perfect and there remains a lot of work to be done.But we’ve come a long, long way since the day I walked into Bow Street Police Station.
© Norwell Roberts, 2022
I Am Norwell Roberts, by Norwell Roberts, is published by Two Roads on June 9 at £16.99.