Century approaches for wartime policeman

Jimmy O'Donovan (on the left looking at the camera) when the King and Queen visited Portsmouth on February 7, 1941.

Jimmy O'Donovan (on the left looking at the camera) when the King and Queen visited Portsmouth on February 7, 1941.

Fast Launch Isinglass bound for Wales in the early 1970s.

Portsmouth’s speedy ‘grey ghosts’ which were the army’s navy

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If I told you there was a former police officer living in the city who retired from the force in 1966 you might be amazed. It was my privilege to meet him last week a month ahead of his 100th birthday.

James O’Donovan hails from Ireland and the house in which he was born near Cork overlooks the spot where RMS Lusitania was torpedoed – an act which brought America into the First World War.

The Queen followed by the King leave a Portsmouth house with Jimmy looking on. Who was the little boy?

The Queen followed by the King leave a Portsmouth house with Jimmy looking on. Who was the little boy?

Born on May 6, 1915, James was intending to attend university but with the Second World War looming he had second thoughts.

He received a letter from a constable friend living in Portsmouth suggesting he come to England to try his luck.

Aged 19 he arrived in Portsmouth, was recruited, and after staying for a short while with friends was billeted in the police hostel at Fratton.

He was stationed at the Guildhall and was under instruction from a superintendent and inspector while also walking the beat.

Inspector Jimmy O'Donovan when he was based at Cosham.

Inspector Jimmy O'Donovan when he was based at Cosham.

After six months’ probation he became a constable but with the war on the horizon Jimmy applied to join the RAF. However, because he was in a reserved occupation he was not called up.

During those early years of the war the police worked 12 hours on and 12 off, but because of the blitz they were always on call.

Part of his duties involved guarding the power station in Old Portsmouth. He recalls: ‘We were given .303 rifles but no bullets. More of a scare-mongering tactic than anything.’

Considering the shopping centres that were destroyed in the bombing there was very little looting in the city. ‘There was the occasional chancer who tried his luck but on the whole, considering the size of the population, there was not a lot to bother us.’

Jimmy O'Donovan.

Jimmy O'Donovan.

When George VI and Queen Elizabeth came to Portsmouth to inspect the bomb damage in February 1941 Jimmy was on hand to keep an eye on them as these pictures show.

After the war he joined the CID.

Owing to the bomb damage to the Guildhall the local court was located at 17/18 Western Parade, Southsea. It was here that Jimmy heard his first death sentence passed to a murderer. The incident happened at Mile End. Sentenced to hang, the killer was taken to Winchester prison and executed.

And there was the occasion when a thief tried to break into the Castle Cafe in front of Southsea Castle.

When the police arrived they went up on the roof and found that the burglar had defecated. Having nothing with which to clean himself he used a letter from his girlfriend.

The letter was taken to the forensic laboratory where the address was plain to read – it was from the burglar’s girlfriend in Newcastle.

Newcastle police were alerted and contacted the girlfriend who gave the police the information required. The thief was a sailor.

Jimmy boarded the ship in Portsmouth Dockyard, arrested the sailor and when he searched his locker found the stolen goods.

In 1953 Jimmy was on parade at the Queen’s coronation. He was in charge of 20-30 local officers sent to London. He was also on duty in Whitehall several times for the remembrance ceremony at the cenotaph.

I asked if he had ever met the Queen.

He says: ‘Not so much met, but I did get a nod from Princess Elizabeth when she was attending a function at the NAAFI in what is now Museum Road.

‘She was heading for the door and I opened it for her and she just looked at me, grinned and nodded.’

In 1958 he became a uniformed inspector based at Southsea in Albert Road.

Yes, the same Victoria and Albert pub we now drink in where one of the cells is now the lavatory.

In 1966 Jimmy retired after 30 years service and joined the civil service where he worked for another 10 years retiring in 1977.

He and his wife Joy, whom he married in 1940, then travelled the world.

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