Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 1926 – 2022
HM The Queen inspecting Queen’s Company, 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards at Buckingham Palace Garden, May 1962
(‘Yours truly’ is standing fourth in line and very proud of being inspected by
his Company Commander, the Queen)
PC Roper’s just desserts
During World War II, German bombers dropped many incendiary devices (and sometimes larger stuff) around Ipswich. When the war had finished, many parts of the surrounding countryside were scarred by large craters. Quickly those holes were somewhat disguised when ferns, brambles and small trees began to flourish. One such dent in the landscape was to the east of Ipswich on Warren Heath. In July and August, when we lads from the council estate were sent by our parents to the cornfields to capture a few rabbits essential for a decent family meal, we avoided this large crater. We were told that a monster lived down there amid the twisted roots of an old oak tree and that this monster had a huge appetite for those like us. We were scared stiff and so were the older boys, but the monster, we were told, only came out at night.
So, there was the Massey-Harris combine harvester (a new beast to these ancient cornfields) approaching the final cut of the day. Just this one strip was left to cut. This long stretch of standing wheat was lined on both sides by men and boys armed with sticks. Among the wheat left standing many rabbits, a few hares and a cock pheasant or two ran up and down all petrified and all about to be clubbed to death by flailing sticks. This might sound cruel by today’s standards and of course, it is, but in those far-off days that was how we boys bought home essential (and free) meat to feed our families. As the combine harvester gradually reduced their space, so the rabbits gathered in their ever-shrinking space. Thwack went the sticks and rabbits squealed. Todd bent down and picked up a three-quarter grown rabbit. A ‘rabbit chop’ silenced the poor creature (a rabbit chop means when the animal is held up by its hind legs and the edge of the hand is brought down with force on the back of its neck). Todd tucked this animal inside his poacher’s pocket. Another one met its end, and soon Todd had three. The first one I thumped died instantly, and another received the chop. A shout came from within the combine harvester, and a young man in dungarees jumped down and headed towards us. We knew what was coming, our prizes were going to be confiscated. The farmworkers also liked rabbit stew. But we had to be caught first. The Priory boys were well-used to being chased either by ‘coppers’ or thugs from the nearby Gainsborough estate, so we legged it. Todd’s coat was bulging with his freshly killed rabbit, and he ran with the other two in his hands. I ran with two rabbits in one hand, which was awkward, so I discarded my stick and transferred one animal to my free hand.
We easily outpaced our dungaree-clad farmhand, who turned to chase another boy. We slowed down, thinking we had won our battle, but we had another problem. During harvest time it was usual for men with dogs to stalk the perimeter of the field as well in case a rabbit or two avoided our clubs. As we slowed down so a man, a miserable man who lived in Nacton, released his greyhound which came at us like an arrow. But this was all par for the course, and we knew what to expect. Todd examined his two hand-carried rabbits, then hurled the smaller one of the two high into the air. The greyhound (lurcher) leapt high and caught the furry animal as it descended and, shaking it vigorously, returned triumphantly to its master. The old man of Nacton smiled. This performance had taken place hundreds of times before, but we still had four rabbits.
We ran on, the sun was sinking and shadows stretched over the stubble. At last, we reached the comparative safety of the tall ferns, but our exuberance at successfully poaching four rabbits was short-lived. We had forgotten about the bomb crater. Todd tripped over a sticking-out root and both of us went head over heels into the bowels of the hole. We were not injured and hung onto our precious rabbits but far below the surface of the cornfield hidden among the ferns and bracken. We were just about to dust ourselves down when headlights appeared. The farmer and his squad of helpers had arrived in his battered old farm truck. Were they looking for us? I doubt it, but they stopped on the edge of the field with headlights blazing. There was much chattering, and we realised that Mr Ransome and his farmhands were ‘gutting’ the rabbits which they had taken from the others. We dared not move. Gradually the beautiful summer’s day turned into evening and the shadows grew even longer. With their stolen bounty now cleaned, the farmer and his friends moved off but, as the headlights on his wagon swung across the crater, we both saw an animal only a few yards from us. Yes, this crater was indeed home to a monster. This animal, larger than a dog, was shuffling out of a large hole dug into the roots of an oak tree. It was sniffing the air. Could it smell us? I froze, and so did Todd. I glanced at him and softly said that I thought it was a bear. Todd said nothing, he was petrified too. A bear on Warren Heath in a bomb crater? Todd muttered: “Should I throw it at a rabbit?” “Todd,” I replied, “I think it is a honey bear.” After I had said it, I thought I don’t know why I said that as I had no idea what a honey bear looked like. The bear shuffled a little bit nearer. I could see that it had a white face and a pointed black nose. Todd, also now had a white face, stuttered: “I haven’t any honey, and I’ve eaten the jam ‘sarnies’ that Mum packed for me.” I look at Todd and whispered: “Should we run for it?” Luckily, fate came to our rescue. Mr Ransome and company drove back to the edge of the crater with more rabbits to gut. There was much jollity and laughter about their catches of the day. With all this noise, the bear took umbrage and shuffled back into its sandy cavern. The farmer’s squad eventually departed, and Todd and I climbed out of the crater with some relief. We hurried across Felixstowe Road and onto the railway line. When we got home I gave one of my rabbits to Todd, who had many brothers and sisters, so his family was much larger than mine and one rabbit would satisfy my Dad.
The next day, Todd and I walked to PC Jack Roper’s house on Nacton Road. We explained that whilst we were bird-nesting (not poaching), we had come across this animal which I had proudly identified as a honey bear. PC Roper was, well, amazingly interested and appeared rather kindly for a change. “Well, lads, I will look into it. I know where you live.” Of course, he did. We heard nothing, but a week later there was a whole page in the Ipswich Evening Star devoted to our policeman, together with photographs. He was praised by the Chief Constable, he of silver braid and a stutter, for notifying the authorities of a dangerous bear lurking on Warren Heath. It appears that the Bertram Mills Circus, whilst staying on the heath, had lost a bear. According to this newspaper, a vicious animal capable of doing excessive harm to anyone who ventured too close to it. Yeah, right. For information leading to its capture, the hero of the hour, PC Jack Roper, received a commendation from his chief, a sum of money from the owners and free tickets for the circus.
Todd and I, needless to say, received nothing. PC Roper did not cycle down our road for the next three weeks. Apparently, the handlebars of his large police bike went missing!