Interview: Robert Hurren – legendary Downing Street Policeman who guarded 9 Prime Ministers

To meet Robert Hurren is to encounter an extraordinary piece of living British political history.

“Sarge” as he was known to generations of staff, civil servants and the inhabitants of Downing Street itself, was first a beat constable and later beat Sergeant responsible for guarding the most famous door in politics for more than forty years. Between his first assignment in the spring of 1960 and his retirement in 2003, he claims to have worn out 32 pairs of boots, three whistles and seen nine Prime Ministers come and go. In the process he also met many of the most famous people of the last century.

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Robert Hurren – centre – meets HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother 1957

The sprightly 90 year old has been retired for nearly two decades and though he might not be quite as nimble on his feet as he would like,  his memory for detail remains as sharp as ever. As he welcomes me, a little warily, into his Croydon home with a firm handshake and the offer of a cuppa, I am immediately taken aback by the contrast between the everyday appearance of his ordinary semi-detached bungalow and the astonishing array of memorabilia that assaults me in his front room. Above the grand mock-tudor fireplace, an entire wall is covered with signed photographs of Robert  with a veritable Who’s Who of late twentieth century celebrities and politicians. In one he is joking with an impossibly young looking Queen Mother, in another he is wagging a finger at Ringo Starr while in yet another – TV chef Ainsley Harriott has somehow procured his hat and is wearing it with both thumbs up.

Robert was born in Stepney in 1927 the son of Arthur a retired docker who was eeking out a precarious existence as one of the East End’s last ‘knocker uppers.’

“He’d be up at about 5 most mornings and go about the local streets waking everyone up with a long stick. What you young people might call an alarm clock nowadays!” He laughs.

His mother Elizabeth, the daughter of a Rochester shop-keeper had “married beneath herself” in the parlance of the times and it was very much a love match. In those pre-contraceptive and pre television days, there wasn’t much else to do and young Robert was the twelfth of fourteen children.

Money was tight. When the war broke out he was shipped off to the West Country like many evacuees.

“I loved Devon. The rolling hills. It was like paradise to a boy of 13. When it was time to come back in 1944 I barely recognised my parents.”

The war ended before he got into uniform but through contacts of his Uncle he managed to get a job with The River Police and it was there, in 1957, that he first met the Queen Mother.

“She came round one day and was having a bit of a joke. She said to me: ‘What do you do here?’ And I said: ‘well you know Ma’am – a bit of this and a bit of that.’ And she said to me: ‘do you ever get sea-sick?’ And I said to her: ‘funnily enough I do Ma’am’ and she turns to me and gives me a lovely smile and says:  ‘you should go and work on the land if you don’t like the water.’ I thought it was wonderful she felt she could talk to me like that but it was the friendship we had I suppose. So that’s what I did.”

While the Queen Mother was clearly a favourite, his most treasured photograph is a grainy, informal snap, of him sharing a joke with First Lady Jackie Kennedy, shortly after he had taken up the Downing Street beat in 1961.

“I remember her asking me how long I’d worked there and I said ‘Just a few months Miss!’ And she said: ‘well we are fairly new on the job ourselves!’ And we both laughed. Lovely sense of humour Mrs Kennedy.”

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Hurren chats to Jackie Kennedy on her visit to London in 1961

It was the height of the Cold War and the tension was palpable as Ministers and delegations scurried up and down the Street.

“Of course it was open to the public back then and it was possible to have anyone come along on any given day you know. We saw the lot. World leaders, school-children – even the Teds – all hoping to get a peak of Harold Macmillan. Saw quite a few of the youngsters off I can tell you!” He laughs, miming a swinging truncheon.

In 1963 The Profumo Affair broke and Robert had his first glimpse of a major political scandal.

“It was a terrible stress for Mr Macmillan. SuperMac had put his trust in the Minister for War and he just let him down so very badly. Mr Macmillan was a gentleman – so he never spoke to me at all as I was well beneath his social status – but then Mr Douglas-Home came along and he was the new kid on the block so to speak.”

As Alec Douglas-Home struggled to control a changing Conservative party in a changing world, he struck up an unlikely friendship with the keeper of his gate.

“I think it’s a matter of record that Mr Douglas-Home was a very needy individual,” Robert confides, “in times of real crisis he would go a bit peculiar. Start accusing others of taking his pens. I’d get called up to his office at all hours and he’d be ranting and raving about Reginald Maudling taking his slippers – on account of their having the same sized feet. On another occasion he accused Selwyn-Lloyd of breaking his furniture. Fortunately on that occasion the Lord Privy Seal was out of the country and had a cast iron alibi.” Robert pulls a cushion under his leg and smiles at the memories as the years roll back: “Loved his dancing Mr Douglas-Home. It was the era of the twist– and he had this record on with all the big twist hits of the day – Twistin USA …. Twistin round the Christmas tree… Twist Twist little senora – that were a favourite of his. To be honest I hated the twist.”

Robert shows me a letter penned to him by the former PM – years after he left office – and shakes his head. “Tragic fella really.”

During the tenure of the next Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, Robert was to meet his wife Eileen and get promoted to the rank of Sergeant. But despite his new found wedded bliss things did not go smoothly at work.

“Mr Wilson was fine. I liked Wilson very much. He was a fair man and a good Prime Minister. It was her that was the problem.”

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Hurren (right) with Harold Wilson in the late 1960s

Mrs Wilson was forging a successful career as a poet at the time but she had an unlikely literary rival in the street in the form of the new beat Sergeant.

“I’d been writing poetry since my days on the Thames and with so much going on around me and quite a bit of down-time in the sentry post I took to penning verse.”

It is those poems ultimately that are the reason for our meeting, for Imprint Publications has just brought out his first collection “A Fair Cop” which includes many of the lines which he wrote while working in Whitehall.

“When Mrs Wilson heard I dabbled in verse she invited me over for coffee one day and after a bit, with Harold sitting there smoking his pipe – we exchanged lines in what my grand-kids might call a  ‘rap battle’ I suppose. She was all friendly and everything but then when I started giving her advice she started taking notes. That was in late 1968 and when her “Selected Poems” came out in 1970 I realised that she’d plagiarised a lot of my darker stuff. I was happy to see the back of her. I was advised I could have taken her to court but who’d believe a policeman?”

Heath came and went: “Terrible practical joker. Used to tip my hat from behind every time he left the front door and laugh about it all the way down the street. Little shit really though I probably shouldn’t say that – but I still preferred him to her. Then ‘she’ (Mary Wilson) came back with him and I tried to keep a low profile. She knew. I knew. We all knew what she’d done. Eventually in ‘76 we reached a sort of truce and she invites me in again for biscuits and coffee and we get to chatting and she asks me to read out some of my stuff and guess what – whizz bang – five years later she’s got another compilation out and once again she’s plagiarised all my best lines.”

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Heath ‘an inveterate practical joker’ – who had a habit of flipping policemen’s helmets

Jim Callaghan proved a ‘bit of a handful.’

“What people don’t realise about Callaghan is that politics was more of a hobby for him than anything else. His main interest was darts. This was the height of British darts mania and all through that difficult winter of 1978 with the mining thing, he would talk of giving it all up and just going head to head with Conrad Daniels. He had an irrational hatred of Daniels on account of his being American and it was that preoccupation that ultimately lost him the election in 1979 if you ask me.”

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Margaret Thatcher entered the famous house that year as the United Kingdom’s first woman Prime Minister and Robert immediately took her under his wing.

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Margaret Thatcher’s Falklands War letter to ‘Bert’ thanking him for his advice (1982 IWP)

“She was always asking for advice. I remember when the Argentines invaded The Falklands in 1982 and she said ‘what do you think Bert?’ She always called me that. So I told her what I thought as I saw it. Requisition some ships. Send down a task force and get those islands back. Sure – nobody had ever heard of them before but if Johnny Argie thinks he can have a crack at our homeland in the South Atlantic then let’s make him think again.” He takes a breath: “that Vulcan Bomber raid? That was my idea. She sent me a letter at the time and said as much in her autobiography but I ddin’t want recognition; just pleased to have done my bit.”

The Major years were ‘forgettable’.

“My only real memory of those years is Norma. She always said in the press about how she wanted a quiet life up in Cambridgeshire but it was just an elaborate smoke-screen. Loved her big game fishing Mrs Major and was often to be found off in Alaska hunting giant salmon with celebrity friends Tony Hart and that violinist in The Corrs.”

 With Tony Blair’s tenure everything seemed to change.

“He wanted me to call him Tony but I felt very uncomfortable with that. So I called him Anthony instead. He was terrible at names Mr Blair. All smiles and laughs on the surface but mistakenly thought I was called George and continued to call me that for the remainder of my years there, though he was always keen to hear my views on international conflict resolution.”

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Tony Blair: “a paranoid man – constantly worried about the birds getting at the milk.”

Robert retired in 2003. Does he miss it?

“Not really. I left my wife in 2004 and married a much younger woman from Bangkok and have been much happier since. It was a joyless marriage to be fair. She didn’t understand my drinking.  If I wasn’t promoting this book I probably wouldn’t feel the urge to talk about it at all.”

He shifts in his seat and opens a can of lager. Our time is up! As he ushers me to the door I ask him if he has any advice for Mrs May. He pauses and looks off wistfully into the distance: “No” he says abruptly – and shuts the door behind me.

Lines on the night Thatcher was betrayed – by Robert Hurren.

One by one they came and displeased her

Like the Roman Senators done to Caesar

Oh that terrible Ide of March – that atrocity

He was a great man in a dress and so was she

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