The most precious gift a mum can give us is her story. We just have to ask her what it is – and listen.
It’s Mother’s Day on Sunday. Or as my mum would insist on calling it, Mothering Sunday (she was a stickler for correct terminology). Whatever name you give this spring Sunday celebration of all things maternal, it’s about appreciating the people who are mothers to us: who they are, what they do, and what they do for us.
And, importantly, the stories they have to tell.
I’ll be remembering my own mum, Gwen Hutson, who died 18 years ago at the comparatively young age of 74. I believed that she would be around well into her eighties or even nineties. We would have plenty of cosy afternoons to spend together, documenting her incredible early life in the 1950s and 1960s as a pioneering woman police officer.
But that was taken away overnight when she died suddenly in 2004, following a late cancer diagnosis. What remained were a few newspaper clippings, papers, photos, and books, but more importantly, a memory bank in my head of her astonishing policing stories that she had told over and over again.
World War Two
Gwen Crockford as she was then, was nine when World War Two broke out. Although rural Wokingham in Berkshire where she lived did not receive the same pounding by the Luftwaffe that urban areas did, it was a frightening time. The Crockfords contended daily with the threat of Nazi invasion, air raid sirens, the blackout, rationing, going to bed hungry, ‘make do and mend’, neighbours’ sons going off to war, and memories of the dreadful First World War still fresh in their minds.
Mum left school in December 1943, and went to work at a sawmill office in Sunningdale. Cheerful Italian prisoners of war, happy to be out of the conflict and kept busy, skipped about among the whining, industrial circular saws that chomped through colossal tree trunks. One POW even sent Mum a beautifully written proposal of marriage, which she politely declined because she was 15.
Following the sawmill, Mum went to work as a shorthand typist in a solicitors’ office opposite Wokingham Police Station. The comings and goings of the station were far more interesting than the legal documents she was supposed to be typing. In the early 1950s, the Berkshire Constabulary were encouraging more women to join the ranks, so Mum applied and they accepted her.
WPC Crockford of Wokingham
This kick-started a fascinating 11-year career in the county police, an almost unheard-of length of service for a woman in those days. As a WPC, Mum did the same work as the men, but with added responsibilities around women and children. Every day would bring something new and challenging: she could investigate a shop-breaking or sudden death, attend a post mortem, check animal health at a cattle market, find a lost toddler, give someone a parking notice, or remove neglected and mistreated children under the Children and Young Person’s Act.
WDC Crockford and the rockstar pathologists
So good was Mum at police work that she was selected for detective training at Hendon police college. She passed with flying colours, and in 1957 became WDC Crockford, the first woman detective in the Berkshire Constabulary, covering both Maidenhead and Windsor.
A woman in a man’s CID world, she rubbed shoulders with eminent pathologists such as Dr Keith Simpson, and Francis Camps, and had hotlines to Scotland Yard and the Metropolitan Police Forensic Science Laboratory. Mum was at the cutting edge of 1950s forensic police investigation, much of which would seem primitive today.
WPS Crockford of Newbury
It was notoriously difficult to advance a career in CID – hard enough for men, harder still for a woman. In 1960, following several distressing cases, Mum decided to go for promotion back into uniform where she could be a part of preventing such crimes, rather than picking up the pieces afterwards.
She became a sergeant, WPS Crockford, at Newbury station for a few years where she met my dad, PC Hutson, and married him in 1962. She didn’t have to leave the police when she married, but it was expected, and she chose to. She had seen some pretty dreadful things over the previous 11 years and decided to take a break.
Now this was as much as I knew about my Mum’s time in the police, albeit spiced up with her fascinating, hilarious, grotesque, and educational anecdotes that formed the narrative of our family script. 1950s and 1960s policing, expressed through my parents’ lens was a familiar world for me growing up, normal and unremarkable. With the arrogance of youth, I felt I knew it all and didn’t need to ask formally about it. And nobody really seemed interested in the post war era, writing it off as a dull, grey, austere time wedged between the drama of World War Two and the glamour of the Swinging Sixties.
The 1950s became cool
Then, Call the Midwife burst on to our TV screens. Suddenly, everyone was interested in the 1950s, and appreciated that the tiny societal changes happening then were significant baby steps towards our modern way of life. I began to think that perhaps I could write Mum’s story as my own, police-based version of Call the Midwife. But how on earth would I find the material?
And this is when I really, bitterly, regretted not listening to my mum. If only I had sat her down for an afternoon and written a chronology of her police career – where she went and when, why, with whom, and what these long-gone police stations and places were really like. It was the detail I was sorely lacking.
It was the BBC series Who Do You Think You Are? that inspired me to write a book. By taking a documented fragment of a person’s life and setting it against wider, known social history, you can build up a picture and tell the story. I took my mum’s newspaper clippings, and wrote up all the anecdotes I could remember, then spent hundreds of hours researching local newspapers of the time in the British Library. Eleven years of my mum’s life was one enormous literary jigsaw puzzle to piece together.
The Crockford trilogy
But I did it. I found enough material to corroborate Mum’s stories about her police career to fill a three-book series. The first, Calling WPC Crockford, covering the years 1951 to 1955 has just been published. Book 2, Calling WDC Crockford, is with my publisher, Welbeck, and I’m sketching out Calling WPS Crockford right now.
The evangelical bit
I wouldn’t want anyone else to have the regrets, the doubts, the frustration, and the relentless graft that I had bringing my mum’s story to life, simply because I never made time to listen to her in a structured way. Don’t make my mistake.
We all have relatives with interesting lives: we love our mums, our dads, our grannies and grandpas, and they all have stories. It’s so important to take time to document them – in writing, as sound or video recordings, even as TikToks for the more social media savvy. It needn’t take more than an afternoon over a cup of tea, but the information you’ll glean will be pure social history gold. Maybe not immediately relevant, but certainly in the future.
What’s your mum’s story?
On this Mothering Sunday, maybe get the ball rolling. Ask over Sunday lunch, “So what did you really do when you were younger, Mum/Gran/Auntie?”
I know my own mum would be thrilled for herself and for her fellow pioneering policewomen to know they all feature in a trilogy about her life. I also know that she would be the first to tell me off for getting facts wrong. And the fault would be mine. We all have a kind of duty to be curators and guardians of family history.
And believe me, it’s a darn sight easier to get the story ‘straight from the horse’s mouth’ than have to research it later.