The City of London, 1900, and a young man joins the City of London Police, patrolling the streets of Bishopsgate Division for £2 a week. His name is Ernest Richard Woodhams – known as Tom to his friends and family. He had been born in 1878 in Sevenoaks, Kent
During the next few years, he was to be twice commended by the Commissioner: in 1902 for his prompt action in stopping a runaway horse, and in 1906 for rendering skilled first aid to an injured man. Four years later, at around 11.25 pm on the cold night of Friday, 16th December 1910, he was involved in events that were to change his life completely.
That night Tom was on patrol around Houndsditch with his colleague, PC Walter Choat, known to his colleagues as Joe. A young probationer, PC Walter Piper, comes up to them. Piper reports that a Mr Weil, who lived above his shop at 120 Houndsditch, had heard the sound of drilling, sawing, and the breaking of brickwork at the back of his shop. Next door was a jeweller’s shop belonging to a Mr Harris.
Believing that this might be a break in progress, Woodhams and Choat put as best a cordon as they can around the property. Woodhams went to a point in Cutler Street at the entrance to Exchange Buildings from where he could see the green shuttered houses that backed on to Harris’s shop while Choat stayed outside the shop. In those days before police radios, Piper sped off towards Bishopsgate to summon further help.
Help arrived in the form of Sergeant Bentley and Sergeant Bryant. Piper took Choat’s place, while Choat took up Woodhams’ position by Exchange Buildings. Woodhams went with both sergeants into Exchange Buildings and watched as they approached No 11. He saw them push the door open and enter, and then almost immediately heard gun shots from inside. Sergeant Bentley immediately fell across the threshold of the house. Woodhams ran forward to assist, but his left leg buckled beneath him and he fell unconscious onto the snow covered ground. He would later discover that he had been shot by an assailant who was inside the premises, and a bullet from the Mauser firearm had shattered his thigh bone. The gunfire also injured Sergeant Bryant. Later Sergeant Charles Tucker, who had arrived on the scene to assist, would also be shot dead.
Choat, no doubt hearing the fracas that was going on, sprang into action and grabbed hold of a man later identified as Gardstein, the leader of the gang. He held on to him during a desperate struggle, only letting go after having been shot eight times by Gardstein’s accomplices. Unsurprisingly Choat later died from his injuries at the London Hospital. Gardstein would also die: during the struggle with the City policeman, his co-conspirators accidentally shot him in the back.
Unlike his three colleagues, Ernest Woodhams survived. His leg healed, although his left leg would always be shorter than his right. He was fitted with a special platformed boot for the shorter leg. He was forced to retire unfit, but not before he was promoted to Sergeant in recognition of his bravery and devotion to duty. He was also voted a pension by the Court of Common Council.
Woodhams was coming up to his 32nd birthday. Admittedly he had his pension, but it was not index linked and soon inflation took a hand and he had difficult in making ends meet. Life took a turn in his favour as he met the young daughter – Blanche Phillips – of a farmer who lived in the same street as Ernest in Croydon. She took a liking to Tom and cared for him on a regular basis. In August 1924, Ernest then aged 46 and working in the drapery trade, married 27 year old Blanche at Croydon Registry Office. They had a little girl, Harriet who was named after Tom’s mother.
Ernest was awarded the King’s Police Medal which was presented to him by King George V himself. Ernest, due to his injuries, was brought before the King on a stretcher. He also received a presentation gold watch inscribed: ‘Presented to ex Sergeant Woodhams by Mr Moss Deyong on behalf of the inhabitants of the Ward of Porksoken for his heroic conduct upon December 16th 1910’.
Tom died in 1957 at the age of 79, with his widow Blanche, surviving him until 1979. Tom’s KPM, together with his King Edward VII Coronation Medal and watch, were presented to the City of London Police Museum.