Family documents prove to be a fascinating piece of social history

Special Constable William Swinney's national registration identity card, arm band and Scarborough Borough Police notebook
Special Constable William Swinney's national registration identity card, arm band and Scarborough Borough Police notebook

by Jeannie Swales

Sometimes the passing of a few decades can transform the most mundane of objects into fascinating pieces of social history, shedding new light on the period in which they were created.

Recently, the relatives of Scarborough man William Swinney gave a package of family documents to Scarborough Museums Trust. They’re a real treasure trove, and we’ll be looking at a few items from this fascinating collection over the coming months.

William was born on April 28 1910; next week would have been his 115th birthday. He was the son of Beatrice and John Hodgson Swinney, who had been a special constable in World War One – he was a tailor who owned a gentleman’s and boys’ outfitter on Aberdeen Walk, Swinney Bros.

Son William followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming a special constable in World War Two – other documents include his medical grading record, which suggests that health issues may have made him unsuitable for posting overseas.

Our photograph shows William’s national registration identity card, his armband bearing the words ‘special constable’, and a Scarborough Borough Police notebook. And here’s where the real fascination starts – a detailed account of tiny incidents overnight at Scarborough Hospital, where William was on relief duty from 7.30pm on Monday January 20, 1941, through until 8am on Tuesday 21.

At 19.45, William records that the room next to the labour ward had ‘light showing from bottom’. At 19.50, he spotted that the female surgical kitchen cupboard door had been left open, the sluice room curtain was very badly drawn, and on the Ann Wright Ward, a kitchen cupboard door had been left open. An hour later, William was inspecting Graham Ward, and noticed a ‘steril (sic) room curtain badly drawn’, with a ‘3” gap showing, also window left open with light showing in passage between steril room and sluice room’.

By 21.00, he was checking the Maternity Duty Room (‘The curtain (black) not drawn properly’) and 15 minutes after that, the Haldane Duty Room (‘Curtain – gap left down left hand side’).”

It seems odd to us now that a special constable would be spending time recording in such forensic detail something as trivial as a badly drawn curtain. But this, remember, was 1941, and the country was in the grip of blackouts, terrified of German night air bombing attacks – so not so trivial after all.

The Swinney papers are now part of the Scarborough Collections, and the Trust would like to thank William’s surviving relatives for donating them. For further information, contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.dunne@sm or 01723 384510.