Violet Schembri

in Features

The story of Violet Buchanan one of the first four policewomen who patrolled our streets in the mid sixties has done the rounds in the local press lately but what if I told you that she has been a lifelong friend from Witham’s Road and that being an ex WPC does not really define her? 

Precisely because she is a friend I had intended to bow out from the media frenzy but my dear colleague Jean King at ‘Insight Magazine’ shunted the proposed article about her on me after a few phone calls thus saving me having to ask Violet for this interview. It fell on my lap-and so we met for an extended coffee and chat which had to start with how she applied to become a police officer. It turns out that she was almost pushed into it by a mutual friend.

“We were strolling past the old Police Station and my friend Janet told me that applications had been invited for Police women (something new for Gibraltar then) and since I had just come back from UK and was job hunting I should apply, so I was nudged into the office and filled in the form. I was nineteen at the time and that very afternoon the phone rang inviting me for a test, a written exam almost like a general knowledge test. Anyway two days later after a quick interview with the Commissioner I was in. There were only four of us but you have to remember that in those days it was an all male force so local girls were very shy coming forward.” 

“After leaving school I had gone to live in England with my sister and after three years there I came back and I had suddenly found myself landing a uniformed job. Just imagine that-but it was no career move though, they just wanted a body and I was it. I don’t think they even did a background check on me as they would do nowadays. I spoke good English as I was fresh back from UK so I fitted in with what they were looking for. They said that after training our duties would be the same as the policemen except that we would not be doing night shifts. It would be a day job but we would have the same status as our male counterparts.”

Four women and two male recruits completed the eight week training course throughout which the girls were still considered a novelty. They got measured for police uniforms which were made by Ellicott the English tailors by the Church of Scotland. The hats and shoes were UK issue and the girls had to learn marching and drill just like the men. “I used to hate marching but I loved the uniform, although at first walking down to town along ‘La Bateria’ (Rosia Road) I felt self-conscious and also proud to be a police woman. At first we girls felt that the men had been told to be on their best behaviour and indeed they were on their toes. We were highly respected and can only praise them for it.”

“We were quite protected and almost handled with kid gloves but we each got assigned to different departments. I went to the Traffic section and I immediately loved it there. Every month we were rotated and probably assessed too, but it was great fun and always a new challenge. I loved Traffic so I was a Traffic girl and remember that in those days there were no traffic lights. You had to be on point duty directing traffic by hand signals. The bigger the intersection the more I liked it as a challenge, so the Trafalgar intersection was my favourite as it was the busiest.” 

“Memories of those days still come back and I remember that the ‘cats eyes’ road reflectors had just come on stream at the time. I also remember the Traffic section chief inspector Mr. Ellis who used to live at the bottom of Witham’s Road at the old Jumper’s Building police quarters. To me he was a man ahead of his time. I don’t think people realized how smart he was. He was well read and on the ball and I remember that I used to get lifts from him going down to the station. I was only in the police force for four years but they were very happy times for me. I was the last woman to leave from our group as the three others had moved on by the time that I had left for the States. On reflection I would probably have made a career of it had I not met my husband who was posted with the US Navy here, working at ‘The Tower’ where the US Naval Liaison office was also situated.”

 “Had I not been in the Police force I might never have met him, because I didn’t mix in his circle, but as we girls regularly got invited to mess functions our paths crossed. He used to drive a big grey Dodge transporter which he said hardly fitted through the old ‘Southport Gates’ (now Referendum Gates) and as I remember it, one day I was on point duty and signalled him to stop but he drove on and ignored me.  I was livid and perhaps I should have arrested him. That incident was always a running joke throughout our married life.”

Violet’s late husband was Ritchie Buchanan who later had a basket ball trophy named in his honour and which is still played for annually. Those involved in early local basket ball will remember that he was a top class player in the original ‘Blue Stars,’ he loved Gibraltar but his orders came and he was posted back to the States, taking with him the young Violet Schembri to live in Brownsburg Indiana, a small town in the mid west just ten miles from the state capital Indianapolis. 

“I married Ritchie after courting for nine months and it was during my third year in the police force so by that time more women were joining up and I was already an old hand by then. We never got the opportunity to march on parade but we were always on show at the changing of the guard or the ceremony of the keys. I think that they were quite proud of us and I was still in love with my job but my husband to be was soon to be posted back, so we got married and I was gone. I always stayed in touch with Elyeen Byrne, she was in the immigration section but she died a few years ago.”

 “We had great times and we never had to arrest anyone. On a few occasions we were called to do body searches on women (mostly prostitutes) but only rarely. Apart from traffic point duty my job was mostly clerical and when the home fleet was in port we were kept discreetly out of sight and not ever on foot patrol. There were fewer private vehicles around at the time, mostly military transport and against that background various fellow police officers from Traffic took turns to teach me driving. I really struggled with clutch control on steep hills and when I started dating Richard, the chief inspector thought it would be prudent to discontinue my driving lessons since I had indicated that I would be leaving soon. We married in December of 1968.”

Before he was posted to Gibraltar Ritchie Buchanan had volunteered for Vietnam and when his orders came up he asked Violet whether she wanted to stay in Gibraltar after their wedding or go back and be a naval wife in his hometown of Brownsburg, Indiana. Violet made a brave choice (I think) and opted for the latter, thinking that like in the days of old, sailors always left their girls in port and never came back! As soon as he left for Vietnam on a fifteen month posting she got a clerical job in the state capital Indianapolis and she soon got used to commuting daily.

 A friend had offered her the chance to share petrol costs for the daily commute and she took it, so time passed quicker with no time for moping at home. In those days letter writing was the norm with few ( short) trunk telephone calls (‘conferencias’) to mum  only tempered with the hope of coming back to the Rock for holidays which kept her spirits up. Her mother only went twice to visit her in the States and only after she was widowed, but Violet had to face her father’s passing alone and was unable to come to his funeral. Life was good but it was tough too, so she had vowed always to come back here for holidays as frequently as she could afford to. That’s why she has stayed in touch with her childhood circle of friends to this day.

“We were fortunate to be adopted by Mgr. Carmelo Grech who put St. Joseph’s church crypt at our disposal for a youth club in the late fifties. Because of that facility we learned to live with boys and vice versa because there was no co-education then. We grew our teen years there, a small group of well adjusted teenagers none of whom has yet gone off the rails thankfully and some who still keep in touch to this day. We are thankful for that steadying influence and the platform to life that it provided.”

“In America I went into the child day care business from home and it was my business for forty years. My over riding memories are of a very happy childhood here and it never entered my head to be a police woman in America because in the States they carry guns .”

With her husband away on long overseas postings after the war in Vietnam, Violet threw all her energy into giving the best child day care service that she could, having adapted their large house to cater for up to sixteen children, from 7.30 am to 5.30pm when she had help, otherwise she would only take twelve children but always juggling the business and bringing up her young family. She told me that she never considered herself brave in doing that, giving the example of the many Vietnamese who immigrated to America after the war and settled there without the advantage of speaking English or an education. “They were the brave ones and they did so well to go into education and get to medical school, law school, engineering school and other vocations. I was fortunate and privileged to have been a naval wife with a good education and language skills. I look back on those days now and always come to the conclusion that somehow growing up in Gibraltar prepared me well for the life I had chosen.”

 Violet’s children Monica and Keith are now 50 and 46 and she remembers well that when Keith was born her husband was at sea in the Mediterranean, so it wasn’t always easy juggling family life and  a day care business- however she has no regrets. Her daughter Monica was born after Ritchie came back from Vietnam and at the time they were stationed in Chicago for five years. It was a shore posting for him at the US Navy recruiting office. “My day care business initially started out in Virginia while we were still living in navy quarters actually, but it continued and flourished in our own adapted family home in Brownsburg, Indiana after he had completed his twenty year service and retired at 38.”

   Violet takes holidays here every two years and tries to keep in touch with her old fellow police officers, like Peter Mc Guinness who rose through the ranks. She remembers giving Peter his application form all that time ago. He retired as Chief Superintendent. She also remembers the late Horace Zammitt of the CID and that the old Magistrates courts were housed at the police HQ in Irish town.  “I still keep in touch with my old Sergeant Ernesto Lima who is a wonderful man, the father of former Mayor of Gibraltar Tony Lima. There are others, too many to mention and some no longer here with us unfortunately. My mother was a great letter writer and I also kept in touch that way. I suppose that there’s something to be said for the old days and the old ways of keeping in touch.”

“You know Joe I would do it all again, especially being a policewoman. They were happy times. I was single and living at home with my parents, my mum was doing the cooking and the ironing, what was not to like? I feel very fortunate to have lived in these times. I have a large circle of friends in the States, larger than here but you guys are my childhood friends who will always have a special place in my heart because we grew up together in the 50’s.”

 Nothing can change that special bond of friendship. We are all in our mid seventies now but the years melt away when every couple of years Violet Schembri comes here for a holiday with every intention of reminding whoever one of us she meets up with, that we were the ‘kids from St. Joseph’s’ and we still have a special place in her heart as indeed does she in our hearts too. In that aspect I’m sure that I speak for all of us.

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