William MERRILEES OBE (1898-1984)

William Merrilees
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Life Savers

A look at those heroes of the emergency services honoured by the programme

THIS IS YOUR LIFE - William Merrilees, Chief Constable of Lothian and Peebles Constabulary since 1947, was surprised by Eamonn Andrews at London's Kings Cross railway station.


William joined the police force in 1924, and worked his way up the ranks. He became Scotland's best known policeman due to his flamboyant career which involved disguise, celebrated court cases and tireless charity and welfare work.


He was known as Scotland's Pocket Battleship due to his height of only 5 ft 6 inches and his tough reputation.

William Merrilees autobiography

William Merrilees recalls his experience of This Is Your Life in his autobiography, The Short Arm of the Law...


One Sunday evening in October, on returning home from one of the two cottages which I now use for hospitality to old folks and crippled children, I found a message awaiting me to telephone London, to Chief Superintendent Perkins, the Queen’s private detective. I did so, to discover that I was being invited to my friend’s silver wedding celebration in eight days’ time. Much as I would have liked to accept this invitation, I had regretfully to inform him that I was so much occupied that my diary was completely filled up until the end of March. He asked me to check. I said it was a waste of time.


However, on consulting my diary I discovered that date was free (having been rigged by my secretary), and I informed him that I would come down to the silver wedding on the condition that he got me an early plane back the following morning as I was speaking to the Rotary Club in Glasgow, about forty miles away, at lunch-time, and at Largs Businessmen’s Club, a distance of another forty miles away, in the evening. He then asked me to cancel those engagements but I said I wouldn’t.


He informed me that a letter was in the post to my friends William MacPherson and his wife, Chris, inviting them to the silver wedding too. I immediately got on the telephone to Mr MacPherson and told him of this, but on learning the date he said he could not go (he was in the pie too). Half an hour later Ex-Provost William Griffiths, Whitburn, rang me to say that coal would be going to my cottages for the old folks. I told him about the invitation to the silver wedding and he expressed surprise at the short notice and I explained that Mr Perkins had been ill. He said he would be in London that day and I suggested that he come along. He replied that he couldn’t gate-crash. I asked him to leave it to me and I phone Mr Perkins, who said he would be delighted to have him (another waste of time and money because he was in the pie also).


On the appointed day for the silver wedding, Mr Griffiths, Mr MacPherson and I went to the station and as we boarded the train the show was nearly given away by a ticket inspector who said to me ‘Good luck for tonight!’


I remarked to my friends, ‘What did he mean by good luck for tonight? I am going to a silver wedding, not to be married.’


A quarter of an hour before reaching London I went along to another compartment to have a word with an Edinburgh lawyer whom I had seen passing in the corridor. I was barely seated beside him when my two friends appeared at the door beckoning me out.

‘What’s wrong?’ I demanded.


‘Nothing. It’s time we were getting ready.’


‘I’ll get ready at the Palace!’ I replied.


‘It’s time you got washed.’


‘I’m not washing in any dirty basins. I’ll wash at the Palace.’


‘The basin’s clean, I washed it out myself,’ the Provost replied. Astonished, I declared that he was getting extraordinarily clean and hygienic.


Mac was now muttering about it being time I got dressed, which struck me as sheerest nonsense, since I would be dressing at the Palace. Actually we were now running into King’s Cross Station, and looking out of the window I pointed out that there must be some big shot on this train. There were TV cameras waiting there and railway police in dress uniform.


My friends hurried me along to the end of the corridor, and when I made to pick up my luggage the Provost dug me in the ribs and somewhat testily told me to leave that to the porter.


I made a grab at least at my wedding present, and when told to leave that also for the porter, I said, ‘No damn fear! It cost twelve guineas wholesale.’ I was staring at him and demanding to know what the hell was going on, when I realised that the man standing on the platform beside me was Eamonn Andrews the television celebrity. I apologised for my language and reminded him that we had met several years before at a boxing function.


Eamonn turned to Mac and asked, ‘What are you down in London for?’


In a high-pitched voice, like a small boy at a Sunday school soiree, Mac answered, ‘I am going to a silver wedding.


‘What time is it?’


‘Half past eight.’


Eamonn Andrews then mentioned that he was throwing a little party himself at seven-thirty. Would we come along?


‘Sorry – I’m going to the Palace,’ I pointed out, and turned to collect my twelve guineas’ worth.


At this Eamonn announced, ‘William Merrilees, OBE – This Is Your Life!’


Strange as it may seem, I was taken wholly by surprise, not the least inkling of the true situation had entered my mind. My immediate reaction was to feel an utter fool for not having cottoned on to it – me, a trained detective officer and observer! I am afraid that I looked at my two friends and called them a ‘pair of kipper-hipped blighters.’


From the railway station we went to Buckingham Palace, where, instead of a wedding celebration, Chief Superintendent Perkins and his good lady had arranged a cocktail party, at which most of the guests seemed to be friends of my own, including Jimmy Logan and his wife, a long-time collaborator with me in my social work; Ian Tully, a close friend who has compered my charity shows for years, and some Yard officers.


I am not a nervous type, but I will confess that during that cocktail party I did worry over who was likely to confront me out of my past life, in the forthcoming TV programme. My imagination conjured up various people whom it might be difficult for me to enthuse over, as I am afraid that I am not good at social hypocrisy. However, I need not have worried over this; everything was in good, capable and considerate hands.


When the time came for us to leave the Palace and go to the theatre, I almost automatically started to organise the car arrangements – but was smartly put in my place, being informed that this was one time when I had to stand by and do what I was told. When I joined Eamonn Andrews in the dressing-room of the theatre I quickly saw the reason for his success in this sphere. His imperturbable manner and placid demeanour could be guaranteed to put anyone, no matter how excited, at ease – a notable gift. I shall never forget my feelings as I walked on to that stage in a blaze of lights. While being in no doubt as to the great compliment being paid to me, I was afraid that I might not be able to control my emotions, while millions of people were looking on, and I could not help thinking of the possible effect of this on any of my old criminal acquaintances who happened to be watching.


It was an extraordinary sensation to sit alone on that stage before so many people, and the probing cameras, and listen to Eamonn Andrews saying that as Chief Constable of the Lothians and Peebles for a number of years, I have been known by the somewhat doubtful titles of ‘The Pocket Battleship,’ ‘The pint-sized Detective with the Gallon-sized Reputation,’ the terror of criminals but the friend of all who heeded or needed friendship.


He referred to my early struggles in life, then switched to a day in August 1916 when I was working on the conversion of a paddle steamer into a hospital ship. On this occasion I had sent a boy to fetch tools. He had got thus far when suddenly from the back of the stage came the sound of a great splash of water, and a cry of ‘Help, he’s fallen overboard.’ At this point, William Brock who was not the first person whose life I had saved, but the first for whom I had been given an award, came on to the stage. He gave details of how he had fallen and smashed his head on the side of the ship and of the subsequent rescue.


Eamonn then went on to detail more of that trying period of my life when I was unemployed, stressing my football and boxing activities, and bringing in my old friend Andrew Dalziel to recount some incidents. He related how, through continual appearances before the Lord Provost of Edinburgh for life-saving awards, I had, by special dispensation from the Secretary of State for Scotland, eventually been accepted into the police force.


Detective Inspector Donald McLeod then appeared to tell of some experiences when we had worked together, and raised a laugh when he mentioned the occasion when I agreed to do a radio appeal to the people of Britain to Save, Save, Save – I who had never managed to save a ha’penny in my life. The emotional upset I had feared began to make itself felt when two of my little blind girls were brought on, Ann and Marie Macrae. I found it most difficult to sit there with equanimity while they told how on their birthdays and my own, I took them out, bought them clothes and other presents, took them to the theatre, and so on.


The next to appear was Miss Charlotte Haldene MBE, Court Missionary, who has done wonderful work in helping and reforming prostitutes. She gave details of the work I had done in aiding many of these girls, mentioning that every Christmas I received presents from a number that have made good.


Reference was then made to my fondness for disguise and some of the many cases instanced in which I had used this device. Thomas Ferguson, the porter who had lent me his uniform in the spy case in Edinburgh’s Waverley Station, was produced, to describe the arrest and struggle with the German spy Walti.


Then came other aspects of my life, dealing with such differing characters as Old Willie Turnbull, who, although living only 300 yards from Holyrood Palace, had not seen a sheep, a tree or a blade of grass for over thirty years; the Teddy-boys of Musselburgh whom I had had somewhat forcibly to subdue; the Paddy Hyland, the safebreaker, who had that day made his first visit to London to be present.


Perhaps the highlight of the evening on television was a long telerecording from America in which Dale Evans, the wife of Roy Rogers the film star, spoke most kindly about me and my activities. This pleased me particularly, not only on account of what she said, but because she and her husband had adopted in 1955 Marion Fleming, one of my girls from the Church of Scotland Home, and taken her back to the States with them.


Marion had always been a favourite of mine. She used, in the Home, to sing ‘Won’t you buy my pretty flowers’ in a way that touched my heart. She was now married to a young man in the US Marines and living in Hawaii and herself had a lovely little girl. My heart swelled as, at the close of Dale Evans’ message, I heard Marion’s recorded voice singing again ‘My pretty flowers.’ The tears began to come into my eyes, and I had to struggle to control myself.


Eamonn Andrews said, ‘Yes, that is Marion Fleming’s voice – but not from Hawaii. She has flown across the North Pole to meet you, and is here now.’


As Marion came on the stage I was just at breaking-point and when she ran forward into my arms I was careful to keep my face turned from the audience.


Eamonn gave us a few moments to recover and then announced that he had one last surprise for me. ‘Marion,’ he said, ‘as this person is an American citizen, I think you’re the best person to bring her on.’


Marion disappeared and came back with her little daughter Laurie, one year old.


The audience roared, and Laurie looked frightened. Taking her I blew lightly on her face, and she turned her attention to me. Nevertheless, thereafter she stole the show, waving her hand to the crowd as they cheered ad applauded.


We had a private dinner-party that night in a Piccadilly hotel, and five of us, dressed in kilts, had one pair of spectacles between us – I got to bed at 3.30. I rose at 5am to catch the early plane back to Edinburgh, and so managed to keep my two engagements at lunch in Glasgow and dinner in Largs. There had been bets, I must say, about the likelihood of this taking place.


I must pay tribute to all concerned in the preparation of this programme. It could not have been more thoroughly or thoughtfully done. Nickola Stern, who was in charge of research, is wasting her time, to my mind, not being employed as a true detective. As for Eamonn Andrews, so well known and liked, no praise of mine will add to his stature.


As a result of the programme I had over 700 letters from people wanting to adopt children, to become ‘aunts’ and ‘uncles,’ and to help in the causes in which I was interested.

programme details...

  • Edition No: 111
  • Subject No: 111
  • Broadcast live: Mon 23 Nov 1959
  • Broadcast time: 7.30-8.05pm
  • Venue: BBC Television Theatre
  • Series: 5
  • Edition: 13

on the guest list...

  • Mr McPherson
  • Mr Griffiths
  • William Brock
  • Andrew Dalziel
  • Donald McLeod
  • Anne & Marie Macrae
  • Christina Haldane
  • Thomas Ferguson
  • William Turnbull
  • John Gallacher
  • Paddy Hynland
  • Marion Eaton
  • Filmed tribute:
  • Dale Evans

external links...

production team...

  • Researcher: Nickola Sterne
  • Writer: Nickola Sterne
  • Producer: T Leslie Jackson
Series 5 subjects: Evelyn Laye > Donald Caskie > Eva Turner > Billy Butlin > Jim Slater > Edmund Arbuthnott > Louis Langford > O P Jones > Richard Hearne > Francoise Rigby > John Barclay > Thomas Drake > William Merrilees > John Lord > Russ Conway > Stanley Bishop > Leonard Stanmore > Arthur Askey > Robert Oldfield > Alicia Markova > Frederic Morena > Hilda Rowcliffe > Thomas Salmon > Harry Welchman > Harry Webb > Nat Gonella > David Barclay > Richard Todd > Thomas Bodkin > Gracie Fields > Michael Ansell