Obituary: John Denholm QPM, policeman

Born: 29 September, 1942 in Edinburgh. Died: 26 January, 2015 in Edinburgh, aged 72

John Denholm QPM: Worked on major cases, including Lockerbie, during his 30 years with the police service
John Denholm QPM: Worked on major cases, including Lockerbie, during his 30 years with the police service
John Denholm QPM: Worked on major cases, including Lockerbie, during his 30 years with the police service

When John Denholm made his first arrest it was not while working as a police officer, but in an electrical store. Determined to nab a shoplifter he had seen taking an item from the shop, he sprinted in pursuit and detained the culprit after a chase on the Bridges in Edinburgh.

It was probably not coincidence that shortly after that the public-spirited young man, who had already had a miscellany of jobs, applied to what was then Lothian & Peebles Police.

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From there he went on to enjoy a 30-year career during which he rose through the ranks to become assistant chief constable and was responsible for the planning and command of many major events in the 1980s, including the visit of Pope John Paul II and the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh.

Latterly he was involved in the aftermath of the Lockerbie disaster, before being seconded to the Home Office at the request of the then home secretary, Kenneth Clarke.

Born in the heart of the Scottish capital, next to the home of Scottish Protestant reformer John Knox in the High Street, John was the son of David and Sadie Denholm.

The eldest of their seven children, he spent his early years at the home of his grandfather, with whom he became very close, while his father was away serving with the Gordon Highlanders during the Second World War.

Educated in the city, he excelled at school – with the exception of Latin – and moved with his family first to Prestonfield and later to West Mains, taking a succession of jobs on leaving school, including as a waiter on British Rail trains.

After his encounter with the thief on George IV Bridge, his first posting in the police force was to South Queensferry, where his chivalry led to marriage.

While on duty he met the police station receptionist who had been to a dance with her next-door neighbour. Ever the gentleman, Denholm escorted them home. A date with the neighbour, Jean Middlemass, ­followed and they married in Dalmeny Kirk in September 1963.

Police promotions entailed several moves for the couple, as Denholm went from Queens­ferry to Addiewell Station and then Bathgate, where he joined the traffic division and became a police motorcyclist and advanced driving instructor.

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A stint in Livingston was followed by a return to Edinburgh, to the new Lothian & Borders force HQ, where he became an inspector in road safety before moving to personnel and training.

Promotion to chief superintendent and area commander for the city’s west end followed, a role that included the perks of overseeing various events at Murrayfield and Tynecastle. During his career he was also responsible for planning and executing the police response to a wide range of other major events, including numerous royal visits, the Pope’s visit in 1982, the miners’ strike of 1984 and, two years later, Edinburgh’s Commonwealth Games.

In December 1988 he shared the country’s agony and the burden of policing the aftermath of Scotland’s worst terrorist atrocity, the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie. He was seconded as a senior officer to assist the country’s smallest force, Dumfries and Galloway Constabulary, in dealing with the disaster that killed all 259 on board and 11 people on the ground.

Subsequently promoted to assistant chief constable of ­Lothian & Borders, he was awarded the Queen’s Police Medal and then in 1992 received a call from Kenneth Clarke to take up a post in London as senior police adviser in information technology to the Home Office.

The job came with a flat opposite the Houses of Parliament, a wonderful bonus for his family to enjoy.

It was while working in London that he chalked up his 30 years in the police service and, although he had the chance of moving to Aberdeen as chief constable of Grampian Police, he and Jean instead both opted to retire at 50.

Although the couple’s permanent base remained in ­Edinburgh, in retirement they also began to live part-time in Calahonda in Spain’s Andalucia where they enjoyed some of the best years of their lives, forging lasting friendships with neighbours from Spain and around the world.

Outside his police service, Denholm’s other interests included housebuilding and sailing. While stationed at Livingston he had built his first family home at Torphichen, with the aid of colleagues on his shift during their spare time. Later, in Queensferry, he constructed another home, this time with the help of his family.

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In between he and his wife and their two sons, Alan and Keith, lived at South Queensferry where he loved to sail.

Having sailed skuas – small sailing dinghys – at the Royal Forth Yacht Club, he moored his boats at Port Edgar marina where he taught his sons the art of sailing. Both became proficient sailors and, like his father, Keith also joined the police service.

When his grandson, Fraser, came along, John’s life turned full circle and he found himself sharing the same close friendship he had relished with his own grandfather.

They had regularly enjoyed picking a word of the day, discussing its meaning and the merits of its use. Denholm continued that tradition with his own grandson, widening the youngster’s intellectual understanding while passing on his wisdom, some great stories and his knowledge of the fine city of Edinburgh.

He is survived by his wife, sons and grandson.