CHELMSFORD was not so tough as some of the other prisons. It was reserved mainly for young convicts, and although I was only twenty-five, I was more than reckoned as an old lag. In there with me were some of my own mates such as Franny the Spaniel, Square Georgie, and four or five others who, at one time or other, were in my team. Naturally, being Londoners, we stuck together and formed a formidable mob amongst the squareheads and swedes, most of whom were youngsters from the provinces who hadn’t yet learned what real crime was.
The screws in Chelmsford nick didn’t knock you about so much as they did in other prisons. If you had any money you could do almost what you liked. I had put a bit of money by before I was nicked, but seeing I had at least three years to go, I didn’t want to draw on it. My wife had to live while I was away, and my sister Maggie had been sent to Holloway again. This time for four years. My wife, therefore, had to look after two homes, so she needed a bob or two. I was therefore content to get by as best I could in Chelmsford by making a book and earning my snout money that way.
Brummy Sparkes, my Maggie’s husband, had been getting a bit big for his shoes lately. He had been knocking my Maggie about a bit. There was not much I could do while I was in the nick, but none of our family were going to stand for his goings-on. When I heard that he had gone down for a two stretch for manslaughter, I didn’t break my heart, but only hoped he would come to join me in Chelmsford. I would then have broken his neck. As it was, Brummy did his bird in Wandsworth, but when he came out he was bigger-headed than ever. In one way and another I had always looked after my Maggie since I had been in the money, and the rest of our family for that matter. Now Brummy was running about nicking some of the home I had helped Maggie to buy and generally making himself a nuisance. My mum and dad didn’t like this either, and when Brummy started taking liberties with them my young brother went after him.
He caught Brummy walking up Shaftesbury Avenue one afternoon. He was with four other villains, all pretty rugged characters who thought they could have a go. My brother didn’t wait. He got stuck into Sparkes with both hands, gave him the belting of his life and then chivved him. He almost killed him. The other four tearaways swallowed it and scarpered. From then onwards Mister Brummy Sparkes took no liberties with our family, and faded into obscurity so far as the underworld was concerned.
As I say, life wasn’t so bad in Chelmsford nick. Once they realised that you were not going to give any trouble they left you alone pretty well. Me and my boys more or less ran the show to our own liking, so, apart from the trouble our relatives were put to, life wasn’t so bad. My wife wrote to me regularly, and came to see me on visits. It was always nice to get a letter from her but I didn’t go much on those visits, they were too painful. It was through a straight screw that I knew what was going on with my mob. Once I was earning a few bob from the book I was making I was able to pay this screw to do my clerking for me. His job was to telephone a certain number in London every day and tell the person at the other end of the line any messages that I wanted to send to the mob. He also brought back information that I wanted as to how my affairs in the big Wide world were running. Of course, it’s not so easy running your business by remote control through the medium of a prison screw, but it was the best I could do. In fact it was an invaluable service, because from it I could prepare for a few more jobs to be done as soon as I got out.
I had only three months to serve when my father was taken suddenly ill and died. All my life I had been attached to the old man. He wasn’t as smart as me, but he was a good’un, and always looked after my mother. I was pretty cut up when I had the news. I also heard that my family were applying to the Home Office for me to be temporarily released on parole so that I could attend the funeral. I offered to serve any extra time they liked to stipulate providing they let me have just that sufficient time off to pay my last respects to my father. But they wouldn’t. And that was that. I swallowed it, and in my peter that night said what prayers I could remember for the old man.
A few days later the war broke out and, before we knew where we were, they slung us all out of the nick, whether our time was completed or not. I felt a bit sick about them not letting me out for a day to attend my father’s funeral only a week previously. I said to myself, “Right, if that’s the way they want it, we’ll let ’em have it that way.”
My wife was at the gates to meet me when I came out. She had a car waiting to take us to London. I gave the other boys who had come out with me a lift, and after we had dropped them she wised me up about my business and my father’s death. She didn’t say much, my missus. She never did. have a lot to say. But while I had been away she had looked after my Maggie’s home, and also my mother’s home during the time my father had been ill and at the time of his death. She also looked after our home too, so she had plenty on her plate. But she didn’t say much about it.
She looked a bit worn from the time of her last visit to the nick. Her cheeks were a little paler than usual, and there was a line or two on her face. She smiled, but it was more like a half-smile, if you know what I mean. So I said, “How are you?” and she said, “All right. How’re you?” and I said, “O.K.” I wanted to tell her how much I appreciated What she had done for me and my family while I had been away, but you know how it is when you’re not what you might call a talking sort of bloke. I never was much of a talker anyway. You know how it is, you feel the hell of a lot inside you, but you can’t find words to say what you feel.
So I took hold of her hand in the car and squeezed it, and while looking straight ahead, cautiously looked at her from the corner of my eye. I saw that she too was looking ahead and sneaking a look at me from the corner of her eye as well. So I said I’d make it all up to her and . . . But she cut me short.
“It’s all right,” she said. “I know what I’m doing. I didn’t marry you for what you’ve got or what you haven’t got. If I don’t stick by you, no one will. I know you’ll go away again, but you’ll always find me waiting. Let’s go home and go to bed.”
She was like that. As true as a good peter cane, as loyal as a chiv. Go through hell-fire and water for me, and always be at the right spot at the right time when I wanted her. A cracker in every way, but what a woman if I upset her! I’d rather upset the worst villain in the world than upset her.
I didn’t ask the boys round to my flat that night, but met them next morning in the boozer I was using as a meeting-place. The word had gone round the grapevine that I was out, and they were all there when I Walked into that boozer.
There was Tosh Saunders, who, even today, has been on the run for years. The Yard want him for something or other. Teddy Odd Legs was with him. So was Franny the Spaniel, Horrible Harry, Bear’s Breath, Soapy Harry, Tony the Wop, Spike Conway, Square Georgie, Birdie, Mutton, Scarface Jock, Long Stan and a few others. The war had just started and none of us knew exactly what was in store for us. I myself had put my name down to go into the R.A.F. I had no ambition to duck the war or try the trot. But to tell you the truth I didn’t fancy the Kate Carney, so I put my name down for the Air Force.
I had to make provision for this. Service pay was not sufficient to live on. Now that my father was dead I alone wanted to look after my mother, who was getting on in years. There was my wife. She had had to put up with more than most women, even gangsters’ wives. I had to bung her a few every Friday night, in addition to the extras you want to give to your missus when you want to make up for lost time. Then there were the usual run of pay-outs. Blokes coming out from their bird, wives whose husbands were away doing their bird, the knockers and tappers who always had to be looked after. So, although I had no wish to avoid my call-up, it was important to stack some dough away for the time when my papers came. I listened to what the boys had to say about the bullion job in Hatton Garden and decided to do it next morning. It seemed that a load of gold was taken out of this jeweller’s place every morning at about eleven o’clock. Just to try and fox people like us, two men carried it out in two plain bags, got into a car and drove off with it. I took Posh Duke with me. He never did look suspicious on a job like this. We called him Posh Duke because he was tall and aristocratic-looking, tried to put it on a bit when he spoke all la-di-da, and dressed up like a Christmas dinner. There were times when he really did look like a duke. We nicked a drag for the job, and watched points.
It looked so simple that the best way to get that gold, I thought, would be to blag the two blokes carrying it, and just nick it. But the opportunity did not come that morning. We kept the two men under observation the following morning from another stolen car. Sure enough they used the same routine. The third morning, I decided to wait in the porch of their offices. Duke remained at the wheel of our drag. As the two men came out of the offices I gave them each a clout on their shoulders and nicked their two bags. They both fell down. I knew they were not hurt much, because I did not hit them all that hard. Just hard enough to force them to loose their grip on the bags. I ran to the car. Duke slipped in the gears and we were away with nearly £5,000 worth of gold bullion. By this time I needed the money. That which I had left with my wife, when I went into Chelmsford, had almost gone. So the five grand came in handy to get really organised in a big way.
With the war heaving things up a bit I sat down to think out the best and surest way to make a living.
Lots of people profited through the war, and to some extent the blame must be laid at the feet of Civil Servants and politicians who made so many Emergency Orders. In principle, such orders were necessary for the security of the nation in war-time, but I think the Government overdid it a bit in introducing so many restrictions without providing the machinery with which to enforce them sensibly and equitably. No one can deny that even during our worst rationing periods the rich people with available cash could get what they wanted. Talk about five-bob meals! That was all right for the workers. Few of them could afford five bob. But if you had the chance to walk into any of your posher hotels, in any city during the war, you could see the rich gorging to their hearts’ content. They didn’t go without anything. And if anyone tries to fool you that they did, let me disillusion you. In the first place, if there hadn’t been any rich people there never would have been any black market at all. You couldn’t blame me, then, if I made the most of a situation which was not of my own making. Make no bones about it, I did not pose as a patriotic citizen, breaking my neck to do my bit while at the same time hiding like a frightened rabbit behind a maze of complicated laws for the privileged who collared well-paid and reserved occupations.
Look at your younger Members of Parliament who were young and fit enough to serve! Did they hell? Look at some of the top coppers at the Yard who could have gone to the war. I know the names of some of those brave fellows who spent a lot of time in that shelter beneath Scotland Yard. No, they weren’t afraid of ‘desperate’ criminals like me. But they were scared of German bombs and bullets. Look at your maze of war-time Ministries. Crowded to the doors with slack-hearted Civil Servants. And your factories and industrial plants where they hid behind all sorts of dodges to avoid the call-up.
I don’t pretend to be a King and country man, but I must say I did put my name down to serve, and until they came to get me I was making the most out of a situation. So that big, wide, handsome, and oh, so highly profitable black market walked into our ever open arms. Some day someone should write a treatise on Britain’s war-time black market. It was the most fantastic side of civil life in war-time. Make no mistake. It cost Britain millions of pounds. I did not merely make use of the black market. I fed it. By the end of 1940 almost everything was in short supply. House-hold goods, food, whisky, silk, furs, diamonds, tobacco, wood, cement, the basic essentials to life were scarce. It was not my function in life to capitalise on such a situation. I merely helped it to stand up where it was weak.
Down in the West Country there was a Services depot where they stored bedding. I can’t remember how many bed-sheets we nicked from that depot. We merely took our lorry down and filled it up. Normally they were of such quality that they could not have been bought for five pounds a pair. They were so easy to pinch that I was glad to sell them for a pound a pair. Thousands of pairs every week. Then there was a warehouse filled with fur coats. I emptied it. That night we had so many fur coats that I had to store some in my flat. I never did keep bent gear in the place I lived. So I got rid of the lot in one night. I sent the boys out to tell anyone they liked to come and get a fur coat. I charged them all alike, six pounds a coat. All my friends got fur coats. Then I made a few grand on top for myself. My boys were highly delighted to line their pockets with more readies than ever they had had in their lives.
Money? It was coming to us like pieces of dirty paper. I rarely went out with less than a monkey or a grand in my pocket. That was spending stuff. Emergency funds in case I got nicked, or in case the bite was put on me. That was apart from the remainder of a steady fortune which I had piling up. Then there was whisky. Most of the trivial villains were making bombs out of manufacturing their own brands, and sticking the vile rubbish in proprietary brand bottles. I liked to think that if I was crooked, at least I was bent in an honest way. I sold only real whisky. Good stuff at that. I had my boys working their way round the country finding out where whisky was stored. Then we went in and nicked it by the barrel. I sold each barrel of whisky for £500 a time. But, mind you, it was real whisky, and worth the money. Not many people know that a barrel of sausage skins during the war fetched a monkey on the black market. Butchers used to implore me to get them sausage skins. I fixed my own price, £500 a barrel. I didn’t know whether it was too much or too little. I was glad of the monkey, the butcher was glad of the barrel. So I guess I was not being too greedy. Those were the halcyon days of loot. I was making about £300 to £400 a Week from all my work. And still I was waiting for my calling-up papers.
At that time Chief Inspector (now Chief Superintendent) Peter Beveridge had taken over command of the Flying Squad. Working with him was Chief Inspector Ted Greeno, who, I suppose, was the best murder investigator the Yard ever had. He was also one of the best thief catchers.
We were doing so many screwing jobs in and around London that they could not keep count of our work. My trouble was that I always was a tidy sort of bloke. When we did a screwing job we never left much mess behind us. Meticulousness and speed was my motto. That was the very thing that made Greeno and Beveridge tumble me. Yet although they knew I was responsible for the war-time crime wave they could not catch me. I was having a drink with Beveridge one night. “It’s got to be put on you sooner or later,” he said. “So make the most of it while you can. Because, when I feel your collar, you’re going to stay nicked for a long time.”
I was not such a mug as to even smile when he said that. I merely replied, “Well, guv’nor, you can’t blame me for everything. I’ve got to earn, and you’ve got to catch. What you having?”
It was the same with Greeno. Only he was never quite so kind as Peter. Not that any cozzer is kind, when you come to Weigh it up. But Ted did not try to kid me he was on my side.
If I asked him to have a drink he would reply, “I don’t Want your drink, I want your body. Well locked up in a good peter. But I’ll buy you a drink any day. Maybe I can buy you enough to make you talk. Because, if I nick you, you’ll be glad to talk fast and plenty.”
When the law spoke to you like that you had to swallow it and then call them Mister, which I always did. I knew, when I saw Greeno and Beveridge on my tobey so often, that they were trying to put a tail on me. On their part they tried to make it look as though they were paying me a social call in an effort to get information. I knew better than that.
Whenever I was driving my ear, or even walking along the street, I always gave my eyes a treat. One day I tumbled a certain car tailing me. I knew it was a police car, although it was not one of the ordinary vehicles used by them. I decided to give it a run. By the time I had shaken it off I realised that they were using three separate cars to tail me. And I had the numbers and full descriptions of them all. On another occasion they tried putting a woman police officer on my tail. They should have known better than that. I did play with the idea of getting hold of that frail and persuading her to have a drink. But I thought better of it and shook her off.
In those early war-time days, London resembled New York’s Bowery in some ways. Only there weren’t so many bums about. We were earning so much money that the Blacks could not afford to keep us out of the West End. They still had Soho tied up. And, if they got a chance, they tried to put the bite on us thieves for any money we might have available. But when we crept into the West End mob-handed, they were glad to take their percentage of the money we spent in the clubs they controlled, or protected, and leave it at that. The result was that thieves from the outer parts of London were invading the West End in large numbers. New drinking-clubs sprang up to meet their demands. Clubs which were paying extortion money to the Blacks incidentally, but we did not mind that. We had money to burn. And, brother, was there some blaze!
Not only my own mob, but all thieves were so prosperous that they adopted a sort of competitive spirit to display their wealth by dressing up their Wives and girl friends in as expensive jewellery and clothes as they could buy from the black market of course. By common consent, Monday was regarded as truce day. It was the day after week-end working, when most screwing goes on anyway. It was the start of the week. Usually we all had bombs to spend, and We congregated in a club in Archer Street. What with all the villains in their genuine Savile Row suits and their wives and girl friends wearing straight furs and clothes by the best West End dress-makers, that club looked like the Ascot of the underworld. If the Squad had decided to cast their net at four o’clock any afternoon in that club they would have had an ambitious catch. But they didn’t. Instead they came in to give their eyes a treat and to watch points. A good copper can learn a lot by drinking in the same places as thieves drink. And he doesn’t have to say “Please, teacher”, either. For my part, I felt strong enough to go anywhere I liked. I was on my way to becoming the top screwsman in the country. I had the most loyal and the smartest mob behind me, and anyone who wanted trouble had only to knock on my door. A gentle tap would have done. My closest friend, a well-sharpened knife with a five-inch blade, never left me. It remained there, resting in my breast pocket, ready to chiv the first man to take a liberty. On me or mine.
It seemed that London had got over the first shock of the war and had now adjusted itself to a new and strange existence. To a great extent the black-out and a depleted police force increased the opportunity for crime. So did the loose money which was flying about the country. The result was that the West End became a roaring square mile of bustling prosperity and activity. Women flocked from all over to walk the streets, to haunt the hotel lobbies, bars and clubs. Good-time girls became brazen tarts, ordinary wives became good-time girls. Small-time tealeaves turned into well-to-do operators. In the netherworld of pubs and clubs, of speilers and dumps, you were assessed by two things, the amount of money in your pocket and your connections on the black market. As you know, a pair of nylons could buy a woman’s body, a diamond ring could buy her for life-or as long as you wanted.
Millions of people who had only heard of London from railway time-tables now flocked into the capital. They were in the forces, in war-time jobs, en route to some other occupation, on leave, stationed near-by. They were of all colours and nationalities, of all creeds and classes. In some respects we were a common herd in those days, with a common enemy. Yet, despite the great wave of universal patriotism which swept the country, We gangsters still were a race apart. There still remained places where the mugs were not so warmly welcomed. There were still some clubs where the entrance form was a file in the Criminal Records Office of Scotland Yard. They were the places I liked to keep myself restricted to. I was with my own people and could feel at home.
One afternoon I was in one of these Soho clubs having a drink and thinking about tomorrow when I went to the toilet. When I opened the door I saw two young tearaways from over the water belting the life out of my old friend Dodger Mullins with an iron bar. In his time Dodger had been a twenty-four-carat villain. He was well into his sixties now and had more porridge behind him than most. We all liked Dodger. He had been a first-rate screwsman, and was more than able to take care of himself. Now two young tearaways were reaching for the crown of glory in being able to say that they had beaten the life out of Dodger. I didn’t wait. You don’t stop to think. I got out my chiv and gave one tearaway my favourite stroke, a V for Victory sign on his cheek. Then I cut the other monkey to ribbons. It was no use them hooting and hollering “Help, murder!” Everyone had seen me go to that toilet and they knew that it wasn’t me shouting. They knew better than to come in and interfere. The two young mobsters did entertain the thought of prossing me for that job. But they changed their minds when I was put up for I.D. by the law. At least I was not picked out, so I suppose they didn’t want to know.
There was a similar occasion to this when I was having a bit of bother with some villains. Norman Smith, the Aussie dip, was with me. One of the tearaways tried to put it on me. As he did, I whipped out my chiv to give him a cut. At the same time Norman put his hand up to ward off a blow. Instead of cutting the youngster, I cut Norman’s hand. It was his right hand at that. Norman hooted his head off. “I’m doomed,” he hollered. “I’m doomed. I’ll never be able to buzz another pocket.”
“Shut up,” I growled at him. “If I hadn’t cut your hand, accidentally though it was, the other monkey would have cracked your nut open with that iron bar. Thank me for saving your life.”
It took a long time to persuade Norman that when his right hand was healed he would be able to go on whizzing for the rest of his life-providing the law didn’t catch up with him.
It was like that all the time. All the villains had too much money to spend. They drank far more than was good for them. Then the fun started. Out came the knives and choppers and there was trouble. Oh yes, you could go round Soho if you liked, always providing you had plenty of dough to spend and were willing to take the risk of having your head chopped off.
That was when the gangs were sorting themselves out. So far as they were concerned at any rate. My life was more than settled. The divisional chiefs of Scotland Yard and the Flying Squad were making it so warm for me now that I decided to give my modus operandi a bit of a change. They had tried tailing me on foot and in cars, they tapped my telephones, paid out gord knows how much in informers’ funds, and generally spent most of their lives trying to put it on me. I had the luck and I also took no chances. Then they pulled me in for the I.D. line-up after every big job. They well knew that I always had cast-iron alibis. Even when I was going out to work I always provided an alibi for my movements. Yet they still had me in, more to disturb me than anything. The result was that whenever news of a big job broke I would wait for the call to go either to the Yard or whichever police station was dealing with the identity parade. I never was picked out, but I appeared in these parades so often that I decided to change my tactics altogether. There was a jeweller’s shop in Belgravia which needed some attention. The front window was filled with gold and silver watches. I picked Long Stan, Tosh, Big Jock and Harry Ryan to come with me on the job. Outside the window there was a steel grille with a door on it. We arrived on the job just before dark and acted as though we were locking up the shop. There were three padlocks on the grille. We pretended to be shaking these as though we were ensuring that they were secure. At the same time I had a Stillson wrench up my sleeve with the business end butting out by my wrist. With this I was wrenching oh” the padlocks. The top and middle locks came off easily, but the bottom one was jammed with a sort of security clasp. As I was working on this, two uniformed cozzers came along and stood on the pavement opposite us. We buzzed off, hoping they would pass on, but after half an hour they were still there. It seemed as though they were preparing to stand there all night.
I went to a near-by telephone-box and spoke to the fire brigade. The bloke at the other end kept telling me not to get excited, but I was spluttering about a big fire in Belgravia, and in the end told him exactly where it was opposite the jeweller’s and near those two coppers. Within two minutes fire-engines were tearing about from all directions. The two coppers ran to where the fire-engines were stopped. We got back to work. Within a few minutes we were able to fill our bags with gold articles. Long Stan, being so tall, was able to reach into the broken window and grab them Without much fuss. The fire brigade and the crowd of inquisitive public were making such a row and were so engrossed in what was going on that they did not hear us at work. Then Long Stan knocked a glass shelf down with an awful clatter. Someone looking at the activities of the fire brigade heard it. He locked over his shoulder. “Bandits,” he shouted. “Police! Murder!”
Our number was up. We ran for it, but no one tried to stop us. As we crossed the pavement towards where our drag was parked, the crowd parted, leaving an open avenue for us to run through. I had my Stillson wrench in my hand, mind you. That might have helped to persuade them to give us moving-space. Big Jock was in the car first. The mug accidentally locked the doors as he got in. Harry, who was driving, would not go Without me. By the time I was in the drag the law was closing in on us with an interested crowd looking on. Inwardly I cursed Big Jock, but all I said was, “Let her have it, Harry. Give her a push.”
In view of the traffic congestion caused by the crowds and the fire-engines, there was only one thing to do and that was to drive up the road against the line of oncoming traffic. Harry gave the drag the gun. In and out of the traffic he steered the car. It was a miracle we were not bashed head-on again and again. Then, when he got to a busy roundabout, he suddenly swerved the car round opposite the traffic, so that were were still driving against the traffic. But he reached the West End quicker that way and dodged any cars which might have been chasing us. We nicked gold worth about £800 on that job. The law didn’t come near us. It was out of character with the sort of work they thought I was doing.
Outside Carrington’s, the jeweller’s at 130 Regent Street, not far from Piccadilly Circus, a commissionaire stood guard. His job was created by my big smash and grab wave of the mid-thirties when I was busy at that game.
On the morning of March 20th, 1940, the window was being dressed and the commissionaire stood inside the porch leading into the shop. He was standing right in the doorway when a small maroon car was driven straight over the pavement and clean into the doorway. The commissionaire leaped for his life and finished up inside the shop, sprawled out on the floor. A big black sedan car followed the small car and pulled up neatly outside the shop and right on the pavement alongside the window. No one could get out of the shop now, since the small car was completely blocking the doorway. The two men in it got out and jumped into the sedan. Before they were in it a man jumped out and smashed both the shop window and the inner show-case window with a car jack. He grabbed thirty rings worth £6,000 from the broken show-case and leaped into the big car on the pavement. This car was then driven up Regent Street on the pavement. It swerved right into Glasshouse Street, and then turned into Berwick Street. Later it was found abandoned and recognised as having been stolen a few hours before the raid. I was picked up by the police for this job, and put up for I.D. at the parade. I was not picked out.
It was the same when a few days later a car was driven on to the pavement alongside the window of Attenborough’s, the jewellers in Wardour Street, Soho. A man reached out of the car, broke the window and grabbed about £9,000 worth of tomfoolery. They picked me up for that job and stood me up in the parade. I was not picked out.
Then, at Messrs. Phillips’s in New Bond Street, another jeweller’s shop, a stolen car was driven up on the pavement alongside the shop window. This time a man stood up in the car and reached out from the sunshine roof, which was open. From where he stood he broke the window and reached into it, grabbing a bunch of diamond-studded tiaras. They were worth about £11,000. The stolen drag belted away on the pavement up as far as Grosvenor Street. As it swung into Grosvenor Street another car suddenly swerved across the entrance to Grosvenor Street from Bond Street and remained stuck in the middle of the road. Whether that car was stopped at that particular spot accidentally, or whether it had been deliberately placed there as a block car by the bandits, never was discovered. The number of this car was MUG 999. Police inquiries proved this registration plate to be false.
I could hardly wait for the call when I read about this job in the papers. I went back along that familiar path to Vine Street nick and once again took my place in the line-up. I was not picked out. It was the same with a jeweller’s at Cornhill in the City. Two assistants were in the window dressing it rather nicely When, suddenly, a sledge-hammer came crashing through the glass, knocking them all over the place. The man who threw that sledge put his gloved hand through the broken glass, grabbed two trays of tom and beat it to a waiting drag. He never was caught. They tried to put it on me, but when I took my place in the line, the witnesses walked straight past me without blinking an eyelid.
I was getting so fed up with being called in by the police to stand in identity parades that I decided once again to go in for something different-something which they would not suspect me of for some time. Screwing for black-market goods and even for jewellery was all right, but you were never one hundred per cent certain of any fence you used. There always were snouts for the police, and the law seemed to know a lot about my activities. I decided, therefore, to go all out for cash. Hard cash in the shape of crisp one-pound notes. Now, any screwsman will tell you that only a mug will try to screw an ordinary bank. There are so many devices which make the job so difficult that it’s hardly worth the trouble. Unless, of course, you know of a particular bank where the screwing is going to be made easy. The next best place to a bank is a post office. A busy sub-post office invariably contains anything from three to five grands in cash, stamps and money orders. It’s surprising how easy it is to get into a lot of these out-of-the-way sub-post offices in towns and villages. I got hold of a post office guide-book and looked up the list of post offices on the outer ring of Greater London and in the Home Counties.
Odd Legs at that time was my right-hand man. He is at present doing a twelve stretch for the part he played in the attempted £1,000,000 gold bullion robbery at London Airport in l948. Legs is not a very big bloke, but he’s a game ‘un. He was like me too, in that he could turn his hand to any sort of villainy, instead of sticking to just the one thing. I took Odd Legs with me wherever I went. I wanted to try and get him to think like me, so that if he was doing anything for me he would know exactly what my requirements were. Then I had Tosh, who was more than useful at fitting locks, Harry Ryan, who is still doing ten years for peter screwing, Jock Wyatt, who is still in on an eight stretch for robbery, and Patsy Fitzherbert, another game boy who would always be there when you wanted him.
They were the hard core of my team. Mind you, I had dozens of others I could call on when I wanted them, but when you’re going drumming and then screwing it is always best to keep the number of your team down to minimum requirements.
We went on a grand tour once a week and earmarked the sub-post offices we thought could be screwed to some benefit.
By the time the war was well into its stride, and 1940 was no longer a new year, Britain’s post offices were losing a steady £3,000 a week in hard cash and stamps. Once we had chosen a post office to screw we would return to it on the afternoon of an early-closing day or on a Sunday. We did this to fit the locks with one of the keys we brought with us. Tosh was a fair fitter. He usually could find a key out of our bunch of a thousand from the first score he tried. Once having found the key which would open the post office door we went away.
Our reason for fitting the locks during the daytime was for the same reason that we did most of our screwing jobs during the day. I have explained the difference between being nicked between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. and during daylight hours. In any case, few people took much notice of anyone standing on a post office doorstep during the day. But let anyone be seen fiddling about with a bunch of keys at night, then the balloon would go up.
We had good information. Maybe you don’t know it, but a postman in a van calls at most sub-post offices every evening. Usually he collects such things as registered packets and letters, parcels, and other odds and ends relating to post office business. If he comes out with a green bag over his shoulder you don”: waste your time by screwing the place that night, because you know that the swag is in the green bag. That is the bag in which the post office cash is taken away. We knew, therefore, that when that van-driver came out of the sub-post office without a green bag, the place was Worth screwing.
Providing you don’t make too much noise, once you’re in a sub-post office you can work away without any disturbance. During the war years it was a piece of cake. The windows had to be blacked out at night, so no patrolling cozzer could look in through them, and no light would show outside. To be on the safe side we often had an outside man posted to give us the griffin if a cozzer was about. The outside man would usually knock on the door, just loud enough for us to hear, and then make himself scarce. His job was to keep that cozzer under observation all the time, and when the coast was all clear to let us know. The beauty of it all was that we usually had all the time in the world to work on the peter. Most sub-post offices have wooden floors, so the safe cannot be concreted into the stone or cement floor. Such peters were easy to crack. Gelignite is all right if you’ve got a really tough peter to blow. But it’s no use on a safe which is concreted into a stone floor. Jelly only blows a hole in the safe then, but usually leaves the lock tongues unmoved.
So on all these post office jobs we took our heavy gear with us. In some cases it was easier to nick the safe altogether, take it in our car, or a van, to a run-in and then open it at our leisure. But in most cases post office safes were so easy, and we had all the facilities at our disposal, that we screwed them on the spot. To do this we took our big peter cane in with us. As you know, this is made from the half-shaft of a motor-car. The cane itself is about three and a half feet long. Put a steel tube over the end of that and you can rip the back of almost any post office safe to pieces. Then we had specially-made safe-rippers, which were something like a huge tin-opener. They were similar to a peter cane, but had cutters on the end. Once we had drilled a working hole in the side of the safe we wanted to work on, so that we could insert those cutters into the hole, it was possible to cut open the side of that peter just like opening a corned-beef tin. It didn’t make a lot of noise, and was safer than gelignite in some respects. When you start bunging jelly into the keyhole of a safe, anything can happen, even if you do muffle the peter over with carpets and felt.
We also had with us specially-made safe-trolleys, the same as safe manufacturers use, so that we could wheel the peter out of the post office with ease if we wanted to. Getting it into the van was no trouble.
Sometimes we would go into a post office early on Sunday morn- ing and work in daylight and at our leisure. I remember one Sunday morning we were screwing a post office in Hertfordshire. We had gone in fairly early by using one of our keys on the front door and locking the door after us. Our drag was parked a few streets away, to allay the suspicions of any nosey constable. We were going to nick this particular peter. Once it was away from its moorings and ready for shifting, I went to tell the outside man to get the drag round to the front door.
When I opened the street door of the post office, I found a news- paper seller had laid his Sunday newspapers out in the porch, all ready for selling. I stepped over his papers and said, ” ‘Morning,” to him, and went round the corner to the outside man.
Then I went back to the post office and told the bloke to get his papers out of the Way. “We’re bringing some gear out of here,” I said. “All right, guv’nor,” he replied. “Sorry. Won’t be long.” By the time he had cleared his pitch our car was outside. We wheeled the peter out on the pavement, lifted it into the drag, and locked the post office door up again. “O.K.,” I said to the news- paper seller. “Now you can go back to your pitch again. Let’s have some Sunday papers.”
I left him the change from the half-crown I gave him. He seemed grateful.
Sometimes we did two or three post office jobs in a week. But that was not often. If you had a good tickle, it was usually wiser to get rid of the gear quietly and plan the next job with a bit of care. The lolly presented no problems. I used to keep the savings stamps, buy ordinary books from any post office and put them in. Then I would sell the books at a profit. The ordinary stamps we could get rid of to fences or to business people who write lots of letters. In all, we made a profit of about three-fifths of the total loot. So if you read in the papers that £5,000 worth of cash,’ stamps and money orders have been stolen from a post office, you can then estimate that the thieves have netted about £3,000 profit.
During that period in 1940 we were netting about £2,000 a week clear profit. That may not sound a lot when you’re running a tidy mob, but it was not hard to get, and there never was much trouble in getting rid of the stamps. Besides, We never had to use violence on post office jobs. That was always in our favour. We never liked using violence on ordinary people. There was never any necessity to give anyone a crack on the nut, or to break into someone’s dwelling-house where kids might be sleeping, or anything like that.
When the word got round that I was responsible for this wave of post office robberies, most of the villains in London came over to my manor to try and join me. I had to choose my men with care, however, and could afford to take only the best. One man I did fancy was Bob. We called him Bob the Fitter. In all my criminal career I have never met such a wizard with locks and keys as Bob the Fitter. He reckoned he could fit any lock from the mass of keys he had from the first six he chose. I never saw him fail. I got Bob to work for me. No master screwsman could afford to be without him. He was a quiet sort of bloke about thirty-five years of age. Didn’t smoke. Didn’t drink. Never went with women. And, most important of all, he never mixed with the villains. I don’t think he knew any except me. He lived over at north~west London in a suburban house where he was known as an ordinary respectable bloke. He had only one vice. That was photography. He spent every penny he made with me on new apparatus, new cameras and photographic plant. He even had a sort of penthouse studio built on to his own house which I suppose was about the most expensively-fitted photographic studio in Britain.
To keep up appearances he even worked for a living. I don’t know exactly what sort of job he had, but it was steady work, which made it almost impossible for the police to nick him unless he was caught bang to rights. He never would come with us on a job. I had to tell him where we were going and he would meet us near-by. He would fit the lock. You would hardly see him do it, even if you were standing next to him while he was fiddling with his keys. Then he would show us which key it was and go home on his own, leaving the rest to me. He didn’t have a lot to say at any time, with his quiet modulated voice, but if he spoke five words while he was on a job he was becoming talkative. I always gave him his share of the job in hard cash. He got an equal whack like all of us. He deserved it. It didn’t matter what lock you put up to him, he was always able to master it within a few seconds. Locks to him were like diamonds to Oppenheimer. He had a tough break during the war. All the thousands of pounds he spent on the photographic studio went up in flames one night. His house was wrecked by a bomb.
The Post Office police went mad at the numbers of robberies we were doing. They knew it was me doing them, but they couldn’t put anything on me. They put a special watch on my flat. They even tailed my wife about, but I had trained her how to get rid of a tail. They opened my mail before it was delivered to my place, and I knew they were tapping my telephones with monitor recorders. Those Post Office policemen are not real policemen. They are drawn from the ranks of Post Office clerks. Then they try to be like real-life Sherlock Holmeses. It’s dead funny when you see them at work. If I had the time or inclination I used to amuse myself by giving them the run-around. I remember one night I spotted one of these Post Office so-called cozzers tailing my drag.
I filled my petrol tank. Then I drove round the outer circle of Regent’s Park. Mr. Post Office Copper was following me in his car. I could see him in my mirror. For several hours I drove round that circle at a nice, economical speed. Then I saw him stop. I knew he must have run out of petrol, because I had used quite a bit myself. So I drove round the circle again, and stopped alongside his stationary and immobile car. “Good evening,” I said. “Had a nice time? Good night,” and drove away.
None of my mob was ever tumbled at those post office jobs. One week, I remember, we nicked more than £5,000 worth of cash and gear from post offices. And there was nothing they could do about it. Except take sensible precautions to prevent me screwing their gaffs. The truth of the matter is that Post Office employees may know something about selling stamps, but they know nothing about anti-burglar devices or how to prevent burglaries happening on their premises. Maybe the guardians of the Post Office finances are too mean, or too frightened of their safe Civil Service jobs, to introduce devices which would guard the public’s money in a secure and proper way. Frankly, I d0n’t blame me for nicking so much of their gear. I blame those who are paid to look after it. After all it is public money which pays their wages, and the public should insist that they earn them. I earned mine.
I should have rested for a while, I suppose. If I had taken my wife’s advice I would have gone away with her for a bit of a holiday. But there was too much to be done with all the post offices, warehouses, jewellers’ shops and other places to be screwed. I felt a certain responsibility to my boys. If I did not keep them earning I could not have complained if they had found another boss. On top of that, although I was actually earning plenty of money, it never went far. When people know you’re doing all right they’re not slow in tapping. Then there were lots of other liabilities I had. Those poor families in the back streets of Camden Town. They got so used to copping a few quid from me that in the end they expected it as a matter of course. I didn’t have the guts to refuse them, especially where young kids were concerned. So when my wife said, “Take a rest, Bill. Give me a chance to enjoy you on your nights off,” all I could do was to buy her a present or bung her a few quid.
Then I sent for Harry Ryan and Square Georgie. I told them to nick a couple of good drags. One for a smash job, the other for a block or getaway car. Harry and I were in the working drag. He drove it straight up on to the pavement of Conduit Street, just off Bond Street, and pulled up alongside a jeweller’s shop. The police constable on the pavement had to jump a bit to keep clear of the car as we passed him on the junction of Bond Street. I stood up in the car with my shoulders above the sunshine roof. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed our escape, or block, car standing by. Suddenly Harry cried out, “Bill! I’ve caught the front bumper, or something. Can’t move her.” I was just about to grab a handful of tom after smashing the window, when I had seconds about it. Already a policeman had blown his whistle, people were running towards us. I said to Harry, “Get over to Georgie’s drag, fast.”
As we both leaped into Georgie’s escape car he let out the clutch and drove straight for the crowd on the corner of Bond Street. Suddenly the car stopped. The engine had stalled. No time to look at it. “Make your own ways out,” I said to the boys, and leaped out of the car, ran across Bond Street and down into Bruton Street. I ran into the first open door I came to a block of offices. I raced up the stairs and on to the roof. As I clambered over the roofs I looked down below. There were several hundred people there looking up at those roofs. I came down the stairs of another block of offices near-by and walked out into that crowd. A war reserve cozzer was standing by as I came out of the door.
“Quick,” I said, pointing inside the door I had just left, “He’s in there.” The cozzer ran into the building. Then he had seconds. He paused and looked over his shoulder. Just then a member of the audience shouted, “That’s him,” and pointed to me. The cozzer turned round and nicked me. Georgie and Harry too were both nicked, so it was on us bang to rights.
While we were on remand I got them to plead guilty to stealing and receiving the two cars, while I agreed to plead guilty to conspiracy. The court accepted this plea and I got two years, then the maximum. The others got three. That may seem unfair when you look at it, but, when you work it out, if we had been done for robbery or attempted robbery with violence, as we might have been, we could have got life. So we went back to Chelmsford gaol not entirely discontented.