There used to be honour amongst thieves, but The Golden Age of criminals is over and now the thieves wear suits. Reminisce with us the days when bank robbery was a fine art...
Bruce Reynolds’ funeral, which took place last year, was a funny old affair. Filling the pews of St Bartholomew the Great were actors David Thewlis and Ray Stevenson. Mick Jones out of the Clash was there, so too was John Cooper Clarke who had penned a poem for the occasion. The harmonica player out of Alabama 3 showed up as well, but at least he had the excuse of being Reynolds’ son. The rest, though I’m sure their grief was genuine, testify to the nexus between showbusiness and a certain type of crime. There was a time when pulling a 15 denier over your face and telling a terrified cashier that if she opens the safe no one gets hurt was to be an aristocrat of crime. Villains became buccaneers, audacious and fearless. It was the Golden Age of Armed Robbery.
Once upon a time, commercial robbery was a piece of piss. Simply select your target, wait until the staff had gone home, smash your way in, fill your pockets and scarper. An idiot could do it. Many did. They stopped when business owners, at the behest of their exasperated insurers, began to install safes.
Cleverer criminals were undeterred. Between the 1920s and the 1960s the professional safe-cracker became a respected underworld figure. It was skilful work, the province of the true craftsman. You couldn’t second guess a safe; it required knowledge, patience and, as safes became more sophisticated, specialist equipment and training. And safes were becoming more sophisticated. Manufacturers such as Chubb developed new locking and double-locking mechanisms and safe housings were made sturdier.
So too were the cracksmen. These were the years that followed the Second World War. The underworld was filled with demobbed young men, recently starved of adventure and boasting a set of skills that could be easily repurposed. The stethoscope system beloved of cartoon villains felt into disuse and criminals applied the same method that worked on European bridges and German tanks.
Now, using gelignite to blow a ruddy great hole in a safe worked up to a certain point, but there was the constant risk that your careful explosion would throw the locking mechanism into place, securing it even more tightly. And that’s before we consider the dangers inherent in pissing about with bombs.
Preferring to keep their limbs where nature intended, the better villains opted to use oxyacetylene wands and thermic lances to cut their way through. It worked for a while, but Mr Chubb’s cold war escalated and safes were made stronger than even these cockney Darth Vaders could manage. Unless you fancied spending several hours engaged in Mission: Impossible antics it was best to give it up as a bad job.
There was of course one remaining weak spot left to attack, the softer, fleshier parts in front of the safe. By the time the Beatles grew beards, villains had given up sneaking about in darkness and had taken to walking in through the front door in broad daylight. This type of job needed no specialist training and no sophisticated equipment. It simply required the right combination of brass neck, crude weaponry and stupidity.
The familiar image of the armed robber emerged at this time. Popularised by TV shows such as The Sweeney, the world of armed robbery was believed to have been inhabited by bomber jacketed geezers called ‘Arry and Terry, who drove around in a Mark 1 Transit while shouting at each other in a charming argot of rhyming slang and bullshit.
These guys were prime time. During the 1970s the incidence of armed robberies increased by over three hundred and fifty percent. It helped of course that plod was so accommodating. The Flying Squad, the Met’s elite ‘thief takers’, were as bent as a dog’s hind leg and several officers were in the pay of the men they were supposed to be chasing. It was difficult to tell where the copper ended and the criminal began, but it was the villains, Freddie Foreman, George Davis, Ronnie Knight and supergrass Bertie Smalls who became semi-household names.
These professional full-timers made a lot of money very quickly, but lucrative robberies were rare. The truth was that this ‘Golden Age’ was little more than a democratising process that encouraged the return of the plucky idiot. They were emboldened by stories of robbers helping themselves to several million quid in the morning and sipping piňa coladas on the Costa del Sol by teatime, but it was almost entirely myth. While it’s possible to feel some admiration for their Corinthian spirit, they were, for the most part, laughably inept.
One pair of lowlifes, George and Bill, were recruited for an antiques job. They cased the joint in the guise of being from the water board, returned, bound and gagged the staff before delivering the goods to a lock-up at Heathrow for collection by whichever shadowy underworld figure had set it up. The job was worth £2.5m. George and Bill, who had borne all the risk, made £200k between them.
Still, it was good pay for a job well done. They celebrated by heading to Oxford to see some women they had recently met. They loaded a car with booze and cocaine, cranked the stereo and headed up the A40 tingling. They were so full of post-job goodwill (and blow) that they even cheerily gave way to a cop car at a roundabout. They continued, snorting and drinking for about five or ten minutes before they noticed that there were no other cars on the road. They just had time to look at one another before the rozzers screeched into view. They’d blocked the road off to snatch them. George and Bill went to jail. Their employer remained in the shadows. He doubtless had plod on his payroll.
Other stories are sadder. There was the father and son team who decided on a life of crime after spending an afternoon in the pub drowning the sorrows of their mutual unemployment. They rocked up, still pissed, up to a post office and demanded that the cashier hand over the money without even bothering to queue. They then hopped back in their car and trundled away from the CCTV camera that had been trained on its number plate the entire time. They were serving a four and a two year sentence respectively. The father, nearer to retirement, deliberately took the lion’s share of the blame.
They might have been from the shallow end of the criminal gene pool, but their nemesis was just as troubling to their professional counterparts. As the eighties gave way to the nineties, security systems caught up with the criminals once again. Banks and building societies were early adopters and saw the first decline in attacks. Security cameras, dye bags, time-delay locks on safes and doors, and the biggest and most invasive network of street CCTV cameras in the world have made robbery the preserve of the hapless and desperate amateur.
For proper villains, the risk of getting caught now exceeds the potential gains in doing over a bank or post office. Unless you’re planning to remove several million pounds’ worth of diamonds from Heathrow (and have the means to get rid of them afterwards) there’s little point in bothering. Besides, there’s much more money to be made from drug trafficking and fraud, both of which carried (at least initially) lower sentences and which can be conducted safely out of public view. The Golden Age is a thing of the past and the professional bank robbers now wear rather different clothing. In the words of American banker William Crawford, ‘the best way to rob a bank is to own one.’
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