London Review of Crooks

Robert Marshall-Andrews

  • Rough Justice: The Extraordinary Truth about Charles Richardson and his Gang by Robert Parker
    Fontana, 352 pp, £1.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 00 636354 7
  • Web of Corruption: The Story of John Poulson and T. Dan Smith by Raymond Fitzwalter and David Taylor
    Granada, 282 pp, £12.50, October 1981, ISBN 0 246 10915 7
  • Inside Boss: South Africa’s Secret Police by Gordon Winter
    Penguin, 640 pp, £7.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 14 005751 X
  • Crime in Wartime: A Social History of Crime in World War II by Edward Smithies
    Allen and Unwin, 219 pp, £12.50, January 1982, ISBN 0 04 364020 6

The first of these books, Rough Justice, is 350 pages of documentary journalism on the rise and fall of the notorious Richardson gang, which operated a reign of terror, extortion and fraud in parts of London from the late 1950s to the famous torture trial of 1967. These operations were restored to topicality after Charles Richardson’s escape from prison in May 1980 and his subsequent letter to the Times. The first question which needs to be asked is whether such books should be written at all. And if they are written, should any serious notice be taken of them? The existence of violent, sadistic and resourceful criminals is an unhappy fact of life, and even if the author goes to considerable pains to underline their culpability and to scorn their protestations of innocence, which Mr Parker certainly does, there is no doubt that this type of highly personalised saga (it is ‘Charlie’ and ‘Eddy’ throughout) invites a substantial degree of sympathy with the villains and dignifies their lives with attention they ill deserve. These, however, are difficult questions to answer in relation to the present book. It is meticulously researched and compellingly written, for all its affectedly brawny style. But does it contribute anything other than a chronology of cheerless greed and foul deeds set against a background of scrap dealers and flashy night-clubs? The answer, delivered with considerable reluctance, is yes, this is a useful book for criminologists and laymen alike.

This judgment owes little to the characters of the brothers themselves or of their brutal and inadequate cronies. Still less are there any rewarding conclusions to be drawn from their drab and delinquent backgrounds. What is interesting, as so often, are the men and systems which connive at or allow the spectacular growth of criminal enterprises, and the inflated and grandiose incompetence which finally destroys them. It is a melancholy fact, well documented in the book, that neither the Richardson gang nor the Krays could conceivably have done their business without the knowledge and connivance of the Police at a very high level. What caused their downfall, also well documented, was a belief that their power had reached such heights that, in London, mass armed warfare in public was within the bounds of their immunity, and that, in South Africa, vast mining ventures could be successfully pursued in partnership with a gang of patently second-rate con-men and drunken romantics. Of some interest, too, is the work that Charles Richardson carried out for BOSS in London: this included the burglaries of Amnesty, Zapu and Anti-Apartheid, and (possibly) the attempted bugging of No 10 Downing Street. The claim (in the blurb) that such revelations are ‘staggering’ is perhaps over-enthusiastic. Richardson, like most of his ilk, was naturally right-wing, and having been introduced to George Winter, ex-burglar, crime reporter and BOSS spy, and, more important, to Winter’s wife, Richardson was an obvious recruit for dirty tricks in London. He also plainly believed that his work for BOSS would provide him with favoured treatment from the South African Government for the pursuit of legitimate business. That belief showed a degree of political naivety not uncommon amongst successful gangsters. An inability to realise when they have reached the limits of tolerance, and of their own abilities, tends to destroy them. This is the important message of the book. Evil is rarely stopped by good men alone. It is more often stopped by grave defects of character and of self-awareness: no one else dares tell such criminals what they need to know.

Anyone in search of an object lesson in how to write about crime need look no further than Web of Corruption, which tells the story of John Poulson and T. Dan Smith. Raymond Fitzwalter and David Taylor took eight years to research and write their analysis of the most far-reaching corruption trial of this century. The opening summary is startling.

Of those prosecuted in connection with Poulson 21 were convicted on corruption charges. There were nine councillors, four officials from nationalised industries, three civil servants, two local government officers, a journalist, a builder and the architect of the whole conspiracy, Poulson himself. Three hundred people were listed for investigation and many of them lived in fear until the Police called it a day. Some offenders either died or left the country before the Police could move in.

The strength and integrity of the book lies in its exhaustive factual base and its refusal to be drawn into the coy intimacy adopted by so many popular crime exposés. It draws attention to the element of paradox in both of its main subjects. In the case of Poulson, it notes his genuine Methodism and the apparently spontaneous generosity which co-existed with grandiose dishonesty, avarice and graft. In the case of Dan Smith (whom the authors understandably find the more interesting of the two), there was a conflict between the socialist visionary and the squalid con-man operating in the forefront of the PRO boom.

Yet this is primarily a book about ‘the system’, and the gutlessness of supposed guardians of the public mores. The first part of the book offers a detailed analysis of the irresistible growth of the Poulson empire. It moves at a blistering and breathless pace through the town halls of the North-East and the inner committees and cabals of statutory authorities, unions, the construction industry, great nationalised enterprises including the National Health Service, British Railways, the Coal Board and, finally, the Scottish Office. In doing so, it dramatically illustrates, not only the size and the virility of the corruption which spread into public life in the wake of the property bonanza, but also the complex motives and backgrounds of corrupted and corrupt. Between the feudal union boss, Andy Cunningham, the King of Durham, the gifted, charming civil servant George Pottinger, and the compassionate hospital administrator George Braithwaite, there was little in common except a willingness to sell the stewardship of their offices for the backhanders of an unqualified architect. That they should do so is shocking: the process by which they did so is essential reading for anyone interested in the operations of power in this country.

The heart of the book concerns the action, or inaction, of professional and public bodies when confronted with established facts relating to the conduct of their members, and it exposes the feeble and dishonest conduct of Parliament when it learned of payments made to its own members – to Reginald Maudling, Albert Roberts (Labour) and John Cordell (Conservative). Considering the report of the committee which had censured Maudling and had described Roberts’s behaviour as ‘inconsistent with the standards which the House is entitled to expect from its Members’, the Commons refused to adopt it. In a memorable passage, the authors remark: ‘Having let Maudling off the hook, a somewhat larger Commons majority showed a similar leniency towards Albert Roberts. And so the curtain came down on Britain’s most insidious postwar scandal. After five years of intense scrutiny it ended with a whimper, the final explosion neatly sandbagged by the elected guardians of the public interest.’ Much British graft stems from the obsessive secrecy which obscures the workings of government as a whole, and from the gloom which surrounds relationships between public servants and contractors. The authors, both outstanding journalists, might also have said that this helps to account for the abject quality of mass political journalism: if the real facts of power and of its use are concealed, it is hardly surprising that the media should resort to the speculative trash which passes for political analysis.

Once recruited into BOSS, Winter was to carry out a vast number of assignments. He claims to have had 394 notebooks, 80,000 photographs and a mass of secret BOSS documents smuggled from South Africa, and the impressive detail which the book incorporates would seem to bear out this claim. He had one primary role: to pose as a liberal journalist, sympathetic to anti-Apartheid groups and ready to assist in their campaigns. Working as a (highly successful) reporter for the radical South African Sunday Express, and as a freelance reporter for Post and Drum magazines, he achieved a substantial reputation for the accuracy and fearlessness of his attacks on the South African Government. As he demonstrates, this accuracy and fearlessness resulted in no small measure from the fact that he was working for the very government that he was attacking. His reputation gained him privileged access to the black and white radical groups operating in South Africa and in Britain (where he was sent by BOSS following a bogus deportation order). Many of those that he ‘befriended’ in South Africa he subsequently betrayed to certain imprisonment, ill-treatment and torture. He also played a critical role in the arrest and conviction of the great lawyer Bram Fisher, who was subsequently to die in prison. In Britain, apart from providing constant information on demonstrations (backed by the use of a clandestine camera), he was prominent in the prosecution of Peter Hain for conspiracy, and was actually called as a prosecution witness, only to turn hostile at Pretoria’s bidding in order to preserve his cover. He began the Jeremy Thorpe scandal, which he leaked to the People before the 1974 election. No less amazingly, he exposed the exploitation of Hong Kong workers in order to deflect attention from similar exploitation in South Africa. Winter’s commentary on the warped political scheming of his handlers and on the persistent torture and ill-treatment of suspects and prisoners is hypnotic and depressing. The indictment of Apartheid and the South African Government is complete and damning.

The following questions are asked on the jacket of Dr Edward Smithies’s book.

What did criminals do during the war? How did they meet the challenges of conscription, the black-out, rationing, austerity? How did the Police cope? Understaffed but overburdened with work? What happened to juvenile delinquency, that worrying social problem of the 1930s? Did the violence of war spill over into ordinary social life?

Fascinating questions indeed, and, surprisingly, this appears to be the only serious, allegedly comprehensive attempt to record and analyse the effect of war on crime and the effect of domestic crime on the war effort. The subject, of course, raises wider issues. Is war against an evil aggressor an influence for good or is any mass violence accompanied by total power a corrupting force in the ethical and political life of a nation? There must be few children born during or immediately after the war who were not tutored in the prevailing view that unity of effort and of sacrifice against a foul enemy led to unparalleled harmony, mutual trust and honest industry at home. Few of my generation were not weaned on the proposition that a war which tended to disguise social barriers, and to equalise consumption, inhibited the competitive urge and with it the desire to steal, rob, burgle or attack neighbours and friends in adversity. But was this true? What did ‘criminals do during the war’?

Anyone seeking the answer to this question, as indeed to other questions of a more comprehensive kind, will have difficulty finding it in this book. What they will find is the premise that criminal behaviour during the war showed a lamentable increase, that war not only increased the opportunity for crime (which it obviously did) but dramatically increased the number of occasions on which that opportunity was seized. What is worrying (and irritating) about the book is the lack of clear factual evidence to sustain this provocative indictment. There is nothing wrong with the dispersal of illusions, provided it is done on the basis of solid and unassailable fact. It is difficult to find such a basis here.

Dr Smithies purports to analyse crime by type. Hence there are chapters on theft, the black market, white-collar crime, betting, prostitution, and so on. Criminal statistics and records are spread thinly over the whole: where they are used, they demonstrate increases in delinquency and plummeting standards of honesty. However, the principal support for the numerous alarming generalisations is derived from local newspapers and from Police publications: the bibliography contains no fewer than 61 attributions to the Hackney Gazette. The great majority of the reports came from magistrates’ courts and reflect the weighty lamentations of the Bench.

Take the chapter on ‘Theft at Work’. Whilst never expressly stated, the irresistible burden is that wartime pilfering was rife and increasing. This proposition is supported by six newspaper reports of Magistrates’ procedings and a long quotation from Nicholas Monsarrat’s novel The Cruel Sea, in which a young naval officer berates the idleness of dockyard workers. The use of Mr Monsarrat’s novel might be thought entertaining in a university debate, but it is a poor factual basis on which to pass judgment upon an entire section of the working class in the course of a war. Not that Dr Smithies limits himself to the working classes. Few sections of the commercial and administrative world escape his strictures, which employ much the same probative approach. In his chapter on white-collar crime he refers to potentiality for abuse in the system of allocating undamaged war property and goes on to maintain that the ‘depredations’ by civil servants ‘of stock and of property became something of a scandal’. The authority for this assertion of widespread corruption is one cutting from the Hackney Gazette, in which a Magistrate is quoted as ‘suggesting that there ought to be an investigation.’ This really is not good enough. Dr Smithies should realise that magistrates would go on calling for investigations and declaring that ‘there is too much of this going on’ if the entire crime rate was reduced to a handful of drunks on Burns night.

In addition to the sustained reliance on local reporters there is some statistical and factual material from which Dr Smithies appears to conclude that the war was responsible for a change and an increase in criminal behaviour. On closer analysis, however, the facts are either wholly unremarkable or capable of precisely the reverse interpretation. In his chapter on organised crime it is advanced as a sociological fact that crime in the Thirties became more sophisticated and made use of greater consumer affluence. This sophistication left criminals well prepared to deal with the prodigious manufacturing revolution released by a war economy. But the hallmark of organised crime has always been its ingenuity and adaptability. Since the invention of motor-cars and washing-machines thieves no longer pursue mangles on bicycles.

As a further example of the rise in moral turpitude during and following the war, Dr Smithies reveals that in 1947 2000 ration books were stolen in Birmingham alone. The use of a single statistic in vacuuo is, of course, quite useless. It might easily and equally be argued that, in view of the fact that millions of such books were issued to the population of Birmingham (a population deprived for years of the goods that the books provided), the figure indicates exemplary restraint.

The statistics which Dr Smithies does produce simply do not bear out the premise upon which this book is based. They reveal, for instance, that in London between 1939 and 1943, indictable crimes actually fell despite the depletion of the Police Force and the influx of thousands of young men removed from the constraints of their families and communities and exposed, not only to the barbarities of war, but to the opportunities for dishonesty and violence which abounded at that time.

There are, to be fair, interesting chapters on prostitution and on violence. There are also incidental nuggets of factual information: the female habit, for instance, of avoiding conscription by inscribing the occupation ‘prostitute’ on call-up papers. The revelation that the Brighton Conservative Club was the subject of 105 summonses for breach of the licensing laws suggests that for some it might well have been ‘a lovely war’.