An Unpleasant Memory

Sometimes, I watch real-life documentaries about police work in England. As I worked for the police in London before I retired, the procedures interest me, and I like the ‘behind the scenes’ look at how cases are investigated and solved. (Or never solved) I was watching one last night, and it brought back a memory that I hadn’t thought about for some years.

In 1977, I was working as a depot supervisor for a large food company that sold sausages, pies, bacon, and cooked meats from fleets of vans around London. I was based at the Battersea Depot, and we had twelve vans covering west London, out as far as Heathrow Airport.

Because of the nature of the work, it was a very early start. I had to be at work by 4 am, and the vans would be loaded and on the road by 5:30. For the rest of the day, I had to phone in the orders to the factory, deal with routine paperwork, and occasionally drive out to take care of customer complaints about short loads or missed deliveries.

To compensate for the early start, everyone finished early, and the last van was usually back well before 3 pm. Because the drivers/salesmen were sometimes paid in cash by establishments like roadside cafes and restaurants, I had to sort out the banking before I could lock up and leave. The nearby branch of the bank we used was always closed before I could get to it, so we used the Night Safe facility. This was a large opening in the wall of the bank with a pull-down drawer sealing it. I just had to place the sealed leather bag containing the money into it and it dropped into a container out of reach.

Most days, there wasn’t much money involved, but on Fridays some customers paid for a full week’s deliveries, so there could be as much as five hundred pounds in cash in the bag. A fair sum back then. Friday was also a late finish for us as many vans came back to the depot during the day for extra products, with shops and supermarkets asking for more if they anticipated a busy weekend. It was our habit to meet in the local pub when it opened at 5:30 pm, and have a drink before going home.

One Friday, I told the others I would meet them at the pub after dropping off the cash bag. I drove the short distance to the bank, not wanting to walk around that part of south London carrying over four hundred pounds in an obvious night safe bag. I parked (illegally) on a yellow line on the corner of Battersea Park Road and Meath Street, right outside the bank. (I don’t think that bank is still there) There was solid rush hour traffic in both directions, and lots of people waiting at bus stops on both sides of the busy main road.

Walking to the Night Safe which was on the same main road, I could hear someone running fast behind me, and presumed they were running to catch a bus.

The impact of a big man barging into me knocked me straight over onto my side. Another man appeared, trying to grab the bag from my right hand. As I hung onto it, a third man appeared, and kicked me repeatedly in the head. Luckily, he was wearing trainers, or he might well have fractured my skull. The second man stamped on my arm repeatedly as I lay there, until I could no longer hold the bag. Then the first man grabbed it, and all three ran off, turning into Meath Street and heading north.

For some reason still unknown to me, I ran to my car and gave chase at speed. What I was going to do if I caught them I had no idea. But I was angry, and still only twenty-five years old. I soon drew level with them, despite their head start, but being in the car, I couldn’t follow them into the housing estate at the next junction. Only then did I realise that I was still holding a hat I had dragged off the head of one of them. It was wrapped around the gearstick.

They had all been of West Indian appearance, dressed in the ‘Rasta’ style; with casual clothing, and large floppy hats covering their hair. I had this oversized velvet cap, and was determined to keep it as evidence. I turned the car around and drove back to the bank. There were no mobile phones in those days, but many members of the public had seen this happening, and had phoned the police from call boxes or by asking shopkeepers along the road to ring 999.

There were four uniformed police officers there in two cars. I spoke to one of them about what had happened, and he took down the details. I handed him the hat and told him where I had last seen them, minutes earlier. He shook his head wearily. “They will be long gone, I’m afraid”.

Moments later, an unmarked car drove up at speed, and two plain clothes officers jumped out. One flashed a badge at me and said “Flying Squad”, we heard the call go out”. Under his jacket, he was wearing a shoulder holster containing a revolver. Seeing armed police was rare back then, but the Flying Squad from Scotland Yard was world-famous.

I was expecting the police to set off to try to find the suspects. I had given a pretty good description, hung onto the hat for evidence, and declined medical aid. Instead, the Flying Squad officer with the gun took me into the side street, and started to suggest that I was involved. “Where did you dump the bag? What’s the names of those blokes you used to set it up? Come on, you might as well own up. It has to be an inside job, how else would they know what time to be here?”

To say I was outraged is an understatement. I told the police officer just what I thought of him, using language that cannot be typed here.

Eventually, they let me go on my way, and a uniformed officer said “I will be in touch”. But he never did get in touch, and neither did anyone else. There were no arrests, no suspect questioned, (except me) and we never again heard anything about the incident. It was robbery with violence, and as far as I know was never even followed up.

My bruises soon faded, leaving me with an unpleasant memory of not only being a robbery victim, but then being accused of staging it myself.

That memory never faded.

The Beetley Crime Wave

One of the many good reasons for choosing this area to settle in, was the lack of reported crime. The chances of being robbed in the street in Beetley are almost impossible to calculate, as it just doesn’t happen. Your house is also unlikely to be burgled; though burglaries are reported, they are almost always in outbuildings. If you own a ride-on mower, or have just purchased some expensive gardening equipment, you might have to take extra care, but it is still a very slim chance. Car theft is so rare, many people do not even bother to lock their vehicles. Parcels are left outside front doors, and remain unmolested until the resident returns. Sexual offences, and drug-related crime are also unknown here, though in the nearby town of Dereham, just over three miles away, both have been reported. It seems that as long as you stay in Beetley, you can rest assured that there will be little or no chance of being the victim of a crime.

Theft of farm machinery, and plant vehicles, that is a problem. This is common to all rural areas, given the cost of a tractor or digger these days. There are farms around, but still little crime reported by them, at least in the confines of the parish. There is hardly even any litter, and I have seen no graffiti in the village, since moving here two years ago. Coming from London, where crime was so commonplace it almost went unnoticed, this is a refreshing change. I recall asking a neighbour about crimes locally, shortly after moving here. He thought for a while, and said that he could remember some broken bottles around the nearby football pitch. That had caused quite a stir, a few years ago.

Last week, this idyll was shattered, by a veritable wave of vandalism. On Beetley Meadows, the Parish Council provide some picnic benches, and assorted seating, for the benefit of those wishing to enjoy an afternoon by the river. This was done at some expense, and was well-used by many people last summer, especially families with small children, who might make a day of it by the shallows. They can relax on the benches, preparing lunch, as the kids splash around with small fishing nets, or use inflatable boats. Last Saturday, a fellow dog-walker brought my attention to one of these benches. It had been set on fire, presumably some time late on Friday evening. They had tried hard, building a pile of sticks under it, before setting them alight, hoping to destroy this bench. What they failed to realise, was that they are made of a resin composite, not wood, so the table top merely melted and charred, but there was no consuming blaze. The result is an unsightly mess, and a distorted, unusable surface.

When out dog-walking today, I was upset to find dozens of daffodils, with their heads pulled off, and trampled into the grass. This was obviously deliberate, as it was too concentrated in one area, to have happened by chance. The display of spring flowers in that area was a delight to see, with hyacinths and snowdrops alongside various daffodils. For some unknown reason, the vandals had chosen to completely denude one large area of flowers, leaving the damaged plants as evidence of their pointless act.

I confess that to a resident of some areas of Manchester, London, and other large cities, this will seem laughable. It is tiny, by comparison to the crime and anti-social behaviour common in many parts of the country. Yet somehow, the fact it has happened at all, in such a peaceful and placid place, makes it worse. Now I make no claim to be a detective, despite all those years working for the Metropolitan Police, but you don’t have to be Colombo to work out a few theories. When something happens that has never happened before, it points to two possibilities. Someone new to the area is carrying out the vandalism; or somebody who was once too small to do this, has now grown up, and beginning to embark on a spree of petty spitefulness.

We need to get to the bottom of it, or Beetley will surely be suffering a crime wave, sometime soon.