A Work of Nonfiction by Pete Johnson
After WW2, the areas immediately adjacent to both banks of the River Thames in central London were known for being where most criminals lived. These were not the petty pickpockets or con artists of Victorian London, but the hard men of the criminal fraternity: the bank robbers, the security van hold-up men, and the gangland enforcers.
Growing up in an area close to the docks during the 1960s, I knew many of these men, if only by sight. Chances were that you would at least know one of their close relatives anyway, as this was a small community, and most hard men came from just a few local families. They passed their trade down from father to son, no different to a medieval stonemason, or Jewish tailor. They didn’t aspire to grand mansions, or even flashy cars, and they lived a very normal life, no different from anyone else who had a regular job. In fact, they regarded robbery with violence as if routine, and referred to going on a bank raid as ‘going to work’.
Where I lived, these men and their activities were well-known, if rarely discussed. They appeared in pubs and bars flush with cash, and everybody knew where the money had come from. You only had to look at the newspapers and see what had occurred that day. They walked around with impunity, paid no taxes, and contributed little to society. But they considered themselves to be part of the community, threatened no-one who lived locally, and behaved reasonably well in company. Most of them had served in the armed forces, even though many had spent much of their service in military prisons, for one reason or another.
They had no fear of the police. At that time, being a policeman in London was a low-paid job, and carried little reputation with the general public. Many detectives tasked with solving these crimes were on the payrolls of the same men they were supposed to be hunting, and almost anyone could be found to provide a water-tight alibi, if the need arose. When all else failed, and they were apprehended, they did their time with no complaint. They never ‘grassed’, and the prospect of doing a ‘deal’ was unknown to them. They did their ‘Bird’, in the local parlance. Cockney rhyming slang is full of criminal associations, and Bird-Lime, rhyming with ‘Time’ was a common expression, shortened to ‘Bird’ in conversation.
Many of these men spent up to half their adult lives in prison, and simply regarded it as a necessary evil of their job. They were among friends, left alone by the guards, and used the time to make new acquaintances, and to fine tune their criminal skills. Most were soon back to their old tricks, often within days of being released. Some would be planning raids when they were still incarcerated, and carry them out at the earliest opportunity. Back then, it was a way to get respect, even if that respect was only born of fear. Being a Hard Man was a way of life. They wouldn’t hesitate to batter a delaying bank manager with a club, or fire a shotgun at the legs of a security guard who refused to open the doors of his vehicle.
Some of the more flamboyant members of this community would wander around making no secret of their employment. They flaunted pistols, waved wads of cash, and settled arguments very quickly, without hesitating to use extreme violence. Many had entertaining nicknames. One man I knew well was called “Little Legs Brian.” This was a reference to his short stature, something that also gave him the well-known ‘little man syndrome’, making him more unpredictable than most. Then there was ‘Bill The Ear’, a huge man who had lost one ear at some stage, though nobody ever dared ask him how.
But most of us were not criminals, of course, although we lived amongst them. Or was this an illusion? After all, we may not have joined them on an armoured car raid, but we were happy enough to partake in the spoils of their deeds. Nobody ever bought anything ‘straight’, if they could help it. Cigarettes looted from raided trucks, other items stolen from the docks, all that booze for Christmas. It was all ‘bent’. Only a mug paid full price, or went to a department store, as far as we were concerned. We had it all: fancy suits, nice shoes, leather jackets, even rugs and televisions. We were the willing consumers of their criminal industry. When I was a teenager, the only thing I ever paid full price for was a haircut. Knowing these people had its benefits, as long as you were not a bank cashier, or a security guard at the docks.
But history caught up with them, and technology proved to be their undoing. Along with that, their change of attitude accelerated their downfall. No longer content to just return to their simple flat, and the wife who had been their girlfriend at school, they wanted more. The high-life, even fame. They wanted the company of celebrities, attractive film stars, even aristocrats and sexy models. The London of the Swinging Sixties got under their skin, and they decided to have their fill of it. They started to invest in night clubs, to be seen and photographed with famous people, even allowing journalists to interview them. They pushed their lifestyle onto the front pages, and the public who had not been brought up with them began to protest.
The police were seen as ineffective. Outsiders were brought in, and corruption trials sensationalised the city, with many police officers being jailed, or disgraced. When no evidence could be gathered to prosecute them for crimes, their taxes were investigated instead. Their bar and club licences were revoked, and they were prosecuted for civil offences, like illegal gambling. Instead of remaining hard, they had employed others to do the dirty work. No longer close friends, or other family members, these men could not be relied upon to keep their mouths shut, and soon those former hard men were facing long jail sentences. By the time I was 18, in 1970, a gangster could get a longer sentence for an armed robbery than a murderer would for killing someone.
Two decades later, society was getting its own backbone. A new breed of police officer appeared on the scene, better paid, and better trained. Modern methods of criminology and forensic science overturned alibis, established guilt, and made the lives of the hard men increasingly difficult. Possessions were seized, and the proceeds of the crimes were no longer accessible. New extradition agreements meant that they could no longer fly off to a comfortable life in Spain, or South America. Later developments in CCTV, surveillance, and monitoring made it easy to track the intentions of these hard men, even before they committed any crimes.
Then the victims fought back. Security vans now carried sealed boxes of cash. They not only contained tracking devices, but also explosive dye packs, that would make the money useless if the container was breached. Banks installed sophisticated alarms and screens, and made sure that less and less cash was held anywhere near the front of the bank. The widespread introduction of ATM machines also frustrated robbers. They now needed industrial equipment to attempt to remove these from the walls they were built into, and the amount of time necessary to complete a raid increased the chances of being caught on scene. Something had to give.
They turned to something new. Drugs. Easy money, so they thought. But they didn’t realise that it was already a crowded market, full of more hard men, and not just from the dock-sides of London. Suddenly, they were up against organised international criminals. Groups with unlimited resources, and equally as ruthless as the former armed robbers who now tried to take them on. It was a lost cause from the start, and the hard men started to disappear, propping up motorway extensions with their dead bodies, or weighted down by concrete and thrown from a boat.
And those that were left? They told their stories to anyone who would listen, then just quietly faded away…