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Authors: Roy Archibald Hall

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The experience of prison hardens a man, providing justification for the crimes he is going to commit.

I
was moved to Pentonville to finish my sentence. By the time I was released, 1948 had given way to 1949, and winter had given way to summer. It was on a bright sunny morning that I walked away from north London’s notorious debtors’ prison. I was a free man again. There were a number of vehicles parked in the street outside the gates. One was a black taxi cab. I passed by without giving it a second thought, for the moment all I wanted to experience was the sense of freedom. As I passed the cab, the back door was thrown open and a voice that I recognised called me: ‘Morning Roy, want a lift?’. The voice belonged to Johnny Collins. We drove to Billingsgate market where the pubs were open early to cater for the market traders. We had some drinks, then went for a large cooked breakfast. From there we booked into the Great Eastern Hotel in Paddington. In the hotel room, I took off
the clothes that I had worn as I walked away from the prison, and threw them away. This was a ritual I would observe after every sentence. After luxuriating in a hot bath to wash away the prison stench, Johnny told me of his plan. For professional villains, smash-and-grab raids on jewellers were becoming fashionable. Our smash-and-grab team would consist of three men. The ‘driver’, Dave Perry – a man who could do almost anything with a car; the ‘smasher’, Collins himself, whose job was to break the large plate-glass windows, without injuring us with falling glass or knocking the jewellery pads out of reach; and the ‘grabber’, someone with a knowledge of jewellery who could select what should be taken and take it. I was to be the final man in Collins’ team. I was climbing the criminal ladder.

The first jewellery shop to have their window display rearranged by Messrs Collins, Hall and Perry was the London Goldsmith Co. on Cricklewood Broadway. Dave Perry parked the car, engine running, level with the window. We had already decided earlier in the day what we were going to take. Johnny claw hammered the window at all the right points and the shattering pieces of glass dropped well away from the pads I wanted. The evening pedestrians just stood and stared, as if watching a scene from a gangster movie.

Johnny, hammer in hand, kept a watchful eye on the staring public. Remaining calm and focused, I lifted the pads of jewellery that we wanted and dropped them into a small bag, then we both stepped back into the car. Perry, engine at full throttle, sped off into the London
night. Sitting alone in the back seat, I took the jewels out of the display pads and wrapped them in handkerchiefs. Perry, having taken a series of turns in back streets, dropped me off at a designated point. From there I would either take a tube or pick up a waiting vehicle. There was a publican at the Raven in the City of London who acted as our fence. I went directly to him and upstairs away from nosey drinkers, we did our business. The jewels became money and the money was split three ways. Over the next two years, jewellers all over the city and suburbs would be visited by us. The three of us lived the high life – we worked when we wanted and we spent as much as we wanted.

We had separate social lives – Dave lived in Paddington and was a family man; Johnny, whose family all lived around the Cable street area of the East End was a home boy, spending his time at the dog tracks, gambling houses and pubs of the East End. My tastes were a touch more cultured – Turkish baths in the city, first-class hotel bars, theatres and museums. I lived the life of a well-heeled city gent.

A petty criminal from West London, finding himself in a tight spot with the Old Bill, gave information on an aquaintance of his. It was our misfortune that the acquaintance was Dave Perry, our driver. Hours before we were due to go on our latest raid, Perry was nicked and held for questioning at Paddington Green.

Johnny and I were uneasy about the situation. We were sure that Dave could be trusted but, even so, it was risky to do anything local. On a whim, I told Johnny about a
single-windowed jewellers in Buchanan Street, Glasgow. That afternoon we drove north. We checked the surrounding area for a suitable escape route. Buchanan Street was patrolled during the night hours by a mounted policeman wielding a long riot stick. To park outside the shop would undoubtedly attract his attention and was out of the question. After some thought, we decided to park in an adjacent street. There was a warehouse door that, if we could gain access, would give us a short cut from Buchanan Street to our parked car. After playing with the lock, we gained entry. The door leading to our car was unlocked and ready. Both doors were small entrance doors, housed within the much larger warehouse doors – far too small for a man on horseback to follow. We watched and waited. The mounted patrolman ambled from one street to the other rhythmically tapping the hard, dark stick on his highly polished riding boot. We watched him time and time again. We noticed that not once did he turn around and look behind him. The only noise was the echo of the horse’s hooves on the concrete and the almost indiscernible tap of stick upon boot. As he neared the end of the street, we quietly moved into position. On this occasion for speed’s sake, we would both smash and both grab. The horse was as far away from us as possible and we prepared for action. I took two folded canvas bags from my pocket and laid them on the ground, Collins took out two claw hammers, one from each pocket. With hammers raised, we listened to the clatter of the horse’s hooves in the clear night. As the animal reached the end of the street we struck. Our hammers hit the glass in unison, the blows
were deliberate and precise. The window fell away. At the other end of the street, the once ambling equine member of the Glasgow police force was being jockeyed into a gallop. On its back, stick swinging, voice screaming, a
red-faced
Glaswegian police officer bore down upon us. Our hands grabbed the jewels in a controlled frenzy, we took everything. With hammers still in our hands, we ran for our freedom. With each step we took, the sound of the hooves and the screams of the patrolman grew ever nearer. We hit the warehouse door on a skid, changing direction from north to east in a lurch of our bodies, motivated by pure fear. As we bundled through the small door, I could hear the snorts of air blasting from the horse’s nostrils.

Tired but elated, we began the four-hundred-mile journey back to London. We drove through the night, taking turns, one sleeping, one driving. By daybreak we were back in the capital. Collins and I were quite a team. We took thousands, and we took it from right under people’s noses. I have never ‘grassed’ in my life, and when villains turn Queen’s evidence on other villains, it makes me nauseous. Before we had time fully to savour our triumph in the Buchanan Street dash, I was paid a visit by the police. At the same time, in the East End, Collins was also picked up. Information had been given. Some low life criminal we had been stupid enough to confide in had given us up. So much for honour among thieves.

I got three years and Johnny, being older, got four. It was back to Wandsworth. On my last sentence I had been treated as an ordinary category prisoner. Now, my leap from the train had been added to my file and I was
regarded as an escape risk. The last time I had been in prison, the E men (escape risk prisoners) had smallish yellow patches on their blue trouser legs. The yellow patches had increased in size, almost covering the whole leg. One blue leg, one yellow leg – I looked like a clown!

I have always accepted what I am – I am a criminal. I’m not a sex case, I don’t rape people or interfere with children, I am a professional thief. I had always been good and, with the passage of time, would get even better. I believe in dignity. If my professional ‘calling’ is outside the law, then so be it. Loss of liberty and privacy were prices I accepted I had to pay. However, being made to look foolish was completely unacceptable.

On my very first time out on exercise I took off those ridiculous trousers and threw them with all my might over the prison wall. Immediately, I was grabbed by warders and marched in front of the Governor. I was told in no uncertain terms that I would comply with regulations. I nodded in tacit agreement. The next day while out on exercise I did the same thing. This time other cons followed my lead. A dozen pairs of yellow and blue trousers landed on the free streets of south-west London. Let the public see what the Home Office was expecting us to wear.

There was now some tension between the E men and prison staff. We were confined to our cells and, come the next morning, more of the same – no exercise, no work details. We sat in our cells, wondering what the penal system had in store for us. Just before noon the next day a dozen of us were taken down to reception. John
Wooton was one of the number. We were transferred to Winchester.

The atmosphere there was considerably easier. We were again put into patches, but this time the old smaller ones. Something that irked me about this E business, was that I had never actually escaped from a prison. I had absconded from police custody while on a train, but this was a completely different matter to escaping from a secure prison. I pleaded my case with the Governor. Eventually he relented. I was taken off the E list and reverted to an ordinary category prisoner. I went to work as a painter. When I wasn’t working, I would spend many hours reading about jewellery, porcelains and antiques. For the first time I read a book about being ‘In Service’ – butlering, to be precise. As prison time goes, this was quite an easy sentence. I got my full remission, and was released in the spring of 1952.

B
ack in Glasgow things were changing. My parents’ marriage had never been that good, but now the cracks were beginning to show. It was never mentioned, but I often wondered whether my father ever noticed that his young son Donald was the spitting image of his old Army CO. For a few weeks I just rested and enjoyed eating palatable food again. Occasionally I burgled somewhere just to stop myself getting rusty. I continued to visit Esther Henry’s antique shop. It was now several years since we had first met and she had only ever known me as Roy Salvernon. Still, I had her trust. I always made sure I had a packet of black Sobrini cigarettes on me, her favourite brand. An ornate tin box stood on the floor of her office, which was locked in a glass cabinet at night. I had never managed to see its contents, but it intrigued me.

As the summer approached, my parents’ marriage finally
disintegrated. My mother applied for and got the position of live-in housekeeper to a Mrs Dunsmuir of Kilbride Castle, Dunblane, Perthshire. As it had been her decision to leave my father, she did not feel that she could deprive him of his home as well. After giving her time to settle in, I paid her a visit. Mrs Dunsmuir was
nouveau riche
, an ordinary girl from the nearby town who had married a rich American. On his death, she had returned to Scotland as the Grand Dame. As well as my mother, she employed a young Swedish
au pair
. At Mrs Dunsmuir’s invitation I stayed as my mother’s guest. To relieve the boredom I started carrying out small tasks, helping to serve dinner and suchlike. The lady of the castle deemed me competent and I was offered a job on her staff – helping around the house and chauffeuring her when needed. The duties were light and easy, the surroundings pleasant. Within days I had noted the items of true value and where they were kept. The other thing that caught my eye was Agnetha, the young Swedish
au pair
.

Back in Winchester, I had given John Wooton my parents’ Glasgow address and, with directions from my father, my old prison friend turned up at the castle. He couldn’t have timed it better, it was a beautiful sunny day, and employer and staff were enjoying food and drinks on the lawn. John turned on the charm, and Mrs Dunsmuir took an immediate shine to the London-born criminal. If she had known that her staff was now resembling a Wandsworth old boys’ reunion party, she would have had a heart attack.

Agnetha was a young girl looking for fun. Stuck out in
the Scottish countryside, miles from any nightlife, she was desperate for some stimulation. I charmed her, I slept with her, I liked her. After my time in prison, she was a welcome diversion. There seemed to be an immediate bond between John and my mother, she had a level of intimacy with him that I had never witnessed between her and my father. Increasingly her off-duty hours were spent with him. I spent mine with Agnetha. Since puberty my sexual drive has been a strong controlling factor in my life. In the morning I awake with a hard on, and when I lay my head on my pillow at night, it is generally with a hard on. I was hard, on the Saturday morning that I walked into Mrs Dunsmuir’s bedroom, to see Agnetha stretching over the mattress making the mistress’s bed. I took her from behind, she liked me to take control. Neither of us bothered to undress, her knickers were just moved to one side as I entered her. Her favourite position was ‘doggy’. Her face was buried in the floral eiderdown. There was no sound to make me turn. But I did anyway. Our employer was standing framed in the doorway. She told me that she wanted me off her staff, and off her property… immediately. Wiping and putting away my now flaccid cock, I said, ‘Certainly, Madam. If you will give me a cheque in lieu of a month’s wages, I will be on my way.’ At this, we argued, but when she realised that I would not give way, she grudgingly paid me my severance money. Much to my delight, Agnetha packed her suitcase and followed me out of the castle. I said my goodbyes to John and my mother and Agnetha and I lounged and lusted away two weeks in Jersey.

Being a thief, I had many criminal contacts. I knew some of the best forgers in the business. For a price, I obtained new references and a new past. I scoured top people’s magazines for new employment. Working for someone is better than just robbing them on a whim. You get to enjoy all the creature comforts, you have time to assess what it is that you’ll take and, if you have the right contacts, replacements can be made. Most people don’t know a good fake from the real thing. Also, I enjoyed nobility, it was something I had a feel for.

The Warren-Connells were as far removed from Mrs Dunsmuir as a warm puppy is from a hot dog. They were ‘old money’, part of a long-established, Clydeside shipping family. They were now in retirement at their stately mansion, Park Hall. They were a pleasure to work for. They had true class. Mrs Warren-Connell was a bubbly vivacious woman, with Christian values that she actually practised as well as preached. Her husband was an utterly charming elder statesman of industry.

The staff that I joined consisted of three gardeners, a gamekeeper, chauffeur, cook/housekeeper and two maids. I worked diligently and hard. Within a short while I won the trust of my new employers. As the height of the holiday season approached, all staff, along with the Warren-Connells themselves, left for a two-week break. The responsibility for running the house was mine.

I had been alone in the house for a few days when, one morning, an envelope among the mail caught my eye. It was larger the the rest of the post, edged with gold braid and, on the back was the crest of St James’s Palace. I
wanted to know what was inside, so I steamed it open. It read: ‘I am commanded by Her Majesty the Queen to invite you to a Royal Garden Party at the Palace of Holyrood House, Edinburgh.’

The ‘you’ in the invitation, of course referred to Mr Warren-Connell. Holyrood House is the Queen’s official Edinburgh residence. In the past I had been a guest of Her Majesty on a number of occasions, none of them enjoyable. This would help to redress the balance.

On the morning of the party, wearing a hired morning suit and driving the family Bentley, I quietly slipped out of Park Hall. I took care to make sure that none of the gardeners saw me. Looking every inch an upper class gent, I drove to Edinburgh to meet the Queen. After checking the guest list and then studying my invitation, a uniformed policeman saluted me and waved me through the gates to the Palace. The party was a grand affair. No sticky black resin oozing from mailbags for these guests of Her Majesty. Instead, it was paper-thin cucumber sandwiches, the finest teas, and Police Commissioners and Judges strolling around the lawns.
En route
to the Palace I had popped into Esther Henry’s antique shop. I presented her with a dozen red roses and casually mentioned where I was going. She was most impressed. Esther herself had royal connections. In her eyes my credibility was now beyond reproach. After the garden party, I retired to a first-class hotel and drank some brandy. It was obvious to the management where I’d been. They would remember my face and if I ever needed to cash a dud cheque or work another con they would be most receptive. A good thief
continually lays groundwork. I have always considered myself to be a professional person.

A couple of days later I was sunbathing in the garden when an unmarked car came down the drive. Two men got out. I didn’t need to be told they were police. They asked me the whereabouts of Roy Fontaine. I hadn’t committed any real crime since my arrival. Impersonating my employer at a royal garden party was hardly likely to get me sent to prison. I said that I was Fontaine. They asked me what I wanted in that area, why was I there? I told them I was tired of London and tired of prison. I wanted to build a new life for myself. I wanted to go straight.

They questioned me about a robbery at an egg packing station, where a safe had been blown. I said: ‘Look at my file, I’ve got absolutely no experience with safes.’ They questioned me about other robberies. For each one I had an alibi. I was clean. Before they left they wished me good luck.

Two days later at seven o’clock in the evening, just before dinner was due to be served, the phone rang in the hallway. I picked it up. At the exact same second in her upstairs bedroom, Mrs Warren-Connell also lifted the receiver. I remained silent and listened. A man’s voice at the other end of the line identified himself as a detective with the local CID. He asked the lady of the house whether she realised that her butler was a jewel thief with a prison record. I heard her gasp in astonishment. ‘Do you think he has come here to rob us?’. ‘Well, I don’t think he’s taken the job for the good of his health’ was the reply. She asked whether I was wanted by the police. To this he had
to answer no. ‘But,’ he carried on, ‘I have a map in front of me on my wall, and all I can see are danger points. I’d be much happier if he wasn’t in my area.’ By now I had the voice – it belonged to one of the detectives who had visited me, the one who’d wished me good luck. I waited for Mrs Warren-Connell to replace the receiver. Slowly I put mine down, too. It was time to think.

The Warren-Connells came downstairs, and I went about my duties of serving their evening meal. There was a certain tension evident. It was Mrs Warren-Connell who spoke, as I was serving them their after-dinner drinks, ‘Roy, have you ever been in trouble with the police?’ Shamefacedly, I admitted that I had. It had been in London a long time ago. I had fallen in with bad company and had paid the price of being sent to prison. I bitterly regretted it. I was now happy in my work and with my life. I wished that my past could remain just that, my past. Mrs Warren-Connell’s Christian goodness gushed to the surface. She told me of the phone call she had received and then asked the most direct question of the evening: ‘Roy, have you come here to rob us?’ ‘Certainly not madam. Never,’ I replied. Her face softened: ‘I have talked this over with my husband and we both agree that everyone should be given a second chance. If I were to dismiss you, and you returned to London and once more got into trouble, I would never be able to look my maker in the face. We wish you to continue working for us.’ I thanked them both and left the room. I still had my job, but I had been scuppered.

 

My next move was made up for me. I was walking in the grounds of the estate when I overheard a conversation between one of the gardeners and the gamekeeper. ‘Tam, the village bobby, has asked me to keep an eye on him,’ said the gardener. ‘He’s a notorious thief, I don’t know why the mistress just doesn’t throw him out.’ Villagers gossip, that is a fact of life and soon everyone would know of my past. I was in an impossible situation. Any local criminal could take advantage of me being here. If anything went missing, I would be prime suspect. Of course my hands were now tied and any ideas I had of replacing precious jewels with fakes was very risky. I knew that I had to leave. I explained my situation to the Warren-Connells. They both seemed upset and were very gracious. I was given three months’ salary and Mrs Warren-Connell, again displaying her generosity of spirit, phoned around her friends, eventually finding me a position at a shooting lodge miles from anywhere in the Highlands. I thanked them but, not wishing to isolate myself, I turned down the post. That day I returned to London.

John and my mother had become an item. They had left the castle, and set up home in a flat in Paddington. It was there that I told John of my plan to visit Esther Henry, and of the black tin box that stood in her office. We decided that, if we could, we would rob it.

There was a public telephone box opposite Esther’s shop. Inside the shop were two phones, one at the front near the window, and one in the office at the rear. The plan, which was simplicity itself, was this: I would enter the shop, engage her in conversation and steer her to the
front of the shop. John would be watching from the phone box. He would call and Esther would answer on the phone near the window. Pretending to be an American businessman interested in buying Georgian silver, he would keep her diverted and I would go into the office. I would be carrying a briefcase, containing three telephone directories. I would unlock the box using the keys that were hanging on a hook on the wall. The contents of the box would be emptied into the briefcase, the telephone directories placed in the box for weight. I would lock the box and keep the keys. As soon as I had the goodies, I would make my excuses and leave the shop. If successful, I would remove my hat as I walked out of the door. John would get into the car and fire the engine, then we would get out of Edinburgh as quickly as possible.

The plan that I had formulated was exactly how it happened. Esther smiled at me as I left. I told her I had an appointment and would call back later. I had taken the precaution of booking myself a rail ticket from Carlisle to London. On the drive from Edinburgh to the English border, John and I would split the haul. I would do the second half of the journey by train and John would continue by road. If one of us was caught, we would still have half the haul. I had no real expectations as to what the box contained – just a feeling that it would be worthwhile. As we sat in the car dividing up the contents, neither of us knew that we had just committed Scotland’s biggest ever jewel robbery. The year was 1953.

We had jewels of every description, plus American and Canadian dollars. I reached London slightly before John. In
the early hours of the morning we started to assess what our prize was worth. We estimated a market value of somewhere around £100,000, a fortune. Early the next morning John went to Fleet Street to check the Scottish papers for reports of the robbery. Nothing. I went to my buyer with one hundred and twenty pieces of jewellery for him to look at. We bargained, I knew his style. At one point I stood up and offered to take the jewels abroad, where I would get the sum I wanted. The price went up, and up, and up. It reached £40,000. I phoned John and told him the figure. We decided to accept. Cut of the one hundred and twenty pieces, the fence bought eighty. We still had another £10,000 in foreign currency, and forty pieces of difficult to move but still valuable jewellery. We had hit the jackpot.

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