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Authors: Roy Archibald Hall

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Back in Edinburgh, Louis Henry, Esther’s adult son, put the locked black tin box back into the glass cabinet where it was stored at night. He noticed that the keys were not in their usual place, and he assumed his mother must have them on her. It wasn’t until the start of the next business day that they both realised the keys were actually missing. An ironmonger was summoned to the shop to break open the locked box. When the lid was removed the Henrys found themselves looking at three neatly piled telephone directories. The alarm was raised. Esther Henry was friendly with half the crowned heads of Europe as well as Governnment ministers, and at least one Chief Constable of the Scottish police force. I realised that once she and the police had put two and two together, every police force in Britain would be after me. I would now become top
priority. Wooton was a known criminal associate of mine, his name would soon come into the frame. We thought it best to disappear. Loaded with money, and posing as American businessmen, we headed for the south coast for a short holiday.

Torquay is a charming seaside resort. John and I booked ourselves into a first-class hotel under assumed names. On that first evening, the main ballroom was host to a fundraising charity auction and dinner. We both mingled with the other guests, then with some brandies inside us we entered into the spirit of things. John bid £30 for a basket of fruit, which he promptly gave back to the waiter and told him to re-auction. This won a round of applause from the crowd. I successfully bid for two bottles of champagne, which I didn’t re-auction but instead had sent over to the Mayor’s table as a gift from two foreign businessmen. Within minutes we were invited to join the local dignitaries. Later that evening, I had drinks and conversation with the Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall. We both remarked how obvious criminals were – little did he know, I was probably the country’s most wanted thief. The next day we were invited to the Mayor’s chambers for sherry. Our pictures had been taken by the local papers. At that moment we had Torquay in the palm of our hands. We could have presented dud cheques to any jewellers in town, and they would have been accepted without question.

Feeling isolated in London, my mother came down to join us. She and John took some time out and did all the usual tourist stuff – horse-drawn carriage rides and walks on the beach. That was the week of the Grand National.
With plenty of money and in ebullient mood, I fancied a flutter. I was standing on my hotel balcony early one morning. In the distance was a small boy in a rowing boat. He looked so tiny – the mist almost shrouded him completely. I looked through the racing pages, there were horses running in that week’s Aintree meeting called ‘Sailing Light’ and ‘Early Mist’. I bet one hundred pounds each way in a double. To my delight they both won. I won thousands, thousands that I did not need. I was on a roll, this was a life worth living.

Ten years older than me, John was now considering settling down. My mother and he were thinking along the lines of a pub or guest house. Torquay was a possible option and the idea of retiring to the coast seemed to be on the cards. A life of active crime was now becoming a thing of the past for John. He was reaching mid-life and he had my mother to think of. We looked at what was left of the haul from Edinburgh – forty pieces of jewellery, which contained some aquamarines thought by
The Guardian
to be part of the Hungarian crown jewels. I paid John a fair price for his share. He was now cut free from the job, all he had to do was keep out of the reach of the long arm of the law.

While John and my mother started looking at possible properties, I took a quick trip to London’s East End. Carrying a suitcase of clothes that I didn’t really need, I knocked on the door of Johnny Collins. There was no need for long-winded explantions. I handed him the case, told him that, as a security measure, I was dispersing my belongings among a few trusted friends. I
asked him to put it in his attic and told him that I would be back to claim it some day. Among the thieves I worked with, there was a code of honour. None of us would break it, it was our bond, our only security in a world full of law-abiding grasses.

My mother and John rented a furnished house in Margate. It was from there John called me and said he had something he wanted me to look at. Criminals are averse to discussing things in detail over the phone. I didn’t ask any questions but drove straight to the coast. As I got out of my brand-new Jaguar, outside John’s door, I noticed a man reading a newspaper on a park bench. He gave me more than a passing glance. My instincts immediately went on alert. Entering the house I told John of my suspicions. He said I was imagining it, but I was growing uneasier by the second. I told him I was leaving, whatever it was he wanted to discuss would have to wait. Going straight back out, I got into the Jag and fired the engine. The man on the park bench had disappeared. I couldn’t clarify my thoughts. All I knew was that I smelled danger. I drove around the corner and two police cars came at me from either side. A third, as if from nowhere, appeared behind me. Plain clothes and uniforms surrounded my car. I was nicked.

This was the price I paid for not wanting to leave my new car. If I had left by the back door, jumped over some garden fences and made my way on foot, maybe I would have got away. But I didn’t. The car was my pride and joy. They say material greed is one of man’s downfalls – on that day it was mine.

I denied everything. Under heavy escort, we were all taken first to London and then on to Edinburgh by train. We arrived late at night. The train and platform emptied before anyone moved. When we stepped off the train we were met by Chief Constable Merrilees. Coming up to me he shook my hand and said: ‘So you’re Fontaine. Well, I’m glad it was one of her own – and not foreigners like the press have been speculating.

Prior to us robbing her, Esther Henry had been on something of a shopping expedition. She had travelled through Europe buying antiques and jewels. Her eventual destination was Egypt where she had been invited by the late King Farouk to look at some
objets d’art
that he was willing to sell. After making her purchases she had returned to Scotland via Hungary, where I think she bought the aquamarines now in my possession. Theories had been put forward by the Scottish press that she had been trailed back to Edinburgh by a gang of international jewel thieves, who robbed her.

We were offered a deal. If we pleaded guilty, they would say that we had stolen less than we had. Also, John would be charged only with receiving stolen property. I was against doing any deal with the police. My mind was changed for me by my mother – she was their lever. If we agreed to the deal, she would not be charged. If we didn’t she would stand alongside us in the dock as an accessory. I had already caused her to be imprisoned once and it was not something I wished to repeat. I agreed to their terms. At Edinburgh Crown Court, I received three years and John, four. My mother walked free.

M
y first sentence at Barlinie had been quite an ordeal. I was young and vulnerable and the place had terrified me. I had now done the rounds a bit and prison was just an occupational hazard. This term would be different from most, our faces had been all over the newspapers and we were described as ‘gentlemen thieves’. We had carried out what was at that time Scotland’s biggest ever jewel robbery. The cons all wanted to shake our hands and the warders were friendly. I had taken another step up the criminal ladder. Due to the publicity that the robbery and trial had attracted, we both expected to be transferred to Peterhead – Scotland’s most secure and toughest prison. In due time we were informed that this would indeed be the case. I was in the exercise yard one day, when the Chief Officer, along with the prison Chaplain, both came over to see me. They told me
a vacancy had come up in the prison library. If I wanted the job it was mine, and it meant I could stay at Barlinie. When I had first done time in an English prison, John had looked after me. In Scottish prisons, the English are viewed with some suspicion. John knew no one north of the border, so now was the time for me to look after him. Like shit to a blanket, partners should stick together. But it was a quandary. The librarians’ jobs are much sought after – they give you freedom of movement and it is possible to get involved in all kind of scams. There’s no doubt that this was a golden opportunity for me to do the easiest time possible. I was given a few days to make up my mind. That evening in our cell John and I talked it through. He said I would be a fool to turn it down. He could cope with Peterhead, he would be alright. I agreed, but I had reservations. Those reservations proved to be unfounded, as within days of his arrival at his new prison he was given the librarian’s job as well. My mother rented a cottage at more or less equal distances from both prisons and visited us both regularly. It was a tough time for her.

For different reasons it was a tough time for Esther Henry who also visited me on numerous occasions. She wanted her jewels back and wanted to know whether I had sold them or still had them. I wasn’t saying anything. A visit gets you out of your cell. Visitors buy you coffee and give you cigarettes. On the inside you do what you have to do.

Even in prison Esther proved to be useful. As long as she thought there was a chance of recovering her precious jewels, she would play along with whatever I wanted. As
Christmas approached, the convicts’ concert was in preparation. A few prisoners had got a band together but were short of a drum kit. Esther had connections on the prison board of governors. The band got its drum kit, a decent one, on hire from one of Glasgow’s music stores.

The library job proved to be everything that I’d hoped it would be. Within weeks, I was involved in every possible fiddle. I got to know a young warder who was kind to me in many ways. As we got to know each other, he started to confide in me. His relations with his wife were not all that he wanted and he craved extra spice. Could I get him porn? He didn’t dare buy it on the outside for fear of discovery. We set up a trade. I would get him the porn if he would get me tobacco, which was in those days still the main prison currency. For me one trade led to another, it gave me an interest, something to do.

It was no secret that I smoked, but no one but me knew of the young warder’s sexual inclinations. Gradually the dynamics of our relationship changed. I knew his secret, it was in his interests to keep me happy. Hanging still took place in British prisons and at that time there was a man in Barlinie awaiting execution. For reasons I didn’t really understand, I wanted to see the death cell. No con ever saw this and if you did you never got a chance to tell the tale. I pestered the warder for days and eventually, when no other cons or warders were around, he unlocked the door and I stepped inside. I realised immediately that if we could get a photograph, the tabloid press would pay thousands for it. I pressed the idea, tried to persuade him that if we used a third party, no one need ever know we
had instigated it. He baulked at this, because if found out, he would lose his job and be prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act. I stopped pestering him about the photo and satisfied my curiosity by walking around the cell. To call it a cell was not an adequate description. It consisted of three levels – the top of the gallows where the rope and pulley system were, the trap door where the prisoner stands with a bag on his head and rope around his neck, and the sandpit below where, with his neck stretched, he would dangle. Standing on the trap door and looking through the hatch in the ceiling to the top of the gallows, I said: ‘Who’d be a murderer and risk finding himself standing here?’ I didn’t know then that if it hadn’t been for the Abolitionists that is exactly where I would have later stood. Maybe subconsciously, we know things about ourselves that we’d rather not.

As I approached the end of my sentence, I was transferred to Duke Street women’s prison. This was where, years ago, my mother had lived for a month. Now it had all but been closed down and most of the inmates had been moved to a modern new jail in Greenock. There was now just a skeleton staff and a few prisoners, whose duties were to pack up all stores and sundries before the old prison was consigned to the pages of history. I was assigned to work under the Steward. My duties were to parcel up and label remaining stores and to clean the Steward’s office every morning. The Governor’s office was next to the office I cleaned. It was cleaned by one of the female prisoners. The bolts that locked it were on her side. We became friendly. If we were caught fraternising it
would mean the punishment block and time added onto our sentences so we had to exercise the utmost care. Once the offices had been cleaned, any rubbish or ashes had to be emptied at the rubbish tip. Before she would make this walk, my friend would tap on the door. She would start her walk to the huge dustbins and a minute later I would follow. There, among the piles of garbage and
industrial-sized
bins, we would grab each other. Using the bins as cover, we would lean against the cold metal and fuck. For both of us, those few minutes would be the only happiness that the day contained. We would walk back to prison life separately one minute apart. Such is the life of convicts.

* * *

It was 6.00am on a cold winter morning in 1955 when I stepped free, back on to the Glasgow streets of my childhood. I visited a few friends, and picked up some initial moving about money. Then, after buying a dozen red roses, I caught the train to Edinburgh. When I walked through the front door of Esther’s shop, the cleaning lady started giving me verbal abuse: ‘How dare you show your face here? How could you betray your friendship with Esther?’ I just smiled and, walking over to Esther, gave her the roses. The lady from whom I’d robbed a fortune smiled back. Esther had class. She still wanted to buy back her jewels. She asked me whether that was possible and I said: ‘Esther, you are an immensely wealthy woman. Enjoy the rest of your life.’ With that I left. I never saw her again. In
1961 she was killed in a plane crash in Brazil. The cleaning woman had it wrong, I hadn’t betrayed my friendship with Esther, she had always been a ‘mark’. She was wealthy and I was a thief, but we truly had liked each other.

From the shop, I went straight to the Caledonian Railway Station and caught the first train to London. Back on what was now my home ground, I made my way to Cable Street in the East End. I knocked on the front door of Johnny Collins’ flat. He was pleased to see me and we had some drinks. The suitcase that I had left with him had never been opened. Honour. It wasn’t until I was back in my hotel room that I opened it. There was one particular suit that I was interested in, one particular suit jacket. I felt underneath the collar. Right at the back, at the nape point, my fingers found what they were looking for. Sellotaped there was a small key. The next morning that same small key opened up a safety deposit box in Harrods’ bank. I looked at my immediate future, the jewels that were before my eyes would have made a certain Scottish shopkeeper the happiest woman alive. The well-connected Ms Henry still had plenty of everything. Me, I had to start again, and this was my beginning.

I rented a flat in Knightsbridge and employed a young guy to keep it clean, press my suits, and so on. I started to look round and figure out my next move. A chance meeting in a pub in Windsor brought it about. I was sitting in the bar drinking expensive brandy and luxuriating in my freedom. Only those who have known imprisonment truly appreciate freedom. There was a young attractive woman, sitting alone at a table near me. I thought I might like to
fuck her; if not, maybe have some enjoyable conversation. I smiled at her and asked her whether she would like a drink. She accepted and joined me. During the conversation, all thoughts of fucking her vanished. What she was telling me meant business. She knew of a publican in Slough, who was a silent partner in a bookmaking business. This young woman had once worked for him as a barmaid. Slowly, plying her all the time with drinks, I coaxed the information I wanted out of her. The publican was rich and he and his wife were heavy drinkers. In the cellar, among the beer barrels, was a safe. All large denomination banknotes went to that safe along with his wife’s jewellery. I left the drunken girl in the pub. The less she knew about me the better. Instead, I flew to Edinburgh. On the flight back to London there were two of us. The man with me was Ambrose Carr, a safeblower, one of the best. We took rooms in a lodging-house in Slough. Every day we watched the pub, the Montague Arms. For three weeks, we observed all their habits, all their routines.

The broadcaster Gilbert Harding was a regular at the bar. He was a gay man, very famous in his day. I became good friends with him and his lover, a director of a well-known international company. These were wealthy, well-connected men. These friendships, as with Esther Henry, were purely superficial. I was on the lookout for useful information. If I had sex, well, that was a bonus.

I have never been frightened of dogs. The pub dog was a Great Dane, which was allowed to roam around the bar and was popular with the customers. It was especially friendly with me, although I was probably the only
customer in the pub who was secretly feeding it fresh raw meat from my pocket. That dog just loved me in no time. When we had seen enough, we decided to make our move. We chose a night when both the landlord and landlady were almost legless at closing time. They wouldn’t so much sleep as collapse. We waited until 3.00am before entering. The Great Dane was on us in seconds and, just as quickly, it was eating its favourite raw meat and following my hand as I led it into the back yard, down the path and into a shed, where it sat with a bag full of steak. I locked the door. After Ambrose had done his stuff, we covered the safe in coats, cushions, beer towels, rugs, everything. It must have been the warmest safe in the south of England. When Ambrose’s gelignite exploded, it became the hottest. I went into the yard and looked up at the publicans’ bedroom window. No lights went on, they were so pissed they’d have slept through a nuclear explosion. However, when the smoke had cleared, we saw that the safe door had buckled, but it was jammed. Ambrose said all that was needed was a touch of ‘jelly’ on the hinges. He did his work. Again, we covered the safe, and bang! This explosion was not so loud. The safe door, falling on to the stone cellar floor made more noise. The safe was full of banknotes, in a corner at the back were some nice pieces of jewellery. I was back in business.

In our lodging rooms, we showered and shampooed. All the clothes that we had worn were put into rubbish bags and disposed of. If we were caught, the police forensics would have nothing. We counted the money – there was
£29,000. For a cheap price, I bought Ambrose’s share of the jewels. He caught the first plane back to Edinburgh, and I returned to my London flat. It felt good to be working again.

BOOK: The Wicked Mr Hall
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