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Authors: Roy Archibald Hall

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Not entirely happy in my work, I busied myself with the task of finding where the safe keys were. I searched high and low but there was no sign of them anywhere. In the end, my sights fell on Sir George’s combination-locked briefcase. Patience is a virtue. Whenever I got the chance, I would play with the lock. I tried every combination of possible numbers – birthdays, anniversaries, ages, house numbers. Nothing. Eventually, one afternoon when Sir George was in the garden, I tried again. I stared at it and it hit me! One, two, three, four, and then O. O for open! On a day off, I took the keys to Praed Street and had copies made.

London life was not for Phylis. She was a country girl, raised in a village. Homely and eager to please, she wanted to go home. She asked me whether I would go with her, we could settle down, buy a shop, open a restaurant perhaps. Poor Phylis. I had never told her the truth about myself. We had grown close, I had bought her many gifts, taken her to Stafford to visit John and my mother. I told
her to go back to her village and find an honest, homely man who would appreciate her. I did miss her for a while, but I was pleased I no longer had the responsibility. Sooner or later, I would cause her pain. I would always be a villain. I knew that. Phylis belonged in her village.

Charles Clore, on the other hand, could have bought a village. He was one of Britain’s richest financiers, a powerful man. While at the Aylwens, his house had been pointed out to me. This was a man of immense wealth. I had a feeling about Clore. I wanted to work for him. I wanted to make him my biggest target, and rob him of millions.

I had these thoughts the very first time I heard of his name and of his wealth. When you are ‘in service’ you hear rumours. Upper-class circles are quite incestuous. The same people attend the same parties and there is a circuit of sorts. With Phylis gone, I had tired of the Aylwens. Also, the sooner I became just a memory, the sooner I could come back and rob the safe. I heard from one of the kitchen staff that Clore’s butler had attempted suicide and was in hospital. Obviously, not a very happy individual. I was already scouring
Tatler
for a fresh appointment. When I saw the ad, although no details were given, I just knew that it was the Clore vacancy.

 

Clore was a small nervous man. He hated the dark and at night all lights had to be left on. At the time I knew him, he had recently divorced. He entertained ladies every evening, including Mandy Rice Davies, a young prostitute who became nationally famous and was later portrayed by Bridget Fonda in the film
Scandal
. When Bob Hope stayed
in town, he was a house guest. Clore’s wealth was greater than the Laws, or anybody else’s that I’d worked for.

Original Renoir paintings hung on his walls. The place felt like someone had set up home in a museum. It was also like a fortress. Now that this man had untold wealth, the thought of losing it terrified him. Out of all the people I worked for, I found Clore the least personable. I wished I had robbed him destitute. Studying the contents, some of which I wanted to steal, was a most pleasurable pastime – jade cigarette boxes as big as bricks, a Fabergé Easter egg, worth half a million pounds, Picassos, gold statues. In his dining-room, every piece of furniture was antique. Clore and his designers would buy from the old, increasingly impoverished stately homes. The captains of industry are the new aristocracy. Clore’s children would inherit more than some young Earl from a rambling country mansion. I eyed his belongings lasciviously, and tried to formulate a plan.

To tide myself over I went back and robbed the Laws’ safe at High Trees. Some nice jewels. The cheapskate Aylwens also had their safe emptied. Clore was still proving to be a problem. I liked him less, and he had more. After robbing him, I wanted to go abroad. There was no reason why I couldn’t make enough on this one job to last me the rest of my life. I could take millions in one hit. It would be complex, I would need the opportunity, instant buyers, and agreed prices. And a safe passage out of the country. But it was all here, the bloody Easter egg alone was worth half a million. I was working on the details when Clore had his insurance policy renewed.

Question
. Are there any new employees in the house?

Answer
. Yes, a butler.

Insurance investigators are very thorough. They found out who I was. Two of them, along with Clore’s personal assistant who had originally engaged me, came to the house. I was told to pack my things and leave immediately. I made sure that one of them watched me pack. At this stage I had robbed nothing. I was sickened, I had been a whisker away from my biggest robbery. I consoled myself by spending a week at the Cumberland, one of London’s nicer hotels. I drank brandies and had sex with young rent boys. At the end of the week I returned to the Knightsbridge area and rented a flat. However, while I had been putting my feet up at the Cumberland, the Old Bill had been busy. The front door to my new home suffered the same fate as the one in Hans Crescent. It was smashed in by sledgehammers wielded by officers of the Metropolitan Police. Once again it was 6.00am. Good job I’m not someone who likes to sleep late!

I was taken in and questioned about two jewel robberies, both of which I had done. I said nothing. I thought their evidence was at best circumstantial, but I never dreamed what would happen next. At the London County Sessions, they found me guilty. They gave me another ten years! As I walked down the dock steps, I swore that this time they could fuck themselves. I wasn’t going to do this sort of time.

The sentences were ridiculous. I wouldn’t do it! This time I’d earn that fucking ‘E’ patch they’d stuck on me for so many years. This time I would escape.

B
lundeston was ultra modern. Electronic. Escape proof. Well, we'd see about that. Like many of the modern prisons, it was built well away from the local community, a desolate place on a desolate part of the Suffolk coast. The wind off the North Sea would chill you to the bone.

I started doing my time quietly. There was plenty of scheming and planning going on there, but all escape attempts were uncovered. Somewhere, there was a grass. I told no one of my ideas, instead, I let it be known I was happy to do my time quietly. I'd been in worse prisons.

I was given a job in the kitchens. During the evening, while staring out of my cell window, I found myself staring at the roof of the place I worked. There were three mushroom-shaped ventilation shafts protruding from the flat surface. When you looked up in the kitchen, you
looked at a flat ceiling, which meant that there must be another floor between the ceiling and the roof. I spoke to a con whom I thought to be trustworthy, George O'Neill.

George told me that the ventilator shafts came out of three rooms over the kitchen, two of which were used as stores, the third housed the boiler. Every week, a civilian worker came in to service them. Another con, Don Whittaker, was brought in. The three of us planned to escape.

Now that I knew what I was looking for, there was no problem, just work to do. When the civilian engineer came to do his service, I was waiting. As he sprayed around with his can of oil, I took an impression of his doorkey. I looked up at the circular shaft in the roof. There were no bars on it. While he had his head stuck between two pieces of machinery, reading some pressure dial or other, I stretched up and measured the width of the hole with a piece of string.

Later in my cell, I cut a hole in a sheet of newspaper to the exact circumference of the ventilation shaft. If I could get through the hole in that paper, I could get through the shaft. George O'Neill held it over my head. I could get through. We could all get out!

After doing some trade, I managed to get hold of a wrench. With George and Don acting as lookouts, I entered the boiler room. I carefully loosened all the bolts to the mushroom-shaped canopies. Now the canopies could be unscrewed by hand and lifted off. A man could clamber up the small shaft and pull himself up on to the roof.

We were almost ready. I made a phone call to a friend in London. He would bring a getaway car with the key taped
under the dashboard. If we made it out of the prison, we would have to somehow get out of this desolate shithole before the roadblocks were set up. We had the sea on one side of us, and bleak countryside stretching as far as the eye could see, to the other.

Prisons are full of routines. I had come to know the routine of the kitchen. Every night, just before it closed, the kitchen officer would hand a selected prisoner a list. This was then taken down to the principal warder's office. The list would contain the names of three men. It was the duty of these men to get the tea urns started, the porridge on, and generally bringing the kitchen to life. Their cell doors were unlocked an hour before everyone else's. When they started work, the prison was virtually still asleep. We needed our names on that list. Don stole a sheet of the same type of paper that the list was written on.

The date was now due for the car to be delivered. We had to make our move. Each day increased our chances of being discovered as a random cell search could reveal the duplicate key.

That evening, as the kitchen closed, I watched the kitchen officer hand the usual con the list for the early-morning shift. Taking it, he meandered through the kitchen. He stopped to chat to another prisoner. I approached him. He was holding the list almost absentmindedly as he talked. I pointed to it, I don't know if I sounded casual, but I was trying: ‘Principal Warder's office?'

He nodded. ‘I'm just going down that way myself, I'll drop it in for you, if you want.'

He handed me the list, my heart was beating like crazy.
We had it! I walked out of the kitchen at what I hoped was a usual pace. Once in the corridor I hurried to my cell. I copied the list, exactly. All except for the names, of course.

The next morning Fontaine, O'Neill and Whittaker would be unlocked early. I hurried down to the Principal's office, there was no one there. I put the list on his desk. I got word to the other two. None of us slept that night. I spent the hours between darkness and light, staring out of the window. I could taste the freedom. I had stolen some pepper from the stores and I'd told the other two to do the same.

If all went well, we would be free in a few hours. If that happened they would get the dogs out as soon as our escape was known. They would bring the dogs to our cells and our blankets and sheets would be put under the hounds' noses to give them our scent. I sprinkled black pepper over everything, including myself. Apart from a sneezing fit, the dogs would get nothing. I sat and waited.

It was still dark, and I was still staring out the window when the kitchen lights went on. It was 5.30am. I watched the warder come out of the kitchen building and enter our wing. I listened to his footsteps in the corridor. Without bothering to look in, he unlocked my door. Within minutes all three of us were in the kitchen. Locking the door behind us, we entered the boiler room. Unscrewing the bolts to the mushroom canopy, I crawled up and on to the roof. The other two followed. Carefully we replaced it.

Our escape route was not obvious to follow. Silently, and still under cover of darkness, we crept along the roof and from there, on to the prison church. Over that one,
down a drainpipe, into a yard. Keeping close to the walls and praying for the darkness not to lift too quickly, we made our way to a maintenance yard where we knew there were ladders. Taking one long and one shorter ladder we crept up to the perimeter barbed-wire fence. We extended the ladder and, first taking the small ladder up, tossed it as quietly as we could over to the other side. Standing precariously, one foot on the top rung of the ladder, the other on the springy, vicious roll of barbed wire that lay on top of the fence, we each jumped. Whittaker cut his leg quite badly. Picking up the smaller ladder, we scaled the final wall that stood between us and freedom.

The scream of the sirens cut through the early morning air like a knife. Whittaker's leg was now bleeding badly. He knew he was slowing us down. He told us to leave him. O'Neill and I grabbed an arm each and, putting it over our shoulders, ran with him. We made our way through bushes and over some fields. Before we were across the fields, we heard the barking. They had the dogs on us. We ran on to where the car was waiting.

The man I had phoned about the car was a supposed old friend who was indebted to me for many favours. He ceased to be a friend that day. There was no car. We were three escaped prisoners in uninhabited, bleak countryside. The wind coming off the North Sea was harsh and chilling, one of us was injured. What a friend. What a cunt.

Our original plan had been to get across the bridge at Lowestoft before the roadblocks went up. I knew that there was no chance. As the barking of the dogs drew nearer, we
half-crouched and half-ran through the wet, cold fields. We took cover wherever we could.

An RAF helicopter from nearby Lowestoft took to the skies in search of us. We crouched under bushes when we heard its approaching noise. Sometimes the dogs got quite close. We kept moving. All that day Don Whittaker, George O'Neill and myself ran through field after field, our hands and necks scratched by the undergrowth that acted as our cover. The blood around Don's wound had now congealed, but his leg was in a sorry state. He was slowing us down.

As each hour passed, I became hungrier, colder and more resolute. I would rather die than be put back in prison. There were times during the coming night when I wondered if I would. By the time darkness fell, we were all disorientated. It was impossible to tell how far we'd travelled. From the fields we could see the lights of the police roadblocks. We travelled until exhaustion overcame us. We slept huddled under a hedge, our bodies frozen.

There were still a couple of hours of darkness left when I awoke the other two. We moved on. We had reached a village of some kind where there was a river to cross. As people slept, we crept through their back gardens, sticking to the riverbank. We needed to get across. I wanted to swim, neither George nor Don could. We retraced our steps and started checking the garden sheds. We were all convinced that if we could get across the river we would be past the roadblocks. There could be an inflatable dinghy in one of the sheds.

On about the fourth garden, we opened a shed and
found an Indian-style canoe for three people. There were no paddles, so we took garden spades. Lowering the canoe into the water, we set off. The current began to pull us downstream. The river carried us along easily, each foot taking us further and further from the prison. My feet and body ached, I was happy to let the flow of the water replace my weary footsteps.

In the dark we were carried on our way. As daybreak came, we passed two all-night fishermen on the bank. They looked at us as we approached then, raising their flasks, shouted: ‘Good luck, lads'. They wouldn't inform. A sporting chance from sportsmen. Before the dark had fully lifted, we berthed on the opposite bank. We let the canoe carry on its journey downstream.

We walked for about a mile. It was now light. There was an unattended van about ten feet away from the roadside house where, presumably, its owner lived. Releasing the handbrake, we pushed it twenty or thirty feet down the lane. When we felt that the noise of the engine wouldn't disturb the household, we hot wired it. For the first time since the breakout, we had a vehicle. It was good to be moving at something quicker than a snail's pace and it was good to be warm. We were about half-a-mile outside the village of Beccles, when the van ran out of petrol. Soon people would be up and about. We were bedraggled and dirty. We needed the cover of a vehicle, and we had to get out of this area.

We walked quickly to the edge of the village. Don was hobbling badly. If anyone saw him, suspicion would be aroused. We stole the first car we saw. We drove through
the village looking for signposts. We turned a corner into a house-lined street, heading west. We all froze as, in the distance, we saw a lone police car. An officer with a torch was standing next to it. George was driving. I hissed at him: ‘Carefully, drive into the next driveway and walk straight to the garage doors.'

George did as I said. The noise of the gravel under the wheels sounded like exploding bombs. We turned the engine off. Our eyes were continually on the house. Would the lights go on? Had we woken them? George walked to the garage door and opened it. I peered through the hedge for any sign of movement from the police car. I listened for the crackle of his radio, but heard nothing. George crept back to the car. I heard voices, a woman.

Silently, I got out of the car, crept to the hedge and looked through. The front door was open and a woman, dressed for work, was talking to the policeman. She seemed agitated and the patrolman followed her into her house. Firing the engine, we drove out of the driveway and back in the direction that we'd come. We took the first secondary road we could. Within minutes we were clear of the village.

I stopped at a newsagents and bought cigarettes, chocolate and newspapers. We devoured the chocolate, and read reports of our escape in the papers. I was the only one of us with money. We had seven pounds. Not enough to take us to Scotland, but I had some friends to the west of where we were. We filled the tank. Coasting on the adrenalin surge that only the chased know, we drove inland. All of us were desperate for sleep.

An hour-and-a-half later, I pulled the car to the side of the road. I had chosen this particular friend because he had no criminal record. There was no reason why the authorities would connect him with me. Even so, I looked about. Everything seemed normal, a suburban house in a suburban street. Blundeston was now a long way away. I told the other two to stay put. Getting out of the car, I approached the house. I went straight round to the back door, knocking lightly, I entered.

At the kitchen sink, washing dishes, was my friend's wife. She looked at me with mild surprise: ‘You've been on the television.'

I nodded, all the time trying to sense her mood. Would she help? ‘I have two colleagues down the road in a car, can I bring them in?'

Wiping her hands, she nodded. Her husband was an old acquaintance of mine, he was not a criminal, but had benefited from my crime. They were both brilliant. They did all they could for us. We bathed Don's leg and then bandaged it. We all bathed and shaved. The husband went to his wardrobe and gave us whatever fitted us. Jackets, jumpers, trousers – none of us had a complete change of clothes, but we all had something. We might have looked motley, but not like escaped cons any more. They had £80 in the house, which they gave me. After feeding us, they wished us luck. I would repay them. I never forget that kind of loyalty.

With full stomachs, clean clothes and looking like ordinary human beings, we hit the road again. I had many contacts in Glasgow and we started the drive to Scotland.
Don's leg still prevented him from driving, so George and I took it in turns.

We travelled throughout the night. With sleep, our instincts and spirits were returning to normal. We had beaten them. We had beaten their walls and bars and their roadblocks. My only concern now was the car. It had been ten hours since the theft, they would almost certainly have connected it to us. By now, the make and registration number would have been communicated to every police force in Britain.

Again, the black blanket of the night seemed like a friend. As daybreak approached, the Glasgow skyline broke through the morning mist. I drove off the main road and started to follow the winding route of the Clyde. At a quiet spot, Dalmuir, we turned the engine off and rolled down all the windows. The three of us pushed the car over the bank and into the dirty grey water of the Clyde. The river swallowed the car in seconds. The last trace with Norfolk was now gone.

BOOK: The Wicked Mr Hall
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