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Peter Hinchliffe - Some crimes from the 1960s

In the 1950s all Police Constables and Sergeants were paid weekly in cash. In 1958 my weekly pay before stoppages, was just over £9.

All departments of Exeter City Council used a system purchased from the Midland Railway to distribute the money. Every employee had a little numbered tin complete with lid, a similarly numbered disc was issued as proof of identity. The tins were about 2 inches in diameter, and all slotted into a tray that held about 100 tins. Into each tin was placed the notes, coins and pay slip for the week.

On pay day you went to the Sergeants office at the appropriate time to collect your tin. The police did not use the system of identity tokens which were supplied to all other council employees.

The City Police changed to see through envelopes about 1960 but the rest of the Council manual workers continued with the tins. A taxi was used to transport pay clerks and the tray of tins containing the money, around the city to agreed meeting points where the workers had gathered. Despite repeated, and ignored warnings, that it would happen, the taxi carrying the wages was eventually attacked by robbers in 1964 whilst paying a couple of gardeners in Southernhay.

Note–An identical Midland Railway pay system to the one we used, is exhibited at The Black Country Museum at Dudley. The museum is well worth a visit.

The arsonist that got away

The City has one great and baffling series of crimes that has never been solved, any one of the incidents could have lead to a disaster. It is probably the biggest criminal operation the City Police ever mounted. The criminal was setting fires in houses of multiple occupancy, it is in this type of property that the greatest number of deaths occur from fires each year.

In 1963 the first fire occurred in the middle of the day, in a bed sit, that had been broken into, but nothing had been stolen, altogether a very strange event. The Fire Brigade were sure it was arson, and it seemed a "one off" until the second offence the following week.

Another bed sit or flat was attacked in the middle of the day, a break in, a suggestion of sexual activity, followed by arson. The Fire Brigade were probably called by the offender. Thankfully fire damage was limited, but setting a fire in such a building could have been catastrophic. The next week another burglary with a fire. It was happening every week. Some of the burglaries did not have a fire, some showed the sexual connotation others did not.

When the CID realised they had a series running, analysis was undertaken and it became clear that our offender was selecting the older houses and villas that had been converted to flats and bed sits, he seemed to choose one area and then go somewhere completely different the next week, without returning to a previously visited location. The attacks happened on the same days each week.

A large scale observation was mounted with every available officer, keeping watch on a small area of suitable properties through the middle of the day. The observations went on 3 days a week for many weeks Whether it was luck or some more sinister reason, the offender did not come to where we had mounted our observations, but the breaks and fires continued.

We came very close to catching him. As you can imagine the City Fire Brigade were as interested in this matter as we were. A young off duty fireman returning to his flat in Belmont Road, passed a stranger on the stairs, shortly before discovering one of the flats in the same house was ablaze. We now had a description but it did us no good.

The series ran into the summer of 1964 and stopped as suddenly as it started. The crimes still remain undetected.

The City Crime Squad

Through the mid sixties Exeter City had a "Crime Squad"–it started with a Sergeant and five PCs in 1962, and it provided a resource, to patrol areas where the prevalence of crime could not be tackled by the normal beat officers. It soon proved its value and became a regular policing feature in the City.

One recollection of the Crime Squad (a bit like "Life on Mars") could never be repeated these days, happened on Friday 6th., August, 1965.

The crew that evening was Sergeant Eric Rainsbury, PCs Ken Steele and Terry Paddon, who was driving, and me. We had received information that a man with a number of serious convictions who had escaped from Winson Green, Birmingham, was staying in Exeter with one of our local villains. We set out to find the local man who we knew well. Just before 10 pm one of our crew went with the informant to the lively and notorious Long Bar in North Street, whilst the rest of us tried to look inconspicuous near the front of the pub. Suddenly I saw our local man come out and get into a Vauxhall Viva that was driven away by another man (the escapee). We ran to our Mark 1 Ford Cortina and managed to follow the Vauxhall to Southernhay, where we were spotted.

The chase was on! Our 1100cc Cortina, which had done a quarter of a million miles was struggling to keep up. In Heavitree, the fleeing car turned into North Street and on to the Ladysmith Road area, The driver lost control, he was colliding with the front walls of the houses on either side of the road, as he hit the front wall of No 115, Ladysmith Road, Terry Paddon rammed the car in an attempt to wedge it in, but we bounced off with damage all down our off side.

The Viva, despite a punctured front wheel kept going and accelerated away, driving around the streets of Polsloe Park, before hitting a double decker bus in Jubilee Road, where the Viva lost a rear tyre completely. From then on it was like following a grindstone, with great showers of sparks coming from the unshod wheel.

We had agreed a plan of action when the car stopped – I would deal with the passenger – Eric and Terry would deal with the driver. Eventually the car collided with the wall of a house in Ladysmith Road and the occupants ran off, I chased and caught the passenger. By the time Eric and Terry got out of the damaged squad car, the driver had managed to escape for the time being. He was caught several weeks later.

If you go today, to the streets where this chase took place, they are lined, bumper to tail, with parked cars on either side of the road, 24 hours a day. On that night in 1965, there was not a single car parked along the entire route of the chase.

Peter Hinchliffe is a retired City of Exeter police officer.

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