Many know about the Prospect’s association with Princess Margaret, Grace Kelly and Richard Burton, but what of the armed robbery of Saturday, January 10 1953?
It had been a chilly, but reasonably mild January day in Wapping. As the clock approached midnight the Prospect was closed and empty, other than the manageress Eva Johns and two barmen tidying up the pub. Fresh sawdust was scattered across the floor. Voices from the first floor seeping through the ceiling and down the stairs.
Anthony Owen Lynch, aged 40, was sat in his Daimler waiting patiently, the temperature skirting above zero. He had been hired by Captain Cunningham for the evening to chauffeur some of his party to and from the pub. Lynch would have known it would soon be time for the party to depart. It had been foggy most of the day, and would have been growing thicker as Lynch sat in the car.
In the pub, Owen Cunningham, or Captain as he liked to be styled had been dining with a small group of friends and made his way to the stairs. Their meal had been hosted by George Broadbent, the licensee in the upstairs Samuel Pepys restaurant. Captain Cunningham was well known in society circles, both for his eponymous oyster bar on Curzon Street in Mayfair and for his private life. Tales of his antics appeared regularly in the press, including notably a fist fight with the Duke of Marlborough at the Twenty One Club in 1949.
Cunningham’s divorce had kept the papers busy, not only for the scandal of a society divorce, but for his wife’s imprisonment during the proceedings for contempt of court. Across the Commonwealth, newspapers carried stories of the socialite going from Mayfair to Holloway in a Rolls Royce. Her temporary incarceration arising from interfering with witnesses set to testify to her adultery. In the run up to the divorce proceedings Cunningham had even been forced to resort to advertising in The Times to ensure his estranged wife did not obtain credit using his name. Yet even once the decree nisi was granted, press attention did not fade, as scandal raised its head again when Jessie was declared bankrupt shortly after.
Outside the pub, in the thickening fog, Lynch’s car door was opened, a figure stood beside Lynch, draped in a light coloured raincoat. as Lynch turned to confront the stranger, he was taken aback, not only by the petulance of this interloper but by the fact that the figure’s face was concealed by a red scarf; only the stranger’s eyes revealing the danger Lynch now found himself in. The figure’s arm extended and Lynch knew instantly that the evening was not going to plan. A revolver was being pointed at him. A second figure, identically dressed but holding a truncheon stood beside him and a third identical figure became apparent and ordered him out of the car.
Lynch was ordered to walk to the pub door and beckon the staff to let him in. Lynch knocked and called at the door until one of the barmen opened it. As the door opened, and the cold night air poured in, two of the gang grabbed the barman and dragged him inside. Lynch, restrained by a third member of the gang was thrown to the floor.
At this moment, Captain Cunningham and his party were walking down the stairs. As Cunningham descended, he would have seen the manageress and two barmen lying on the floor, and the back of the chauffeur who had driven them to pub. More disturbing than this were the three masked figures; three demons in trench coats. Two of the figures dashed to him, and shouted in the style of so many gangster movies “this is a stick-up”.
Neither the honourable Patrick Campbell, first son of Lord Charles Campbell, second Baron Glenavy, nor his wife Cherry, had expected their meal to end with a taste of sawdust and on being told to get on the floor Campbell refused, and was rewarded by having his head cut open by the butt of the revolver.
The diners and bar staff were ordered upstairs, presumably away from the ground floor windows. Cunningham and his party were thrown to the floor, their faces resting on the fresh sawdust, lying with the bar staff, staring at the wooden floor. There on the floor lay Lynch, Cunningham, Mr and Mrs Campbell, Elizabeth Smith, Mr Peter Brusey, a solicitor’s managing clerk and his wife, two barmen, Eva Johns, the manageress and George Broadbent the landlord.
When the anyone tried to turn their heads to see what was going on, a threatening flick of the truncheon or revolver was directed perilously close to them.
“Keep your eyes down” came the command from somewhere in the room every time one the prisoners moved. The gang collected wallets, money and jewellery from their captives. Eva Johns was forced to hand over the key to the safe, which with two tills were emptied into an old fish bag.
After finishing their work, the thieves had acquired £1,000 from the safe, from George Broadbent a watch and a diamond ring worth £2,500, rings worth £47 from Eva Johns, £8 from Peter Brusey, £75 from Captain Cunningham, three bracelets worth £10 from Elizabeth Smith, 5s from Patrick Campbell and a bracelet worth £2 from Cherry Campbell.
The thieves were unrelenting, even taking Peter Brusey’s umbrella.
|Should have dined at home?
As the three masked robbers stood there, with cash and jewellery worth around £3,500 (around £80,000 in 2011 prices), one of the robbers made a fundamental error of judgement. He removed his mask. The game had now changed. He could be identified. The gang had a choice. Would they run and take the chance that they could get far enough away to avoid identification, or would they need to be certain that there were no witnesses left.
It might at this point be informative to introduce one Robert Harrington Sanders, aged 29, who occasionally worked as an electrician. Sanders had served in the army during the war, as part of the Black Watch, but deserted during the invasion of Germany. Taking advantage of the situation, he was described at his subsequent court martial in June 1945 to have run riot. Whilst in Germany he committed two cases of robbery with aggravation, four cases of rape, and one of indecent assault. When he was caught and tried, he was sentenced to 15 years of penal servitude, but this was subsequently reduced to 7 years. Sanders escaped from prison and went on the run.
Sanders then went on another spree, and when again caught, a year later, he was sentenced to an additional 14 years for possessing a firearm with intent to endanger life and also given concurrent sentences of seven years, three years and one year for attempting to steal a motorcar, receiving a wireless set, and other offences.
On December 13, 1952, just a month before our diners found themselves lying on the floor, Sanders escaped from Wakefield Gaol and made his way to London. Sanders formed a band of six men, who became known as the “Red Scarf Gang”, with Sanders pleased to describe himself as the leader.
It seems likely then, that those men in the pub that night were ‘in’ with Sanders, but I can tell you that Sanders was never arrested, charged or tried for the Prospect of Whitby Robbery.
Once the gang had finished robbing the pub and its customers, the three masked men and a lookout escaped in the Daimler, which was later found abandoned. The following Monday’s Times included a brief report that the police were on the lookout for four criminals.
On January 26, two weeks after the robbery, Edward Penfold, aged 21, a labourer, of Whitworth House, Falmouth Road was visited at home and was told that he answered the description of the man who was not masked. At an identification parade he was picked out by Peter Brusey and his wife, and by Patrick Campbell. Cherry Campbell however, picked out another of the eight men who were on parade. Penfold denied any involvement and said that he was at the fair ground at Walworth Road on the night in question. Penfold on the basis of witness testimony was remanded in custody.
On the 16th of February Penfold was released without charge. For three weeks Penfold had been in police custody. He had appeared before the courts three times and had been identified by three eye witnesses. This change of events came about because of the actions of Edward Plumpton.
It was Plumpton that had been the unmasked man and he had come forward out of guilt that another man might go to prison in his place.
In discharging Penfold, the magistrate was rather philosophical:
“So far as this case is concerned you leave this court without a stain on your character. You have been the victim of extraordinary circumstances which were very unfortunate for you, but the police cannot be blamed, as they acted on the information given them.”
The magistrates words suggest that he wasn’t entirely convinced that Penfold was an angel, even if on this occasion, the accusation was unfair. Penfold was denied costs from the courts but was advised by the magistrate to approach ‘the right authorities’ for compensation.
Taking Penfold’s place in the dock was the aforementioned Edward Plumpton, aged 27, a lorry driver, of Rill House, Harris Street, Camberwell, and Derek Donald Gould, aged 23, a street trader, of Brondesbury Road, Kilburn, charged with seven charges of robbery, armed with a revolver and truncheon.
The trial was started afresh with evidence given at previous hearings against Penfold was repeated.
When asked whether he wished to question Mr. Brusey, Plumpton said: “I admit I was the man without a mask.”
It’s not clear how Gould was identified but both plead guilty.
During interrogation Edward Plumpton stated:
“Two fellows approached me and asked me if I wanted to earn a few pounds. One of them said he had the needle with the governor a pub over the way and they were going to get their own back. Up to the time we got outside the Prospect of Whitby I did not realize anybody had a gun. I thought we were going to have a fight with a gang. I did not know it was to be a robbery.”
Mr. A. E. Bolton, appearing for Gould, said that “the two men in the dock were merely the small fry in this affair”.
And what of the other two?
Chief Inspector John Freshney, reported that the third man who carried the revolver (and hit Campbell) had been arrested on another charge. This man was Sanders, who had been arrested for attempted murder of a police man. The look-out was also apprehended and was being tried for another offence, but his identity wasn’t reported in the press.
Inspector Freshney said Plumpton had no criminal record and was a British Road Services driver with a decent home and two children. Plumpton had got into trouble at dog racing and took part in this robbery to get money for his wife. Gould in contrast had four previous convictions, one of which he committed with his father.
Mr. Peter Rawlinson, appearing for Plumpton, said that Plumpton thought he was merely going to a ” pub brawl ” and did not know that the others were armed. He went without a scarf and without taking any precautions against being identified, although witnesses stated there were three men in masks, implying that Sanders may have provided Plumpton with a mask when they committed the crime.
At sentencing, Gould received four-and-a-half years’ imprisonment and Plumpton two- and-a-half years’ imprisonment.
Passing sentence the Recorder (Sir Gerald Dodson) told Plumpton that he had done his best to ruin his life and to Gould the Recorder said: ” You have sold yourself to the powers of darkness. You are far too sophisticated, far too tutored in the ways of wickedness for corrective training.”
So, it all turned out ok, and everyone was brought to justice and no one was seriously injured.
Patrick and Cherry Campbell divorced. Patrick went on to gain fame as a panellist on Call My Bluff
Owen Cunningham married one of waitresses in the 1960s, a lady some thirty years his junior, and with whom he had six children. He was in talks to open a chain of Cunningham restaurants in the USA when he died in 1974.
Robert Harrington Sanders was convicted for attempted murder and sentenced to life.
Peter Brussey emigrated to Australia, developed a reputation as an excellent Barrister and eventually returned to the UK. A contemporary stated Brusey disliked confrontation and declined appointment as a judge as he could not contemplate sending someone to prison, perhaps an echo of his own misidentification of Penfold?
And as a parting gift, a recipe from Captain Cunningham.
This post consolidates two serialised parts for the ease of reading.