Monday, 4 November 2013

Baker Street

Robert Rowland was an amateur radio ham who lived in Wimpole Street, which is about half a mile away from Baker Street. The time was 11.00 pm on Saturday, 11th September 1971 and Rowland was trying to contact a fellow ham in Australia, but every time he touched the very sensitive dial, between the whistling noises and crackling, he kept hearing other voices coming through much louder and clearer. He didn’t take any notice at first, of what was being said, as his main interest was to bypass them and get a clear contact with his Australian friend.

The voices however, were not quite so easy to bypass as he first thought, as they were coming through on a wavelength only used by walkie-talkies, and were undoubtedly coming from a source within a one to two mile radius of his own location. Rowland had experienced problems like this on other occasions, and while he did find it annoying, there were ways around it, even if somewhat time consuming.

What Rowland suddenly heard however, was one man’s voice talking in hushed tones, telling his accomplice on the other end of the line, to switch off all equipment and stop hammering, as the ‘old Bill’ (criminal slang for police) had just pulled up, and were parked very close by. At first Rowland thought it might be someone having a joke, but as he listened in more, he heard more expletive laced references to digging and the ‘old Bill’, as well as the rooftop where the first man was seemingly located.

After a few minutes, the conversation continued again, the police had apparently left the location, and the next thing he picked up was a man with a strong South London accent declaring that they now had about 400,000, and would let him know when they were coming out. The man then asked if he was being heard OK, to which his accomplice replied that he could hear him loud and clear, and wanted to know how much longer they would be in there.

Rowland was pretty certain by this time that he was listening in to a robbery taking place somewhere within his immediate vicinity, and with the reference to 400,000, he thought the most likely outcome would be a tobacconist shop with 400,000 cigarettes being the most likely theft.

Rowland phoned the police and reported his suspicions to them, but for one reason or another they did not act immediately upon his call, probably assuming that he was just ‘another of those crazy radio hams’. It was at this point that Rowland began to record the radio exchanges, while still trying desperately to get through to someone else within the police, who would take him seriously.

Shortly after midnight, the conversation between the man on the roof and his accomplices was still continuing. The voice of a man who identified himself as Steve came through, telling the rooftop lookout that he wanted him to switch off his walkie-talkie and stay on the roof all night, and then come back on the air with both radios at six o'clock in the morning. The lookout however was very worried about the plan for him to remain in place while the gang left for the night, but Steve argued with him, telling him that the place was filled with fumes and if security came in and smelled them they would have to beat a hasty retreat, which would mean leaving with nothing, whereas this way they would have 300 grand to cut up.

At this point another gang member chipped in, telling the lookout that he wasn’t prepared to go at this point as they were almost there. There was a series of heated exchanges between the lookout and various members of the gang, including one voice, which was definitely that of a woman. At one point the lookout shouted ‘Money may be your god, but it's not mine, and I'm f***ing off.’ After a few more minutes and a further intervention by the female member of the gang, the lookout relented, and agreed to remain on the rooftop overnight before signing off.

Rowland meanwhile had made several more phone calls to the police, and finally one to Scotland Yard, who allegedly stated that the uniform branch didn’t know what they were doing and that they would send two Scotland Yard officers over immediately. The Scotland Yard officers were joined by two other officers from the Met, and between them they listened to the tapes that Rowland had recorded, and then stayed there all night until 9am on Sunday morning when gang member, Steve came back on air again and told the lookout that they were going to finish off in here. It was at this point, that he actually mentioned the word, bank, and said that they would be coming out early that afternoon. He went onto tell the lookout that he would have to bluff his way straight down off the roof.

At long last it seemed that the police had started to take things seriously, admitted that a bank robbery was taking place somewhere in the immediate area. They called in radio detector vans in an attempt to trace the transmissions, but unfortunately, by the time Post Office engineers could be brought in from weekend leave; the walkie-talkie conversations had ceased.

Police officers then checked on 750 banks in the inner London area, paying special attention to the 150 banks within a mile of Wimpole Street. On Sunday afternoon, they visited Lloyd's Bank on the corner of Baker Street and Marylebone Road, but found no signs of a forced entry; the 15-inch thick doors of the vault were intact and secured by a time lock. What they did not know at this point, was that the raiders were just over 12 inches away from them, still inside the vault. It was not until Monday morning when the bank opened for business after the weekend, that the robbery was discovered. Scores of empty safety deposit boxes were found broken open and lying all over the floor of the vault, their contents had been looted in what was then Britain’s biggest ever robbery.

News of the raid broke at 9am the next day, Monday, September 13th 1971. The gang had dug a 40-foot tunnel from the basement of Le Sac, a leather goods shop, which they had leased, two doors away from the bank. The robbers tunnelled under a Chicken Inn restaurant and then, using a Thermic Lance, through the 3ft of reinforced concrete which formed the floor of the vault. The floor was not wired to the alarm system, as it was thought to be impenetrable. Eight tons of rubble was excavated and left behind in the shop when the gang escaped with their haul consisting of the contents of 268 deposit boxes. The haul was estimated at the time to be in the region of £500,000. It has since been alleged that the haul was in fact in excess of £3million, which, in 1971, made it the largest ever bank robbery on British soil. For the next four days, the story dominated the news, the national press were full of it, one headline screamed ‘The Moles of Baker Street’, while another exclaimed ‘Sewer Rats’, and then, as suddenly as it started, the story disappeared. The last reports ran on Thursday, September 16. This was followed by complete silence.

One might be forgiven for wondering why such a big story as this was suddenly shelved after just three days. One might also wonder why when a reporter visited Mr Rowland on the morning the story broke, and asked about his involvement, he was immediately warned off by a detective. Mr Rowland’s tape recordings and his phone were also confiscated by the police, and not given back to him for six years, after the police discovered that a reporter was telling his editor about Rowland’s story. Mr Rowland also allegedly claimed that the police told the editor of a D-Notice on the story, banning publication.

Mr Rowland stated that D-Notices are for security situations not bank robberies. He was told not to talk to any more Press. He seemed to think at the time that it was to hide the police incompetence, although the secrecy could also have come from MI5. The police even threatened to prosecute Mr Rowland for listening to an unlicensed radio station, a blow softened by a £2,500 reward from Lloyds Bank.

The Press embargo however, did not seem to stop the fresh allegations that were now starting to rise. A new theory was being bandied about, not just about a gang of bank robbers, or incompetent police officers, but about a member of the Royal Family. It was alleged that the police were very interested in the activities of a certain Michael X, who was a well-known Trinidadian activist and gangster operating here in Britain. Through underworld contacts, they found out that Michael X was holding compromising photos of Princess Margaret, which are said to have been taken on the Caribbean island of Mustique. They wanted to prosecute Michael X for a number of crimes, one of which was murder, but while he had the photos he was untouchable.

It is further alleged that the robbery was then masterminded by MI5, who offered it out to a gang of well known villains, who were told they could keep all the valuables and money as long as they turned the photos over to the contact in MI5, who could then use them to neutralise Michael X's threat. Shortly after the bank raid Michael X was tried in his native Trinidad for the murder of Joseph Skerritt, a member of his Black Liberation Army. Michael X was hanged in 1975.

The photos of course have never been publicly shown, if indeed they ever existed in the first place, but rumours about Princess Margaret's 'colourful' life have long been bandied about. She was rumoured to have had affairs with lovers including Peter Sellers and a string other well known and some not so well known faces about town.

One such character was the late tough-guy actor and gangster John Bindon, boyfriend of baronet's daughter Vicki Hodge, an actress and model. Bindon was definitely a regular visitor to Mustique, and did indeed meet and attend parties where Princess Margaret was present. It is alleged that she thought he was very amusing, and that he was a favourite of the princess, and that he often impressed her with his party trick of balancing five half-pint beer mugs on his manhood. A recent television documentary took this into account, while offering no real proof. A book also suggested that they conducted a six-month affair, which had the authorities so concerned that MI5 was brought in to keep it under wraps.

The real story behind the ‘walkie-talkie robbery’, as it became known, will probably never come to light. It is similar in one aspect to one solved by Baker Street resident Sherlock Holmes in The Red-Headed League.

In this case, however, countless questions remain unanswered. In 1973 four men were convicted over the robbery, though most of the loot was never recovered. When the gang departed the scene of the crime, they left a parting message for police. Spray-painted on the inside of the vault was: ‘Let Sherlock Holmes try to solve this.’

The story has now been made into a film, The Bank Job, with Jason Statham.

The reference the robbers made to Sherlock Holmes, was of course because the bank was located in the same street as the home of the great fictional detective and his assistant Doctor Watson. When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes, he also created a fictional address to go with him, which was 221B Baker Street.

Baker Street was originally known as York Place and Upper Baker Street. Then in 1930 the entire length of the street was renamed Baker Street and the houses were renumbered. Number 41 Upper Baker Street was redesignated as 221 Baker Street but later on that same year it was demolished to make way for Abbey House, which eventually occupied 215-229 Baker Street, serving as the offices of the Abbey National Building Society.

There is, however, now such an address as 221b Baker Street, recognised even by the Post Office with a designated postcode. 221b Baker Street is now the official address of the Sherlock Holmes Museum. But just to confuse visitors perhaps and give them something of a somewhat Sherlock Holmes quandary to mull over, the site of 221B Baker Street is actually 239 Baker Street!

Another very important, but perhaps not so well known address in Baker Street was number 64. In March 1938 with the threat of war with Germany looming ever closer, the head of the Secret Intelligence Service, Admiral Sinclair, had Major L.D. Grand seconded from the Army into MI6, and ordered him to form a new section within MI6, with a mission to devise and formulate plans which could adversely affect any possible enemy country’s actions against Great Britain. Thus section D of the Secret Intelligence Service came into being. Number 64 Baker Street was chosen as the ideal location for this operation, as it was not part of any Government building, and blended in perfectly with the normal office building that surrounded it.

By 1939 yet another secret department was in the process of being set up in the same building, by the Foreign Office. This was headed by Sir Collin Campbell-Stuart, an acknowledged media expert and former Managing Director of The London Times. Its brief was to devise and plan all forms of propaganda. A small research department based in the War Office specialising in all forms of irregular warfare, had already formulated its own plans for clandestine and covert warfare, later to be known as M.I.R. These three departments were eventually integrated into the one building in Baker Street and presided over by the Foreign Office.

Upon the outbreak of war in 1939, the Foreign Office decided the need for secrecy of location was not so great, and by the July of the following year, the S.O.E. (Special Operations Executive) was formed and occupied most of the building. The S.O.E was soon after the fall of France, to foster resistance among the civil population in Nazi-occupied Europe and to promote sabotage and subversion. Winston Churchill inspired the formation of S.O.E. and continued to support it until it was dissolved in 1946, its wartime task completed.

Before it was dissolved in 1946, the S.O.E occupied virtually all of Baker Street and the surrounding streets. It employed over 14,000 people, of which 3,100 were active agents. The houses and offices in the surrounding streets were used mainly for interviews and for briefing agents. Number 64 however still had overall control of nationwide operations such as houses set in the countryside and suburbs, known as ‘stations’.

Stations were used for training agents and for carrying out research, and manufacturing equipment and material for sabotage, such as derailing trains, while others manufactured false documents, identity cards, military passes and ration cards etc., while others packed and stored containers, packages and parachutes. Last but certainly not least in importance were the stations that exchanged wireless messages with our agents in Europe.

Somewhere between number 64 and number 83 Baker Street, the exact location is unsure, is where Winston Churchill once held some of his most critical wartime meetings. When visitors stand back and look at Baker Street today, it is difficult to imagine that so much went on here that played such a crucial roll in helping Britain win WWII.

One of London’s most famous institutions is the famous waxworks exhibition, Madam Tussauds’, which is just around the corner to Baker Street, in Marylebone Road.

Madam Tussauds however, did not start out in Marylebone Road. Madam Tussauds was born in Paris in the 1770s. She learned the art of wax modelling from her art teacher, Dr Philippe Curtius. So good was she at her art, that by the time she was just 17, she became art tutor to King Louis XVI’s sister at the Palace Of Versailles.

During the French Revolution, she was forced to prove her allegiance to the then ruling party by making death masks of the executed aristocrats. Madame Tussauds wasn’t happy with being forced to do such work, and so decided to come to Britain in the early 19th century alongside a travelling exhibition, consisting of revolutionary relics and effigies of public heroes and villains.

Madame Tussauds’ exhibition was an instant success with the British public, touring the country and providing an insight into global events and bringing the ordinary public face-to-face with the people in the headlines. Priceless artefacts from the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars were brought vividly to life. Bearing in mind that at this time, newspapers were still in the infancy, so by the time the public got to hear of what was happening in Europe for instance, the story could be months old, and figures such as kings and queens were only names in most people’s eyes.

Madame Tussauds didn’t just tell the stories that were in the news; she showed the stories to the people. She showed figures of leading statesmen set in replicas of their original surroundings; she also added another attraction called the Chamber of Horrors, where notorious villains who had previously been known only by their names, now had faces added to their names.

So successful was Madame Tussauds’ touring exhibition, that in 1835, she established a permanent base in London in Baker Street, which became known as the Baker Street Bazaar. Visitors paid ‘sixpence’ for the chance to come face to face with some of the biggest and sometimes infamous names of the day.

Madame Tussauds died in 1850, and her grandsons took over the business. In 1884, after a very successful 49 years in Baker Street, the exhibition eventually moved to its present, and much larger site in Marylebone Road.

No comments: