Thirty years ago, the British public trusted the police not to bring false prosecutions. it was known that officers occasionally lost their tempers and belted people. It was known that a few ‘rotten apples’ accepted bribes or engaged in thievery. But it was not widely suspected that police invented cases against innocent persons.
Things are different today. Juries, and even some magistrates, no longer believe police witnesses just because they are the police, or disbelieve defence witnesses just because they contradict the police. Courts have become more even-handed, causing police spokesmen to rage against the number of acquittals, and right-wing politicians to propose laws against pleading ‘Not Guilty’.
The erosion of bias has been accelerated recently, by some dreadful cases including more than a dozen victims shown to have been framed for murder. But the process began thirty years ago, with a case meriting no more than a £10 fine.
The case is legendary within the police force itself, as we learn from the former policeman Mike Seabrook1
“Years ago, before I joined the job, the first chilly draught penetrated the cosy love affair between the British public and the British bobby, in the form of the Challenor affair. Harry Challenor was a very tough Detective Sergeant on ‘C’ Division of the Metropolitan Police. He had a reputation for being utterly fearless, and also for having an uncompromising loathing, amounting to an obsession, of organised vice — in which ‘C’ Division, which includes Soho, abounded then as it does now.
Challenor was so feared by the big-gang villains that if he walked into a nightclub where the Kray brothers were drinking (they were then in their heyday as unofficial but undisputed kings of London’s organised crime) they would immediately get up and walk out, leaving their drinks, their companions and their premises. The reason was that if they remained in their seats he was more likely to walk straight up to them, where so many on both sides of the law had quailed before them, and announce quietly ‘You’re nicked.’ The charges would be announced later, when he had had time to decide what he had arrested them for.
If this is true, of course, it is a very serious infraction of the law. Yet I cannot see any great injustice. I speak for the majority of policemen, I believe, in feeling that where people like the Krays are concerned the gloves must come off. I never heard anybody condemn Challenor. Indeed, all the accounts I heard of him from those who remembered him were told with immense admiration and approval.
Harry Challenor was put on demo duty at the height of a decade of student unrest. What he apparently did was ‘stitch up’ two students by planting half-bricks in their pockets. He then arrested them for carrying offensive weapons. It may well be that he thought the two were not real students at all but political agitators paid by the Russians – a very common animal in those days – or at least at the scene of whatever demo it was for the purpose of stirring up mischief. And he may have been right.
Unfortunately, forensic scientists were able to prove that the two half-bricks found in the two young men’s pockets were the two halves of the same brick; and it was proved by other evidence that the two students could not have been in each other’s company for a very long time beforehand. Challenor was undone. He escaped imprisonment (which quite possibly saved his life) but he was finished forever as a policeman.
The British bobby’s reputation for total incorruptibility – which he had never deserved in the first place, and couldn’t have deserved since he is a representative of the human species which is infinitely fallible was punctured never to return.”
Like all legends, this account is glamorised and simplified. There is no record of Challenor ever going near the Kray brothers. The Daily Mail celebrated him as “Challenor the gangbuster” when he secured the conviction of five protection racketeers. But the Court of Appeal released the ‘gang’ in 1964 after hearing that three of them, a waiter, a wine salesman and a bookie’s runner, had nothing to do with any protection racket. The other two were protectionists who worked solo and had never met before Challenor brought them together.
It appears that Challenor determined to rid Soho of the two thugs. As long as each worked alone, demanding money with menaces from clip joints, spielers and other shady businesses, the courts would treat them leniently. They would only get long sentences if they were seen as gangsters, so Challenor invented a gang. Hard luck on the innocent, one of whom got seven years. But if the price of getting two villains banged up was to frame three inoffensive citizens, then Challenor was prepared to pay the price.
In the bricks case, planting was done by four officers: DS Challenor and PCs Battes, Goldsmith and Oakey. The victims were not two but eight: four demonstrators and four lads who had nothing to do with the demonstration but were easy to pick on.
And the evidence which ruined Challenor depended on his not putting a piece of brick in my pocket.
I wrote a full account of events as I experienced them in Anarchy 362
On 9th, 10th and 11th June 1963, the King and Queen of the Hellenes made a state visit to London, and were followed by jeering crowds wherever they went. Greece was becoming a police state. Gregory Lambrakis, a Greek MP who favoured nuclear disarmament, had been murdered by fascists acting as police auxiliaries.
On Wednesday 10th June the Queens of Greece and Britain appeared together on a balcony, and were booed. Queen Frederika took it in her stride, but Queen Elizabeth was seen to stumble slightly. Queen Frederika then appeared on her own and got a boo, then Queen Elizabeth appeared alone and got a loud, enthusiastic boo all for herself.
Late at night Henry Brooke, then Home Secretary, summoned a press conference. He was renowned for rigidity and coldness, but on that occasion was reported by the Daily Express to be red-faced and trembling. “The Queen of Britain has been booed tonight, and I am furious”. He invited everyone to “show contempt” for the demonstrators.
The following evening, Thursday 11th June 1963, there was a state banquet at the Claridge’s Hotel, and I was trying to dodge the police cordon, carrying a large sheet of paper bearing the words ‘Lambrakis R.I.P.’ A uniformed policeman took it off me and was reading it slowly when four men in plain clothes appeared. I said politely “Can I have my banner back?”
One of the plainclothes men was distinguished by his trousers, which were not quite long enough to cover the tops of his police boots. Detective Sergeant Challenor. He stepped forward. “Can you have your what back?”
“You’re fucking nicked, my old beauty” he said happily, and gave me a clout on the ear. On the way to the police station, in a van full of uniforms, he was full of noisy jokes: “Where the fuck are we going? Nick the driver.” To his three mates in the street: “‘Aven’t you got yourself a prisoner yet, Ginger? Cor, you are slow?’ To a girl demonstrator who cheekily asked for a lift: “Yer, Right under the bleeding chops.” In the police station he clouted me up the stairs, repeatedly shouting “Gerrup them stairs”, a catchphrase from a comic radio show.
“Boo the Queen, would you?” he snarled.
“No” I said truthfully. On Wednesday it had been my turn to babysit, and my companion Irene had booed the Queen.
“Eh? But you sympathise with ’em, don’t you?” He knocked me flying with three more clouts to the ears. “There you are, my old darling, ‘aye that with me. And just to make sure we ‘aven’t forgotten it …” He took from his pocket a parcel of newspaper, which he opened with a flourish. Inside was a bit of brick. “There you are, my old beauty. Carrying an offensive weapon. You can get two years for that.” My chances were remote. The word of a policeman, or possibly four policemen, against the word of a demonstrator. But I remembered Stimer’s maxim3
“I do not surrender to you, I only wait. When I can come at you I will; and meanwhile, if I can find any weakness in you, I will draw it to your attention.”
So I leaned against the detention room door and listened for the faint possibility of a weakness.
I heard Challenor recounting, in courtroom style, how he had stopped someone in the street and taken a piece of brick from his pocket. He repeated this recitation three times. He was charging three other victims, but at the time I thought he must be rehearsing his lines.
Faint hope began to dawn. A week or so earlier I had read a book on forensic science by a former superintendent of the Metropolitan Police Laboratory, which enunciated Locard’s Principle, “every contact leaves its trace”.
A brick in a pocket would surely leave a trace. If they neglected to put a brick in my pocket, and if the man persisted in his story that he found it there, and if I could prove this was the suit I was wearing, and if I could get it to a forensic laboratory before I could clean the pockets, there was a chance.
I was invited to sign a list of property taken off me, “two shillings silver, seven pence copper, portion of brick”. I said “I’m not signing that” and waited for another clout on the ear. But they just said “Refuses to sign. Right”, and wrote ‘Refuses to sign’ in the space for the signature.
PC Battes took my fingerprints and filled in a description form. “Grey suit” he said. Anxious to have the suit identified, I said “Grey-green”. He said “I’m not writing a description, I’m just filling the form in”. I could not argue without reminding them to put a brick in the pocket.
But I need not have worried. I was kept in the cells overnight and driven to the magistrate’s court, and from there went straight to the solicitor’s office. There was never any doubt about my suit.
The solicitor was Stanley Clinton-Davies, later a Member of Parliament, a Junior Minister, a European Commissioner, and now a member of the House of Lords. He telephoned Irene, asking her to bring some clothes I could change into. Irene had been told of my arrest by Peter Gibson and Anne Forsyth, who had seen the arrest and thought it more violent than it was. She arrived with the two youngest children, expecting to find me covered in blood.
My book on forensic science, Cuthbert’s Science and the Detection of Crime, says4
“Case work is never refused for the defence, and much work is done which favours the accused. That the police use the facilities more than the defence is probably due to the fact that police are more aware of the benefits than some members of the legal profession.”
Not so. When Mr Clinton-Davies telephoned the Metropolitan Police Laboratory, he was told yes, they would examine the suit, but it must be brought to them by the prosecuting officer who must be told exactly why the defence wanted the suit examined.
Fortunately there are independent forensic scientists who work in civil cases such as patent infringements. My solicitor found Ferdinand Kayser, retired from full-time employment as a forensic scientist for the Gillette razor blade company. Mine was his first criminal case.
I engaged a barrister, Mr Michael Sherrard, to make the magistrate listen to the defence. Edward Robey, the magistrate who heard my case, had one of the other brick cases in his court a month later. Same defence, same expert witness, a mere constable prosecuting. But this defendant did not have a barrister so Robey found him guilty.
Mr Robey recalls my case in his memoirs5
“Expert evidence was called to show that the exhibit in Rooum’s Case was friable and would have left particles of brickdust in the defendant’s pocket if it had been put there. The exhibit was handed up to me, and when I touched it loose grains came off onto my desk. It was further established that not a single particle of brickdust had been found in the defendant’s pockets, and also that he had no opportunity of cleaning out his pockets prior to the jacket coming into the possession of the expert witness. Having heard the evidence on both sides I stated I was left in a state of doubt and dismissed the case.”
I was worried when Mr Challenor started to give evidence, because his story was very different from the one he had told in the police station. But he did not change the bit about finding the brick in my pocket, so I breathed again.
He was familiar with Locard’s Principle, which he summarised, cockily, in answer to one of Mr Sherrard’s questions. He must surely have learned in police training that the way to plant evidence is not just to say you found it, but to put it in place and then actually find it. He could have noticed his error, and corrected it by saying I was holding the piece of brick in my hand. But he fluffed it.
I believe this mistake caused his mental breakdown. His resilience depended on his perception of himself as a smart operator. He could bounce back from any misfortune not of his own making, but could not cope with defeat by his own stupidity.
Long out of mental hospital, but still on tranquillisers after thirty years, he still cannot face his blunder. As he and his journalist collaborator put in his memoirs6
“In my heart of hearts I have always wanted to explain, if not justify, my fall from grace, but I have never been able to bring myself to face up to the realities of what brought it about. The mere effort of trying to recall exactly what happened on one fateful night made me physically ill. There are still blank areas in my memory where the ‘Brick Case’ is concerned. To let it rest there would appear too much like a glib evasion of unpalatable truths, so I have interspersed what I can recall with the transcripts of the Court hearings, and the official enquiry that followed. (Even that proved too great a strain and I was ill again for the first time for a considerable period and had to undergo further treatment before I could continue.)”
Defenders of the police reputation tended to suggest that Challenor was already mad when he led his three constables out to plant the bricks. The Court of Appeal, releasing the victims of his ‘gangbuster’ case, remarked that he was “probably” mentally ill when he framed them in 1962. Mary Grigg commented in 1965 in her book The Challenor Case7
“Solid facts seem to have been lost in the course of inquiries into the detective sergeant’s mental condition. Compared to the nebulous conclusion that he could possibly have been insane at a certain point, there was very strong evidence that he was behaving improperly. A perverse kind of reasoning seems to be employed in saying that because Challenor might have been mad he could have fabricated charges. One could equally cogently say that although he fabricated charges he could have been mad when he did so.
Insanity, in this case, became something of a smokescreen. When it at last became clear that major enquiries had to be set up, it was asked: how could an officer who was insane be allowed on duty? The question the inquiries ought to have been investigating was: how could a police officer be allowed by his colleagues and superiors to go on framing charges?”
The question, how could an officer who was insane be allowed on duty, was asked by the first, and so far only, Public Inquiry set up under the Police Act 1964. It was conducted by A.E. James QC in a vacant building, now the Museum of Mankind. Martin Ennals, then General Secretary of the National Council for Civil Liberties, was present throughout. He wrote in Anarchy 568
“For nearly nine weeks Mr James sat, benign, avuncular, bespectacled and bald, shining down upon a battery of barristers, giving confidence to the witnesses and courtesy to the lawyers. No one could have been more fair, patient and tolerant, no one more willing to listen or anxious to learn.
The more therefore the surprise of the total whitewash of the published report.”
Wherever a police officer is accused of lying, Mr James concludes that the accuser is lying. He studiously avoids finding even Challenor, or the three jailed constables, guilty of any falsehood. Police evidence is always believed, except when police contradict each other.
Of the ‘gangbuster’ case, he writes9
“I reject as false the testimony of Mr Pedrini that DS Challenor produced the iron tube to him in a cell saying, ‘That’s yours’, and threatened and assaulted him.
I reject the evidence of Mr Cheeseman that DS Challenor produced the knife to him in his cell saying, ‘That’s for you’, and I am satisfied that DS Challenor did not strike Mr Cheeseman.
I reject Mr Ford’s evidence concerning the second knife which he said was put away by DS Challenor on the arrival of a Police Inspector.”
Of a later protection gang case10
“I find no evidence to support a contention that DS Challenor instructed or countenanced the ‘planting’ of evidence by any other officer. Indeed, I am not satisfied that any weapon was ‘planted’.”
Of another case11
“The reliable evidence strongly points to the conclusion that DS Challenor did not place the detonators in the cushion but did make a genuine discovery thereof, and that is my conclusion.”
In the brick cases the evidence of police falsehood is incontrovertible. So12
“The terms of reference of the Inquiry did not necessitate any findings as to whether DS Challenor fabricated evidence by ‘planting’ bricks upon innocent persons. I have therefore studiously avoided making any findings on those questions.”
Mr James finds13
that the apparent enjoyment with which I gave my evidence “detracted from its objectivity and the weight which could be given to it”. Whereas Mary Grigg flatters me14
“If Challenor hadn’t arrested Donald Rooum, he might have gone on framing charges indefinitely. Of the hundreds of demonstrators milling around Claridge’s, the detective sergeant chose a professional cartoonist. He could talk and write fluently and persuasively. He even had enough money to pay a barrister. ‘British justice – the best that money can buy’ Rooum proclaimed, proceeding to address meetings on the subject. His first comment on his case was a cartoon of a bobby on a crumbling pedestal – and himself holding a small portion of masonry and saying ‘I’ve dislodged a bit of brick’. Challenor must have forgotten that in every group of people who don’t matter, there can always be one or two who might.”
She might have written with more truth, ‘If Challenor hadn’t been grossly incompetent he might have gone on framing charges indefinitely’. I knew nothing of him before be arrested me, and my object in proving him a liar was to save my own skin. Nevertheless, am proud of my part in his downfall.
If we are to believe Seabrook’s allegation, that all the police who knew Challenor remember him “with intense admiration and approval”, then we must also believe the traditional street cry:
I’ll sing you a song
and it won’t take long:
All coppers are bastards.