What are the chances of finding two safe blowers in West Hampstead? Even more unlikely is the fact that they were both living there in 1955. But surprisingly, there is no obvious link between the men.
At the end of the story you will find out all you need to know about blowing up a safe and how to make your sex life go with a bang! Read on.
At the beginning of February 1955 two separate gelignite raids took place.
The First Raid at Stanstead
On the night of 3-4 February thieves blew open the safe in the wages office of Skyways Ltd at Stansted Airport, and stole cash and National Health stamps. Leading from the safe to the door were two strands of wire, and in the passage the police found a live unused detonator.
The next day, presumably acting on a tip-off, detectives went to a house in West End Lane. The number was not given in the newspaper reports and it was rather oddly called a bungalow, but there’s no obvious house like this in the road. Edward Rice, aged 34, opened the door and said, ‘I have been expecting this. You are lucky because I was going to leave here tomorrow. Things were getting too hot.’One hundred and twelve one pound notes were found on Rice, together with other stolen goods. When charged, Rice simply said ‘I plead guilty.’
Edward Thomas Rice was a professional criminal, born in 1921 in Shoreditch. His father, Thomas Edward Rice, a printer, was an associate of criminals and Edward lived in a slum area for many years. In 1932 the family were at 45 Falkirk Street, Shoreditch, sharing a house with at least 13 adults. His mother, Mary Ann, died when Edward was 17 and soon after this his father turned him out of their home. Rice had several minor convictions before being sent to Wandsworth prison in 1940, where he wasn’t segregated as a first offender but mixed up with hardened criminals. On his release he was called up for the Royal Navy, but this did not suit him and he went AWOL on a number of occasions.
In March 1954 Rice was sentenced in Manchester to ten years imprisonment for housebreaking, wounding and conspiracy. In November he managed to escape from Strangeways prison with five other men. They’d been making coal bags in a workshop outside the main wall and escaped through the skylight, having previously sawn through one of the bars. Over the next few months a nationwide search was carried out, and all the men were caught apart from Rice, who remained on the run. That December on Boxing Day, four detectives were sure they’d found Rice when they arrested a man who was doing an old-time music hall act in a Nottingham pub. They said, ‘You resemble Edward Rice the escaped convict.’ The man replied, ‘Don’t be silly, I’m Henry Green.’ They found a revolver and four rounds of ammunition in his pocket. Asked about the gun, the man said, ‘I have a lot of enemies, but I am not Rice.’ This was true, he wasn’t Rice, but neither was he Henry Green. His real name was Leslie MaxleyEpstein, aged 32, a musician of no fixed abode.
On the night of 26-27 January 1955 a garage, belonging to Louis Alfred Yull, a land clearance contractor in Edmonton, had been broken into and gelignite and detonators, which he was legally using, were stolen. When the police searched the garden of the house in West End Lane they found five sticks of gelignite buried there. Rice later said ‘I got the jelly and dets off some fellows. Some of it came from the job in Edmonton.’ He had been renting the house under the name of Smith.
In March 1955 Rice appeared at the Old Bailey where he pleaded guilty to charges of receiving gelignite and detonators, and receiving tobacco and cigarettes stolen from British Railways while in transit. Rice admitted his guilt but refused to name the other men involved. He was sentenced to 13 years imprisonment, to serve concurrently with his previous 10 years.
The Second Raid in Piccadilly: The Ferret and the Monkey
On Sunday night 6th February 1955, thieves broke into the strong room of Martins Bank at their prestigious branch in 23 St James Street. When the manager opened up on Monday morning he found the robbers had blown a hole through the 22 inch reinforced wall and used gelignite to blow open the safe, stealing over £20,600, (worth around £425,000 today). This was the first time gelignite had been used to blow open both a bank’s safe and its strong room which was covered in brick and plaster dust from the explosion. Two of Scotland Yard’s top detectives were put in charge of the case: Chief Superintendent Edward Greeno and Superintendent Herbert Sparks. It was evident the thieves had entered from the adjoining building, then squeezed through a window of the women’s toilet opposite the strong room. An iron bar across the window had been bent back using a crowbar allowing a small opening. Herbert Sparks thought that Alfred Fraser, known as ‘The Ferret’, had the expertise but more important, he was small enough to have got through the narrow gap. Fraser had just been released after serving a sentence for attempted safe-blowing at the Hounslow Labour Exchange. His address in Fordwych Road was put under observation.
Over the following weeks, Fraser bought a Daimler limousine and began negotiations for a greengrocer’s shop in Paddington. He was seen in the company of known criminal Howard Lewis, 29, nicknamed ‘The Monkey’, who’d also bought a new car and was spending a lot of money. When the police arrested 43 years old Fraser it was alleged that he said, ‘That bastard Lewis has been talking. Have the others been tumbled?’ Cash from the bank was found in his pockets and at his house. More banknotes were discovered when Lewis’s home was searched, some stuffed inside a gramophone horn. While the police were there the phone rang and after Lewis had answered, the police took the phone from him and heard Fraser’s wife saying, ‘What shall I do with the money?’ Forensic evidence showed that brick dust and glass shards from the bank were present in the homes of both men. A third suspect, Percy Horne, a scrap metal dealer, was charged with receiving stolen money.
The three men appeared at the Old Bailey in May 1955. They all pleaded ‘Not Guilty’ and gave alibis, claiming the forensic evidence had been planted by the police. The jury found Fraser and Lewis guilty, and they received sentences of ten years and seven years respectively. The jury could not agree about Horne and he was released. Fraser who was born in Marylebone in 1912, was a persistent criminal with seventeen previous convictions since 1927. During his wartime military service he had deserted four times.
Two years later Martins Bank took the unusual step of suing Fraser for the missing money. He defended himself at court in July 1957, again claiming the money found on him was a loan from Percy Horne to buy the greengrocery business and that the police had framed him because of his criminal past as a jewel thief. The jury did not believe Fraser and found in favour of Martins Bank, saying that he owed them £19,602. He had no money to pay but the costs of the trial were awarded against him.
Dynamite was invented by Alfred Nobel in 1867. Then in 1875 he found that a more stable form called gelignite could be made by mixing gun cotton with wood pulp and saltpetre or sodium nitrate. This putty-like explosive was widely used in WWII and became a particular favourite of criminals after the War. In 1950 even school children in Dorset were playing with sticks of it which they had stolen from a quarry.
A website called the Peterman run by a Scottish safeman provides interesting information about gelignite and safe blowing. http://www.peterman.org.uk/
This photograph of a complete safe-blowers kit shows a stick of gelignite and two different types detonator: an aluminium one with a fuse attached, and a copper one which has two wires extending about 6 feet to a longer shot firing cable. A pen-light torch battery is all that is required to fire the detonator. The lolly stick is commonly used to tamp and shape the jelly. The other item really is a condom. A ‘packet of three’ was a common sight on the prosecution table in the High Court. They were pushed into the gap between the back of the safe door plate and the front of the lock cap. Through this is packed the charge with a detonator, and everything is then held in place with some plasticine.