Tom was a genuine Cockney, having been born within the sound of Bow Church bells and brought up in various areas in the East End of London. His Father and Grandfather had also been true Cockneys who had instilled in Tom a strong sense of tradition, Cockney lore and a local language that they were very proud of. Unfortunately looking in from the outside that tradition was riddled with a high degree of criminality, throughout the generations. For example, it was common knowledge that Tom’s Dad was on first name terms with the Cray twins, London’s most notorious gangsters and as was later proved murderers, at that time.
Tom was a firefighter in the London Fire Brigade and was considered good at his job and someone who could be relied on in emergency situations, but at the same time was known to be volatile, quick with his fists and prone to violence, so everyone knew, not to give Tom a hard time. One Sub Officer, who came to the station on an overtime shift, and knew nothing about Tom, but was himself a bit of a tough guy, tried to give Tom a hard time. Tom lashed out with a single punch to the chin and the Sub Officer fell to the ground like he’d been pole-axed. Later when he came around, it was quietly explained to him what had happened, who Tom was and that it would be wise not to make a fuss about it. The Sub Officer wisely complied and no more was heard of the incident, although the Sub’ never came back to that station.
I first became acquainted with Tom when, as a new recruit, I joined the London Fire Station where he was serving in the mid-1960s. Although before joining the LFB I had already served nine years in the Royal Navy and travelled the world, unlike Tom who had never travelled outside of central London, because I had been born in the ‘sticks’ (any rural area),he considered me a ‘lugworm digger’ or country bumkin and obviously a lesser form of life than a real Cockney.
Although I got on OK with Tom, I never tried to befriend him, feeling the cultural gap between us was unbridgeable, while Tom treated me with a sort of amused tolerance, then one day, by sheer chance that all changed. We were called to a fire in a large warehouse complex in West London, where the fire had already broken through the roof in one spot. The first attending crew were having difficulty gaining access at ground level, so our crew were ordered to pitch a ladder and try to pour water in through the open roof. In no time at all our Sub Officer, Tom and I were on the roof with a hose fighting the flames. Tom was holding the water delivery nozzle, while I was handling the hose just behind him, and the Sub’ was between us, just to one side, when suddenly the roof on which we were standing collapsed and all three of us fell into the flames.
Later, we realised that the roof was made of corrugated asbestos on wooden roof trusses and when asbestos is heated to a certain temperature, it resists the heat for a while then fails suddenly and in our case dramatically. What happened next is indelibly etched on my memory and I am able to replay it in slow motion, as in fact, it seemed to happen at the time.
The roof we were standing on fell away in large pieces and disappeared into the smoke and flames engulfing the warehouse below us. The Sub Officer, fell feet first into the flames but then as if in a slow-motion replay, he turned in mid-air, grabbed the falling hose and shinned up it faster than any monkey until he regained the roof then slithered down and off into the ally. Meanwhile, Tom fell, in ultra-slow motion, but also managed to turn in mid-air to look at me with a confused surprised look on his face, before completely disappearing into the flames and smoke.
As to myself, I had been intentionally standing on a line of nails which I knew had a strong wooden roof strut underneath so when my part of the roof collapsed, although my legs went down into the flames the backwards pull of the hose allowed me to sit precariously on the edge of the hole without falling in. All this happened in the flash of an eye, I had seen the Sub Officer climb his way, monkey-like, out of trouble and Tom seemingly disappear into the fire while I was left sitting on the edge of the inferno. Then something quite miraculous happened, the smoke cleared for a moment and I saw Tom, not dead on the floor of the warehouse, but alive and crouching on top of some crates, he looked at me and stood up and I reached out a hand, Tom grabbed it and with a superhuman jump, pulled himself up my arm and together we fell into the ally.
That incident was never mentioned again but it did change Tom’s attitude towards me, and he slowly became friendlier and in time revealed the darker side of his cockney heritage. Although at work Tom was reliable and trustworthy his family life was certainly, on the periphery, if not in the centre of quite a lot of criminal activity. Tom’s father worked in Euston Railyards and one day a container lorry came in picked up a container and with all the correct paperwork, was allowed out of the security gate. The contents of the container, thousands of quid’s worth of Axminster carpets, was unloaded then the container was resealed, returned to the rail yards and sent on its way to its original destination, empty. It was a very clever crime, and almost impossible to detect and ultimately blamed on the railway system, which would have to pay out in insurance.
Another little scam the family was involved in was at Tom’s wife’s workplace, a huge importing business in Camden Town where they imported large volumes of a variety of merchandise from all over the world, then on-sold it to shops and outlets all over the UK. Their system was to make up orders for their customers in large cardboard boxes and have them labelled and checked against the day’s order book waiting on the back dock for collection by a railway truck which arrived every day in the afternoon. On occasions, Tommy would visit the company to have lunch with his wife and soon recognised a slight flaw in their security system.
At Tom’s urging, his wife acquired the job of writing and fixing the labels to each parcel, then a supervisor would come along and check that each parcel was correctly addressed to the required destination, then it was at this stage the parcels would be left on the dock for collection, and Tom’s wife would slip back and stick a new label over the original one of just one parcel. Of course, the new address would be to a friend of Tom’s or a convenient empty shop. It was a clever scam and as far as I know, no one was ever caught for it and the poor old railways got the blame again.
After I’d been at that fire station for a number of years I was a more or less a trusted associate of Tom’s and got to know quite a lot about his criminal activity, although I did try to distance myself from them, I did fall into the trap of buying things from him that, given the price, must have been dodgy. Then one day he asked me if I was interested in being, what amounted to the get-away-driver, for a little job he was planning. To be honest, I was intrigued to know the details, so indicated I could be interested.
Tom had a relative who worked for a big Jewish concern, and one of his jobs was, at the end of each day to act as security for his boss who took the day’s takings to the night safe at the nearby bank. During the week the boss carried the money strapped to his chest, but on Saturday the Jewish Sabbath the boss couldn’t touch money so got Tom’s relative to carry it. The scam was that when they got to the bank they would find the night safe inoperative and two uniformed Armourguard security officers and an Armourguard Van waiting to take the money and issue genuine receipts. It was thought that choosing the Saturday evening when the money was carried by Tom’s relative who would show confidence in the Armourguard set up would work best. Once the Armourguard crew had collected a number of night safe deposits, they would drive sedately away to a prearranged area transfer the money to the get-away-car, torch the van, and then blend back into society, just to prove they were somewhere else when the crime was committed.
I won’t say I wasn’t tempted to be part of something that at that time I considered very clever, but circumstances intervened and the only real crime I committed while in London was to buy an obviously stolen bike and a few other things from Tom. However, as I bought my civilian clothes from West End Misfits and the Petticoat Lane Market, I understand the Fashion Police still have my name on their ‘most wanted list’.
As to Tom, he took exception to something his Brother-in-Law said and gave him a ‘bit of a slapping’ that put him in the hospital for a week and got Tom arrested for GBH. Tom was in Wormwood Scrubs on remand for three days and suspended from the LFB. However, when the victim came too and no doubt under considerable pressure from the family for him not to, ‘grass up’ Tom, he refused to lay charges and said it was just a friendly fight that got out of hand. Eventually, the GBH charge was dropped and he was released from the Scrubs, having made contact with a number of useful contacts and two relations. Also after a bit of a fight, he was reinstated in the LFB but did not return to our station or even our division, so I lost contact.
Years later after I’d left London I read about a bank heist where thousands of pounds had been stolen by fake security guards, who had blatantly stood in front of a supposed out-of-order night safe and exchanged worthless receipts for deposited money. It was undoubtedly Tom’s idea and I have always wondered and in a strange way hoped, that one of those fake guards, really was Tom?