We were twelve years old and always in trouble.
4 Shoplifting as a Sport and Getting Caught.
I was around ten or eleven, when my brother, the boys from our street and yours truly started to shoplift. I don't know why, except that it was incredibly exciting. We would go to the corner shop and steal sweets. This was before the days when shopkeepers had got wise to loads of marauding school kids sweeping their stock laden shelves like plagues of hungry locust, and put signs up saying.
"No more than two school children allowed inside at once,” so we'd all pile in.
We had developed some well choreographed routines and one method went something like this. Two of us would walk into the shop, go past the sweet counter to the shelves stocked with other goodies such as cakes and biscuits. Two more would go in, walk to the same end of the shop, but further down to the left where the bottles and cans of fizzy drinks were to be found. Once everyone was in position pretending to peruse the shelves, normally the shopkeeper would make his way from behind his counter over to where we were, to see if he could help. We all really knew it was to make sure," those thieving little bastards didn't bankrupt him.” That was part one.
Part two went like this. The last two of us would walk into the shop, head straight for the sweet counter. Then fill our pockets with whatever we could, while Mr shopkeepers back was turned dealing with the other four reprobates. One of us would then call out to the shopkeeper.
"Two six penny mixes please Mister."
"OK lads," he would say as he turned and walked back behind the counter, the lure of a sale too great to resist. The minute he turned his back the other four had about three seconds to fill their pockets. We would all then usually buy one thing each, a Wagon Wheel or can of pop. This was to make us look like authentic customers, after all we didn't want him to think we were thieves, now, did we? We would then say our goodbyes, all very polite and leave.
Once safely outside We'd run up the road to the park and sit in a big circle on the grass. We tossed the stolen booty in the middle, to see who had got the most, and who'd got what. We then sat around eating the sweets and biscuits and swigging on the cans of fizzy drinks. Once we'd had our fill we'd throw everything else around the place. You see we couldn't possibly eat everything we took, and we certainly couldn't take it home. Imagine that.
Hi mum, I’ve bought you five packets of chocolate digestives and seven Mars bars.
Oh thanks son put them in the cupboard, and we'll eat them later.
By the time, we were twelve and had started secondary school, we had progressed from stealing sweets from the corner shop to stealing from Woolworth's, and the co-op, and any other shop in the high street. But what never changed was that whatever we took, if we couldn't eat it we threw it away. It became a sport, we'd play football on Saturday morning, then we'd all go shoplifting. When we were in Woolies on a Saturday morning after football, I swear to god there were more people in there shoplifting than actual paying customers. It seemed to me that whatever sport you played and whatever school you went to that it always culminated in a bout of stealing for fun.
But it wouldn't be long before the day came when we were caught red handed. My brother John, some of the boys from our road and myself found ourselves incarcerated in the cells of Bexleyheath police station waiting for our parents to arrive so that we could make our confessions
. It was the first day of the summer holidays, we'd been in the fields all morning playing football, and we were now back in the street kicking our heels, and itching to get up to some mischief. It was odd really! It was only the first day of the holidays, and we were about to claim boredom as some kind of a defence. Anyway, we decided to jump on a bus, and head for Bexleyheath to the well known branch of shoplifters are us, or Woolworth's to you and me.
Our usual gang was one down as my best mate and top shoplifter Cliff couldn't make it. I think he'd had a bust up with his old man and was languishing in his very own little cell. That was the beginning of our downfall, if he'd been there we wouldn't have ever allowed ourselves to have got in that position in the first place, hindsight and all that! Ah.
So there was Stephen Lee, only child from no 11, Doug Moss, son of the vicar's housekeeper from no 1, Ian and Andrew Phillips, from no 13, those two were our weak links. They didn't usually hang around with Cliff and myself, we were far too rough for those boys. They hung out with my brother John, but as he was with us today, so they were.
I'd better explain, we didn't actually get caught shoplifting, no, we were far too good for that as it turned out. Also, the Philip's boys were far too scared to take anything. So what happened was the stealing bit was actually highly successful.
We used to wear anoraks, and later on parkas with nylon linings, in which we would make six inch slits just below each arm hole inside. This created one massive pocket allowing enough room to get all the stolen goods in. All the coats apart from two were full to bursting. The six of us were standing on the pavement outside Woolies, completely hyped on the adrenaline buzz. Now! Where to go and sort out all the ill gotten gains?
I had wanted to go back to our usual spot behind the pavilion in the sports field to the rear of our houses. But oh no, they couldn't wait that long, no they were all far too excited. Now if Cliff had been there both our voices would have carried sway for sure, but he wasn't, so we ended up in the car park at the back of the Co-op.
Where we were situated there was a row of private garages with a gap between them that formed an alleyway. The alley lead back to the Broadway. We sat in a parking bay with everything we had stolen in a great big pile in the middle. Now, the alley was a good thirty yards from where we were, but as I looked up from our great mountain of unusable junk, piles of pic-n-mix, tubes of glue, felt tipped pens, Biro’s, cheap plastic jewellery, batteries all manner of stuff, I spotted two police officers, one male, one female, emerge from the alley between the garages ambling along side by side like an old married couple out for a Sunday afternoon stroll.
Cool as a cucumber, I jumped to my feet and hastily started refilling my pockets. I couldn't get it in quick enough. The others soon caught on, so it became a mass scramble to get our pockets filled with what had now become the incriminating evidence. While, the two police officers slowly strolled towards us blissfully unaware of what we were up to.
Except that is for Ian. He stood up, momentarily froze to the spot, then promptly started throwing up. My first instinct was to run for it. The other three veteran thieves would be sure to follow. But I knew Andy wouldn't desert his brother and neither of them were street smart enough to keep their mouths shut when questioned by the old bill. So I just stopped what I was doing and stood with him, the others soon realized the game was up, we were caught, we were bang to rights.
By the time the officers had reached us they knew something was up. They weren't stupid, they'd obviously seen it all before. There we were six youths standing in a car park on a boiling hot summer's day, wearing anoraks done up to our necks, pockets bulging, and with one of the suspects throwing up. Yes, very suspicious.
Male officer," what are you lot up to then?”
“Nothing,” we replied in unison.
“Then why did your mate start throwing up the minute he spotted us?”
“Dunno,” I said.
“What's in your pockets?” He inquired.
“Nothing,” I said, trying to stay as cool as possible.
The female officer interrupted, “right, you go and stand over by that wall,” she said, pointing at me.
I walked over to the wall, she beckoned for me to turn and face it, I did as she said. It was the old divide and rule trick. Before we could concoct a story we were all split up, we were lined up against the wall at about five foot intervals and one at a time they called us over to the garages for a brief grilling. The sick boy Phillips went first. They made him turn out his pockets even though they were empty, he was too busy being sick to pick anything up, we were done for.
So with one eye on our inquisitors Steven, Doug, and myself, were busily emptying the contents of our pockets over the wall that we were standing in front of, Straight into the back gardens beyond. John, my brother and Andy, Ian's brother, were still standing rooted to the spot. So the game was up, Ian had confessed all and the two brothers still had their pockets stuffed with incriminating Woolworth's junk. So ten minutes later we were sitting in the back of a police van on our way to the nick.
All the parents arrived two at a time over the next hour, the only one that didn't come was our father. My mother walked in alone looking in equal portions shocked and disappointed, so now that everyone was present, we were taken one at a time to an interview room where we duly made full and frank confessions.
I was really hoping the old man would have come to the police station as he wouldn't have been able to kill us there and chances are he might have calmed down a tad by the time we all got home. But what actually happened came as quite a shock. After we'd all given our statements we were released with a formal police caution and then a right good telling off by the desk sergeant. But as the Hughes boys well knew, the real punishment still lay in wait, or so we thought.
When we got home, he wasn't in, so we were sent to our rooms in shame, to wait for the inevitable. I'd fallen asleep on the bed, when I was awoken by the sound of the front door opening.
Brace yourself, I thought.
I could hear the muffled voice of my mother obviously giving him full chapter and verse and after a short while she stopped talking. The living room door opened, and the creaking stairs were giving him away.
I was now on full alert. When the blows come try to stay relaxed and don't give him any back chat, I thought to myself
But the trouble was I rarely heeded my own advice. So the door opened and as he stood all his six feet four and eighteen stone filling the doorway, I readied myself. He was looking at me, but he called out to my brother in the other room.
“Come in here,” he shouted at the other bedroom door.
As the door opened out came my brother, no longer shouting he said quite calmly.
“Go and sit next to him on the bed,” he was pointing at me.
He did as he was told and came and sat beside me on my bed. My father then closed the door behind him.
Oh my god he's gonna finish us both off in one go. I thought.
But no! He coolly and calmly began by saying that he wasn't going to hit us, now, I knew that couldn't be true. Was this the man who had not three weeks earlier beaten me senseless for kicking the football against the side of the house? No, it must come at some point. But it didn't.
He went on to say that we were now known to the police and that if we didn't mend our ways we'd both end up in prison. The lecture went on and on, but I had zoned out. I was just occasionally nodding or shaking my head in time to my brother's movements. Once I had fully appreciated that this nonviolent course of action was for real, the fear and panic gave way to complete bemused bafflement.
So we were left in our rooms for the night, bewildered, but bruise free, and for the rest of the holidays we were confined to the boundaries of the street. Of course, this act of baffling non aggression didn’t last past that one time, but it certainly was a refreshing change.