George Chatham

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The death of George "Taters" Chatham, safecracker, armed robber and cat burglar extraordinaire, marks the end of a criminal career which now seems as romantically archaic as that of Dick Turpin.

Chatham was born in Fulham, south-west London, in 1912 and aspired to a career as a professional footballer before professional crime staked its claim. Specialising in furs, works of art and jewellery, his 60-year career gleaned an estimated pounds 100m in pillage, not to mention 35 years' imprisonment.

In 1948, what was to prove a long-term relationship with the Victoria and Albert Museum first blossomed when he stole the Duke of Wellington's ceremonial swords. These were encrusted with emeralds and diamonds, and would be valued today in the region of pounds 5m, but to Taters they represented little more than stake money. He reputedly called a bet at a gaming table by prising a stone from the hilt of one of the weapons.

In 1952 he moved into the world of armed robbery by becoming part of the Eastcastle Street robbery team that captured the nation's imagination and pounds 287,000. The robbery is vividly described by its alleged mastermind Billy Hill in his ghosted autobiography, Boss of Britain's Underworld (1955):

As the mail-van, on its way from Paddington, turned into Eastcastle Street both cars shot out from each mews simultaneously . . . Six men sprang out of the cars . . . The three Post Office employees were struck over their heads and left lying on the pavement . . . No robbery has ever taken place like it. No robbery has ever been carried out with such perfection, from split-second timing to the concealment of evidence.

Despite an unprecedented police investigation the robbery went unsolved, and Chatham's pounds 15,000 share, over a quarter of a million pounds by today's prices, was quickly lost at the rigged tables of Hill's gambling club, prompting the hapless punter to launch an unsuccessful sortie against the gangster's safe.

Chatham, like many burglars of his era, despised gangsters who he considered to be "thieves' ponces", feeding upon the risks taken by thieves. He was an independent operator who, before his gambling habit drove him to foolhardy risk- taking, researched his targets via Burke's Peerage, Country Life and the Tatler. He also cultivated informants such as insurance clerks and blue-bloods with intimate knowledge of the treasures of Belgravia, Mayfair and Regent's Park. What his colleague Peter Scott described as "just George with a bit of wire and a knowledge of how to bend glass doors", was often described by the media as an "international art gang". Chat- ham was a relentless, skilled and fearless thief, with a unique and educated eye for plunder.

His victims included the Maharajah of Jaipur, Lady Rothermere, Madame Prunier, and Raymond ("Mr Teasy Weasy"), the society hairdresser. Having targeted the then Countess of Dartmouth (later Raine Spencer), he fell four floors from her roof and spent six weeks in hospital, only to return to the fray swathed in plaster and bandages.

Numerous shops fell victim to Chatham, including Bourne and Hollingsworth and Harvey Nichols, as well as countless furriers, jewellers and galleries. A Matisse and a Renoir were included in his gallery swag, fetching respectively a mere pounds 7,500 and pounds 5,000, according to Peter Scott.

Chatham displayed contempt for the gentry and for the criminal justice system in equal measures. As he explained in Duncan Campbell's book The Underworld (1994):

I was a rebel against authority and I had no respect for the police. If I could outwit them in any way, I would . . . They were usually very, very rich people, millionaires. Some of them regarded it as a nice thing to talk about at dinner parties.

His 35-year association with his fellow thief and degenerate gambler Peter Scott lasted well into the 1980s, and as a gambler proved disastrous. In his sixties Chatham was caught stealing furs. At the age of 70, 34 years after the theft of the Wellington swords, he returned over the rooftops via scaffolding and in a blizzard to the V & A, before being forced by the blizzard to abandon the operation.

Both solo and with Scott he was still attacking central London targets well into his seventies, yet at the age of 76 he received six months for shop-lifting a piece of bone china from an elegant store (Harvey Nichols) from which decades earlier he had looted several hundred thousand pounds' worth of furs via the roof.

It would be foolish to sentimentalise a man whose life was dominated by the twin drives of plunder and chance. Yet there is much to be learnt from Taters Chatham's life. About the irrelevance of the criminal justice system as a deterrent, the make up of Britain's post-war criminal and non-criminal elites, and most importantly the mutating criminal market-place that has ousted craftsmen and replaced them with venal, largely anonymous entrepreneurs.

George Chatham took his chances, lost a lot of his liberty and spent millions at the bookies and at the gaming tables. Unlike most thieves, the big prize did not elude him: he spent it several times over.

Dick Hobbs

George "Taters" Chatham, thief: born London 3 April 1912; married (one daughter deceased); died London 5 June 1997.