Bertie Smalls: Armed robber turned supergrass

Bertie Smalls was one of Britain's most prolific armed robbers who, through an act of self-preservation, succeeded in changing the way in which the British police dealt with serious crime. After many years as a professional criminal, he helped create a legal precedent by giving up the cream of London's armed robbers in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

Brought up in north London, Derek Creighton Smalls (known as "Bertie") was the eldest of five children. At the age of 15 he was arrested for breaking into a railway restaurant car, and served his sentence in an approved school. From then on, apart from just a few weeks as a labourer, Smalls dedicated his life to armed robbery. He was at the forefront of the switch from coshes and pickaxe handles to firearms, and from the mid-Sixties was a key figure, usually the "frightener", on numerous robberies in London and the South East.

This was a golden age for armed robbers, who were the élite of the British criminal community. Bank security was almost non-existent, and with little planning a small team of determined robbers armed with a sawn-off shotgun, a handgun, a sledgehammer and a fast car would have little trouble in cleaning up.

By the summer of 1972 armed robberies in London were being committed at the rate of one every five days, and since 1969 more than £3m had been stolen. Convictions were rare, only a tiny fraction of the loot was recovered, and there can be little doubt that the robbers were assisted, in more ways than one, by both the culture and organisation of the Metropolitan Police.

In this era, CID officers were entrepreneurs of local knowledge, which was usually acquired from drinking, wheeling and dealing with local villains. As a consequence the gap between corruption and practical policing became extremely narrow. This was compounded by the tendency of the CID and its various specialist squads to guard jealously the intelligence that they had acquired.

Thriving on the insularity of these CID fiefdoms, Smalls and his ilk were able to work across police boundaries plundering banks all over London. Smalls was a highly respected figure in the high-spending, hedonistic robber fraternity, and he eventually came to the attention of the police after a raid on the National Westminster Bank in Palmers Green. Although he had been questioned a number of times in relation to armed robbery, Smalls always had a decent alibi, and his only adult convictions were relatively minor, such as living off immoral earnings, and a fine for possession of a loaded gun.

Days after the Palmers Green robbery, Smalls's house in Selsdon, south London, was raided, and although he was absent at the time, he did later telephone the local CID office to make an appointment. But he failed to turn up for it, proceeding instead to put together another robbery team.

The Palmers Green raid had netted just £10,000, which was then split four ways, and Smalls, a father of two, needed money. He put together a seven-handed team who, in 90 seconds inside the Wembley branch of Barclays bank, stole £138,000 before decamping to Torremolinos with their families.

Back in London, an informant had named the Wembley robbers, and Bruce Brown, a golfing partner of the head of Wembley CID was arrested. This success inspired the formation of a specialist Robbery Squad that combined officers from previously competing units such as the Regional Crime Squad and the Flying Squad. Despite interviewing some of the robbers and visiting Spain, the 25-strong team had no further success.

However, Smalls's name was being increasingly linked with a portfolio of robberies across London, and eventually, in November 1972, his house was raided, and the family's au pair gave the police an address in Northamptonshire owned by Smalls's brother. Bertie was arrested, and in the car back to London offered to "do a deal", which the police refused. Within a month he offered to give up "every robber in London" in exchange for immunity, and again the police showed no interest. At the committal hearings in March 1973 Smalls was served with papers indicating some very strong evidence against him in relation to the robberies at Palmers Green and Wembley, as well as a Hatton Garden robbery that netted £296,000 in cash and jewels.

Faced with the probability of a 20-year sentence Smalls again offered to "do the royals", or offer Queen's Evidence in exchange for immunity. This time the proposal was put before the Director of Public Prosecutions, a deal was struck, and the term "supergrass" entered the public lexicon.

Smalls confessed to 15 robberies, and named 32 bank robbers and a number of associates. The Wembley robbers were sentenced to a total of 106 years, and over the next 14 months a further 21 men received sentences totalling 308 years. Smalls also secured the release from prison of Jimmy Saunders, who had been falsely imprisoned for his part in the 1970 raid on Barclays Bank in Ilford that had netted £237,000.

Chief Superintendent Cecil Saxby, Bruce Brown's golfing partner, was accused of stealing £25,000 from Brown's safety deposit box, and the subsequent police investigation cleared Saxby, who then retired from the force. Another police inquiry highlighted a common practice of the day. Detective Constable Joan Angell, a member of the Flying Squad, alleged that an informant of hers, "Mary Fraser", had named Bruce Brown and Bryan Turner as two of the Wembley robbers, who were then arrested. Angell claimed a reward for "Fraser".

The paperwork for this claim then disappeared, and the police inquiry found that the reward had been paid to a "William Wise". The officers who had claimed the money on his behalf were Saxby and Detective Chief Inspector Vic Wilding, who were both eventually cleared by a police investigation. Angell resigned in disgust and in 1976 "Mary Fraser" received £1,000 reward. Vic Wilding left the Met to become a security officer for Barclays Bank.

By 1973 two officers a week were voluntarily leaving the Met as a result of a general anti-corruption purge led by Commissioner Robert Mark. The number of bank robberies in London fell from 65 in 1972 to 26 in 1973.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of Smalls's life was the way in which he broke for ever the myth of an underworld code of silence. Although the law lord Lord Justice Lawton subsequently said that the arrangement between Smalls and the Director of Public Prosecutions should not be repeated, other "supergrasses" followed in his wake. Armed robbery in London increased during the following decade, before gradually giving way to drug dealing as the felony of choice for career-minded villains.

Smalls spent the rest of his days with an assumed name living under police protection, and although he was beaten up at least once, nobody attempted to claim the £1m bounty that members of the underworld were alleged to have been willing to pay for his murder.

Dick Hobbs

Derek Creighton "Bertie" Smalls, robber and police informer: born 1935; died Croydon, Surrey 31 January 2008.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones
film
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
News
Danielle George is both science professor and presenter
people
News
i100
News
Caplan says of Jacobs: 'She is a very collaborative director, and gives actors a lot of freedom. She makes things happen.'
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015