Obituary: George Chatham

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The lessons which Dick Hobbs adduces from George Chat-ham's sordid career [10 June] include one about television and real crime: both the risks implicit in the former and the morality of packaging the latter as entertainment, writes Pieter van der Merwe.

In 1951, so the story at the National Maritime Museum goes, its then director appeared in an early BBC broadcast showing the famed chelengk awarded to Nelson by the Sultan of Turkey after the Battle of the Nile in 1798. This showy plume of Brazilian diamonds the admiral wore in his hat, where its more-than-oriental splendour added much to his reputation for ungentlemanly vanity: it was of course meant for a turban.

Shortly afterwards a lightweight army ladder appeared overnight against the wall of the then lightly armoured museum, a window was forced, an eight-foot sheet of case glass spectacularly smashed and the sparklers were gone. Thereafter bars and regular security upgrades became the order of the day.

Forty-three years later, in 1994, the BBC did a documentary series on the underworld showing how "crime really doesn't pay in the long term" - except of course for television producers who know its fascination and make it a regular stock in tade. In the course of this, and a related promotional article in the Independent magazine (12 February 1994), the museum learnt that Chatham was the man who claimed (dis)credit for the deed and got "a few thousand" for the diamonds before they were broken up. Then 81, he was still living at some public expense - not this time in jail but in sheltered council housing: in a civilised society "an old and highly respected brigand" (W.S. Gilbert's phrase) also had his rights.

The chelengk and Chatham now only exist in old photographs and legend. It is a small historical satisfaction to record their relationship: none to reflect how television may have provoked theft and can still benefit from it. Of course it all depends whether you believe him or not.