THE DEATH at the age of 86 of Herbert Sparks marks the end of that golden age of post-war British detection, when trilby-hatted men in detachable collars tracked down embittered villains before putting them safely behind bars.
Sparks joined the Metropolitan Police in 1924, and quickly established himself as a highly competent thief-taker with a penchant for painstaking hard work and uncompromising diligence. His 37-year career covered a remarkable period of British criminality, in particular, the pre-war dominance of the racecourse gangs, the black market of the war years, the subsequent rise of such infamous characters as Jack Spot and Billy Hill, culminating with the rise to power of the Kray twins and the Richardson brothers.
As Detective Chief Superintendent in charge of the Flying Squad, Sparks established record arrest figures, yet his most notorious case involved the conviction of a failed safe-cracker with an IQ of 150.
In September 1953 Maples, a store in Tottenham Court Road, was robbed of cash and jewellery worth pounds 34,700. Within a week Sparks had arrested five men, among them one Alfred Hinds. The evidence against Hinds hinged upon forensic science findings that claimed to have discovered traces of fuse and safe lining on his clothing. Lord Goddard sentenced him to 12 years' imprisonment, and awarded him the rather mysterious accolade of 'a most dangerous criminal'.
Alfie Hinds dedicated himself to attaining his liberty by any means at his disposal. From his prison cell he pleaded his innocence via the publication of a pamphlet, and when that failed to achieve the desired effect he escaped.
He escaped in total three times while constantly proclaiming his innocence. Herbert Sparks retired in 1961, published his memoirs in the People newspaper and, as a result, found himself being sued by Hinds for libel. Sparks had merely stated that Hinds was guilty of the Maples robbery, yet the case, now 11 years old, was, in effect, retried in the civil courts.
Despite the Court of Appeal's constant rejection of his case, and the unfavourable summing up of the judge, Mr Justice Edmond Davies, it was ruled that the ex-detective had failed to establish Hinds's guilt. Hinds's final plea to the Court of Appeal was rejected and the law was later altered to make it impossible to resort to the civil court as a means of disputing a criminal conviction.
The subsequent award of pounds 1,300 made to the man described by Sparks as 'the most dangerous and cunning criminal' he had known was an enormous sum in 1964, and it was a blow that Herbert Sparks never forgot.
On Hinds's death in 1991, some 38 years after the Maples robbery, Herbert Sparks wrote ruefully to the Police Pensioners magazine that ex-officers should think twice before publishing their memoirs.