Our little prison racket

When Winston Silcott challenged Kenneth Noye to a game of badminton at Swaleside prison, he set in motion a sporting rivalry that lasts to this day
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The Independent Online

Since his release from prison last year Winston Silcott appears to have had little trouble adjusting to life on the outside. He doesn't complain about harassment from the police who have, by-and-large, left him alone. Nor is he too bothered by his north London neighbours, who have come to accept the Court of Appeal ruling that cleared him of the brutal murder of PC Keith Blakelock during the Broadwater Farm riots of 1985.

Since his release from prison last year Winston Silcott appears to have had little trouble adjusting to life on the outside. He doesn't complain about harassment from the police who have, by-and-large, left him alone. Nor is he too bothered by his north London neighbours, who have come to accept the Court of Appeal ruling that cleared him of the brutal murder of PC Keith Blakelock during the Broadwater Farm riots of 1985.

What concerns Winston Silcott, is the search to find someone who can give him a competitive game of badminton. For Silcott, this a serious matter. "If you want a good match, if you want a proper match, you need to play people who are as good as you. The word goes round that I can play badminton and people say they want to play me. But when they get on court, I find they aren't that good. So it's a bit of a waste of time," he says.

Silcott, 44, spent 17 years in prison honing his sporting skills. Inside, he used badminton to while away the empty hours and help build his influence among the other inmates and prison officers. Yet, Silcott admits to being a late convert to the game, which he initially regarded as being "a little bit girly". In his first few years in prison, he played football and paddle tennis. But that all changed after a chance encounter with another well-known inmate.

Any prisoners meeting Kenneth Noye, 57, for the first time are advised to bear in mind two important rules. Don't ever cross him; and don't ever challenge him to a game of badminton.

When Winston Silcott first clapped eyes on Noye in Kent's high-security Swaleside prison no one had felt it necessary to pass on this piece of vital information. Silcott didn't recognise the beefed up, blonde-haired prisoner who was sitting cross-legged on the edge of the prison gym badminton court.

He recalls: "I saw this really good player who everybody was frightened of, because he had beaten everybody and humiliated them, and nobody wanted to play him. I saw him sitting down by the court and I went over and asked if I could play him."

What followed marked the beginning of an intriguing relationship between two men whose characters and criminal pasts could not have been more different. Silcott was the demonised black man whose face had come to represent a blind hatred of white authority. Noye was the king of the gangland, a ruthless operator whose criminal heritage could be traced back to Ronnie and Reggie Kray.

The only thing linking them was a shared experience that neither of them could ignore. Both had been controversially cleared of murdering policemen. Silcott had his conviction for murdering PC Blakelock overturned in 1991 after the Court of Appeal heard the police had fabricated evidence. Noye successfully pleaded self-defence after killing detective John Fordham in the garden of his Kent house in 1985. The policeman had been on a surveillance operation and Noye, who had gone into his garden to investigate, had mistaken him for an intruder.

Both were now serving prison terms for different crimes, Noye for the Brink's-Mat robbery, and Silcott for the murder of a boxer, killed during a knife fight at a party in east London in 1984. In Swaleside, a high security prison on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent, the men discovered they also shared an interest - an obsession with exercise.

Swaleside prison has a reputation for having excellent sporting facilities, and prides itself on its commitment to using sport to help rehabilitate its 500 prisoners.

By 1990, Noye was undisputed badminton champion of Swaleside. He had taken on all-comers, both prisoners and prison officers, and swept all before him. So, when Winston Silcott approached him and challenged him to a game his response was both confident and flamboyant.

Silcott recalls: "He said, if I won, he would make sure I got a crate of champagne." Silcott accepted the wager and the two men prepared to square off on the court.

Outside the walls of Swaleside prison, a sporting contest - even a badminton match - featuring two of Britain's best-known criminals would surely command massive public interest. But in Swaleside prison gym, there was just a small gathering of prisoners and their warders to witness the event. As soon as the first shuttlecock left Noye's racket it was clear Silcott would be no match for his opponent.

Noye hit smash after smash down on to Silcott's side of the net. Then he called for a pause in the game and, varying the terms of the bet, said he would give Silcott the champagne if he won just a single point. In the very next rally Silcott's shuttlecock struck the net and dropped dead on to Noye's side. He had fluked the point and won the crate of champagne.

Says Silcott: "I didn't take it because it was only meant as an incentive." Silcott, who was not used to being beaten at any sport, set out to match his master and then avenge the defeat. The men spent many months sparring until Noye was moved to another prison. "I got him to teach me how to play, and then I started beating him," says Silcott who could now add badminton to the list of sports which he could claim to be prison champion.

Noye was transferred to Blantyre open prison in Kent. He was finally released in the summer of 1994, but he continued to live in the area, where police suspected he ran various rackets. He also kept up his contacts inside Swaleside prison.

His freedom was short-lived. In 1996, Noye got involved in a road rage incident on a M25 slip-road near his Kent home. In the ensuing fight, he stabbed 21-year-old Stephen Cameron to death. Later he fled to Spain. But in 1998, Scotland Yard detectives caught up with him and he was extradited to Britain. At his trial in 2000 he once again tried to claim self-defence, but the jury convicted him of murder and he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Silcott followed Noye to Blantyre prison and was finally released last year. He is now trying to rebuild his life in the Tottenham community, where there is still massive public interest in him. Understandably, he still feels bitter about the way he says he was fitted up by the police. But he also believes his conviction for the murder of Tony Smith was a miscarriage of justice because he was acting in self-defence. Much of his energies are now devoted to clearing his name.

Noye is in Whitemoor prison, one of Britain's highest-security jails. He doesn't have the kind of freedoms he once enjoyed at Swaleside, and there are few opportunities for him to play his beloved badminton. He too wants to clear his name and believes he has been harshly treated because he successfully pleaded self-defence to killing a policeman. His lawyers have launched an appeal against his conviction and a high court challenged to try to improve the conditions in which he is being held.

Silcott has shown little interest in his former badminton partner's troubles. But in the unlikely event that Noye is granted an early release, that could all change. Silcott knows that, on the outside, a compatible badminton partner, with some decent form, is pretty hard to find.