Back in early 1925 Torquay experienced a crime spree that shocked and bewildered the sedate seaside resort.
Over a period of 12 months shops, huts, stores, and cars were broken into and tents ransacked “causing much damage”. Over £40 of property was stolen – a significant sum when the average male weekly wage was about £5.
There was public outrage. The Police Criminal Investigation Department were baffled and came in for much criticism.
Eventually, in February 1926 there was a breakthrough. The Police subsequently arrested “nine local lads” between the ages of 14 and 17. The nine were described as being “well dressed and of good appearance”.
This caused another shock as Torquay had always assumed that criminals came to exploit our good will from beyond the town’s boundaries, from London, Bristol and Glasgow. Alternatively, any local law-breakers were expected to live amongst the lower, uneducated, and untamed classes who couldn’t be expected to understand how to behave in a modern cultured society.
Now we appeared to be producing our own breed of organised ne’er-do-wells. Where would it all end? Would we even see undesirables in the centre of our town one day?
The lads appeared at Torquay Police Court charged with larceny. There were found in possession of, what was related to the court as, “an astonishing conglomeration of articles”. The gang even had a hideout where all this booty was stored, described as old smugglers’ caves near Hope’s Nose.
In the two caves the Police found a haul of property. This included: rifles, rapiers, several storm lamps, a pick axe, shovels, a frying pan, a kettle, spirit stove, two cameras, a gramophone, a telescope, and tins of oil.
Further alarming the authorities was the discovery that that the gang was beginning to embrace new and dangerous technology. In one cave there was a telephone and 800 yards of telephone wire, stolen from the Devon Territorials. The plan had been to connect the two caves via telephone.
This was only one indication of the sophistication of the “band of robbers”. Another member was “a clever mechanic” who had “taken impressions of keys and made duplicates to gain access to a shop in Ellacombe.”
Despite all the damage and thefts, the lads found a few local admirers who saw them as an example of romantic youth, rather than as mere criminals. After all, they weren’t representatives of Torquay’s underclass, those who would entirely deserve to feel the full weight of the law.
Indeed, there seem to have been some wiser heads striving to calm down the hysteria, identifying the incidents as examples of teenage shenanigans rather than evidence of the growth of a criminal subculture. The newspapers recorded a moment of light relief in court, for instance. While the investigating detective was giving evidence, an alarm clock went off “causing considerable amusement”. The offending article was immediately smothered.
On the other hand, both the humourless justice system and humiliated police officers were determined to take the case very seriously. Copy-cat criminality was not to be tolerated while those responsible for law and order needed to be shielded from any further embarrassment.
So what had motivated these young men to embark on a life of crime and bring fear and loathing to the streets of Torquay?
Mr Hutchings, who appeared in the boys’ defence, asked whether they had “learnt that kind of thing at the pictures”. If they had, “the sooner such pictures are stopped the better”. He went on to state that although he “did not attend the pictures, some of the posters he had seen were quite sensational enough to put ideas into young heads.”
There are a couple of examples here of posters that the boys may have seen. Look away now if you are easily influenced.
And so justice was served. The boys were all found guilty and bound over for 12 months. The three ring leaders were further ordered to pay 10 shillings towards the costs.
The terror was finally over. After twelve months of juvenile criminals running amok on the streets of our fair town, Torquay could sigh with collective relief and return to peace and normality. Never again would rascals and rogues be allowed to walk the streets of Britain’s premier resort.
‘Torquay: A Social History’ by local author Kevin Dixon is available for £10 from Artizan Gallery, Lucius Street, Torquay, or: