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Wednesday, 28 January 2015

The Great Cigarette Machine Robbery

Tasker Dunham remembers his short-lived career as a master criminal

Today there is an entire industry devoted to the security and protection of automatic vending machines, supplying various kinds of locks, straps, anchor kits, anti-jam coin devices, solvents and cages (one fittingly named ‘Defend-A-Vend’) for the war against hammer attacks, lock picking, graffiti and the ingress of liquids, lollipop sticks and other unwanted items. Such measures, together with sophisticated physical, optical and magnetic currency validation techniques, make vending machines as safe from theft and vandalism as possible.

They must have been much more vulnerable in the past when simple coin-in-the-slot machines seemed to be screwed unprotected to the wall of just about every tiny corner shop in the land. No doubt people were then generally more law-abiding and respectful. Perhaps, therefore, I should take this opportunity to confess that I wasn’t, and to ease my conscience by recounting how I once regarded cigarette machines as my fast-track route to a career as a master criminal.

Cigarette Machine 

Cigarette machines were everywhere. For half-a-crown (two shillings and six pence, the pre-decimalisation equivalent of 12½p) you could slide a packet of ten out of a drawer at the bottom and get a few coppers in change as well. If it sounds cheap, it was. Allowing for inflation, half-a-crown in 1968 had similar spending power to around £2 today, whereas the actual price of ten cigarettes now is around £5.

The most popular cigarette at the time was Embassy which had been re-introduced as a filter brand in 1962. It quickly captured almost a quarter of the market although after the end of the decade its dominance was usurped by the smaller and cheaper Players’ No. 6. Both brands had gift vouchers to encourage loyalty, and both were heavily marketed: the vertical red-on-white stripe of Embassy and the blue-green bands of Players No. 6 were familiar to smokers and non-smokers alike. It was big business: approximately 45% of the adult population smoked, well over double the percentage today.

Other products were available from vending machines too, for example chocolate, chewing gum, sweets, stamps and so on, and of course these still exist, except that over the last few decades they have deserted dark and lonely street corners for new positions in brighter, safer, less isolated locations, mostly indoors, such as in schools, sports centres, motorway service stations and railway station concourses.

Cigarette machines, however, have disappeared completely. The sale of tobacco from vending machines was banned in England from the 1st October, 2011, subject to a fine of £2,500. The aim was to prevent the sale of cigarettes to children. 

Belgian 50 centimes English sixpence
Belgian 50 centimes piece and English sixpence

The vulnerability of vending machines was brought home to me on the way home from one of the foreign language exchange trips mentioned in previous posts. Waiting to change trains at Doncaster station, our group of respectable and well-behaved grammar school scholars discovered that the Belgian 50 centimes piece was exactly the same size and weight as the English sixpence, despite having only one seventh of the value (actually they were half a millimetre smaller and 0.05g lighter than a sixpence but this would have been within the tolerances allowed for wear through use, and the exchange rate then was 140 Belgian Francs to the pound). Most of us still had several of these otherwise worthless foreign coins left in our change, so we flocked and screeched like excited seagulls around the Cadburys chocolate machine on the platform, leaving it empty.

But this was small-time, low-value stuff. Tobacco was big-time, high-value, as my Belgian exchange partner, Hugo, demonstrated when he visited England the second time. To supplement his English currency he smuggled in a few dozen packets of tipped Belgian cigarillos which he had no trouble in selling at a handsome profit to my smoking school mates and anyone else who wanted to buy them. It was rather cynical and calculating because Hugo himself didn’t smoke. The cigarillos looked like pencils and reeked like old socks, and for the last few days of the school term the bike sheds had the atmosphere of a Middle Eastern hookah den.  

So, in a flash of insight, the creative combination of disparate ideas and trains of thought, I came up with the perfect crime. I would rob cigarette machines using counterfeit half-crowns, and corner the market for cut-price Embassy and Players No. 6. The only difficulty was how to make the fake half-crowns.

Bronze penny and silver half-crown
Bronze penny and silver half-crown

One idea was to glue two pennies together. Copper pennies and silver half-crowns were almost the same size, pennies being 31mm in diameter and half-crowns 32.3mm, but pennies were thinner and lighter, 9.4g to 14.1g. I didn’t know this so precisely at the time, and if I did I would have been talking in inches and ounces, but I naively guessed that there must be some kind of weight-sensitive mechanism inside the machines to distinguish lighter pennies from heavier half-crowns, and that two pennies together might fool it.

Glueing them together was the easy part thanks to Evo-stick impact adhesive, but the resulting disc was too thick. Round at the corner shop after dark, it went into the slot all right, fell down inside, and stuck. All I’d done was to put the machine out of action for the night. I wonder how many people cursed at the loss of their half-crowns before the shop opened again the next day. I bet Don Blackburn, the shop keeper, wasn't too pleased either.

The next idea was to glue two pennies together and file them thinner. After a couple of hours of filing I gave up. Penny metal (then bronze, a copper alloy) is much harder than you might think. From the state of my hands I decided that the coarse file I was using, known as a bastard file, was very aptly named.

By then my project had gained the interest and enthusiasm of my friend Alan from school who suggested putting the double-penny on the railway line to let a passing railway engine do the job of thinning the disc. We put it on a secluded bit of track beyond the end of the street and waited. A useless two-car multiple unit came along first. It knocked the disc away and we couldn’t find it anywhere. Another two pence lost. Presumably it’s still there somewhere, hidden in the ballast.

We tried again another day. This time we were rewarded by the appearance of an impressively large and heavy ‘Austerity’ WD 2-8-0 locomotive hauling a fully loaded train of coal wagons. It certainly flattened the disc, except that it was now far too big and no longer stuck together. Further hours spent glueing and filing the two flattened pennies failed to create anything even slightly near to the size and shape of a half-crown. With write-off costs now mounting to six pence, an entirely different approach was needed.

In a previous post I mentioned my dad’s hazardous antics making medallions out of melted lead. There was the answer, we would mould half-crowns out of lead. Alan came round with some bits of old lead pipe one afternoon when there was no one else in the house. We melted them in an empty beans tin on the gas cooker, and carefully holding it with a pair of pliers, tipped the molten lead into a half-crown sized mould made out of aluminium foil. When it cooled we found we had manufactured a silvery metal blob of no particularly identifiable shape.

Alan next came round with some pliable clay – he seemed to be able to source all kinds of unusual materials – and we made another mould. This time on first sight things seemed to have gone have very well. We had a perfectly round half-crown sized lead disc, perhaps a little too thick but not excessively so. With a bit of filing to smooth off the rough bits off we were ready to try it in a machine. Late that night at the same machine as before, we popped the coin in the slot and, well, it didn’t stick this time, it went straight through and dropped into the reject tray. It must have been too heavy.

There isn’t really a satisfactory end to this tale. We talked about drilling holes in the disc to make it lighter, but I don’t think we ever did. The end of the school holidays intervened and we lost interest. Our careers as master criminals had to be put on hold while we studied for our ‘O’ levels. Top gangsters like Ronnie Biggs and the Kray twins would probably have taken the view that we were too conformist and without sufficient nastiness or dedication to join their ranks. I can, however, confidently attribute my less than impressive ‘O’ level performance to lead poisoning.

The image of the cigarette vending machine is © Copyright Walter Baxter and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence.The Belgian coin and English sixpence are public domain. The other image is my own.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Belgian Youth Abroad

Tasker Dunham has a narrow escape when Hugo visits Yorkshire

Hugo, my foreign exchange partner, liked to think of himself as the Belgian equivalent of Dick Rivers, the French Elvis Presley. He sang like Dick Rivers, dressed like Dick Rivers and combed his hair like Dick Rivers. Like his role model, he was fascinated by popular American culture. I suspect this was the main reason he wanted to visit England – he thought it was like America. We spoke the same language, English fashion and music were taking over the world, and ‘swinging’ London was the fictional home of Hugo’s other role model, ‘The Saint’, alias “the famous Simon Templar”, played by the debonair Roger Moore, recently syndicated with subtitles on Belgian television. England was much easier to visit than America, and affordable too. The foreign exchange scheme, ‘La Jeunesse Belge à l'Étranger’ (Belgian Youth Abroad), paired up Belgian and English teenagers wanting to visit each others’ countries to stay with each others’ families.

And so, one sunny July afternoon in the early nineteen sixties, Hugo and around thirty other excited Belgian teenagers were on a train travelling north into Yorkshire. As they rattled across the twin bridges over the river and the canal, those who had been in previous years knew they were very near their destination. Meanwhile, waiting expectantly on the station platform, their exchange partners squinted into the glare along the railway line trying to catch a first glimpse of the approaching train. We knew its arrival was imminent having heard the distinctive clatter and thump of the railway gates coming to rest against their stops in the road, and the clunk of signals bouncing into the clear position.

I had been quite apprehensive about Hugo’s visit. Despite having enjoyed my time with his family in Belgium, I was afraid he would find Yorkshire a disappointment. It wasn’t Elvis Presley who had recently performed in our town, or ‘The Saint’ they had filmed for international distribution, it was Wilfred Pickles and his show ‘Have A Go!’ for broadcast on the Light Programme, one of the most old-fashioned and parochially working-class shows on the wireless. I felt sure Hugo was going to be bored and had no idea how we were going to entertain him.

There were no obvious answers among my waiting school group. Nearly all were older; there was hardly anyone from my own cohort, and no one I knew well. From my own year I could see only Wendy Godley, but she hadn’t spoken to me since primary school, not that I talked to girls much anyway. 

The train drew up in a hiss of hot steam, a whiff of coal smoke and a turmoil of slamming doors, waving, cheek-kissing and excited foreign accents. I found Hugo and helped him carry his luggage to our house, oddly distracted by the image of Wendy Godley waiting quietly at the end of the platform with the sun shining through her dress. 

I need not have worried about Hugo’s visit. A big difference between our own trip abroad and Hugo’s to England was that we had been mostly on our own, staying with families all over French-speaking Belgium. Hugo lived near Charleroi and there was no one from home anywhere near me. In contrast, the Belgians came to England as a group of around thirty, all to our small Yorkshire town. At the same time we were hosts to a similar number of German exchange students. So we had thirty Belgian teenagers and thirty German teenagers, many for the first time away from their parents, all in effect on holiday together with their sixty English hosts. It should have been obvious there would be no difficulties in finding things for them to do, they would create their own entertainment. Indeed, Hugo had already been hard at work creating distractions of his own.

“Dzehre was dzees gehrl on dzee trhrain,” he said in his Belgian accent. “Marie-Christine. Vehry byutifurl. She stay ‘ere en England too. She ees frhrom Dinant, but she stay ‘ere weedz an Engleesh gehrl called Wendee. You know whehre she leev?”

That single conversation disclosed Hugo’s main preoccupation for the next two and a half weeks. Whereas in Belgium my activities had depended almost entirely on Hugo and his family, Hugo quickly started to organise things in England for himself. As such a handsome, energetic combination of Dick Rivers and the famous Simon Templar, he was bound to be irresistible to the Belgian girls, the German girls, their English hosts, and all their friends and sisters too. He worked his way through them one by one, sometimes in twos and threes, greatly assisted by the use of my dad’s ancient bicycle which he had commandeered to give himself a level of independence that frequently left me to my own devices. I had never known anyone so unexpectedly overflowing with such extrovert self-confidence; it had certainly not been evident in Belgium, within sight of his parents.“Hugo est un garçon sérieux,” (Hugo is a serious boy) one of his friends had told me.

Most afternoons for two and a half weeks, groups of Belgian and German teenagers, usually but not always with their English hosts, congregated in the park, played tennis or football, wandered around town, visited each others’ houses or drank Coca Cola in coffee bars. Most evenings there were lively parties, a couple of which got seriously out of hand leaving legendary tales of high-spirited behaviour and worse. As Hugo was my ‘wog’, which I am sorry to say is how in those politically incorrect days we referred to our overseas exchange visitors, I got to participate too. Such an intensity of social activity was completely new to me. I had to learn quickly.

One afternoon, Hugo having gone off somewhere with Wendy Godley and Marie-Christine, I found myself on my own in the park with Wendy’s sister, Sandra Godley, who was also ‘vehry byutifurl’, as Hugo put it. While Wendy continued to ignore me, Sandra was completely the opposite. She was always asking me things – things that seemed to mean much more than just the words she used – such as whether I might be going to the pictures. Did I think it cosy at the Carlton? Would I like a ‘Wonderful Life’? Had I thought about ‘A Hard Day’s Night’? Would I enjoy ‘Sex and the Single Girl’? She seemed for ever to be touching me, walking near enough to bump arms, brushing her hand against mine, sitting a bit too close so our knees came into contact.

That day in the park, I was sitting on my bicycle, hands on the brakes, and Sandra stood so closely that, oh so casually and accidentally, her tummy pressed firmly against my fingers. She felt warm through the softness of her strikingly red top. Then, with mischievous blue eyes looking straight into mine in a way that was impossible to refuse, she asked whether she could have a ride, pausing excessively before adding “on your bike, I mean.” I got off, she got on, wobbled a bit because it was too big for her, and then rode off towards the park exit, her ample bottom astride my saddle. I followed on foot, but she had disappeared. To be truthful, I was rather annoyed. If I wanted my bike back, I had to go get it.

I walked the half-mile or so to the Godleys’ house wondering what to say. The front door opened and Sandra waved me inside. She was alone in the house, and had changed out of her red top into what looked to me like a flimsy nightdress. It was hard to know where to look. Even someone as unworldly as me could not fail to gather what she had in mind.

Then, in one of those instants when had I decided to act otherwise the rest of my life could have taken a very different course, I did what newspaper reporters used to say they did after uncovering some lair of wickedness, I made my excuses and left. Actually, ‘made my excuses and fled’ would be more accurate.

There were times during the next few weeks when I wondered how things might have turned out otherwise. It would have been good for me at that stage of my life to have had a very special friend, especially someone so funny and so lovely and so ‘vehry byutifurl’. My brusque behaviour and ensuing coldness must have been hurtful. But this wasn’t ‘swinging’ London – the ‘swinging sixties’ did not reach our part of Yorkshire until at least the nineteen seventies, maybe not even then. We would have become the subjects of the kind of nudges, winks and whispers that circulated round the town for weeks. Out of consideration and loyalty it would have been impossible to pretend nothing had happened.

If these thoughts went through my mind at the time, there was one other thing too. It sounds so terribly arrogant today, in fact it’s shameful, but it illustrates how the tripartite education system, with selection at eleven, divisively changed us. Sandra went to the modern school. Grammar school boys did not go out with modern school girls, not unless they were desperate. Somehow, subconsciously, insidiously, we were turned into pompous snobs, led to think we were better. While modern school boys wanted to beat grammar school boys up, with some justification, modern school girls wanted to catch one. 

I kept quiet about what had happened, but one thing I know for certain. It was a better offer than Dick Rivers had all summer. Girls might have found him attractive and entertaining, but they never tried to pinch my dad’s bike from him.