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The Undercover Cricketers
Police join cricket club to detect thief; PLUS gangsters, Titanic Thompson, Zodiac Killer, Beatles
In the spring of 1933, Hampstead Cricket Club was embarrassed by a series of mysterious robberies. An unidentified thief stole a gold watch and several “considerable sums” of money from the dressing room at the club’s ground, off Lymington Road in northwest London. The club called the police and – giving prompt attention to a petty theft at a minor cricket club – Scotland Yard sent one of its best young investigators.
Detective Claud Baker, at 28, was building a reputation for solving the type of quaint and peculiar crimes that might happen only in a leafy English suburb during the time-locked vacuum of the interwar years. Baker arrived in Hampstead with a local police constable named Taylor and a suitably quaint plan. In a plot straight out of a cosy Sunday night TV drama, Detective Baker and PC Taylor went undercover as cricketers to catch the Hampstead thief.
Described in a 1930s travel guide as a “pleasant residential quarter”, Hampstead retains the feel of an English village, making it an appropriate setting for a cricket mystery story. Fittingly, it was once home to the queen of crime, Agatha Christie. The cricket club’s ground is a few hundred yards from West Hampstead tube station, on a site it has occupied since 1877.
During the 1930s, according to the cricket writer EW Swanton, Hampstead were among “the strongest of all clubs”. 1933, however, was not a vintage year. “The results this year were poor, chiefly owing to the fact that the bowling was somewhat weak,” noted club member and historian Frederick Monro.
The 1933 season had begun with cricket in turmoil. Sports columnists were still examining “tele-photo pictures” from the bodyline series, which had concluded in January. The controversial tactics employed during the Ashes tour of Australia had damaged English cricket’s reputation. But Monro regarded the Hampstead club as a bastion of good character. “There is only one standard by which a member is judged,” Monro wrote in his history of the club. “It is simply – is he or is he not a good fellow?”
“There is only one standard by which a member is judged. It is simply – is he or is he not a good fellow?”
Detective Baker and PC Taylor arrived at the club incognito at the beginning of May 1933. With the blessing of the club committee, they were formally elected as members. Baker was not known to be a notable cricketer. Taylor, however, was apparently chosen for the undercover operation due to his cricketing ability. He played for the Hampstead Police team and was an impressive bowler. (Taylor’s first name is not recorded on the scorecards, and there were multiple PC Taylors with the Metropolitan Police at the time. The most likely candidate for our cricketing cop is Norman Taylor, who was 26 in 1933.)
As the better cricketer of the two police officers, PC Taylor was more often on the field with the Hampstead players, leaving Detective Baker to observe from the clubhouse. This perfectly suited Baker’s plan. The detective had gone to the trouble of fitting a ventilation grille to the wall of the dressing room. By peering through the grille, he could keep an eye on what was happening inside and – he was sure – catch the thief red-handed.
Detective Baker was a dogged sleuth who had recently solved several other peculiar cases. A few weeks before taking up cricket, he apprehended a book thief who had been stealing second-hand books from Foyles on Charing Cross Road. A stakeout revealed the thief to be a “penniless author” named Percy Scott. “I went to the shop to buy books and found I had no money with me,” Scott explained. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three months’ hard labour.
In another case, Baker investigated the theft of a jade paper knife, a trinket box and a pearl bracelet from the Mayfair home of Foreign Office diplomat Sir Algernon Law. Baker traced one of Law’s house servants, a 16-year-old pantry boy named Robin Rogers, to Ramsgate on the Kent coast and retrieved the stolen items. The boy was a resident of an industrial school for disorderly and neglected children. A school representative said Rogers was “one of our most troublesome cases” and “beyond parental control”. His behavioural problems were linked to the fact that he had suffered from meningitis at the age of eight. The court showed little mercy. Young Rogers got six months’ imprisonment with hard labour.
After five weeks undercover at Hampstead, on the first Thursday in June, Baker and Taylor got their man. That afternoon, Taylor turned out for the Hampstead team and left two marked silver half-crowns in his trouser pocket in the empty dressing room. While the game was played on the field, Baker kept watch on the dressing room through the ventilation grille. Soon, one of the players returned to the dressing room and began rifling through his teammates’ clothes. Baker waited until the player had emptied Taylor’s trousers, then went into the dressing room and arrested him for theft. Turning out the thief’s pockets, Baker found about £5 in notes and coins, including the two marked half-crowns.
The culprit was Eric Nicholls, a 24-year-old underwriter’s clerk from Bayswater. He had been a member of Hampstead CC for “a good many years” and played for the first team. Nicholls admitted to the theft and said he was very sorry and could not explain what had turned him into a thief. He had acted on the spur of the moment and had never done such a thing before. Nicholls denied being responsible for the previous robberies and said he had himself been a victim. Some of the thefts, he claimed, had been committed when he was not there. But neither Baker nor the magistrate at the Marylebone Police Court were convinced.
Appearing in court on the day after his arrest, Nicholls pleaded guilty. The magistrate, Henry Bingley, was outraged to hear that Nicholls was a bachelor with an income of £200 a year (equivalent to about £42,000 in 2021). “£200 a year and picking fellow club members’ pockets?” said Bingley. “It is a dirty trick, to use a vulgar expression.” Describing it as a “gross case”, Bingley said he was inclined to send Nicholls to prison. Instead, perhaps considering Nicholls’s respectable career, he fined him £20.
“£200 a year and picking fellow club members’ pockets? It is a dirty trick, to use a vulgar expression.”
PC Taylor went back to taking wickets for Hampstead Police. Detective Baker continued to investigate quirky crimes. There was the case of the Chelsea perfumer’s silver cigarette case stolen by a man who falsely claimed to be a purser on the RMS Mauretania. And the case of the theatre district pickpocketing operation run by two escaped Russian White Guards. And the post office mailbags snatched by a female novelist known by the mysterious pseudonym “Breen Aran”.
(In another criminal case in Hampstead that summer, former England cricketer Frank Rowbotham Foster was fined 20 shillings for operating a wireless radio set without a licence. Foster said he had “clean forgot”.)
Baker climbed the ranks to become a detective chief inspector and, during the 1940s, headed up Scotland Yard’s elite “Ghost Squad” gang-busting unit. He brought down stamp forgers, black-marketeers and bank robbers, as well as an international ring of jewel thieves, with much of his work conducted undercover and out of the limelight. Baker died in 1953, aged just 49. The Hampstead Cricket Club case was an enjoyable episode in a fascinating career. Going undercover as a cricketer was an occasion, as one newspaper headline from the time described it, “when duty becomes a pleasure”.⬧
This story originally appeared as “The Undercover Cricketers” in the Summer 2021 edition (issue 34) of The Nightwatchman, the Wisden Cricket Quarterly.
A little bit of behind-the-scenes background for this one: As has become typical, I came across the story while writing about something else. I was trawling the excellent British Newspaper Archive for articles about the 1933 bank robbery in Newcastle upon Tyne that featured in my Narratively story about the hapless American gangsters who robbed the wrong bank.
The Northern Daily Mail published a big piece on the robbery (“Bank Staff Fights Armed Raiders; Butchers Dash to Aid With Choppers and Poles”) on page 2 of its edition from 3 June 1933. (Page 1 was reserved for classified ads.) That story filled two and a half columns. It was followed in the third column by a different story: “When Duty Becomes A Pleasure; Police Join Cricket Club to Detect a Theft”. This short account grabbed my interest and led me to a more detailed report in an edition of the West London Observer from the following week.
It was a fun little story, but when I researched the colourful career of Detective Claud Baker (sometimes reported as “Claude”, although genealogy sources show “Claud”), I realised there was more to it: A dogged Scotland Yard detective goes undercover at an English cricket club to catch a thief — in Agatha Christie’s backyard — while also solving a series of other eccentric crimes in 1930s London. It seemed to me to be perfect material for a cosy Sunday night detective TV drama. (To that end — the TV and film rights are available, hit me up!)
As another bonus, here’s a page from the original Hampstead CC record books showing a match from May 1933 against Harrow Wanderers featuring the dressing room thief Eric Nicholls. He was bowled LBW for a duck. There’s no sign of PC Taylor on the team sheet, although there is a “Tyler”… The page was provided by Hampstead club chairman Nick Brown who very kindly went through the books for me while games were suspended due to the Great Unpleasantness.
Now some recommended reads:
Book: Titanic Thompson by Kevin Cook (2010)
I’d never heard of Alvin “Titanic Thompson” Thomas before picking up this recommended book by Kevin Cook. My UK paperback is subtitled “Card-Sharking, Gun-Slinging, Fast-Living American Legend”. Known as Titanic because “he sinks everybody”, and Thompson because in his line of work it was better not to use your true surname, he gambled his way around America with a .45 and a suitcase full of cash from the 1910s through to the 1960s. A pool-playing, card-dealing, and dice-rolling gambler, Titanic married five women and killed five men — so the story goes.
He conned Chicago gangster Al Capone, tricked Harry Houdini, and lost $1m to pro billiards player Minnesota Fats — then won it back. He was also a very good golfer, perhaps the best of his era, and could play right- or left-handed, enabling him to pull off grifts on the links. He never turned professional because, he said, “I could never afford the cut in pay”. This is a rip-roaring page-turner of a tale, and I’m amazed there’s not yet been a movie. (Apparently Titanic was in negotiations before his death in 1974. He wanted $1m and Clint Eastwood. The project never got off the ground.)
Hat-tip to James Brown for this one, as he recommended it on his Twitter feed about a decade ago. (I did buy and read it then, but have only just gotten around to recommending it.) You’ll know James from NME, Loaded, Jack, GQ and more. He often recommends good non-fiction books on his feed. And he has a memoir about his life in the wild world of magazine publishing, Animal House, which I’m very much looking forward to reading, coming out on 15 September.
Article: After the Zodiac Killer’s “340” Cipher Stumped the FBI, Three Amateurs Made a Breakthrough by Kathryn Miles (Popular Mechanics, 9 Aug 2022)
In November 1969, the Zodiac Killer sent an envelope to the San Francisco Chronicle containing a cryptic cipher. It was the second coded letter sent to the newspaper. The first was solved within two weeks. The second, known as “340” due to the number of characters in it, was never solved — until 2020, when a group of puzzle geeks got together online during the pandemic lockdown to crack the serial killer’s code. Read the story here.
On 26 June 1963, The Beatles played the third of four shows that year in Newcastle upon Tyne. John Lennon was pictured on Newcastle’s Grey Street in front of the Royal Turks Head Hotel. On the same day, before playing the Majestic Ballroom, Lennon and Paul McCartney sat on twin beds in the hotel and wrote She Loves You. I posted this Twitter thread, featuring a photo collage showing the location of the Lennon photo, plus a colourised version, and a dubious story told by McCartney in Newcastle about how the Beatles got their name. (Click the tweet to read the thread, and check the replies for the response from Norah, who attended the fourth show later that year and was invited to meet the Beatles by road manager Mal Evans…)
That’s all for this bumper (end of) summer special. More next time. Probably the story of what happened when the captain of an ocean liner encountered the biggest transatlantic wave ever recorded.
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Main sources: Northern Daily Mail, 3 June 1933; West London Observer, 9 June 1933; Chelsea News, 28 July 1933; Birmingham Daily Gazette, 11 August 1933; Illustrated Police News, 4 May 1933 & 18 May 1933 & 31 August 1933; Daily Herald, 7 August 1930; Liverpool Echo, 4 July 1959; A History Of The Hampstead Cricket Club by FR D’O Monro, 1949; Hampstead Cricket Club record books.
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