Friday 19 August 2011

Looting is nothing new

Pretty well everybody in the United Kingdom and many people around the World will have witnessed the awful scenes of riot and looting last week in our cities last week and felt rightly angered at those who perpetrated these crimes.

In the aftermath, there is now a public debate as to whether the sentences being handed out are too harsh, too light or whether public boiling should be re-introduced!

These arguments are brought into perspective when we journey back in time to the Second World War and consider Emergency Powers (Defence) Act of 1939, which was brought in to regulate almost every aspect of home life in this country. Under this legislation, the death penalty was readily available in punishment of the offence of looting. Looters could, in fact, have been shot on sight, although there are no recorded instances of this ever happening, or indeed of the death penalty being imposed for this crime.

Theft of any sort is a pretty despicable sort of crime and looting, especially in wartime of properties damaged and laid open by bombing was just about the lowest of the low. The photograph shows a bomb damaged house in Greenwich, southeast London with the pathetic remnants of the owner's property laid outside the ruined home. In the upstairs window is the ominous warning that looters face death.

Despite this warning, looting still occurred; at the scene of the wrecked Cafe de Paris in Coventry Street, looters prowled the floor of the destroyed nightclub, tearing open handbags and removing rings from the hands of the dead and dying. Looting reached epidemic proportions during the Blitz and the Metropolitan Police, already hard pressed, had to set up a special squad to deal with the problem. Much of the looting was organised by gangs, who would send out spotters during a raid to highlight 'promising' incidents, report these to their bosses, who would send out teams of looters to the spot before the emergency services could reach the scene. More often than not though, the looting was a casual affair, with young boys being particulary susceptible to the temptation of stealing from bombed houses. Philip Ziegler, in his excellent book "London at War" reported that four boys, aged ten and eleven were sentenced to be birched for stealing from a bombed house in the capital.

Sadly, some of the looters were people who should have known better; the rescue and demolition squads seemed to have more than their fair share of thieves amongst them. Perhaps the temptation of seeing trinket boxes and other valuable items such as gas and electricity meters laying amongst the ruins was too much for some of them. Nearly half of the arrests made by the Metropolitan Police for the offence of looting came from members of the Civil Defence services. Then as now, there were calls for harsher sentences to be served on offenders. Six month sentences were commonplace in 1940 but by the time the Blitz ended in May of 1941, sentences of five years imprisonment were becoming commonplace. Sometimes the police took matters into their own hands and handed out beatings to those that they caught red handed.

The end of the Blitz not only gave Londoners a respite from bombing but also from the epidemic of theft that had been seemingly unstoppable. The Little Blitz and Terror Weapons of 1944/45 started it all again but on a much higher scale. By this time, four years plus of war had left serious shortages of pretty well all day to day items. In early 1944 for example, a radio and electrical shop in West Hampstead had it's entire stock looted within twenty minutes of it's being bombed and once again the courts were handing out exemplary sentences of five years or longer but still nobody was ever hanged for the offence. Perhaps even the authorities realised that although looting, stealing from the dead was a despicable crime, they understood that Londoners had had a hard time of it and apart from the organised gangs, most of this theft was by opportunists.

Whatever the reason, nobody was ever hanged for looting and even the harsher sentences didn't seem to stem the tide of theft.

Perhaps we would do well to remember today that sadly looting is nothing new; the threat of harsher sentences did not always act as a deterrent, although it did remove the perpetrators from circulation for the period of the sentence. Seventy years ago a five year sentence meant exactly what it said and prison conditions were considerably harsher than those of today. In 1945, the answer was peace and the gradual return to normality and the respect of other people, their property and the rule of law and order.

Published Sources:

Backs to the Wall, Leonard Mosley, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1974
London at War 1939-45, Philip Ziegler, Sinclair Stevenson 1995

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