In 1957 the Brighton Police Force made the news for all the wrong reasons, reinforcing accusations that watch committees no longer possessed the specialist knowledge to supervise their own local police forces. As one of the most famous police corruption cases in history, it raised more questions than it answered about the nature and supervision of policing throughout the country.
THE STORY ‘ Brighton Cops Conspiracy‘
A Press Conference
On Wednesday 2nd October at a press conference in Brighton Town Hall Chief Constable Charles Ridge, disclosed that at his request Scotland Yard had been called in to investigate ‘certain allegations of irregularities’ in the Brighton Police Force.
Chief Constable Arrested
Three weeks later Ridge was arrested along with Detective- Inspector John Hammersley, Detective – Sergeant Trevor Heath and two members of the public, Anthony Lyons and Samuel Bellson and charged with a variety of corrupt practices. Ridge was eventually acquitted (unlike his subordinates) but in a scathing statement the trial judge then demonstrated that he thought Ridge far from innocent and that without a change in the leadership of the force the judiciary would feel unable to believe evidence from Brighton police.
The Sussex ‘Plague of Rotten Cops’
The trial of the five lasted three weeks and the prosecution case appears to have centred on a group of witnesses who were prepared to admit to their criminal activities and illegal dealings with the accused officers.
Alan Roy Bennett, Company Director
Bennett, who had at least ten aliases, had been a known criminal since 1949 and had served ten prison sentences before coming to Brighton as a chef, opening the Astor club in 1954 (better known as the ‘Bucket of Blood’). In spite of the club’s reputation for violence and criminal activity, it was never raided by the police and this became the basis of the prosecution case. Why had it never attracted police attention?
Mrs Alice Brabiner
Alice claimed in court that she had taken part in an illegal abortion and that Heath had been paid £68 to ‘do what he could to help me’. In other words, to make the whole thing go away.
Ernest Waite, Greengrocer
Waite, who admitted to dealing in stolen property, claimed he had a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ with Hammersley whereby for £200 Waite agreed not to trade in Brighton, but was given a free hand outside the town. Business was good! Various other witnesses were trundled out, most of them with criminal convictions, and they all attested that their lives had been made bearable by ‘a consideration’.
The Good Cops
Police Constable Frank Knight
P.C. Frank Knight told the court that he had turned down an offer of cash from a superior officer in the C.I.D.. That senior officer was Heath, and he asked Knight if he would ‘like to earn a tenner a week’, adding, ‘ It’s all right, your job won’t fall flat.’ After Knight answered that he was not interested, Heath replied, ‘All right, it’s up to you. I was to get a fiver out of fixing it up but that won’t break me. I have my other fiddles, you know that.’
Detective Sergeant Ray Hovey
Detective Sergeant Ray Hovey also gave evidence for the prosecution. Asked why he did not report his suspicions to Chief Constable Ridge, he replied, ‘I thought to do so might have unpleasant effects on my career. I knew Mr Ridge held Sergeant Heath in very high esteem.’
The Police Officers
After the jury heard details of their excellent police records and commendations, Hammersley and Heath were both found guilty and both were sentenced to five years imprisonment. Although they had not acted without ‘the nod’ from Ridge, the prosecution found it impossible to substantiate the charges against him. Testimonies from subordinate officers were not sufficient evidence to obtain a conviction against a Chief Constable in the 1950’s, so he retained his freedom. In sentencing Hammersley and Heath, the Judge commented that because Ridge had not given them the professional and moral leadership to which they were entitled, their sentences were less harsh than they might have been.
Chief Constable Charles Ridge
Before allowing Ridge to leave the dock the judge remarked that the conspiracy might in future be used in Brighton to discredit officers and their evidence. Consequently, the force must have a new leader, one ‘who will be a new influence and who will set a different example from that which has lately obtained.’ It was a damning acquittal. The former Chief Constable of Exeter, Albert Rowsell ,was confirmed as the new head of the Brighton force.
On December 20 1957 the Chief Constable of Worcester was suspended and sent to prison the following year. In 1967 the Chief Constable of Southend would follow him. However, both these cases were for straightforward embezzlement. Against Ridge there had been evidence of conspiracy and corruption rather than simple dishonesty, yet he went free, guilty of far worse crimes than those for which his peers were sentenced.
Only two of the Brighton C.I.D. team were examined, the others being left in peace and, apparently, given assurances that there would be no witch-hunt to expose fellow officers.
Most of the prosecution witnesses were professional liars.
Evidence was presented to the court of previous attempts by the accused to influence witnesses and pervert the course of justice.
Some evidence was withheld and declared to be ‘not in the public interest’ or ‘too sensitive to have aired’ and would be a threat to security and operations within the Sussex Police Force’
Rumours of corruption had been flying around for many months before the formal investigation began.
Brighton Police Force
One Brighton policeman on loan to the Metropolitan Police Force is reported to have told colleagues on his return to Brighton that the first question he was asked by his new colleagues was, ‘are you for or against?’
As a general rule, if an incoming officer replied ‘against’, he would be left alone. If, on the other hand, he replied ‘for’, he became at one with a group of officers for whom financial arrangements with the criminal fraternity were a way of life. However, it was generally expected throughout most forces that each and every officer would support his colleagues and keep what he knew or suspected firmly to himself.
One can only guess at the pressures Frank Knight and Ray Hovey came under before and after giving their evidence.
‘It took great courage for these two men to appear as witnesses for the prosecution against more senior policemen. They both stood for honesty and integrity and proved as much in one of the highest courts in the land, the Old Bailey.’
David Rowland ‘Bent Cops’
It has been said that the public gets the police force it deserves and that the Brighton force was significantly more corrupt than other forces.
Historical consultant David Rowland
Thanks Ian Swift