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Crime at London Airport: part one of three

Ports have always been at risk from theft, whether of cargo or of passengers’ belongings. Indeed, the first police force in London, predating even the Metropolitan Police we know today, was in the Port of London. As air travel ballooned in the 1960s onwards, airports too faced similar risks, and some at the time made the connection between port and airport. However, to 21st century eyes, the obstacles in the way of tackling crime in that era – not only the tools lacking to detect, prevent and deter crime, but the will to do something about it – are familiar.

That comes out in a Home Office file at the National Archives at Kew in west London; HO 287/1908, about a working party on security of airports, part of a wider crime prevention review around the end of the 1960s and early 1970s. A note in the file dated October 1970 complained that an airline representative was too busy to arrange a meeting – a sign, to the Home Office officials, of ‘a tendency on the part of airlines to regard crime at the airport as of little importance’.

The Home Office view was that ‘crime prevention at the airport is hopelessly inadequate and should be improved’. Officials wanted to talk to top management, and run an expert investigation, ‘into crime and crime risks at the airport’, and make ‘recommendations of modern crime prevention techniques and procedures needed to reduce crime there.’ The Home Office suggested a report by its crime prevention centre, then at Stafford. Or, Met crime prevention officers led by Chief Supt Peter Marshall (also met in the file Mepo 26/3, about securing of the Tutankhamun exhibition in London in 1972), as head of the Met force’s crime prevention department.

The file added: “We can go outside the police service – there are security consultants who are probably competent to do the job – but it would be expensive and impolitic to do so.’ The officials doubted that the airports and companies operating there had a crime prevention officer.

What were the problems to report on? The file listed collusion; passes, ‘quality and attitude of workforce’, adequacy of supervision, aircraft loading, etc’ – in other words, pretty much everyday working. The report would exclude hijacking of aircraft, a terrorist risk much in vogue at the time. And as another sign of how widespread the problem of crime was, so many would have to be involved – several trade unions, the Board of Trade, and (for mail) the Post Office.

Home Office staff doing crime prevention were trying to work on Heathrow from at least 1969, and by the end of 1972 according to the file, it was ‘a rather painful history of failure’. Even then, a note in January 1974 said that Heathrow needed central control of security; a uniform system of recording crime; more management interest; and more applying of basic crime prevention principles. Again, pretty much a full list.

An airport security seminar ran at the Europa Hotel in central London on November 29 and 30, 1971, with translation into French, German and Spanish (a sign of how airport crime was international; and indeed the theme of the event was international collaboration). Organised by the British Airports Authority, a welcome was by CD Waldron, BAA’s deputy chief executive; and Pierre Cot, director-general of Air France, and in a long career air minister in the Popular Front government in France in 1936. Speakers were from Schipol Airport in the Netherlands; the British Department for Trade and Industry; Paris Airport; and the BOAC airline head of security, Roy Turner. Topics included passenger security; package, freight and mail; cargo handlers and ‘air piracy’. The main problem; theft of freight and passenger bags, much of it probably unreported, because victims could not say where goods were lost, and some goods or money, it was suspected, was ‘hot’ (that is, dubiously owned).

Photo by Mark Rowe; Heathrow perimeter, 2010s.

Part two: what Ted Heath had to say in a letter from 10 Downing Street.


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