Crime and the Blitz – The British Newspaper Archive Blog

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Crime and the Blitz

The bombing of civilian targets in Britain during World War 2 is now commonly referred to as ‘The Blitz’. The song ‘All Stick Together’ released by Ralph Butler in 1939 summarised the need for Britain to pull together as a nation against the threat of an invasion, and the ‘Blitz Spirit’ has gone down in history and is still invoked today in times of strife.  However, whilst the vast majority of the population may have been sticking together, there were those who took advantage of the war’s blackout and regulations for their own less ignoble ends.

Air Raid Precautions and Blackouts

To make aerial bombing harder for the Luftwaffe, cities were ‘blacked-out’ at night. All light sources – from cigarettes to street lamps – that could be seen from the air needed to be extinguished or covered. Streets in Britain rang to the shouts of ‘PUT THAT LIGHT OUT’ from ARP wardens, and those who failed to do so risked fines or imprisonment.

Crime & the Blitz

However, although darkness helped avoid accurate bombing from the enemy, it also concealed the nefarious activities of looters, black-marketers and violent thugs. Contemporary newspaper reports reveal that the Blitz wasn’t quite the era of British stoicism and solidarity remembered in today’s national consciousness.

Looting, Theft and Black Racketeering

With major metropolitan areas plunged into darkness, the petty crime rate soared. Looting became a constant problem for the authorities, as did instances of mugging and petty theft.

Crime & the Blitz, Records, historical records, parish records, census records, marriage records, military records, newspapers, historical newspapers, how-to, findmypast, find my past, find my past uk, family tree,  family history, genealogy, www.findmypast.co.uk,

Thieves took advantage of people being out of their homes in public shelters or the Underground to raid their homes for valuables, and stole directly from bombed out houses & sites. ‘Spivs’, now largely romanticised as ‘Robin Hood’ figures, often bought or pilfered luxuries from shop’s stockrooms and sold them on at an extortionate mark-up to customers.

Crime & the Blitz, looting - Hull Daily Mail - Monday 30 June 1941
Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

[Private Walker in Dad’s Army is an example of the romanticised version of the Spiv]

Even relatively mundane items were stolen or removed from premises to ‘protect’ them. A letter to a Sunderland paper from Tuesday 26 November 1940 reported a stolen sink whilst another in the Yorkshire Evening Post reported the case of a woman who secured a pair of shoes ‘just in case’ someone else stole them!

Crime & the Blitz - Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette - Tuesday 26 November 1940
Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
Crime & the Blitz Looting for 'good' - Yorkshire Evening Post - Saturday 30 November 1940
Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Violent Crime

One man, Gordon Cummins, used the blackout to mask a spree of killings. Nicknamed the ‘Blackout Ripper’, he used the Blackout to commit his crimes and move around without arousing suspicion, and was only apprehended when a delivery boy caught him in the act.

Crime & the Blitz Looting for 'good' - Yorkshire Evening Post - Saturday 30 November 1940
Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Cummins was not the only violent criminal to take advantage of the preparations for war. An elderly farmer who shot at police over five acres of unused land ended up in an armed standoff with them. When tear gas was thrown into his farmhouse, he donned his gas mask to negate the effects and continued to fire on them.

Crime & the Blitz 6 gas mask used to negate Tear Gas -Lancashire Evening Post - Tuesday 23 July 1940
Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Although these were isolated incidents, the newspapers in our archive reveal the harsh realities of the Blitz. Search our collection for more stories of vice – and valour – throughout the war.

If you’d like to learn more about the Blitz and those who lived through it, look out for the upcoming release of the 1939 Register – a record of every civilian in England and Wales at the outset of war – at Findmypast.

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