In these days of cellphone communication its often difficult to remember that radio communication between two parties isn’t private. Any radio amateur knows that, but it seems that back in 1971 some bank robbers hadn’t quite got the idea, so when Robert Rowland, an amateur radio enthusiast form Central London, settled down with his radio set and a nice cup of tea one Saturday night, he heard a much more interesting conversation than he was expecting. We know, because he taped a large part of what he heard, and in 2008 he dug out the tapes so the event could be made into a film. At the time, the crime became known as the ‘Walkie Talkie robbery’, the film is called ‘The Bank Job.’
When Rowland first heard the robbers conversation he thought they were robbing a tobacconists shop and called the local police. They seemed to find Mr Rowlands more amusing that important suggesting that if he heard any more ‘funny voices’ he would get them on tape. An annoyed Mr Rowland did exactly that, using a cassette tape machine he had been using to learn Spanish.
Eventually a local Constable came round, but was soon called away. Mr. Rowland called the police again, but eventually, exasperated by their lack of response, and with the apparent robbery continuing on the radio, he called Scotland Yard, headquarters of London’s Metropolitan Police.
Two plain clothes officers arrived at Rowland’s 4th floor flat in London’s Wimpole Street and sat up with Rowland all night, listening to the robbers. In the morning, another two officers arrived and listened to Sunday’s developments, but a police check of local banks showed nothing out of the ordinary (from the outside) On Monday morning, when staff arrived at Lloyd’s bank in London’s Bakers Street (not far from the flat of famous fictional detective Sherlock Holmes) they found that most of the safety deposit boxes had been emptied by robbers who had dug a tunnel from a nearby shop and entered the bank vault via the floor.
So far, this sounds like a story of incompetence. Rowlands knew that for his radio set to pick up such a strong signal, the robbery must have been taking place within 1 and a half miles, the robbery had started Saturday night and continued all the way through Sunday – surely enough time for the authorities to find the culprits.
The story made the news headlines and then suddenly stopped. Scotland Yard took the tapes and reporters were warned off when they tried to question Mr. Rowland. Then the police actually threatened to prosecute Mr. Rowland for listening to an unlicensed radio station.
No-one knows exactly what happened, four robbers were caught and jailed, but the money and other items stolen were never recovered, and since safety deposit boxes were involved, no-one knows exactly what was taken. And therein lies the mystery. Over the following years there were many scandals involving senior members of the police force, and a rumor that one safety deposit box had contained compromising pictures of a member of the British Royal family, while others had contained proof of police corruption at the highest levels, resulting in a load of prosecutions and resignations in the late 1970’s.
With the release of the film several British newspapers sough out Mr. Rowland, the amateur radio enthusiast who had taped the conversation. He said the tapes had been returned to him six years after the robbery. The Daily Mail also reported talking to one of the actual robbers, who refused to comment on pictures of any royal person but did say that the robbers had been disgusted to find lots of unpleasant pornographic pictures in the boxes which they had left in place so the police could track down the owners.
And it all goes to show that when you settle down with your radio set, you never know who you’re going to talk to, or what you are going to hear, one reason why amateur radio is still a fascinating and absorbing hobby.