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BTP History Week - Theft - You’ve got to pick a pocket or two!



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Sadly, it’s not just Fagin who steal things that don’t belong to him. Thieves have been operating on the rail network for hundreds of years and theft remains one of the most common crime types on the railways to this day.

The opening of the London Underground Metropolitan railway in 1893 was a landmark event in the capital…and for thieves! The network came with rich opportunities as thousands of passengers began to use the underground to travel across the capital every day.

Packed carriages meant pickpockets could operate quickly and without detection, stealing items such as pocket watches, purses and keys. Officers routinely carried out observations for known pickpockets and Detective Inspector Hitchings struck lucky one day in 1876 when he spotted four pickpockets at Edgware Road station. All were arrested and taken to court.

One unusual theft in 1952 saw a man appear in court after he stole a tortoise from a train in Cambridge. A livestock firm had ordered 40 baskets of live tortoises and when they received the shipment they found that one of the baskets had been forced open and one tortoise was missing. DS Martin and PC Bunkle from BTP Cambridge were quickly on the case and interviewed people at the depot where the baskets had been checked. One of those responsible for checking the baskets initially denied stealing the tortoise and then changed his story, telling officers he had discovered it in his pocket and that when he got home he released it into his garden. Following a search of his house, the tortoise was recovered and the man pleaded guilty to the charge of stealing a tortoise at Cambridge Magistrates’ Court.

Even trains themselves have not been off limits to thieves. In 1962 a railway apprentice at Derby Midland station saw a train coming down the track but with no one in the cab. The train sped through the station before hitting a set of points and derailing, causing extensive damage. Detectives established someone must have been crouching down in the train cab to keep their hand on the “dead man’s handle” so an investigation began.

Police questioned rail workers in the area and a 17-year-old apprentice fitter admitted stealing the train. He said he got into the cab with his bicycle and decided to drive the train. He encountered a bend and applied the brakes with force which caused the train to derail. He then managed to escape the driver’s cab with himself with the bicycle intact!

Today mobile phones and gadgets are the items of choice for thieves on the railway, with more and more of us carrying them with us on our journeys. However, new technology such as CCTV makes our job much easier when tracking down offenders.

Technology also helps us to track devices if they have been stolen and a unique IMEI number on a mobile phone helps us to reunite recovered phones with their rightful owners. We also still employ some of the traditional tactics used by our Victorian predecessors and plain clothed officers regularly patrol the network looking out for those who may be tempted to steal from passengers.
Top tips to keep your gadgets safe:
• Install a tracker application on your phone and tablet devices, which could help trace them in the event of a theft.
• Stay alert and aware of what’s going on around you when using your phone in public.
• Register your gadgets at
• Keep a record of the unique reference number (IMEI) on your phone or tablet. To get this on your phone, dial *#06#. For tablets, check your settings or consult your user manual.
• Always use your phone’s security lock or PIN number.
• Use an ultra violet property marker to write your post code and house number on valuable possessions.

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