THE EAST ACTON POLTERGEIST
Working in HMP Wormwood Scrubs was an Irish born Prison Officer I shall refer to as John C. Being on duty with this man was often an unnerving experience as he had a notoriously bad attitude and was likely to erupt into violence at the slightest provocation. One evening John C. and I were in charge of the Young Prisoners unit on ‘A’ wing, holding around eighty or so inmates aged between eighteen and twenty one years. At approximately 19:45 hours John C. and I began serving these inmates with their supper, which consisted of a cup of sweet tea and a single piece of cake. The kitchen staff provided only the exact amount of cakes per unit so there were no spare. The system of serving was simple, I went first and opened the cells, next came the trustee inmates with the bucket of tea and one with the tray of cakes. Then John C. followed locking the doors. We quickly served the supper and arrived at the last cell, it was there that we discovered there was one piece of cake missing. John C. was immediately infuriated shouting ‘who stole the cake!’. For a moment I thought he was just joking but he wasn’t. ‘Go lock yourself in the office’ John C. said, pointing me in the direction of the wing control unit. I didn’t hesitate.
Watching through the office window I saw John C. stamping around obviously angry. He was a huge man, six foot tall, powerful shoulders, great fists like hams, long arms and, worst of all, a seriously mad glint in his eyes. In amazement I sat staring as he opened the first cell and yelled in a deep bass voice with an Irish accent ‘who stole da’ cake!’ then I heard a series of loud thuds followed by screams as John C. attempted to beat a confession from the occupants of the cell. Fearing that he may murder one of the prisoners I picked up the office telephone and dialled the duty Principal Officer asking for help. When I explained what was happening, John C. was by now at cell number six and the unit was echoing with the terrified screams of young prisoners being beaten, the Principal Officer just laughed. ‘We’ve been putting up with him for years’ he said ‘it’s your turn now’ and with that he hung up the ‘phone.
On the eleventh of July 1976, at Hammersmith Hospital, my wife Mary gave birth to our child. I had intended being with Mary for the birth but the duty Doctor ordered me out of the delivery unit for some reason that was not at the time explained. I was sitting in the waiting room expecting to hear good news when the nurse came in and advised me that Mary was fine, our child had been born but there were some complications. There can be few things in life that hurt as much as facing the fact that your newly born child has medical problems and may not live. It was like being kicked in the stomach, all the strength seemed drain out of me. Inside the small room where they had taken Mary I stood holding her hand, then the Doctor handed our baby to me. She looked so small, pink, with a button nose and eyes tightly closed, as I kissed our baby for the first time I knew that she would be fine but wondered how could there be anything wrong with her. Placing the child in Mary’s arms I listened intently as the Consultant Paediatrician spoke of some strange complications termed The Ellis-Van-Crefeld syndrome. She said that the odds were not in favour of our child surviving and we would be advised further the next day. Mary looked at me, and gave a resigned smile. ‘Don’t worry’ I said ‘this little girl is going to live’.
The next day on the ward as I went in I saw that our baby was lying at the far end of Mary’s bed in an uncovered open cot and she was turning blue with cold. At once I knew I had to act. Mary was still half doped from the birth trauma and had not noticed that the child was fading fast. Running to the nearest nurse I called for help, then ran to the baby, lifted her up into my arms and carried her to Mary to get warm. Soon we were surrounded by nurses and doctors, they looked closely at our child and rushed her away to the intensive care unit. For a week she was in a respiration unit fighting for her life. It took over a week for her to win the battle but she survived. We named our child Dulcie Jane and she made it. But what, I wondered, would have happened had I not noticed that she was turning blue with cold? Perhaps it was some test to see if we wanted our child to live, we will never really know, but she did.
Back at our apartment on Bromyard Avenue, Acton Mary and I started our new life with Dulcie Jane. She was such a happy baby and we were certain that syndrome or no syndrome she would be fine. Mary’s mother Alice McLoughlin arrived along with her sister Susan and husband Gordon. My own grandmother Eva Walsh from Foulridge came down by bus to see Dulcie. All agreed that this was a wonderful child and no matter what the prognosis Dulcie Jane was destined to enjoy a fulfilled life.
Early one evening in the September of 1975 I was sitting by the open balcony door of our apartment with Mary using a hair dryer on my newly washed hair. The room was still, Dulcie was snoozing in her cot and all seemed at peace. Then suddenly the door leading from the hallway into the lounge burst open and a wild gust of air whipped around the room snatching the hair dryer from Mary’s hands and thumped me in the chest almost knocking me out of my seat. Then with a loud smashing sound the balcony door was blasted wide open shattering a huge earthenware bread pot. The noise was frightening, like a howling cry and it scared Mary who jumped back in terror. Then it was gone. For a moment we looked at each other in disbelief. ‘What the hell was that?’ Mary said. ‘That was The East Acton Poltergeist’ I replied, half joking. It was certainly something wicked and it had attacked me.
Searching for an answer as to what the weird wind was I examined the apartment and found nothing that could reasonably explain it. The doors had all been closed and the evening itself calm and still. Though I did notice one thing unusual about our apartment, it stood just a few hundred yards from an old church and this church had no graveyard. The apartments on Bromyard Acenue had perhaps been built on the reclaimed land that had once been used for burials.
From the day that we encountered the East Acton poltergeist things began to go wrong for me. I started suffering from vivid dreams and would wake in the middle of the night drenched in perspiration but trembling as if in mortal fear. Images of my late father appeared in my mind and he seemed to be warning me, but of what I did not know. What I did know was that something had suddenly changed, something indefinable yet almost tangible and it was not for the better. At work, in HMP Wormwood Scrubs I became involved in one lot of trouble after another. It was as if some dark force, some imp of the perverse was sitting on my shoulder pushing me forward into situations that were fraught with extreme danger. Let me give you some examples:
During one lunch period, when most staff were out of the main prison, I was the duty officer in charge of C2 landing at The Scrubs and as such was responsible for all the Category ‘A’ high risk inmates. These each had a single cell located on C2 and a security pass book which was signed by the officer escorting them wherever they went. This particular lunchtime I was alone on C2 with all the inmates locked into their cells when onto my landing came the Governor grade who was in charge of the entire C Wing complex. Without reference to me this man unlocked a notorious Category ‘A’ prisoner and took him out of his cell to the Governor’s office at the end of C1 landing through the security gates. This was not permitted during lunch periods and the Governor had not signed out the prisoner or taken his pass-book. I immediately reported this to the senior officer in the main wing office and was told to forget it as this was a regular occurrence and the man was The Governor so he could do what he wanted. But it didn’t seem right to me and the invisible imp on my shoulder was urging me to investigate.
Some thirty or so minutes later the wing Governor returned the Category ‘A’ prisoner to his cell and locked him in. The man did not acknowledge me at all, just walked off the landing as if I did not exist. So I opened the cell of the prisoner that had been walkabout with the Governor and asked him outright what that was all about. I knew the man as I had been his landing officer for some months and we got along on reasonably good terms. ‘We just talk in his office’ the inmate said ‘you know, he helps me’. But more than that the man would not say. I next went to my landing trustee or Red Band as he was known, the inmate trusted to keep the landing clean. When I asked him what was really happening he told me an incredible story about the Governor and the Category ‘A’ inmate. From what I could gather the Governor was smuggling letters out of the prison and providing the inmate with cigarettes in return for sexual favours. This seemed extremely unlikely to me but the little imp on my shoulder insisted that I check it out. In the censors office of C Wing I found the Incoming and Outgoing records of all letters sent to and by the Category ‘A’ prisoner in question. To my astonishment I saw that this man was actually receiving letters that were written in reply to outgoing mail that had, according to his records, never been sent. All letters of all Category ‘A’ inmates are logged and recorded for security purposes so the only way that this could have happened was for the man to have had letters smuggled out of the jail. At this point I began to believe that there may well be something in the strange allegations made by my landing Red Band trustee prisoner.
Some two days later I volunteered to undertake the lunchtime patrol on C2 landing so that I could again observe the actions of the wing Governor. Sure enough, some fifteen minutes after the majority of staff had left the main prison for their lunch break he walked onto C2 landing, unlocked the same Category ‘A’ inmate and took him down the metal stairs along C1 landing to his private office through the security gates. There was something weird about this. Not only was this a breach of the security regulations it was dangerous. The Category ‘A’ inmate that the Governor now had in his office was a serious offender with a long string of convictions for assaults and armed robbery. By removing this man from his cell the Governor was placing not only his life but also the lives of others at risk. He could quite easily have been taken hostage by the inmate as there were no uniformed officers in the area to prevent this.
When the wing Governor returned the inmate to his cell I waited until he had left the landing then opened it and asked the prisoner what was really going on. ‘Yeah’ he said in his East End cockney accent ‘he’s taken stuff out for me and then I give him one as he leans over the desk’. This was now, in my opinion, a serious matter but I said little to the inmate, just laughed as if I thought it a good joke. But on my shoulder the imp of the perverse was whispering something else into my mind.
That afternoon I submitted a written report to the head of HMP Wormwood Scrubs uniformed staff explaining what had transpired. I included Photostat copies of the Category ‘A’ inmate’s letters sheet records and pointed out that the only way this man could have received replies to letters that had not, according to his records, been sent through the censors office was for these to have been smuggled out of the prison. In my report I mentioned the strange allegations of sexual misconduct alleged by my landing Red Band trustee and added that when I had asked the Category ‘A’ inmate about this he had replied that it involved the wing Governor bending over his desk, dropping his trousers and being sodomised by said prisoner. Now I fully expected my report to be treated with respect and the matter properly investigated, but that was not what happened. For a brief moment the Chief Officer looked at me from beneath his bushy eyebrows, having read the report he took a mighty breath and bellowed ‘Who told YOU to play detective and investigate respected senior members of staff?….How dare YOU!’ The Chief Officer was a large man, in fact he stood around six foot two inches tall, must have weighed eighteen stone and had one of those barrel chests sported by the cartoon character Desperate Dan. As he huffed and puffed and ranted at me his fists were opening and closing as if he wanted to get hold of me. ‘Get OUT!’ he yelled, ‘OUT of MY Office NOW!’.
I should point out to those that have no knowledge of the workings of the Prison Service that all Prison Officers, when acting as such, hold all the powers of a Police Constable. That is according to The Prison Act 1952. In other words whilst I was on duty holding a warrant card as a Prison Officer I had full authority to investigate criminal activity and arrest as I saw fit. The Chief Officer at The Scrubs didn’t seem to understand this.
Some few days later I was patrolling C2 landing when the Red Band trustee prisoner that had confided in me approached and said that he and a number of other inmates from the wing had just been interviewed by the police. He said that the subject of the police enquiries was Prison Officer John Sutton. The police were investigating me, not the wing Governor! When I asked to see the Chief Officer of HMP Wormwood Scrubs to seek an explanation I was advised that this was not possible and I would be advised in due course what action, if any, was to be taken against me. In fact I never heard a thing, nothing at all. My report, the smuggled letters, the strange allegations of sexual misconduct all ignored and they were never mentioned again. As for the wing Governor, he remained in post. The Category ‘A’ inmate was moved to the long term Lifers unit on ‘D’ wing and I got virtually every lousy job in the jail. I should have known then that the Prison Service wanted turnkeys that slopped out and locked up prisoners and turned a blind eye to everything. They certainly did not want someone daring to question a system, however disgraceful in might be, that had been in place since Sir Edmund Du Cane in the mid 19th century ran Britain’s prisons and built The Scrubs. But then I had the unseen messenger of malevolence on my shoulder and things were set to get worse.
One Saturday night some months later I was working the night shift at The Scrubs and was sent to the Prison Hostel outside main gates. This hostel served as a halfway house between the jail and freedom, where inmates nearing the end of long prison terms lived and went out daily to work in the London area. The inmates were required to return to the hostel by 23:00 hrs and it was my duty to check them in and maintain order. At 23:00 hours there was still one hostel member missing. I checked the building and he was not in his bed, nor anywhere else. Just as I was about to report the man absent he arrived and he was really drunk, stoned and staggering. Being a kind and compassionate man I offered to make him a cup of tea and help him sober up a little before going to bed. He agreed that this was a good idea and sat down next to me at the kitchen table. ‘Two sugars’ he said and thanked me for the hot steaming tea that would no doubt make him feel better. As he slurped the tea he talked to me about what a day he had enjoyed in London. ‘We tied ‘em up in the back room….ha ha ha..’ he chuckled, almost to himself. ‘Then helped ourselves, they thought we were the police…ha ha ha.’ I thought the man was drunk and talking about the crime for which he was currently serving a long prison sentence, I knew he had been previously convicted of armed robbery. After finishing his tea and staggering round the kitchen a little he finally went to his room. I thought nothing more of this until the next morning when I stopped at the shop under the railway bridge on my way back to Bromyard Avenue and bought a copy of a Sunday newspaper. ‘Armed Robbery at Jean Junction’ the headline said.
At home I sat with Mary enjoying a cup of coffee, Dulcie was playing on the floor with her toys, a typical morning really. Then I read the newspaper report about the robbery in London at a shop on Oxford Street called Jean Junction. The way the robbery was described rang a bell, according to the newspaper the robbers had entered the shop posing as policemen, they had ordered the staff into the back storeroom, tied them up and stole the shop’s Saturday takings. The memory of what that drunken hostel inmate had said to me the night before came into my mind. Reading on I saw at the end of the report a contact number for West End Central CID requesting anyone with information regarding this incident to call. Now I was certain that this man in the hostel had been involved in the Jean Junction robbery, his description of tying up the staff and posing as a policeman fit exactly with the report in the newspaper. I now had a choice, I could turn a blind eye, I could contact the security department at HMP Wormwood Scrubs or I could call the police.
The duty officer at West End Central CID seemed very interested in my account of the inmate boasting about his activities and suggested that officers from the Serious Crime Squad would like to interview me. Some two hours later three CID officers, a Chief Inspector and two Sergeants, arrived at our apartment on Bromyard Avenue. After taking a statement from me they then asked me to accompany them to Ealing Police Station. Once there I was again interviewed by another CID officer, no doubt they were testing my statement, then the Chief Inspector announced that he was going to conduct a search of the hostel at HMP Wormwood Scrubs. Handing me the ‘phone he said ‘call the Governor at The Scrubs and tell him that the Serious Crime Squad are on their way’. You can imagine that making such a call was no easy matter. But I did this, called the prison and my call was answered by the security team who, with great reluctance, put me through to Mr. Norman Honey, the most senior Governor of The Scrubs. Mr. Honey declined to believe me when I told him that armed police were about to enter the hostel and conduct a search of the premises. I handed the ‘phone to the Chief Inspector and he advised the Governor to call Ealing Police Station and ask for him, that would verify that he was who he said he was.
Almost thirty minutes passed before the call came from HMP Wormwood Scrubs and it was the head of security, a Principal Officer, that called saying the police could attend the hostel and he would see them there. The time was approximately 11:30 hrs on a Sunday morning as there squad cars holding half a dozen armed police and me arrived at The Scrubs Prison Hostel. Outside stood the prison’s head of security, a tall thin Principal Officer who was in no mood to have policemen stamping around his territory. ‘In the Prison Service’ he said to the Chief Inspector, ‘we have the inmates present when we search their property’. I could see that the senior CID officer was somewhat bemused by this. ‘The hostel inmates have all checked out for the day so you will not be allowed to search the premises’ he said. The look on the face of the West End Central CID officer’s face was one of utter incredulity. ‘Get out of my way before I arrest you for obstructing the police’ he said, ‘John, show us the way in’. And with that the serious crime squad followed me into HMP Wormwood Scrubs hostel.
Inside the first thing the police did was to search for the inmate that had given me the story of his activities the night before, he wasn’t in. In fact, between 11 am and 11:20 am the entire hostel had been emptied of inmates, they had all checked out, every last one of them. That included the man that had recounted his actions as an armed robber.
‘Rip the place apart’ ordered the Chief Inspector and looked to me ‘how do we open the inmates lockers?’ he asked, I showed how using my foot to smash in one of the doors. The prison’s head of security was beside himself with anger, but he said nothing, no doubt concerned that the police would actually arrest him for obstruction if he did. When the search was over the head of the squad told me that they had found clothing that matched the description given by the staff at the Jean Junction shop and also imitation police warrant cards that had been used in the robbery.
The hostel inmate that had told me of his exploits was not seen again. He absconded from the hostel and went on the run. The police wrote to the Governor recommending that I receive a commendation for my services. I actually did not get a commendation, what I did get was a severe warning from the Governor and the head of security that in future any information I had about any criminal activity had to be channelled through them and not direct to the police. Sitting on my shoulder the imp of the perverse was undoubtedly laughing.