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Liverpool Blitz: Wartime crime and the black market

Although today people think of wartime Britain and its famous sense of community and 'pulling together', crime rates actually went up during the war. Rationing, the blackouts and the effects of bombing all provided an opportunity for making money or getting away with crimes.

Damage to Walton prisonDamage to Walton prison
Walton Prison took a direct hit on 18/19 September 1940

Perhaps the most common crimes were those committed on the black market - the illegal trade in restricted goods. Rationing meant food, clothes, petrol and luxury items such as sweets and make-up were always in demand.

Goods could be bought from a number of sources. On a local level, the shopkeeper might have a 'special supply' of goods that weren't on display to regular shoppers. 'Spivs', in their sharp suits and trilby hats, would gather on certain streets with their suitcases of cigarettes, nylons and lighters. At the other end of the scale, large operations dealt in huge quantities of goods taken straight from supply depots and docks. Meat, always in short supply, was a prime target at major docks like Liverpool. In 1941, 2153 beef and lamb carcasses were stolen. Such thefts led to public alarm and calls for stronger punishments for those were thought of as damaging the country's the war effort.

Military supply lines were also vulnerable to criminals. Soldiers stole goods to sell to civilians. In January 1945 British civilians and US servicemen in Liverpool were involved in a plot to steal watches, pens, lighters and face powder with a modern value of £98,000. Unfortunately for them, two of the servicemen turned out to be members of the US Army criminal investigation division, and Liverpool CID were called in to deal with the offenders.

Damage to Milner's safe works
Damage to Milner's safe works on Smithdown Road. 6 July 1940
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In another case, Frederick William Porter, a ship repairer, shot himself on 30 January 1940 after the Admiralty audited his books. He had been defrauding the Admiralty by stealing timber and claiming wages for non-existent jobs and employees. Several high profile people were arrested including a city councillor and senior naval staff. It is estimated that Porter defrauded the Admiralty and a ship repairer of what in modern cash would total around £20 million - enough to build a warship at the time.

Although black market goods were expensive, their quality was not always good. Cosmetics, for example, were restricted during the war, although women were encouraged to look their best for morale purposes - to put 'their best face forward'. This created a demand for illegal cosmetics that were often untested and in some cases dangerous.

House breaking and looting were also major problems. Air raids and blackouts gave thieves ample opportunity to go about their business, and houses damaged by bombs or abandoned by evacuees were often looted. Organised gangs would target homes belonging to people taken to reception centres.

Some people even tried to use the bombings to cover up murders. In 1941, Henry Dobkin murdered his wife and buried her body under the floorboards of a wrecked chapel in Vauxhall, London. He hoped that if she was found she would be mistaken for an air raid victim. However, when she was found the next year, the authorities could tell from her remains that she had been murdered. Dobkin was found guilty and was hanged in 1943.

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Find out more by reading An Underworld At War - Spivs, Deserters, Racketeers and Civilians in the Second World War by Donald Thomas, 2003, John Murray, London.

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