England Loses the World Cup

In March 1966, a few months before the England football team won the World Cup, the Football Association lost the trophy. Martin Atherton tells the full, often farcical, story of the theft and recovery of the Jules Rimet Trophy.

The Jules Rimet trophy
The Jules Rimet trophy

The theft of the World Cup in 1966 is one of the most unusual stories in the long history of football. The solid silver trophy, covered in gold plate and with a lapis lazuli plith, had been made in 1930, and between competitions was kept by representatives of the country that had last won it. During the Second World War, the trophy was hidden by FIFA vice-president Ottorino Barrassi, president of the Italian Football Association. Italy had won the trophy in 1938, and to protect it from theft during the last days of Italy’s involvement in the war, Barrassi placed it in a shoebox which he kept hidden under his bed.

The Football Association (FA) were in possession of the Jules Rimet Trophy, as the Cup had been known since 1946, from January 1966 in preparation for the tournament scheduled to take place in England in July.

Once the FA took possession of the Trophy, it was kept at their headquarters at Lancaster Gate in London, but was regularly allowed out for publicity events, though usually only for a few hours. In late February, the FA was approached by the internationally renowned Stanley Gibbons stamp company for permission to include the Trophy in their ‘Stampex’ exhibition taking place in Central Hall, Westminster, in March. The FA agreed, though a number of conditions were laid down by Sir Stanley Rous, president of FIFA. These conditions included: the Trophy must be transported via a reputable security company; it must be placed in a locked glass case which would have a guard next to it day and night; and it would be insured for £30,000 (even though its official valuation was a relatively low £3,000). The stamps that would be on display with it were valued at £3 million, so Rous thought the Trophy would be comparatively safe among the much more valuable stamps. It was the commercial value of the Cup as a piece of silver and gold that Rous considered here, rather than its value as a sporting icon.

The exhibition was to take place over two floors at Central Hall, Westminster. This is the largest Methodist church in London, with exhibition space for hire on the first floor situated close to New Scotland Yard and the Houses of Parliament and just yards from the Home Office. It should have been pretty safe in such surroundings.

Stampex opened on Saturday, March 19th, 1966, and the World Cup was a major attraction, having been the focus of much advance publicity in the press. Four uniformed guards were supposed to be on duty day and night, while a further two plain-clothes officers were present while the exhibition was open. Between the hours of 8am and 8pm of the days when the exhibition was open, an additional guard was permanently stationed next to the display cabinet containing the Trophy. However, this broke the strict condition imposed by Rous, to have a guard by the trophy around the clock.

The theft occurred on the morning of Sunday, March 20th, when the exhibition was closed. The exhibition rooms could only be accessed from the main corridors of the main building, and the four guards on duty were split into two pairs, one set on each floor. One guard checked the doors on both floors at 9am, and at around 9.30, two maintenance men arrived to open the front doors of the building. The Central Hall was used on Sundays for Methodist services and as a Sunday School, and all the external public doors were open and all corridors accessible. The two workers were also admitted to the exhibition area for routine cleaning and maintenance work. They were escorted into and out of the Stampex rooms, and they claimed to have locked the back doors to the hall when they left soon after. They were later interviewed by police and confirmed that they had seen the Trophy in the display cabinet. At no stage were they regarded as suspects for the theft.

The guards checked the Trophy at 11am and then both guards on duty on the first floor sat in the office within the exhibition room on the first floor drinking coffee, while 200 people were attending a church service in the hall below. One guard, Frank Hudson, left the office at around 11.25 to go to the toilet on the first-floor corridor near the exhibition area. He later reported seeing a man by the public telephone near the toilets. When Hudson came out a few minutes later, the man was still there, using the telephone. As this was in a publicly accessible part of the building, there was no immediate cause for suspicion. But when the guards next did their rounds to check on the Trophy at about 12.10, they found that the case had been forced open and the Trophy was gone. A quick search revealed that the rear doors to the building were found to have been forced open. The doors should have been secured by a wooden bar placed in slots mounted to the inside of the doors, but the screws and bolts holding the mounts had simply been removed from the outside of the doors. Once removed, the bar dropped from its mountings, and the doors could be pushed open.

The thieves had apparently made their way up to the first floor where the Trophy was displayed, removed a padlock from the back of the glass case to gain access to the Trophy, taken it and made their getaway the way they had come. During all this activity, none of the guards had heard or seen anything to arouse their suspicions.

Although front-page news, the story of the stolen Trophy did not attract many column inches, and on some days in the coming week did not feature at all. A news blackout was imposed by the police because of events taking place behind the scenes. The day after the theft, Monday March 21st, the Chairman of the Football Association (and of Chelsea Football Club) Joe Mears received an anonymous phone call, in which a voice told him: ‘There will be a parcel for you at Chelsea Football Club tomorrow. It’ll be of interest to you. Follow the instructions.’ The parcel duly arrived at Stamford Bridge and was delivered to Mears’ home. When Mears opened it he found the parcel contained the removable lining from the top of the Jules Rimet Trophy, along with a ransom demand for £15,000. If the FA were willing to pay the ransom, a notice was to be placed in the Personal Column of the London Evening News: ‘Willing to do business. Joe’. Instructions for payment of the ransom would then be given in a phone call to Mears, and the Trophy would be returned by taxi on Friday. The note also warned that if no reply had been given by then, the Trophy would be melted down; the same action would be taken if the police or press were informed of the ransom demand. ‘If I don’t hear from you by Thursday or Friday, assume it’s one for the pot’.

 

Shortly after opening the parcel, Mears was phoned again, by someone identifying himself as ‘Jackson’, who now changed the original demand for payment in £1 and £5 notes to £5 and £10 notes. Mears ignored the warning about contacting the police and arranged to meet Detective Inspector Charles Buggy of the Flying Squad, to whom he handed the section of the Trophy and the ransom demand. Mears was asked to place the advertisement in the newspaper on Thursday, March 24th. On police instructions, the bank assembled the ransom. Bundles of ordinary paper were used, with real notes only placed at either end. Whether anyone considered the possible repercussions if the deception was spotted is not recorded.

The following day, Friday, Buggy and two other officers went to Mears’ home in Fulham Road to await Jackson’s promised phone call. Two officers were to impersonate Mears’ assistants and were to be actively involved in the handing over of the ransom and recovery of the trophy. These men were chosen, according to Metropolitan Police records, on account of ‘their appearance being unlike that of the generally accepted conceptions of police officers’ – presumably they were thought to look like FA officials instead.

Mears himself, though, was confined to bed with an angina attack, so when Jackson called, his wife took the call. She said she would hand the phone over to Mears’ assistant Mr McPhee, who would act as Mears’ agent whilst her husband was ill. ‘McPhee’ was in fact DI Buggy. Jackson was uneasy with this change of arrangements, but after some further discussion, he finally agreed to exchange the ransom for the trophy. McPhee was to drive Mears’ car into Battersea Park in south London, where Jackson would meet him. Buggy drove to the rendezvous, followed by various unmarked Flying Squad vehicles, including two officers posing as a courting couple. Arriving at the park, he stopped just inside the gates, where Jackson was to make contact. Jackson, loitering on the opposite side of Parkgate Road, now approached the car and asked if ‘McPhee’ had the money. He was shown the suitcase and checked that it contained the money; he obviously didn’t check too closely or he would have noticed that the bundles were mostly scrap paper. Buggy insisted that he would not hand over the money until he had seen the trophy, and he told Jackson that he was concerned that he was being set up to be robbed. Jackson told him:

You will have to trust me and come with me for about a ten-minute drive, where I can pick up the Cup, show it to you and then you can give me the money. I can assure you Mr McPhee that you will not meet anyone else, just you and me that’s all. I’ve got it safely hidden away. You can search me if you like before I get into the car to make sure I haven’t got a gun or anything.

 

They drove around Battersea in Buggy’s car on a circuitous route for some time, but Jackson noticed what he later described as ‘a funny old van’ following them closely. Buggy stopped to let the van pass, and Jackson, identifying the van from the distinctive barred windows at the rear, said he recognized it as the type used by the Flying Squad for undercover operations (which indeed it was). He became extremely nervous that there might be a radio in the van that could be summoning police to the scene. Having lost the van Jackson relaxed a little, but the car remained under observation by another police vehicle containing four plain clothes Flying Squad officers.

Then Buggy stopped the car at traffic lights in Kennington Park Road, and the same van pulled up right alongside, causing Jackson to exclaim, ‘There is that funny old van again’. He then told Buggy to turn off, stop and wait while he retrieved the trophy, which he said would take about five minutes. Buggy watched as Jackson left the car and began to walk along St Agnes Place, Kennington, and as he did so, the van reappeared and stopped right in front of him. Jackson stopped, watched the van for a few seconds and then walked past it, turned a corner and disappeared from Buggy’s view. Jackson then doubled back, and approached the car just as Buggy as setting off to follow him. Jackson asked, ‘Where are you going?’, to which Buggy replied that he was afraid of being robbed of the money. ‘There’s that funny old van again. I thought I was being left here to be robbed. I thought you were tipping them off that I had the money’. Jackson denied that this was happening, so Buggy told him to get back in the car and they would drive off in the opposite direction.

After driving on for just a few seconds, Jackson suddenly looked out of the back window, and said, ‘If you are not happy, then I am off,’ and jumped from the moving vehicle, though without the bag of cash. He ran off, pursued by Buggy in the car. Jackson cut through a builder’s yard, so Buggy chased him on foot before finally cornering and apprehending him in the back garden of a house. He revealed his true identity to Jackson and cautioned him, before other officers arrived to escort Jackson to Kennington police station.

At the station, ‘Jackson’s’ true identity was revealed to be that of forty-seven-year-old Edward Betchley, a local petty thief, later described in court as ‘a dealer’ of Camberwell. He had one previous conviction for theft and receiving, for which he had served a six-month jail sentence in 1954. He had been in the Army during the war and later worked as a dock labourer until forced to stop because of ill health. He then became a second-hand car dealer for several years, and at the time of the theft, was selling fancy goods to street traders.

Betchley was cautioned and Buggy read him the notes he had recently made of their conversations during the car journey. Betchley replied, ‘I didn’t steal the Cup. Anyway, I didn’t know who you were when I told you that. It’s only your word against mine’. When asked about the whereabouts of the Cup, Betchley answered, ‘I honestly don’t know now, but you will get it back in some way. It was never meant for the melting pot’. Buggy told Betchley that he would be charged with breaking and entering Central Hall, and stealing the Trophy. Betchley replied, ‘I didn’t steal it, but I will get it back if you give me bail’. Perhaps surprisingly, given the amateurish actions of the police so far, this request was denied. Betchley was taken to Rochester Row police station and formally charged with breaking and entering Central Hall, and with stealing the World Cup Trophy.

Betchley denied all charges against him and claimed he had been offered £500 to act as an intermediary by someone he knew only as ‘The Pole’. He described this shadowy figure as one of his customers, but claimed that he did not know his real name. He also continued to deny any knowledge of the whereabouts of the trophy. At an identity parade conducted in Brixton Prison, he was picked out by Mrs Coombes as the person she had seen near the toilets in Central Hall on the morning of the theft. However, Frank Hudson, the security guard, failed to pick Betchley and chose someone else. This would appear to support the likelihood that there were two people in the hall on the morning of the theft, supporting Betchley’s assertion that he was not acting alone. Yet it undermined his claim that he had only been acting as an intermediary for the real thief, and that he was not directly involved in the theft himself.

The Trophy itself was recovered a few days later, not by the police but by a mongrel dog, Pickles, whilst out on a walk with his owner David Corbett. This is probably the best known part of the story, but it has also been sensationalized and is often reported inaccurately. The following account is based on my interviews conducted with Corbett.

On the evening of Sunday March 27th, twenty-six-year old Thames lighterman Corbett left his home at 50 Beulah Hill, Upper Norwood in south London at around 9pm to make a phone call. He decided to take his dog Pickles (a one-year-old black and white crossbreed) with him to give the dog some exercise. When they left the house, the dog started sniffing at a parcel hidden by a parked car and lying under the high hedge that surrounded the house. Because of the dog’s persistence, Corbett picked up the parcel which was tightly wrapped in old newspaper and securely tied with string. He tore the paper open to reveal the Trophy, which he did not recognize until he saw the winners’ plaques on the bottom. He took the Trophy to Gypsy Hill police station and handed it to the police.

As the police in turn were initially unsure whether it was genuine, both Corbett and the Cup were taken to Cannon Row police station. Here the Trophy was formally identified by Harold Mayes, Publicity Officer for the FA’s World Cup Organizing Committee. Corbett was detained for a short while as a possible suspect in the theft, but he was soon cleared as he had a clear alibi for the time of the theft. The police revealed the recovery of the Trophy at a news conference the next morning, and both the police and the FA expressed their relief at its safe return. The World Cup was retained as evidence by the police until April 18th, when it was returned finally to the FA for safekeeping until the opening of the tournament ten weeks later.

 

In the intervening years, several versions of the story have claimed that Betchley dumped the Trophy in the garden in Beulah Hill when he was being chased by the police, but these cannot be correct. Firstly, when he left Buggy’s car in St Agnes Place, he had claimed he was going to collect the Trophy from a nearby hideaway. And when he ran off and was chased by DI Buggy, he was soon caught and it is clear that he did not have the Trophy with him at any time during the car journey or the subsequent chase. It is much more likely that he was intending to retrieve the Trophy from his home, which was only a few hundred yards from St Agnes Place.

Beulah Hill, though, is over six miles from St Agnes Place. The mystery of how the Trophy came to be abandoned there has never been fully resolved. The likeliest explanation is that Betchley’s alleged accomplice, ‘The Pole’, dumped it there, panicking after Betchley was arrested. This was certainly the view taken by the police at the time, according to David Corbett. The police investigations were turning up a lot of evidence of other crimes unrelated to the theft of the Trophy, and they suspected that the thief was coming under pressure from other criminals to return or dispose of the trophy.

Whatever the truth, the trophy ended up in the hedge and it is fortunate that it was found by Pickles and Corbett in the circumstances it was. It could have been found by someone less honest who might not have handed it over to the police. Being found by Pickles the dog was certainly a godsend for the World Cup Organizing Committee, bringing some much-needed positive publicity to the story, and helping to deflect criticism from those responsible for its loss in the first place. During his trial in July, Betchley was described by police officers as ‘an astute criminal’, even though he only had one previous conviction. Under questioning, he admitted that he was in debt as a result of County Court judgements against him, and that the lure of the money he had allegedly been offered by ‘the Pole’ had proven irresistible. He said he was not immediately aware that the parcel he was to deliver was the World Cup, but even after he found out, he said he was ‘dazzled’ by the money. In his summing-up, Justice Lyell accepted that Betchley’s motivation had been his financial difficulties, but he rejected the story that Betchley would only have been paid £500 for his role as an intermediary: ‘I think you were hoping to get a very much larger share of the £15,000. No other supposition makes sense’. Betchley was eventually convicted of demanding money with menaces and with intent to steal, and he received concurrent sentences of two years in jail for each offence. He was not convicted – or even tried – for theft of the Trophy. He died a few years after leaving prison.

Neither David Corbett or Pickles received any formal reward from the Football Association, not even a letter of thanks, although they did attend the players’ celebration dinner after the World Cup final. David Corbett remembers that Bobby Charlton’s wife made a great fuss of Pickles. However, various financial rewards received by Corbett amounted to £6,000, six times greater than the England players’ bonus for winning the World Cup.

The theft of the Jules Rimet Trophy indicates incompetence among all those responsible from start to finish: the FA, the stamp exhibition and their security guards, the police and even the thieves. The amateur fashion in which it was stolen and the ransom demand was conducted is only surpassed by the even more amateurish way in which the Trophy was recovered. How different would our memories of 1966 have been, if national shame over the unsolved theft was the abiding memory of the year.

Martin Atherton is a member of the International Football Institute, University of Central Lancashire.

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