Monday, August 22, 2005

History Friday On A Monday: George Davis Is Innocent!

A few days late, to be sure, but what would a week be without a History Friday®? This week my friends, hold tight to my hand as we plunge into the grimy depths of the London underworld and the sordid tale of George Davis:

"August 19, 1975: Davis campaigners stop Test match

Campaigners calling for the release of robber George Davis from prison have vandalised the pitch at Headingley cricket ground in Leeds. The walls surrounding the ground were also daubed with the now- familiar slogans demanding the release of Davis, the east London minicab driver jailed for his part in an armed robbery.

The damaged pitch was discovered early on Tuesday by the head groundsman, George Cawthray. Mr Cawthray said: 'When I first saw the damage it did not sink in. I was amazed. I thought I should be able to repair the holes but it was the oil that did the damage.' The campaigners' actions led to the final match between England and Australia on Tuesday being abandoned. It was declared a draw robbing England of the chance to win back the Ashes and the trophy."

Hold it right there a second: that alone, even if he was totally innocent, should have resulted in the life imprisonment of George Davis. Now back to the BBC:

"Detectives are searching for several men believed to have travelled from London to Leeds on Monday. Four police officers from Leeds have travelled to London to assist the Metropolitan police in their investigations.

Davis, 34, who was sentenced to a 20-year term last year, is serving his sentence at Albany Prison on the Isle of Wight. His supporters say he was the victim of mistaken identity and did not take part in a payroll robbery in Ilford, Essex, when a police officer was shot and injured. Since Davis' imprisonment they have organised marches, petitions and fund-raising events to increase public awareness of his case. In May two campaigners - Davis' brothers-in-law Jim and Colin Dean - carried out a seven-hour roof-top protest at St Paul's cathedral in London.

Four people were tried for digging up the pitch at Headingley. Three received suspended sentences but one, Peter Chappell, was jailed for 18 months. After the Headingley incident an internal inquiry was set up to investigation the Metropolitan police's handling of George Davis' case. He was released in May 1976 after Home Secretary Roy Jenkins said there was serious doubt about his identification - which was based on the evidence of two police officers.

However in July 1978 he was jailed for 15 years after pleading guilty to taking part in a bank robbery. Davis was freed in 1984 but three years later he was sentenced to 18-months for attempting to steal mailbags.

Back in 1976 Britain had never seen the like; a furious and sustained campaign to convince the British public and the government of Davis' innocence saw his friends and family engage in acts of civil disobedience like those detailed above. Perhaps the lasting legacy of the Davis case however was in the masses of graffiti daubed by his supporters- almost every railway and road bridge in north east and east London, from the North Circular to the Mile End Road, was painted with the slogan "G. Davis is Innocent".

If I had been aware of the case prior to Davis' arrest for his subsequent robberies I have no doubt that I would have considered him the victim of a miscarriage of justice and would have felt satisfaction at the actions of the government in releasing him. I was only three when George got out of jail the first time however and by the time I was old enough to notice the graffiti old Davis was back inside doing porridge.

The "G. Davis is Innocent" scrawls were indeed a real part of my childhood. My dad was born and raised in the north east corner of London called Walthamstow, where everyone dresses like this, says gor blimey guvnor like good cocker-nees, and eats jellied eels like they are jelly babies. OK, I'm kidding. But Walthamstow was prime "G. Davis is Innocent" country, buting up as it does with both the county of Essex (England's New Jersey, and home of Davis) and the (in)famous East End of the Kray Twins, the fictional Piranha Brothers, and their ilk.

Every time we went to visit my grandparents or had reason to pass under a railway bridge in north London, I begged dad to tell the George Davis story. He was never able to make it through without giggling which of course would set us off in the back seat. We'd then ask for the one about Great Granddad Roly throwing fruit and veg at the local toughs to win the hand of my great grandmother, or of great uncle Ernie hiding from his wife at my grandparent's house after a night of beer and dominoes, or of my wonderfully eccentric grandfather in the aftermath of his war service taking on all comers as the professional wrestler Strangler White (he played a heel).

Both my dad's parents have passed on, and I have yet to take Country Mouse on a pilgrimage to Walthamstow E17, down to the toy shop on Wood Street or around the back of my greatgrandmother's tower bock to Walthamstow Central tube station, or to the Plough for a pint, or down to Manzes' for a pie. In my head though those wonderful nostalgia soaked times run on automatic whenever something takes me back to those odd days of the seventies and early eighties- when England was poorer, shops shut on Sundays, and it never rained in photos of family visits.

So wherever you are George Davis, and regardless if you are innocent or not, cheers mate for reminding me of my urban side, good stories and happy times. And thanks too to your friends for being so handy upside down with a paint brush.


Anonymous said...

I too remember these slogans as I was driven back and forth to my grandmothers house in Peckham in the late 70's early 80's.

They were everywhere....I decided to google it just now as my mind for some reason wandered to it.

Living in Toronto now.

Anonymous said...

Walthamstow(NORTH EAST LONDON) you idiot!! EASTEND I BET YOUR A YANK!!!! You lot love rewriting history don't ya.
And as for them being written in Peckham (FOR GODS SAKE) round the corner from Ben Johnson Rd is one and if you knew your ISTORY (as we cocaney sparra's do) you would know about the upside down letters.

weasel said...

I suppose they didn't teach to you read back in the luvverly east end, did they: I say Walthamstow is adjacent to the east end, sandwiched between there and Essex; ergo, north east London. Show me where I claim that Walthamstow is part of the East End and I'll send you a pony for your trouble, my son.

As for your other assertions, I do now live in the United States, but I was born and grew up in England. My father (and his family, for many generations) is from Walthamstow- born and bred- but he had the good sense to get the fuck out and make something of himself in the RAF rather than lamely hanging on to misty memories of rickets, gangsters, and poisonous smog.

And "Idiot"? I thought mockney berks like yourself used "muppet"- or is that something you copy from Frank Butcher while riding around your Hitchin housing estate in your Ford Capri? :)

Hendrik-Jan said...