George Davis is innocent, OK
George Davis, a professional criminal and armed robber was at the centre of one of the highest profile miscarriage of justice cases of the post-war era, writes Brian Williams.
•Brian Williams is a police constable of nine years’ service with the British Transport Police. He is currently based at Waterloo Railway Station as part of its Neighbourhood Policing Team.
•Pic by Ross McCross. Thanks.
On 4 April 1974 at the London Electricity Board (LEB) offices in Ilford, five armed men attacked a security guard, shot a police officer, ran down another and evaded capture in a high speed chase, hijacking four cars at gunpoint.
Was one of the men George Davis?
The robbery for which Davis was convicted was very aggravated involving a long chase, with numerous vehicles commandeered and numbers of the robbers injured. Unusually the initial payroll attack was photographed by undercover police officers and eye witness descriptions, alleged identifications and individual robbery ‘roles’ were predicated against those photographic records to further complicate and confound the subsequent identification evidence on which the criminal prosecution relied.
George Davis’s defence was that he was driving his minicab at the time of the robbery. Given the character of his associates , his alibi witnesses (several, including the owner of the cab company, had criminal records) were less than convincing: there were no vicars or magistrates among them. As a journalist wrote at the time:
‘I could see why a jury might not believe one or two of the witnesses.’
There were 308 items of evidence, but none that could be linked to Davis. The prosecution relied on identification and an alleged statement by Davis: he claimed to have been ‘verballed’ A series of ID parades 34 of 39 witnesses failed to pick him out.
Driven by a sense of moral outrage at a Metropolitan Police ‘Fit Up’ his wife Rose and their family supporters, all local working class East End residents pursued a strategy of ever more extreme, headline-grabbing publicity stunts. Prominent ‘George Davis is Innocent, OK’ graffiti appeared across London railway bridges, flyovers and walls.
Rose spent Christmas 1974 in a vigil outside Scotland Yard, which drew particular attention after her friend Peter Chappell blew the lights on the Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square. Two of Rose’s brothers stood on a ledge on the dome of St Paul’s cathedral for seven hours with a banner demanding ‘Justice for George Davis’ while working-class people from the East End were joined by Left-wing middle-class supporters at street demonstrations.
The Davis campaign was the first high profile protest against wrongful conviction outside those organised by political activists. Although the ‘EAST END SOLIDARITY CAMPAIGN…TO STOP EAST END FIT UPS’ had pre-dated the Davis Campaign its support had been drawn from experienced left wing political activists who had a history of organizing radical defence campaigns around the criminal justice system.
In particular, among these activists were a number who went on to establish Up Against The Law (UPAL) a London based ‘political collective’. The Davis campaign on the other hand was able to draw heavily on local community support from the East End of London.
One night in August 1975 a group of campaigners – including one of her brothers, but not Rose Davis herself – broke into Headingley cricket ground in Leeds, dug holes in the pitch and poured oil over one end of the wicket. Walls around the ground were daubed with slogans.
‘FREE GEORGE DAVIS … JUSTICE FOR GEORGE DAVIS … GEORGE DAVIS IS INNOCENT … SORRY IT HAD TO (BE) DONE’
The damage to the pitch led to the final match in the Ashes Test between England and Australia being abandoned. It was declared a draw, robbing England of the chance to win back the Ashes. The campaign to free Davis gripped (and outraged) the nation.
The Davis campaign attracted previously unheard of celebrity support; Roger Daltrey of The Who was seen onstage in 1975 wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with ‘George Davis Is Innocent’. ‘George Davis is Innocent’ was also a song on Sham 69′s 1978 debut album Tell Us the Truth, and the song ‘The Cockney Kids Are Innocent’ ended with a namecheck for Davis.
In May 1976, despite a then-recent Court of Appeal decision (11 December 1975) not to overturn Davis’s criminal conviction, the Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, on partial completion of a police review of the case, agreed to recommend the release of Davis without further referral back to the Court of Appeal.
Jenkins undertook this highly exceptional exercise of the Royal Prerogative of Mercy because of doubts over the evidence presented by the two police officers who had identified Davis. Davis was treated like a pop star on his release. The picture of a beaming Rose, cheek to cheek with her husband at Waterloo station, became a symbol of their successful battle against a corrupt and oppressive Metropolitan Police and criminal justice system.
And I’m the Queen of Sheba
In 1978, two years after his release from prison, Davis was jailed again, having pleaded guilty to involvement in another armed bank raid on 23 September 1977 at The Bank of Cyprus, Seven Sisters Road. Davis was caught at the wheel of the getaway van with weapons beside him; in the raid shots were fired and a security guard clubbed to the ground. A CID officer photographed Davis with the weapons. George Davis had been caught ‘bang to rights’.
The campaign had been totally discredited and its supporters received much negative comment from the press and the general public. A visibly shaken Rose Davis appeared before the assembled media to defend her husband but, as she explained in her memoirs:
‘Once he’d done what he’d done, I was ashamed… I was never a gangster’s wife. And so I stopped defending him. I felt guilty, like a traitor really… I felt gutted for all those people who had helped us.’
When Davis claimed that the police had yet again fitted him up, she replied: ‘And I’m the Queen of Sheba’. When Rose also found that George had been dating other women prior to the Bank of Cyprus raid, she turned up at a police station with a parcel of his clothes which she had mutilated with a pair of scissors.
‘Mrs Davis?’ asked the desk sergeant. ‘No, Elizabeth Taylor,’ she replied. ‘Would you give my husband these clothes and tell him I forgot the rope.’ ‘Rope?’ ‘Yes, to hang his ——- self with!!’
Among the Metropolitan Police CID of the period, the conservative press, MPs and traditionally minded members of the judicially the outcome merely confirmed what they knew anyway; George Davis was a professional criminal and his celebrity supporters naïve dupes ignorant of the realities of investigating hardened armed robbers: CID officers of the period, especially those in the Robbery Squad tended to view following ‘Due Process’ as secondary to their primary mission of putting criminals in prison.
The added involvement in the campaign of left wing activists merely confirmed the view, widely held by police officers of the period that the Police Service, Courts and law abiding society at large was threatened by organised subversion by far Left rabble rousers.
There can be little doubt that the ‘George Davis Is Innocent Ok’ campaign created a deeply damaging cynicism among politicians the media, the general public and most importantly Appeal Court judges towards miscarriage of justice campaigns involving allegations of police misconduct. This cynicism only partially lifted in the 1990’s with the case of the Guildford Four and others. It is questionable whether the shadow of suspicion left by George Davis towards those claiming unjust imprisonment has ever truly left. That is the legacy of the ‘George Davis Is Innocent Ok’ campaign.