How the great British breakfast inspired the world’s first security cameras
I was archiving some research notes recently when I came across the two cases outlined below and they seemed too good to pack away without sharing.
If you like the occasional fry up, have a soft spot for men in sheds, enjoy low-budget heist movies or have an actual interest in the history of security cameras, read on. There’s something here for you.
To start, a bit of background: the world’s first CCTV system was devised during the Second World War at a German V-2 rocket testing facility to enable observers to watch the launches from a safe distance. Seven years later, in 1949, an American company started advertising a CCTV system called Vericon to householders and businesses. For the first recorded use of individual security cameras, however, we have to go back more than a decade to London in the summer of 1933.
It was something of a scorcher that summer, with multiple heatwaves interspersed with violent thunderstorms, but was there something else in the air besides extreme weather? How else to explain the coincidence that in July, two detectives (one amateur, one ex-Scotland Yard, and completely unknown to each other) both came up with ways of using cameras for essentially the same purpose: to protect the staples of the great British breakfast?
The Hen House Heist
The eggs came under attack first. The target was a chicken run nestled amongst the wilting cabbages on an allotment in Palmers Green, north London, worked by a young man called Mr Norbury. Each day, Mr Norbury would collect the eggs from his chicken coop and store them in a tin tub he kept in a shed nearby, ready to take home as needed.
That summer, however, he noticed that his stockpile of eggs had started to shrink. There was a thief on the prowl and, what’s more, Mr Norbury had a suspect in mind: Frederick Barnwell, a plumber who worked the adjacent plot. Was Mr Norbury willing turn a blind eye for the sake of neighbourly harmony? Maybe at first, but when the occasional chicken started to disappear, too, he’d had enough. In late July, he hatched a plan.
First, he drilled a hole in his hen house wall and fixed a small box camera to the inside, with the lens peeking out at a carefully chosen angle. Then he dug a shallow trench from the hen house to his shed, in which he buried an iron pipe through which he had threaded a cord. This cord was attached to the shed door at one end and to a sandbag suspended above a lever which operated the camera shutter at the other. He also rigged up a separate cord on the shed door so that when it was opened a piece of scrap metal rattled against the tin tub. Having primed the camera, Mr Norbury went home and waited.
Rathfelder [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]
This Little Piggy Went to Market
A keen cinematographer helped to bring the five-strong bacon gang to justice
Within a month, Mr Norbury’s brief fame was eclipsed by another court case, this one involving bacon. One of the leading meat wholesalers at Smithfield Market – George Bowles, Nicholls & Co. – had noticed that a large quantity of bacon had disappeared from its storerooms over a number of months. The firm had engaged a private detective – the ex-Scotland Yard Inspector Charles Leach – to investigate.
It would have been a standard, if smelly, stake-out, with Inspector Leach camped outside the meat market jotting down evidence in his notebook, had not his son Kenneth, a keen cinematographer, suggested that they try to capture the thefts on film.
Accordingly, 20-year-old Kenneth Leach accompanied his father to Smithfield with his cine camera on three occasions that July. The resulting surveillance footage captured one of the firm’s porters, Henry Newman, wheeling a barrow piled high with sides of bacon out of a back exit, from where it was loaded onto a truck.
Further investigation by Inspector Leach unearthed the other members of the five-strong bacon gang: Edward Randall, the warehouse foreman, had smoothed Newman’s exit out of the building; Henry Flack, the getaway driver, whisked the bacon away to the docklands. There, it was cut up by Frank Hume, another Smithfield worker, on behalf of George Haymes, a local stallholder, who then offered it for sale to the people of Woolwich.
George J. Nicholls, the director of George Bowles, Nicholls & Co., dressed as a side of bacon for the Covent Garden Fancy Dress Ball in 1894. He won first prize.
When the matter first came before the courts in August 1933, the firm’s solicitor Edmund O’Connor announced with pride: ‘For the first time in our courts, I shall be able to show at the proper time a cinematograph film of a man stealing his master’s goods.’ In anticipation, the five men were remanded on bail.
The trial was held on 13 September at the London Guildhall. As it turned out, the court couldn’t provide the facilities for the actual film to be shown, so stills were presented instead. Not everybody was impressed. The clerk of the court, for example, peered at one picture and said, ‘This photograph certainly shows somebody, but it is a matter of opinion to whether Newman could be identified by it.’
Nevertheless, Newman was sentenced to three months imprisonment and his Woolwich-based co-conspirators Hume and Haynes each received nine months’ hard labour. Due to a lack of other evidence, the warehouse foreman and truck driver were discharged.
Smithfield Market photo (date unknown)