Heritage: The 1930s ‘Thin Man’ burglar who targeted Romford, Ilford, Goodmayes and Seven Kings

In 1939 an animal-loving burglar was finally captured after he was spotted letting a kitten out of o

In 1939 an animal-loving burglar was finally captured after he was spotted letting a kitten out of one of his victim's homes in Hornchurch. Picture: PA Archive/PA Images - Credit: PA

Local historian Professor Ged Martin relates how a kitten helped local police nab a serial cat burglar

The 1930s 'Thin Man' burglar was finally caught at a house in Wingletye Lane, Hornchurch. Picture: G

The 1930s 'Thin Man' burglar was finally caught at a house in Wingletye Lane, Hornchurch. Picture: Google - Credit: Archant

The burglaries began around Easter 1938.

Over the next fifteen months, 116 homes were raided: in Romford and Hornchurch, as well as Barking, Goodmayes, Ilford and Seven Kings.

Two police forces hunted for the housebreaker. The Essex Constabulary upheld the law in Havering, but west of Chadwell Heath, the Met was in control. They had Britain’s finest detective team, but Scotland Yard were baffled too.

The thief forced window catches or prised open fanlights.

Often, the gap was so small that police initially assumed it was a Fagin operation – a burglar using a child to gain entry.

But stray sightings soon established that this was an elasticated criminal working alone. A cool operator, he smoked cigarettes and even made himself meals as he robbed people’s homes.

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The cinema sensation of 1934 had been a crime movie, The Thin Man, starring the glamorous Myrna Loy.

The nickname was applied to the mystery criminal.

The police traced footprints, as in the days of Sherlock Holmes, and they could now use fingerprints. But The Thin Man operated in stocking feet and wore gloves. There was no DNA or CCTV.

Scotland Yard had only recently solved the decade-long mystery of Flannelfoot, a burglar who wrapped his feet in rags to cover his traces.

Flannelfoot was even said to telephone the police to tell them when he was going on holiday.

He’d finally been caught in December 1937.

The Thin Man revived their nightmare.

He caused Essex CID “many a sleepless night” too. Romford divisional chief Detective Inspector Baker tried to second-guess The Thin Man’s next move.

Detectives patrolled a different area each night, “but whenever they were in the southern half of the district, a burglary would occur in northern territory”.

One night police received a hot tip, and threw a cordon around three houses where an intruder had been spotted. The houses were searched – but somehow the phantom thief melted away.

There was one other clue about The Thin Man. He liked animals.

Breaking into a house in Goodmayes, he disturbed a barking puppy. “Unperturbed, he picked the dog up, gave it some milk, and put it out in the garden.”

That humanising weakness triggered his downfall.

The lucky break that the police so desperately needed came early one summer morning.

Francis Rutland, who lived in Glanville Drive, Hornchurch, opened his bedroom curtains to check the weather. Across the gardens, he was startled to see an unknown man ushering a kitten out of the back door of a neighbour’s house in Wingletye Lane.

Puss, it seems, had mewed to be let out.

Mr Rutland rang the police – luck again, for in 1939 few people were on the phone.

Swooping on a house opposite today’s Havering Colleges’ Sixth Form, “officers found the burglar seated on a settee, examining a handbag in his gloved hands. He had left his shoes on the lawn outside.”

The intruder was carrying loot from four earlier burglaries overnight.

Tall and slender, Alfred Simmons readily admitted that he was The Thin Man.

Aged 31, and born in Belfast, he had three previous convictions. Prosecuting counsel at his trial called him “an artist in the burglary line”.

Simmons wasn’t driven to crime by poverty. It was a lifestyle choice. He was a skilled printer, with good employer references. He’d been a lecturer in a technical college, and had worked on a cruise liner, producing the ship’s newspaper.

Simmons probably should have been caught sooner. His bushy hair made him easy to identify.

He reconnoitred the houses he planned to burgle, sometimes even knocking at the door and pretending to ask for directions, so he could check window fastenings.

It counted in his favour that Simmons had never used violence, and he’d co-operated with police after his arrest.

He was sentenced to 21 months’ imprisonment, with hard labour.

The Thin Man was finally off the streets of east London.