Wanstead lad turned cop killer: Harry Roberts
- Credit: PA Wire/Press Association Images
The summer of 1966: England is basking in the glory of bringing home the World Cup, the Labour Party under Harold Wilson win a general election and the Beatles top the singles chart for the 10th time.
Meanwhile a young man from Wanstead is packing up to go on the run following the brutal murders of three police officers in west London.
Harry Roberts, the notorious police killer and one of Britain’s longest serving prisoners, will be released after 48 years in jail, the Parole Board announced last week.
He was sentenced to life with a minimum term of 30 years, and despite previous parole boards and home secretaries denying him release, he is due to be a free man at 78-years-old.
Roberts was born in 1936 in the leafy suburb of Wanstead as the only child of Dorothy and Harry Roberts, who ran The George Hotel in High Street.
His mother told ITN in 1966: “He was a boarding school boy.
“I think he was workshy. He didn’t want to go to work and he mixed in the wrong company and he got into trouble with the police.”
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With two convictions behind him Roberts began his national service in 1956 and was posted to the Malayan jungle.
When he returned to civilian life, Roberts took to crime to make money, once boasting that he made £1,000 from a single job.
Speaking to the Recorder this week, Professor Dick Hobbs, director of the Essex Criminology Centre at Essex University, said: “These were committed full time villains who made their money from crime.
“He was working at the beginning of the golden age of armed robbery as it was after the war and there was a lot of cash floating about.
“Harry Roberts was very much part of it. He was just a young man starting out. He really did adopt the image of a Hollywood gangster.”
At 3.15pm on August 12, 1966, Roberts and two accomplices – John Witney and John Duddy – were sitting in a Standard Vanguard car in Braybrook Street, Shepherds Bush, organising an armed robbery.
An unmarked police car containing three officers, Det Con David Wombwell, 25, Det Sgt Christopher Head, 30, and Pc Geoffrey Fox, 41, stopped to investigate.
Within minutes Roberts had shot dead Mr Head and Mr Wombwell while Duddy killed Mr Fox, who was sitting at the wheel of the police car.
Using his army training, Roberts evaded capture for 91 days by camping out in Epping Forest which he knew well from his childhood in Wanstead.
Britain’s most wanted man was caught following the biggest ever manhunt by the Metropolitan Police.
Had the crime been committed a year earlier, Roberts and his fellow gangsters would have faced the hangman’s noose.
The death penalty had been abolished in 1965.
Prof Hobbs said: “It was fresh in people’s minds, they were talking about it and the criminal justice system felt it had to provide an alternative.
“He didn’t do his peers any favours as he brought armed robbery to the attention of the police and media and it was very unusual to include this sort of violence [in armed robberies].”
It took the jury only 30 minutes to convict him.
The trial judge, Mr Justice Glyn-Jones, called it “the most heinous crime to have been committed in this country for a generation or more”.