George Davis, the armed robber, tells his story

In an exclusive interview, George Davis – who was sent down for a crime he didn’t commit – tells Annie Ridout about prison, The Who’s Roger Daltrey wearing a t-shirt proclaiming his innocence and the armed robberies he did carry out

In 1975, George Davis was sentenced to 20 years for an armed payroll robbery at the London Electricity Board (LEB) offices in Ilford. While serving his sentence, a campaign for his release – headed by his then-wife, Rose – gained traction and in an act of protest, his supporters dug up Headingly cricket ground ahead of an England/Australia test match. Davis served two years before being released but his conviction wasn’t quashed until 2011, when new evidence emerged. He wasn’t involved in that robbery, he says, but he did go on to commit others…

“I grew up in Poplar, which is part of Tower Hamlets now. It was a good childhood spent with my mum and dad, my brother, who’s six years younger, and my grandparents – mum’s parents – who lived upstairs. My dad was in the navy, a chief petty officer, then worked at Ford Dagenham. Mum worked in catering. They were good parents.

I didn’t particularly enjoy school but I passed my 11-plus and went to grammar school. It was called The Coopers’ Company and was one of the best in London. It’s in Upminster now; a comprehensive.

I left school and my dad got me an interview with Port of London Authority (PLA), where I got a job as a messenger boy. And then unfortunately I made my wife pregnant. We’d only been married a month and I was 16.

My daughter was born in October 1958. We had another child who died at three months old then my son who’s now 50. We lost my daughter at 42 to cancer; she would have been 57 now. She had two girls, my two eldest granddaughters.

In 1972 I’d been done for receiving stolen property but I’d never been to prison. The first time was when they fitted me up in ‘74. It was without a doubt a frame – we proved that info was held back. I was only convicted on id by police officers; there was no forensic evidence.

There were three lots of blood at the crime scene and none matched mine. I had been a bit of a naughty boy – I was involved with people and they suspected that. And two policemen had been injured so they had to find someone. I was charged six weeks after the robbery. I got put in the frame.

Peter Chapel, a good friend, had seen me on that day – I’d been mini-cabbing, using my brother’s car – and he saw me that morning, asked if I wanted to go for brekkie. I said no, there was no one in office so I had to go in.

Peter was adamant that I hadn’t done that robbery so he started a campaign with my then-wife Rose. It picked up from there. Rose’s brothers got involved, my cousins.

It was incredible when I was released. I’d love to be able to relive it. I always knew I was never going to serve the whole sentence

A group of people dug up the Headlingly cricket ground in protest and The Who’s manager Bill, I knew him; he was a friend, so that’s how Roger Daltrey ended up wearing a ‘George Davis is Innocent’ t-shirt on stage.

I knew about all this because I got visited when I was inside. There was this local reporter Pat Cross who Peter befriended and he put something up in the East London Advertiser every week. Then a few nationals caught wind of it.

I was in Albany on the Isle of Wight. When I first went in, I was with other two guys; another one got nicked later on. It was alright because they’d already been in so they eased me through. You keep your head down. It was very boring; I just read all the time.

When I was on remand I had food and was visited every day. But after the conviction I became Category A and was banged up 23 hours a day in a single cell. There were no toilets in the cells so I had a bucket.

I coped by reading. Usually prisons have quite good libraries. I used to get as many books as I could. I always had four books I carried with me in case I was Shanghaied – that’s what we called it when they took you away without any notice, to another prison.

My wife Rose used to come and visit. But it’s a long way away. They brought me to London for the appeal but didn’t overturn it so I was away for two years.

It was incredible when I was released. I’d love to be able to relive it. I always knew I was never going to serve the whole sentence – it was weird. I’d have police officers visit me and one of them, I really liked him, a young guy – mid 30s – said: “I’ve read what’s happened and far as I’m concerned you’ve had a really raw deal”.

We used to get our mail at lunchtime, so I’d always get a letter off Rose. This Tuesday there’s no letter. I’d signed up for a horticulture course so I went to the classroom. All of a sudden a screw came in – he was nice – Ginger we called him, you can guess why.

He came in and said: “David, AG [assistant governor] wants to see you.” I was laughing around, I said: “they’re gonna let me out”. I was in the wing, waiting, and the AG came along looking serious; I thought there was something wrong at home. We went to an empty room, like an office, and he said: “sit down”. He said: “you’re gonna be released today.”

I wasn’t aware of how it made other people feel; it wasn’t a power thing – it was for money. I’ve never hurt anyone

I jumped up. I said: “I can go”. I was escorted down to get my clothes and by this time it had spread round the whole prison – everyone was shouting “yeah” and “good luck.”

They didn’t want press around the prison so took me to the ferry as quickly as possible. I got on a train and all the press were on there. We got off at Waterloo and the platform was full of people – all there for me. There was hundreds of people, TV cameras, my wife waiting for me with my daughter and my friends. They bundled me into a car.

We always laughed because my lovely daughter worked as a dental nurse in Moorgate – no one knew who she was then all of a sudden, she’s working and the news comes on. She says “it’s my dad – I’ve gotta go”. What must they have thought at her work?

It was a lovely feeling to get home. My mum and dad were still alive. I was 33 when I went in, 35 when I came out.

It was 16 months later when we got caught doing the Bank of Cyprus. I knew I’d do that, I hadn’t done the one they’d nicked me for but it wasn’t something I’d never done. When we got caught, the police were waiting for us – ready eye – and we got nicked.

When we got sentenced the police were quite happy that they’d got me. I got 15 years and served seven, got it cut down on appeal. I was told by a barrister who gave me an FG – further grounds form – that the appeal judge reads all of them. So I used to write and write.

We pleaded guilty, which saves court time and money – and we never got away with money. Lots of people got shorter sentences. I just used to write that down, send those forms again and again. Eventually, we got to appeal court and they cut it down saying we weren’t given enough recognition for pleading guilty.

I was now used to it; I knew the system. I was ok, didn’t have any problems. Initially I went back to Albany, then we went on a sit-down (we wouldn’t go back to cells) and they slung me out of Albany. It was probably over something very trivial.

I can’t tell you how many robberies I committed in total. It was exciting when I was doing it. I wasn’t aware of how it made other people feel; it wasn’t a power thing – it was for money. I’ve never hurt anyone. I had no real plans; I just wanted to spend the money – partly to support my family; to live better.

Between coming home the first time and getting nicked again, I wound up in a relationship with another girl. When I got remanded in custody for doing the bank robbery, the girl visited me and Rose found out so that’s when we were finished. When we got divorced, I’d been away four years.

My kids were gutted, obviously, really upset when I went down but they visited me. By that time my daughter had two kids, the oldest one used to say she was going to see granddad in the Big House.

When I eventually came out, I went to live with my aunt and uncle – they were in the same area – and my daughter lived round the corner so I’d go to school with her when she took the girls. And my son, he was about 18, he was a printing apprentice so I’d go round to see him every day – go and have a beer at lunch.

My children didn’t get into crime. My son went into printing, finished his apprenticeship, then in ‘82 all the printers went out picketing as they were out of work. He did The Knowledge and became black cab driver instead. I didn’t talk to him about what I’d done – he wouldn’t be interested.

It isn’t that you’re not scared of prison, you just don’t think of it. You don’t think you’re going to get caught

He wouldn’t have followed in my footsteps; he’s not that type and he’s not friends with anyone who’d do that. I was hanging out with different types, naughty boys, but I was my own man, no one made me do it. My family were never involved – I’ve got 35 first cousins on my dad’s side; none of them was ever in trouble.

With the robberies, it was something you talked about doing but I can’t remember how it actually started; it was just what we did. It was always about money rather than the excitement. Without a shadow of a doubt.

I ended up marrying the daughter of a high-ranking police inspector. We met one Sunday afternoon, we were up in town: my wife was with a friend and her boyfriend, he half knew me – so that was it, we started taking, I asked her out and it went from there. We’ve been married 30 years next year. I never met her dad but I was good friends with my mother-in-law.

Being retired now, I’m bored out of my head. I wouldn’t rob a bank again – that was all too long ago. That was the 70s, such a long time ago. It’s never come back into my head. My son’s got two daughters, my two eldest granddaughters have kids, I have three great grandchildren. I wouldn’t do it now.

I got nicked again after that second spell inside. It was longer than 16 months the second time; I was out nearly two years then got done for robbing trains. I pleaded guilty for attempted theft – not robbery as such. I was very lucky; I only got a short sentence.

You never think you’re going to go back. You don’t think that way – otherwise you’d never do it. It isn’t that you’re not scared of prison, you just don’t think of it. You don’t think you’re going to get caught.

What I don’t like about the justice system in this country is that it’s never the same. I remember going in to a Magistrates’ Court for a friend’s motoring offence. A lady went up – she was very smart, worked in the city. She’d had a couple of drinks, couldn’t get a taxi, got in her car: wallop – got done for drink driving.

The magistrate slaughtered her – fined her an extraordinary amount and frightened the life out of that lady. I was looking at the fellow I was with going “oh dear”. Later, a dirty little toerag comes in: stole a car, no tax, already disqualified, wound up getting a slap on the wrist. I thought: there’s no justice in this.

You see some of the sentences people get. People who are actually doing the sentencing are out of touch. Some of the stuff I read – like sexual offences – that they get away with. These sex cases, in prison, most of them get parole first time up, from what I see.

At one point, I was red band – I could walk around prison unescorted – and I was going to stay in a hostel if I got parole, as I didn’t have a place. It was my third time going up and I got a blank.

The screws – some were nasty. A lot of them were brain-dead. Some were alright

The screws, I got on alright with them, said there was a guy who got seven years for rape – that was a big sentence back then. He had a job mopping the floor. He had a homosexual relationship inside – everyone knew about it – and the other kid used to go and do all his cleaning. He went up and got parole first time, did 28 months of seven years.

People laugh at me when I say it but the police were never rude to me. When I was on the train one of them hit me with a truncheon but I can’t say they were nasty – I didn’t like that they fitted me up but they weren’t growling like on television. If they were horrible I’d tell you, they certainly told lies in the witness box. But we didn’t deal with uniform, it was robbery squad; experienced officers.

The screws… some were nasty. A lot of them were brain-dead. Some were alright, just wanted to do their jobs and not make it a life of pain for people. With prison officers, they should realise they have to show some discretion with things, some of them are straight down the middle; see everything as black and white.

It all ended when I came out and my wife had cancer – she looked ever so thin, and she’d just got an all clear from the doctors. I thought: I can’t put her through it again – it really wore her down. So in 1987 I went to work doing executive car hire, not quite chauffeuring.

I did that for quite a long time, had to put a lot of hours in. I kept out of trouble doing different driving jobs, like taking patients to and from hospital. I loved it. I’d start very early in the morning and finish just after lunch, I felt like I was helping people; I’d make them laugh.

I was 70 when I packed it in. From being a naughty boy when I was younger, I actually really enjoyed working. But I never looked back, I didn’t give the other stuff a thought – you can’t have regrets.”