Today (March 27) in London History – Pickles to the Rescue

A week after the World Cup was stolen from Methodist Central Hall a little south London mongrel dog named Pickles found it. This Today in London History episode tells the tale.


Today in London. My recommendation would be to go on our Old Westminster Walk. It runs several times a week. Every guide will point out and say a bit about Central Hall. There’s a lot to say about it. The first-ever meeting of the United Nations General Assembly took place there. It stands on the site of the old Royal Aquarium. I’ve unearthed and show to my walkers – I guide the walk on alternate Thursdays – a magnificent old line drawing of the Royal Aquarium. What’s hugely satisfying is the line drawing hasn’t been seen in over a century. And it’s really breathtaking – it’s hard to understand why the Royal Aquarium was ever taken down. What else? Well, if you know where to look you can see a portable flogging and beheading kit at Central Hall. That’s fun. And I always tell the tale that this podcast is going to take up. So that’s a special stop on the Old Westminster walk. But post-walk, if I were you, I’d plan to schlep on over to the nearby St Ermine’s Hotel to see their rare display of Special Operations Executive Memorabilia. It’s on loan from the London Clandestine Warfare Collection. And it’s fascinating. And why wouldn’t it be, the SOE, after all, was tasked by Winston Churchill to “set Europe ablaze.” And of course St. Ermine’s is the perfect place for it because it was the home of the SOE. You want spies and secret organisations you go to that neighbourhood and especially St. Ermine’s. Ian Fleming, Kim Philby, Guy Burgess all worked there. And those are just three names off the top of the list. The building is closely associated with much of the history of British espionage. Plus it’s really handsome. A fine place to chill – go for tea or have a drink – after the walk.  Ok, so much for the preliminaries. Here we go. 

Today in London History.

Let’s do a feel good. It’s March 27th 1966 and Pickles has just come through big time.

The year’s your first clue. The year of the World Cup. The year England lost and won the World Cup. Yes, you heard right. Sit tight – all will be explained. And, yes, Pickles is the second clue. A slightly oddball name. Just the name for a lively, on-the-ball, bright, feisty little dog. 

A little dog who’s out for a walk. Out for walkies. On this day in 1966. 

I described Pickles as being on the ball. On-the-ball is for sure the mot juste. 

Pickles’ owner, a Thames lighterman named David Corbett, who lived in Beulah Hill in Norwood, in south London, was taking the 2-year-old mongrel – Pickles was a black and white cross-bred Collie – David Corbett was taking Pickles for a Sunday evening walk. They were in the front garden. Pickles took off and was having a good sniff at something near the path. Mr Corbett said he “looked down and saw a bundle. I picked it up and saw it was wrapped in newspaper. I tore the bottom off and saw a black base. I tore the top off and saw the words, ‘Brazil 1962’. Sure enough, it was the World Cup. I took it back indoors to show my wife. I couldn’t believe it for a few minutes. When I’d steadied myself I got in the car and drove to Gypsy Hill Police station. 

The £3,000 World Cup – made of gold and insured for £30,000 – had been stolen a few days previously from the Sport with Stamps Exhibition at Central Hall Westminster. An inner door of the exhibition room had been forced. The thief had removed a small padlock at the back of the glass-fronted cabinet. The collection of stamps at the exhibition was worth £3,000,000. They were untouched. The thief plumping for the £3,000 World Cup instead. 

People ask “why was the World Cup there?” It was the draw, the attraction. ‘Come and see the World Cup’ – that would get people through the door – and then maybe the stamp dealers would be able to interest them in the wonders and delights of stamp collecting. The Exhibition had been mounted by Stanley Gibbons up on the Strand, the world’s longest established rare stamp dealer. This tale is another one of those London sparks. Every time I go past Stanley Gibbons on the Strand I think about Pickles and the World Cup.

For his efforts – his inquisitive sniffing – Pickles was given an outsize bone. And a year’s supply of free dog meat. And a film contract at double the normal dog rate. And, naturally, he was in demand to open fetes and bazaars. For good measure, the National Canine Defence League presented him with a medal. But best of all Pickles got to go onto the pitch at Wembley Stadium. Quite an honour. He was the first dog ever to walk out onto that hallowed ground, give it a good sniff. Unfortunately it’s not a matter of public record whether he anointed one or more of the goalposts. 

Mr Corbett received rewards north of £7,000. Quite a bit of money in 1966. He and his wife were able to move out of their flat and buy a good-size house and modernise it with some of the reward money.

As for the perp – or perps – he, she or they were never caught. The police did receive hoaxes and a ransom note. But it looks as though the thief got cold feet.  An accessory to the crime was convicted. And imprisoned. 

Alas, it didn’t end well for Pickles. 

And, yes, you probably guessed. The villain was a cat. On May 17, 1970 Mr Corbett and Pickles went out for walk. Pickles spotted a cat and gave chase. Got caught up in a fence and broke his neck. He was in the prime of life – 6 years old. He’s buried in the garden of the 100-year-old cottage in Lingfield, Surrey that Mr Corbett and his wife with bought with their reward money. 

So on this day, let’s spare a thought for Pickles. And on that note, good night from London. See you tomorrow. 

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