Today (March 8) in London History – Scotland Yard

The “fit” is with our Old Westminster walk.

This Today in London History episode looks at Scotland Yard’s move to its (then) new HQ in 1967.


The hors d’oeuvre for Today in London is our Old Westminster Walk. Elements of this podcast dovetail very nicely with that walk.

Ok, here’s our main course: Today in London History. 

It took place in London. 

It was wound up on March 8th. 

It was called Operation Crowbar.

No question but it was the name that caught my eye.

Operation Crowbar. What in the world could that be?

The name hooked me.

The statistics reeled me in. 

And here we are – here it is – in the Today in London History podcast.

Operation Crowbar was Scotland Yard moving house. Back in 1967.

They moved from their old headquarters building on Victoria Embankment to a modern, two-tower block of offices at Broadway, Westminster. It wasn’t across town, it was just a few hundred yards – but it was a major undertaking. 

3,000 tons of furniture, equipment and records had to be got over the ground. 

That wonderful name – Operation Crowbar – referred specifically to the Yard’s crown jewels. The files amassed by the Criminal Records Department and the Fingerprint Department.  Furniture was one thing. Criminal Records and fingerprints were of a different order altogether. 

Securing those records, making sure nothing untoward happened over the course of their transfer: that was Operation Crowbar.

The figures are jaw-dropping.  

There were 3 million files in the Yard’s Criminal Record Office.  Or to put that another way, 100 tons of files of Criminal Records. 

Adjunct to those 3 million files were 1,800,000 sets of fingerprints. 

Ok, personal story time. It’s a neat fit with some of these facts and figures.

I lost a motorcycle a few years ago. It was stolen. About 10.30 on a Saturday night. Called the police. They came round fairly quickly. They were efficient, they were friendly, they were professional. When they’d done all the paperwork they handed me a couple of cards. The first card they handed me, they said “we’d really appreciate it if when you get home you’d go to this website and like us.” I’m not kidding about that. The second card had my name on it, the date, and a number…it was something like 9732 or thereabouts. All under the heading Crime Report Card.

A couple of weeks later I got an official letter from Islington Council saying one of their traffic enforcement cameras had recorded me going through a red light at 11.30 pm on that Saturday night and I was being fined £150 or whatever. Well, it wasn’t me. It was the thief. Having to pay that fine would have been insult to injury. I rang the police and said ‘is there anything I can do about this, I shouldn’t have to pay that fine, it’s a matter of record that bike had been stolen an hour before the red light infraction. The policeman on duty said, “don’t worry about a thing, you won’t have to pay the fine. Write to Islington. Tell them what happened. And be sure to to give them the number on your crime report card.” I said, “why? What’s that number all about?” The policeman said, “Every night at midnight, we, Scotland Yard, start at zero and we go through the next 24 hours working our way toward 12,000. Then at midnight the next night we start at zero again. And work our way toward 12,000. Your number was 9732. All that means is that the theft of your motorcycle was the 9732 crime that had been reported to us that day.”  If my experience was anything to go by, you can figure approximately 10,000 reported crimes a day in London. Sobering statistic isn’t it.

Anyway, back to 1967 and getting those Criminal Records and fingerprints from the old Scotland Yard HQ to the new headquarters.

The transfers had to be fast. They had to be secure. They had to be done with military precision. The files and prints were dispatched from a heavily guarded courtyard at the old headquarters there on Victoria Embankment. Heavily guarded is the mot juste. Scotland Yard put its commandos, its elite force – the Special Patrol Group – in charge of protecting those files and fingerprints.

The vans that were used for the transfers had bodies that could be securely locked – and were separate from the driver’s cabin. 

Each van was loaded in that heavily guarded courtyard. Once loaded it was locked. The locking was double-checked. Then a member of the Patrol Group got into the van – riding shotgun – and locked and bolted the door from the inside. 

And then it was on its way. But not on its way unaccompanied. Each van was closely tailed by either a personnel carrier or a police patrol car. And closely watched by four pairs of plainclothes officers positioned at checkpoints along the way. Not just watched. The plainclothes officers, the accompanying vehicle and the officer in the van were in constant radio contact with each other. And there was backup. Every member of the team – plainclothes officers on the ground, officers in the accompanying vehicle and the officer in the van itself – every member of the team was linked to a special control system which could call out reserves should the need arise. 

This was for a 3 to 6 minute drive.

Why so security conscious? 

The Yard wasn’t taking any chances that the vans might be “targeted” while in transit – “targeted” to seize or destroy files and fingerprints while they were being moved. The Yard guards those files and fingerprints like they’re gold bars in Fort Knox because they’re invaluable in crime detection. And in crime prevention. The knowledge that they exist helps to deter crime. Contrary to popular belief, files on a crime – or on someone found guilty of a felony – are never closed.

Scotland Yard needed approximately 750 vanloads to move house. 

It was a round-the-clock operation. It began at dawn on February 14th and ended today, March 8th. 

One other statistic. Under the roof of Scotland Yard’s headquarters – old and new – in 1967 were 2,000 officers, civil staff and engineers. The old building on the Victorian Embankment attracted various epithets, ranging from an eccentric cross between a French chateau and a mediaeval fortress to Dickensian. Colourful nouns and adjectives. Lipstick on a pig of an old building that was chronically overcrowded, badly lit and fitfully heated. The modern building, 1960s building was much more fit for purpose. At the time.

The 1967 move was the third one in Scotland Yard’s history. The Force began life at 4 Whitehall Place. Its official name was The Metropolitan Police Office. But in no time both police officers and the public were referring to it as Scotland Yard, which it faced. The name stuck. Then in 1899 they relocated to the aforementioned Victoria Embankment building. Then in 1967 came the move this podcast has discussed. In late 2016 the Yard moved to its new HQ, a building about a sixth the size of its 1960s predecessor. It’s just along from the 1899 building. In a sense the Yard has downsized. It’s leaner. And cheaper. They’ve gone from 3,500 workstations to 550. Like thousands of other London workers, detectives are now working on the move. What’s called Agile Working. Or, if you prefer, changing the IT footprint. And saving the force about 6 million pounds a year in running costs. But in a single leap we’ve bounded from 1967 to 2022. Let’s get back to 67 and that move.

There’s one other component to that house moving operation that’s crying out to be told.

Namely that the contents of the Yard’s notorious Black Museum were among the very first items to be moved. Some 500 exhibits ranging from shotguns disguised as umbrellas and walking-stick swords to hangman’s nooses to death-masks struck from criminals executed at Newgate Prison to letters allegedly written by Jack the Ripper.

Interviewed right after the move, the museum curator, Charles Dawson, a retired policeman, had, overlooking his desk from the pedestal it was mounted on, the death mask of a murderer called Deemong. Deemong was hanged in Australia in 1892. There’s been speculation that he was – wait for it – Jack the Ripper. But I do know that the Museum Curator cheerfully pointed out, “look, you can see the rope marks.”

And on that jolly note, good night from London. See you tomorrow. 

One response to “Today (March 8) in London History – Scotland Yard”

  1. Charles Piper says:

    I’m enjoying these, but it’s off to bed for now.

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