Great Yarmouth bank break-in remains a mystery

Hall Quay 1955

Hall Quay 1955 - Credit: Archant

Our town shopping centre is fast becoming our banking centre too, largely replacing Hall Quay where all but two had been long established. Presumably banks have been taking advantage of the economic slump by acquiring premises vacated by Market Place shops.

On Hall Quay “For sale” and auction signs have appeared on vacated bank premises, and more are likely with the news that Barclays and Lloyds TSB will be heading for the Market Place, leaving only the Royal Bank of Scotland where once there was half a-dozen.

One wonders what will happen to that interesting mix of architectural facades that for many decades have made Hall Quay a delight on the eye. Who will want to occupy the former banks in these troubled times?

As for the Market Place, I think it had only two banks for ages: the East Anglian Trustee Savings Bank at the southern end, and the National Westminster on the corner of The Conge. I doubt if that Lloyds TSB branch (as it is now) will stay open when its Hall Quay counterpart moves next door into the old Burton-Evans premises.

All this banking business leads me to a crime which continues to puzzle one of my regular correspondents.

This was an attempted bank raid that mystified not only Yarmouth police but also ex-Gorlestonian Mike King, a Lowestoft resident for many years. In fact, despite the passage of almost half a century, he clearly recalls it in great detail.

The bank was Lloyds on Hall Quay between Rows 57 and 59 and, as Lloyds TSB, still occupies the same building today but will move next year. The two top floors housed the Public Assistance Office where Mike worked. Access was by a door in the row between the bank and the Yare Hotel (later occupied by the Midland Bank, later HSBC) and up a single stairway used by staff and public, with no emergency exit. This office was closed from Saturday lunchtimes until Monday mornings.

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“Our tea room was at the back of the building on the first floor, the route to it passing a door that was locked,” he continues. “I never paid any attention to that door or wondered what it was.”

The offices were cleaned every weekday by a woman before and after working hours.

Mike King tells me: “I arrived at work at 8.45am on an August Monday 1964 to discover the police there because when the cleaner arrived that morning, she discovered that the locked door near the tea room had been smashed in – there had been a break-in at the bank over the weekend.

“Unsurprisingly, this had frightened the life out of her. I presume she called the police, although I wondered if she knew how to use the office switchboard because it would not have been simple.

“How successful was this (attempted) bank raid? I never did find out as bank staff had been instructed to keep quiet. I believe the thieves got into the bank machine room (where rows of accounting machines were kept) but more than that I cannot say.

“Through the broken door I could see it led to a staircase which went up and down. At a quiet time, a colleague and I ventured through the door and climbed the stairs which led to the attic in the roof space. It all looked old and dusty and there were large photos/portraits lying around. The next morning I used this stairway - unofficially - to get into the office via the bank back door.

“The day after that, workmen removed the door and frame and bricked up the aperture!”

Mike King continues: “There was no sign of a break-in through the main door, so how did the thieves get in? The method was simple but ingenious and showed that a lot of research and planning must have been carried out by the miscreants.

“The front door was locked with a simple Yale lock. Because of the public access, somebody had been able to remove the lock from the inside of the door and replace it with a similar lock from which the pins had been removed.

“The official key holder would never have noticed this because his key unlocked the door as usual. He would have been unaware that any Yale key would have undone that door!

“This was hardly rocket science and simply required the removal of three or four screws, a task which would have been completed in a minute or two. I could have done it myself! It could have been done weeks or even months beforehand. During public hours the lock was switched out of use anyway.

“Surveillance would have revealed that the office was unoccupied between 1pm every Saturday until 7am on Monday – plenty of time to get in without interruption. I suspect entry would have been made after dark Saturday evening. Did they bring in much equipment? Was it intended to crack the safe?

“How did they know where to go and the fact that the access door was there? Did the bank premises have an internal alarm?

“Security in that office was very poor. On Saturday mornings only two members of staff were present and they were always busy dealing with the public. It would have been an easy matter to slip into the staff area to reconnoitre.”

According to Mike: “In a classic case of ‘horse and stable door’, the Yale lock was removed and replaced with a Chubb mortise lock. Security locks were also fitted to the sash windows.

“Nearly 50 years later I returned to see what changes had taken place. The front door position remains exactly where it was before, but the door is different. Now there is another door farther along which I had never seen before. Metal bars have been fitted on all the upper windows.”

The brief Mercury report was headlined “Bank raiders got nothing” and said they made an unsuccessful attempt to open the strongroom door but left nothing behind them. It was thought they climbed a rear wall into a courtyard and broke into the first-floor National Assistance Board offices, then forcing their way through sealed double doors leading into the bank and into the room leading to the strongroom.