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Fitted up: The Mitcham Co-op murder


On a dark autumnal night in 1962 three young men arrived at the Tooting Co-op building in a grey Austin Cambridge. Two of the men, brandishing guns, held up the cashier, while the other one, also armed with a Luger pistol kept lookout. A Co-op worker named Dennis Hurden happened to be passing by the cashier’s office and was told to keep still and not move; he continued walking and the gunman panicked and shot him in the face. He died instantly.

The masked robbers left with just £500. As they made their getaway over a bridge and down to where their car was parked they were noticed acting suspiciously and the number plate was taken down by a member of the public.

It was not long before one of the men, Phillip Kelly, was tracked down and arrested. 

Because a night watchman had thought he saw four men in the car the police were convinced that there were another three men involved. Connelly and Hilton, the other two, were quickly rounded up and charged with robbery but they all denied the murder.

Kelly was taken up to the attic room of Tooting police station and his head was repeatedly submerged in a water tank until he was ready to finger another man for both robbery and murder.

George Thatcher, a safe blower and petty criminal on parole and living in a hostel inside Pentonville prison in North London was the unlucky man. He was picked up and driven to Tooting police station where he was stripped naked and left for over 8 hours. He denied all knowledge of the crime and they eventually released him. He was later rearrested and charged with capital murder, which carried the death sentence. His trial at the Old Bailey was a farce. His counsel, the renowned Christmas Humphreys who had successfully prosecuted Ruth Ellis and Bentley and Craig, spoke to George for barely fifteen minutes during the three week trial. The police lied in the witness box. The three actual robbers kept silent and the judge was extremely biased in his summing up.

After Judge Roskill donned the black cap and sentenced George to hang by the neck until dead, Phillip Kelly stood up in the court and shouted, ‘I killed Dennis Hurden’, but it was too late. Kelly later confessed to a Catholic priest in Brixton prison but it was ruled as ‘inadmissable evidence’. 

Here is a very revealing letter Phillip Kelly wrote to a friend: George spent four weeks in the death cell at Wandsworth before his death sentence was repealed. Fast forward ten years and the playwright David Halliwell (who wrote the hit 60s play Little Malcolm and his struggle against the eunochs) replied to an advert in the New Statesman which said ‘Lifer needs Help’. The lifer was George Thatcher.

David encouraged George, already an accomplished painter, to write about his life and experiences in prison and in the death cell, waiting to die. David, Michael Elphick (the actor) and I visited George in the Albany prison on the Isle of Wight. We smuggled out his first play in the back of one of George’s landscape paintings. It was performed at the Little Theatre in St Martin’s lane.

His second play called The Only Way Out was produced at the Royal Court with Brian Croucher as George and Oliver Smith as the guard. It was the last ever review by Sir Harold Hobson, the distinguished critic of the Sunday Times

George spent eighteen years in prison for a crime he did not commit. The policeman in charge of his case shot himself. Over 500 police officers left the force under the cloud of corruption. No one has apologised. He later found happiness with his wife Val living in the west of Ireland. 

George Thatcher’s autobiography Fitted Up is a riveting account of poverty, injustice, incompetence, skulduggery, survival and, ultimately, freedom. Sadly, George has passed away. He knew his story would be published but his fight to see justice done was never completed.

By Anthony May

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