Johnny McFadden, one of the first Australian hoisters (shoplifters) to hit London in the 1960s passed away this week. It was my pleasure to meet him in June 2011 while putting together my documentary The Kangaroo Gang: Thieves by Appointment for BBC Worldwide with my friends at The Full Box.
Despite ill-health, Johnny had travelled down from Brisbane with “Baby Bruce” Stanton for the filming of the interviews. It was his first time to discuss the larks of his youth in London and so he went by the “nom de hoist” Johnny Croft for the doco. He shared some of the tricks of the trade. Like many of the early Kangaroo Gang lads, he was an all-rounder turning his hand to anything from hoisting to race tipping to working rorts like Stockmen’s Poker or the Spinning Top. I have edited a few outtakes from the interview to relate some of the hi-jinx he got up to in those far off, almost mythical, days of the 1960s.
Q Johnny, you got there in 1963. What was it like in London for you then?
J Well it was all new, you know, and you had to get adjusted to it. And you had to find people who was like yourself, you know. When we got there we went to Kangaroo Valley of course (Earls Court), and from there we got into town and we started doing a few things. And then you get noticed, and we fell in with a few boys, and we started to meet everybody. I was always a very keen racing man, and we got to the races and we put on our old tipping business which they hadn’t seen much of anything in England.
Q The tipping was more like confidence work.
J Yeah, there was different ways you can tip. There’s the rap and tail. You found a man that you thought was alright, with the big suit and the lovely dress shoes and he looks like he’s got plenty of cash on him, you know. So you go up, all posh, and ask him what won the last race or where did so and so run?
And then the rap man would come up and say, pointing to me, “Hey mate what’s that bloke backing? And the fellow says, I dunno. “
And then the rap man says “Oh what, did he tell you not to tell anybody? That’s so and so, he owns this, he owns that. He bets very, very big. Now the mark’s getting interested cos he thinks he’s getting a rails run on some good info.”
“The rap man then says, “I know, why don’t you go and ask him what he’s backing? He’s not in the ring here for nothing, so go and ask him. I can’t ask him, I work for a bookie. “
“So the fellow would come up and say to you, “Excuse me, what are you backing today? I just seen that you were going to have a bet and I thought I might’ve followed you on something. Well then naturally you just ask what is name is. And then you say, how much money you got there? I’ve got a thousand, he might say. I says show me. Out it would come. I say, give it to me, and they’d hand it over. Well then you’d walk up and you’d back a horse, 500, might be a three to one shot, and you say to the fellow here’s 200, go over and put that on over there. Get on that one, it’ll go off, you know. So he’d go over there and next minute you put the rest of his cash in your kick, you know, telling him you’ll put the rest on with bookies you know personally.”
On any given day Johnny and the lads might have done this with a number of gullible punters. With a pocket full of their money, they could manufacture at least a couple of winners for at least one of two of them.
“They think you’re a magician because you can pull up money anywhere, and it gives them a load of confidence. And then you get his address, his phone number and then you meet him at one of the best hotels in London and then you start putting the deal to him. You say, now look, this is a very big thing and I know I can trust you. If I can’t, you’ll be in plenty of trouble. Oh yes, you can trust me! Well there’s gonna be “a one goer” at Epsom this week. What do you mean? Well, there’s a lot of horses in the race that won’t be trying, see? And the one goer will win the race, and that will be our nag. But it costs a little bit of money to be in it, see?
Then I’d say, I really can’t tell you anymore now. I’ve already said too much. He’s killing himself to find out more, he’s chasing you like a lunatic. And so you have dinner with him or lunch and string him along a bit. He keeps ringing you up wanting to see you again, he wants to know more.
And you might have three or four of these blokes on the hook. You get three and you might have 25 000 quid in total. So you give them three different horses. Now if one wins, you’ve got plenty of money and a real good man. One of the other horses might run second and you tell the next bloke, “we should’ve won, that jockey he’s in plenty of trouble” Half the time you could keep the three of them, and with everything going alright you keep going and going.
Q How much could you make at a good day at the races on this rort?
JM Well it’s hard to say, because if your luck was in, could be anything. But you always got something anyway from 1,000 or you might end up 10,000, you know. But it all depends how your luck was.
In between the punting rorts, Johnny’s little team went hoisting in the West End. In the early days, it was what the old timers called “an open go”.
JM We were the underdogs of the hoisting teams. We’d go up to Selfridges, and all the big shops, and first of all we’d steal their bags that’s got Selfridges written on ‘em, you know. And then we’d go and steal some good suits put them in the bags, take ‘em back, return ‘em. They’d think you had bought them fair dinkum and refund your money, full price! So instead of getting a third for them (from a fence), we were getting full price for them! And that way my little team could keep, there was three of us, keep together. We were mixing with people. I was up at the Caravella Club every afternoon and f we had nothing to do at night too. And it was such a life, you know. You had money really all the time.
By the mid 60s, a flood of Australians had joined Johnny and the lads. They made their own little clique and soon they were being called The Kangaroo Gang. They shared their rorts and there was competition between them for the best new earners.
JM One night Danny McElroy come up to me in the club and he said, “Johnny have a look at this. It’s an American hundred dollar bill.” I have a look at it. I said, Jesus, they’re well done, I said, but there’s no serial numbers! He said, there will be tomorrow!”
The English blagger teams were running riot in London back then. Their robbery methods were less than subtle with plenty of violence and intimidation.
JM The English had run inside with baseball bats, machetes, anything, break everything in there. Everybody would be bloody terrified. They’d scoop it all up out of the showcases, bloody everything, run out, jump in the car and away they’d go. They couldn’t believe it when we came on the scene. We would go into a place, take everything and then walk out casual. Nobody knew of it till the shop closed! They didn’t know we were there! And the Poms said how long’s this been going on? Well then the Australian boys found the banks. They would clean em out of foreign exchange, travellers cheques too. They would cause a distraction and then one of the lads would go over the counter and clean out the drawer. One day I had to go and see the Fibber (Patrick William Warren) and he had a table, be ten foot long I believe. And there was money stacked on it two foot high nearly right across it, and it was all different currencies! There was all the currency in the world you could see there. He was running his own bureau de change, unofficial. If you wanted Francs, you could get ’em off him cheaper to go to France than what you could from the bank, you know. Nobody was ever hurt, nobody was ever bashed or terrified. They used to get to the banks and they worked naturally when most of the tellers were on lunch, and they’d have head pullers. They’d pull the heads, somebody would slide over the counter, take the money out and go.
Some of the less scrupulous lads were a touch on the desperate side. Anything was fair game.
JM. One time Maurie Dias and I and another bloke were up at York at the races and we’re at the station waiting for the train back to London. And there’s a fellow collapsed on the station Maurie went straight in. He says “move away, move away, give him room, give him room, give him air. And anyway the fellow was pronounced dead! And anyway a bit later on the train Maurie says here’s yours and hands us some money. He’s got the dead fellow’s wallet. We’re a bit shocked so Maurie says “well he can’t do anything with it, can he? He’s took the lot. That fellow that was with us, says “You can’t do that to a dead bloke. You’re not taking that off a dead man! So Maurie says ‘Ok you don’t have to be in the whack.’ The fellow still took it!
Then there was “Mystery” Doug who would turn up in the clubs with wads of money and for a time no-one could work out how he was earning. He wasn’t a shoplifter or a conman, but he was always flush, hence the “Mystery” moniker.
JM Later we discovered he used to go out around the West End where all the judges, barristers, doctors used to congregate around this place. There was this public toilet where some of them used to go for a bit of a naughty with whomever would pitch up. Anyway Doug had a whopping prick on him like that [demonstrating how big], and he’d throw that out. And when one of these proper gentlemen would get a grip, he used to pull his fake police badge and he’d pinch them! And he’d take them back to steps of the police station and they’d be terrified. He’d say ok give me three thousand quid and I’ll drop off. They would be happy to give it to him, even five thousand. And Doug would hit them again and again whenever he was broke. He finally got pinched for it and got seven or eight years jail. And he got killed there. And everybody swears that the high-ups that he swindled got him killed in jail because he was too big of a menace to them. We called him “Doodle Doug” after we found out what he was up to.” He was also known as Wotawopper too.
One of Johnny’s best rorts involved a spinning top with numbers the sides. It was a game of chance that seemed fair to the unsuspecting mug. But after a few spins, Johnny would secretly substitute another top, “the worker” which he could control for whatever outcome he needed.
JM You start playing with a fair dinkum top first, and they have a spin, you have a spin. Things are going well. He’s earned a few quid off you. Well then you put the worker in, and the worker will do what I tell him.
And the mug could never figure it out why they suddenly couldn’t win, because the top’s only a top, you know, you’re spinning it. A friend of mine used to make them, he’s dead now. And the things he could make, nobody would believe it.
I asked Johnny to show me one of his tops, and he promised he would bring one down next time we met up. Sadly, we never got the chance to meet again. He passed away quietly this week at 75. Another of the old crew has passed into the hereafter. Like many of the Kangaroo Gang he looked back on his days in London as the best of his life. Ok they were crooks, but they were old fashioned crooks, with a sense of honour and respect. Look out for some of his stories in “The King of Thieves” the movie I am co-writing with Andrew Knight on the Kangaroo Gang. RIP Johnny McFadden and the rest of the departed members of the team. They leave behind some of the best yarns ever told.