Monday, 2 November 2015

A Guy Fawkes Prank That Went Badly Wrong

What began as a prank in the run up to Guy Fawkes Night, ended in tragedy a few minutes before midnight on 4th November in 1961.
Alpha House, 1961

Thirty-seven year old Fred Burtenshaw had been the caretaker at Alpha House in Canterbury Road, South Kilburn, for over ten years. He had spent much of that evening trying to prevent youngsters from causing damage and setting off fireworks. Fred was relaxing in his armchair and watching television when suddenly there was a loud explosion and the window behind him shattered. A bomb inside an old car dynamo had been placed outside on the window sill and a piece of the casing hit Fred on the back of the head. His wife, who had been putting their son to bed, heard a terrifically loud bang and ran downstairs to see what had happened. She said:

I found the lounge in darkness. Clouds of smoke and dust filled the whole room.  At first I couldn’t see, but then I found Fred sitting still on the settee. I shouted to him, but he didn’t answer. So I ran to get help.

Sadly, Fred was pronounced dead on arrival at Paddington General Hospital.

Three local teenagers - two brothers and a friend – were arrested the next day. They had learned to mix explosive chemicals at school and the elder brother said he had bought a 2lb tin of weed killer from Boots in the Kilburn High Road to make bombs for Guy Fawkes night. In the bedroom he shared with his brother, they had made the explosive mixture and put it into metal tubes. About 8.30 on the evening of 4th November they went to Hampstead Heath, where they let off the smaller bombs. They had saved the large bomb and wanted to let it off at midnight when it would be Guy Fawkes Day. They brought it back on a bus and got off at Kilburn Park Station. In his statement the older brother described what happened:

The flats behind the station were dead quiet and we thought it would be a good place to let our big firework off so that we could run away up Canterbury Road as we didn’t want to be around when it went off.

We went to the corner of Alpha House where there is a big grass slope down to the building. The corner flat had a light on in the room and I could see the room was lit up but the curtains were drawn. We thought we would give them a jump.

I put it on the window sill. I had tested the fuse and found it took about 40 seconds for two feet of fuse so I had put in about two feet of fuse on this one. When I had lit the fuse I ran up Canterbury Road and down Kilburn High Road. I should say I really walked.

I was in the High Road by the junction with Canterbury Road and I saw a police car had stopped at the traffic lights in Cambridge Avenue. As I reached the top of the road I heard the bang. When the policemen heard the bang they reversed down Cambridge Avenue very fast so I went on to Oxford Road and met my brother. The explosion was much bigger than we expected. We didn’t go back to the flats to see what had happened. We walked down Cambridge Road and went in a chip shop and had some chips and tea. Then we walked up Cambridge Road until we nearly came to the Chippenham Public House and then turned off down Malvern Road. When we got to the junction of Malvern Road and Maida Vale we walked home through Rupert Lane into Albert Road.

I know the caretaker at Alpha House as Fred and he always stopped us playing football there. I have seen him around and I knew he lived near the corner and I thought it was his flat where I put the big firework. We don’t like Fred and wanted to give him a scare. We just thought it would pull the window down.

The next day the police searched the teenagers’ house where they found explosives and bomb-making equipment in the bedroom. The arrested the brothers who were an apprentice electrician aged 15, and a laundry hand aged 17. Soon afterwards they arrested their 16 year old friend, who was a porter.

The three youths were tried at the Old Bailey where they pleaded guilty to manslaughter. Ironically, the brothers were supporters of CND and had been fined for a sit down protest in Trafalgar Square. The two older boys were convicted and sent to a detention centre for three months.  The younger brother was given a conditional discharge and a warning from the judge who said he had been led by his older brother. 

Alpha House today, next to the Royal Mail sorting office

A teenage Guy Fawkes prank had gone terribly wrong, and as the Detective Inspector said, ‘it was a case of too little knowledge was a dangerous thing.’

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