In which I catch a robber, and get tourists to sit on him

You may have heard that my BBC history colleague Dan Snow sits on his own robbers.  I prefer to delegate it to other people.

I’ve been in Oxford this last weekend, which prompts me to recount one of my favourite anecdotes.  It’s very well worn, and I hope it’s not become too exaggerated through repetition.  It’s the one about the time I caught the robber.

When I was nineteen I was living at the top of a twisty old staircase in the Old Quadrangle of New College.  I had tiny little attic room from which I could look down onto the apparently-deserted All Soul’s College.  I wasted a lot of time taking photos of it out of my window, and wondering what the mysterious Fellows got up to in there.

You should be warned that at this point in my life I was blissfully un-worldly-wise. I had come to college from the mean streets of Pangbourne in Berkshire.  If you don’t know where that is, all I need to tell you is that the River Pang is the river in The Wind In The Willows.  The only bad guys there are stoats.

Although I was very happy in my little room, I noticed that if I left any money lying around, it would mysteriously disappear. This was very disconcerting and worrying, especially as I didn’t – couldn’t – think that it was our lovely jolly scout Caterina, who would kindly let me practice my Italian pronunciation on her.

Anyway, one evening I was coming back to my room when – horror! – I saw that the door was open.  Caterina came in the mornings, so this really shouldn’t have been possible.  And inside my room was a man.

He came running out and sort of crushed me against the wall of the corridor, and (this is where it gets a bit blurred in my memory) he showed me that he had a kind of knife in his hand.

Anyway, after a moment or two of crushing and struggling, he ran off down the stairs.

Now, I should explain that at that time I was probably the fittest and fastest I’ve ever been.  I’d been in the university cross-country team and I’d been doing a lot of rowing.

I made an instant decision to go after him.

Poor man.  He probably didn’t expect teenage me to chase him down the stairs, out of the college, and along Queens Lane.

He also probably didn’t expect me to shout to all the students standing around outside Teddy Hall: ‘Stop Thief! Stop Thief!’

(They all rather gormlessly stared at me in amazement, and did nothing.)

He probably didn’t expect me gradually to gain on him as we got towards the Queen’s Lane Coffee Shop …

He probably didn’t expect me to flag down a passing car outside Queen’s College and tell the driver to ‘Follow that Man!’

(More useless stupefaction from him too.)

And finally, he probably didn’t expect – once we’d got halfway up the High Street – two brawny Japanese tourists to catch him, wrestle him to the ground, and sit on him.

Meanwhile, I ran back to our college and got Big Vince the Porter to come and get him, and together we all locked him up in the porter’s lodge loo.

On the way there he sadly said to me: ‘Please don’t arrest me, they’ll send me down’.  I naively thought that he must be a really old student, and that he would be sent down from the university.  Nope, it was prison he had in mind.

Anyway, the exploits of your teenage law-enforcer don’t end here.  Once all the statement giving and telling-off from the police was over (they weren’t too happy that I’d chased him) I was still bothered about how he’d actually got into my room.

At 2am the following morning, I had an Inspector Morse moment.  I suddenly woke up and sat bolt upright in my bed, because while I’d been asleep my mind had deduced what must have happened.

I ran down and investigated the ground immediately below the window of the loo in the porters’ lodge. Yes, while he had been locked in it, he had thrown out of the window a huge and incriminating bunch of keys.

I don’t know if this still happens in Oxford now everyone has swipe cards, but in those days if you found a dropped key on the ground you could take it to a certain pub and sell it, and crims like mine could amass collections.  He’d had the keys to about fifty students’ rooms.

The next morning at eight I was down at the police station, banging on the desk, and saying ‘Officer!  I’ve found a clue!’ They were disappointingly unimpressed with my bunch of keys, having seen such things before.  But my man did get successfully prosecuted.

All this caused a big stir in our college and brought me to the attention of some people we admired.  Charlotte Mendelson, not yet a famous novelist, told me that I’d been awfully brave, and that I’d probably appear in the student newspaper (this did not in fact happen). Libby Brooks, not yet a famous columnist, bought me a shot of whiskey to counteract the shock (I’d never tasted whiskey at this point in my life and was in fact too frightened of it to drink it).

I’ve made it all sound quite fun and character-building, as indeed it was, but it doesn’t quite end happily ever after.  This man also stole my sense of safety, and I never really got it back.  It’s part of the reason I now live in building with twenty-four hour security.

One thought on “In which I catch a robber, and get tourists to sit on him

  1. Andrew Russe

    Sorry about your sense of safety, but what a fabulous story…
    You *are* Harriet Vane! 🙂


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