This article was first published in the January 2011 edition of BBC History Magazine
Ruby Sparks’s first attempt at a smash-and-grab raid was not what might be called impressive, or even competent. Armed with a brick wrapped in brown paper, he threw it into the window of a jeweller’s shop in London. It bounced back and whizzed past his ear. He tried again with the same result, while a small crowd began to grow. He was trying to elbow them aside for his third attempt when a man tapped him on the shoulder and with genuine bewilderment asked: “What’s the matter, sonny?” At that point Sparks walked away, deciding that some practice was needed.
On his next attempt Sparks threw his parcel, this time containing two bricks, with particular energy into the window of a jeweller in the suburbs, resulting in a crash of broken glass and the missile damaging shelves, a screen and cabinet at the back of the shop.
This was an ignominious beginning in smash-and-grab crime for someone who was later to become a notorious offender with a reputation for being a determined and ruthless career criminal. He was also to become known as a leader of one of the largest and most destructive prison riots in English history. Yet this was not Sparks’s only embarrassment among his youthful criminal exploits. He was born in Camberwell, London in 1901 with the name of John Wilson and, according to his own account, received his nickname ‘Ruby’ (Sparks was one of the many aliases he used) when, at the age of 16, he robbed the Park Lane residence of an Indian Maharajah. Not knowing the real value of what he had stolen, he received very little for his haul of uncut rubies.
Sparks was later to claim that he invented the smash-and-grab method of robbery, a description of crime which came into common usage during the 1920s. “It may sound amazing,” he said in 1961, but 40 years earlier “nobody had even begun to think of the smash-and-grab technique.” Furthermore, he maintained that nobody had thought of using motor cars to “commit thieving”. Certainly these kinds of crimes were receiving a lot of attention during the interwar period and in response stout steel grilles began to appear on jewellers’ windows.
The increasing numbers of cars on the roads were vulnerable to theft and enabled criminals to go further afield to commit crime and make a quick getaway afterwards. However, there were other proponents of this crime, and the use of a motor car was really a modification of an older form of offence. Another criminal, Eddie Browne, may have been an even earlier practitioner of what he referred to as ‘bandit raids’ using a stolen motorcar and false number plates, probably before the end of the First World War. Interestingly he put a treacle-covered plaster on the windows to control glass and noise.
Ruby Sparks clocked up at least 11 convictions during his life, the first when he was only 18 years old, for garage-breaking and stealing an overcoat. His criminal career culminated in 1930 when he was officially categorised as a habitual criminal. This meant not only that he had been convicted at least three times of an indictable offence, but that the court thought he was leading a persistently criminal life.
Sparks’s repeated, and sometimes successful, attempts to escape from prison also made him something of a latter-day Jack Sheppard (a famous 18th-century felon and prison escapee). About six weeks after beginning a sentence of three years’ penal servitude in 1927 for housebreaking and receiving, Sparks and another convict escaped from Manchester Strangeways prison. He was recaptured in Leigh on the following day, but some local newspaper coverage of it was dramatic, describing the escapees as “desperate, hunted men” and enemies of society (Manchester Evening News, 15 August 1927).
The increasing numbers of motorcars on the roads were vulnerable to theft and enabled criminals to go further afield to commit crime
However, the single event which cemented Sparks’s image as a bandit, raider and gangster – all terms used in the newspapers describing him – was his identification as one of the leaders of the Dartmoor prison riot on 24 January 1924. During this disturbance, inmates took over the prison for nearly two hours and set fire to the main administrative block. According to the deputy governor of the prison, the men who caused the riot were dangerous motor bandits who would “stop at little”. At the trial of Dartmoor convicts following the riot, police evidence stated that Sparks was part of a gang operating in the Elephant and Castle area of London but which also travelled around the country breaking into homes and committing smash-and-grab raids.
The notoriety and even gangster glamour which began to surround Sparks was spiced by his intimate relationship with Lillian Goldstein. She also sometimes drove the car on raids and became popularly known as the ‘bobbed-haired bandit’ after an American female armed robber, Celia Cooney, a 19-year-old laundress who robbed a string of grocery stores in Brooklyn in 1924.
Sparks didn’t give up his criminal career until he was nearing 50 years old; he was released from his final prison sentence in 1949. He got married, though not to Lillian Goldstein, had two children, ran a newsagents and later a club. According to his autobiography he wished he had “gone straight” much earlier, that he himself had been a mug to have stayed “in the game” so long. However, he also asserted that he had remained loyal to the principles he had lived by, taken his punishment and never backed down.
The fact that Ruby Sparks published an account of his life certainly helped establish him in crime history annals but there is no doubt that he was prominent in criminal circles in London. In his book, Burglar to the Nobility, he represented himself as his own man, a rebel who would not be cowed. In many respects, newspaper coverage about him helped to construct an image of the modern dangerous criminal – intelligent, ruthless and charismatic.
Yet Sparks’s own account reflects an older form of tough, underworld masculinity; the kind of man who scorned law-abiding ‘mugs’, was always ready to avenge insult, take women when he wanted and be generous with his money. However, as with any such account, we have to remember that he was depicting how he perceived himself and as he wanted us to perceive him.
In order to practise smash-and-grab methodology, Sparks and an accomplice went out by night and smashed the windows of empty shops in London in the early 1920s. He described this as a sort of “smash-and-grab night school” during which he learned that the thickness of shop window glass could vary considerably.
Sparks claimed that with experience he became quite expert and could make the correctly sized hole in windows. He found that the noise he made didn’t matter as no one ever interfered with him. He would be in a motorcar driving off by the time people realised what was happening.
Sparks began to carry sterilised bulldog clips wrapped in a clean handkerchief with him on raids in order to hold together the gashes in his arms caused by flying glass. The bobbed-haired bandit would later stitch him up as it was too risky to go to a doctor.
Alyson Brown is author of English Society and the Prison: Time, Culture and Politics in the Development of the Modern Prison 1850-1920, (Boydell, 2003). She is a reader in history at Edge Hill University.