The Great Train Robbery Continued

Following the death of Ronnie Biggs and the release of 2 BBC Dramas documenting the events of The Great Train Robbery, I thought I would just publish a short update to my previous blog on this subject.

The first drama, which was broadcast last night, and focused on the robbers angle of the offence provided us with a few clues of the impending role that fingerprints would play in the investigation.  It certainly depicted that the robbers were careful to wear gloves ‘for the majority of their time at Leatherslade Farm’…. but not all the time; and due to them having to vacate their hideout in a hurry, they feared it was only a matter of time before evidence was found.

New Scotland Yard - December 2013

New Scotland Yard – December 2013

Tonight’s episode will focus on the police response and investigation.

The tasters on the programme website hints that fingerprints will play a prominent role, with Tim Pigott-Smith being cast in the role of ‘the finger print man’, DS Maurice Ray of the New Scotland Yard Fingerprint Department (although Mr. Ray is ranked as a Superintendent at this time in the book ‘The Fingerprint story’).

There is a short description of Superintendent Rays court testimony, as reported by The Glasgow Herald, published online.

I’m interested to know who the fingerprint consultant used in the programme was.  Mr Pigott-Smith states he is a retired officer.

If you are unable to watch tonight’s programme then it will be available on BBC IPlayer, as is last nights installment.

I will hopefully get around to reviewing the drama in the near future.

Aberfan – An avoidable disaster that wiped out a generation

Aberfan Memorial

Aberfan Memorial

It is that time of year when I take time to remember those that died in the Aberfan disaster.

On October 21st 1966 an event occurred that scarred a South Wales community and cruelly took away 144 of its inhabitants, including 116 children.

The village of Aberfan was dominated by the Merthyr Vale colliery; a coal mine that provided employment or economic sustenance for almost all of its population; as other mines did for the rest of the South Wales valleys.

Even though health and safety standards and mortality rates in mining had substantially improved over the preceding decades, it was recognised that mining in the 1960′s was still a very dangerous occupation with the prospect of serious injury or death looming to all those who ventured underground.

But this was a risk that the men and boys of Aberfan were willing to take, to provide security and better lives for their families; which makes the circumstances of this disaster even more tragic; for while they were toiling underground, the huge amount of sodden coal waste that had been recklessly dumped on the valley hillside,  made its way down the mountain in the form of an avalanche, that engulfed everything in its path.

One of the buildings that was submerged was Pantglas Primary School, which was full of the local children, who were receiving those crucial early years of education; which for the boys would perhaps give them that start in life which could lead to an adulthood that didn’t involve working down the pits.

Almost half of the children in the school perished, despite the heroic attempts of the men who were called from the mine who were called to join in the rescue attempts… not that any of them required asking, as most knew they were looking for family members or close friends.

Also, as news of the tragedy grew, help was quick to arrive from surrounding valleys communities.

I grew up less than a mile from the disaster site and the memories of that October morning in 1966 are still deeply embedded in the villages and people in and around Aberfan.  Even though I wasn’t born at the time, it hits home when I think that I should have been in high school with the kids of those children that died in Pantglas Primary.

The memorial which now occupies the site of the school and the haunting graves of the victims of the disaster, which are only a stones throw away; act as a permanent reminder of a tragedy that should never have happened; and as we approach the 50th anniversary it is as important as ever to remember that cruel theft of innocence from the people of Aberfan.

The pits have now all but disappeared from the South Wales valleys, and Aberfan / Merthyr Vale act as commuter villages for those working in Merthyr and Cardiff; as there is very little employment or industry left in the community except for a leisure centre, which was paid for with some of the money kindly donated by people from around the world; and a few shops and pubs.

What I hope will never be taken away from the valleys is the strong sense of community; and even if the memories of this disaster are still painful, it is also important to remember with pride the manner in which everyone pulled together to support and care for those who were left behind.

In loving memory of the 144 victims of Aberfan, and heartfelt sympathy to all those that were affected by the disaster.



A ‘note’ of forensic opportunity – or forensic challenge

I am sure many of my British readers would have read with interest as I did this week on the Bank of England’s proposal to replace the current paper bank notes with a polymer version from 2016.

Money and Fingerprints

Money and Fingerprints

You can read the BBC article on the proposal here

The benefits around security and durability are very well presented, but from a forensic perspective I have a number of questions……..

The current paper notes are porous, which make them (in theory) ideal for forensic examination as they can easily retain evidence such as fingerprints, DNA, drug residue etc.

To quieten some of the forensicators amongst you who are now shouting at your screen, I did say in theory.  Of course, in practice it is incredibly difficult to obtain meaningful evidence in most cases due the fact that most bank notes have been circulated between tens, hundreds and even thousands of people; which makes it difficult to differentiate between different donors… and even if you could, it would be virtually impossible to date the evidence (in the case of fingerprints), or discount transference / contamination for other evidence types.

Nevertheless, bank notes can be a common and crucial piece of evidence in many types of criminal investigation; therefore it is important to understand the forensic impacts of any new materials being used for bank currency.

Actually I believe from a fingerprint point of view, there could be more opportunities to retrieve better quality, more meaningful fingerprints; as the notes will not be permanently folded or ‘scrunched up’, and ‘older’ prints may be wiped off with regular use and you ‘may’ be left with the most current ‘owners’ prints…. but this belief will need to be confirmed with research and experimentation.

So, how would you visualise, develop, enhance, recover and record forensic evidence? … This is a question that I will be raising with work, but I am keen to learn your thoughts.

For example, there are a number of countries who have already adopted plastic notes e.g. Australia, New Zealand, Canada; who I am sure have already considered some of this??

Another question I have is around the note’s durability…..

If the new material can withstand a trip to the washing machine and be rid of stains such as red wine, how do these affect forensic deterrents such as DNA SmartWater and exploding dye packs (commonly used to prevent robberies in transit)?

Over to you……


Fingerprints in the genes?

I have made references in a number of past posts of the fact that I discovered a family connection to Charles Stockley Collins, who was instrumental in ensuring that fingerprint evidence was accepted in British courts.

Although I intend to elaborate on both the discovery and what my research has unearthed in the future, I thought it only right that I post something of this story.

Since the discovery 5 years ago short articles have appeared in a number of publications, such as Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine, UNISON’s Police Profile Magazine and Greater Manchester Police’s internal ‘Brief’ publication.

Earlier this year it was featured in ‘Inside Track’, which is an internal publication for the Home Office.  It was to compliment a piece that the magazine was running on how the General Records Office (GRO) helped people in researching their family history.

I have gained permission to reproduce my story here and I have posted a pdf version of it below.  N.B. the file is over 3MB, so may take a little time to open, depending on your connection.

Inside Track 2013 MarApril PDF


Who is J.F.S.? A Fingerprint Mystery

A few years ago I was approached to help solve a very interesting mystery.

A fellow fingerprint enthusiast had bought an old “fingerprint book”, and inside was an envelope, which had nothing to do with the book in which it was housed.

On the envelope there was writing that says New Scotland Yard 14th April 1920, and very professionally taken fingerprint impressions claiming to be the right fore finger of a Superintendent Collins and the right fore and middle fingers of a J.F.S..

Envelope Prints

The first question I was asked was whether I had anyway of establishing whether the impressions of Superintendent Collins were in fact those of Superintendent Charles Stockley Collins, the man in charge of the New Scotland Yard Fingerprint Department at that time and the person responsible of introducing fingerprint evidence to the British courts at the Harry Jackson and Stratton Brothers trials.

As I had uncovered that I am related to Superintendent Collins, it was assumed that I may have found a set of prints of the great man to be able to compare… unfortunately that assumption was incorrect… but that wasn’t going to stop me.

First of all I remembered that there were fingerprints associated to a portrait of Charles published in Volume 5 of The Police Encyclopaedia by Hargrave L. Adam; but on close inspection I believe, based on my experience, that they are probably impressions of his left and right thumbs.

Thumb Prints

I hadn’t quite given up hope yet…..

I remembered that Charles had 2 published works of his own to his name:

  • Fingerprint Clues – A booklet explaining the fingerprint system and how to look for prints left by criminals at crime scenes
  • A Telegraphic Code for Finger-Print Formula and a System for Sub Classification of Single Digital Impressions – a book on how to convey fingerprints via telegraph

I know that anywhere that I have had an article published, or I have published myself; I have used my own fingerprint impressions.  There are a couple of reasons for this….

Firstly, it is acts as a signature / autograph (although it’s a little on the egotistical side).  As my experience tells me that no other person has, has ever had, or will ever have the same fingerprint as me; I see it is a good form of authenticity.

Secondly, if I have to illustrate any fingerprints in an article or document, then it is much safer and easier to use my own; as I am not sure of the legal implications of publishing another persons fingerprint without their permission… but I will leave that question open to a future post.

Eureka!!!!…  On page 12 of Fingerprint Clues there is a mock threatening note from a Bill Sykes with 2 finger impressions (probably a right forefinger and right middle finger in sequence).


After a quick comparison between the impression on the left of the note with one of the left forefinger impressions on the envelope attributed to Superintendent Collins , I was quickly able to establish that they were made by the same person, and in all likelihood that they were those of Superintendent Charles Stockley Collins.


Unfortunately I have never been able to establish who is J.F.S.

It was very common to get visitors to the Fingerprint Department in New Scotland Yard in its formative years e.g. journalists, overseas police officers, officers from other parts of the UK; and I am sure that Superintendent Collins took great delight in demonstrating the fingerprint system that he helped in adopting.

I have asked many fingerprint historians and members of Stockley-Collins family for any ideas, but to no avail.

Can anyone out there offer any clues as to whose fingerprints are J.F.S.?

65 years since the first Mass Fingerprint Exercise

On 12th August 1948 (65 years ago this month) a fingerprint identification was made that was going to prove historic and ground breaking, but more importantly it helped solve an horrific murder that had put fear into the mothers of a North-West England community.

3 year old June Anne Devaney was taken from her cot in Ward CH3 of Queens Park Hospital, Blackburn; and was sexually assaulted and brutally murdered.  The only tangible evidence was fingerprints found on a Winchester bottle that was lying next to the empty cot.

This discovery triggered a mass fingerprint exercise (the first of its kind), where all males over the age of 16 and were known to have been in Blackburn during the 14th and 15th May, were to be fingerprinted and compared to the marks found at the crime scene.

It took almost 3 months and the collection of over 46,000 sets of fingerprints before the identification was made, and the donor, 22 year old Peter Griffiths (an ex-Guardsman) was arrested the next day.  He was found guilty of the murder and was hanged at Walton Gaol on 19th November 1948.

Grave1 comp5 years ago today (20th August) I took part in a visit with The Fingerprint Society to the grave of June Anne Devaney, which was partly in remembrance of the little girl that sadly lost her life far too early in an horrific fashion; but also as a tribute to those who never lost faith in investigating and solving the crime… in particular those who had the responsibility in retrieving and analysing thousands of fingerprints.

Click here to view a BBC video news story on the case.

RIP June Anne Devaney

The Great Train Robbery

50 Years ago today, 13th August 1963, a development was made that was going to blow the investigation into The Great Train Robbery wide open.  That was the discovery of the robbers lair, Leatherslade Farm.

Now 5 days after the crime was committed, the farm was deserted… but either due a hasty departure, or a failure on some of the gang to “cleanse the scene” of any clues that might link them, an Aladdins cave of potential forensic evidence was left behind.

Although, the Fingerprint Department from New Scotland Yard were involved in the case from day 1 of the inquiry,  there was very little for them to work with until the farm was found.

In total 9 of the convicted 10 robbers were identified to the farm (or evidence recovered from items found at the farm) by way of their finger and palm prints.

Probably the most infamous piece of evidence was a Monopoly game that bore the prints of Ronnie Biggs and Bruce Reynolds (the leader of the gang).

Strangely enough I have uncovered some coincidences between myself and Mr. Reynolds (who died earlier this year).  He had the middle name Richard (my forename) and we were born on the same date (although I came along quite a few years later).

For more information on the fingerprint aspects of this investigation, I would recommend reading Chapter 17 (The Great Train Robbery) of the book ‘The Fingerprint Story’ by Gerald Lambourne, who was one of the fingerprint experts in the case and later took charge of the New Scotland Yard Fingerprint Bureau.  The book is currently out of print, but can usually be sourced at reasonable prices on Amazon or Ebay.


Behind the Times… The story behind the New York Times Article

I was approached in early May by @pagankennedy to answer a few questions on fingerprints to assist in an article she was authoring for the New York Times Magazine.

I was pleased to co-operate once I had the permission from my bosses at the National Policing Improvement Agency.

The article was published today (8th June 2012) and can be read at

The article itself is not as critical of fingerprinting as a lot of what makes the press in these DNA idolising times, though I am surprised Detective Tufft believes DNA evidence trumps Fingerprints.

Fingerprints are still recovered at more crime scenes than DNA as it is cheaper to process; it is still the only way to distinguish between identical siblings and is by far more difficult to transfer or contaminate than DNA… so if an offenders DNA was found on a cigarette butt outside a murder scene, but their fingerprints were found in the victims blood on the murder weapon… then as an investigator, I know what evidence I would class as more crucial!

As I fully expected, a lot of what I contributed was edited out (which is certainly no criticism of the journalist), but I am happy to share with you the full text I submitted:

What are the basic steps used today to capture a fingerprint at the crime scene? The first task for a Crime Scene Investigator (CSI) at a scene is to find the fingerprints; and although sometimes they can be visible to the human eye if they are left in substances such as dirt, clay, ink or blood; very often they are invisible as they are deposited as a layer of sweat from the ridges on the hand.

These can be ‘visualized’ by applying specialist powders or chemicals. It is then necessary for the CSI to record the fingerprint impressions that they find. This is commonly done by either photographing the prints in-situ, or using specialist gels and tapes to ‘lift’ the prints and attach them to a plastic sheet.

The CSI is then required to transmit these prints to their Latent Print Unit (Fingerprint Office) for comparison, or a computerized search. This is often facilitated by hand delivery, though more and more agencies are starting to use digital technology to capture and directly transmit crime scene prints, which generates more speedy matches and arrests.

Do forensics analysts still use the old-style language (loops, whorls) to talk about prints? Or has that all been done away with, in the era of computerized scanners? Although computerization has assisted the Latent Print Examiner (Fingerprint Expert) in finding possible matches, most fingerprint systems still rely on a human to make the final decision on whether a match has been found; and there are still many occasions whereby an expert will be required to examine a large number of prints.

On these occasions the expert will often use pattern types (arches, loops and whorls etc.) to include or exclude candidates from a more detailed comparison.

So yes, these terms that have been used in the profession for over 100 years are still used worldwide on a daily basis.

Your ancestor Charles Stockley Collins was the first person to introduce fingerprint evidence in the British court. Could you say a little about that case and/or the technical innovations that allowed him to use this kind of evidence? Fingerprints were used as a secondary means to identify habitual criminals in Great Britain since 1894, but the development of a classification system at the turn of the 20th century by Edward Henry (latterly Sir Edward Henry), with a significant contribution from his Indian assistants Aziz ul Haque and Hem Chandra Bose enabled them to be the most effective and efficient way to identify persons (which is still is) and paved the way to the creation of a Fingerprint Bureau at Scotland Yard.

This Bureau was initially staffed by Henry, Inspector Charles Steadman, Sergeant Charles Stockley Collins and Constable Frederick Hunt.

It wasn’t too long before they started to pay more attention to fingerprints found at crime scenes and there are two cases that are remembered in the history books.

The first ever fingerprint evidence presented in a British court was in 1902 in the case of a burglary of a home in Denmark Hill, London where ivory billiard balls were stolen. Fingerprints were found on a newly painted window sill. These scene prints matched fingerprints in Scotland Yard’s files in the name of Harry Jackson. Mr Jackson was convicted of the offence on the strength of that fingerprint evidence.

The next notable case was that of the first fingerprint evidence in a British murder trial. Two shopkeepers, Mr and Mrs Farrow were brutally killed during a robbery at the shop where they lived and worked. Fingerprints were located on a cashbox from which money had been stolen and were matched to an Alfred Stratton. Alfred was arrested for the murders together with his brother Albert, both of whom were convicted and sentenced to death. The fingerprint evidence in both these cases was presented by Charles Stockley Collins whose confident and expert testimony assured that fingerprints would be accepted as a reliable form of forensic evidence in British courts.

I was astounded to uncover recently that I have a family connection to Stockley Collins, who is my first cousin, four times removed. This had no conscious bearing on my career choice; but it has given me added respect and pride for some of the people who have been able to pioneer and develop the use of fingerprints to aid crime solving.

Please feel free to add your personal comments here and / or on the NY Times website.

Transforming Forensic Science Fiction into Stakeholder Satisfaction

Last November I won a “competition” with work that enabled me to create a blog and have it published on the intranet site so that I could respond to any comments and questions.

My blog addresses the issues around “the CSI effect” and how it can impact policing, and how it can also provide inspiration to those who seek to improve Forensic processes and technology.

The blog has now been published on the world wide web at

As there is no facility to leave a comment or question on that page, then please feel free to comment here or on the NPIA Official Facebook Page.

RIP Gary Speed : Sept 1969 – Nov 2011

Although I have 101 ideas on which to blog but just haven’t had the time to put fingers to keyboard, I feel compelled to pay tribute to and share memories of a man that has made a monumental contribution to not just Welsh football, but British football.

When I heard the news this afternoon whilst driving that football was mourning the passing of Gary Speed, I felt truly numb and physically sick; and when the fans tribute from the Swansea v Aston Villa game was broadcast on the radio I was moved to tears.

I have heard many supporters today say that they are devastated and distraught, and although I have been extremely emotional and dumbfounded by confusion and grief; the extreme emotions should be exclusive to those who knew Gary well, and my heartfelt sympathies go out to his family and friends.

The amount of tributes that I have seen and heard today are testament to a player that has never seemed to have fallen into the trappings of a playboy lifestyle that has often plagued professional footballers, despite his unquestionable talent and good looks.  I also know many stories of a man who was an excellent leader, role model and all-round good guy.  This doesn’t surprise me as he is a fellow Virgo like me.

My first “encounter” with Gary was during my first ever international match, Wales v Iceland on 1st May 1991 at Ninian Park.  He had already helped Leeds win the “old” second division title in the 89/90 season and this was his 5th cap.  To be totally honest, I can remember very little of the game itself except for the Paul Bodin penalty that ended up being  the only goal.

After this experience I became a staunch supporter of the national team at home, and saw Gary on loads of occasions run the midfield, as he was mister dependable.  When other big name players would pull out (or be pulled out) of Welsh internationals, you could always rely on Gary to be on the team sheet.  This is obviously how he became Wales’ most capped outfield player with 85 appearances, and could have easily surpassed “Big Nev” Southall’s 92 cap record if he hadn’t retired from international football earlier than he should have.

Being an Evertonian, one of my greatest moments in football was when they signed Speedo, who himself was a childhood supporter of the Toffees.  The reason why I supported Everton in the first place was that they had a few Wales players in the great squad of the mid 80’s.

As a young man who lived 200 miles away from Liverpool, I never got much opportunity to get to Goodison Park; so I had to wait until 12th April 1997 to see Gary in an Everton shirt whilst playing Tottenham.  I wasn’t disappointed either, as I was there with mates who were Spurs supporters and I correctly predicted that Gary Speed would be the first goalscorer.  It was a trademark Speedo header in the 11th minute, and as it was the only goal it ended up being the winner.  Gary went on to be a great Everton captain, and I was very sad to see him go to Newcastle a year later.

I am privileged to have met him on a couple of occasions whilst I was working behind the scenes at Manchester City on matchdays.  The most memorable was on 18th September 2005 when Bolton were the visitors to Eastlands.  Man City completely dominated the match but were unable to find the net.  Then a handball by Richard Dunne gave Speedo the opportunity to slot home a 93rd minute penalty to win the game.  As I was working in the press room on that particular day, and had post-game responsibilities to guide players and managers to the awaiting press; I had a quick chat with Gary as I tried to persuade him to come out of international retirement and he signed my programme.  This sort of behaviour was against club policy on my behalf, but I couldn’t miss the chance to talk to one of my all-time heroes.

I thought Gary’s appointment as Wales team manager was inspired.  Mark Hughes had already proved that although someone may have little managerial experience; a huge knowledge of the game, a passion for your country and the respect of players and other managers was a great foundation for moulding a successful national team.

I am sure his passion and enthusiasm was infectious and this was evident in how he got very young players to move up an extra level and play the kind of football not seen in the national team for many years.  And even though he got off to a shaky start results wise; everyone could see what he was trying to achieve and his aim of winning the hearts and minds of Welsh football supporters was certainly starting to pay dividends.

Even though Wales now have to face the 2014 World Cup qualifiers without their inspirational manager; we now have to find someone in the same mould, with the same drive and belief; so that the players can make the ultimate tribute by qualifying for a major championship.

I would also like to see the Football Association of Wales organise a memorial game in the Millennium Stadium of a Wales team (made up of past and present players) against a team of other footballers that Gary has played with or managed; the proceeds of which to go to his family and / or any nominated charities that were close to his heart.

The biggest disappointment is the apparent manner of his death.  It goes against everything that I know or have heard of the man; and when I think of the likes of John Hartson’s fight to battle cancer, it just seems like an awful waste of a life.  I hope I and others find the strength to live my life to the fullest and to overcome any difficulties I may face without feeling the need to end it.