Bobby Cummines, Not A Gangster
Today it is my pleasure to introduce the third of five stories by the distinguished Criminologist, Professor Dick Hobbs, Author of Lush Life, Constructing Organised Crime in the UK in which he writes – “My concern is primarily with deviance as an everyday feature of life, an activity that is integral to urban existence, and which I believe justifies academic attention in its own right, without being hampered by any conceits regarding helping the police with their enquiries.”
“The Queen told me I had a really colourful background”
Forty years ago, working class London was a cluster of self-contained villages boasting their own distinct occupations, football teams, and skulduggery. Indeed, every neighbourhood had its own villains and theft, robbery and a little light extortion were their crimes of choice. On a rainy day on the Southbank recently, Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie & I met a friend of mine who was an enthusiastic and prominent player in this world.
By the late sixties, most of the big names of London’s underworld were buried deep in the prison system and any neighbourhood crime firm raising its head above the parapet was quickly crushed by a police force fearing attempts to fill the vacuum left by the Krays and the Richardsons. The days of the high profile self-congratulatory London gangster were over and anybody serious about a career in crime learnt the hard way to keep a low profile. Consequently, for a non-insider to hear about villains from another manor was most unusual. However, the name ‘Bobby Cummines’ was increasingly being mentioned in somewhat hushed tones in pub conversations across London.
Brought up as part of a big law-abiding family in Kings Cross, by the time Bobby Cummines left school at the age of sixteen he was already honing his reputation through a range of scams and schemes. But with a recently-acquired job in a shipping office and the prospect of a career in Customs & Excise ahead of him, Bobby’s life took a turn for the worse upon his first serious encounter with the police. “I was in a park with my mates when somebody let off a starting pistol. The police were called and began bullying these younger kids. They were aggressive and shouldn’t have been talking to these kids without an adult present, so I stood up to them. “ The police left and returned soon after. “They pointed to a cut-throat razor that was on the ground and claimed it was mine that I had took it out of my pocket and threw it on the floor. It was a fit-up. My dad was a straight-goer and thought the police were like Dixon of Dock Green. He said the police would never plant evidence. He told me to plead guilty and that I’d get a fine and it’ll be forgotten about in a few years.”
Bobby did as he was told and his dad paid the ten shilling fine. However, Bobby’s bosses at the shipping office found out about the case and sacked him. “I was gutted, I thought, if you want me to be bad, ‘I’ll show you how bad I can be.’” Within a year, he was in the Old Bailey charged with possession of a shotgun and armed robbery. While he waited for his case to come up, he met the Kray Twins who were about to be tried for murder. The twins were sentenced to life imprisonment and Bobby was sent to a Detention Centre for the possession of a sawn off shotgun. “It was supposed to be a short sharp shock, but it was just violence practised against vulnerable kids. I came out of there tougher and angrier than ever.”
Bobby became a committed and violent professional criminal. “We used to give local kids a few bob to chuck a brick through the window of some business. They would claim on the insurance, but if they made three claims their premium would go up. So after two bricks we would move in and for a few quid no more bricks and no upping of the premium.” Bobby and his crew were soon “minding” a wide range of businesses in a territory “that stretched from Highbury Corner to the Archway, across to Finsbury Park, and the edge of Caledonian Rd.” But this territory was fiercely contested with other groups of violent predators, and Bobby led a tight-knit group of co-offenders through several years of violent confrontation. At five foot six inches tall, Bobby learnt early on that he had to be more violent than the opposition, and his weapon of choice was a sawn-off shotgun. “When people ask why I used guns, I always tell them I was sick of getting my nice suits messed up. Anyway guns save time.”
Quickly, Bobby became a highly dangerous offender prepared to use violence to obtain money. However, he stood trial for murder when a robbery went wrong and a man that he tied up choked to death. Bobby was found not guilty of murder, but served five years of a seven and a half year sentence for manslaughter. “Over the years that unnecessary death has haunted me.”
On his release ,Bobby continued in his chosen career, showing considerable ability as an organiser, and becoming deadly serious about the crime business. “I made sure that there was never any photos of us floating about, and I didn’t drink, I always had bitter lemon. I needed to stay sharp.” But while he eschewed alcohol, Bobby did develop a penchant for armed robbery. At this time, bandits were pillaging large bundles of cash from banks, building societies and security vans, and Bobby and his crew were particularly successful.
Inevitably, Bobby was arrested by armed police and sentenced to twelve years in prison - “In the end it was almost a relief. I’ve done some horrendous things – extreme violence – I never deny that. I deserved every day I got in prison because it was lunacy. If I had carried on, I would either have been shot dead by the police or innocent members of the public could have been shot.”
In prison, he enhanced an already formidable reputation for violence and confrontation, and at one time held the governor of a maximum security prison as a hostage. “Well, they said that but he was on his rounds and I knew they was taking prisoners down the wing and giving out beatings. So I pulled him about it and he screamed that he was being taken hostage.” This incident added considerably to his reputation.
In Parkhurst Prison, Bobby negotiated a truce between Reggie Kray and Charlie Richardson in order to prevent serious violence between members of the two gangs who had been imprisoned over a decade earlier. He achieved this by carrying the blade from a pair of garden shears up his sleeve. “Everybody was walking around tooled up. It was a brutal place, one of my friends was killed over an onion. There was another bloke who had murdered his child as he felt the world was too cruel and nasty for his beautiful son to live in. Others reckoned they were being visited by angels. We had IRA, UDA, allsorts, Colonel Gaddafi’s top man in the Libyan army. The ‘p’ in prison stands for paranoia. Some of the people in there are pathetic. You have 50/60 year old men doing a ten stretch strutting about in boxer shorts and trainers trying to look nineteen, talking about jobs they are going to do when they get out. I’ve never understood why they do that. I never saw a lot of rehabilitation going on”.
Charlie Richardson had a huge impact on Bobby. “He told me I had a good brain but if I carried on I would end up dead or on a life sentence. He told me to get into education – it would earn me money without hurting anyone. Charlie got me reading. Education was my liberation. Prison brutalises people. When you’re inside, you don’t serve a sentence—you survive a sentence. I’m grateful that education humanised me.” Bobby successfully lobbied for a transfer to Maidstone Prison which had an education unit. Here he became education orderly, and with the support of his Probation Officer and a sympathetic Prison Governor, enrolled on an Open University course and started to think about the future.
On leaving prison, Bobby at first struggled to make a living, finding potential employers reluctant to take on an ex-con. “To live an honest life, I had to be dishonest about my past.” He persevered, taking a £100-a -week job stacking shelves and dealing with hostage negotiations and suicide management as a volunteer with the Kent Probation Service. Bobby went on to hold responsible positions in various companies and gained a degree in Housing from Greenwich University.
However, his initial struggles to gain employment inspired Bobby to join Mark Leach, the founder of Unlock, the National Association of Reformed Offenders, becoming CEO when Mark stood down. Initially operating from Bobby’s garage, and boasting Sir Stephen Tumim, a former judge and Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons as its founding President, Unlock became a powerful force in the rehabilitation of offenders, and when Bobby teamed up with the ex-Chief Inspector of Prisons Sir David Ramsbottom who succeeded Tumin, the pair provided an effective authoritative political voice. “I became media savvy. Few people seemed to know what they was talking about when it came to the needs of somebody coming out of prison. How to get a job, insurance, a bank account. Employers were saying that they couldn’t employ ex offenders as staff were paid through the BACS system and former offenders didn’t have bank accounts.”
Unlock provided practical support and advice and developed a particular expertise in tackling the financial exclusion of ex-offenders. Bobby is a very persuasive man, and gradually the banks and insurance industry – sectors not renowned for their social awareness – came on board, and the lives of some of the most excluded were materially changed for the better, largely as the result of the energy and intellect of an ex-offender who left school at the age of sixteen. The one time violent dynamo of pre-gentrified seventies Islington had become an eloquent advocate of social reform.
Bobby has been invited to sit upon numerous government committees and policy reviews. For instance, he was a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee inquiry into the Rehabilitation of Offenders’ Act, becoming an expert witness to the Home Affairs Select Committee on prisoner education, and a specialist adviser in the 2004 public inquiry into murder of Zahid Mubarek in Feltham Young Offenders’ Institution. He also served on the board of HM Inspector of Prisons and advised the Irish government on their Rehabilitation of Offenders Act. In 2006, Bobby travelled to South Africa on a fact-finding mission to look at how their prisons were run, as part of a trip sponsored by a firm of solicitors.
Bobby likes to speak to groups of young people in schools and colleges and, at these events, this ex-violent criminal does not pull his punches. “Tools (weapons) are for fools, drugs are for mugs,” he assures them. A regular speaker at conferences and events, when Coutts Bank awarded £10,000 to Unlock, Bobby revealed, “one of the directors said he was pleased to see me in his bank without a crash helmet and a gun.”
In 2011, Unlock won The Guardian’s Charity of the Year Award and the same year Bobby received the OBE. “The Queen told me I had a really colourful background and she was pleased to award me the OBE. That’s the nicest way I can think of someone telling me I’ve got a lot of form.” From working class Kings Cross to Buckingham Palace via a solitary cell has been quite a journey. Bobby has proved to be a more successful campaigner, fund raiser and government advisor than he ever was a criminal.
Just before we parted, I asked Bobby if he had time for a drink, but he declined by explaining, “I need to be back, I agreed to meet up with a young boy who is going off the rails a bit. I know what he is doing, what he is up to. I told him bring his little firm with him. I will sort them out.” I have no doubt he will do just that.
Bobby Cummines in the seventies – “When I was well at it”
Bobby receiving the OBE in 2011 – “She was pleased to award me the OBE”
Bobby Cummines OBE
Portraits copyright © Sarah Ainslie
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