50 years on: The trials of Purdie and Prescott

In this extract from the mid-December 1971 issue of Freedom, Nicolas Walter reported on court proceedings in the cases of Ian Purdie and Jake Prescott as they faced accusations of conspiring towards a series of bombings attributed to the anarchist Angry Brigade.

The Angries had been active since 1967, but only began putting out their series of public communiques from 1970, and police were desperate to head off the insurrectionist group — eventually 26 bombings (none lethal) would be attributed to it, stretching into the 1980s. Purdie and Prescott were the first two men picked up over alleged involvement, and were put on trial amid a whirl of publicity.

Walter’s writeup, which took two full pages of the four-page paper, splits into several sections covering the trial, the judge, the press, an upcoming trial of four other alleged Angries and ‘The Tragedy’, and was controversial at the time. While in the factual sections Walter made a good fist of rounding up appalling biases in a system that was trying to make an example of Purdie and Prescott, ‘The Tragedy’ sees him turn his pen against the Angries themselves.

His personal judgment that their endeavours were producing “no political gain of any kind, despite an enormous expense of time, energy, money, trust, hope and, above all, risk” angered many across the anarchist movement who felt such criticisms were out of order at a time when people’s freedoms were on the line. Particularly infuriated were the writers at Black Flag, who penned a scathing editorial in their January issue. It named no names, but was very clear in its target, and was part of a general shift away from liberal pacifism at the time which left Freedom out in the cold.

The full paper with the rest of Walter’s article is available here. It’s part of Freedom’s digital archive, containing more than 1,500 issues of Freedom from 1886 to present.

~Rr


The Prescott-Purdie Trial — 15 years, and more to come

The best and worst events which have happened so far in the tragic saga of the Angry Brigade took place at the end of the three-week trial at the Old Bailey, when Ian Purdie was found not guilty of Conspiracy to cause explosions on November 30, and when Jake Prescott was found guilty of conspiracy to cause explosions (though not guilty of actually causing explosions) on November 30 and then sentenced to fifteen years’ imprisonment on December 1 (and also to five years for cheque frauds, to run concurrently).

The Trial

The trial opened on November 10 (as reported in Freedom on November 20) and continued much as it began. Police evidence about the 27 shootings and bombings of property over a period of four years, of which Prescott and Purdie were accused of being involved in only four over a period of a few months, was the main item in the prosecution ease and suitably mystified everyone, as such evidence always doess and is of course intended to.

The evidence actually against Prescott and Purdie was much less impressive. On November 18 there was the hearsay testimony of two prisoners Prescott shared a cell with in Brixton last January (the one who had disappeared at the time of the committal proceedings, because he had jumped bail, reappeared to give a story’ identical to the other), alleging that Prescott had boasted of taking part in the bombing of Robert Carr’s house, together with a man called Ian and two women.

The two prisoners — whose identities were disguised by being called Mr. A and Mr. B in court — admitted that they were themselves involved in charges connected with dishonesty, theft, or both: they both insisted that their stories were true and unprompted by the police. However, they were presumably disbelieved by the jury, since Prescott was acquitted of the Carr bombing charge.

Apart from that, the prosecution evidence consisted mainly of extracts from documents, the only ones implicating Prescott or Purdie being those actually written by them, and then only indirectly. One of the relatively amusing things in the trial was when a police handwriting expert agreed that neither Prescott nor Purdie had written any of the really incriminating documents found at the Amhurst Road commune on August 20 — though these were introduced as evidence all the same, just to confuse the issue and provide dramatic stories for the press.

Other interesting things were when two girls who knew Prescott were called to give evidence for the prosecution. One mentioned violent remarks in one of Prescott’s letters, but agreed with the defence cross-examination that in about a hundred letters to her he had mentioned violence only once, and that he had never said anything about bombs or explosives. The other also mentioned extreme remarks in Prescott’s letters, and added that she had suspected his friends of being concerned in ‘bombings and things’, but also agreed with the defence cross-examination that Prescott himself had never said anything about bombs or explosives.

The evidence of six people who gave evidence for the defence, providing Prescott with alibis for the nights of the Ministry of Employment bombing on December 8 and the Carr bombing on January 12, was discredited both by the prosecution and by the judge because they had all refused to give interviews to the police. The exercise of one’s legal rights is apparently to be treated as a suspicious act nowadays; no doubt the law will soon be changed to make things easier for the authorities. However, the alibis were presumably believed — or at least not disbelieved — by the jury, since Prescott was acquitted of the Ministry of Employment bombing charge as well as the Carr bombing charge.

Photo used as part of defence campaign posters

One of the strangest things in the trial was the Times report of November 24, which falsely suggested in two places that Prescott had implicated Purdie in his evidence. Purdie’s counsel had to raise the matter in court, and the Times had to devote a third of its report on November 26 to a correction which ended by stating that The Times regrets the two inaccuracies which were due to mishearings by our reporter. It would be interesting to know exactly what happened in Printing House Square to lead a so-called newspaper of record to perpetrate such gross errors.

The one completely inexplicable thing in the trial was Prescott’s appearance in the witness-box, on November 22 and 23, which must have been the result either of misinformed legal advice or of misguided personal bravado, or both. All of his testimony was courageous, much of it was impressive {his account of his past), some of it was useful (the exclusion of Purdie from complicity), but part of it was disastrous (the admission of addressing three envelopes for the Angry Brigade Communique No. 4 after the Carr bombing). While we appreciate some of his remarks — such as ‘If the ruling classes were removed either by violence or by chasing them into the Thames with bananas, it would be a good thing for the people’ — we remain convinced that there are only two valid reasons for going into the witness-box in a case like this: either to make a complete denial of everything, and back it with a good convincing story; or to make a complete admission of everything, and back it with a strong political defence.

But even after such a damaging admission, which may have been part of a quixotic plan to get Purdie off. it is difficult to see just how Prescott was proved to be part of the Angry Brigade — he was seen to be an accessory, perhaps, hut hardly a conspirator. There was no evidence that he took part in any agreement to cause any explosions, or even that he knew about it. But Prescott’s last-minute counsel showed himself to be incompetent throughout the trial, failing to make most of the points which could have been made against the prosecution case or the points which could have been made for the defence case.

On the other hand. Ian Purdie’s counsel argued his case competently, and Purdie took the surely correct course of staying out of the witness-box and resting on the traditional principle of English law that it is up lo the prosecution to prove guilt and not up to the defence to prove innocence. For once the principle worked, and Purdie was acquitted and discharged; but he is still charged with cheque frauds, and on December 1 he was refused bail on this minor charge, despite the fact that the other people also on it are all on bail — though, in view of Prescott’s five-year sentence it can hardly be considered to be all that minor any more, and Purdie may be heavily punished not so much for the cheque frauds as for having the impertinence to get off the conspiracy.

The question remains why Purdie was ever arrested and charged for conspiracy, let alone committed for trial. The answer is no doubt that the authorities were so desperate to get someone for the Angry Brigade bombings that in the absence of anyone else for Prescott to conspire with they had to try and frame Purdie. Let us be grateful to the jury for seeing through (or taking no notice of) the trick — and also, in a way, to the police for not doing the job more efficiently, as they might so easily have done if there had been a Challenor or two around to plant some convenient evidence.

But what would have happened if no one else had later been arrested for Prescott to be tried with? Would he have got off, or would Purdie have gone down with him after all? Or would they have actually done him for conspiracy with a person or persons unknown — or just kept him inside until they could pick someone else up, as eventually they did? In the meantime, Ian Purdie spent nine months inside for a crime he did not commit— and they call it justice.

The Judge

It is difficult to find words suitable to describe the judge, Melford Stevenson. His summing up of the case was so biased and — as in the Cambridge Garden House trial last year — so political (while pretending to exclude politics), that Prescott reasonably shouted ‘Rubbish!’ and walked out of the dock. In adding to that verdict, we can only confirm it. When Melford Stevenson pronounced his completely obscene sentence on Prescott, he made a speech which must be taken as evidence of sheer insanity, not of him alone but of the body of judges and magistrates in general, of the whole system of organised vengeance called justice.

“Fortunately for you, the jury acquitted you of the second and third counts, dealing with the bombings at St. James’s Square and at the home of Mr. Carr, and I must, of course, loyally abide by the jury’s conclusions.”

Meaning that he disagreed with the jury but could not quite say so; not that it mattered, since he could still do what he wanted with the first count.

“But they have convicted you of complicity in the most evil conspiracy I have ever had to deal with in an experience that is now lengthy.”

Had he forgotten the Kray gang, whom he sentenced to a total of 142 years’ imprisonment only in 1969? Is he seriously suggesting that the Angry Brigade is worse than that — or worse than the conspiracy represented by the bench of judges, for that mailer? We assume that ‘evil’ means no more than ‘politically unacceptable’.

“I do not doubt that you were chosen as a tool by people more sinister than you are and, I suspect, more intelligent. They are as yet unidentified, but I must equally face the fact that you knowingly embraced that conspiracy”.

The only evidence about Prescott’s part in the conspiracy which was established in court was that he did not in fact know what the conspirators were up to when they asked him to address some envelopes for them, and that if he had he would naturally have disguised his handwriting; but one must face the fact that he was to be punished not because he knowingly embraced anything but because he deliberately refused to identify those who used him ’as a tool’.

“I bear in mind, as I have been asked to do, your unhappy background, which has undoubtedly contributed to the position in which you now find yourself. If I did not also regard you as a tool in the sense I have just said, the sentence would have been a heavier one.”

Heavier than fifteen years? The maximum sentence for conspiracy to cause explosions is twenty years. Would even someone with Melford Stevenson’s much more sinister background have given such a sentence for an offence involving the addressing of some envelopes if Prescott hadn’t lived in institutions from the age of six and hadn’t accumulated two convictions a year from the age of eleven? One must face the fact that he would, and that he or some other member of his gang may soon have the opportunity to do so at the forthcoming trial of the other people charged with this offence.

One is also forced to another conclusion which our predecessors came to in a similar situation eighty years ago. At the beginning of 1892 there was the Walsall Anarchist Case, when a group of four men framed by the police (after being duped by an agent provocateur called Auguste Coulon), who bad been arrested for making bombs not to use in this country but to send to Russia, were imprisoned, three for ten years and one for five. David Nicoll then editor of Commonweal, the most militant anarchist paper at that time, wrote an article published on April 9 1892. which described the actions of the police, the prosecution, and the judge, and concluded with the question: ‘Are these men fit to live?’ For this he in turn went to prison for eighteen months: but he was right.

We would not put it quite like that. But however strongly we may be opposed to terrorist action as a political method, and however irrelevant we may find it to bomb government offices or police departments or the homes of government ministers and police officials, we must say that if Commander Bond and John Mathew, QC. and Melford Stevenson were bombed, even killed, we would find it difficult to feel the slightest twinge of regret after what they have done to Jake Prescott and tried to do to lan Purdie. They are all playing straight into the hands of the Angry Brigade, since it is now becoming true that we are all angry and getting angrier, and are finding it more and more difficult to remain content with agitation and propaganda in the face of such events.

Continues …

~ NW