On Sunday, October 6 1929, the Commercial Bank of Australia in Enmore Road, Newtown was broken into and the contents of the safe stolen. The manager was away at the time, and the theft was reported by the caretaker, Bruce Bell. Mr Bell was required to sleep on the premises, and had returned late on Sunday after spending the day in the Blue Mountains.
Caretaker Bell had driven up to Constable Thomas in Enmore Road at about 11.30pm on Sunday night saying, ‘Come with me, the Commercial Bank has been robbed.‘
When detectives arrived they found that the heavy safe had been pulled away from the wall. Its keyholes had been burnt, and a large hole cut out of the back with oxy-acetylene equipment. Bell said there had been about £3,000 in the safe.
It was suspiciously convenient that Bell had such a good alibi, and how did he know the amount in the safe? Oh well, he said, he had immediately checked the books. That seemed a little outside the remit of a caretaker.
The nearby Cook’s River was searched, and sure enough, two oxy-acetylene cylinders were recovered. One was traced back to Bruce Bell. He was also a motor mechanic, with a garage in Newtown eight doors down from the bank. It turned out that Bell had arranged for two accomplices to blow the safe while he was safely away in The Mountains.
VERY HOT CASH
Unfortunately for the robbers, they had singed most of the paper money while cutting through the safe. The notes were thus deemed easy to trace. The Daily Telegraph could not resist a touch of humour;
One of the accused was Donald McDonald. When police apprehended him at his home in Wollongong he was asked to empty his pockets and out came a roll of 27 charred one pound notes. He protested; ‘Those notes were in my trousers pockets; the trousers fell down in front of the fire and got burnt’. He was then asked, ‘Does anyone else know about your trousers and the notes being burnt? When he had to admit that he hadn’t told anyone about the accident he was arrested. (The Sun 7 November 1929)
The most memorable witness in a subsequent committal hearing was a small girl carefully coached by the defence. However, when she was asked if she had discussed the robbery with her father she was overcome by honesty and without hesitation said; ‘Yes.‘ The Stipendiary Magistrate, Mr H.H. MacDougall, was delighted and told her she had done a wonderful job.
It’s hard to believe, but the key to the back door of the Newtown bank was habitually left in a peg-bag in the outside laundry. This was to allow the cleaner entrance. When the men were eventually found guilty, the jury suggested they be given a lenient sentence due to such lax security measures and the temptation for theft.
A SEQUAL…..GARDEN TREASURE UNEARTHED
Several years later (1934) 24 year year old Lionel Reynolds was charged with possessing twelve 10/- bank notes, ‘reasonably suspected of having been stolen.‘ He had been spotted by Sydney police officer Sergeant Wiley, while trying to change the singed notes at a Haymarket bank. Eventually Reynolds admitted to knowing the bank robbers and receiving some of the proceeds. He had buried nearly 350 stolen notes in his garden and had recently dug them up. How patiently the man had waited! He admitted he had already managed to change 300 one pound notes. As Reynolds only received a ten quid fine I’m sure he considered the long wait had been well worthwhile.