1966 Theft of the Jules Rimet Trophy

The Case of Pickles and the FIFA World Cup

1966 Theft of the Jules Rimet Trophy

"I wish I'd never seen the damn thing"

In the field of International football, there is no greater prize than the World Cup, the iconic trophy which is held aloft triumphantly by the champions of the competition. The original reward was the prestidious Jules Rimet trophy, coveted by every sporting star and football team throughout the world, until it was stolen just four months before the start of the 1966 World Cup. The police investigation was conducted by the Flying Squad of the Metropolitan Police, who received a ransom demand of £15,000 for it’s safe return. A subsequent sting operation resulted in the arrest of a suspect, but the trophy eluded police until several days later when it was recovered by a dog walker and his black and white collie named Pickles, who received much praise and press attention for recovering the priceless trophy. Meanwhile the national pride was soon restored when after a stunning defeat of the West German team, England went on to win their first World Cup tournament.

The Jules Rimet trophy was the ultimate prize for winning the FIFA World Cup competition, since it’s foundation in 1930. Known simply as the World Cup, or the Coupe du Monde, it was designed by French sculptor Abel Lafleur, and made of gold-plated sterling silver on a lapis lazuli base. It stood at 14in high, weighing 8.4lbs and comprised a decagonal cup supported by a winged figure which represented Nike, the ancient Greek goddess of victory.

The first team to awarded the trophy was Uruguay, winners of the first 1930 World Cup, and it was originally called “Victory”, but was renamed in 1946 to honour the FIFA President Jules Rimet, who passed a vote in 1929 to initiate the competition. During World War II, the trophy was held by the 1938 champions Italy, and the Italian vice-president of FIFA, Ottorino Barassi decided to secretly move it from a bank vault in Rome and hid it under his bed in a shoe box to prevent it’s seizure by the Nazis, who were confiscating all valuables and works of art.

Jules Rimet (left) hands the trophy to, the Uruguayan Football Confederation

The English Football Association received the trophy in January 1966, several months before the next scheduled tournament in July. The World Cup was usually kept at the FA headquarters at Lancaster Gate, and only taken out for the occasional public events. In February, Stanley Gibbons’ stamp company gained permission to place the trophy in their Stampex exhibition, which was taking place in March, on the condition it would be kept under guard at all times.

Despite the official value of the gold contents of the cup being worth only £3,000, the FA had the trophy insured for £30,000, a significant amount. The cultural value of the piece was however, priceless. The exhibition was held at the Westminster Central Hall, opening on March 19, 1966. It garnered much interest due to the approaching World Cup competition and the trophy was guarded around the clock by two uniformed officers, as well as two plain-clothed officers during the day. Although additional guards were placed beside the cabinet when the exhibition was opened to the public, there were times when no-one was watching the trophy. It was during one of those times, on March 20, 1966, when someone forced open the display case and removed the trophy. At around 12:10pm, when the guards began a noon patrol, they noticed someone had forced the rear doors of the building and taken the trophy. The wooden bar which held the door shut was lying on the floor, and it appeared the thieves had removed the screws and bolts that held it from the other side of the door.

The Jules Rimet world cup trophy during a British stamp exhibition. (March 18, 1966)

Once inside they broke open the padlock from the back of the display case to remove the trophy. None of the security guards present had seen anything suspicious, except for one who reported seeing a strange man near the public telephone when he went to use the lavatory on the first floor. Scotland Yard were immediately summoned, and the case was given to detectives of the Flying Squad. Officers began by interviewing the guards, as well as two maintenance workers. The hall was also used for Methodist services on Sundays, and one of the church goers, Mrs. Coombes, told police she noticed a strange man, but gave a different description to the man seen by security. Police now believed they were possibly searching for two potential suspects, and the following day the story was released to the public. The news reverberated across the world, and the theft of the World Cup trophy threatened to cause an international scandal.

A newspaper article reporting the international outrage over the theft of the trophy.

It’s safe return was considered paramount, and many different organisations around the world began to offer rewards for anyone who had information that would lead the capture of the thieves and the return of the cup. The theft was a significant embarrasment for England, who was playing host to the tournament for the first time in it’s sporting history. Police had several possible theories on who might have stolen the Jules Rimet trophy, and why. It was suspected the trophy was desired by some private collector, who would pay a small fortune on the black market to have the World Cup hidden away in some secret vault. Another theory centred on the theft being linked to an organised criminal gang, who would, in short order, demand a ransom for the legendary cup. This fear was realised on March 21, when Joe Mears, the Chairman of the FA, received an anonymous telephone call.

Mears was told by an unknown man that he would receive a parcel at Chelsea Football Club the next day. However, the parcel was instead delievered to Mears home, and was found to contain the removable lining from the top of the trophy, along with a ransom note that demanded £15,000 in £1 and £5 denominations. The note also instructed the FA to place an advertisement in the personal ads column of the Evening News. The thieves stressed that if all their demands were met, the FA would get the trophy returned by Friday, but were told not to contact police or the press under any circumstances, or they threatened to melt the trophy down. Shortly after Mears received another call from a man who identified himself as “Jackson”, who amended the ransom denominations to £5 and £10 notes.

Despite being explicitly told not to contact the police, the FA decided to notified the Flying Squad and met with Detective Inspector Charles Buggy, who was leading the investigation. He was handed the ransom letter and trophy lining, and told of the thieves demands. Mears was instructed by DI Buggy to place the ad on 24 March, who then made contact with a bank to arrange for a false ransom payment, which consisted of bundles of blank paper, with real notes placed only at the top and bottom of each stack. Two Flying Squad officers were assigned to act as Mears assistants when he handed over the suitcase full of money, and all three went to his home along with DI Buggy to await further instructions.

When the next call came through from the thieves, Mears was unable to speak after suffering from an asthma attack, and so his wife answered and then passed the phone to DI Buggy, who pretended to be Mears associate “assistant McPhee”. The caller identified himself as “Jackson” again, and this time appeared to be nervous. He eventually arranged to meet “McPhee” at Battersea Park where a switch would be made at the gate. DI Buggy drove to the park, along with several unmarked Flying Squad vehicles, where he finally met with the mysterious “Jackson”. When Buggy showed him the suitcase, the man failed to notice the majority of the money was just scrap paper, and Buggy insisted on seeing the trophy before handing over the ransom. He told Jackson he feared someone would try to rob him and then Jackson got inside Buggy’s car and agreed to take him to the trophy.

During the journey, Jackson suddenly became aware of the Flying Squad van which was following them and became nervous. When they reached the lights at Kennington Park Road, he asked Buggy to stop the car and said he was going to retrieve the trophy. When the man walked away, the van stopped him as he disappeared around the corner. At that point Buggy was about to follow him, when he reappeared and was instructed by Buggy to get back inside the car. Not long after he began driving again, Jackson jumped from the moving vehicle and began to run away. Buggy followed in the car, then prusued him on foot until he was able to apprehend Jackson in a house garden and revealed his identity as a police officer. He was placed under arrest, and several other officers arrived and escorted “Jackson” to Kennington police station.

At the station, officers recognised “Jackson” as 47-year-old dockworker Edward Betchley, a known petty thief and used car dealer, who had previously been convicted of receiving stolen goods. Although he denied having stolen the World Cup, Betchley claimed he could retrieve it if he was granted bail, which was refused. He was formally charged with the theft of the Jules Rimet trophy, and breaking and entering. When questioned further about the cup, Betchley said he had merely acted as the middleman for someone he knew only as “The Pole”, who had offered him £500 for his role. After taking part in an identity parade, Betchley was picked out by Mrs. Coombes as the strange man she saw in the Central Hall, but the security guard failed to recognise him as the man he saw.

Edward Betchley

Police were now baffled as to the location of the trophy. FIFA, the world’s football governing body feared the worst after newspaper headlines created all sorts of panic with their theories on who might be in possession of the cup. There was the realisation that the thieves might had gone through with their threats and melted it down. Some believed it might be lost forever after the thieves realised the enormity of the crime and thrown it away. Others believed that it was now in the hands of some ruthless criminal syndicate who would wait to sell the trophy to the highest bidder. No-one suspected the recovery of the trophy would occur in such an unexpected and anti-climactic fashion.

On March 27, 1966, 26-year-old Thames lighterman David Corbett was taking the family dog Pickles for a walk near his home in the Beulah district of Southeast London, when the dog began to sniff and paw at a parcel which was lying under the hedge outside Corbett’s house. As he reached down to pick up the item, which was wrapped in old newspaper and tied with string, he immediately recognised the Jules Rimet trophy when he saw the winner’s names etched on the bottom.

David Corbett points to where his dog Pickles found the missing trophy.

Mr. Corbett later relayed to the press how he found the trophy saying, “I bent under the bush, lifted the top layer of newspapers, and there it was. I knew what it was at once. It was the World Cup. I think the first thing I actually saw was an inscription on the cup. The words ‘Brazil 1962’ were written near the base.” Corbett added, “I’m a keen football fan and I had been following all the reports in the newspapers. You can imagine how absolutely taken aback I was. I took it back to our flat to show my wife Jeannie and then we phoned the police, who were as astounded as we were.”

Corbett carried the trophy and handed it to police at Gypsy Hill police station, and was then taken by officers to Cannon Row police station where it was locked away securely in a safe and where Harold Mayes of the FA formally identified it as the Jules Rimet trophy. Mr. Corbett would say during an interview with the media, “Yet the truth is that I would not have given the old bundle of newspapers it was wrapped in a sideways glance or a second thought if it hadn’t been for Pickles. He was the real hero of the hour.”

Corbett was briefly suspected by police of having been involved in the theft, but was ruled out once detectives checked his alibi. The recovery of the trophy was announced the next morning, but police kept the cup as evidence until April 18, after which it was returned to the FA before the opening of the eighth FIFA World Cup. A replica was manufactured by the FA, for all future public celebrations and exhibitions.

Police holding aloft the recovered trophy.

For his part in recovering the Jules Rimet trophy, Pickles the dog became an instant celebrity, and was featured on television and starred in some movies. He was showered with gifts, and England’s National Canine Defence League bestowed on him the highest honor, a silver medal inscribed with the words, “To Pickles, for his part in the recovery of the World Cup, 1966.”

A ceremony was held at the Café Royal where it was presented by the leagues secretary who said, “Pickles, by his action, has given prominence to the canine world and so helped us in our task.” At the same ceremony, many were referring to Pickles as the “furry Sherlock Holmes”, and he was given a rubber bone, £53 collected amongst the hotel staff and presented the best steak for him to eat by hotel owner Henry Cooper.

Despite being initially suspected of involvement in the theft, Mr. Corbett was soon completely vindicated, and received a reward totalling £6,000. Pickles was taken to meet with the West German team, who all touched him for luck, hoping they would be the winners who would take the cup home… but it was not to be. The World Cup final took place at Wembley Stadium on July 30, 1966, between the West German team and England with 96,924 fans in attendance.

England would go on to win 4-2, with Geoff Hurst scoring a hat-trick, with his controversial third goal being awarded by the referee. The England team, known as the “wingless wonders” became the new champions, and were awarded the trophy by Queen Elizabeth II. One of the most enduring images of the celebrations at Wembley in the immediate aftermath, was the picture of England Captain Bobby Moore holding the Jules Rimet trophy aloft, on the shoulders of his teammates.

Mr. Corbett, Pickles and his reward for finding the Jules Rimet Trophy.

Less than two months after finding the trophy, Pickles owner David Corbett was interviewed and told a newspaper, “I wish I’d never seen the damn thing. I was quite excited about it at the time, but I seem to have had nothing but trouble since. When I gave it to police, they appeared at first not to believe my story about Pickles finding it under a laurel bush. They grilled me. They asked me where I was on the day the cup was stolen, whether I collected stamps, if I had ever been to Central Hall, Westminster, and so on. Eventually, they believed me. But the trouble didn’t end with the police. Ordinary people have been suspecting me of having had something to do with the theft of the cup. My wife and I were in Trafalgar Square and a group of boys saw us. They shouted at me, “He’s the one who stole it. Let’s drown the dog in the fountain.” It was terrible.” Sadly Pickles the dog passed away four years later, but is remembered fondly for his role in finding the stolen World Cup trophy.

Edward Betchley was charged with demanding money with menaces with intent to steal, and sentenced to concurrent sentences of two years. Police were uncertain if Betchley had acted alone, or if the mysterious individual known as “The Pole” even existed. No evidence was found of him having had an accomplice, but police could not rule out the possibility that others had not been involved in the theft.

The Jules Rimet Trophy

Decades later, the possible identity of the culprit was revealed. The son of Sidney Cugullere, a London gangster, said his father stole the trophy from Westminster with the help of his brother Reg. It was alleged Sid stole the trophy “for the thrill”, and not for financial gain. Reg Cugullere’s son Gary said his father, known as “Mr. Crafty”, had been in the hall at the time of the theft, but had not see his brother take the cup. “On the street after coming out of the doors, Sid lifted his jacket and said “Ere you are, Reg, look at this…” He opened one side of his jacket and the World Cup was there.” Gary claimed the pair stored the trophy in Reg’s father-in-law’s shed adding, “My dad was freaking out and he knew there was no way they could sell the cup. They realised they had to give it back.” Sidney Cugullere died in 2005, without ever having been suspecting of taking part in the theft.

The trophy was eventually handed back to FIFA for the next competition, which was won by the Brazilian team in 1970. Because Brazil had won their third tournament, they would be allowed to keep the trophy in perpetuity, as per the stipulation set down by Jules Rimet. And there the trophy was put on display at the Brazilian Football Confederation headquarters in Rio de Janeiro, within a cabinet, behind bullet proof glass until December 1983, when in a twist of fate, it was stolen again. Three Brazilian men were eventually linked to the theft, however it was never recovered and the current whereabouts of the Jules Rimet trophy remains a mystery.

Written by Nucleus

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