One Monday evening in the mid 1960’s we were in the CID Office at Heavitree Road, when the manager of Colsons, the high class department store in the High Street, arrived clutching a copy of that evenings Express and Echo. He was accompanied by a saleslady from the lady’s fashion department.
They told us that the previous week that had a super frock from one of the leading fashion designers, this creation in red, was placed on a mannequin in the store. It was admired by all who saw it and several ladies tried it on. May be they were put off by the price, but it seems that the dress was on and off the mannequin frequently, (on & off like whores drawers may be!!) until finally at the end of the week the dress was missing. It had been stolen.
The manager then opened the Express and Echo in which there was a photograph that had been taken the previous Friday evening, the photo showed the “happy people” who had attended a function at The Imperial Hotel. The group had been posed in the staircase in the Orangery (still a feature in the Witherspoon pub of today).
The function had been the Civic Ball, or the Chamber of Commerce dinner or something similar, and the people in the photo were “the great and the good”.
There in the front of the photograph was the missing red dress being worn by a young lady. We looked at the photograph and smiled, we knew her, but kept her identity to ourselves.
The Colsons Manager was very concerned, what a delicate situation, he could envisage one of his respected customers much upset by the involvement of the police, was it all a great mistake, would it all rebound on them, etc, etc, etc. We promised to act with great discretion.
The lady wearing the red dress in the photo was one of our “working girls” a prostitute in the small but active sex industry, which in those days operated from a couple of pubs in Fore Street, but was centred on the very popular Hexters Vaults in North Street, which was always better known as the Long Bar, run by Harold and Dot Garnsworthy for decades, both now sadly serving in the bar above.
The girls plied their trade in the upstairs bar, which was called Bar Acuda. Prostitutes have always been encouraged by CID officers because they are a good source of information and they see a lot of life. The description “tart with a heart” could be applied to most of them.
Later that evening we went to the Long Bar as we went up the stairs to the Bar Acuda, the “lady in red” was walking down, she looked very smart in the stolen red dress that we were looking for. We told her that we needed to speak to her about the dress. She explained that she had just attracted a customer and was going off to entertain him for a “short time”.
We struck a bargain with her. Whilst we had a drink in the bar, she would take the customer to her “boudoir” down by the Iron Bridge, do the business, put on a different frock, and return with the stolen dress in a carrier.
About ten minutes later she came back as agreed, and handed us the dress. We were then able to let her continue her public service to get some money to pay the inevitable fine. We made arrangements to arrest her the following morning, when she could stay out of bed long enough, to appear before the magistrates.
In due course we returned the dress to Colsons, I expect they sold it to some unsuspecting lady who knew nothing of colourful its past.
In those days the road to London was the five hour trip along the A303, through Andover and Basingstoke. In Virginia Water there was a railway level crossing which always seemed to be closed and holding up the traffic.
The late Jack Veevers and I were despatched to London to arrest someone for a crime that had occurred in Exeter. Off we went in the squad car, a battered 1100 cc Mark One Cortina, when we got to Viginia Water the level crossing was closed. We came to a halt and a car pulled up behind us.
“Well look who’s behind us” said Jack with a thrill in his voice, as we decided to get out and say “hello” in the finest traditions of friendship that existed between the old City Police and most Exonians. Although in this case perhaps the citizens may have preferred to have forgone the greetings.
In the car behind, was a prominent Alderman, City
Magistrate and member of the Watch Committee, a family man and well
respected by the electorate. Sitting beside him was “the lady in red”, on
their way to London we were able to establish, we of course wished
them…. bon voyage. The Alderman responded with a sickly smile!!
When the crossing opened and we were able to get back in the car to continue our journey, Jack and I agreed that “the lady in red” seemed far more pleased to see us than the Alderman did !!
Who was the Alderman…………..that’s another story.
Peter Hinchliffe is a retired police officer.
The staircase at the Imperial Hotel. Tiger Bills was once the Long Bar with the colourful Bar Acuda, frequented by many Ladies in Red.
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