Newly released documents from the 1940s reveal the tactics used by a family of pickpockets operating on the streets of wartime Melbourne.
The criminal trial brief is among hundreds of private Section 9 records held by Victoria’s state archives released to the public today after being closed for 75 years.
What are Section 9 files?
- Some Victorian Government files are kept hidden under Section 9 of the state’s Public Records Act 1973.
- The section demands “personal or private” government records be withheld from public view for a period of time.
- Examples include police and prison files, medical records and documents concerning children in state care.
- Public Record Office Victoria (PROV) holds all state government records in climate-controlled conditions.
- Section 9 files relating to adults are generally made public after 75 years and those relating to children after 99 years.
- PROV releases a new batch of Section 9 files each year on January 1.
Peggy Thomas, her daughter Margaret Burles and Margaret’s husband John fronted court in January 1942 over the pickpocketing of Harold Haimes.
The family was notorious, with 43-year-old Thomas admitting to 63 prior convictions.
Margaret Burles’s father Roy Joseph Neely, aka Charles Thomas, was in Pentridge Prison at the time for “larceny from the person”.
‘Get away from me’
A fitter with the Air Force, Haimes spent much of his war service camped out on the Melbourne Showgrounds.
On the evening of December 23, 1941, he was on leave and walking to a tram in central Melbourne after going to the cinema with a friend.
According to his newly released police statement, he was walking past the Metropole Hotel on Bourke Street when he noticed two women and a man standing outside.
The three were later revealed to be Peggy Thomas and the Burles couple.
Margaret Burles called Haimes over and asked how he was while her mother and husband pressed up against him.
“I said, ‘Get away from me, I don’t want to have anything to do with you’,” Haimes said his statement.
The three backed away, at which point Haimes felt for his wallet and found that it was missing.
“I said, ‘One of you three has my wallet’,” Haimes recalled. “Margaret Burles said, ‘We don’t know what you are talking about’.”
Haimes repeated his accusation but the three ignored him and walked away.
Police had their suspicions
Haimes followed the pickpocketing threesome down a laneway and watched from afar as they stood in a shop doorway for a few minutes before leaving the way they came.
He went over to the shop to find his wallet lying on the ground, empty save his bank book, and followed the thieves back to the Metropole where he saw them hail a taxi.
He noted the taxi number and went to the police.
It seems police suspected Thomas and her kin straight away, as the following week Haimes went with detectives to the Carlton Hotel, which was a favourite haunt of the criminal family.
“I saw the three accused. They were holding their heads down,” Haimes said. “I pointed the three accused out to the detectives with me.”
Peggy Thomas and John Burles were both sentenced to two years’ imprisonment, while Margaret Burles was freed on a good behaviour bond.
“You are still young and have apparently never been set a good example by your mother, who began to lead a disreputable life while you were still a little girl,” Judge Magennis is reported by The Argus newspaper to have said.
“Because you have not had a chance in life I am giving you one now.”
A ‘very thorough’ witness
Haimes died in 2008, survived by his sons David and Ross, neither of whom had ever heard the story of their father being pickpocketed.
David Haimes said his father didn’t mention the story in a history he wrote of his time in the RAAF.
“Either he’d forgotten about it or he figured it wasn’t worth mentioning.”
Ross Haimes said he was not surprised his father had played detective by following the thieves.
“He was pretty thorough.”
He said his father was a kind-hearted and community-minded man who served on the local council in Belmont in Western Australia and volunteered his time for the RSL and local schools.
“The Redcliffe Primary School actually has named their performing arts centre after him.”
Topics: 20th-century, library-museum-and-gallery, history, historians, crime, human-interest, melbourne-3000