What does crime in Harlow in 1980 say about the town then and now?

Crime / Sun 12th May 2024 at 02:46pm

A FEW weeks ago, we reported on a new crime podcast which focussed on the dreadful murder of May Chambers in May 1980.

A few months later, there was the brutal murder of Milwards schoolboy, Stephen Edmonston. The ten-year-old was stabbed to death by neighbour Bernard MacAnaspie.

Whilst we were down at Harlow Museum, getting cuttings from the Harlow Gazette, we thought we would have a look at crime in the first two months of 1980.

This is very much a Sunday editorial and not a study we will be submitting to the Annual Review of Criminology.

We were going to do the whole year, but we would have been there all day! We think you get the point looking at two months.

One of the reasons for doing this is that some people tend to give the impression that we were living in some crime free paradise in the old days. When we write a crime story we often get “Oh what happened to our beautiful town?”

We understand that people may want to look back with a tint of rose in those specs. That’s there prerogative.

Fact is: Crime has alway been with us. It has always been reported.

Statistics seem to indicate that crime is at its lowest level for thirty years. However two thirds of people think it is on the rise.

It may be like the economy. We have come out of a recession but that is not how many people feel.

The first two months of 1980 highlight what a violent society we lived in then. You didn’t think it was. It was just part of life.

This editor was a sixth former at St Mark’s in 1980. We didn’t live in fear. Weekends were spent walking up Second Avenue to get to The Hare or Harlow Playhouse and back again at midnight.

We have taken names out of the stories but all this gives you all a flavour.

Theft, theft and open season at Chelsea Girl

Three girls who helped themselves to clothes from Harlow’s Chelsea Girl boutique pleaded guilty at Harlow magistrates.

It was alleged that the three, along with the assistant manager acted together.

It looked like Wednesday afternoon in Chelsea Girl was a bit of a free for all. It looked like all the girls had difficult home circumstances and were given fines.

There are a lot of crimes of dishonesty stories in Jan/Feb 1980.. Many plead poverty and you do get the sense that a year into Mrs Thatcher’s reign, that things were starting to bite.

Woman stole cheques. Man jailed for false accounting from a garage. Woman stole to pay gas bill. Two men charged with £8,000 hotel fraud. A reformed gambler sent to prison for theft.

A person had their shopping stolen on Christmas Eve.



There is random violence in smashing shop windows on Christmas Eve. There is a bottle attack in a pub for mocking a man’s Geordie accent. There are petrol bomb attacks on two homes.

There is a man who attacks two workmen for whistling. He got life.

The youth courts seemed to be busy with stories such as the one below. The teenager who steals two air rifles and starts shooting at people in Barn Mead. There are several others. Some people might read this and think “Well all those play schemes you keep going on about. They didn’t seem to work for some!”

Indeed, we think there was a report of one being set on fire!

Drink Driving.

In a twelve month period, 245 people were convicted of alcohol related offences. Week in and week out people were being stopped.

This was the beginning of the end for socially acceptable drinking and driving. The old “I am a much better driver after four pints” or the sight of cars in ditches on Harlow Common Road.

Sexual Violence

What is significant is there is a matter of fact nature in the reporting of sexual offences and indecencies.

A rape is just a News In Brief (NIB) at the back. Even in January and February 1980, there is a lot. We do wonder how many went un-reported.

There were several reports of indecent assaults and indecent exposures

Football Violence.

This was the year of the great Harlow Town FA Cup run.. However, the games involving Southend, Leicester and Watford had Harlow residents arrested and convicted for public order offences.

There were punch ups on Southend beachfront. Missiles thrown at Leicester fans, a pickpocket was collared at the Harlow Sportscentre.

Car Theft

Even in the two months, there is report after report of criminal damage to cars, theft of cars.

Solve Rates

In the years this journalist has been reporting crime, we have seen solve/detection rates plummet.

We reckon that back in 1980, if solve rates had fallen to under 40% then the Inspector at Harlow Police Station may have had a “meeting without coffee” with the Chief Super.

Now it is between 1% and 4% for many crimes in Harlow.

But look at those stats. Fifty thefts a week and two break ins every day. The good old days where you could leave your door open etc etc……


Jan to Nov: 2,512 thefts

Jan to Nov: 601 burglaries

But as we say, look at those solve rates.


We guess we are writing this in case there are young people who have parents/grandparents who may paint a picture of Harlow like it was like The Waltons (a bit of a niche reference..look it up on YouTube)

Of course, there is an argument that crime would not have been so high had not all those white working class people moved out from London from the early fifties onwards.

Some people have suggested that when people refer to the good old days, they mean the sixties. Believe me, we could show you the paper from 1968. It is the same. And as for the crime rate in London!

There may also be an argument that it was easy news. Pop across from the Harlow Gazette and Harlow Star office into the Harlow Magistrates. Fill out the paper.

Some editors like crime whilst others tend to dial it down. Colleagues in Hackney, Peterbourgh and Thurrock, keep it at a small percentage.

Many of our conclusions are also in the first paragraphs of this editorial.

Do you hear more about it in the digital age? Well 40-50,000 homes would get these papers and they would be read from cover to cover. But perhaps everything gets poured onto social media. Especially the speculation.

Perhaps we saw crime as part of the fabric of our society? The kid with the rifle was just that strange kid at school. There were certain pubs where there was a punch up. That bloke that lived at the end of the street.

Some people might read this and say, where are the knife crime stories in 1980 and they may well have a good point.

As we said, this is just a Sunday editorial but we hope it does give food for thought and discussion.

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9 Comments for What does crime in Harlow in 1980 say about the town then and now?:

2024-05-13 06:54:51

Great report,nothing changes really. The only thing I would say is there was more places to go for the youngsters. I think when people was saying Harlow was better years ago , they were probably talking about the 60s

2024-05-13 14:28:47

Agree Eddie.I grew up in Harlow in the 60's and my childhood memories are of everything beautifully and attractively maintained back then.Not a single piece of litter in sight.Was amused at the reference to people remembering Harlow like it was the waltons but i really DO remember it like that! (in the late 60's)The article has been an eyeopener with regard to the crime that came later.Fond memories of the playschemes.I remember the chelsea girl shoplifters.Good to see the pic of the logo,brought back memories of shopping there.I also clearly remember how stunned ,shocked and angry everyone was when the schoolboy from milwards was murdered.Interesting to see the newspaper clippings used to illustrate the article.Thank you.

Me, Harlow
2024-05-13 15:32:36

Resident, I don't doubt it was better back then, as the whole country was (more innocent & decent values perhaps?) but also being a bit of an oldie, I can remember the adverts on TV in late 60's and 70's about picking up litter, one of them had a young Roy Hudd if you remember, running around undercover dropping litter! So I would imagine littering was a problem back then too, otherwise we'd not have need public info films. People are just lazy, even worse now when I hear folk say about dropping litter that 'it gives someone a job picking it up'.

2024-05-14 05:11:45

Me Harlow -Take your point.Don't remember the ad so looks like a touch of rose tinted glasses then...

Nicholas Taylor
2024-05-15 12:54:26

In response to the previous four comments, I would point out that the Development Corporation 1950 to 1978 and Harlow Council from 1978 to about 1992 used to employ 72 gardeners looking after the towns green spaces, it had a team of people with learning difficulties working across the town and employed teams to attend to overgrown trees. The decline in the town started in 1992 when the Conservative Government slashed in half the grant it gave to the Council, who had to call staff to meetings in the Playhouse and elsewhere and basically said we can no longer afford you all, whoever wants to take voluntary redundancy can do so. I was there, many staff were gone within weeks. At the end of the day you get what you pay for, the element of Council Tax received by Harlow Council is relatively small compared with the overall total.

Fact or Fiction
2024-05-16 14:18:31

Politics aside Nicholas - The town has seen vast changes in the 74 years that you quote from 1950 to 1992 (and should include up to 2024 surely). As a Harlow born and bred of some 66 years who remembers there being little or no hedges or trees to maintain for many a year, the parks have always been there, there were many football pitches maintained for the recreational football league and this no longer exists. thousands more properties have been built in and on the outskirts of Harlow (former farmland) reducing the green spaces. There is still a team of people with learning difficulties (as you put it) called the 'ETF'. There is a parks team including, gardener/drive on mower people, Arborists, tractor drivers etc. proportionate to the changing landscape of the the town. Year on year Green Flag awards still being achieved working with volunteers, Harlow Council and HTS. If you reflect wider Nicholas, most if not all local authorities have reduced their staffing levels over many years, regardless of the political party in place, nationally or locally.

2024-05-16 18:43:55

I remember being with 100s of kids in Altham Grove getting paid 10 bob to appear in an advert for Heinz beans . Would love to hear from anyone who remembers that

Nicholas Taylor
2024-05-16 23:14:00

Not sure what your point is Fact or Fiction. As has so often been said in these pages, the simple fact is, much of the green spaces is the town as a whole looks worse now than it ever have done. What flower beds and border areas that are left within estates are hardly ever maintained, grass is not cut often enough and trees even when causing extreme loss of light to homes are not being attended to. It is no good putting politics aside, that is at the heart of the matter, local authorities have not been adequately funded since the early 1990's.. Eddie, I remember being in the advert you refer to, ten bob was a lot of money to a school kid!

Fact or Fiction
2024-05-17 08:21:43

Nicholas - You made a range of statements which to say the least, are not factual. Are the comments from the 'regulars', who are a very very small group of people really representative of the town? So local authorities now, not the conservatives? I am pretty sure that Labour have been in power for some of the time from 1992, haven't they, and they have not reinstated the grants you refer to?

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