Shop-keepers in Hurstville in the 1920s faced frequent night-time raids by gangs of thieves. The thieves were resourceful and often made their escape by stolen motor-car. Many of the shops on Forest Road were broken into, and the shop-keepers banded together to pay for the services of a night-watchman, a Mr Scott, who patrolled the street in the early hours, occasionally at risk of assault. The police were under-resourced and had little success in catching any of the gangs. Clothing shops were a favourite target, since suit-lengths and dress materials were easily fenced, unlike jewellery, which was more recognisable.
One of Hurstville’s biggest tailor shops belonged to Ernest Field, who was a Hurstville Alderman, and Mayor of Hurstville in 1928. On 19 August 1925, the back door of the shop was forced, and thieves escaped with cloth to the value of £200. No arrest was made. Later that year, the Estelle dressmaking shop was robbed of dresses; Diment’s hardware shop was robbed of hundreds of pounds’ worth of tools; and safe-crackers tried unsuccessfully to blow up the safe of the Government Savings Bank with gelignite. The following year, W R Andrew’s tailor shop was broken into, for the third time in three years; Walker’s tobacconist was robbed; and Ferguson’s tobacconist was robbed of cigarettes (but “only those of better quality”). Scott the night-watchman disturbed the thieves, who left packets of tobacco strewn behind them as they fled. A substantial robbery could be enough to put a trader operating on a tight margin out of business, and the local Chamber of Commerce was very concerned.
Finally, on 14 June 1928, the police had a result. Field’s shop was targeted for a second visit, and goods to the value of £400 were stolen. But there had been a tip-off, and detectives, led by Detective Sergeant Thompson and Detectives Royle and Alford, caught the criminals after a short car-chase down Forest Road. Two men, John Brendon Parker and Leslie Thompson, and Parker’s girl-friend Elsie Bowman were in the car, with Bowman acting as getaway driver. The men were armed with revolvers. Thompson was about to point his gun at one of the detectives, when it was knocked from his hand. The three crooks were taken to Hurstville Police Station for charging.
A few weeks later, John Parker, the ring-leader of the gang, made front-page news across Australia, following the conclusion of his trial, at which he was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment. Into the bargain, he had been declared a habitual criminal, which meant that he would not necessarily be released at the end of his sentence, if the State Governor recommended otherwise, especially since he had a long and troubling record of robberies and other crimes to his name, although he was still only 25. This was enough to spur him to a reckless move. With other criminals, he was in a holding area at Darlinghurst Police Station, awaiting transportation to prison. Somehow he had acquired a hacksaw. While the other prisoners struck up a loud chorus of ‘Show me the Way to Go Home’, Parker stood on another man’s shoulders and cut through a barred fanlight in the roof of the room. Being a slightly-built man, he was able to climb through the opening he made, onto the roof of the police station. He ran along an exterior wall, dropped to the ground below, and fled up Forbes Street to freedom.
Police thought that he would make his way to Woolloomooloo, and were confident they would soon apprehend him. But weeks went by, and rumours grew that he had fled interstate. Then word came that he had been arrested in Bordeaux, France! Parker had escaped to Melbourne dressed as a woman, and had, according to one report, acquired a woman’s passport. He took passage on a German ship and made his way to Europe. It was only thanks to another tip-off that French authorities picked him up. Two detectives were dispatched to France to bring him back to Sydney for trial. Nice work if you can get it.
The Labor Daily newspaper stated “The whole of Sydney’s underworld gathered at Central Railway Station to hail the home coming hero”, which must have been a sight to see. But on this occasion the police were determined to avoid further embarrassment. They left the train at Strathfield with their handcuffed prisoner and drove him the rest of the way to prison. Not needing further bad publicity, the authorities declined to charge him with escaping arrest.
In later life, Parker worked as a scrap metal dealer, and his shady dealings led him to more jail time. Hurstville’s shop-owners, who might have breathed a sigh of relief following the capture of Parker and Thompson, were soon faced with more break-ins, and Alderman Field was once more called out of his bed in the early hours in March 1929 when the back door of his shop was jemmied open again. Hurstville Council sent a strongly-worded letter to the Police Department, describing the district as a ‘burglar’s paradise’; police advised shop-keepers to clear their yards of packing-cases and crates that crooks could hide behind.