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Wednesday 28 January 2015

The Great Cigarette Machine Robbery

Tasker Dunham remembers his short-lived career as a master criminal

Today there is an entire industry devoted to the security and protection of automatic vending machines, supplying various kinds of locks, straps, anchor kits, anti-jam coin devices, solvents and cages (one fittingly named ‘Defend-A-Vend’) for the war against hammer attacks, lock picking, graffiti and the ingress of liquids, lollipop sticks and other unwanted items. Such measures, together with sophisticated physical, optical and magnetic currency validation techniques, make vending machines as safe from theft and vandalism as possible.

They must have been much more vulnerable in the past when simple coin-in-the-slot machines seemed to be screwed unprotected to the wall of just about every tiny corner shop in the land. No doubt people were then generally more law-abiding and respectful. Perhaps, therefore, I should take this opportunity to confess that I wasn’t, and to ease my conscience by recounting how I once regarded cigarette machines as my fast-track route to a career as a master criminal.

Cigarette Machine 

Cigarette machines were everywhere. For half-a-crown (two shillings and six pence, the pre-decimalisation equivalent of 12½p) you could slide a packet of ten out of a drawer at the bottom and get a few coppers in change as well. If it sounds cheap, it was. Allowing for inflation, half-a-crown in 1968 had similar spending power to around £2 today, whereas the actual price of ten cigarettes now is around £5.

The most popular cigarette at the time was Embassy which had been re-introduced as a filter brand in 1962. It quickly captured almost a quarter of the market although after the end of the decade its dominance was usurped by the smaller and cheaper Players’ No. 6. Both brands had gift vouchers to encourage loyalty, and both were heavily marketed: the vertical red-on-white stripe of Embassy and the blue-green bands of Players No. 6 were familiar to smokers and non-smokers alike. It was big business: approximately 45% of the adult population smoked, well over double the percentage today.

Other products were available from vending machines too, for example chocolate, chewing gum, sweets, stamps and so on, and of course these still exist, except that over the last few decades they have deserted dark and lonely street corners for new positions in brighter, safer, less isolated locations, mostly indoors, such as in schools, sports centres, motorway service stations and railway station concourses.

Cigarette machines, however, have disappeared completely. The sale of tobacco from vending machines was banned in England from the 1st October, 2011, subject to a fine of £2,500. The aim was to prevent the sale of cigarettes to children. 

Belgian 50 centimes English sixpence
Belgian 50 centimes piece and English sixpence

The vulnerability of vending machines was brought home to me on the way home from one of the foreign language exchange trips mentioned in previous posts. Waiting to change trains at Doncaster station, our group of respectable and well-behaved grammar school scholars discovered that the Belgian 50 centimes piece was exactly the same size and weight as the English sixpence, despite having only one seventh of the value (actually they were half a millimetre smaller and 0.05g lighter than a sixpence but this would have been within the tolerances allowed for wear through use, and the exchange rate then was 140 Belgian Francs to the pound). Most of us still had several of these otherwise worthless foreign coins left in our change, so we flocked and screeched like excited seagulls around the Cadburys chocolate machine on the platform, leaving it empty.

But this was small-time, low-value stuff. Tobacco was big-time, high-value, as my Belgian exchange partner, Hugo, demonstrated when he visited England the second time. To supplement his English currency he smuggled in a few dozen packets of tipped Belgian cigarillos which he had no trouble in selling at a handsome profit to my smoking school mates and anyone else who wanted to buy them. It was rather cynical and calculating because Hugo himself didn’t smoke. The cigarillos looked like pencils and reeked like old socks, and for the last few days of the school term the bike sheds had the atmosphere of a Middle Eastern hookah den.  

So, in a flash of insight, the creative combination of disparate ideas and trains of thought, I came up with the perfect crime. I would rob cigarette machines using counterfeit half-crowns, and corner the market for cut-price Embassy and Players No. 6. The only difficulty was how to make the fake half-crowns.

Bronze penny and silver half-crown
Bronze penny and silver half-crown

One idea was to glue two pennies together. Copper pennies and silver half-crowns were almost the same size, pennies being 31mm in diameter and half-crowns 32.3mm, but pennies were thinner and lighter, 9.4g to 14.1g. I didn’t know this so precisely at the time, and if I did I would have been talking in inches and ounces, but I naively guessed that there must be some kind of weight-sensitive mechanism inside the machines to distinguish lighter pennies from heavier half-crowns, and that two pennies together might fool it.

Glueing them together was the easy part thanks to Evo-stick impact adhesive, but the resulting disc was too thick. Round at the corner shop after dark, it went into the slot all right, fell down inside, and stuck. All I’d done was to put the machine out of action for the night. I wonder how many people cursed at the loss of their half-crowns before the shop opened again the next day. I bet Don Blackburn, the shop keeper, wasn't too pleased either.

The next idea was to glue two pennies together and file them thinner. After a couple of hours of filing I gave up. Penny metal (then bronze, a copper alloy) is much harder than you might think. From the state of my hands I decided that the coarse file I was using, known as a bastard file, was very aptly named.

By then my project had gained the interest and enthusiasm of my friend Alan from school who suggested putting the double-penny on the railway line to let a passing railway engine do the job of thinning the disc. We put it on a secluded bit of track beyond the end of the street and waited. A useless two-car multiple unit came along first. It knocked the disc away and we couldn’t find it anywhere. Another two pence lost. Presumably it’s still there somewhere, hidden in the ballast.

We tried again another day. This time we were rewarded by the appearance of an impressively large and heavy ‘Austerity’ WD 2-8-0 locomotive hauling a fully loaded train of coal wagons. It certainly flattened the disc, except that it was now far too big and no longer stuck together. Further hours spent glueing and filing the two flattened pennies failed to create anything even slightly near to the size and shape of a half-crown. With write-off costs now mounting to six pence, an entirely different approach was needed.

In a previous post I mentioned my dad’s hazardous antics making medallions out of melted lead. There was the answer, we would mould half-crowns out of lead. Alan came round with some bits of old lead pipe one afternoon when there was no one else in the house. We melted them in an empty beans tin on the gas cooker, and carefully holding it with a pair of pliers, tipped the molten lead into a half-crown sized mould made out of aluminium foil. When it cooled we found we had manufactured a silvery metal blob of no particularly identifiable shape.

Alan next came round with some pliable clay – he seemed to be able to source all kinds of unusual materials – and we made another mould. This time on first sight things seemed to have gone have very well. We had a perfectly round half-crown sized lead disc, perhaps a little too thick but not excessively so. With a bit of filing to smooth off the rough bits off we were ready to try it in a machine. Late that night at the same machine as before, we popped the coin in the slot and, well, it didn’t stick this time, it went straight through and dropped into the reject tray. It must have been too heavy.

There isn’t really a satisfactory end to this tale. We talked about drilling holes in the disc to make it lighter, but I don’t think we ever did. The end of the school holidays intervened and we lost interest. Our careers as master criminals had to be put on hold while we studied for our ‘O’ levels. Top gangsters like Ronnie Biggs and the Kray twins would probably have taken the view that we were too conformist and without sufficient nastiness or dedication to join their ranks. I can, however, confidently attribute my less than impressive ‘O’ level performance to lead poisoning.

The image of the cigarette vending machine is © Copyright Walter Baxter and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence.The Belgian coin and English sixpence are public domain. The other image is my own.