Peter Chappell’s son to finish dad’s story of ‘Free George Davis’ campaign and why he dug up Headingley pitch
- Credit: Mike Brooke
Peter Chappell web summary
So he has vowed to complete the book his dad didn’t manage to finish about the his infamous ‘G Davis is Innocent OK’ campaign which got worldwide attention in the 1970s after he dug up the Test Match pitch at Headingley.
Peter died at 78 last year unable to complete the book through ill health, which his son has now taken on and is having a TV drama made about the life of this “audacious” fighter.
His dad was rarely at the family home in Mile End when the four children were growing up because he would be off smashing up Limehouse police station, blocking the traffic with a sit-down protest, ramraiding Fleet Street newspaper offices or just crashing into the gates of Buckingham Palace—as you do.
It was all to draw infamous publicity for the campaign to free a known East End villain wrongly jailed for 20 years for a wages snatch.
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The campaign slogan appeared on walls and bridges across London including a railway arch in Bow Common Lane still visible today, four decades on.
“I remember sitting in the road outside Bethnal Green tube station in a protest when I was five and being arrested when the police came and took us all in,” his son Pete, now 48, recalls.
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“We kids had to pay a heavy toll for the campaign. Some of the teachers at school didn’t want us in class and police made life difficult growing up as teenagers.
“It affected me, being ostracised and feeling an outcast.”
His rebellious dad was “a product of the system”, born in 1944 to an unmarried mother and put into care, then sent to different foster families, often running away and getting into trouble. He spent a short time in the Army before being kicked out for smashing up the barracks and fighting.
“Dad was a bit of a wild boy,” Pete tells you. “He was a thorn to the establishment, but always fighting injustice.”
George Davis, a cab driver living in Bow Common, was arrested after the 1974 armed wages snatch at the London Electricity Board in Ilford.
“Dad knew Davis was innocent because he was speaking to him at the exact time the raid took place,” Pete insists. “But no one would listen. The newspapers didn’t want to hear his side of the story. It made my dad angry.”
There was no forensic evidence linking Davis to the Ilford heist. Blood found at the scene didn’t match his—but the prosecution didn’t mention that at the time.
Davis got 20 years solely on verbal evidence. It led Chappell on a collision course with the authorities. He threw bricks through the window at Limehouse police station, then jumped over the counter and threw typewriters and furniture into the street.
“Someone highe up said ‘this guy’s getting tool much publicity’ and they just let him go,” Pete recalls.
His dad went on a rampage of stunts, fusing the Christmas Tree lights in Trafalgar Square in 1974, then smashing windows in the British embassy in Paris.
The most daring stunt was ramming the Daily Mirror offices in Holborn with his truck, which led to a police chase along Fleet Street, The Strand and The Mall before crashing into the gates of Buckingham Palace.
No-one dare charge him and give his campaign publicity. But all that was about to change.
It was cricket that finally knocked Chappell for six, after a night caper to dig up the pitch at Headingley which caused the rest of the Ashes to be cancelled.
“My dad told me stories why they dug up the pitch,” Pete remembers. “It was a massive thing that made the campaign go nationwide, even though it upset a lot of people at the time. But it turned the tide.”
His dad was jailed for 18 months, much of the time in solitary for causing disturbances in prison.
The campaign moved into top gear while he was inside with Davis’s wife Rose leading a march along Fleet Street, joining forces with another campaign started in the East End against “being fitted up” by dubious verbal testament without scientific evidence. The two groups formed a coalition to take the fight to Parliament.
Davis was released three years into his 20-year sentence by Home Secretary Roy Jenkins because of doubts about the verbal evidence, but wasn’t given a pardon. The 1975 sentence wasn’t overturned until 2010 some 35 years later.
Peter Chappell lived to see Davis vindicated in the High Court, but not George’s by-then ex-wife Rosie who died just a year before.
“The campaign has been a double-edge sward,” Pete remembers. “It took my dad away from me for a long time and politicised him.
“Dad never completed his book, so I’m finishing it in his name, to make sure he gets recognition.”
George Davis, as it happens, was to go on to be caught red-handed in an armed robbery in north London at the Bank of Cyprus in Seven Sisters Road a year after his release. He admitted that one.
The campaigners felt let down, but stuck to the cause that he had been “fitted up” for the 1974 Ilford blag and continued pressing for a pardon, finally achieved just nine years ago.
Script editor Claire Russell, a lecturer in screenwriting who met Chappell just before he died, has been on the case for 10 years and plans a two-part TV drama about the man whose campaign freed George Davis and helped change the law on lone ‘verbal’ evidence.
She said: “Peter knew Davis was innocent on the Ilford raid. His campaign completely validated his audacious stunts which helped change the law on dubious ‘verbal’ convictions.”
Peter Chappell, the man who dug up Headingley, died in April last year aged 78—a “reasonable innings” he might have said with some irony.