Pickles, the mongrel dog who found the World Cup in a London street after it had been stolen three months before the 1966 finals, became a bigger story than that year's general election.
Sunday April 23, 2006
On a Sunday evening in March 40 years ago, David Corbett left his ground-floor flat in Norwood, south London, to make a telephone call from the kiosk across the road. With the Thames lighterman was Pickles, the four-year-old mongrel he had taken off his brother John's hands, when he was a puppy, because he chewed furniture.
'I put the lead on Pickles and he went over to the neighbour's car,' recalls Corbett, now 66. 'Pickles drew my attention to a package, tightly bound in newspaper, lying by the front wheel. I picked it up and tore some paper and saw a woman holding a dish over her head, and disks with the words Germany, Uruguay, Brazil. I rushed inside to my wife. She was one of those anti-sport wives. But I said, "I've found the World Cup! I've found the World Cup!"'
Corbett, or more precisely, Pickles, had indeed discovered the missing Jules Rimet trophy. Yet, if the Metropolitan Police had not bungled an operation two days earlier, when a ransom demand went wrong, Pickles would not have found the trophy and his place as lead character in a tale that, even today, may not be fully over.
The trophy was stolen on 20 March 1966, a week before Pickles' intervention, from the Methodist Central Hall in Westminster where it was being exhibited in a glass cabinet. Five guards were detailed to keep constant watch. On the Sunday, though, the guard stationed next to the trophy had the day off. With the others enjoying a cup of coffee or a call of nature, it was only when George Franklin finally inspected the case just after midday that he discovered the theft. The thieves had broken in through the back doors.
The media attention was worldwide and, Corbett says, Pickles enjoyed it. Before it began, though, Corbett had to deal with the theory that exercised the police from the moment, breathless and still in his slippers, he arrived at Gypsy Hill police station in Crystal Palace and was taken to Scotland Yard. 'I was suspect number one,' he says. 'I went into this bloody great incident room with twenty coppers taking calls. I heard one say, "We've just searched the Northern [Tube] line because someone said it was under seat number seven."
'They questioned me until 2.30 am. I wondered if I should've chucked it back in the road. I was up at six the next day for work.' Corbett recalls: 'The general election was due but this knocked Harold Wilson off the front pages. When my mates realised they said, "Bloody hell. I bet you nicked it!"' Eventually, though, Corbett was cleared.
Now Pickles began the life of a celebrity. He starred in a feature film, The Spy with the Cold Nose, and appeared on Magpie, Blue Peter and many other TV shows. He was made Dog of the Year, awarded a year's free supply of food from Spillers and there were offers to visit Chile, Czechoslovakia and Germany.
'But I would've had to put Pickles into quarantine for six months and he was only a pet, so I didn't think I could do that,' says Corbett. How did he find the constant attention? 'I got myself an agent. The same as Spike Milligan's. He made me £60 a day, bloody brilliant! He would call and my [ex] wife and I would meet him and his girlfriend and go drinking Champagne.'
But Pickles' luck also ran out the year after his great find. 'My six-year-old had him on a choke lead,' recalls Corbett. 'He shot after a cat and pulled my son over, before disappearing. I looked for over an hour. Then, in the gardens behind my house I saw him up on a tree. His chain was around the branch. Pickles just hung there.'
Corbett buried him in the back garden of the house in Lingfield, Surrey, that the reward money had bought. 'I received £3,000 and paid £3,100 for this house,' says Corbett, who still lives there.