On 25 December, 1950 the Dean of Westminster made an announcement on the BBC that the Stone of Destiny had been stolen. A group of young people, led by Ian Hamilton, a twenty-five year old from Paisley. The other members of the party included twenty year old Alan Stuart, the son of the director of an engineering company; twenty-four year old Gavin Vernon, an engineering student; and twenty-two year old Kay Matheson, a teacher from Glasgow.
The group of four started out on the snowy night of Friday, 22 December, and arrived at the Westminster Abbey on the afternoon of the 23rd. Ian had made a reconnaissance of the abbey a short time before, and had come up with the plan to linger inside the Abbey after it would be closed to the public. Then he would be able to simply unlock the door and let the other three inside to commit the theft. The plan seemed very simple and straightforward. But Ian was found by the night watchman and let out. The plan would now have to be changed.
After spending the night in the two cars by which they had come south, they decided to drive one of the cars into the Old Palace Yard, a lane that led past what was known as the Poets’ Door of the Abbey. There had been some recent construction near that spot, and the four took advantage of the construction yard to gain access to the Poets’ Door. They pried open the door without alerting the watchman.
According to the account given by Magnus Magnusson:(2.64)
|The Coronation Chair which housed the Stone of Destiny stood against the wall of the Chapel of Edward the Confessor behind the High Altar. There was no sign of the night-watchman, and the three raiders moved quickly into the chapel. The Stone had an iron ring stapled into it at each end. It lay in a compartment beneath the seat of the Chair, with a wooden bar across the front of it. The wood splintered without difficulty. Then, with immense effort, the Stone was pulled from the base of the chair; it was heavier than they had expected (152 kilograms), and as it was lowered to the ground it broke into two pieces. Hamilton took the smaller piece, carried it out to the car in which Kay was waiting, and dumped it on the back seat. Then he went back inside to help the others with the larger piece. They dragged it to Poets' Door on Ian's raincoat, but when he looked outside he saw their car moving away down the lane towards the main road. He dashed out to tell Kay to bring it back. 'A policeman has spotted me,' she said quietly. 'He's coming across the road.'
With remarkable sang-froid Ian slid into the passenger seat, put his arms round Kay and started canoodling. The policeman came over to them with the familiar "Allo, 'allo, 'allo.' He accepted their story that they were a pair of young lovers who had arrived in London too late to find a bed and were passing the night in dalliance in the car. He took off his helmet, placed it on the roof of the car and lit a cigarette, chatting to them cheerfully. There was a loud thump from inside the Abbey. The policeman grinned and said, 'The old watchman seems to have fallen down the stairs.' Then he asked them to move on, which they did with alacrity.
Because the car had been spotted, and its number might have been taken, Ian told Kay to get out of London with her portion of the Stone at once, heading, as previously planned, for Birmingham, where she would hole up with friends and leave the Anglia. He himself would take the larger fragment in Alan Stuart's car. They moved the Stone into the Anglia's boot, and Kay drove off. While she was still in London the boot sprang open and the section of the Stone fell out on to the road. It weighed forty-five kilograms; Kay, who was accustomed to lifting sacks of peat on her parents' croft in Wester Ross, heaved it back into the car and proceeded to Birmingham, where she left the Anglia with its load in a garage, to be collected later, and made her way back to her home at Inverasdale.
Ian hurried back to the Abbey. He found the second piece of the Stone lying just behind Poets' Door, but there was no sign of Gavin Vernon and Alan Stuart - nor of Ian's raincoat, which had the keys of the second car in the pocket. He decided that the other two must have gone to the car at Millbank; if they had found the keys in the pocket of his raincoat, they would either be in the car, or would be driving it back to the Abbey. He sped back to Millbank, but the car was still there, unattended.
Perhaps the keys had fallen out of the coat pocket while the Stone was being dragged through the Abbey? He rushed back to the Abbey once again, and went inside. It was pitch-dark, and he had no torch. On his hands and knees he crawled back along the route they had taken with the Stone, sweeping the floor with his hands and sparingly using some matches. At last he came across the keys, but this time he dropped his watch. He fetched the car and backed it into Old Palace Yard, then dragged the Stone out of the Abbey and somehow manhandled it into the back seat. He drove off, heading south across Westminster Bridge and into the Old Kent Road. He had no idea where to go, but assumed that the police would soon be setting up road-blocks on every road going north.
He got lost in a maze of side-streets. As he drove aimlessly along he suddenly saw, walking equally aimlessly along the pavement ahead of him, Gavin and Alan. It seemed nothing short of a miracle. The car, with the Stone filling the back seat, could now take only one passenger, so they split up: Gavin was to make his own way back to Glasgow while Ian and Alan drove out into the country and dumped the Stone in a field, covering it with foliage.
There was still one pressing problem: the raincoat, which Alan and Gavin had left lying in the carpark at Millbank when they had wandered off. It had a name-tab marked with Ian's name and that of the tailor who had made it - Ian's father. Ian and Alan decided to drive back into London, knowing that the alarm must have been raised by now. They reached the carpark before nine o'clock. It was Christmas morning, and few people were about. The coat was still there.
They retrieved the Stone from its temporary hiding place, then drove a further twenty miles into Kent where they concealed it in a field near Rochester. Then they turned around and headed for Scotland. It must have been the most ludicrously amateurish burglary ever committed: 'carefully planned and carried out with great cunning' it was not. But they had got away with it…
When the initial hullabaloo had subsided, Ian slipped over the border with a couple of companions and drove down to Kent, where they retrieved the Stone of Destiny from its field and brought it back to Scotland. Then they collected the Ford Anglia from Birmingham with the smaller portion of the Stone, and took the two pieces for repair to the yard of a sympathetic Glasgow stonemason, Councillor Robert Gray, vicepresident of the Scottish Convention. Afterwards they stowed it near Stirling in a small engineering workshop owned by another Covenanting sympathiser. But what to do with the Stone now?
It would be assumed that most of the Scots then living were pleased by the act, despite the fact that the newspapers of the day bemoaned it as a ‘mischievous prank.’
The police soon figured out who had committed the theft by simply checking who had borrowed books about the Stone from libraries in Scotland. Ian Hamilton’s name was revealed in the library of Glasgow’s records. Rumor and gossip eventually gave the police the names of the other three, and they were duly questioned about the theft.
The Stone remained hidden all the while. Four months of discussions and negotiations with the perpetrators of the heist eventually resulted in the Stone of Destiny being delivered to the ruins of Arbroath Abbey:
|And so, in the early morning of 11 April 1951, nearly four months after the Christmas Day escapade, the Stone of Destiny, enveloped in the saltire flag of St Andrew, was deposited on the remains of the High Altar in the ruins of Arbroath Abbey, scene of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1320. journalists converged on Arbroath at breakneck speed from all over the country. The police arrived and bore the Stone away on a pallet to Glasgow, where they put it on show at a brief press conference. Then they locked it in a cell in Glasgow's Turnbull Street police station and, at dead of night, whisked it off in the boot of a police car to Westminster Abbey|
No arrests were made over the incident; Sir David Maxwell Fife suggested that as the thieves were known, it would not be in the public interest to prosecute them.
There followed some discussions in the House of Commons over the future disposition of the Stone. Hector McNeil, the Secretary of State for Scotland suggested that the Stone be returned and housed in Scotland between coronations, but his proposal did not succeed.. By October, 1951 the majority that the Labour Party held in the Parliament was overturned, and the new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill made the decision that the Stone would not leave London, but be once more permanently installed under the Coronation Chair at Westminster.
2.64 op cit., Scotland – The Story Of A Nation, pp 676-679.