Paul Gallagher, who is one of the main contributors to the excellent Dangerous Minds blog, on today’s KILTR blog with the true story behind one of the biggest scams in newspaper history – which all happened in Glasgow in the 1970s.
When 19-year-old, James McCreadie won £1500 on the Scottish Daily Express Place the Ball competition, it seemed like a dream come true. But a few weeks later, three men, who claimed to be from the paper, turned up at his door and demanded he hand over £1300 of his winnings. If he didn’t pay up, then they would put him in concrete and dump him in the Clyde.
With a brutal threat like that, most people would have coughed-up the cash and avoided the fish, and that was the young winner’s first thought. But McCreadie had a problem – he didn’t have his winnings, he’d spent them on drinking, gambling, and buying a new £95 color TV for his gran.
In fear for his life, the teenager only had one option – he went to the police. And this is how they uncovered the biggest fraud in British newspaper history.
If McCreadie was the end of the story, then Catherine McChord was how it began. At twenty-seven, McChord felt that her life was over and she could only dream of escaping the deprived housing estate in Baillieston, on the outskirts of Glasgow, where she lived with her husband, Eddie, a twenty-seven-year-old taxi driver. When the couple discovered, two years into their marriage, they could not have children, they decided to set their sights on reaching the top, as
Cathy later told the Glasgow Herald:
“I don’t really know why I became involved in this. Maybe it would have been different if we could have had children. I don’t know.”
McChord worked as an office clerk at the Scottish Daily Express, where she earned £35 a week. For Cathy, it seemed that her future life was all around her – older women who had worked at the same job in the same office, year-after-year, until they retired, received a handshake, and had nothing to show for it but a few happy thoughts, the memory of a fling at a drunken Christmas party, and a gold carriage clock. That wasn’t for Cathy, she wanted something more – holidays, a car, a new home, with walk-in wardrobe and toilets en suite. That was the dream, and in 1973, the dream became just that little closer when she was appointed Deputy Competitions Clerk, to the new Head of Competitions, Colin Hunter.
At thirty-six, Hunter was quite similar to Cathy. He’d spent a life working hard at a job as a middle management accountant, who knew his promotion to Head of Competitions, with a salary of £80 a week, was as high up as he would ever go.
Like Cathy, Colin wanted something more from life. He hated living in Castlemilk. He felt it wasn’t a safe place for his family to grow up. The 1960s promise of a modern Glasgow was now a grey, bleak reality of new towns, vandalised housing estates and high rises. Hunter felt his best years were gone and he just wanted one chance to
give his wife, and especially his two children something of value, something that would change their lives for the better, something good. Meeting Cathy McChord gave him that chance.
In the 1960s and 1970s Britain was addicted to a newspaper competition called Spot the Ball. Each week, the Scottish Daily Express, amongst various other newspapers, published a photograph from a football match. Readers were then invited to guess the position of the ball, which has been removed from the picture. In its day, the Scottish Daily Express’ Place the Ball was as popular as the National Lotto today. Unlike the lottery, individuals used mathematical theory, random algorithms, body language, lines of sight convergence, and a considerable amount of potluck to pin-point the exact position of the missing ball.
The Express offered a weekly cash prize of £1,500 – the equivalent of the average workers’ yearly wage. This was later increased to £5,000 and then to £20,500 and £22,000 – the equivalent of a £1,000,000 win today.
Such to-die-for prizes proved too great a temptation for Cathy, especially after it was rumoured the Scottish Daily Express was to close, and its staff made redundant. Concerned that she would lose her job, and lose out on living her dream life, Cathy worked out a way to have the things she had always wanted.
When he heard her suggestion, Hunter turned a blind eye, but later claimed he only joined the criminal cartel after he heard redundancy money was being offered at Express departments, and he and his colleagues hoped to collect.
“But in March 1974, we were told we were being retained. That was the final trigger for the involvement.”
It was a simple plan. Cathy and Hunter ran a syndicate, made up of Eddie McChord, and three friends John Smith, Thomas Hutton, and Donald Williamson. These friends located a suitable winner – someone who needed a small sum of money. Once the bogus winner was selected, a winning entry form would be submitted in their name, which then won the £15,000 Place the Ball prize.
The bogus winner kept £200 of their winnings, and returned £1300 to the syndicate.
The £1300 was then divided three-ways: £500 each to Cathy and Hunter; and £300 for the other members.
From March 1974, until April 1977, Cathy and Hunter fixed 67 Place the Ball competitions. They also twice rigged two major jackpots of £20,500 and £22,000, collecting two-thirds of these winnings for themselves.
As Cathy and Hunter took the biggest risks, they claimed the lion’s share of the loot.
“I enjoy spending money I like good things, wine, food, travel,” Cathy later said. “And I love clothes, particularly trouser suits. I did make flights to London to buy clothes but not as people made out.”
“Whenever I had money from the competitions, I would take it to two building societies. I would put between £100 and £300 in one and about the same amount in the other. I did this several times and never once let Eddie know.”
Amongst the first winners was Cathy’s mother. The syndicate believed they were modern day Robin Hoods, who gave money to those who needed it. Winners were found from all over Glasgow, as Eddie McChord used his taxi to select and vet suitable winners. Whilst his friends, Smith, Hutton and Williamson sought possible winners from a network of bars and social clubs.
The inevitable tension began to affect Cathy, and she was hospitalized after a serious bout of asthma.
Even so, she continued with the fraud. For all those involved in the scam it meant a life of luxury, flash cars, foreign holidays, new houses, lavish furnishings, and expensive jewellery
Cathy bought a new taxi for her husband, a £3,500 car for herself, and made her dream move from Baillieston to an £18,000 house in the suburbs. She also had £12,000 in a building society account.
Hunter bought a gold watch and bracelet, a new Volvo and was in the process of purchasing a bungalow when caught. He had £18,000 in various building societies and £500 in his pocket when arrested.
It seemed the perfect con, that is until 19-year-old, James McCreadie was chosen as one of the 67 bogus winners.
A former Tory election agent and the son of a bookmaker, McCreadie had originally wanted the money to pay a fine of £125 for Kirkintilloch Thistle Boys football team, an under-13 group that he helped to run.
McCreadie was told that he could keep £200 of his £1500 winnings, but when no one contacted him to collect the rest of the money, McCreadie withdrew a further £200, and bought his grandmother a £95 television. He then withdrew a further £1,100, and quickly spent the lot.
The turning point for ‘Greedy’ McCreadie came when he was visited, one dark night, by three heavies, who threatened to “Chuck him in the Clyde wearing a concrete overcoat.”
Cathy McChord was jailed for 3 years, along with her boss, Colin Hunter after both admitted defrauding Beaverbrook’s Newspapers Ltd. in Scotland of £143,500.
They also admitted a charge of attempting to defraud a further £1500 from the paper’s Place the Ball competition.
Eddie McChord admitted defrauding the Scottish Daily Express of £4,500. He was fined £1,000 or 12 months in prison.
Mrs McChord’s mother admitted 2 charges involving £3,000. Presiding Judge Lord Johnston said her part was minor and admonished her.
John Smith was fined £12,000 and 12 months in prison for defrauding the firm of £131,000. He did not ask time to pay and was taken to the cells.
Thomas Hutton admitted frauds involving £70,000, was fined £4,000 or 12 months in prison.
Donald Williamson was fined £250 or 6 months, when he admitted fraud of £16,500.
Eddie McChord, Hutton and Williamson were allowed time to pay.
After his conviction Hunter said:
“I want to make a fresh start in life when all this mess is over and I want to wipe the slate clean. I suppose I got between £1500 and £1700 of the total money, and I presume Cathy got the same.”
The police recovered only £4224 of the £143,500. £139,000 is still unaccounted for.
Together, Hunter and the McChords stole over £1million in today’s money from the Daily Express.
But his wasn’t the end of Cathy’s story, her life was to take a dark, and more horrific turn in 1982, when she was murdered by deranged killer Ian Scoular.
A version of this story originally appeared on Dangerous Minds.