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George Davis is mobbed when arriving at London Waterloo after being released from prison

'George Davis is Innocent OK'

It was the slogan that spawned a punk song, but who exactly is George Davis, and why did his criminal conviction spark a national movement in 1970s Britain?

Image: George Davis (C) is greeted by his wife on his arrival at London Waterloo station in May 1976 after being released from prison | PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

The Guilty Innocent is a gripping new series that explores some of the biggest potential miscarriages of justice in history. Award-winning actor Christopher Eccleston leads the in-depth, contemporary investigations. The show begins Tuesday, 14th May on Sky HISTORY.

A not-so-fair cop

The George Davis saga, which spiralled from a criminal investigation into an anti-establishment movement, began in April 1974 with a payroll heist on the offices of the London Electricity Board in Ilford.

Coppers had been tipped off and were lying in wait for the culprits. One officer was injured in the ensuing shootout, and witnesses claimed to have seen a known petty criminal named George Davis fleeing the scene.

Davis maintained he had been driving a minicab at the time of the raid, but a jury disagreed. Of the group of men accused of involvement in the raid, Davis was the only one who was convicted, and he was slapped with an eye-watering 20-year prison sentence.

Fortunately for Davis, his wife Rose and some close friends were absolutely sure he’d been stitched up and completely believed in his alibi.

The stage was set for one of the oddest yet most far-reaching grassroots movements of the 1970s.

The slogans that swept the country

In 1975, soon after Davis was convicted, Roger Daltrey, iconic lead singer of The Who, wore a ‘Free George Davis’ t-shirt while performing on stage. It was a reflection of how effectively Rose and other supporters had managed to raise awareness of the case.

A key figure was Davis’s mate, Peter Chappell. As his son later said in an interview, ‘Dad knew Davis was innocent because he was speaking to him at the exact time the raid took place. But no one would listen. The newspapers didn’t want to hear his side of the story. It made my dad angry.’

Chappell first put Davis on the public’s radar with a spectacular, shamelessly reckless stunt. ‘The campaign to free George Davis was begun by me driving my lorry into the front office of the Daily Mirror building,’ he recounted decades later. ‘Then I went around the corner and did the same to three other newspaper offices and then I drove up Fleet Street, up The Strand, into Trafalgar Square, under Admiralty Arch, down the Mall and into Buckingham Palace Gates, before I gave myself up.’

The most famous stunt of all involved Headingley Cricket Ground in Leeds, where the third Ashes test was brazenly sabotaged by campaigners. They dug up chunks of earth from the pitch, which they also splattered with oil. On the entrance they left the defiant apology, ‘Sorry it had to be done’ alongside the proclamation, ‘Davis Is Innocent’.

Similar slogans – ‘Free George Davis’, ‘G Davis Is Innocent’, and most famously of all, ‘George Davis is Innocent OK’ – were daubed on walls and rooftops in London and beyond, becoming arguably the most well-known example of graffiti being used as part of a sustained social campaign in England. It even inspired punk band Sham 69 to release a song titled George Davis is Innocent.

The colourful aftermath

The movement in support of Davis touched something in the zeitgeist, overlapping with other criminal justice campaigns such as the widespread calls to overturn a murder charge against a gangland figure called George Ince (whose innocence was indeed finally proven).

It also drew in left-wing campaigners with a track record of protesting social inequality and systemic injustice. Peter Chappell, who received a jail term for vandalising the cricket ground, credited a political collective known as ‘Up Against the Law’ for spurring him on in his efforts to prove Davis’s innocence.

Thanks to the dogged campaigning, which included a stage play called George Davis is Innocent by a radical London theatre company and marches on Downing Street led by Rose (who was described in one US newspaper as ‘a national figure, regularly on television news programmes, her dark eyes blazing, screaming at police during protest rallies’), the Home Secretary agreed to release Davis in 1976. He had not been exonerated; his conviction was simply regarded as unsafe – and that was enough.

Davis was feted like a true celebrity on his release, though this happy period wasn’t to last long. Just a year after he triumphantly walked out of prison, he was arrested again – this time for a bank robbery which he very much was a part of. Davis was back behind bars, and his wife had no sympathy for him. ‘I was shamed,’ Rose later wrote. ‘I felt guilty, like a traitor really… I felt gutted for all those people who had helped us.’

They divorced soon afterwards, and the story of George Davis and the social movement he inspired faded into relative obscurity – though some of the graffiti can still be seen in London.

But there was still a satisfying final chapter to the saga to come. In 2011, a 69-year-old Davis sat in a jam-packed courtroom to hear three judges finally quash the 1974 robbery conviction. Speaking afterwards, Davis said, ‘I have pursued this appeal for all these years because I wanted all those people who worked for, and helped, the campaign in the 1970s to know that their support was justified.’

While the judges didn’t quite say so, the verdict confirmed what so many people had thought for so long – that George Davis had indeed been innocent.