"Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely..."
What might happen in time of war if politicians were to exploit their emergency powers, first to line their own pockets, and then to silence any opposition...?
BB999: the Phantom Fire-Engine is a play currently being written and developed by writer Christopher Goulding.
It tells the true story of a forgotten episode of political corruption that happened in Newcastle upon Tyne during the Second World war.
In 1940-41, Britain faced invasion as its people struggled for survival amidst bombing raids and the privations of rationing. But a handful of local officials in Newcastle City Council, and the city's police, fire brigade, and ARP lived lives of privilege and relative luxury, lining their pockets at the expense of the public they were supposedly there to protect.
This shocking act of betrayal was exposed when in 1942, council auditors questioned the sale and disappearance of one of the city's fire engines, registration number BB999, from the Newcastle brigade's headquarters.
The Phantom Fire Engine
Newcastle City Fire Brigade engine BB 999 in the 1920s
After questions were asked in parliament about the affair, a Home Office inquiry took place at Westminster in 1944.
The inquiry revealed a web of corruption involving a senior city councillor, the city's chief constable, the chair of the civil defence committee, and a number of other prominent figures. It also emerged that, once discovered, these men had attempted to hush up the whole affair by abusing the wartime emergency powers they had at their disposal. Under the spurious guise of 'national security' witnesses were intimidated by the local police and threatened with arrest if they gave evidence to the tribunal.
However, the inquiry was largely a whitewash. The political expediencies of wartime prevented the full criminal investigation that would undoubtedly have ensued in normal circumstances. The culprits resigned or were removed from office, but none were ever prosecuted.
By the time the war was over, the whole affair had been forgotten. Since then, it has hardly ever been mentioned in histories of the war or of Newcastle upon Tyne...
At the centre of the scandal were two prominent local officials: Councillor Richard Embleton (right) and Chief Constable Crawley (left). These men abused their considerable wartime powers to exploit the resources at their disposal for private advantage. Once discovered, they used those powers to intimidate whistle-blowers. Both men were eventually forced to resign, but neither faced prosecution.