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Illicit Stills at Ash Vale in 1935

HJ Browning OBE was Deputy Chief of the Customs Investigation Department of the Customs and Excise. His book They didn’t declare it, published by Harrap in 1967, tells the stories of many of the investigations he undertook during his 27 years in the Investigation Department. It was this book which led us to discover the story of the illicit stills in Ash Vale.

Mr Browning met his informant, called Mr X, in Farnham at midnight. In exchange for an unspecified fee and immunity from prosecution Mr X provided information which led to the discovery of the illicit distillery and the arrest and prosecution of the people involved.

Mr Browning obtained a search warrant, had a discreet advance look at the premises, and contacted the superintendent of police at Farnham. They would raid the premises at 8.45am on Sunday 17th February 1935.

The Aldershot News of February 22nd 1935 reported the raid. “The customary calm that marks Sunday morning in Ash was somewhat rudely disturbed, when two motor cars loaded with plain clothes police and customs officials suddenly swept up the Vale Road and stopped outside Minden House. Within a few seconds the Police had dashed out of the car and surrounded the house.” The distillery was in a brick-built hut in the garden, and the customs officials went straight round to look inside.

In his book Mr Browning says that this was the most efficient illicit distillery he had ever seen. The distillery was spotlessly clean, and capable of large scale production. Two hundred gallons of wash were fermenting in three large open tubs, and there was a device for regulating the temperature of the wash. There was a glass lined still fitted with a fractionating column, and three smaller stills. There were flavouring essences including champagne, brandy, juniper oil to make spirit resembling gin and creosote to give the spirit a woody taste as if it had been matured in a cask. A gallon of overproof spirit was found (which would have been diluted before drinking). Mr Browning’s book contains a photograph of the equipment and some of the police and customs officials involved. Sgt W Budd of Ash is in the picture.

The operation was run by an elderly gentleman called Edward Cunningham, who was happy to co-operate with the authorities and give a full statement. Until 3 or 4 months previously he “bore an irreproachable character”. Mr Browning liked him, and invited him to lunch with his captors at the Bush Hotel in Farnham before taking him to Farnham Police Station to be charged.

In court the defendant pleaded guilty. He explained that he lived in furnished accommodation at Minden House, and rented the buildings at the rear of the house for 10s a week from Mrs Fry. He would not say how he disposed of the spirit and said, “I accept full responsibility for the illicit distillation plant, and no other occupant of Minden House had anything to do with the matter”.

Edward Albert Cunningham had fought in the Boer War and attained the rank of Major in the Imperial Yeomanry. From 1903-1915 he worked as a manufacturing chemist in America. He then returned to England to join up again and became a Captain and served in Palestine and France. Demobilised in 1921 he was unable to get his old job back, and worked for a minerals company for 4-5 years until made redundant. He then tried to make a living from manufacturing chemicals, and it was when this failed that he turned to making illegal spirits. He had never done anything dishonest before.

His past achievements however cut no ice with the court. The Aldershot News 9th March 1935 reported that maximum penalties would be imposed for all the charges against him. The fines amounted to £1130 in total, and as he could not pay, Cunningham went to prison for 6 months.

Edward Henry Ellis Fry, a former Merchant Navy Officer, was 27 years old and had lived with his parents at Minden House for the past two years. He was found on the premises during the raid, and then fled to Hull but was traced and brought back. He admitted helping Cunningham make the spirit, tasting the finished product and finally to his part as a salesman.

Fry had put his savings of £200 into Cunningham’s business and this had all been lost. Fry’s mother had also lost all her money. After this Fry was persuaded to assist with the illicit business. In view of these circumstances, and because he had a career ahead of him, the court was asked to give him a chance and he was only fined £105.

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