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Appeal to find Joe Orton sting librarians

PUBLISHED: 14:45 11 April 2011

Joe Orton

Joe Orton

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A WRITER researching the notorious case of tragic playwright Joe Orton’s reign of mischief in an Islington library is appealing for the clerks who were drafted in to catch him to come forward.

Author and artist Ilsa Colsell, 30, is on the hunt for librarians who were called in to help catch Orton and his partner Kenneth Halliwell when, in the early 1960s, they stole and defaced scores of books from Islington’s South Library, then the Essex Road Library, in Essex Road, Islington.

Ms Colsell, who is writing a book about the case titled Malicious Damage, said: “They tried to catch them in the act and some of the libraries posed as members of the public browsing the shelves.

“It was a large operation and many people were drafted in but we don’t know how many exactly. If I could find somebody who had to look out for them, that would be really amazing.”

Orton and Halliwell, who lived in Noel Road, Islington, altered the covers and wrote new blurbs, before sneaking the books back onto the shelves and watching to see people’s reactions.

They also decorated the walls of their flat, from floor to ceiling, with images ripped from art books.

The duo were eventually caught by senior clerk Sydney Porrett after he sent them a ruse letter claiming their car was illegally parked – and matched the typewriter used for their reply to the writings on the books. They were sent to prison for six months for theft and malicious damage.

Mark Aston, local history manager at the Local History Centre, in Finsbury Library, St John Street, Finsbury, said: “We have found it very difficult to pinpoint anyone who was around at the time. We would like to get people’s memories stirring with an appeal in the Gazette and maybe someone will come forward. We could see the other side of the fence – what it was like for the people working in the libraries then.”

Orton went on to become a renowned playwright, but his life was cut short at the age of only 34, when in 1967 he was bludgeoned to death by Halliwell, who then took his own life.

Islington Museum, also in Finsbury Library, will host an exhibition of the surviving book covers in October.


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