Rumour was that the Polish-registered articulated lorries delivering to the travellers were filled with dangerous sub-standard sofas.
The cheap furniture was said to be made of plastic and foam that burst into flames in seconds, sending out lethal smoke and fumes, which could kill unsuspecting homeowners.
Reporting on Europe’s biggest illegal traveller site at Crays Hill, near Basildon – occupied by Irish travellers known as the Sheridan clan – meant several visits to the site and the neighbouring village.
Claims and counter-claims were made, and much of what was said by travellers – and the villagers opposed to them – had to be taken with a pinch of salt.
But during one visit to the site I saw sofas stored there. They were very distinctive – smaller than normal, and in an unusual set comprising a three-seater, two-seater and an armchair.
The travellers seemed reluctant to talk about them, claiming it was neighbouring English travellers who were to blame.
Essex County Council trading standards seemed equally reluctant to investigate.
At the same time, business appeared to be booming, to the point where the camp had built a warehouse without planning permission to store the furniture.
By chance, in January 2006, I spotted the unusual sofas on sale for the ‘bargain price’of £269 (the set), in a high-street furniture shop in Basildon.
Was Furniture Store being supplied by the travellers? I speculated with the editor. I convinced him I should pose as a customer and buy a set so we could send it for official tests.
Cash in hand, I ordered a set from the shop. It arrived the following week.
The West Yorkshire Joint Services testing laboratory needed the suite a week in advance of the test, so it could be kept in a specific atmosphere.
Meanwhile, I monitored the traveller site and was able to get photographs of almost identical furniture stacked on one of the plots and being hawked by travellers at a local bootsale.
Industry experts who conducted the test for us were shocked at the speed the cover
and foam melted, producing deadly smoke.
During breaks in the tests they explained that sofas seized from travellers were often brought in and the suspects were often called Sheridan.
We gave trading standards a week’s notice before publishing our story, so it could buy its own suite from the shop.
This suite also failed safety tests, and a year later the county council took the shop to court, which was ordered to pay £10,000 in fines and costs – Essex Trading Standards’ biggest-ever prosecution.
Officers also investigated the traveller site. It seemed those responsible stayed one step ahead, and no furniture was ever seized from the site.
Perhaps, because now the heat was on, they decided to stop their potentially deadly importation of sofas.