Unsolved murders in 1930s Soho

In a seventy year old guide to Soho in my London book collection, there’s a great chapter entitled: Wide Boys, Spivs, Dippers and Steamers. It details the murky criminal underbelly of London’s entertainment district. Because mid-twentieth century Soho was a dangerous place. But also exciting. As the book puts it:

One has only to take a short walk from Great Windmill Street to Charing Cross Road via Old Compton Street to see fifty faces that would fit into the Police Gazette with no trouble at all.

On a street corner, you might see a fence with a jeweller’s magnifying glass screwed into his eye regarding a watch or ring that somebody wanted to sell in a hurry for cash and no questions asked. A former Special Branch officer Detective Inspector Harold Brust stated: “Regarding criminal haunts in London, there are districts which are known as haunts of vice and depravity full of bolt-holes for hunted men. Soho is one such region.” That was his opinion in 1937.

Not surprising really as the previous two years had seen a series of brutal murders in Soho – mainly of prostitutes. “French Fifi” was strangled by a silk stocking in Archer Street. “Red” Max Kassell, who was believed to be the head of a supposed White Slave ring was also killed. Jeanette Cotton was strangled by a silk hanky in her flat on Lexington Street on Thursday, April 16th, 1936. Connie Hine (spelt Hind in another account) was garrotted with piano wire.

In a rather melodramatic turn of phrase, my Soho guide claims:

This trail of homicide led to the formation of the CID’s Vice Squad, which managed to get a line on Soho’s white slavers and dope kings in double-quick time.

In fact, the crimes went unsolved. Local ladies of the night talked to police but it all came to nothing. Once the police lost interest, Soho clammed up on itself. This may be a Soho that’s hard to imagine now – one of poverty, crime, seedy cafes and violence – but it certainly existed. At the close of World War Two, for example, a Canadian officer was killed by a blow to the head with a brick while walking down Bourchier Street – linking Wardour Street and Dean Street. As he lay dying, he was relieved of his wallet.

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The wife who bought rope for her husband to be hanged

Dick Hughes is mentioned in the Newgate Calendar as a robber who came to London at the start of the eighteenth century to make money the dishonest way. He’d already been arrested and tried in Worcester for theft. On that occasion he’d been whipped at the cart’s tail “crying carrots and turnips” as he was dragged along and beaten.

Hughes fell into bad company the moment he arrived in the capital. After being caught stealing three shillings from a house in Lambeth, he pleaded for mercy at the Kingston-upon-Thames assizes and was not hanged – as could easily have happened. But instead of turning a new leaf, Hughes became ever more audacious.

He robbed houses in Tottenham Cross, Harrow-on-the-Hill, Hackney, Hammersmith and a tobacconist in Red Cross Street. His luck run out when Hughes was caught breaking into the house of a certain George Clark in Twickenham. Very soon, he was languishing in Newgate prison.

Hughes was dissected after being hanged with the sheriff's rope
Hughes was dissected after being hanged with the sheriff’s rope

During a previous short stretch of imprisonment at the Fleet Prison, Hughes had married a very kind-hearted woman. On the 24th June, 1709, she had to watch her husband transported in a cart through the parish of St Giles towards the gallows at Tyburn. As the cart paused, she ran up to Hughes and asked whether she or the sheriff were supposed to buy the rope to hang him!

Her husband, a bit thrown by this question, said it was the sheriff’s business to do that. Rather sheepishly, his wife produced a length of rope:

I wish I had known so much before. it would have saved me twopence for I have been and bought one already.

Sarcastically, Hughes advised her to keep it as it might come in useful for her second husband. And so, aged 30, Hughes dangled at the end of rope provided by the authorities and not his dear lady wife. Afterwards, he was taken to the Surgeons’ Hall and dissected – a common practice for the bodies of poor criminals.

People who lived on London Bridge

To look at London Bridge now you see….well…..a bridge with traffic on it. But go back three centuries or more and the bridge was full of houses and some illustrious tenants. During the reign of Henry VIII, the court painter Holbein lived there. Two hundred years later, another artist – Hogarth – was a resident. They saw London Bridge in its Tudor and Georgian manifestations. It would have been remarkably similar during both periods.

Nonesuch Palace
Nonesuch Palace

The only highway for hundreds of years across the Thames was made up of about nineteen irregular arches with the original stones being laid in around 1176. Incredibly, this structure would last with many modifications until 1831 By that time, the medieval bridge and its Tudor houses had gone into a severe decline. The narrowness of the arches created fierce rapids and were not navigable by larger vessels.

From the Middle Ages, there was a stone chapel to St Thomas a Becket at the centre of the bridge. At either end were towers and the one facing Southwark was decorated with the severed heads of traitors. One of those heads under Henry VIII belonged to John Houghton, the last prior of the London Charterhouse who wouldn’t take the oath recognising King Henry as head of the Church of England. For that, he was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn gallows. An old story had it that the keeper of the tower who supervised these grisly human remains was an old cripple who would play his lute at night accompanied by his pet owl.

The mad lute player who looked after the heads on London Bridge
The mad lute player who looked after the heads on London Bridge

In the sixteenth century, a large wooden building called Nonesuch House (as there was none such like it) appeared on the bridge. It was basically a wooden kit made in the Netherlands and then assembled in situ using just pegs to keep the whole thing together. It was surmounted by onion domes and sundials.

By the eighteenth century, the bridge was something of a death trap. The houses were on the verge of collapse and hung over the street blocking out the daylight. Timber beams slung across the top storeys stopped them collapsing on top of carts and coaches below. There were no footways and the whole thing was clogged up permanently – proving impossible to cross.

The only shops were needle makers and booksellers. One of the latter was Crispin Tucker, who both sold and wrote books and was visited by Alexander Pope and Dean Swift (author of Gulliver’s Travels). Nonesuch and the St Thomas chapel were in a bad state and used as warehouses.

Samuel Pepys and the horror of the London plague

Samuel Pepys kept his famous diary of London life during the year 1665 when plague ravaged the city – killing thousands. He first noticed the onset of the pestilence when red crosses appeared on a door in Drury Lane. In a matter of a few days, King Death had galloped through the City of London and then on to Westminster and the suburbs. Poor Samuel came face to face with the horror when he got off a boat and had to step over a dead body as he headed down an alleyway.

Pepys wearing a fine wig
Pepys wearing a fine wig

It had been a hot summer when the sickness had emerged. Doctors and physicians died so there was nobody to tend the sick. Pepys own medic – Dr Burnett – popped his clogs round about the 25th August of the plague. In the last week of that month, an estimated 10,000 people succumbed. Given the population of London at that time, this was a terrible catastrophe. As Pepys noted, the horror just kept going without any end in sight.

Still, some of the decisions one has to make at the height of a spreading plague are quite mundane. For example, should one wear one’s usual wig? On Sunday 3rd September, Pepys got up and dressed in his fine coloured silk suit. He was about to don his “periwigg” when he remembered that he’d bought it in Westminster just as the plague reached the area.

His worry wasn’t that the shopkeeper had been infected but that the wig might be made of hair from men who had died of plague. Somehow, Pepys reasoned, the disease could transfer from his fashionable head covering to himself. Pepys even wondered if the plague could spell the end for wigs!

It is a wonder what will be the fashion after the plague is done as to periwiggs for nobody will dare to buy any hair for fear of the infection, that it had been cut off the heads of people dead of the plague.

Needless to say Pepys survived and carried on wearing fine wigs, as did every other man in society, till his death.

The face of British policing in 1800

Old soldiers didn’t die in Georgian London – they became Charlies. Allegedly these early police were named after the flamboyant monarch Charles II. Though they cut a rather more pathetic figure. Shabby old veterans given something to do and hardly up to the job of tackling your average London criminal.

A right Charlie - unlikely to be much use in a true crime situation
A right Charlie – unlikely to be much use in a true crime situation

These were watchmen who were supposed to protect Londoners against criminals on the dangerous streets. Only they weren’t very effective. This was before the modern police force was formed by Sir Robert Peel and Charlies gave way to Bobbies. The Charlie was more often than not a bit of an old codger with a rattle, a lantern and a long white pole they struck on the ground to mark the hours.

They had meeting points round the city and small watch-boxes. But their abilities were held in such low regard that the well-off would either take their valuables with them if they had to travel out of town or park their silverware with the bank. Others would carry a “robber’s purse” which was given up to their assailant to avoid being injured or worse in a struggle.

I’ve read one theory that the Charlies got their name in the reign of Charles II – I’m open to any information you have to support or rebut this.

Houses of Parliament burnt down in massive blaze

On the 16th October, 1834, the old Houses of Parliament were completely destroyed by a huge fire. It took several days to extinguish an inferno that engulfed ancient medieval halls, Georgian houses and most of the palace of Westminster. Westminster Hall – a vast space dating back to the Norman period – was only saved because of the wind direction. But the House of Commons and House of Lords were no more. The centre of government was a smouldering ruin.

Houses of Parliament burn down in 1834
Houses of Parliament burn down in 1834

The reason for the fire was something typically archaic in such a venerable British institution. Incredibly, a primitive system of accounting was still being used by the Exchequer in the nineteenth century that involved digging notches into long pieces of wood called “tallies”. The author Charles Dickens mocked this ridiculous practice saying it was no better than the way Robinson Crusoe had “kept his calendar on the desert island”.

Even under George III (reigned from 1760 to 1820), somebody had asked whether it was time for the state’s finances to be kept using pen, paper, ink and pencils instead of pieces of wood. Finally, in 1826, the tallies were abolished. From now on, no more notches in sticks! However, that left a lot of bits of wood lying around – centuries of them in fact. They were of no use whatsoever and probably never had been. So it was decided to gradually burn the lot.

A stove was used in the House of Lords. A labourer called Joshua Cross was hired to shovel the wood in though it turned out he wasn’t properly supervised in this task by the Clerk of Works. As a result, the raging fire in the stove extended to nearby wood panelling and in no time the whole House of Lords was on fire including a fine tapestry of the Spanish Armada being defeated.

Nearby was St Stephen’s chapel, which had been rebuilt between 1320 and 1352 and under Edward VI became the House of Commons. It was in this chamber that Oliver Cromwell had dismissed parliament. And now it was also consigned to the flames. Thousands watched in awe at the spreading orange glow. The very floorboards that had been trodden by great political figures such as Pitt, Fox, Burke and Canning were incinerated. And all because of a daft form of accounting that had never been of any real use.

Sir Walter Raleigh catches fire in Islington

Sir Walter Raleigh – swashbuckling adventurer under Queen Elizabeth I (or Queen Bess if you prefer) – and Islington don’t exactly sit together in your mind. But Raleigh and other Elizabethans loved popping over to the village of Islington to take the air. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, its dairies would become famous for their creams, custards, cakes and gooseberry fools. But in the sixteenth century – the time of Raleigh – it was archery practice on the fields and just admiring the views over the green valley of Holloway and on to Highgate hill. The view has changed a bit since then!

Raleigh's old house converted into the Pied Bull Inn shortly before demolition
Raleigh’s old house converted into the Pied Bull Inn shortly before demolition

The Tudors took to building country homes in the area decorated with oak panels and stained-glass windows. Raleigh, worn out by long voyages of discovery and returning with tobacco to poison his fellow Englishmen, took up residence with gusto. His house was still standing in 1830 by which time it had become the Pied Bull Inn, behind what was then called Frederick Street. There is a very silly story about Raleigh smoking tobacco that I found in an Edwardian history of London:

Sitting one day in a deep meditation with a pipe in his mouth, he inadvertently called to his man (servant) to bring him a tankard of small ale. The fellow, coming into the room, threw all the liquor into his master’s face and running downstairs bawled out: Fire! Fire! Sir Walter has studied till his head is on fire and the smoke bursts out of his head and nose! 

An unusual case of somebody spontaneously combusting due to too much thinking. Pictures depicting this incident used to appear over tobacconist shops. A stained-glass window in Raleigh’s house was bordered with images of sea-horses and parrots plus tobacco leaves. Years later, the pioneer of the filthy habit would be executed for treason. He allegedly took two pipes with him to the Tower of London, his prison, to have a good puff before the big event.

The She Barkers of Cranbourne Alley

As you come out of Leicester Square towards Charing Cross Road and the Leicester Square tube station, you can cross over at the traffic lights and continue down Cranbourn Street. It’s a pretty innocuous street – very unmemorable. But two hundred years ago, it was the known as Cranbourne Alley and regarded as the “great bonnet mart of London”. If you were a lady, you’d go and buy your fashionable bonnet to adorn your head in Cranbourne Alley.

Bad bonnets not allowed in Cranbourn Alley!
Bad bonnets not allowed in Cranbourn Alley!

But god forbid, if the bonnet you were wearing as you walked down the street was unfashionable. Because you would be badgered by the She Barkers, women employed to harass ladies whose bonnets desperately needed replacing. If you think shop assistants can sometimes be pushy now, that’s nothing compared to the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. As a book I have from the 1830s explains:

Woe used to betide the woman of the middle classes who passed through Cranbourne Alley with an unfashionable bonnet! It was immediately seen from one end of the place to the other and twenty barkers beset her, each in turn, as she walked forward, arresting her course by invitations to inspect the ware that was for sale within. Many a one has had her cloak or shawl torn from her back by these rival sisters of trade during their struggles to draw her within their den, each pulling a different way.