Monday, 2 April 2018

The Great Diamond Raid: Freddy the Fly and Screwie Louie


On 16 July 1956 Mrs Mullins collected hundreds of cut diamonds worth £100,000 from the London Diamond Bourse, then at 57 Hatton Garden, as she had done every week for the past six years and got into the chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce of her employer, Moses Wijnberg. They were taking the diamonds to his office in Kimberley House, Holborn Viaduct where Wijnberg traded diamonds twice a week on Monday and Wednesday. The unsold stones were returned in the evening to the Hatton Garden vaults. 

Just after 11.00am driving along St Cross Street into the Farringdon Road, the car was stopped in traffic. Suddenly a man wearing a cap and blue dungarees opened the back door, snatched the attaché case from Mrs Mullins and ran off. The driver, Frank Baker, chased the man but slipped and fell just as he was about to tackle him. The robber jumped into a waiting black Ford Zephyr car in Clerkenwell Road and sped off. The Flying Squad soon found the car abandoned in a cul-de-sac nearby. They issued a description of the robber as 5 feet 9 inches tall and aged between 20 and 30.

Later in court Moses Wijnberg said that Mrs Mullins had worked as his secretary for 40 years and Frank Charles Baker of High Wycombe, had been his driver for over six years. 
On Tuesday 17 July, acting on information, the police searched the three-room flat of 22 year old Phyllis Betty Clark in Greencroft Gardens (no number was given in the reports). She was described as a needlewoman who shared the flat with one Frederick Harmsworth. On the 26 July he was arrested in his pyjamas at 5am by 30 armed officers, while he was hiding out in a boarding house at Westcliff-on-Sea.

At the end of August, four men appeared at Bow Street court charged with stealing the diamonds. Frederick Joseph Harmsworth described as a bricklayer aged 30 of Greencroft Gardens; John Morley Kelly, 37, a deck hand of Landsdown Lane Charlton; Leslie Beavis a 26 year old salesman of Church Road Acton and William Cyril Manning an electrician aged 29 of Chichester Mews in Paddington (now demolished). Phyllis Clark was charged with receiving the registration book of a car, a TV, six ounces of plaster gelatine explosive and four electrical detonators. She appears to have cooperated with the police and the case against her was dropped. 

The prosecution barrister Mr Nugent said the Ford car had been stolen outside Park West in the Edgware Road area in May. Manning admitted he had taken the car and fitted it with false number plates on Harmsworth’s instructions. The finger prints of Harmsworth and Kelly were found in the car. Kelly left the country the day after the robbery, sailing to South Africa as a deck hand. Detectives flew there and arrested him as he arrived in Cape Town on the liner ‘Bloemfontein Castle’. 


On 19 November 1956 the men originally charged at Bow Street appeared at the Old Bailey. The Daily Mirror revealed that the blonde girlfriend of a petty criminal known as ‘Screwie Louie’ had been jilted. To get her revenge, she went to the police and told them about Louie who was arrested for buying a suit in the West End with a stolen cheque which had been left in the stolen Zephyr car. When questioned Louie said, ‘Why are you bothering about me? You should look at the big boys like Freddy the Fly’s gang’. He said the gang worked out of a garage in Chichester Mews in Paddington. He told the police that Freddy the Fly was Frederick Harmsworth the best ‘twirler’ (skeleton key maker) in the business, who was living with his girlfriend Phyllis Clark in Greencroft Gardens. 

In court DCS Sheppard said Harmsworth had 11 previous convictions, mainly for housebreaking. Harmsworth was sentenced to 7 years for the diamond robbery, even though the police admitted he had not planned the raid, nor was he the man who grabbed the diamonds. John Morley Kelly who had three previous convictions, received three years, and William Manning also got three years for stealing the car. Leslie Beavis was bound over for being an accessory. Passing sentence the Judge said to Harmsworth, ‘You are one of those people who choose to be a criminal and to lead a criminal life. You prefer it to any honest way of getting a living’. To Kelly he said, I am satisfied that you fell under the influence of Harmsworth. It was he who induced you to commit these crimes’.

Chief Superintendent Robert Lee, head of the Flying Squad in 1954, and Detective Chief Inspector Tom Sheppard were in charge of the case. In an amazing outburst at the Old Bailey, John Kelly shouted out, ‘There is corruption going on in this case, I am innocent. Kelly said he had met a man called Amos in Brixton, who worked with criminal gangs. Amos told him the diamonds had been sold to a fence for £65,000 and Lee and Sheppard had each been bribed with £13,000 to keep people out of court. 

The following year on 2 August 1957, Kelly’s case was raised in Parliament by his MP Mr Price, who said that Kelly had not been driving the getaway car during the robbery. His prints were only found on the stolen number plates which he admitted to. Kelly’s alibi, supported by his mother, was that he was home in Forest Gate at the time of the robbery. The MP said that the driver was a Mr Gosling now in prison, who had made a statement exonerating Kelly. Amos had told police that the two Dunn brothers had planned the robbery. They were arrested but then released, (we couldn’t trace the Dunns). One of the two officers accused of receiving bribes had resigned shortly afterwards. A police press statement said this had nothing to do with the case, rather that his wife objected to his irregular working hours. This could have been Chief Superintendent Robert Lee, known in the underworld as ‘one of the smartest bogies in the business’, who announced his retirement in 1957. 

In the House, Mr Simon the Joint Under Secretary of State for the Home Office, replying to Mr Price said that Kelly’s appeal had been turned down on 11 February 1957 and that a senior police officer had carried out an investigation of the claims made by Kelly but not found sufficient evidence to proceed. 

The press speculated that diamonds were passed to ‘Mr Big’ or ‘The Phantom’, the man who had planned the robbery. It was generally believed he was Billy Hill, known as ‘the Boss of the Underworld’, but he always denied it. Mr Big was not named and the diamonds never found. 

After serving his seven year sentence, Freddy Harmsworth, now a street trader living at Birchington Court in West End Lane, was arrested in September 1963 for the theft of £13,000 from the Sheerness Co-operative Bank. 

He and Dennis James Hawkins from Clapham, had spent 18 hours over a weekend hidden in the bank, and had burned through the steel strong room door using an oxy-acetylene cutter. We were not able to find out how long Harmsworth was imprisoned for this crime.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

An IRA funeral march and the bomb at Biddy Mulligan’s Pub


This story looks at both sides of the ‘Irish Troubles’ in the 1970s and two major events in Kilburn.

The Victoria Tavern and Alec Keene, prize fighter
About 1862, the Victoria Tavern was built on the south corner of Kilburn High Road and Willesden Lane. Alexander Findlay, better known as champion prize fighter, Alec Keene, took over the license of the Victoria Tavern in 1866 and stayed until 1879.

Alec Keene’s first recorded fight was on 20 June 1848 against ‘Sambo Sutton’ (real name Thomas Welsh). Keene was described as ‘the young and fresh light weight’ while Sutton was called, ‘an old stager who has always conducted himself well’. Keene won the fight in ‘masterly style’ and the 200 sovereigns’ prize money went to his backer Jem Burn, an ex-fighter.

Keene fought successfully through the mid-1850’s but then retired and like many ex-boxers, opened a pub, ‘The Three Tuns’ in Moor Street, Soho. Exhibition matches were held there and he continued to act as a second for other boxers such as his friend and world champion, Tom Sayers. When he moved to Kilburn, Keene held boxing matches at the Victoria Tavern, and its semi-rural position allowed him to promote pigeon shooting competitions which proved popular.

Alec and his partner George Brown also provided mass catering for crowds at race meetings, such as the annual three-day Barnet Fair and Races. They set up a booth, or “canvas hotel” as they called it, for the sale of hot joints of meat, chicken and vegetables. And to wash it down there was: ‘Moet’s champagne, wines and spirits, Bass’s pale ale and Guinness’s stout’ with ‘cigars and the fragrant weed of the very best’ to round off the meal.

Keene moved to another pub in East Mosley for a few years before his death in 1881. His body was returned to Kilburn for burial at Paddington Cemetery in Willesden Lane, just a few hundred yards from the Victoria Tavern.

Origin of the Name Biddy Mulligan
The pub was re-named Biddy Mulligan’s in the 1970s. The name was taken from the best known character of Irish comedian Jimmy O’Dea. Highly popular from the 1930s onwards, O’Dea dressed in drag as Biddy Mulligan, a female Dublin street seller.

To see his act there is a film clip of Biddy on YouTube.

Support for the IRA
In 1971 Michael Gaughan, a member of the IRA Active Service Unit in London, was sentenced to seven years for attempting to rob a bank in Hornsey with two revolvers. In March 1974 he and four other IRA men went on hunger strike in Parkhurst Gaol on the Isle of Wight. They were force fed, a horrible process used earlier on Suffragette prisoners: ‘six to eight guards would restrain the prisoner and drag him or her by the hair to the top of the bed, where they would stretch the prisoner's neck over the metal rail, force a block between his teeth and then pass a feeding tube, which extended down the throat, through a hole in the block.’ Gaughan’s weight halved, and after a hunger strike that lasted 64 days, he died on 3 June 1974, aged just 24 years old.

The IRA wanted to maximum publicity. Four days later crowds of over 3,000 people lined the streets, as Gaughan’s coffin was taken from The Crown at Cricklewood through Kiburn to the RC Church of the Sacred Heart in Quex Road for a Requiem Mass. The slow procession was led by a piper and an IRA guard of honour wearing berets and dark glasses. The next day his coffin was taken to Dublin for another parade and burial. The eight men who escorted the coffin in Kilburn were charged by the police with unlawfully wearing uniforms. They came from the Birmingham and Manchester areas rather than Ireland or Kilburn, and were each fined £60. 

Michael Gaughan's funeral march in Quex Road, leaving the Sacred Heart Church (Getty Images)
 
The Biddy Mulligan’s Bomb
In the 1970s Biddy Mulligan’s was a popular drinking place among Irish residents in Kilburn. The writer Zadie Smith talks about going there with her mother when collections were regularly made for the IRA.

On the evening of Sunday 21st December 1975 a young man seemed to be acting suspiciously. He was carrying a holdall but when the manager, John Constantine, challenged him to open the bag, he refused and was asked to leave. The man was described as around 18 years old, slim with fair hair, wearing a blue denim jacket and jeans. About an hour later, the pub was shaken by a large explosion. Luckily, only a few of the 90 people in the bar were hurt and none of them badly. An old lady of 82, who had been a regular for almost 50 years, said there was a very large explosion and a lot of glass splinters went into her hair.

The bomb squad estimated that about three to five pounds of explosive had been left in the holdall outside the pub in the doorway. Scotland Yard said that a phone call had been received by the BBC the previous night from an Irish man claiming to be from the ‘Young Militants’, a splinter group of the Protestant Ulster Defence Association (UDA). He said they were going to carry the War against the IRA onto the mainland. Leaders of Sinn Fein in London said they collected about £17,000 a year in Kilburn and they were concerned about this UDA backlash.

Biddy Mulligans in 1975 (Getty Images)

The following day landlords of the other pubs in Kilburn put guards on the door to check people’s bags as they entered. Locals were very concerned that ‘the Irish Troubles’ had spread to Kilburn.

The police acted very quickly (presumably with accurate intelligence), and arrested six people on the 23 December, a man and woman in London and four men in Glasgow and Renfrewshire. In October 1976 four of the men appeared at the Old Bailey and they were all found guilty. Samuel Carson, 31, a store man of Bangor, was found guilty of organising the plot and was sentenced to 15 years. Alexander Brown, 18, a chef also from Bangor, indentified as the man who planted the holdall, was given 14 years. Noel Moore Boyd, 20, an electrician from Belfast who made the bomb circuit, got 12 years. Archibald McGregor Brown, 40, a lorry driver of Cumbernauld, who stole the gelignite and provided a safe base in Scotland, received 10 years. In sentencing it was said the men were Protestants who were determined that IRA sympathisers should not meet in the pub without retribution. The judge said, ‘It should be clearly understood whatever political, religious or social feelings people may have, a crime of vengeance is not allowed. What is more, the use of explosives, with all the implications of danger to life and limb, is totally unacceptable.’

Later the pub name was shortened to Biddy’s. For a few years it traded as an Aussie sports bar called the Southern K, but in closed about 2009 and today the building is a Ladbrokes betting shop.

The site of Biddy Mulligan's today (Dick Weindling, August 2015)

Singer-songwriter Sean Taylor was born and still lives in Kilburn. He has played at the Glastonbury Festival four times. Sean released seven albums between 2006 and 2015. One of the tracks on his 2013 album ‘Chase the Night’, celebrates ‘Biddy Mulligans’. You can hear it on YouTube:





Wednesday, 15 July 2015

From Forger to Journalist


This intriguing story looks at a young man who travelled round the world, but there is a Kilburn connection.

Queens Arms Hotel
This pub at the end of Maida Vale and the beginning of Kilburn High Road was opened about 1843. It was a major coach stop with stabling at the back for the horses.

The Queens Arms Hotel, about 1900

The original building survived until 1940 when it was hit by a bomb on 26 September and at least 14 people were killed. Left as a bomb site, local children played in the large crater until it was rebuilt in 1958. Today it is managed by singer Rita Ora's Albanian father.

Queens Arms today

Archibald Cole
In May 1861 a young man rented a room for a few days at the Queens Arms Hotel. John Kempshaw, the landlord, said that the man gave him a leather bag to look after which contained 400 to 500 gold sovereigns. He saw the same man at the races with a young woman who was very nicely dressed, and Kempshaw served them with a hamper. The next day Kempshaw went with the man to Oxford Street to buy a portmanteau bag as he said he was going abroad. Kempshaw advised the man to put his money somewhere safe.

The young man was Archibald Hamblin Lillingstone Cole, who was born in Whitchurch, Shropshire in 1841, the eldest son of Reverend William Graham Cole. Archibald worked for four years as a clerk for the long established navy agents Messrs Stilwell and Co, at 22 Arundel Street, the Strand. In 1860 he was given a month’s leave to study for the Civil Service Exam. But Cole suddenly left the company in November 1860 and they did not hear from him until they received a letter in May 1861, saying he was going abroad and asking for a loan of £5 as he was penniless. The company did not pay him the £5. A few days later he went to the bank of Willis and Percival in Lombard Street, where Stilwell’s had their account, and asked for a cheque book. The clerk knew Cole worked for Stillwell’s and gave him the cheque book. On 27 May a cheque for £603 was presented by Cole at the bank, apparently signed by Stilwell’s, and they gave him the money, which he immediately exchanged at the Bank of England for gold sovereigns.

Cole left his home in Upper Portman Street and hired a courier, John Mattos, a black Jamaican, who was known in the West End as ‘Kangaroo’. Cole paid him to accompany him and a young woman to Paris and act as his interpreter. He asked Kangaroo to get cards printed in the name of Livingstone. This was similar to his middle name of Lillingstone and the name of the great explorer.

When they met at the station Cole handed Kangaroo a leather bag which contained gold sovereigns and a cheque book. The party travelled to Paris where they stayed for four days. As they left Cole asked Kangaroo to count the money to see how much remained, which was 330 sovereigns. They had lived luxuriously and he had spent about £200 on food and jewellery for the unnamed young lady. Mattos said he was given £7, with expenses all paid, for his work.

Once they discovered the fraud, Messrs Stilwell’s took out a warrant for Cole’s arrest, but he’d fled to the continent where he was convicted for an offence and jailed for two years. The English warrant was still active and Detective Joseph Huggett spotted Cole as he boarded a steamboat in Rotterdam in October 1863. When they got out to sea Huggett arrested him and he was prosecuted for forgery at the Old Bailey on 26 October. The bank clerks and Stilwell staff told the court that the handwriting on the cheques was that of Cole. Publican John Kempshaw and ‘Kangaroo’ also gave evidence about what they knew about Cole.

He was found guilty by the jury. The judge said that the forgery was for a large amount of money and up until a few years ago Cole would have been hanged. (£603 in 1861 is equivalent today to about £50,000). He was sentenced to ten years and transportation. The 22-year-old was transferred to Portland Prison and onto the convict transport ship ‘Racehorse’ for the long trip to Western Australia. After leaving England on the 19 May the ship berthed at Fremantle on 10 August 1865.

Australia
Convict records indicate that Cole was stoutly built, about five feet seven inches tall. His hair was brown and eyes grey. On his left arm there was a tattoo showing the letter “C”. A Charlotte Graham of Camden Town was nominated as his next of kin. Perhaps she was his lady travelling companion on the trip to Paris?

Apart from a couple of minor misdemeanours after his arrival in Western Australia - disobeying orders and drinking with a free man - his conduct was sufficiently good for him to receive a ticket-of-leave in February 1869. For just under a year he was employed as a clerk by Henry Gillman, a storeman in the coastal town of Bunbury. Gillman, also an ex-convict, had flourished in Australia since the expiration of his sentence for housebreaking in 1851.

From January 1870 Cole worked for himself, first as a clerk, then from mid-1870, as a schoolmaster in Bunbury, earning £100 per annum. In June 1871 he was granted a conditional release, effectively making him a free man. By 1872 he was an accountant but in the following year he was employed as a reporter on the Fremantle Herald. Looking for adventure, he sailed to Singapore in December 1873, where he soon found work as a journalist.

Singapore and Japan
Before leaving Western Australia he had met Catherine Briggs. She was born in Calcutta, where her father was a veterinary surgeon attached to the British army. She had come to Australia as a child. Her parents disapproved of her association with the ex-convict Cole, who was eleven years her senior. But love won out and she joined him in Singapore where they married in May 1874. The wanderlust continued to affect Cole. By 1878 the family, now including two daughters, had gone to Japan.

Archibald and Catherine Cole

It was only 25 years since Commodore Matthew Perry of the US Navy arrived in Japan to begin the process of opening the country up to the West. Yokohama had become a boom town. But foreigners were still a novelty, mainly working as engineers, legal advisers, coastal pilots and teachers. They were required to remain within a 43 kilometre radius of the treaty ports unless they held a special passport.

Merchants of Yohohama (Woodblock by Kuniteru II, 1870)

From August 1878 the Cole family lived in Yokohama, where Archibald worked as a journalist and editor of the Japan Gazette and Japan Mail. Although he went to China as a correspondent for the New York Herald, Cole was based in Yokohama for the next six years, during which time three sons were born.

Their home was on The Bluff; a residential area overlooking the harbour, favoured by foreign merchants. At the time Yokohama was described as a low swamp, criss-crossed by drainage canals, spanned by rather rickety wooden bridges. The town comprised warehouses, some elegant western shops, one or two good hotels, as well as bonded and free stores, custom-houses, banks, shipping offices, grog shops and money changing premises. There were two churches, pleasant bungalows with attractive gardens, an assortment of lodging-houses, a large railway station and a good shipping anchorage. All this was overlooked by the magnificent Mt Fuji, topped in a snowy cloak for much of the year.

Yokohama from The Bluff. (Very early photograph by Felice Beato,1869)

After living and working successfully in Yokohama, Archibald Cole died there on 18 January 1884. A local newspaper reported:
‘Mr. Cole was pursuing his usual duties yesterday, but in the evening he was seized with a fit of apoplexy, this was succeeded by another this morning, from which he never rallied.’

His descendants believe the fit of apoplexy (which at the time meant a sudden unconsciousness and death), was caused by an overdose of opium, a fittingly dramatic end for such a flamboyant character. He was buried in the foreigners’ cemetery in Yokohama and soon afterwards his widow and children returned to live in Australia. Catherine died there in 1916.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

The 1939 IRA Campaign and the Kiburn Social Club


A largely forgotten IRA campaign was carried out in England just before the outbreak of World War II. In April 1938 the IRA in Dublin drew up a document called the ‘S (for Sabotage) Plan’. It was decided, for the sake of correctness, that a formal declaration of War should be presented to the British Government. The ultimatum, which demanded the removal of all British troops from Ireland, was delivered to Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, on 12 January 1939. Scotland Yard’s Special Branch and the Government unwisely treated this as just another idle threat.

Carrying out the S-Plan
On the 16 January eight bombs exploded simultaneously in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool and Alnwick in Northumberland. There were further bombs over the next six months. Suspects in known centres of Irish population, such as Kilburn, were subjected to intense questioning and their homes searched by the police and Special Branch. But the IRA was one step ahead, having previously located their Active Service Units outside these areas as sleeper agents. The newspapers vied with each other in estimating how many people were involved, with figures fluctuating wildly from 2,000 to as many as 20,000. In fact the real number was probably only a few hundred, including those who supported the bombers.

The police were fortunate when they discovered a copy of the S-Plan in the Harrow home of Michael O’Shea, a 24 year old labourer. Special Branch was surprised by how detailed and well thought out the plan was. Drawn up by Jim O’Donovan and Sean Russell, the IRA Chief of Staff, the key targets were revealed as public utilities such as transport and gasworks.  There was considerable public concern after the newspapers published the information that March.

A major breakthrough happened by accident, when an inquisitive plumber called Charles Heap from Manchester was on a job in Chorley on Medlock. He saw several bags and other suspicious material in a cupboard. When the police searched the premises, they discovered a large amount of explosives, gelignite and detonators. Four people were arrested. The police also found a receipt from a lorry driver in Old Trafford which said, ‘For going to London and bringing back a cargo of stuff to be used on the 16 January. Paid £6 10 shillings’.

When they contacted him, the driver told the police that he’d been paid to transport what was described as a quantity of beeswax on 31 October 1938. He understood the beeswax was going to be used to polish a dance floor. He couldn’t remember the address he had been given but thought it was in Kilburn. From there an Irishman had directed him through a maze of backstreets to a garage in another part of North London. Detectives took the driver round the area until on the third day, he recognised a garage and house at 75 Fordington Road, East Finchley. The house was owned by John Healy, who had a furniture shop at 332 Hornsey Road and allegedly dealt in beeswax. Jack Healy was nothing like the IRA bombers portrayed in the newspapers. He was forty years old with a wife and two children. In his youth he had played Gaelic football in his native Derry before coming to England twenty years ago and settling down. As well running his business, Healy was also the proprietor of the Kilburn Irish Social Club. When police searched the Club they found two tons of potassium chlorate and a drum of aluminium oxide, which when mixed together could be used to make explosives. Gelignite was hard to come by so the IRA used other explosives such as potassium chlorate mixed with paraffin wax. This was nicknamed ‘Paxo’ after the well-known chicken stuffing mix. Healy argued that he had bought the chlorate from a London chemist to make throat pastilles in Ireland.

Gradually, the police traced and arrested other IRA members. On 29 March 1939, Healy was the oldest of the nine men (the rest were all in their 20s), found guilty and sentenced to a total of over 90 years at the Old Bailey. Healy got ten years for supplying material to make the explosives.

The attacks continued almost weekly and the Government introduced The Prevention of Violence Bill. This gave the police new powers of detention, and required all Irish nationals to register with the police just as other aliens had to do. In July when the Home Secretary introduced the Bill to Parliament, he said there had been 127 terrorist incidents since January 1939. One person had been killed, 55 injured, and 66 people had been arrested.

The most serious attack occurred later at the end of August when an IRA bomb exploded in the centre of Coventry killing five people. The police quickly made arrests and two men were convicted and sentenced to death. But anti-Irish feelings ran high: John Healy and a dozen IRA men in Dartmoor were set upon by fellow prisoners. Healy was badly hurt and developed pneumonia. His situation was critical and he spent five weeks in hospital in Plymouth before recovering and being returned to Dartmoor prison. We do not know what happened to him after he served his sentence.

The Kilburn Club
The ‘Kilburn Irish Social Club’ only lasted a few years and may have just been a front for Healy. It took us considerable research to work out where it was. We eventually found Vale Hall in Bridge Place near the Queen’s Arms pub at the bottom of Kilburn, numbered as 15b Kilburn High Road. Its original name was Kilburn Hall, built by Charles Hurditch as an Evangelical Mission Hall about 1868.

Charles Russell Hurditch was born in Exeter in 1840. Aged 20 he came to London and joined the YMCA. In 1864 he became secretary of Stafford Rooms, a YMCA centre in Tichborne Street, just off the Edgware Road. Here he met William Holmes, a stationer and bookseller, whose family had been involved in one of the mass conversions held at the Stafford Rooms. Charles married Mary Holmes on 11 May 1865 and they moved to 164 Alexandra Road, only a few doors from the Holmes family at 156. Charles left the YMCA and established himself as a preacher. He built or rented halls across London to spread his message to the poor, as well as producing magazines, books and composing hymns.

1930s map showing the position of the New Vale Hall

From 1904 the Kilburn Hall was used as a cycle works, then for motor cycles and as a motor garage into the 1920s. It was destroyed by fire early one morning in June 1928, watched by hundreds of women and girls, who had to leave their homes in the neighbouring houses dressed only in their night clothes. It was re-built as the New Vale Hall and in the 1930s it was used for whist, dancing and for boxing and wresting matches. Originally run by Max Lerner, it was taken over by entrepreneur and showman Harold Lane in 1936. He had began by organising whist drives, and in the late 1920s he hired Olympia where 16,000 people played cards for a world record £1,000 top prize. He went on to open his Lane’s London Clubs. Number 1 was at 7-9 King Street, Baker Street; Number 2 was at 11a Queen Street, Hammersmith and Number 3 was at The New Vale Hall, Kilburn.

Harold Lane (in the centre) with wrestlers outside his Baker Street Club in the 1930s (Getty Images)

Lane introduced All-in wrestling to England about 1930. This proved very popular but he ran into trouble by organising matches on a Sunday. In 1935 Lane was summonsed under the ancient Sunday Observance Act. A solicitor’s clerk said he paid 2/6 and went to the Hammersmith club on the evening of 6 October where he saw three well-attended contests. Repeated police raids on his clubs forced Lane to close permanently in 1938.

By the 1950s the Hall was being used as a factory to manufacture steel cabinets. Along with nearby bomb damaged properties, it was demolished in the 1960s and today lies under the Tollgate Gardens estate, owned by Westminster Council.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

The Murder of Tommy ‘Scarface’ Smithson


In this story we enter the sordid world of gangland London in the 1950s and investigate the murder of Tommy ‘Scarface’ Smithson in Carlton Vale, Kilburn.

After the War, the vice and gambling industries in Soho were run by gangs: the main ones were the Maltese Messina Brothers, and the London born Billy Hill and Jack Spot. They controlled their interests by bribing the police, with the threat of a razor attack for anyone who stepped out of line. As one gang member coldly put it:
‘People were paid a pound a stitch, so if you put twenty stitches in a man you got a score. You used to look in the papers next day to see how much you’d earned.’

One person who dared to defy the gangs was Tommy Smithson. Born in Liverpool in 1920, the sixth of eight children, his family moved to the East End of London two years later. Tommy served time for theft in a reform school where he learned self defence and boxing. During the War he joined the merchant navy as a stoker and served on ammunition ships to Australia. He returned to Shoreditch in 1950 and was soon sentenced to 18 months for a robbery. In prison he got to know people who ran the Soho gambling clubs. By 1954 he had his own gang which included the young Kray twins, Ronnie and Reggie, who looked up to Smithson as a hero.

The Maltese gang members had taken advantage of subsidised passages to England for as little as three pounds to establish a network of gambling and drinking clubs, servicing a string of prostitutes. Smithson decided to target the Maltese. He began by working as a croupier for George Caruana in one of his clubs in Batty Street, Stepney. Caruana and his Maltese colleagues were keen to avoid trouble and when Smithson set up a protection racket he was soon taking a regular share of the takings in all their ‘spielers’. The club owners paid him a shilling in the pound, it doesn’t sound much but Tommy was making up to £500 a night.

Tommy Smithson (Getty Images)
He opened his own clubs, such as the Publishers Club (supposedly for authors – but nobody was fooled!) Then following police raids, he went to Brixton prison until a whip round of his friends paid the fine. He started to seriously annoy people when he set up as a bookmaker in Berwick Street, in competition with Billy Hill and Jack Spot. Then he got into a fight and cut Freddie ‘Slip’ Sullivan in French Henry’s club. Sullivan had a brother in the Hill-Spot gang and retribution was swift.

A week later Smithson was told a peace offering was on the table and that there was no reason the gangs couldn’t get along. He went to meet Spot and Hill behind the Carreras ‘Black Cat’ cigarette factory in Camden Town. He was carrying a gun, but surprisingly handed it over when asked by Billy Hill. The signal for the attack on Tommy was a cigar butt being thrown on the ground. He was slashed in the face, arms, legs and body, then thrown over a wall into Regents Park near Park Village East, to bleed to death. Amazingly, he survived and 47 stitches were put into his face. As a reward for honouring the ‘code of silence’ he was paid £500 from Billy Hill and earned his nickname of ‘Scarface’. Tommy opened clubs and fenced stolen goods for a time but he got another set of stitches when the word spread that he was a ‘grass’. This ended his entry into the big time and he decided it was safer to work as a protector for the Maltese.

Tommy fell in love with Fay Richardson, a mill girl from Stockport who came to London to work as a prostitute. The press described her as a ‘gangster’s moll’ and a ‘femme fatale’. She was certainly dangerous to know; three of her lovers were murdered and others suffered severe beatings. In his memoirs Commander Bert Wickstead of Scotland Yard said: ‘She couldn’t have been described as a beautiful woman by any stretch of the imagination. Yet she did have the most devastating effect on the men in her life, so there must have been something about the lady.’
 
Newspaper picture of Fay Richardson
The handsome and dapper Smithson appealed to Fay and they began living together. When she was held on remand for buying clothes and records with bad cheques, Tommy raised money for her defence. He collected £50 from his former employer, George Caruana, but complained bitterly that it should have been a £100. On 13 June 1956 Smithson and two other men confronted Caruana and fellow Maltese Philip Ellul (who ran a small prostitute racket) and asked for more money. In the ensuing fight, Caruana was cut on the fingers as he protected his face. Another £30 was produced at gunpoint and in line with standard gangland practice, Ellul was ordered to start a collection book for Fay’s defence.

Tommy had gone too far this time. Just two weeks later on 25 June 1956, he was found dying in a Kilburn gutter. The rundown Number 88 Carlton Vale near the junction with Cambridge Road, was a brothel or ‘boarding house’ owned by Caruana. Smithson thought he’d been sent there to collect protection money. He was in the room of ‘Blonde Mary’ Bates when Philip Ellul, Vic Spampinato and Joe Zammit came in. Ellul shot him in the arm and the neck but the .38 revolver jammed. Smithson crawled down the stairs into the street. Bizarrely, his last words to the people who found him were said to be; ‘Good morning, I’m dying.’ He was a hard man. He was taken to Paddington Hospital but died shortly after he arrived.

The hit men, who fled to Manchester, were reassured they’d only be charged with manslaughter if they turned themselves in. But it was bad advice, they had been stitched up and they were tried for murder. Spampinato told the court he was only defending himself when Smithson attacked him with a pair of scissors. ‘Blonde Mary’ confirmed the story and he was acquitted. But it later emerged that Blonde Mary was Spampinato’s girlfriend. Ellul was sentenced to death for murder. Then 48 hours before his execution, the sentence was commuted to life, of which he served eleven years in prison.
 
Philip Elluh (Getty Images)
After he was released, Ellul came to London to collect the money had been promised by the organization. Sixpence was thrown on the floor and he was ordered to pick it up. Then he was taken to Heathrow for a flight to America and warned, ‘Don’t ever come back. If you do we have a pair of concrete boots waiting for you’. He did as he was told and stayed in America.

Smithson’s funeral was an old style gangster one: Rolls Royce hearses, elaborate floral tributes and members of ‘the firm’ attending. Thousands watched as the coffin was taken to St Patrick’s Cemetery in Leytonstone. The young Kray twins were there but Fay was still under arrest and wasn’t allowed to attend the funeral. She sent a wreath saying, ‘Till we meet again, Love Fay’.  She was put on probation that August and ordered to live with her mother in Stockport.

Pathe News has a film clip of the funeral, (but there is no sound). About three and a half minutes into the clip, the hearse has a flat tyre and has to be replaced!


Later, Smithson’s dear old mum who was well respected in the East End, had a large statue of an angel put on the grave. One of the firm said, ‘I had to laugh, a villain like Tommy Smithson with an angel over his grave!’

As crime reporter Duncan Campbell graphically says in his book, ‘The Underworld’, ‘There were almost as many theories as to why Smithson had died as there were scars in his face’. And the background behind Tommy’s killing didn’t become clear until 17 years later. In October 1973 ‘The Old Grey Fox’ Bert Wickstead, one of the Big Five at Scotland Yard, was leading the Serious Crime Squad. He decided to move against the Syndicate who had taken over most of the vice in Soho after the Messina brothers had been deported. Said to be earning as much as £100,000 a week, the organization was run by Bernie Silver (the only non-Maltese member), and 18 stone Big Frank Mifsud.

Just as the police raids were due, Silver and Mifsud had taken off on an ‘extended holiday’ after being tipped off by a member of Wickstead’s team. So Wickstead went through an elaborate pretence of having the warrants withdrawn and leaked a story to the press that he had given up the case. The papers responded with stories along the lines of, ‘The Raid That Never Was’. The ruse worked and members of the Syndicate started to return to London. Bernie Silver was arrested while he was having dinner with his girlfriend at the Park Tower Hotel on 30 December 1973.

Other members of the gang were seized at the Scheherazade Club in Soho. In the early hours of the morning, Wickstead had stepped on stage to announce that everyone was arrested. One person shouted out, ‘What do you think of the cabaret?’ and another wit replied, ‘Not much!’ The guests, staff and even the band, were taken to Limehouse police station where the band continued playing and everyone sang songs. A total of 170 members of the Syndicate were taken into custody but Frank Mifsud had been warned about the raid and fled abroad.

Wickstead said that Silver and Mifsud had ordered the murder of Tommy Smithson. The argument was that when Smithson had demanded money for Fay Richardson’s defence and an increase in his protection rate, it came at a bad time for Silver who was preparing to expand his empire. He couldn’t afford to be seen as a weak man by giving in to a small time crook like Smithson, so he told Ellul and Spampinato to get rid of him.

Wickstead and his team traced Spampinato to Malta. Elluh was run to ground in San Francisco after ‘The Old Grey Fox’ had appeared on an American TV show and a photo of Elluh appeared in the magazine, ‘True Detective’. Both men agreed to return to London and testify against the Syndicate in return for police protection. Spampinato gave useful evidence at the committal proceedings but refused to attend the Old Bailey trial. Elluh did not give any evidence in court. He managed to slip away from the police who were protecting him and returned to America. The grapevine said the price of their silence was at least £35,000 apiece.

Frank Mifsud was extradited from a Swiss clinic after claiming he was mentally unfit. In December 1974 after a long trial, he and Bernie Silver were given six years for living off immoral earnings. Then in July 1975 Silver was sentenced to life imprisonment for Smithson’s murder but a year later the Court of Appeal squashed the conviction, as they said that the case had been built on the evidence of unreliable witnesses.

In 1976 Mifsud was also tried at the Old Bailey for ordering Smithson’s killing. He said he was a property and club owner earning £50,000 a year. He claimed that he was a friend of Smithson and was sorry to hear he had been killed. When asked if he knew that Billy Hill had occasionally employed Smithson as a gangster, Mifsud simply said that Billy Hill was, ‘a kind gentleman who lent money’. Mifsud was acquitted of the murder but sentenced to five years imprisonment for living off immoral earnings. This was overturned by the Court of Appeal the following year.

In January 1977 the Thames TV programme ‘This Week’, broadcast a film called ‘An Exercise in Law’. They had interviewed Elluh and Spampinato who both said they didn’t know Bernie Silver and that he had nothing to do with Smithson’s murder. The programme implied that Commander Wickstead had wanted to destroy the Syndicate and had falsely linked Silver and Mifsud to the Smithson murder.

Friends close to Smithson always maintained that the Maltese had become tired of paying him off and organized his killing. One said the message to British gangsters was, ‘Watch out for the “Epsom Salts” (Malts), they will retaliate.’

But according to Philip Elluh, the motive was far more mundane. After Smithson had attacked him and George Caruana, Elluh heard that Tommy was going to shoot him. So he went looking for him, and when he found Tommy in Carlton Vale he simply shot him first.