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.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Horace Brodzky, Kilburn artist

This famous painter and illustrator lived in Kilburn for much of his life, and the neighbourhood and its people feature in several of his paintings.
Horace Asher Brodzky
Horace Brodzky had many local addresses. In 1926 he was at 22a St George’s Road (later renamed Priory Terrace) having moved to Number 26 by 1928. In 1930 he was in Mowbray Road and a year later, at 102 Brondesbury Villas. After a period in Furness Road in Willesden he returned to Kilburn, to 9 Oxford Road from at least 1939 to 1959, before shifting a few doors down the street to Number 37, where he lived from 1963 to 1965. The last few years of his life were spent at 19 Warwick Crescent W2, where he died in 1969.
Artist's house in Kilburn, Brodzky 1931, (probably 102 Brondesbury Villas)

Horace was born in Melbourne in 1885, into a literary and intellectual family. His Polish father Maurice was a journalist with several Australian newspapers before he founded the magazine, ‘Table Talk’. This was a weekly mixture of politics, finance, literature, arts and social notes, and was highly successful during the 1880s and 90s. But when Maurice became more outspoken about corruption in business and government, he was sued in 1902. He lost the case and the damages forced him into bankruptcy. The family moved to San Francisco in 1904.

Four years later they came to London. It was here that Brodzky’s career as an artist really began. In 1911 he briefly attended the City and Guilds School in Kennington. More important, however, was his meeting with Walter Sickert at the Allied Artists’ Association in July 1908. He regularly attended the ‘Saturday afternoon’ held by Sickert in his Fitzroy Street studio and before long he was part of the artistic and literary set which met in the CafĂ© Royal.

During this time Brodzky travelled to Rome, Naples and Sicily with his friend the American poet John Gould Fletcher. Here he encountering the works of Piero della Francesca who he always said was the greatest influence on his art. Brodzky held his first exhibition in his Chelsea studio, entitled ‘Paintings and Sketches of Italian and Sicilian Scenes’, and one of these was chosen for inclusion in the British representation at the Venice Biennale of 1912.

In 1914, a work by Brodzky was included in the Jewish section in the Whitechapel Art Gallery’s survey of developments in contemporary art. By now he was part of an important group of Jewish artists living in London that included Jacob Kramer, David Bomberg, Alferd Wolmark, Mark Gertler and Jacob Epstein. But his most important friendship was with the French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska who made a bronze bust of Brodzky in 1913, (now in the Tate collection). Twenty years later Brodzky wrote a major biography of Gaudier-Brzeska.

Horace Brodzky, bronze by Gaudier-Brzeska, 1913 (Tate)

Brodzky worked in three media: painting, draining and printmaking. In addition to woodcuts, Brodzky also used linoleum for his printing blocks and was the first to do so in this country. He produced bold, powerful black and white images.

In 1915 after the death of Gaudier-Brzeska, he moved to New York, with letters of introduction to the lawyer and art patron, John Quinn. The next eight years were stimulating and productive. At Quinn’s request he acted as Clerk of Works to the Vorticist Exhibition held at the Penguin Club in 1917. Brodzky’s portfolio of 21 linoprints was published in New York in 1920.

His work was remarkable for its diversity: caricature (an advertisement for a book on G.B. Shaw), humour (cover designs for the magazines Playboy and The Quill), and stylish designs for book jackets (these included works by some of the leading writers of the day, including Eugene O’Neill, Theodore Dreiser and Upton Sinclair). Nevertheless he was struggling. He worked as a waiter, an artist’s model and journalist to make ends meet, editing the magazines Rainbow and Art Review.

In December 1919 he met and married Bertha Greenfield who was working as a nanny in New York, and they had three sons. They moved to London in 1923 and he was included in the London Group Retrospective in 1928 and in Claude Flight’s ‘First Exhibition of British Linocuts’ in 1929.
Bridge Street Kilburn, by Brodzky 1947

The 1920s and 30s were a particularly difficult time for Brodzky, when for ten years he taught art two nights a week at an L.C.C evening school in Bermondsey. After financial problems contributed to the breakdown of his marriage to Bertha in 1934, Brodzky carried on working and the following year critic and art historian, James Laver, published ‘Forty Drawings by Horace Brodzky’. In 1937 Brodzky shared an exhibition with David Bomberg and Margarete Hamerschlag at the Foyle Gallery.
1946 saw the publication of his book on the painter Jules Pascin and in 1948 he became the art editor of the Antique Dealer and Collector’s Guide, a magazine founded by his brother Vivian. This provided a small but regular income until 1962.
Kilburn Roll-call, 1956 (probably men waiting to be chosen for casual labour)

In 1963 the writer and art collector, Ruth Borchard bought a pen and ink self portrait of Brodzky for 12 guineas.

Self portrait, Brodzky, 1963

He wrote her letters which set out his difficult circumstances:
‘I am living more like a recluse with advancing age’. (He was then seventy-eight). He continued:
‘Since 1911, I have been connected with the London art world and have exhibited at all important exhibitions… and have worked for modern art. … For a long time I have sold none of my work and have had to rely on selling items by other artists that I have collected… This letter is not an angry complaint but just the plain facts that I thought you might like to know.’

Brodzky lived long enough to see a revival of interest in his work and he died on 11 February 1969. The Times published an obituary on the 17th.

Today his work is in many collections around the world, including:
Tate Gallery, London
Victoria and Albert Museum
British Museum, London
Arts Council, London
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Museum of Modern Art, New York Public Library
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, and other many regional galleries