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Archive for the ‘Crime’ Category

A guest post by Catharine Arnold, historian, author and London Historians member. This article first appeared in London Historians Members’ Newsletter for December 2018. 

RUTHOn 12 July 1955, 500 people massed outside the gates of Holloway Prison, singing and chanting for hours. The governor was forced to call for police reinforcements as the crowd protested against the execution of Ruth Ellis, a nightclub hostess who was due to be hanged at Holloway the very next day for shooting her lover. Ruth had been convicted of murder but a higher court, the court of public opinion, demanded a pardon. Ruth’s death sentence had already provoked outrage. Fifty thousand signed a petition begging for the death penalty on Ruth to be lifted, but it had been rejected by the Home Secretary. Ruth was about to become the last woman to be hanged in Britain.

Ruth had not always been a victim. Indeed, she was a survivor, overcoming child abuse and teenage pregnancy after an affair with a US airman, before finding work as a nightclub hostess in London. In 1950 she married George Ellis, a wealthy dentist she’d met at a club, but Ellis turned out to be a violent alcoholic, possessive and controlling. Leaving her children with her mother, Ruth went back to work. With her glittering ash blonde hair, She soon became the main attraction at the ‘Little Club’ in Mayfair, happy to pose nude for the so-called ‘Camera Club’ even when there was no film in the cameras. Driven and aspirational, Ruth took elocution and etiquette classes. Impressed by Ruth’s ambition, her boss promoted her to manager of another club, Carroll’s. It was here that Ruth met David Blakely, a handsome young racing driver, and fell hopelessly in love. Blakely moved into Ruth’s flat above the club and she was soon bankrolling him to subsidise his racing career. But Blakely swiftly proved to be another violent alcoholic, cheating on her with both women and men, then returning to his upper class fiancée in the county at weekends.

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Ruth and David at Brooklands racetrack.

Ruth and Blakely’s affair was tempestuous, fuelled by alcohol and punctuated by terrible rows. On one occasion Ruth ended up in the Middlesex Hospital with a sprained ankle and a black eye. On another, when she confessed to Blakely that she was pregnant, he hit her so hard she miscarried. At such times, Ruth turned for comfort to an older man, Desmond Cussen, a former Lancaster bomber pilot. Events came to a head on Easter Sunday, 1955. Blakely was spending the holiday weekend with his friend and mechanic, Seaton Findlater, at Tanza Avenue, Hampstead, and ignoring Ruth’s calls. When she arrived there, Blakely refused to see her, even though she could hear him inside, flirting with the nanny. Ruth responded by smashing all the windows in his car. A second visit proved even more humiliating, with Ruth muttering to Cussen that ‘if I had a gun I would kill him!’ The third, and last visit took place on the Sunday. With Cussen at the wheel, Ruth waited for Blakely outside the Magdala pub in South Hill Park. When Blakely emerged, Ruth pulled Cussen’s .38 Smith &Wesson revolver out of her handbag and fired at point blank range, with one stray bullet hitting an elderly lady pedestrian. After emptying the gun into Blakely as he lay on the ground, Ruth said calmly: ‘Call the police.’ She was immediately arrested by an off-duty police officer.

ruth and david

Ruth with David Blakely.

When Ruth appeared before Mr Justice Havers at Number 1 Court of the Old Bailey on 20 June 1955, she was dressed in an elegant black suit with freshly peroxided hair, looking as if she was just about to open up at Carroll’s. Ignoring her barrister’s advice, Ruth could not have looked less repentant. Another shock came when Ruth’s barrister stated that she would be pleading guilty, on the grounds of Blakely’s brutal abuse. But the biggest shock of all came when Mr Christmas Humphreys, prosecuting, asked:
‘When you fired that revolver at close range, into the body of David Blakely, what did you intend to do?’

‘It is obvious’ Ruth replied, in a calm, audible voice. ‘When I shot him, I intended to kill him.’

The jury took just fourteen minutes to find Ruth guilty of murder and she was sentenced to death. This provoked outrage in the press, while Raymond Chandler, that expert on femmes’ fatales, described Ruth’s sentence as ‘the mediaeval savagery of the law’. The judge Cecil Havers filed a personal request for a reprieve. It was ignored. But Ruth had already condemned herself to death, when she squeezed the trigger of that Smith and Wesson. By shooting Blakely, she effectively killed them both.

On 13 July 1955, Ruth wrote to Blakely’s parents, concluding, ‘I have always loved your son, and I will die still loving him.’ Then she put her diamante spectacles down on the table, saying, ‘I won’t need these any more,’ and went to her death. Outside the prison another crowd had gathered, silent this time, waiting for the execution at nine o’clock. When notice of Ruth’s death was posted outside Holloway at 9.18, the angry crowd surged forwards, blocking the road and stopping traffic.

Ruth was hanged by Albert Pierrepoint who later said, ‘She died as brave as any man and she never spoke a single word’.

As with every murder, this case left a painful legacy. Ruth’s estranged husband, George Ellis hanged himself soon afterwards. Ruth’s mother attempted to gas herself and was left with brain damage. Ruth’s son, Andy, who had been supported by Cecil Havers, smashed up his mother’s gravestone and then killed himself. Mr Christmas Humphries paid for his funeral. Ruth’s daughter, Georgina, became an alcoholic. A failed singer, she appeared in a cringeworthy chat show interview with Michael Barrymore, before dying of cancer in 2000. Ruth’s story has inspired much speculation and many conspiracy theories, one of which places her at the heart of a Cold War espionage operation because of her friendship with society osteopath Stephen Ward.

In 2003, Ruth’s case was referred back to the Court of Appeal by the Criminal Cases Review Commission, but was rejected. Her family continues to campaign for her posthumous pardon.

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Review: Night Raiders by Dr Eloise Moss. This review is a guest post by London Historians member Tony Moore, a former policeman and now police and crime historian.

night raidersThe day I received this book to review in June 2019, Asrit Kapaj, a 43-year-old Albanian, known as the ‘Wimbledon Prowler’, was sentenced to 14 years imprisonment after netting a believed £5 million over a ten year period; it is estimated he broke into approximately 200 homes. He is just the most recent in a long line of burglars going back centuries.

The blurb on the back cover suggests Night Raiders charts how burglary has been at the heart of national debates over the meanings of ‘home’, experiences of urban life and social inequality. We are also told elsewhere that it exposes a rich seam of continuity in relation to three areas, the stereotyping of gender roles in the home, gendered forms of criminality and hierarchies of state protection against crime structured by class and wealth.

Reading that you might think it is an academic book but it is much more than that. Using official records, newspaper reports, books, films and television programmes, both fact and fiction, the author has put together a vivid account of the history of burglary, primarily concentrating on the period from 1860 to 1968. Where did the title come from? The term ‘Night Raiders’ was used by an American criminologist to describe a masked man who climbed through windows dressed in black and silently, stole items before melting away into the darkness.

Stories glamorising criminals has a long tradition in Britain, The graphical tales of Robin Hood, Jack Sheppard and Dick Turpin, along with the modern-day, notorious Kray Brothers are prime examples. To this list, add Charles Peace, a burglar who entered homes in the Blackheath and Greenwich areas of London in the late nineteenth-century. Peace was prone to violence if confronted, and was eventually hung for murder. But what makes the book more appealing, is the author’s inclusion of fictional characters such as the Gentleman Thief, A.J. Raffles, a burglar created by Earnest Hornung, the brother-in-law of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who also happened to be an excellent cricketer!

Only a few women have been the instigators of burglary. Up until 1931, when those charged with crime in London ceased to be recorded by gender, only three women were charged with burglary compared to every 120 men. Despite the small number, the author describes the activities of some of these women under the title of the Marvellous Mrs Raffles?

A chapter is devoted to the Cat Burglar, a so-called ‘professional’ among thieves because of his daring. Describing the roofs of houses as a neglected oasis of relatively unprotected access points to homes, the author claims the burglars, rather than the police, were masters of this particular landscape, As a consequence, in the 1930s, the Metropolitan Police sought younger and fitter police recruits to take part in what became a contest between law-enforcers and burglars.

Attempts to design burglar-proof homes brought a new set of visible and invisible defences with the development of technologies, including the aptly named ‘Buzzer-Light Shriek Alarm’. Security companies, some encouraged by insurance companies, were set up to handle much of this growth. From 1950 onwards, Crime Prevention Campaigns organised by the Home Office and the police, with the encouragement and support of insurance companies, were regularly held both in London and nationally.

Finally the author examines the role of spy-burglars in London during the Cold War. They were perpetrated by Russian agents living in London or by British operatives which, on occasions, resulted in escalating tensions between the Soviet and British governments. The bungalow in Ruislip, occupied by Peter and Helen Kruger, who were heavily involved in what became known as the Portland Spy Ring, was a relative fortress, given all its security devices to avoid their detection. Comparisons are drawn between these real events and the fictitious world of Ian Fleming’s James Bond and John Le Carre’s George Smiley.

Given that anyone can be the victim of burglary, the book should be of interest to a wide range of readers. It will be of particularly interest to police historians, those who are responsible for designing buildings which make them less vulnerable to burglary, agents who insure property against burglary and those who are interested in fictional burglars such as Raffles.


Night Raiders: Burglary and the Making of Modern Urban Life in London, 1860-1968,  272pp, by Dr Eloise Moss is published by Oxford University Press on 4 July. Cover price £25.

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A guest post by LH Member Catharine Arnold. This article was previously published in London Historians Members’ Newsletter of December 2014.

Playwright Ben Jonson [1572-1637], scholar of Westminster School, soldier and one time bricklayer, a trade he hated, is best known for his satires Bartholomew Fair and Volpone. As a dramatist, Jonson was Shakespeare’s greatest rival, and he was fortunate to survive the knockabout world of the London stage, as this anecdote illustrates.

By 1598, Ben Jonson’s dramatic talents ensured that he was much valued by his acting company, the Admiral’s Men, which performed at the Rose. While Francis Meres recorded that Jonson was considered ‘the best for tragedy’, Jonson’s satirical skills were also in the ascendant and he would see a positive reception for his comedy, Every Man in His Humour. This was in spite of the debacle of his previous play, The Isle of Dogs, a political lampoon regarded as so contentious by the authorities that the theatre was raided on the first night and Jonson and his comrades thrown into jail. However, as Jonson’s star rose, so another actor’s reputation sank. Gabriel Spenser, Jonson’s cellmate in the Marshalsea after the disastrous production of The Isle of Dogs had joined him in the Admiral’s Men but a bitter feud had developed between the pair, and plummeted to new depths over the following year. As the 26-year-old Jonson scaled the professional heights, the unpopular Spenser sank deeper into drink and developed an implacable hatred of Jonson. Unpopular among the actors, Spenser had a reputation as a troublemaker, and worse.

Two years earlier, on 3 December, 1596, Spenser had been present at the house of Richard East, along with a man named James Feake, between five and six in the afternoon. According to witnesses ‘insulting words had passed’ between Spenser and Feake. Feake had seized a copper candlestick which he threatened to throw at Spenser, whereupon Spenser seized his sword and stabbed Feake in the right eye, penetrating the brain and inflicting a mortal wound. Poor Feake ‘languished and lived in languor at Holywell Street’ for three days before he died. Despite being accused of murder, Spenser was not executed, or required to forfeit any goods. Perhaps the three days between the fight and Feake’s death gave Spenser the opportunity to assemble friendly witnesses to testify that Feake had provoked him. It was a violent age and men such as Spenser did not hesitate to resort to their weapons if the opportunity demanded it. But Nemesis came for Gabriel Spenser two years later.

On the evening of 22 September 1598, Ben Jonson encountered Spenser in Hoxton Fields in Shoreditch, just around the corner from the Curtain Theatre. The men quarrelled and Spenser challenged Jonson to a duel. Fighting came naturally to both men. Jonson had been a soldier, but as an actor Spenser had trained for fight scenes. All Englishmen had the right to bear arms, and fencing was regarded as a vital accomplishment and an extension of one’s masculinity, as indicated in these lines from The Merry Wives of Windsor. ‘I bruised my shin th’ other day with playing at sword and dagger with a master of fence.’ Elizabethan youths flocked to the fencing schools, and swordplay was an everyday occurrence in Elizabethan London, part of the throbbing violent pulse of the times.

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Fighting for his life. Sword fighting in the late Tudor style. Jonson’s weapon is considerably shorter than that of his assailant, Gabriel Spenser.

So here stood Jonson, the provoked, and Spenser, the provoker, with weapons drawn, about to fight to the death. The protagonists were equally matched in terms of skill, but as the younger man, Jonson had the advantage. The fight between Jonson and Spenser must have been as theatrical as any performed on stage. Once violence is imaginatively re-created, it gains its own momentum. Did this skirmish start as a drunken taunt, a play-fight between two hot-headed hell-raisers? In terms of weapons, it was scarcely a fair fight. Spenser’s sword was ten inches longer and it was only the fact that Spenser had been drinking all day that gave Jonson the advantage. As Spenser staggered about waving his sword, Jonson swiped back at him and, within minutes, Spenser was dead at his feet.

Although he maintained that Spenser had struck first, wounding him in the arm, Jonson was charged with ‘feloniously and wilfully’ slaying Gabriel Spenser’ with ‘a certain sword of iron and steel called a rapier, of the price of three shillings, which he then and there had and held drawn in his right hand.’ According to witnesses, Jonson inflicted a six inch wound to Spenser’s right side which killed him instantly. Despite claiming to have been acting in self-defence, Jonson was arrested and taken to Newgate, charged with murder. For all his genius, it looked as if Jonson’s final performance was to be upon the scaffold at Tyburn. But Jonson had one trump card left. As a former pupil at Westminster School, he possessed one item which nobody could take away from him, and that was his education. Jonson’s life was saved by a legal loophole which permitted the literate man to escape sentence ‘by benefit of clergy’ on the grounds that any man with a working knowledge of Latin was a cleric and therefore immune to secular law. The ‘Benefit of Clergy’ posed no difficulty for Jonson, who was required to do nothing more than recite an extract from Psalm 51 which began Miserere Mei or ‘Have mercy upon me, O Lord.’ This stratagem saved so many prisoners from the gallows that it became known as ‘the neck verse’. Jonson emerged from Newgate with an ‘x’ branded on his thumb to prevent him claiming benefit of clergy a second time. This was a lasting reminder of his imprisonment, but he had at least escaped with his life.

Philip Henslowe, owner of the Rose Theatre, was horrified by this turn of events. On 26 September 1598, he wrote: ‘I have lost one of my company, which hurteth me greatly, that is Gabriel, for he is slain in Hogsden Fields by the hands of Benjamin Jonson, bricklayer.’ Jonson, no doubt, would have been hurteth greatly to be referred to as a bricklayer, the trade which he so despised.

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The Wandsworth Prison Museum was founded and has been run by a London Historians Member for the past 10 years. He is a serving prison officer at HMP Wandsworth. He has organised these on-site events during 2018.

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WANDSWORTH PRISON MUSEUM
2008-2018 10th Anniversary Events

20.5.18 Boardroom Talk “ The Prison & the First World War” Spies, hangings,
Conscientious Objectors, Easter Rising.

8.7.18 “The Ronnie Biggs escape” (8.7.1965) External and internal wall walk
and talk during the history tour of the escape.

8.9.18 Boardroom talk “Wandsworth’s Last hanging and the end of capital
punishment” (8.9.1961)

4.11.18 Boardroom talk “Oscar Wilde, his time at HMP Wandsworth

The above events are taking place for a maximum of 20 per event, as part of a small scale celebration of 10 years of the Wandsworth Prison Museum.

The venue for the talks is the Governor’s Boardroom inside the prison but all groups will meet initially at the Wandsworth Prison Museum at 11am. The talks and one walk will be for approximately one hour.

To book.
As the venue is inside the prison, the following is needed to make a booking:
Name, address and date of birth of each visitor. Visitors must be over the age of 18.
One booking per person, which is not transferable as there may be a waiting list should any event be over booked.
Bookings can be made by emailing: Wandsworthprisonmuseum@hmps.gsi.gov.uk or in writing at Wandsworth Prison Museum, C/O POA Office, Heathfield Road, London SW18 3HS

The above is the current agenda, other events may be added if time and resources permit

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in our time

I am a massive fan of Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time, BBC Radio 4 most Thursdays at 9am. There are various ways you can search it, but as a service to our readers, here is a list of the London-related ones.

Aphra Behn
Annie Besant
Athelstan

Thomas Becket
Bedlam
The Black Death
The Bluestockings
The Book of Common Prayer
Boudica
Robert Boyle
Brunel
Fanny Burney

Caxton and the Printing Press
Chaucer

Mrs Dalloway
The Death of Elizabeth I
Dickens
The Domesday Book

The East India Company
Englishness
The Enlightenment in Britain

Michael Faraday
The [Great] Fire of London
Foxe’s Book of Martyrs

The Gin Craze
The Great Exhibition of 1851

William Hazlitt
Octavia Hill
Holbein at the Tudor Court
Robert Hooke

[Samuel] Johnson

London

Marlowe
Milton

The Novel

Titus Oates and His ‘Popish Plot’

The Peasants’ Revolt
Pocahontas
[Alexander] Pope
The Putney Debates

The Restoration
The Royal Society

The Scriblerus Club
Seventeenth Century Print Culture
The  South Sea Bubble
Suffragism

The Trial of Charles I
The Tudor State

Utilitarianism

Oscar Wilde
Mary Wollstonecraft


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Review: Death Diary: A Year of London Murder, Execution, Terrorism and Treason, by Gary Powell.

death diaryThis less-than-cheerful and macabre title actually belies the light reading which exists between its covers. I say this, because there are 365 stories of between half to a page each. So the reading is easy and can be done in any order without losing any narrative thread. You may be on the train, bus stop, about to switch off the bedside lamp. Whatever: light reading. I love books like this.

The content, as described in the title, comprises one death-related story (mostly murders) for every single day of the year going way back in London’s history.

There are the high profile cases, as you would expect. The execution of Charles I at the Banqueting House; the shooting of WPC Yvonne Fletcher at the Libyan Embassy; the murder by a down-on-his-luck rival of actor William Terriss outside the Adelphi Theatre; the Krays.

But for me it’s the more mundane, everyday tragedies which resonate. The landlady strangled and stabbed by her lodger; the heartbreaking story of a man who killed his own toddlers because he literally could not afford to feed his family – in a book where hangings abound, at least this tortured soul went to an asylum.

A great deal of these accounts fall between the mid 19th and mid 20th centuries. It is noticeable that the motive is so often tied to money – or the lack of it. Grinding poverty, money worries – they existed on a level that we would find difficult to comprehend today. The ultimate state sanction was not sufficient deterrent, clearly. The gallows at Wandsworth, Pentonville and elsewhere were kept rather busy, even to relatively recent times.

There are many stories of a man killing his wife or lover in a domestic, or very occasionally the other way around. As I say, on the face of it, mundane. So the danger is these accounts becoming a bit samey. In Death Diary, author Gary Powell – a retired Met officer of decades standing – skillfully avoids this with matter-of-fact narratives which are never boring and yet neither are they ever sensationalised. It’s a difficult one to explain, perhaps the policeman’s knack of succinctly delivering detail.

An excellent third London book from this author. It includes a short bibliography and “index of offenders” at the end and there’s a generous section of illustrations and photos in the middle. Recommended.


Death Diary: A Year of London Murder, Execution, Terrorism and Treason (288pp) by Gary Powell is published in paperback by Amberley with a cover price of £14.99. An author-signed copy was featured as London Historians monthly book prize for February 2017.

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Mansions of Misery, A Biography of the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison by Jerry White.

Book review and guest post by LH Member Jane Young

mansions of misery by jerry whiteMy introduction to the work of Jerry White was some time ago as a history student. The superb Rothschild Buildings: Life in an East End Tenement Block 1887-1920 (1980) contributed to two dissertations and later, as a lecturer in social history, it became a perennial staple on the essential reading list.

Mansions of Misery has much in common with Rothschild Buildings in that it is a “microhistory of a small distinctive community” and focuses on individual stories in minutiae, and most entertaining detail. An in depth account of the Marshalsea Prison, the culture of debt, credit and commerce and everyday economy of the commonplace necessities of life and trade in the Capital during the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

A study of people as well as an institution; all human life is here. Through the personal accounts of the debtors the incarcerated are given a voice. The looming threat of the Marshalsea is given a resonance and sense of place now almost unimaginable, permeating life in London across all classes. The story of the Marshalsea is also the story of ordinary Londoners and the telling of it results in a fascinating and beautifully written social history of the metropolis.

The research is thorough; moreover a subject that has the potential to be gloomy is made intriguing and immensely readable. A narrative that naturally requires some explanation of the British legal system of the years the Marshalsea was in operation is well executed in a clear and concise manner. Excellent endnotes add interest for the casual reader and make for an invaluable addition to academic reading lists.

The book reveals the Marshalsea during the times made familiar by Hogarth, Smollet and Dickens from the inside: the living arrangements; the hierarchy; the role of the turnkey; relationships among the prisoners; trades that not only served the Marshalsea but were also dependent upon it; the construction and fabric of the building and changes that took place as it evolved from early beginnings until closure in 1842. Within this is contained a picture of London that makes for compelling reading.


Mansions of Misery, a Biography of the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison (364 pp) by Prof Jerry White is published by Bodley Head on 6 October 2016 with a cover price of £20.00.

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