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

ben johnson duel

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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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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A guest post by author, historian and journalist, David Long, a member of London Historians. 

Scene: The Tabard Centre, Prioress Street SE1 (2004)

‘Stalk-thin, with the ears of the Big Friendly Giant.’

When police alerted by friends arrived to find Rod Hall murdered in his gated, loft-style apartment, stylishly remodelled from two former classrooms in what had been a Victorian school, his death can fairly be said to have sent shockwaves through literary London.

Whilst by no means a household name, the 53 year-old was a pioneering and highly successful literary agent whose list of clients included the writers of such well known films and television series The Full Monty, Billy Elliot and Men Behaving Badly. He was also credited with creating the first ever dedicated film and TV tie-in department for a major British publisher, thus playing the role of midwife to a host of other productions such as Jeeves & Wooster, Just William, Casualty and Babe.

Tall and skinny – one client described him as looking like an escapee from a Quentin Blake drawing, ‘stalk-thin, with the ears of the Big Friendly Giant’ – Hall was a popular and well regarded figure in the publishing world, making his exceptionally brutal killing on 21 May 2004 all the more shocking.

His body was discovered by two friends who had called round to his flat, a stylish industrial-chic space with oils by Maurice Cockerill and Terry Frost and bespoke furniture which Hall had treated himself to when Billy Elliot received three Academy Award nominations. Inside the friends found the owner’s Siamese cat clearly in great distress, bloody footprints in the shower, and in the second bathroom their friend’s blackened and eviscerated corpse lying collapsed into the bath.

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The Tabard Centre, location of Rod Hall’s flat.

Within hours Hall’s business partner in the Rod Hall Agency had pointed police in the direction of a boyfriend, known to colleagues only as Ozzy, providing them with a partial telephone number and the information that he was a student at Newham College.

The clues led directly to Usman Durrani, a 20 year old part-time security guard from Forest Gate in East London who it soon became apparent had stabbed his lover to death. That said, the precise cause of death has never been ascertained because, with between 30 and 50 knife wounds to his body, it had been established that any one of seven different traumas could conceivably have killed Hall.

What is known, however, is that the two men had engaged in consensual if extreme sex games; that the victim had allowed himself to be bound, gagged and suspended over the bath; and that after killing him Durrani took time to clean up before leaving the Tabard Centre and going home to his wife in Beckton.

He took with him a camera, on which he had filmed the corpse, an expensive Jaeger-LeCoultre watch and various other personal effects – perhaps in order to make the crime scene look like a robbery rather than a straightforward killing. Shortly afterwards, however, Durrani told a friend what he had done, claiming that he had wanted only to hurt Hall rather than to kill him.

Before long Durrani was on a flight to Dubai, during the course of which police turned up at his mother’s home in Forest Gate and confirmed that they wanted to interview him in connection with a murder. With hopes evaporating that he had simply been engaged in a robbery which had gone horribly, horribly wrong, the accused was brought back to London and handed over to the police.

Initially released on bail but then rearrested, Durrani’s mood reportedly shifted quickly from bouncy to catatonic in a manner which the interviewing officers found unsettling. It soon became apparent that he was unwell, suffering the effects of what a psychiatrist who examined him for the prosecution called the ‘toxic brew’ of religion, homosexuality and sadomasochism.

Durrani himself expressed no guilt or regret over what he had done, and at his trial in July 2005 showed very little emotion. He also said very little, except to deny vehemently that he was in any way homosexual and to admit that he was guilty only of manslaughter on what the Guardian called ‘the grounds that he was mentally ill at the time of the killing.’

He was not adjudged to be insane, however, even though when he was referred for psychiatric testing it had been agreed that he fulfilled the criteria for a diagnosis of personality disorder. In court the jury found him guilty of murder, Judge Gerald Gordon ruling that he should serve a minimum term of 12 years, and saying that he had made Hall ‘suffer mentally and physically before his death’

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David Long is a journalist, historian and author of many London history books including Murders of London: in the Steps of the Capital’s Killers (2012, Random House Books). He is also a member of London Historians.

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Today we honour the memory of a most courageous and remarkable academic – the archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad – who was murdered in cold blood at the cowardly hands of ISIS in his homeland of Syria. His crime? Refusing to give up the secret locations of Palmyra’s antiquities which he had hidden from their vandalistic intent. One can only wonder at such bravery and dedication. Dedication to his craft. Dedication to the honour of his home town, Palmyra, and to Syria. Dedication to History.

Embed from Getty Images

Khaled al-Asaad, the Director of Antiquities and Museum in Palmyra, in 2002.

As London Historians we have little in common with him in the narrowest sense but everything in common as historians. It’s a je suis Khaled thing. We would urge those in a better position than us to condemn and reject the agenda of ISIS by honouring this man in a meaningful and concrete way. The most appropriate institutions in England to do this should be led, of course, by the British Museum. Other guardians of antiquities such as the Ashmolian and Fitzwilliam museums should join in. They could each name a room after him or at least mount a plaque in his memory. How about the Khaled al-Asaad Annual Lecture? Please add your ideas in Comments, below, and use #HonourKhaled on Twitter.

I’d go further and suggest that this crime of ISIS, which contrasts so starkly al-Asaad’s sacrifice, deserves an even wider and bolder response. Every museum and gallery, every history, classics, antiquities and archaeological faculty and institution – here and elsewhere – should make a gesture in defiance of the ISIS agenda.

From us at London Historians: Khaled al-Asaad, we salute you.

The Murder of Khaled al Asaad.
The Guardian
The Telegraph
The Spectator
BBC News

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Full title: Murders of London: In the Steps of the Capital’s Killers by David Long.

murders of london david longLooking at the cover design on-line I had expected this to be a similar format as Long’s recent books, what might be called “sub-coffee table”. So I was rather surprised to find out that it’s a return to more pocket size at about five inches by six. The contents are arranged geographically in chapters, each of which in turn contain accounts of individual murders, or in some cases sprees (Nilsen, Jack the Ripper &c.).

With the exception of the Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811, most crimes covered in the book are from the mid-Victorian period and right up to 2006 (the radioactive assassination of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko). The enjoyment of reading such episodes stems from – let’s face it – prurience and voyeurism. But we learn much about the changes over the period in police, forensic science, the law, capital punishment and so on. I was quite surprised to discover, for example, that until the 1940s accomplices in murder were hanged side-by-side, occasioning hangmen like Albert Pierrepoint (who appears frequently in the book) to call in extra staff.

The crimes involve politics, espionage, domestic squabbles, bigamy, fraud, conspiracy – using weapons and methods from Cluedo and way beyond. They range from the famous and notorious (Lucan, Crippen) to the downright seedy. All, in one way or another, caught the imagination of the public via the press and yet most are now forgotten and hence well worth the reminder. I was fascinated to find out that west London retail magnate William Whiteley – a pillar of society to the outside world although less so to his own staff – was murdered in 1907 by a man who claimed to be his illegitimate son. Also, I had no idea that the toast of 1960s swinging London – Ossie Clark – met a violent end in 1996. Enough spoilers from me, but this book is crammed with rich stories such as these.

All the accounts are illustrated with contemporary photos by the author himself of the addresses where these crimes happened. Or where they still exist, for in many cases the original buildings have long disappeared. But one gets a sense of the sheer banality of the backdrops to these crimes – terraced housing, cheap lodgings etc. – but logically, how else could it be? However, when it comes to the acts themselves and their dramatis personae, one sees that each  is totally unique and utterly intriguing. Furthermore, they are delivered by Long in his usual elegant style.

If you’d like a taster, there’s a web site associated with the book, here.

Murders of London: in the Steps of the Capital’s Killers (256 pp) is published by Random House with a cover price of £12.99, although available for less. Warmly recommended.

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Mr Briggs' HatA murder, an investigation, a chase, a court case, an execution. That’s what this book is about. On 9 July 1864, Mr Thomas Briggs – a senior bank official in the City – was murdered while travelling home to Hackney on a train from Fenchurch Street. It was the first ever murder on Britain’s railways and it caused a sensation.

The story actually involves two hats: Mr Briggs’, which was stolen; and the murderer’s (or possibly one of the murderers’, plural, but I shan’t give the game away!), which was left in the carriage. Both were recovered. In the days when forensic policing was still in its infancy, it was these items of headgear which were at the centre of both the investigation and the prosecution case.

The narrative is compelling, exciting, deeply moving in many places, and gallops along at a good lick, not unlike the popular crime novels of the day: it is high drama through and through. In this sense, it really is a page-turner, as they say.

But Mr Brigg’s Hat is so much more than this. It is a thoroughly researched work of history from which the reader will learn much of mid-Victorian London, in particular (in the case of suspects) the daily lives of a specific social layer, I suppose what one might describe the bottom end of the lower middle class, people who lived on the rung above the subjects of Mayhew and Booth. Added to these we have shopkeepers, railway workers, cab drivers, doctors, lawyers and – at stage centre – the first generation of plain clothes detectives, a tiny band of sleuths who carried on their shoulders the expectations of millions of newspaper readers and the reputation of the Met itself.

We are given a snapshot in time of 1864 mid-Victorian London. As you read this book, you will learn without noticing all sorts of useful things about the contemporary historical landscape: public transport; the cost of living; the Law; gaol conditions; 19C New York during the American Civil War; contemporary policing. Most interesting for me were two particular issues. First, the role of the press – both popular and upmarket – in informing and influencing the public, police and politicians alike. Reporting restrictions on criminal cases such as we have today simply did not exist. Second, and related: attitudes generally to capital punishment. Large sections of the public loved it for the spectacle, turning out in their thousands: remarkably, a full forty years after the coming of the railways, we still had public hanging in this country. But, as the author demonstrates, at this time much influential opinion was turning against public executions in particular, and capital punishment in general. Yet it took a full century after the Briggs case for the ultimate sanction to be removed from our Statutes. Kate Colquhoun covers these issues excellently, giving the reader much pause for thought.

When I review a book, the more I like it, the harder it is to review because I rattle through it happily with hardly at thought to analysis. So if I tell you that Mr Briggs Hat has been particularly difficult to review,  you’ll know what a joy it was for me. The author has seemingly  without effort and without leaving anything out used 280 breezy pages where another would require double that. Quite an achievement.

The book is well-illustrated with photographs, maps, diagrams, prints etc. There are copious notes and references at the back, and a good index.

Mr Briggs’ Hat by Kate Colquhoun (339pp, incl notes and index) is published by Little, Brown. Cover price £16.99 but available for £9.00 from our Amazon iStore, here.

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Amelia Dyer

Amelia Dyer

On this day in 1896, Amelia Dyer –  having been tried and found guilty at the Old Bailey – was hanged at Newgate prison for murder. Her victim was a baby called Doris Marmon. But baby Doris was one of possibly hundreds of babies murdered by Dyer in her role as a “baby farmer”. Baby farming was a late Victorian profession, or service. At at a time when having an illigitimate child carried considerable social stigma, contraception was virtually non-existent and abortion both illegal and highly dangerous, unmarried mothers frequently handed their babies over to baby farmers, i.e. surrogate mothers. The fee was usually £10 – £12, with normally a monthly payment on top, around five shillings.

Unfortunately, not a few baby farmers took the cash and murdered the babies. The most notorious and prolific was Dyer. She was a trained nurse from Bristol who managed to continue her foul deeds by staying on the move, changing her name and other slippery tactics. Her orbit was the south west, in an area encompassing Somerset, Berkshire, Gloucestershire and Bristol. Her only connection to London was her trial and death. But London did have its own baby farm murderers, who included: Margaret Waters, convicted in 1870 of murdering five children in the Brixton area; Anna Chard-Williams of Barnes, the last woman to be hanged at Newgate, in 1899; partners in crime Annie Walters and Amelia Sach – the “Finchley Baby Farmers” – who were the first prisoners to be executed at the new Holloway Prison in 1903.

Wikipedia is very good on the Amelia Dyer story, and there’s a good background on baby farm murderers here.

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