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Category: East End criminals

William West — unwitting Jack the Ripper suspect

It was the end of a long day for William West as he left the offices of the Worker’s Friend newspaper in Whitechapel, with the street lamps barely penetrating the unlit Dutfield’s Yard.

Woolf Wess

Woolf Wess

A normal day for the young immigrant. But In those early hours of 30 September 1888 he would unwittingly find himself caught up in the Whitechapel Murders. We’ll never know for sure whether he stumbled across the body of Elizabeth Stride, the third victim of the serial killer who would become notorious as ‘Jack the Ripper’, or simply passed on oblivious, but West would be called as the first witness in the inquest of the unfortunate ‘Long Liz’. For West, a passionate socialist who would run like a thread through the Jewish workers’ movements of the late 19th and early 20th century, this had a double terror. The 27-year-old had arrived in Whitechapel in the late 1870s, fleeing the anti-Jewish pogroms in Lithuania, and bearing his birth name, Woolf Wess. Stumbling upon the victim of a murder would be horrific enough, but Woolf would have been well aware that many in the press and public alike were already trying to associate the Whitechapel Murders with the large Jewish community in Whitechapel, with increasingly hysterical theories of religious ritual killings. West was ‘the most modest of men’ according to that leading light of East End socialism Rudolf Rocker, but like so many of his fellows, he had undergone an extraordinary journey to end up in Whitechapel. He was born in Vilkmerge in Russia (now Ulkomar in Lithuania) in 1861, the son of a master baker, and was apprenticed at 12 to a shoemaker. At 20, he was working as a factory machinist in the Russian town of Dvinsk (now Daugavpils in Latvia) but desperately looking for a way to escape. A choice of horrors awaited: death in one of the pogroms sweeping Eastern Europe or military services in the Tsar’s army. So, in 1881 he was smuggled onto a boat to London.

Arbeter_Fraynd

Arbeter Fraynd newspaper

A skilled shoemaker, machinist and baker, he easily found work in Whitechapel, but was appalled by the conditions of work and the exploitation of his fellow immigrants. He was also a hard worker and a fast learner, quickly gaining fluent English, alongside Russian, German and Yiddish. He put his energies into organising and directing the men and women he worked among. In 1885, he co-founded the International Workingmen’s Educational Club in Berners Street (now Henriques Street), just south of the Commercial Road, and helped start the Arbeter Fraynd (Workers’ Friend), translating news and radical views into the Yiddish that was the everyday language of Jewish Whitechapel. Questioning at the inquest focused heavily on West’s movements, and the comings and goings at the newspaper and club, but he gave no mention of seeing Stride let alone stumbling across the body. The coroner wanted to know how many members the club had (70 or 80, working men of any nationality could join). He asked about its politics (it was political, a socialist club). How did members get involved? (they were seconded by other members). Did ‘low women’ frequent the area? (he had seen them on occasion). And William Wess (as he was called at the inquest) was questioned in minute detail about the topography of the club, the yard and their surroundings and about his own journey home (the few minutes walk to his lodgings on Cannon Street Road). West had nothing to fear in the end, and neither — soberingly — did the murderer. The killer was never brought to justice and it’s highly improbable we’ll ever know his true identity. The young socialist, duty done, would go on to be a lynchpin of East End radicalism. In 1889 he served as secretary of the strike committee during the East End tailors strike, alongside Charles Mowbray and John Turner. And in 1891, the increasingly popular orator set out on a speaking tour of England, alongside stalwarts of London socialism Kropotkin, Malatesta and Yanovsky. He became a skilled typesetter, working on the new Freedom newspaper, and drew on another of his talents, learned at his master baker father’s side, to set up a co-operative bakery in Brushfield Street, Spitalfields.

Old Dvinsk

Old Dvinsk

During the 1890s, Wess founded and became secretary of the East London Workers Unions; then served as secretary of the International Tailors, Machinists and Pressers’ Trade Union, and the United Ladies and Mantle Makers’ Association. Then, in the early 1900s, he seems to have stepped back from union work, taking a job as a book-keeper in a tobacco factory and sharing a house in Leyton with his friend Tom Keell (the manager of Freedom) and his wife Lillian. It all fell apart when William and Lillian ran off together and by 1906 they were back in Whitechapel, setting up the Arbeiter Fraint club in Jubilee Street. Lillian even tried to set up an Anarchist Society school in the area, but with little success. And in June 1906, William served on the tailors’ strike committee alongside Rudolf Rocker. To the end of his life, West remained enmeshed in the politics of the Left, joining the Labour party in the 1930s, while running the London Freedom Group. He died in May 1946 at 84. But one strange postscript remains. Years later, a ‘friend of a friend of West’ later reported that on that long ago night in 1888, the spooked printer had discovered Stride’s body, but moved it further away from the offices of the newspaper and the club, lest members be implicated in the killing. Truth — or yet another fantasy in the ever-murkier world of ‘Ripperology’? We’ll never know.

Tales from the Two Puddings

IN 1962, exactly 50 years before Stratford became the sporting centre of the world, Eddie Johnson and family took on the Two Puddings pub in Stratford. It didn’t augur well. Eddie was less than happy about leaving a solid job on the Docks. Chuck in the fact he had never pulled a pint and that his new boozer was colloquially known as the Butcher’s Shop (courtesy of white-tiled walls to facilitate the hosing off of spilled blood each morning) and it might have proved a brief tenancy.

Cover of Eddie Johnson's Tales from the Two Puddings

Tales from the Two Puddings

Eddie, remembering those far-off days in conversation with Robert Elms at the Bishopsgate Institute last week, also remembers that he immediately felt he’d made a mistake. All the more remarkable that he remained landlord for almost 40 years. “I loved it on the docks: we didn’t make a lot of money but we could do more or less as we wanted.” Just as important to Eddie, he was becoming increasingly immersed in the left-wing politics of the time. Working as a tally clerk (the men tasked with checking the quantities of cargoes moving on and off the ships) he aroused the instinctive mistrust of legendary union organiser Jack Dash and his men. Of course, the tally clerks got their share of the contents of ‘accidentally’ broken cases to take home too, and Eddie soon became a trusted colleague, co-opted onto Dash’s strike committee. He was also being groomed to take over the dockers’ Distress Fund, a cause dear to his heart. Eddie had been politicised young, when George Lansbury visited his school (Smeed Road Infants in Bow) to speak to the pupils.

But with two young sons to provide for, wife Shirley was after something a little more secure for the family. Now Eddie was and is no soft touch. A streetwise East Ender, born in Limehouse and raised in Old Ford, he had done his National Service in the Royal Military Police. Back on Civvy Street, he ruefully recalls that he became: “a bit of a hooligan, getting drunk and fighting in dance halls”. It culminated in a near fatal stab wound to the stomach. During his convalescence he met and fell in love with Shirley, who steered him to safer pursuits. But even Eddie, a tall and imposing figure in his eighties and not a man to mess with in his early thirties, wondered what he’d let himself in for as he stood behind the bar the morning after his first Friday night in 1962.

Back in the docks voracious reader Eddie (favourites Orwell, Camus, Tolstoy and Hemingway among others) had been rubbing shoulders with surprisingly well-read dockers who casually namechecked Congreve, Kafka, Byron and Proust. In the Puddings, he was more likely to be leaping over the bar to nip drunken trouble in the bud with a couple of gentle digs. The older Johnson is sanguine about the violence (“it’s the bit I find depressing even now”) and indulges in none of the glorification of the East End gang scene that non-combatants too often fall prey to.

All the same violence and crime were unavoidable elements of East End life, with the Krays becoming occasional visitors. “I liked them,” says Eddie. “Especially Reggie, who was more the affable and easier to talk to of the pair”. Eddie was touched for protection money by the brothers, but swallowed hard and told Ronnie he could protect himself. The twins, to his relief, politely moved on. Meanwhile, on Monday nights at the Kentucky Club in Whitechapel (where Eddie was always stood a drink by the ever-charming brothers) other non-payers were being sorted out behind the scenes with a cement-encased shovel.

Of course there were all sorts of reasons that kept Eddie behind the bar until the turn of the millennium – and only then was he forced out by the machinations of the brewery. Top of the list was the music. The Johnsons had taken over the Puddings primarily to host music nights run by Eddie’s brother Kenny. The pub saw gigs by some of the biggest names in British music: the Who, the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, the Kinks and the Nashville Teens to name just a few, while the disco upstairs pulled in more punters (including Harry Redknapp who met his future wife there). One day Rod Stewart would be downstairs checking out the bands; another would see a young Van Morrison popping in after a Them gig and confiding to Eddie that he hoped one day to be famous.

Most bizarre of all, on the evening of 30 July 1966, a few hours after England had won the World Cup Final at Wembley, who should walk into the pub, order a pint, and quietly drink by himself whilst leaning against the bar but Jack Charlton. Eddie takes up the story, saying: “Norman was one of my most trusted barmen and never told a lie… [but he was] struck dumb and felt too shy to congratulate him on England’s victory!”

Under Elms’s enthusiastic probing, Eddie regales the packed Bishopsgate audience with anecdotes spanning 50 years, though the Radio London presenter would probably admit that Johnson pretty much interviews himself. There is sadness in the stories of course: Shirley has passed away, and so has the third of their four sons, Eugene. And many of the characters who people the memoir have gone, with Eddie musing that “Every other month seems to bring a dreaded invitation to yet another funeral.” But even there is humour. As the coffin of Jackie Bowers (“a friend and one of the best barmen the Puddings ever had”) rolls slowly towards the furnace, ‘Fire’ by the Crazy World of Arthur Brown began blaring from the crematorium speakers. An echo from the sixties heyday of the Two Puddings.

Ripper Street Episode 3

Some rather good bits on Ripper Street episode 3. None of it looks like Victorian Whitechapel of course, and which bit of the City of London were our Metropolitan Police officers straying into in search of Joseph Lister. What’s interesting is the ragbag of genuinely Victorian tropes.

Ripper-Street-Episode-3

Ripper-Street-Episode-3

The constant visiting of ‘King Cholera’ to the East End of London, and the focusing on the pump delivering poisoned water (or not as it transpired) harkening back to the discoveries of John Snow at the pump in Broad (now Broadwick) Street in Soho, some years before. Cholera had previously been thought to have been transmitted by foul air of course, exactly as malaria (bad air) was believed to be transmitted.

We also had the Lady Bountiful, happy to give alms to the fallen women of Whitechapel, as long as the word of God was thrashed into them, and their sins were bled out. The flour mill heiress’s bitterness at her husband, who had infected her with syphilis picked up from the prostitutes of Whitechapel, thus rendering her sterile, was also a real touch … many ‘respectable’ Victorian women had to cover their shame at just such an event. And the infection via ergot and poisoned flour, common throughout Europe in the Middle Ages and beyond, with victims tortured by ‘St Anthony’s Fire’ and suffering LSD type trips before … well dying, was another nice historical touch. What does next week have in store?

Whitechapel Murders Canonical Map

A GOOGLEMAP of the five ‘canonical’ Whitechapel Murders, though others have been attributed to ‘Jack the Ripper’. Many thanks to ‘Giove’, a Google Earth hack somewhere in sunniest Italy. He compiled the information that we’ve mashed together into this map. More information will be added … work in progress!  Oh, and according to the Daily Mail, Jack the Ripper has been identified as a doctor from Essex (by a Uruguyan who’s never been to London). Well it’s a theory, and it can join the rest of them I suppose.


View Jack the Ripper Canonical locations in a larger map

Charles I’s pirate – John Mucknell

WHEN TODD STEVENS set off for a shallow shore dive off Scilly one winter’s day, he had high hopes. Previous expeditions had yielded gold coins, 17th century guns and an anchor. It was all a legacy of the Scilly Isles unique geographic position. Sitting some 20 miles off the toe of Cornwall, the archipelago controlled the western approaches to northern Europe and south

Author and diver Todd Stevens

Author and diver Todd Stevens

to the Mediterranean. Ships must pass the islands on their way east to the East Indies and west to the Caribbean. Unsurprisingly, pirates had settled on Scilly as the perfect base from which to plunder the growing sea trade of England, France, Spain and the Dutch – indeed the disgruntled Dutch would declare war on the islands in 1651, a war which would not officially end until 1986.

Todd, a transplanted cockney who has made Scilly his home (the West Ham cap, proudly worn, is evidence of his East End roots), was in for a much bigger find though. Fighting against the powerful current, he cleared the sand to find the skeleton of a huge vessel. And in doing so, he was led to the story of one of British maritime history’s most unlikely ‘heroes’. Could this be the wreck of the John, an East Indiaman turned pirate vessel, famously lost off Scilly during the English Civil War? The story of Mucknell and Todd’s search for the truth, is told in Stevens’ fascinating new book*.

Drunk, violent and unpredictable, East India Company captain John Mucknell was disloyal to his employers and to the rule of law, stealing his own ship and turning to piracy. Yet Mucknell ended his days as Sir John, a Vice Admiral in Charles I’s own fleet of pirates, and his widow received a royal pension. Mucknell was a Stepney lad, not high-born but certainly of respectable family. The Mucknells were Catholic and worshipped at St Dunstan’s: John had been baptised in the church in the year of his birth, 1608. And he had spent his entire working life as a servant of the East India Company.

Todd Stevens, magging off the coast of Scilly

Todd Stevens, magging off the coast of Scilly

By the 1640s, Mucknell was an established and trusted captain, but he was also a loose cannon. England was in the throes of the Civil War. A loyal Royalist, John was violently at odds with the Puritanical Roundheads and would express his opinions loudly and drunkenly about the inns of Stepney. The Company received reports of his erratic and sometimes paranoid behaviour, but nonetheless in 1643 were to give their man a plum posting: charge of the new John, a state-of-the-art vessel, lighter, lower and fleeter than its predecessors, and carrying 44 guns. They had made a huge mistake.

Mucknell hatched an elaborate plan (though much of the detail seems to have got lost in a fog of rum). The ship was bound for Surat, in Gujarat, India. The East India Company planned that Mucknell would be bringing back a cargo of spices and silks, and there were agents aboard to buy and sell goods. En route, the skipper was charged with picking up a wealthy Portuguese ambassador. But John had other ideas. He had already instructed wife Elizabeth to head for the Royalist stronghold of Bristol, where he would meet her once he had stolen the ship.

Things swiftly deteriorated on the John, and Stevens convincingly argues that Mucknell engineered discord. There were drunken fights and the crew split between loyalists to the Company and those wanting to join Mucknell and rob the ship and its passengers. Mucknell attempted to cast anyone in opposition as ‘a Roundhead’ though its unclear how much his fight was ideological and how much for monetary gain. Within weeks of setting off from Wapping, Mucknell had lost the

John Mucknell's protector, the Prince of Wales, would later reign as Charles II

John Mucknell's protector, the Prince of Wales, would later reign as Charles II

rest of his fleet, before marooning passengers and many of the crew on the small isle of Johanna, off the coast of Mozambique. He then fled back to Bristol, picked up Elizabeth and headed to the Scillies. It was 1643, and the long and bloody English Civil War had another eight years to run.

There are reports of pirates operating out of Scilly since the 11th century. When Mucknell arrived, at the helm of an impressive new 44-gunner, he was immediately able to dominate, and form the rag-bag ‘navy’ into a fighting force. They were unpredictable; there was little honour among thieves and when Naval ships came out to challenge the pirates it was frequently every man for himself. But in the midst of Civil War, the pirate Mucknell found himself enjoying unlikely protection. King Charles was only too happy to see the Puritans get a bloody nose, and he issued letters of marque, authorising Mucknell to attack and rob ships. The pirate was now a privateer, licensed by his monarch. The dissolute merchant mariner, who had no real battle experience, now found himself elevated to Vice Admiral. And the Prince of Wales, the future Charles II, knighted him.

So although he was attacking ships of the English Navy, our man was doing so as Vice Admiral Sir John Mucknell, and he was about to get a powerful ally. Prince Rupert of the Rhine was the archetypal Cavalier, a dashing young man, a born soldier and overall commander of the Royalist forces by his mid-twenties. He had no maritime experience but was put in charge of the pirate fleet operating out of Scilly, and for the next years he would inflict defeat after defeat on the Navy, ransacking East India Company ships, and picking off any foreign vessels that came too close. The Scilly pirates had a vast area of control, operating as far west and south as the Azores, and so controlling the Atlantic sea routes. At his side was Sir John Mucknell.

There were reverses, and after one bloody skirmish Mucknell retreated to Wexford in Ireland to regroup. But by 1651, as the war reached its denouement, he was back, operating out of Scilly. And it was on one of those forays into the Atlantic, off the Azores isle of Terceira, that our man disappears from history. With eight years of bloody piracy behind him, the end seems to have been more mundane, as Rupert’s flagship The Constant Reformation, simply took on water and sunk, taking 300 souls with it. Documentation is scant of course, but there is no record of Mucknell taking another posting after that date.

Are these the ship's cannon from the long-lost ship John?

Are these the ship's cannon from the long-lost ship John?

Did John perish alongside those 300 in the sinking of The Constant Reformation? Or was he saved alongside Prince Rupert (who would go on to live into his sixties and become head of the King’s Navy after the interregnum). Certainly by 1660 he was dead. In that year, we find his wife Elizabeth petitioning the new king, Charles II “for her husband’s pension of £200 a year, for service, granted in 1645, which was five and a half years in arrears when he died”. Basic maths might suggest that Mucknell had been lost in the battle off Terceira. Elizabeth had been “driven from her habitations at Poplar and Bristol, her goods seized and she forced to fly beyond the seas.”
For centuries Mucknell and the John were lost to history. But Todd’s explorations kick the whole story off again, and this year English Heritage announced plans to dive the wreck. The story of the King’s Pirate is not done yet.

* Pirate John Mucknell and the Hunt for the Wreck of the John by Todd Stevens. AuthorHouse Publishing. ISBN 978-1467001588. Order details at www.piratemucknell.co.uk/
View The King’s pirate in a larger map

Execution Dock, Wapping

DURING MOST of London’s history, murderers, thieves and other miscreants received swift justice. An open-topped cart to Tyburn, and a swift drop from the gallows was the judicial response to a bewildering variety of crimes, some of them minor to modern eyes. But for

Roque's 1760 map of Execution Dock, Wapping, London

Roque's 1760 map of Execution Dock, Wapping, London

four centuries, the East End had its own answer to Tyburn Tree. The hamlets east of the City were the maritime hub of London, from where English ships travelled the globe, to return with their cargo or booty. Appropriate then that criminals on the high seas would meet their end at Wapping’s Execution Dock.

The Dock had its roots in the huge expansion of English naval power during the mid-1300s, fuelled by the military ambitions of one of England’s longest-lived kings, Edward III. The monarch, who reigned from 1327 to 1377, developed his country into one of Europe’s great powers, resisting the might of France and Spain. Key to this was a powerful navy and, with England isolated by water, pirates were not just a threat to the economy and English trade, they threatened the very security of the realm.

So stern measures were developed to counter the activities of the privateers, whose number had only increased with the rise in English seapower. After the Battle of Sluys in 1340, Edward established the High Court of Admiralty to deal specifically with piracy and spoil (goods purloined from enemy ships in time of war). From the late 1500s, the admiralty court would sit at the Old Bailey, home also to the Central Criminal Court, but its victims would take a different

Hanging of a pirate at Execution Dock, Wapping

Hanging of a pirate at Execution Dock, Wapping

route to the gibbet. Most ‘inshore’ prisoners would be housed at Newgate (just next to Old Bailey) but their maritime counterparts would more likely be incarcerated at Marshalsea Prison, on the south bank of the Thames. (East End chronicler Charles Dickens was traumatised as a child by his father’s spending time in Marshalsea for debt). The guilty men (and occasional women) would be brought on an open cart from Southwark, across London Bridge, past the Tower of London and to Wapping.

But if you had to go, better to go in style perhaps. The prisoner would be flanked in his carriage by the hangman on one side and a chaplain on the other – victim, damnation and salvation all in one small cart. And the wagon would be preceded by the Marshal (the sentencing judge) on horseback with a silver oar clasped in hand. En route to the gallows, the condemned were even allowed to stop for a final quart of beer at the Turk’s Head Inn, which stood at 30 Wapping High Street until it was destroyed by enemy bombs during the Blitz. This final drink was a small act of humanity common to many British cities. The Last Drop Tavern in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket, next to the city’s main gallows, offered a similar service to Auld Reekie’s miscreants.

There would always be a good crowd too – Londoners always loved a public execution – and not just in the streets. The gibbet was erected at the low water line, recognising the fact that his crimes had been committed at sea. And within yards of the gallows, dozens of little boats would be bobbing, packed with onlookers keen to get a good view of the hanging. The deaths were

Madame Tussaud's grisly take on Execution Dock, Wapping

Madame Tussaud's grisly take on Execution Dock, Wapping

brutal even by the standards of public execution. Early on of course, the victim was hoisted up and left to choke. But even after ‘the drop’ was brought in, breaking the neck and causing immediate death, the maritime felons had it rougher. A shorter rope was used, meaning they would still dangle and suffocate. Especially popular was ‘the marshal’s dance’, as the hanged thrashed arms and legs furiously around in their death throes.

The humiliations didn’t end there. Many victims of the rope would pay for a decent funeral if they had the means. In latter years, with the advent of the bodysnatchers and burkers, some would pay friends to ensure their corpses weren’t purloined for dissection (which had been allowed since Henry VIII’s time and was the norm by the 1700s). And at least at Tyburn they cut you down quickly after you’d been dispatched. But at Wapping, the corpses were left until three high tides had risen and washed over their heads. The worst offenders would then be cut down, coated with pitch to preserve them for as long as possible, and hung

Prospect of Whitby, Wapping High Street, London

Prospect of Whitby, Wapping High Street, London

‘pour decourager des autres’ down river at Blackwall Point or across at Rotherhithe’s Cuckold’s Point, down at Tilbury Point or at Woolwich. Incoming crews would be warned off piracy by the site of a rotting, crow-pecked corpse – and there were famous names, such as Captain Kidd.

The last hangings at Wapping were in 1830 and in 1834 the Admiralty Court was wound up, its powers transferred to the Central Criminal Court. How many unfortunates had been dispatched down the centuries? It’s impossible to be sure, but between 1735 and 1830 there were 78 confirmed hangings and six ‘probables’. The enthusiasm of the Crown for killing pirates was
without limit it seems. But there were exceptions. Certain privateers sailed just close enough to the wind to be of use to the monarch, and even commanded naval vessels – Raleigh and Drake spring to mind. Though it was a dangerous game and both ended up on the gallows. Others of those managed to escape the gibbet and die in their beds. And it’s one such – John Mucknell, a rough Stepney lad who rose to be a knight of the realm, who we discover next week.

 

http://youtu.be/PUXedsU6Rr4

An entertaining if historically questionable take on the Captain Kidd story. Charles Laughton could never be accused of underplaying his role … but what is Tower Bridge doing in a movie set in the 17th century!

 

 


View Execution Dock in a larger map

Tony Lambrianou and the Krays


View Tony Lambrianou in a larger map

The funeral of the Kray Twins  sidekick Tony Lambrianou in February 2004 brought back memories of the Krays bloody reign in the East End underworld, a brutal chapter in the history of London, and of the horrific crime that was to bring their time to an end.  Lambrianou was still only 61 when he died suddenly at the beginning of March. He and his brother Chris had been in their early twenties when they were sent down for 15 years in 1969, for their part in the murder of Jack ‘The Hat’ McVitie two years before.

By the time of the killing, the Krays’ ‘Firm’ was looking distinctly shaky at the top. One problem was Ronnie Kray’s increasingly erratic and violent behaviour. He had escaped the year before, when witnesses on an identity parade were ‘unable’ to recognise Ron as the man who had killed George Cornell in Whitechapel’s Blind Beggar pub. Ronnie now became curiously obsessed with the fact that he had killed but that brother Reggie always stopped short of administering the ultimate sanction to the Firm’s enemies.

Another problem was Reggie himself. His troubled marriage to Frances Kray was less than a year old, but already his bride, exhausted by the strain of Reggie’s lifestyle, had attempted suicide on two occasions. On 6 June 1967, the pair had booked a holiday in Spain in an attempt to make a fresh start. But the following day, her brother found Frances dead. She had swallowed a massive overdose of barbiturates. Reggie now took solace in drink and his behaviour deteriorated, to the alarm of the Firm. He shot a man he thought had insulted Frances (fortunately he was so drunk he merely wounded him), and shot another man in a Highbury club in a drunken argument.

Worried members began to drift away from the Firm and the increasingly paranoid Ronnie began to see challenges to his authority, many of them undoubtedly real. Jack ‘The Hat’ McVitie was an East End hardman, an enforcer who would sort out troublemakers for the Krays. But by 1967, McVitie, who earned his nickname for never removing the trilby that concealed a bald patch, was also heading out of control. Usually drunk, and often speeding on the amphetamines that he dealt and increasingly consumed, he had taken £100 from Ronnie to kill a man (the remaining £400 when the job was done), and refused to do the job or repay the money.

McVitie had pulled out a shotgun at the Regency Club, owned by friends of the Krays. On another occasion he had stabbed a man in the club. Yet another East End villain was spiraling out of control. On 28 October 1967 the twins and cohorts including Chris and Tony Lambrianou were drinking at the Carpenters Arms in Bethnal Green. Suggestions were made that the group decamp to a party up the road in Stoke Newington.

Jack ‘the Hat’ McVitie arrived at the same basement flat a little later. The suspicion was that the rendezvous wasn’t as coincidental as all that, and that Tony Lambrianou had been detailed by Ronnie to get McVitie to where the twins were waiting for him. McVitie walked into an atmosphere waiting to explode. Ronnie started abusing him, and Reggie put a pistol to his head and pulled the trigger. The gun jammed. Reggie then picked up a waiting knife and repeatedly plunged it into Jack’s body, eventually impaling him to the floor with the blade. The body was bundled into a quilt and driven south of the river by Tony Lambrianou, with brother Chris following. They dumped the corpse outside St Mary’s Church by the Rotherhithe Tunnel. The Krays were furious, as this was on the very doorstep of their friend, south London gang boss Freddie Foreman.

What had happened in that Stoke Newington room was never entirely clear. Even the Lambrianou brothers had different versions of events. The pair served 15 years each for their part in the crime. Unlike many former members of the Firm, the Lambrianous refused to give evidence against the Krays when the case came to court in 1969. Tony Lambrianou’s funeral, at St Matthew’s Church, Bethnal Green, was just a stone’s throw from where he, his brother and the twins grew up. And 350 showed up to mourn one man, and a romanticised way of life and of crime that’s now slipping into folklore and the violent history of London.

William Cronin, East End murderer


View William Cronin murder in a larger map

Justice for murderers was summary and often swift in Victorian times. Men and women would be sent to the gallows, sometimes on the the basis of summary and circumstantial evidence – and Old Baily trials were frequently over in hours or even minutes. But there was another side, with bureaucracy, the uncertainty of evidence and sometimes plain incompetence seeing killers walk free to kill again.

In the curious case of William Cronin, relieved to escape with the lesser sentence of manslaughter for a particularly horrible crime in 1897, justice did reassert itself – eventually. It would be another 28 years before he would hang.

The roots of the Cronin case were in the Great Dock Strike of 1889. It was a huge step forward for the strength of the trade unions, but with East Enders often desperate for work, it could set neighbour against neighbour. Solidarity was the key of course, with complete withdrawal of labour crucial to forcing the bosses to back down. Anyone who broke a strike was a scab or a blackleg, but for Henry Cuthbert, the father of a young family, going without his weekly wage (an uncertain one at that with casual labour and the dockyard chain system) was unthinkable. His family had to eat and so he kept on working.

On the night of 23 July, 1897, Cuthbert was having a drink at the Richard Cobden pub on Repton Street in Limehouse. Downing the last of his pint, he was accosted by Cronin, who worked on the coal tugs out of Limehouse, shouting ‘You’re the man that works on the wood boats?’ the 27-year-old demanded aggressively.

‘Anywhere to earn a shilling,’ Cuthbert replied, which simply enraged Cronin more. ‘You work for three shillings a day and others get five,’ he shouted. The unnerved Cuthbert supped up and headed for his 16 Carr Street home, close to where the canal fed into the Limehouse basin. His wife Eliza saw and heard an altercation on the street between Henry and Cronin. Shouting about the strike, he lashed out at Eliza, throwing her to the ground.

Things got much worse. The drunk and raging Cronin strode into the Cuthberts’ yard and picked up a spade. Stumbling into the kitchen to find the couple’s ten-month-old baby, also Eliza, in her cot. Shouting ‘First come, first served’ he struck the tot across the head with his shovel. That was one side of the story at any rate. By the time the case came to court, it would be much less certain what had happened.

Back in Limehouse, all the bravado had gone out of Cronin. A patrolling constable ran up and easily took him into custody. ‘All right guv’nor, they set on me first,’ mumbled the frightened Cronin. When the case came to Thames Police Court the next morning, Constable Pinchin reported that Cronin had also said: ‘I hope the child dies and I shall get hung’.

She did, but he didn’t. Little Eliza died at Whitechapel’s London Hospital a day later, and by the time Cronin again stood before magistrate Mr Dickinson on 30 July, he had been committed for trial on a charge of murder. He stood in the dock of the Old Bailey on 15 September 1897 in what seemed a hopeless case, but the prosecuting counsel were no match for Cronin’s barrister – the marvellously named EPS Counsel. Witness after witness came forward to muddy the waters. Cuthbert had attacked Cronin first with the spade, said one Henry Corcoran, who wondered if the child had been struck accidentally in the melee. Cronin meanwhile claimed he had never entered the house, rather confusingly claiming that, at the time, he had been with a Mary Farrow. The first story would have led to a verdict of accidental death; the second would have taken Cronin out of the picture entirely, but the jury appear to have fudged the issue, delivering a verdict of manslaughter rather than murder.

Manslaughter, of course, names the killer but removes the ‘malice’ or ‘intent’ element of murder, but from the distance of more than a century, this jury’s decision looks more like a verdict of ‘we’re not sure’ than ‘guilty but without intent to kill’. Still, Cronin was spared the rope and Justice Bruce started to examine the man’s previous record, including a conviction for assault. He sentenced Cronin to seven year’s penal servitude and shipped him off to Australia.

Where he might have remained. But in 1925, Cronin, now 54 and still working on the boats, was back in the East End. He was living with widow Alice Garratt at 126 Old Church Road in Stepney. It wasn’t a peaceful union. Neighbours often complained about the rows that spilled out into the street. On Friday 12 June, Cronin’s temper again got the better of him. Garratt’s scream of ‘murder!’ was heard by William and Rose Blanks, next door at 128.

William ran to 126 and found Alice, ‘her head hanging off’. Shocked he stumbled back to his home, and Rose came out to investigate – just as Cronin ran into the street, still carrying the razor. A brave passer-by, Charles Edmead, tackled Cronin to the ground, getting slashed with the razor as he did so.

Cronin made the same journey as 28 years before – from Thames Police Court to the Old Bailey. This time the jury had no doubt, not even leaving their box to deliberate before delivering the ‘guilty’ verdict. Sentence was handed down on 17 July 1925, with a defiant Cronin remarking to the judge: ‘Thank you sir. I am very glad you have sentenced an innocent man to death.’

Cronin appealed, claiming that Alice had been murdered in her bed (her children were asleep beside her) while he was sleeping. The Home Secretary demurred, letting the sentence stand. William John Cronin was hanged at Pentonville gaol on Friday 14 August.

The murder of Hannah Brown

Any piece of detective work is a jigsaw puzzle – finding which bits fit and which don’t, carefully sifting and experimenting until the big picture emerges. In the case of the unfortunate Hannah Brown, however, it was literally true. A series of horrifying discoveries around London, in the early weeks of 1837, had the whole of London horrified and fascinated by one of the capital’s grisliest murder mysteries.

The men working on the Regent’s Canal in Stepney were used to oddities being washed into the lock gates. Often it was some bounty that had fallen overboard from a goods-laden tug headed up to Birmingham and the Midlands – a barrel of brandy, a sack of coal or a bolt of linen. Occasionally it was something far worse. So it was that in early January that year, the crew clearing the Ben Jonson Locks (behind the Ragged School Museum and close to what is now the junction of Ben Jonson Road, Rhodeswell Road and Copperfield Road) fished a human head from the water. A modern-day detective would have quickly established that it hadn’t been in the water for long, being still recognisable as that of a woman in middle age.

The only problem was that in 1837 the science of policing was in its infancy, and the newly formed Metropolitan Police didn’t yet have a detective branch (formed in 1829, the Met wouldn’t get a ‘CID’ until 1841). It was left to a sharp-eyed doctor to put two and two together.

A few weeks before, on 28 December, a bricklayer named Bond had been working a few miles west, on a new row of houses, Canterbury Villas, on the Edgware Road. Returning to his lodgings in Kilburn on that icy winter’s day, Mr Bond had to traverse the Regent’s Canal – where his eye alighted on a coarse wrapping of sack. The orrified builder noted that from the hessian there oozed a pool of now-frozen blood.

The police were called, to unveil a torso from which both head and legs had been crudely hacked. An inquest was organised and held – in the curious manner of the day – at the White Lion Inn on the Edgware Road. The facts were clear, if incomplete, and the coroner duly noted that the torso was that of “a woman of around 50”. The jury returned a verdict of “wilful murder against some person or persons unknown.”

A few weeks later, in the East End, Dr Girdwood, the district surgeon of Stepney, was puzzling over his severed head. He recalled the gruesome finding in Westminster and wondered whether there could be a connection. Calling his Paddington colleague, he asked for the torso to be exhumed. The untidiness of the murderer’s knife-work made it easy for the doctor to announce that the two body parts were a match. Still the story was incomplete though. Girdwood placed the head in preserving spirits and waited.

The gruesome set would be completed on 2 February. Down in Camberwell, labourer James Page had taken work cutting back willow branches around a culvert. Stepping over the ditch, he noticed a wrapping of sackcloth in the water, from which protuded a human foot. The police arrived, opened the wrapping and revealed two human legs. Rushed to Girdwood for examination, the limbs proved to be the final pieces in the puzzle. Police now had a body but no killer.

The case had filled the London papers however. And on 20 March, a Mr Gay of Goodge Street came to the Paddington churchwarden, asking for permission to inspect the body. Gay had been searching fruitlessly for his sister, Hannah Brown, who had disappeared just before Christmas.

Now the puzzle raced quickly to a conclusion. If the identity of victims sometimes took time to be revealed, the identity of their killers was usually more obvious. The constables of the Met always looked first to family members, friends and lovers; it soon emerged that Hannah had left her lodgings on Christmas Eve, telling friends she was to marry a James Greenacre of Camberwell.

Greenacre proved elusive but was finally tracked down on 24 March, to the lodgings in the Kennington Road he shared with Sarah Gale, his common law wife. In the hallway were packed trunks; in Greenacre’s pocket were tickets for a passage to America. The police searched the trunks, to find items belonging to Hannah.

Justice was swift. Just three weeks later, the pair were standing in the dock at the Old Bailey. Greenacre’s defence was non existent. He first claimed not to have known Hannah, then said she had disappeared. Gale, standing alongside her lover, became similarly confused in her defence, as she was accused of being an accessory after the fact. Today, trials last for months. That of Greenacre and Gale was over in two days, the judge summed up in a few minutes, and the jury took a quarter of an hour to reach their verdict of guilty.

Greenacre was hanged on the 2nd of May, 1837. By then, Gale had been transported to Australia – from where she would never return.

Map of locations in the Hannah Brown murder: http://tinyurl.com/38htuxu

The Brick Lane bombing

THE targeting of Brick Lane may have a twisted logic for Saturday’s bombers.
If there’s one area that has shown the ability of Londoners to welcome and absorb incoming cultures it’s Spitalfields, as wave after wave of immigrants have settled in the area and each added their unique ingredients to the strong cultural mix of the East End.
But if there’s one lesson the politicians of hate haven’t learned from history, it’s that centuries of attacks against the Irish, Huguenots, Jews and now Bangladeshis don’t drive people away, they just make them stronger.
Even before immigration began in earnest, the area had a reputation for religious and cultural diversity – and it was always a haven for refugees and free-thinkers.
In 1675, when there were 1,300 new buildings crammed onto the old market gardens, it was seen as a centre of non-conformity, as citizens resisted the authority of the established Church of England. In fact the first Baptist church in England had been built there in 1612.
And organised opposition to incomers is nothing new. Back in the early 1700s, there had been protests in the streets of Spitalfields as the newly built-up area was settled by Huguenots, refugees from religious persecution in the Low Countries.

Fine weaving skills
They had come, under the protection of the English crown, bringing with them their skills of fine silk-weaving to settle around Fournier and Elder Streets. Many locals resented their new ways, but soon the incomers were bringing wealth and jobs to the area, as Spitalfields became famous for fine cloths.
Then, in 1780, Lord George Gordon played on Protestant fears of Rome to stoke up the Gordon Riots. Many Irish people had settled on the eastern fringes of the City, looking for work and escaping religious persecution, poverty and starvation back in their home country.
On June 2, Roman Catholic chapels in Spitalfields were burned to the ground and the mob made for Downing Street. Most of them never got there, having sacked Langdale’s Brewery in Holborn and poisoned themselves as they gorged on alcohol. Their eccentric leader was arrested for treason and saw out his years in prison.
For many East Enders, their proudest defence against the forces of fascism came in the wake of the Jewish immigration of the late 1800s.
The Jews had come in their thousands, escaping the pogroms of Russia and Eastern Europe. Jewishness is an essential ingredient in the rich recipe that is today’s East End, whether it be the humour, the numerous charitable schools and settlements the incomers established, or the world-famous Brick Lane Beigel Shop.
But for some, richness, newness and diversity is itself a threat. In the 1930s Oswald Mosley, another rabble-rouser who pitched for people’s fears, led his Blackshirts on provocative marches around Brick Lane and Club Row.
The fascist challenge culminated in the Battle of Cable Street, on October 5, 1936, when East Enders decided once and for all that the racists would not pass.
The Blackshirts were broken, as was their leader, who had marched his troops up the hill and down again – and achieved nothing. He drifted from influence, a forlorn and half-forgotten figure.

Back in the 1970s, Brick Lane was changing again. Most of the Jewish population had moved on, and their place was taken by a new wave of refugees, Bangladeshis – many fleeing the war that led to the secession of the new Bangladesh from Pakistan.
Walk along Brick Lane today and you will see that some mosques carry a Star Of David above the door – testament to their previous lives as synagogues and the capacity of the area to welcome and absorb new religions and cultures.
On Brick Lane though, the Sunday morning market was a magnet for the new fascists of the National Front and, later, the British Movement and British National Party to hand out their literature of race hate.
But, just like in the 1930s, a new wave of defiance rose to meet them.
The late seventies saw the birth of the Anti Nazi League, Rock Against Racism and the anti-racist movement that eventually forced them off the streets.
The last ten years have demonstrated just how good the East End is at absorbing new religions, cultures and ideas – and how much the area gains from it.
As for the fascists – they’ve yet to learn the lessons
of history.

The recent nail bomb attack on Brick Lane confirms the activity of far right neo-Nazi groups in Tower Hamlets.
Although race hate incidents seem to have subsided recently, the East End is not without its fair share of race- related violence.
The British National Party (BNP), which hit the headlines in 1993 when it secured a council by-election victory in Millwall ward, is believed to be a major player in creating racial tension.
Anti-fascist magazine Searchlight gave us details of the BNP’s history and the origins of other organisations focused against Asians, blacks, Jews and other ethnic minorities.
“Formed in 1982, the BNP spent much of the 1980s in the shadow of the National Front (NF),” said the magazine.
“The BNP’s Millwall victory was achieved after several years of activity. “Campaigning under the slogan Rights for Whites, the BNP successfully galvanised electoral support with a public that had become disillusioned with the main political parties.
“However, the election victory was secured at a heavy local cost. The Rights for Whites campaign, launched in 1990 heralded a massive increase in racial violence throughout east London. While BNP members were personally responsible for only a fraction of these incidents, their political activity and direct scapegoating, coupled with equally racist national media contributed to an atmosphere of racial tension.”
“It was also in the early nineties that the Nazi group Combat 18 emerged out of the BNP’s stewarding group.”
“The 1,500 strong BNP now accepts that the majority of British people totally refute Nazi and anti-Semitic ideas.
“But the party is playing with words rather than substance and as night follows day, Nazism, and violence follow the BNP.”