Tag Archives: London crime

William Wallace

When I started The Knowledge nobody seems to have known who William Wallace was, by 1997 Smithfield always had flowers attached to the railings of his memorial plaque.

As stirring as Braveheart was, unfortunately, it’s not an accurate depiction of the life or death of William Wallace, and his death was, in fact, a lot more gruesome than was depicted on screen.

Today 23rd August marks the day in 1305 that William Wallace’s death took place.

After his capture in Scotland, he was taken to London and put on trial at Westminster Hall. Predictably found guilty of treason he was tied to a hurdle and was dragged by horses for six miles to Smithfield.

During the journey, people threw faeces and rubbish, he was beaten with rods and whipped by the crowd as the Scottish hero passed them by.

Wallace had also been found guilty of robbery and murder meaning that he was sentenced for these crimes by hanging. Before dying he was cut down from the gibbet and had his testicles and penis cut off. Next, his intestines were removed and burned in front of him.

They were still not finished, the next step of this painful ordeal was the ripping out of Wallace’s heart from his chest, we don’t know if Wallace’s heart was still beating as it was removed from his body.

The final step was chopping Wallace’s head off and his body cut into four separate pieces and shown around the country to demonstrate what would happen to rebels and traitors of the King.

Wallace’s head was put on display upon a spike on London Bridge, his limbs were sent separately to Berwick, Stirling, Perth and Newcastle.

Edward I died two years later, and 14 years later, Scotland had its independence. William Wallace’s sacrifice was not in vain.

Curiously two years after Braveheart was released, Mel Gibson starred in Conspiracy Theory as Jerry Fletcher, a New York City taxi driver, who has the strange habit of making complicated scenarios of conspiracies and publishing them in a newsletter.

Exploding the legend of Guy Fawkes

Ask most children in England what happens on the 5th November and they would tell you that it is Guy Fawkes night. It is a night we commemorate when in 1605 some Catholics in England expecting the new Stuart King – James to be more tolerant of them had decided to kill him. Their hopes were dashed when he had proved to be the opposite and had ordered all Catholic priests to leave England.

This so angered some Catholics that they decided to remove James and put his daughter Elizabeth on the throne ensuring that she was a Catholic.

This led to a plot to assassinate the king of England, but as we shall see it would devastate a sizeable area of Westminster and also kill everyone sitting in the Houses of Parliament at the same time as the James opened Parliament on 5th November 1605.

Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators had rented out a house next to the Houses of Parliament and managed to get 36 barrels of gunpowder into a cellar under the House of Lords.

For an unexplained reason, it was decided this year to search the cellars prior to the opening of Parliament and Guy Fawkes was caught red-handed.

In celebration of his survival, James ordered that the people of England should have a great bonfire on the night on 5th November. This fire was traditionally topped off with an effigy of the Pope rather than Guy Fawkes. His place at the top of the fire came in later as did fireworks. The East Sussex county town of Lewes still has the pope alongside Guy Fawkes when it comes to the effigies being burned.

Many conspiracy theories surround the 5th November plot but the use of gunpowder is an intriguing one.

The government had a monopoly on gunpowder in this country and it was stored in places like the Tower of London. How did the conspirators get hold of 36 barrels of gunpowder without drawing attention to themselves?

How was the gunpowder moved across London from the Tower of London to Westminster (at least two miles distant) without anyone seeing it? The River Thames would not have been used as it could have lead to the gunpowder becoming damp and useless. Thirty-six barrels would have been a sizeable quantity, estimated to be 2,500 kilograms, being moved without causing suspicion.

Experts from the Centre for Explosion Studies, at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth have estimated the Westminster Abbey would have been destroyed and the blast zone would have stretched as far as modern-day Downing Street.

They found that within a radius of about 40 metres, everything would have been razed to the ground. Within 110 metres, buildings would have been at least partially destroyed. And some windows would have been blown out even as far as 900 metres away.

In the 2005 ITV programme The Gunpowder Plot: Exploding The Legend, a full-size replica of the House of Lords was built and destroyed with barrels of gunpowder. The experiment demonstrated that the explosion if the gunpowder was in good order – and there is no reason to believe otherwise as Guy Fawkes was an explosives expert – would have killed all those in the building. The power of the explosion in the experiment was such that the 7-foot deep concrete walls (replicating how archives suggest the walls of the old House of Lords were constructed) were reduced to rubble. Measuring devices placed in the chamber to calculate the force of the blast were themselves destroyed by the explosion; the skull of the dummy representing King James, which had been placed on a throne inside the chamber surrounded by courtiers, peers and bishops, was found a considerable distance from the site. According to the findings of the programme, no one within 330 feet of the blast could have survived. The explosion would have been seen from miles away, and heard from further away still. Even if only half of the gunpowder had gone off, everyone in the House of Lords and its environs would have been killed instantly.

The programme also disproved claims that some deterioration in the quality of the gunpowder would have prevented the explosion. A portion of deliberately deteriorated gunpowder, of such low quality as to make it unusable in firearms, when placed in a heap and ignited, still managed to create a large explosion. The impact of even deteriorated gunpowder would have been magnified by its containment in wooden barrels, compensating for the quality of the contents. The compression would have created a cannon effect, with the powder first blowing up from the top of the barrel before, a millisecond later, blowing out. Calculations showed that Fawkes, who was skilled in the use of gunpowder, had deployed double the amount needed.

As a curious footnote, some of the gunpowder guarded by Fawkes may have survived until recently. In March 2002 workers cataloguing archives of diarist John Evelyn at the British Library found a box containing a number of gunpowder samples, including a compressed bar with a note in Evelyn’s handwriting stating that it had belonged to Guy Fawkes. A further note, written in the 19th century, confirmed this provenance, but in 1952 the document acquired a new comment: “but there was none left”.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 5th November 2012

A close shave in Fleet Street

Sweeny Todd

For many years I’ve thought of Sweeny Todd as an urban myth, alongside Robin Hood and King Arthur, but a book by the late Peter Haining Sweeny Todd: The Real Story of The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has gone some way to dispel that belief, although it must be said that many academics dispute his findings. He asserts that the 25th January 2012 marks the 210th anniversary of Todd’s hanging for crimes which if true would make him Britain’s most prolific serial killer.

His abused early life would match the profile for the makings of a psychopath. Todd was born on 26th October 1756 in Brick Lane to a mother who for a living wound silk in Spitalfields and a drunken father employed as a silk weaver and who would regularly beat his son and wife. Spoilt by the mother who as he later related “would make quite a pet of me”, kissing him and calling him a pretty boy. As he grew up hating his life at home Todd would visit the nearby Tower of London where instruments of torture were displayed to discourage miscreants.

[I]N THE HARSH WINTER of 1768 both his parents seem to have succumbed to gin, the cold or both and disappeared from the records and from Todd’s life. Two years later at the age of 14 Todd entered Newgate Prison for an unrecorded crime and was to spend five years within its walls working with a man called Plummer the prison’s barber. As his assistant Todd would soap the condemned men’s chins for shaving before they walked to the gallows. A tough life in Newgate for on one occasion he was left for dead after a beating for pilfering from a murderer.

On his release in 1775 semi-literate Todd had acquired new skills which he intended to put to good use. He set himself up as a street corner barber and within five years had opened a barbers shop near Hyde Park corner.

Violence surrounded him, his shop was within walking distance of the gibbet at Tyburn which was to be the principal place of execution in London for the next three years until Tyburn’s gallows were decommissioned in 1783 when Newgate was used as London’s principal place of execution as Todd would later discover. He hated his parents and abused his wife he had in short all the makings of a modern-day serial killer.

In December 1784 an annual news chronicle reported a story: “A young gentleman, by chance coming into the barber’s shop to be shaved and dressed, and being in liquor, mentioned having seen a fine girl in Hamilton Street, from whom he had had certain favours the night before. The barber, concluding this to be his wife, and in the height of his frenzy, cut the young gentleman’s throat from ear to ear and absconded.” Todd would recount later after his arrest “My first ‘un was a young gent at Hyde Park Corner. Slit him from ear to ear, I did.”

He next appeared at 186 Fleet Street (now home to the Dundee Courier) in a dilapidated shop adjacent to St. Dunstan’s Church, just yards from Bell Yard, the two locations were connected by a series of tunnels beneath the church. Paying £125 for the lease he set himself up as a barber surgeon, with a red and white striped pole representing the bandages and blood of his profession, and above the shop a yellow painted sign reading “Sweeny Todd, Barber”. In the windows were jars displaying rotten teeth showcasing his prowess at extraction.

London’s first newspaper the Daily Courant then located in Crane Court just a few yards up Fleet Street from Todd’s barber shop reported the murder on 14th April 1785 of a young gentleman who had been seen in conversation with a man dressed as a barber stating “The two men came to an argument, and of a sudden the barber took from his clothing a razor and slit the throat of the young man, thereafter disappearing and was seen no more.”

Four other murders near his shop have been attributed to Todd, an apprentice who was carrying money for his master, a pawnbroker, a share dealer and a petty crook. Not wishing to be caught in the street committing his foul deeds he had now devised a way of dispatching his victims within the confines of his shop. Probably inspired by a waxworks exhibition in Fleet Street which featured revolving machinery which made the waxworks kick out to frighten visitors, his chair was positioned either side of a moveable square of floorboards. The only evidence of its use is of victim Thomas Shadwell, a watchman at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, in the form of an incomplete document written by the victim’s son.

He now needed a means of disposing of his victims and a young widow called Mrs Lovett who had a penchant for strong, violent men and owned baker’s shop nearby fitted the bill. As with serial killers he repeated his method; after murdering he would take clothing and valuables and then would strip the body and carry the body parts in a box through the tunnels beneath St. Dunstan’s Church where Mrs Lovett would use the remains as filling for her meat pies.

In a city, which by the standards of today we would find nauseating, the stench of rotting bodies in the area prompted the Daily Courant to report: “The dreadful charnel house sort of smell would make itself most painfully and disagreeably apparent.”

Enter Richard Blunt of the newly formed Bow Street Runners being suspicious of Todd told his men to watch the shop and on several occasions he visited the barber’s himself and was shaved, but always had a companion.

It was when they entered the tunnels they found the evidence they needed of his crimes. His Blunt’s party entered a disused family vault to find the recent remains of human bodies and following a trail of footprints found themselves at the back of Lovett’s underground cookhouse. Later returning to Todd’s barber shop when he was out evidence of found including the valuables stolen from his victims before being turned into pies.

Lovett killed herself with poison before coming to trial, but in the Christmas of 1801 London witnessed “one of the trials of the age”. Todd was charged at the Old Bailey with a single murder that of Francis Thornhill, who had on his person before disappearing a string of pearls worth £16,000 intended for a young woman in London. He entered Todd’s shop to be shaved never to be seen again, Todd later pawned them for £1,000.

The Attorney General told the court that clothing from 160 people had been found in the shop, and a leg bone found in the church vaults belong to Thornhill. A surgeon, Sylvester Steers, who had treated Thornhill for a leg fracture, recognised the bone as his patient’s.

The jury took just 5 minutes to reach their guilty verdict. Sweeny Todd was not hanged at Tyburn but was taken from his cell in Newgate on the morning of 25th January 1802 and hanged in front of a crowd of thousands. He was 46 years old. After hanging for an hour his body was carried to the Royal College of Surgeons and ironically was butchered for the benefit of medical science.

The case of Britain’s most prolific killer inspired The Strong of Pearls, a serial published in a weekly magazine in 1846, it was dramatised by George Dibdin Pitt in 1842, in what is regarded as the first true life drama, and it has been the basis for numerous books, plays and films, and inspired Stephen Sondheim for write a musical. The term Sweeny has in turn become cockney rhyming slang for the Metropolitan police’s Flying Squad which then became a long running television drama The Sweeny 1975-82.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 25th January 2012

A short drop

The Execution Bell, named in the nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons as “The Bells of Old Bailey“, now on display in St. Sepulchre-without-Newgate used to be rung around midnight outside the condemned cell.

The St. Sepulchre’s clerk would travel across the street through a tunnel, to stand outside the cells of the condemned before their hanging at Newgate Prison.

[L]ondon merchant tailor John Dowe paid the parish £50 to buy a handbell on the condition that it would be rung to mark the execution of a prisoner at the nearby gallows at Newgate.

John ‘Half-Hanged’ Smith also survived his own execution on 24th December 1705, at Tyburn, surviving after he was suspended by the rope for 18 minutes, he was cut down from the gallows. However, the experience did not deter him from returning to a life of burglary and being sentenced to death again shortly afterwards. His second execution was cancelled due to legal complications, and Smith was eventually transported to Virginia for a third offence.

Execution in England for most crimes was once the short drop. Using a short rope the accused was slowly strangled, hanging using little or no drop was effectively universal up to 1872.

The prisoner could be suspended by a variety of means, from the back of a cart or a ladder. Where a person was dragged off the tail of the cart they usually got only a few inches of actual drop. It was not unusual for the relatives and friends of prisoners to hang on their legs to shorten their suffering.

On 24th November 1740, William Duell, aged 16, was convicted of rape. He was found to be alive while being prepared for dissection at Barber-Surgeon’s Hall. He was returned to Newgate that night. The sentence later commuted to transportation, but he may not have survived the voyage.

Hanging when carried out with little or no drop does not cause instant death, neither does it cause severe physical damage to the neck, as the forces exerted are far lower, but rather it squeezes the life out of the person over a period of time due to constriction of the neck.

On 22nd March 1819, Mary Green had a remarkable survival. Hanged for using counterfeit banknotes, she awoke after her body had been released for burial. She is believed to have changed her name and moved to Nova Scotia.

In some cases, the accused, usually the young and healthy, managed to survive their ordeal, even after leaving the person on the rope for one hour that had become a normal practice by 1760.

The case of Patrick O’Bryan is certainly an odd one. One might think that public short drop hanging would be a deterrent to crime. One might think that having survived hanging one would reform rather than face the same fate again. Not so with Mr O’Bryan. He was hanged the first time in 1686 for highway robbery committed on the outskirts of Gloucester. His body was claimed by friends and carried to one of their homes, where he was seen to be breathing. A surgeon bled him and in time he made a full recovery. His friends entreated him to start a new life and offered to assist him financially to do so. For a time O’Bryan kept his promise to them but could not resist the temptation to return to his old habits. About a year later he met the man who he held responsible for his first conviction. This person was shocked to see him, having thought he was dead. O’Bryan first shot the man and then drew a dagger and stabbed him to death. Two years would pass before he was arrested on the confession evidence of one of his gang who was waiting to be hanged at Bedford.

O’Bryan was seized at his lodgings in Little Suffolk Street, near the Haymarket in London and committed to Newgate. He was returned to Salisbury for trial at the next Assizes. He confessed his crimes and was hanged there on Tuesday, the 30th April, 1689. Afterwards, he was hanged in chains near the spot where the murder had been committed.

Twenty-three-year-old Thomas Reynolds was hanged at Tyburn on the 26th July 1736, having been convicted of crimes under the Black Acts and of pulling down Ledbury Turnpike in Herefordshire. His co-defendant, James Bayliss was reprieved. Bayliss’ wife was given money by Reynolds to purchase a coffin and shroud for him, which she did. He was taken down and placed in the coffin and taken by his friends for burial. A woman asked to see his body so the lid of the coffin was removed and it was seen that Reynolds was still breathing. His friends, concerned that the authorities should discover that he was not dead and try to hang him again, carried the coffin along the Oxford Road. They found a surgeon who bled him and he was given brandy and sack to try and revive him. Nobody would take the coffin into their house for fear of prosecution and in due course, Reynolds expired and was buried by the Oxford road.

A macabre experiment was performed on highwayman William Gordon who was hanged at Tyburn on the 27th April 1733. Mr Abraham Chovett was a Demonstrator in Anatomy and had carried out experiments on dogs by making an incision in the windpipe prior to hanging them. He told Gordon about them and left him a small knife. After attending chapel on his final morning he made an incision in his throat. Two surgeons who were in Newgate attended him and partially sewed up the wound. Gordon told the Ordinary that he had cut himself by accident. So as not to delay the execution, the four men were to hang that day, William Gordon, James Ward, William Keyes and William Norman were loaded into the cart for the journey to Tyburn. It was observed that the last three died quite quickly but that Gordon was still alive after 45 minutes. His body was taken to a house in Edgware Road where Mr Chovot bled him. He was able to open his mouth and groan but died soon afterwards. It was opined that had he been cut down five minutes sooner he might have survived.

Siege mentality

Like a scene from the 1975 film starring Dustin Hoffman Dog Day Afternoon, the Spaghetti House Siege went from drama to farce.

On 28th September 1975 Nigerian born Franklin Davies with two accomplices raided the Knightsbridge branch of Spaghetti House.

Almost inviting robbery the fledgling restaurant chain would summon the managers of their four branches to pay their week’s takings, a total of £13,000, in cash, to their head office in Knightsbridge.

[D]URING the raid by Davies, one of the waiters escaped and raised the alarm, prompting the robbers to take nine hostages into the basement.

The media were in their element: prime location, multi-ethnic case (many of the staff were Italian); with Davies claiming to be a member of the Black Liberation Army (an organisation which did not exist in Britain), demanding a plane to fly them to Jamaica.

The police managed to get to use a new toy – fibre-optic surveillance. The authorities were not likely to accede to the robber’s demands. After all nine had been murdered in Northern Ireland the previous day, and the IRA had been taking pot shots at the porticos of gentlemen’s clubs in St. James’s, an outrageous assault on the establishment.

The siege lasted six days before they gave up and were arrested, partly due to being given false information that one of Davies’s accomplices as selling information to the newspapers.

They received a total of 57 years for their failed endeavour.


Winston Churchill in top hat at the Siege of Sidney Street

The Siege of Sidney Street wasn’t such an overwhelming success. Home Secretary Winston Churchill ever keen to be seen taking control, especially as it was the first ‘breaking news’ story, played out in front of the media.

A fortnight earlier when the police disturbed a burglary at a jewellers shop in Houndsditch, three officers had been shot dead by one of the burglars.. His body was found the next day, murdered by his accomplices.

Following a tip-off, the police arrived at Sidney Street and having awoken the culprits by throwing stones at their bedroom window, they soon realised that their pistols were not matched in range or power to their adversaries’ arms. Churchill called in the Scots Guards from the Tower of London and Royal Engineers to blow up the house.

One policeman was shot in the chest and following the fire that ensued a fireman was fatally injured by falling masonry, and two bodies were found in the rubble. Seven men were put on trial but were acquitted for lack of evidence. The suspected ringleader Peter the Painter returned to Russia rising to become deputy head of the Cheka, the Soviet Secret Police.

Well-known is the Iranian siege, again in Knightsbridge, when the public first realised that we had an elite army regiment.


The Balcombe Street Siege

The Balcombe Street Siege by political dissidents is not so well known. Again it’s 1975, what was it with that year? Ross McWhirter, one of the twins who had started the Guinness Book of Records, an outspoken opponent of Irish republican movement, had been murdered by the IRA, and within 14 months, 40 bombs had exploded within the M25.

The expensive Scotts Restaurant in Mount Street had had gunshots fired through its windows, the police had been expecting a second attack on the restaurant and had flooded the Mayfair area.

Hailing a cab two policemen gave chase after the gunman’s stolen Ford Cortina. After many miles (hopefully, the cabbie had started the meter) they ended up not far from the terrorist’s original target near Marylebone Station.

Breaking into number 22b Balcolme Street they took the council tenants John and Sheila Matthews hostage and demanded a plane to fly them to Ireland. Negotiating was Peter Imbert, later to be made Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, who after six days persuaded the gang to surrender, with no loss of life.

Rumour at the time had it that the aforementioned use of the SAS had been suggested to the terrorists as a means of extricating them, and this focussed their minds, prompting surrender.