Saturday, 17 February 2018

Jack the Stripper: the '60s London serial killer time forgot

His first victim was probably Elizabeth Figg, a prostitute whose partially-clothed body was found next to the Thames in Dukes Meadows, Chiswick, in 1959. She had died of asphyxiation, but there was no sign of sexual violence. His next victim may have been Gwynneth Rees, whose body was dumped at a council refuse disposal site in Townmead Road, Mortlake, in 1963. What's certain is that the six prostitutes who were abducted, murdered and found dumped in various sites around West London between February 1964 and February 1965 were all victims of the same serial killer. Because seven of the victims were found partially clothed, the murderer was given the nickname Jack the Stripper, but the case eventually became known by the rather more prosaic and inaccurate title, the Hammersmith Nude Murders - only some of the dead women were abducted from, or found in, Hammersmith, and they weren't entirely naked. The murder hunt was the largest in British criminal history until then,...

 ...a really convincing suspect was never identified, and the killer was never caught.

Despite the fact that it was the biggest serial killer case since John Christie had been hanged for the Rillington Place murders in 1953, and despite a huge amount of media coverage at the time, it was rapidly eclipsed by the unimaginable horrors wrought by the Moors Murderers, who were were jailed for life in 1966. There was a brief upsurge of interest in the early '70s, when the lead detective on the Nude Murders case and his deputy - who had both retired - were involved in a tabloid spat over the former's claim that the police knew the perpetrator's identity, and that the threat of imminent arrest had driven the fiend to suicide just as Knacker of the Yard was reaching for his collar (neither claim was remotely true): after that, the whole sordid affair disappeared from the public's consciousness, leaving behind nothing but vague memories of the suicide theory, and the lurid rumour that the victims had been asphyxiated while fellating their killer - a theory for which, again, there was absolutely no evidence.

In the most recent account of the case, The Hunt for the 60s' Ripper (published last year by Mirror Books), Robin Jarossi speculates that the reason for this general lack of interest was that the victims were all prostitutes, and, back in the '60s and '70s, the public had little sympathy for the breed. I wonder if it was also because - with the exception, presumably, of their clients - Londoners were sick of the streetwalkers, pimps and petty criminals who infested large swathes of the Capital. The 60s' Ripper's victims operated across a wide area of West London, including Bayswater, Queensway, Notting Hill, Kensington, Holland Park and Shepherd's Bush, and Hyde Park had a reputation as an open-air night-time knocking shop. (I imagine Londoners were also fed up with all the sordid frightfulness exposed by the Profumo Affair.) Nowadays, the author tells us, most prostitutes make contact with their clients on the internet - back then, they were evidently all too visible, hanging around street corners waiting to be picked up by men in cars. I know I've led a sheltered life, and that I'm not particularly observant, but the last time I was accosted by a prostitute in London was near Paddington Station, in Sussex Gardens, in 1981, while walking to my girlfriend's flat just off Baker Street, as half a million people streamed towards Hyde Park to celebrate Chas and Di getting hitched. (Bizarrely - taken completely by surprise - I sputtered, "It's the Royal Wedding! How dare you!", and fled.)

One of the really interesting aspects of Jarossi's book is just how dilapidated, poor, white and Irish much of London was at the time. Even Notting Hill - now a haunt of the super-rich - was a squalid den of low-rent vice, and the dolled-up terraced houses that now sell for well over £5m were crammed with a mixture of the respectable poor and a cast of characters straight out of a Dickensian rookery. Most of the Ripper's petite victims (the tallest was 5ft. 3ins.) were from somewhere else - Scotland, Wales, Ireland, The North. They led chaotic, heavy-drinking, amphetamine-guzzling lives in slummy rented rooms, usually shared with some scuzzy "boyfriend" or other, who was often a heavy-drinking alcoholic Irishman. They sold their bodies for a pittance - £1 or £2 - and, in their spare time, hung around pubs, cab shelters, late-night jazz clubs and crappy cafés, scrounging drinks and small loans. They were arrested and charged regularly, gave a variety of false names, paid their fines, and were back on the street the same night. When they got in trouble (i.e. up the duff), and couldn't afford a backstreet abortion, they often headed for home, sprogged, and left the baby with their parents/grandparents, or put it up for adoption, before immediately returning to what a sensational book at the time dubbed "Jungle West 11". Every one of them were missing some teeth (mind you, this was when 37% of the adult population wore dentures). From their police photos, none of them were overly attractive: whatever girlish bloom they once possessed had long vanished, and their eyes and mouths were cold, dead, disappointed, resigned.

Anyone hoping for a hint of seedy glamour - the sort of frisson one is apparently supposed to get from reading Colin MacInnes's accounts of low-life Soho in the '50s and early '60s - will be sorely disappointed: it all sounds absolutely ghastly. The parts of London described in Jarossi's book have changed beyond recognition in the half century since the murders: by no means all of those changes are welcome (unless you're particularly keen on bankers or rich Arabs) - but reading about the Nude Murders leaves one feeling that any change would have been an improvement.

Whenever prostitutes are murdered, the police are criticised for not taking the crimes seriously enough and for not devoting enough resources to the hunt for the perpetrator - but their response to the Jack the Stripper killings couldn't have been comprehensive. As they say, "no stone was left unturned" - which is one of the reasons the investigation failed to catch the murderer. (I'll look at that in my next post.)

A final observation - one of things which made Jarossi's book such interesting reading for me is that I know so many of the places mentioned in it. For instance, we went for a (very wet) walk in Dukes Meadows just a few weeks ago. Berrymede Road, where one of the victims was dumped after the killer had been disturbed by two decorators while trying to offload the body behind the ABC Cinema in Chiswick High Road early one morning, is just around the corner. I used to cycle down to Corney Reach and pass the Corinthian Sailing Club landing stage on Upper Mall - two more body dump sites - every day. My mother and brother lived in separate flats in Westbourne Terrace on the Bayswater/Paddington borders, and I eventually bought a flat there as well: I knew Queensway and Notting Hill fairly well. I worked in or near Shepherd's Bush for fifteen years. The body of the penultimate victim, Frances Brown, was left in a car park in Hornton Street (where Kensington Town Hall is now situated), just around the corner from a flat I shared with a girlfriend for several years. (Before anyone thinks about calling CrimeStoppers, I was 11 at the time of the murders, wouldn't learn to drive for another 16 years, and I was living in Wimbledon.)

4 comments:

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    1. Oh God, don't encourage the police - next thing you know, they'll be telling us it was him and Harvey Proctor!

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  2. Ah, you may not be having your collar felt just yet.However,I put it to you Mr Gronmark would you know of anyone, anyone at all who may have been working or studying in your vicinity?
    Someone say seven or eight years your senior.
    Someone who occasionally jogged at twilight under the pretence of getting fit for some team sport or other. Someone who would by necessity - the better to go about his ghastly business - wear dark clothing;the fashion then was for polo sweaters usually black.
    Perhaps that someone's mind had been corrupted by listening to American jazz. Was it not Thelonius Monk who cut "Around Midnight?"
    I rest my case.

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    1. That thought hadn't actually occurred to me, southern man. But now you mention it, I think I might have to drop a line to Police Scotland, just in case.

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