By Thom L. Jones for Gangsters Inc.
This is a story of gangs of London, or at least one of them, the ruthless murder of a truly innocent man, and the irony of coincidence on a scale that is almost impossible to believe: A man shoots a man dead in broad daylight in the West-End of Britain’s biggest city. Another man walks by the scene a few minutes later, sees the victim being attended to and carries on. A few months later, this man will kill the killer. Legally.
In 1947 England, hanging was the ultimate corporal punishment. Murder is illegal. Citizens cannot kill each other. The State, however, retains the right to kill its citizens. The executioner maintains social order.
This is their story.
I am not Jack Webb but I want the facts. These are they, perhaps. After over seventy years, it’s still difficult to pin down even some basics.
The victim is Alec de (De) Antiquis. His name spelled in various ways and his age varies from 26 to 31 or 34 according to the source used. He was in fact born in 1911 in London, to an Italian father and English mother, surname Spense. (1)
There seems to be no image of him in the public domain, other than the famous photograph taken by press agency photographer, Geoffrey Harrison, which shows only a crumpled figure lying in a gutter being attended to by two men crouching by his side.
Married to Gladys Irene Collins, three years younger than her husband, they have six children. He has a small repair shop called L & A Motors in the High Street, in Colliers Wood, South London catering to local motor-bike and car owners. He’s up to his neck in debt and struggling to make things work. A good man, doing his best in hard times.
He is shot dead a little after 2:30 pm on the afternoon of Friday, April 29.
The man who walks past the scene is Albert Pierrepoint, the official hangman for the British government on his way to meet some friends in a nearby pub. Before he left England to go to Germany and execute convicted war criminals. The most prolific hangman ever in England, he dispatched 430 men and women over his twenty-five-year career.
Or was he actually already in the place, The Fitzroy Tavern, down the street already, and watched the whole thing from a bar stool?
Except the public bar is a hundred yards south of the corner where all the action was taking place.
He may have seen three men running past the pub as they fled the crime scene.
Someone once said how outstanding the human capacity was for self-delusion. Or is it the law of unintended consequence in action?
The one thing we know for sure is that in five months, less ten days, Albert will execute two men in a double hanging for the crime committed in this part of North Soho, known as Fitzrovia.
The brutal killing traumatized the capital and the country and for many people, its random, almost off-hand cold-blooded ferocity seemed to personify the ever-growing crime wave that threatened post-war London. The gangs were murdering anyone who got in their way. Of course, it wasn’t quite that bad. Then again, maybe it was. By 1947, over 10,000 men between fourteen and twenty had been convicted as members of criminal gangs.
In a metro area of over 7 million people, there were twenty-five robberies involving guns in the first four months of 1947. (Hansard. London. May 8, 1947 (2)). The gangs of London would grow and expand as the city slowly returned to normal following the end of the Second World War in 1945.
The Billy Hill mob, the Krays and Richardsons and Adams and Arifs, thieving and extorting, murdering each other and those around them. Along with the scrawny packs of illiterate tearaways like the one prowling the streets of North Soho on a gray, spring day long before Ronnie and Reggie Kray and their peers would come to haunt the streets.
It began that afternoon, just after two, when three men attempted to rob Jay’s the Jewelers near the corner of Charlotte Street and Tottenham Street. A second-hand precious metal dealer and pawnbroker. It looked an easy nut to crack but turned out anything but.
They stopped their stolen black 14 Vauxhall car in front of the shop, adjusted their hats and face masks, and checked their guns. One carried a.455 English Bulldog revolver, and another a.320 revolver. Hand guns were easy to buy from dodgy dealers in London’s West End, especially in Ham Yard, off Great Windmill street, a veritable kasbah for the up-coming criminal on the prowl for a piece. The third, the driver, dropped his gun in the street after their abortive raid. He was also the youngest. A mere seventeen-year-old. As events would proceed, his youth was everything he had going for him on this day.
The men who stormed into the small, grubby-looking building were:
Charles Henry Jenkins, 23 years old, a lighter-man (small barge operator) from Bermondsey,
Christopher James Geraghty, 20, a laborer from Finsbury
and the youngest, 17 year-old Terence John Rolt, a warehouse man, also from Bermondsey.
Jenkins and Geraghty both had previous form and had served time either in prison or Borstal (young offenders detention.) (3)
Shouting and brandishing their guns, one of the gang went to grab a tray of rings and was blocked by one of the staff, who he slashed with his pistol. The owner, 70-year-old Betram Keats, slammed the safe shut and another staff member threw a stool at the gunmen, as one of them fired a wild shot. Keats then set off the shop alarm. People started to gather at the street corner and the robbers decided retreat was the only option. Now farce turns to tragedy.
Scrambling into their car, they discover it is blocked by a truck that had arrived and parked in front of the Vauxhall. Unable to flee the scene, they abandon the vehicle and head east on foot, down Tottenham Street. Two of them try to hi-jack a taxi, and even though one is armed, the driver, Albert Grub, dislodges them. George Grimshaw, a surveyor is passing the store and tries to intervene. Luckily for him, he only gets punched and kicked to the ground as the thugs scuttle away.
Racing down the street in their direction is a man riding a big, red, Indian motor-bike. He wears a leather jerking, goggles and gauntlets. A knight riding in to rescue. He’s finished his jobs for the day and is heading home.
As he reaches the corner of Charlotte Street, he slides his bike into the men, trying to slow or stop them. One of the thieves, shoots him once at point-blank range, tumbling the rider into the gutter, dropped like a bundle of laundry on its way to the cleaners, as the thieves scramble off towards Whitfield Street, before heading towards a building at 191 Tottenham Court Road a few hundred yards away.
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For some reason, one of the men will leave something here. For the police, it will break the case.
Back outside Jay’s the Jewelers the crowds gather and soon the police arrive and the area is swarming with Bobbies in their blue uniforms and custodian helmets. (4)
People rush to help the man sprawled in the gutter. It’s claimed he died of a gun-shot wound to the head. To the chest. He died in the street. Two hours later in Middlesex General Hospital, only minutes from the scene of the shooting, in the ambulance on the way.
The facts and truth are getting confused so often in this story. People seem hungry to consume lies. Perhaps innuendo and gossip have been triggered by so many years of tight war-time censorship. The autopsy on di Antiquis, performed by the famous pathologist, Sir Bernard Spilsbury, did in fact confirm that Alec had been shot in the head, the bullet falling out as the doctor probed the wound.
The Bulldog revolver is later found, along with the murder weapon on the mud flats of the River Thames by schoolboys fossicking for river treasures.
Firearm expert, Robert Churchill, the country's foremost authority in investigation and courtroom testimony, proves the.32 revolver is the gun used by the shooter.
The police interview twenty-seven witness. Take statements. No one actually saw a face, so we have, long raincoats, flat caps, scarves around faces. Variable heights and weights. No forensics, no prints, no nothing. Leading the investigation is Superintendent Robert Fabian, who will become a legend in his lifetime, his career and exploits triggering a famous movie and long-running police television show.
Brook House becomes the catalyst for the investigation. The office block a few minutes from the crime scene is the key to unlocking the mystery of the de Antquis murder. Just why two of the suspects stopped here is hard to know. Without police or court records, none of which are on-line, it’s a mystery.
Solving this case hinged on the information supplied by a cab driver, who had been carrying a fare along Tottenham Court Road moments after the murder when a man jumped on the running board, wearing what looked like a bandage round his jaw. The man was pushed off by the driver and vanished into an office block called Brook House. This incident may have somehow morphed from the one reported just after the shooting in Charlotte Street. Someone once said truth evolves over time. Multiple sources often present the same incident in different way.
Three days passed before this news came to the police, and when they searched the building, they found the key to the getaway car, a raincoat and other outer clothing, plus a scarf which had obviously been used as a mask. As it turned out, there was a numbered maker’s ticket, 7800, sewn in the raincoat, which led to a manufacturer in Leeds and then to Montague Burton Limited, a retail outlet in Bermondsey, South London, which recorded the sale to a George Vernon.
Whoever bought the raincoat needed wartime clothing coupons, as rationing was still in force in England. The buyer’s name hit the spot with Fabian, because he knew of someone called George Vernon, a known-criminal, who had a young and violent relative, recently released from Borstal. The cousin was Charles Henry Jenkins and Vernon said he had purchased the coat and loaned it to Jenkins, who had been released a week before the raid on Jay’s.
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Jenkins wasn’t picked out at an identity parade held on May 10 at Tottenham Court Road police station, and had to be released, but his loose tongue generated remarks about the raincoat before the police had even mentioned it. He claimed he had himself loaned it to a man called William Henry Walsh, who’d been involved in a previous robbery with Jenkins and his accomplices, another jeweler, in Bayswater, about two miles to the west of Charlotte Street.
Walsh admitted the earlier offense but had no intention of going down for murder and he named the other members of the gang: they were Christopher James Geraghty and Terence Peter Rolt. (5)
Geraghty under questioning admitted shooting de Antquis, claiming he had not meant to kill him, only frighten him. And then it was all over.
On May 19, the three men were remanded for trial at the Central Criminal Court, better known as the Old Bailey, which began on July 21 and lasted a week. After less than an hour, the jury found all men guilty of the murder of Alec di Antiquis and sentenced them to death under the law. Rolt is too young, so is to be held in His Majesty’s Pleasure, a quaint euphemism for time in the nick. He served nine years before his release in 1956.
The circle turns full wheel when the two other men end their day standing side by side in the execution wing of Pentonville Prison in North London. Friday, 19 September, Albert Pierrepoint (right), executioner extraordinaire, leads them from their cells at nine in the morning, and with the help of two assistants, Harry Allen and Harry Critchell, has them dead within minutes. His fastest solo hanging on record was seven seconds.
Britain’s hangman’s second job was running a tavern in Preston, in the north of England, which had a sign behind the bar declaring, “No hanging around.”
The tragic story of Alec de Antiquis is now lost in the pages of history. Although there was great public protest at the hanging of his killers, the true victim in this story was an ordinary man who decided to do an extraordinary thing and sacrificed his life in the process.
George Orwell, the famous author saw developing in England a new casual approach to murder, victim meeting killer purely by chance, with no depth of feeling in it. It was in post-war Britain becoming the norm, rather than the exception.
In our modern world of gratuitous, self-entitlement, it’s hard to conceive there once were people, like Alec, who performed acts of immense courage without hesitation in order to help strangers in peril. His family would live out a lifetime without his love and support that would be sorely needed in the long years that stretched ahead.
The gangs of London would keep growing like a huge, noxious weed. The National Crime Agency (the British government-controlled agency, that leads the UK’s fight to cut serious and organized crime, protecting the public by targeting and pursuing those criminals who pose the greatest risk to the UK,) estimates there are in excess of 200 criminal cartels in the greater London area.
(2) Hansard is the traditional name of the transcripts of Parliamentary debates in Britain and many Commonwealth Countries.
(3) In an almost implausible prequel to this senseless killing of an innocent victim, in December, 1944, Captain Ralph Binney of the Royal Navy, attempted to stop a similar robbery taking place in Birchin Lane in the City of London and was killed for his efforts. The passenger in the stolen getaway car was Thomas Jenkins, brother of Charles. He was serving time in prison for this crime (eight years penal servitude) when Alec de Antiques died for his efforts. It was also suspected, but never proved, that Charles Jenkins was also in the car that night. This group and the killers of de Antiquis, may well have been part of the same Bermondsey mob, known as “The Elephant Boys.”
One of the complex, interlocking gangs of London, the “Boys” had historical links to the other forty or so criminal groups across the city, many of which emerged as early as the Victorian period of 1850-1900.
(4) London and eventually all British police became known as “Bobbies” after Sir Robert Peel who headed the London Metropolitan police when they formed in 1829.
(5) Some accounts claim a similar story line but refer to a Thomas Kemp who was a brother-in-law to the Jenkins brothers. He was not a known criminal.
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Copyright © Thom L. Jones & Gangsters Inc.