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As part of the Murder Mile Podcast - a true-crime podcast of 300+ untold, unsolved and often forgotten murders, all set within on square mile of London's West End - I have uploaded the full unedited transcript of each episode, containing all of the information, histories and backstories which I was unable to provide in the podcast episode owing to time-constraints or last-minute changes to the script.
You can DOWNLOAD episode #30 of the Murder Mile true-crime podcast via iTunes, or you can listen to it now, by clicking the green play button on the media player below.
Full Transcript - Episode #30 - The Blackout Ripper Part 6 (The Arrest)
INTRO: Between the 9th and the 12th February 1942, a sadistic sexual maniac stalked London’s West End brutally murdering four women (Evelyn Hamilton, Evelyn Oatley, Margaret Florence Lowe and Doris Jouanett) and strangling two others (Greta Hayward and Kathryn Mulcahy). And as much as the government kept a lid on any stories which could cause hysteria, none of The Blackout Ripper’s killings made front page news, instead they were relegated to small columns hidden on the inside pages.
The first recorded use of the term “Blackout Ripper” was just one day after Evelyn Oatley’s death. But with few papers taking up this salacious moniker, although it was muttered amongst the locals (almost as if he was a bogie-man), as soon as the trial was over, the case-files were archived, the story was lost, the victims were forgotten and “The Blackout Ripper” didn’t reappear in print until the mid-1950’s when a resurgence in true-crime led to these stories being sensationally and inaccurately retold.
And although The Blackout Ripper had echoes of the infamous Jack the Ripper case 54 years earlier, by the turn of 1942, not only had cinema audiences become incredibly savvy having been raised on a diet of sensational thrillers and the tired clichés of the tabloid press, buby living under the constant threat of the Nazi invasion with a terrifying barrage of bombs raining down from the skies, soldiers and civilians being slaughtered in their millions and ordinary people witnessing death on their doorsteps on an almost daily basis, in the grand scheme of things, the bloody murders of The Blackout Ripper were insignificant during war-time London. And so, once again, one of Britain’s most sadistic spree-killers disappeared into the darkness and his name was almost forgotten.
My name is Michael. I am your tour-guide. This is Murder Mile. And I present to you; part six of the full, true and untold story of The Blackout Ripper.
SCRIPT: Today, I’m standing outside of West End Central police station on Saville Row, W1; a tall, grey, drab but imposing seven-storey concrete monstrosity just off Regent Street. And although police stations are supposed to instil into a nervous victim a reassuring sense of safety; having a flat featureless façade like a mummified face, a multitude of black shiny windows like a spider’s eye and an ominously wide main-door, lying dead-centre like the dark gaping mouth of a starving snake, West End Central evokes an intake of breath, a tightness in the chest and the spackling of the anal sphincter.
Built in 1940 to support local police stations like Vine Street, Bow Street and Great Marlborough Street as a war-time crime-wave swept through the city, sadly West End Central is now defunct as a working police station. And although it is still used as a local support unit, being full of coppers, panda-cars and riot vans, the glory days are gone and the good old London Bobbie has been relegated to posing for tourists photos, letting pregnant ladies pee in their helmets and having American tourists repeatedly ask them “excuse me sir, can you tell me the way to Li-Ces-Tur Square” and other such places that they deliberately mispronounce just to piss us off, such as Ed-in-bu-ro, Wor-chuster-shire and of course Loogaburg (which – for those of us who actually speak English – is Loughborough).
And yet, although West End Central police station is now nothing more than an admin block, it was here, on Thursday 12th February 1942, where Greta Hayward gave the Police a description of the man who had attacked her. But little would she know that these details would lead to the capture of one of London’s most prolific spree-killers, who was known as The Blackout Ripper. (Interstitial)
The mug of milky tea was warm and soothing as Greta raised it to her trembling lips, most of which she spilled as her hands violently shook, and yet as reassuring as its sweetness was, even swallowing the smallest of gulps caused Greta to wince in pain, as the tea trickled down her swollen throat and an ominous purple-y yellow outline of a left hand formed across her bruised neck.
And although her attacker was still out there, somewhere, possibly prowling the back-streets of Soho and Piccadilly, inside Interview Room 2 of West End Central police station Greta was safe, as she gave a detailed description to Detective Inspector Clarence Jeffrey; a semi-senior detective whose remit was muggings, robberies and violent assaults (which this most certainly was), as well as murders.
So, for DI Jeffrey, with divisional surgeon Dr Alexander Baldie having confirmed that her injuries were consistent with strangulation, with Greta having provided an accurate sketch of the airman, aided by John Shine’s credible witness statement and the swift discovery of her eight inch torch and her stolen handbag (with the paper money missing), although none of these items retained any fingerprints owing to the wet weather, Greta’s attacker was quickly identified by his unique military serial number he had written in indelible ink inside his Royal Air Force issued gas respirator.
With a kind smile, tired eyes and a world-weary face, which had barely slept in several days - as every time he blinked; the ripped, splayed and mutilated body of Evelyn Oatley flashed before his eyes, having witnessed the horror on Wardour Street just two days before - DI Jeffrey reassured Greta that this was an open-and-shut case and they should have her attacker in custody by the morning.
Having deduced that the airman was stationed at the nearby RAF aircrew reception centre in Regent’s Park, DI Jeffrey telephoned Corporal William Crook, the orderly corporal in charge of Abbey Lodge where the aircrew were stationed, he confirmed that the serial number of ‘525987’ belonged to Leading Aircraftman Gordon Frederick Cummins, a 28 year old blue-eyed fair-haired airmen, and that being under investigation for a possible robbery and an assault, DI Jeffrey instructed the orderly corporal to place Cummins under arrest until the arrival of the Police.
Of course, there were elements of this case which didn’t make any sense - such as why would a total stranger would want to attack Greta Hayward, why a robber would treat his victim to supper first, why (if this was an attempted murder) did he not bring any weapons with him, and why were there several scrapes and a few odd fragments of grey brick mortar inside of the gas-respirator, which didn’t match any wall found in or near where Greta was attacked? But then again, not all cases are neat.
So, as DI Jeffrey prepared the necessary paperwork for the attack on Greta Hayward, as a seasoned detective he knew that – if this actually ended up in court, which many cases (for various reasons) don’t – even with the evidence and statements they had, at best Cummins would be convicted of the lesser charge of grievous bodily harm, and sentenced to a few months in prison, or more likely (with him being an airman, this being war-time and – especially -if this was his first offence) he may get off with just a fine.
But first they would need to find him, as with Gordon Frederick Cummins not asleep in his bed, and the logbook at Abbey Lodge confirming that he hadn’t returned from a night out, that meant that somewhere across the West End, still stalking the city’s streets was The Blackout Ripper. (Interstitial)
It may seem strange, sinister or even stupid, but at 2am on Friday 13th February 1942, barely a few hours after he had committed a brutal murder and two attempted murders, that Gordon Frederick Cummins would return to Piccadilly Circus, but that’s exactly what he did.
By that ungodly hour, Piccadilly Circus was dark, cold and deathly quiet, so with the streets speckled with a smattering of police constables on the look-out for anyone suspicious whether muggers eyeing-up drunken marks, peepers perving through sexy lady’s keyholes and lost servicemen who accidentally ask for directions from lone women who just happened to be prostitutes, it’s almost inconceivable that Cummins would flock here like some-kind of homicidal pigeon, but he did.
I mean, he could have picked literally anywhere in the whole of London’s West End to return to. But instead, being slightly drunk, strangely bored and more than a little arrogant, Cummins headed back to Piccadilly Circus; the place where murdered prostitutes Evelyn Oatley and Margaret Florence Lowe were last seen alive, where mutilated sex-worker Doris Jouanett was heading that night, where that very evening he had picked-up feisty Irish women Kathryn Mulcahy who had kicked six shades of shit out of his guts, and where – just five hours earlier – in a doorway just one street away – he had robbed, assaulted and strangled Greta Hayward; a women who was still alive, had seen his face, knew his history and at whose feet he had dropped his ridiculously unique gas respirator, who was now barely a six minute walk away at West End Central police station, and yet still, like a bad smell in a blocked toilet, Cummins returns to Piccadilly Circus.
Oh yes, Piccadilly Circus was the perfect place for a wanted murderer to blend-in; if you exclude the fact that he had cuts on his left hand, scuff marks on his boots, that the Police had his missing gas-mask and would soon have the belt to his blue tunic which he had misplaced in Kathryn Mulcahy’s flat, and as long as you entirely ignore the fact that the blue Royal Air Force uniform he was wearing right then was splattered with the blood of Doris Jouanett, there was nothing suspicious about Gordon Frederick Cummins at all. So it made perfect sense for him to be in Piccadilly Circus.
But it was here, on the north-side of Piccadilly Circus, right outside of the notorious Café Monaco, that he picked-up another prostitute, hopped in a taxi with her and – in a move which once again was either strange, sinister or just plain stupid – he headed back to her flat, which (given the irony of where he had just been) was quite possibly in the second worst place in the whole of the West End for The Blackout Ripper to return to. Her flat was in Paddington and her name was Doreen Lytton (Interstitial)
As the taxi chugged back along the desolate darkness of West End, Doreen Lytton (a recently married mother of two, housewife and part-time prostitute) sat in the taxi’s back-seat with Cummins, unable to see the deep-red blood on his dark-blue clothes, as in the darkness, everything looked black.
Having slugged back a few too many whiskies, he was clearly tipsy, but unlike her usual clients who – having got her alone, on a back-seat, in a taxi – would feverishly fondle and grope this lone female to satisfy their strange sexual urges, but this one seemed different; he was quiet, calm and distant. And as he stared out of the window, watching the world go by, as the cab passed Maison Lyonese and turned right onto the all-too familiar sight of Edgware Road, Cummins politely enquired “Can I spend an hour with you? I’ll give you £3”, to which Doreen said “yeah, okay”, as in his company she felt safe.
Moments later, the taxi dropped them off at Porchester Place; two streets south of Kathryn Mulcahy’s flat at 28 Southwick Street (where the Police had just recently been, taken a statement and picked-up the missing belt to his blue tunic) and three streets south-east of 187 Sussex Gardens (where the mutilated body of Doris Jouanett would lay undiscovered for the next 17 hours), they walked through to Polygon Mews, Doreen unlocked her door and welcomed into her flat The Blackout Ripper.
Being a small first-floor flat rented solely for sex-work, it was basic, drab and fitted with only the bare essentials, such as a bed with a sheet, a table with a candlestick, a wash-stand with a packet of razor-blades and a wardrobe full of clothes, hats, curling tongs and a collection of kitchen cutlery. And having put the £3 on the mantelpiece, behind a framed photograph of her two beloved babies, Doreen popped a shilling in the coin-slot of her gas-fire to warm the flat up and she started to undress.
But being slumped on her bed, his tired face all sunken, his bloodshot eyes all sullen and expelling a deep exhale of exhaustion, Cummins shook his head and calmly said “that won’t be necessary, I only want to talk, I have been drinking too much”, and so, being unable to perform, Doreen sat, in her flat, on an armchair, opposite the West End’s most prolific spree-killer and serial sexual sadist, and for an hour, over a nice warm cup of tea, they just sat and chatted.
Doreen would later state that he was polite, calm and courteous; a real gentleman, who sat quietly, listened intently and truly seemed to care about her life, as with a genuinely warm smile and a twinkle in his eyes, she showed him the photograph of her beloved family; a husband, a wife and two kids, and the more they talked, with her maternal instincts kicking in, Doreen felt pity for him.
During that very pleasant hour together, nothing immoral took place and they both remained clothed, seated and apart. Being honest with Doreen, Cummins apologised for his lack of libido and reassured her that he definitely did fancy her, but that his real reason for being here was simply to pass an hour or two, as (on tonight of all nights) he was in big trouble.
Of course, during their conversation, he never once mentioned that he was a deeply disturbed sexual sadist who (over the last few days) had strangled and tortured four women; sliced, ripped and filleted their skins, had taken a deeply-disturbing level of pleasure in disfiguring their genitals, into which he had inserted a series of phallic household objects, having then posed each women like morbid mannequins, stolen a creepy collection of souvenirs, and let two women live, who (just like Doreen) knew most of his life story. No, instead, Cummins was concerned with more pressing matters.
As being several hours too late for his 10:30pm curfew back at Abbey Lodge, having misplaced the blue belt to his RAF tunic and lost his serial-numbered gas-respirator, all of which were chargeable offences under the Royal Air Force’s code of conduct, Leading Aircraftman Gordon Frederick Cummins (who was only in London on a three week course) was less concerned with his brutal murders, and more concerned about these minor misdemeanours, as any black mark against his name could seriously jeopardise his chance of ever becoming an RAF pilot.
With the hour almost up and his £3 spent, taking pity on his plea, Doreen handed the airman an almost identical gas-respirator in a beige canvas bag, that she had found just one week before, he thanked her for the tea, took her telephone number saying he’d love to see her again, and at a little before 4am, Doreen Lytton waved goodbye to The Blackout Ripper, as he disappeared into the darkness.
Today, Abbey Lodge - with its art-deco stylings, wrought iron gates and intricate gold inlayed doors - is a stunning six-storey Georgian mansion-block for the supremely wealthy, situated in the exclusive north-west corner of Regent’s Park, with flats selling for just £3-12million, or rented for £5000 a week. But in 1942, having been requisitioned by the military, Abbey Lodge was known as Number Three Reception Centre, where trainee pilots for the Royal Air Force were stationed.
Although stationed at Abbey Lodge, Cummins resided at the newly built apartments on St James Close on the north-side of Regent’s Park. But with armed sentries positioned on all the doors, added security patrolling the perimeter (especially the fire-escapes which airmen, having missed their curfew would often climb up and sneak into their flats unnoticed) and with a higher risk of him being shot if he tried to break-in, with no other options, Cummins approached the main entrance of Abbey Lodge.
From the darkness of the doorway, into his startled face, the hollow muzzle of a Lee Enfield .303 rifle was aimed as Air Cadets Cyril Woolfenden and David Alfred Arch challenged Cummins. Playing it cool, Cummins beamed a winning smile, showed the sentries his identification card; clarified his name, rank and serial number (“Cummins; Gordon Frederick; Leading Aircraftman, 525987”) and following strict orders to detain Cummins on sight, he was swiftly marched to the guard-room.
Entering the guardroom, Cummins gulped, knowing he was in deep shit, when he was confronted by Corporal Charles Johnson (the Orderly Sargent with an overpowering smell of body-odour and starch) who’s long thin fingers strummed on the battered log-book and Corporal William Crook (the fresh-faced, squat-framed and spud-headed Orderly Corporal) who had taken the call from DI Jeffrey of West End Central.
Feigning ignorance, having smeared on his best poker-face, Cummins casually enquired “what’s this all about?”, to which Orderly Corporal Crook replied “a woman’s been attacked in Piccadilly, your respirator was found at the scene”. But without missing a beat, Cummins let out an audible sigh and uttered “thank God for that” (or words to that affect), tapped the black gas-respirator in a beige canvas bag which was slung over his left shoulder, and having reassured both orderlies that this was nothing more than a silly mix-up, Cummins was escorted on a 15 minute walk back to his billets.
Still partially under construction, Cummins was billeted at St James Close; a seven-storey brown-brick art-deco building, situated on Prince Albert Road on the northern perimeter of Regent’s Park, and although he was not permitted to leave the premises until the Police arrived, at no time during his detention was he ever searched, supervised, locked-in or even placed under armed guard.
At roughly 4:50am, on Friday 13th February 1942, Cummins quietly crept into flat 27, on the first floor of St James Close, trying not to wake his buddies who slept as soundly as seven men could on wire-sprung cots with scratchy woollen bedsheets, but as silent as he was, he was desperate to talk.
Having shaken his bunk-buddy awake, with Flight Sargent Raymond Snelus noticing it was still dark and that Cummins was dressed, he groggily asked “where have you been”, to which Cummins replied “I am in the shit, someone swapped my respirator and it was found at the scene of a crime”. But being unimpressed and needing his extra hour of sleep, Snelus rolled over, farted and nodded off.
And so, for almost a whole hour, amongst a sea of sleeping airmen, Cummins was unobserved.
Having been alerted of his arrival, the police were on their way to question Cummins, but with this being a simple assault and robbery charge, with clear evidence, corroborated witness statements and their only suspect being held inside a secure military location, given that the Police had more pressing matters to deal with – like a sadistic maniac who, so far, had brutally murdered two women in the West End, with two more bodies still to be discovered - there was no real rush to arrest Cummins.
So what he did, during that hour, would determine the course of the rest of his life. It would be the difference between a career and unemployment, prison and freedom, and even life and death,
What did the police really know? Was this about the assault, or was this about the murders? Did they only know about Greta Hayward? Had Kathryn Mulcahy blabbed? Or had they linked him to the murders of Evelyn Hamilton and Evelyn Oatley, and later Margaret Florence Lowe and Doris Jouanett? Did the Police know more than they said, or could Gordon Frederick Cummins outwit them?
Time was on his side… but the clock was ticking.
At 5:45am on Friday 13th February 1942 - Detective Charles Bennett and Detective Sargent Thomas Shepherd - arrived at flat 27 of St James Close to interview Leading Aircraftman Gordon Frederick Cummins, who was nonchalantly lying on his bunk, fully clothed and smoking a cigarette from a silver cigarette case, as he casually greeted the plain-clothed officers with a courteous “good morning”.
Having established Cummins’ identity using his military ID, Detective Bennett stated “your respirator has been found by the side of a woman who had been badly assaulted and you answer the description of a man who she described”, to which Cummins simply nodded and said nothing.
“Is that your respirator, sir?” Detective Bennett enquired, pointing to the black rubber gas-mask in the beige canvas bag on his bunk (which just hours before Doreen Lytton had given him), but knowing full well that the serial number etched inside didn’t match his own, Cummins replied “no, I picked that up in the Universal Brasserie, someone must have picked up my one by mistake, so I took this one”.
With Cummins fitting the description, Detective Bennett stated “I’m arresting you for causing grievous bodily harm to Mrs Greta Hayward on St Alban’s Street, on the evening of Thursday 12th February 1942”. Cummins was cautioned and handcuffed but made no reply. Calmly stubbing out his cigarette underfoot, the officers escorted their suspect to the awaiting police car, his scuffed black boots making a very slight and unusually flat sound as he walked, which (amongst the hubbub) nobody noticed.
At 9am, a few hours later, having been transferred to West End Central police station, Cummins – who was composed, polite, helpful and almost jokey at the ridiculousness of the situation - was questioned by Detective Inspector Clarence Jeffrey who stated “I understand you deny being the man who assaulted Mrs Heyward, it will therefore be necessary to hold you for an identification parade”.
But confronted with the overwhelming evidence against him – the gas-respirator etched with his serial number (525987), the witness statements by Greta Hayward and John Shine, the scuff marks on his left hand, the blood-stains on his shirt and having found a small slip of paper in his grate-coat pocket on which had been written “Colindale 6622” (which was Greta Hayward’s phone number) - Cummins quickly confessed, stating “No, that won’t be necessary, I am the man, I was drinking very heavily that night and I remember being with a woman in Piccadilly, but I cannot remember anything else that happened.” At which, Cummins asked to make a full statement.
Part of it read: “… I had several whiskies and brandies, I cannot remember how many, but I know I had several. After some minutes, I cannot recall how many exactly, I went over and spoke to a woman standing at the bottom of the stairs (in the Universal Brasserie), I had some conversation with her and I believe I brought her a drink. I cannot remember exactly what followed but I have a hazy recollection of walking around the streets with her. By this time, I was very drunk and did not know what I was doing. The next thing I remember, it was around 02:30am, I found myself in Marble Arch and caught a cab back to Regent’s Park. I have a hazy recollection of being with a woman but I cannot remember striking her. I deeply regret what has happened and I am willing to pay her compensation”. Cummins re-read his statement, confirmed its accuracy and signed it with his left hand.
As was standard protocol, Cummins agreed to be searched by Detective Bennett in the presence of DI Jeffrey, and his unremarkable personal affects included two £1 notes in his wallet, three shillings and six pence in his pocket, his RAF identity card, a few personal letters on RAF notepaper, a silver cigarette case, a greeny-blue comb with several teeth missing, and in the other gas-respirator (given to him by Doreen Lytton) he had stashed eight £1 notes and a gold wrist-watch.
None of which seemed strange, suspicious or out of the ordinary; a worn leather wallet, a few crinkled pound notes, his military ID, a slightly battered silver cigarette case, an old broken comb and a gold wrist-watch (the type that married couples – like Mrs & Mrs Cummins – would give each other on a special anniversary). To the untrained eye, they were nothing more than a random assortment of everyday items that most men would carry, and which meant nothing to the Police. But to Cummins, they were personal items, too precious to dispose of or destroy during a vital last hour alone, they were mementoes of his morbid memories and souvenirs of his sadistic crimes.
On the afternoon of Friday 13th February 1942, a grinning Gordon Frederick Cummins appeared at Bow Street Magistrates Court where he was charged with the minor offence of causing grievous bodily harm to Mrs Greta Hayward. As a condition of this charge, Cummins would be remanded in custody at Brixton Prison until his court appearance on 12th March 1942.
If found guilty of GHB, having already spent a month in prison awaiting his trial, although this custodial sentence would be inconvenient, Cummins would most likely be released owing to “time served”, imposed with a small fine and (having missed the remainder of his three week course in Regent’s Park) with the Royal Air Force in need of strong young men to fight off the impending German invasion, Cummins would most likely be demoted and redeployed elsewhere, where he could retrain as a pilot. And once again, into the darkness of the West End, The Blackout Ripper would disappear.
And as he sat there, smoking in the privacy of his small prison cell in Brixton Prison, as his slight grin slowly morphed to a beaming smirk, having outsmarted both the Metropolitan Police, Scotland Yard and left a bloody trail of terror across the West End with four women brutally mutilated and two attacked, all in just four days, Cummins knew that he had literally gotten away with murder.
OUTRO: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for listening to Murder Mile.
Don’t forget to join us next week for the seventh part of the true story of The Blackout Ripper.
This week’s recommended podcast of the week is True-Crime Island, brilliantly hosted by your very own Aussie news anchor-man called Cambo, True-Crime Island covers the very latest breaking true-crime news stories from around the world. So if you like your true-crime delivered to you in a fast, fresh and fun way, check out True-Crime Island. (Play Promo)
If you fancy becoming a Patreon supporter, receiving exclusive access to original Murder Mile content including crime-scene photos, murder location videos and Patron-only Extra Mile episodes for the first 20 cases, as well as ensuring the future of Murder Mile, you can do this for just £2 a month (or £2 in real money) by clicking on the link in the show-notes.
And a quick shout-out to two truly excellent true-crime podcasts that I heartily recommend; first is Pleasing Terrors; hosted by Mike (who like myself is a tour guide), Pleasing Terrors is a really well-told series of creepy but true tales which will have you on the edge of your seat (trust me the ouiji board episode in Charleston Prison, I had to switch off, as I knew I wouldn’t get to sleep. And second is Swindled, hosted by an unnamed narrator, Swindled dives into the murky world of white collar crime, focussing on corporate crimes, scandals and swindles, such as the Bopal disaster, Love canal and the mysterious death of the pizza delivery man. So check out Pleasing Terrors and Swindled on iTunes and all podcast platforms.
Murder Mile was researched, written & performed by myself, with the main musical themes written and performed by Erik Stein & Jon Boux of Cult With No Name.
Next week’s episode… is part seven of The Blackout Ripper.
Thank you for listening and sleep well.
Sources: Murder MIle's series on The Blackout Ripper was taken entirely from all of the original declassified police investigation files which are held by the National Archives at Kew, and too almost eight months to intensively research, so everything you hear is original and true.
Music: Additional music was used (in the case of Cult With No Name) with their kind permission and all other artists under a Creative Commons License 4.0 (Attribution) via Free Music Archive.
A full track listing follows:
Sounds: With additional sounds courtesy of the Free Sound Project, used under a Creative Commons License 4.0 (Attribution).
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a writer, crime historian, podcaster and tour-guide who runs Murder Mile Walks, a guided tour of Soho’s most notorious murder cases, hailed as “one of the top ten curious, quirky, unusual and different things to do in London”, nominated Best True-Crime Podcast at the British Podcast Awards 2018 and featuring 12 murderers, including 3 serial killers, across 15 locations, totaling 75 deaths, over just a one mile wal
If you love true-crime podcasts, subscribe to Murder Mile true-crime podcast on iTunes, Podcast Addict, Podbean, Pocketcast, Stitcher, Acast, Tune-In, Otto Radio or Libsyn
What follows is a (un-comprehensive) list of London's deadliest and often forgotten disasters, complete with links in red to any interesting articles, so you can read about them for yourself and share with friends so those who died won't have died in vain and will no longer be forgotten.
The Denmark Place Fire - On the 16th August 1980, in an illegal nightclub at 18 Denmark Place, a disgruntled customer - who felt he'd been overcharged for a drink - set fire to the building, killing 37 occupants. Although there has never been a memorial to the dead, this remains London's deadliest blaze since the Blitz. Murder Mile Walks is the only walk in London that covers this forgotten tragedy. To hear the full story, download episode one of the Murder Mile podcast.
The Colney Hatch Fire - On 27th January 1903, in a timber-framed annex of The Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum, 52 patients (all female) were burned alive in the Jewish wing, either in their beds or huddled in corners. This remains the worst peacetime fire in London's history since the medieval period. In 1993, Colney Hatch (renamed Friern Hospital) ceased being a psychiatric unit and is now private luxury apartments.
The Great Beer Flood - On the 17th October 1814, a colossal beer vat at The Horse Shoe Brewery situated on Tottenham Court Road ruptured, causing a wave of 135,000 gallons of locally brewed Porter Ale to flood the street, killing eight people, including a family who drowned in their own basement. Read more about it in my blog.
The Soho Cholera Outbreak - On the 31st August 1856, several outbreaks of cholera erupted in Soho, killing 616 people (one sixth of Soho's population). How did it start? Who solved it? How was it solved? Why is there a pub named after Dr John Snow on Lexington Street? And how did this tragedy change the way that we all live today? Read the full story in my blog
The Bethnal Green Tube Disaster - On a rainy night on the 3rd March 1943, an air-raid siren sounded, which lured hundreds of people to come to Bethnal Green Underground for shelter from the bombs. Unfortunately in the rush for safety, one person slipped on the wet steps and what followed became the London Underground's deadliest accident, with 173 people killed and 62 injured. Read more here.
The Fatal Vespers of Blackfriars - On the 3rd July 1322, 52 men & women were crushed to death, as they waited for alms (money for the poor) when the floors of the Blackfriars Monastery collapsed. The only accurate account I can find is this tiny morsel. And yet, on 26th October 1623, 95 members of a Catholic Congregation were killed (with many more injured) when the chapel floor gave way.
The Toxic Sewer of Pimlico - On the 12th October 1849, three workers - Thomas Gee, Daniel Peart and John Attwood — entered a sewer on Willow Way and never returned alive. When their bodies were finally recovered, their faces, necks and chest were completely bronzed, as a result of deadly carbonic acid. Read more here.
The SS Princess Alice Disaster - On the evening of the 3rd September 1878, a paddle-steamer named the SS Princess Alice collided on the River Thames with military coal-ship called the Bywell Castle just by Tripcock Point (near North Woolwich Pier) and sunk, with the loss of 650 lives. This is the greatest loss of life in any shipping disaster in the history of the Thames.
The Marchioness Disaster - On the evening of the 20th August 1989, a pleasure steamer called 'The Marchioness' - which was hosting a private party - fatally collided with a Thames dredger known as 'Bowbelle'. The heavier dredger pulled the much lighter pleasure-craft under the water, killing 51 people.
The Great Fire of London (1212AD) - When anyone mentions The Great Fire of London we all think of the 1666 fire, which destroyed great swathes of medieval London, but which miraculously only killed six people. A much deadlier Great Fire of London (of which there have been many) occurred on the 10th July 1212 and killed 3000+ people on London Bridge alone. Read more.
Regent's Park Skating Disaster - On the 15th January 1867, with ice-skating being the latest craze and winter in full swing, hundreds of people flocked to Regent's Park. But with the thin ice unable to cope under the weight, 200+ skaters plunged into the icy cold waters, with many being weighed down by heavy Victorian winter clothing. Only 40 bodies were recovered.
Moorgate Tube Crash - On the 28th February 1975, on the HIghbury branch of the Northern Line, a packed tube train failed to stop and came to an abrupt stop when it hit the wall of the southern terminus, killing 43 people and injuring 74. Of course, something (or should I say someone) more horrific was riding the Northern Line around that time. He was the London's Underground's very own serial killer.
Battersea Park Big-Dipper Accident - On the afternoon of 30th May 1972, five children were killed and thirteen were injured when a three-car wooden train on the Big Dipper at Battersea Park detached from its drive train and hurtled backwards at great speed, fifteen metres above the park. Read more.
Theatre Royal Fire - On the 30th September 1808, a fire broke out at The Theatre Royal in Covent Garden killing 26 theatre goers, fire-fighters and even bystanders. Read more.
Regents Park & Hyde Park Bombing - On the 20th July 1982, the IRA (Irish republican Army) detonated - within 2hrs of each other - a bomb at Regent's Park & Hyde Park. The first explosion in Hyde Park killed two soldiers and injured twenty-three others, with the second bomb in Regent's Park killing six soldiers and injuring twenty-four people and numerous horses. Read more. Warning: graphic images.
Oddly, given that London is surrounded by two of the busiest airports in the world (Heathrow and Gatwick), as well as Luton and Stanstead, London has had very few peacetime air disasters.
And one infamous "near (but now nearly forgotten) air-accident" almost occurred on 5th April 1968 when RAF pilot Alan Pollock performed a series of dangerous and unauthorised low-level flights over several famous London landmarks, including the Houses of Parliament, Embankment as well as flying through the upper span of Tower Bridge. (image is an artist's interpretation of the incident)
Obviously this isn't a comprehensive list of many of London's forgotten disasters, there are many disasters in London (and across the world) which often go unreported; sometimes because a more important news-story has taken precidence (as with the sinking of Titanic's twin sister - The Britannia - barely a few years later) or because - in the case of the Denmark Street Fire - the bulding was primarily full of illegal immigrants, so nobody (including the press) cared.
If you liked this blog, you may also like London's Bloodiest Execution Sites.
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a writer, crime historian and tour-guide who runs Murder Mile Walks, a guided tour of Soho’s most notorious murder cases, hailed as “one of the top ten quirky & unusual things to do in London” and featuring 12 murderers, including 3 serial killers, across 15 locations, totalling 75 deaths, over just a one mile walk.
On Tuesday 3rd January 1933, in his rented shed at 30 Hawley Crescent in Camden, local builder Mr Samuel J Furnace died… for the very first time, but his death was not to be his last.
At 8pm, that very evening, a crowd began to gather around the merchant’s yard of Hawley Crescent as thick plumes of smoke poured from the brick shed and flames lapped at the windows. Mr Wynne, the owner called the fire brigade, and within minutes the blaze was extinguished, but it wasn’t until they’d broken down both doors, that they saw the full horror of the scene.
As sitting at his desk, in a high chair, slumped over a high wooden table, was a badly charred body of a man, identified by a lodger and Mr Wynne himself as Samuel J Furnace, the local builder who’d rented the shed. Unable to see a way out of his spiralling financial situation, Samuel Furnace took the ultimate tragic step, and ended his life by setting himself alight. He left behind a wife and three children. Their only reminder of his final hours being a suicide note, written on a typewriter (seen above), which summed up his desperation that simply read “No money. No work. Goodbye. Samuel J Furnace”.
Mr Samuel J Furnace was dead, death by suicide, and the case was closed…
…or, so you would think?
But a few factors didn’t sit well with the forensics, nor the Police. Why would a builder, who has access to all manner of tools, blades, tourniquets and even chemicals, set himself on fire? Why not hang himself? Drown himself in the Regent’s Canal (a 2min walk from him shed)? Or shoot himself with the loaded gun that he owned? Why write a suicide note, using paper, when you plan to set yourself on fire? And even more bizarrely, how did he manage to remain so still, and seated in a high chair, at his desk, after he’d set himself on fire? It simply didn’t make sense.
When district Pathologist, Mr Bentley Purchase, examined the badly charred body, he noticed that Samuel Furnace had been shot; once in the back and once on the left-hand-side of his torso, both occurring before he’d died, and before he’d set himself alight. Which begged the question, who had shot Samuel Furnace, and – having been shot - why had Samuel set himself alight? Or, if he hasn’t, had his killer torched the body to make it look like a suicide to cover their tracks?
The Police knew that this was not a suicide - this was a murder. But, then who had killed Samuel Furnace? Well…
When the Pathologist examined the charred body he deduced that, even though two independent witnesses had identified the smouldering corpse as that of the 42 year old builder Samuel Furnace, the teeth were of a considerably younger man - twenty years younger, in fact. In a badly burned overcoat found next to the body, Police found fragments of the owner’s post-office savings slip, a debtor’s collection book and an empty wallet, all marked with the – slightly scorched but still legible - name of “W Spatchett”.
Walter Spatchett, a 25 year old debt collector, who’d gone missing that day, having completed his rounds, collecting £40 (roughly £2000 today) from debtors and made a sizable withdrawal from his savings account, had returned to the shed he’d shared with Samuel Furnace - who Walter had bailed out financially on numerous occasions - and was never seen again.
It seems that no-one had shot Samuel Furnace, nor had they set him on fire. Instead, he was alive, well and on the run. He’d murdered Walter Spatchett, having accrued an unmanageable number of debts, being short of work, low on cash, frustratingly married and living a lifestyle he couldn’t afford with numerous “lady friends”. As well as having recently renewed his life own insurance policy.
Samuel Furnace planned to disappear, but this was thwarted by his own brother-in-law, who Furnace had sent a desperate letter to, asking to meet him in Southend with “a bag full of clothes” and no explanation. His brother-in-law agreed, but not before he’d tipped off the Police, an ambush was set, and Furnace was captured and arrested.
In custody, Samuel Furnace claimed that he’d “accidentally” shot Walter Spachett (albeit twice), stolen his money to escape his financial woes, set the shed on fire to cover his tracks, and had thrown his gun into the Regent’s Canal. Furnace was charged that evening with murder.
But he was never brought to trial, as the night after his arrest, as he rested in his prison cell, he complained that he was cold and asked the officer on duty if he could have his overcoat to keep himself warm. At 7am the next morning, as the officer checked his cell, and saw Furnace raising a small bottle to his lips, that he’d hidden in the lining of his coat (should he ever need it). It was hydrochloric acid.
Samuel Furnace died 24 hours later in St Pancras Hospital, his last words from his burning lips being “my dear wife…”. Oddly, Samuel Furnace died on 16th January 1933, thirteen days after he’d originally died, but this second suicide, was the to be last. Samuel Furnace was dead.
And his windfall to save his family from spiralling debts was not to be, as having not checked the small print, his life insurance policy was deemed null & void, as it did not cover him… for suicide.
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a writer, crime historian and tour-guide who runs Murder Mile Walks, a guided tour of Soho’s most notorious murder cases, hailed as “one of the top ten quirky & unusual things to do in London” and featuring 18 murderers, 3 serial killers, across 21 locations, totalling 75 deaths, over just a one mile walk.
In Victorian England, following the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 (which removed any financial obligation from the fathers of illegitimate children), unmarried mothers were stigmatized, struggled to make ends meet, and were subsequently forced to give away their unwanted children to the local “baby farm” for a small fee. These were supposedly a safe haven for the illegitimate foundlings to flourish with food, warmth, clothing and – maybe – an education, but more often than not, baby farms were established to make money, by exploiting the weak, impoverished and the vulnerable.
Whether overwhelmed by a deluge of bastards, or unable to adequately care for the illegitimate, many babies died of a lack of nutrition, measles, mumps or cot-death, but many unscrupulous “baby farmers” simply starved the babies (once payment had been made) to save money, or poisoned them with a lethal mix of syrup and opium, curiously known as “Mother’s Friend”.
One such baby farmer was Amelia Dyer; midwife, nurse and married mother-of-two, who easily reassured her clients – all distraught mothers with the hardest decision to make – that with her pleasant home, stable marriage and two healthy children, that she was the right choice to give their unwanted offspring a chance. But for Amelia… “baby farming” was nothing more than a lucrative way of making her money. And so, being unwilling to waste any time, money or effort by letting the children die of neglect or starvation, Amelia simply murdered each child the second their distraught mother was out of earshot, and pocketed the cash.
Was she ever caught? Of course. As a mentally unstable alcoholic with a growing opium addiction and a history of suicidal tendencies, whose mood swings and temperament swung between high-as-a-kite and hateful beyond the extreme, a local doctor became suspicious of the number of child deaths he’d been called to certify in Amelia Dyer's care and called the authorities. So, she was convicted of murder, manslaughter, or maybe infanticide, right? No. She was sentenced to just six months hard labour… for child neglect.
But wasn’t she even imprisoned for murder when caring for an illegitimate baby, as the governess grew suspicious that this baby that had been returned to her… wasn’t hers, stripped off the baby’s clothes to reveal a birthmark, which wasn’t there? No. Amelia Dyer feigned a breakdown and committed suicide by drinking two bottles of laudanum. Or she would / should have died, had she not built up a tolerance, owing to her long-term substance abuse, and survived.
Upon release from hospital – and having been declared “sane” - Amelia stopped relying on doctors to issue a death certificate for each child she'd dispatched, as this only aroused suspicion from the Police and even mothers desperate for their child’s safe return, their fortunes now better, so she began disposing of the diminutive little bodies herself. Often by wrapping them in carpet, weighed down with bricks, and dumping them in the River Thames.
But unknown to Dyer, on 30 March 1896, a package was retrieved from the Thames at Reading by a bargeman. The package Amelia dumped had not weighted down adequately and was easily spotted. It contained the decomposing body of a baby girl, later identified as Helena Fry. It was while examining the paper that the baby was wrapped in that Detective Constable Anderson made a crucial breakthrough, using a microscope he deciphered a barely legible name—Mrs Thomas (one of Amelia’s many aliases)—and an address.
On 3 April 1896, police raided Amelia’s home, and were immediately overpowered by the stench of human decomposition. And although no human remains were found, there was enough evidence in the form of white edging tape (used to strangle the babies & children), telegrams making reference to “adoptions”, pawn tickets for the child's belongings and letters from distraught mothers inquiring about the well-being of their children to have her arrested.
At the inquest, Police calculated that, in just a few months, Amelia Dyer had “cared” for at least twenty children, leading some experts to estimate that over the two decades of which she was a “baby farmer”, she may have killed over 400 babies and children, making her one of the most prolific murderers ever, as well as the most prolific female serial killer ever.
On the 10th June 1896 “baby farmer” Amelia Dyer (aged 69) was charged with three counts of murder and was executed by hanging at Newgate Prison, drawing in one of the largest gatherings in London to a public execution in the 1890's.
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Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a writer, crime historian and tour-guide who runs Murder Mile Walks, a guided tour of Soho’s most notorious murder cases, hailed as “one of the top ten quirky & unusual things to do in London” and featuring 18 murderers, 3 serial killers, across 21 locations, totalling 75 deaths, over just a one mile walk.
In 1888, amidst the pitch black alleys, the fog wreathed streets and the shadowy nooks of London’s East End, a sadistic maniac dubbed by the press with the macabre moniker of “Jack the Ripper”, fuelled by an insatiable lust and hatred for the gin-soused street-walkers, seized a terrified city in fear as he soaked the cobbled stones of Whitechapel with their blood…supposedly.
Of course, there is no evidence that “Jack the Ripper” ever existed. The fact is that during Jack the Ripper’s so-called reign of terror, London’s most notorious serial killer either killed three women, or five, or seven, or nine, or eleven, or as many as twenty-two, depending on which theory you choose to believe and what book you’ve just read, over a period of somewhere between three months and three years, and for whom not one single piece of evidence nor victim can conclusively be linked to one of the one hundred and six current suspects.
So why do we still believe (even after 128 years) that “Jack the Ripper” exists, if he probably didn’t? Because “Jack the Ripper”, as commonplace as his crimes were in an ever-expanding city (divided by wealth and health, with a barely fledgling Police force) was nothing more than a very clever construct of media manipulation; a convenient if slightly sensational character created by eager journalists during the birth of tabloid to sell newspapers.
Admittedly, in a morally uptight Victorian era, there was nothing newsworthy about the nightly violence inflicted on the city’s sex-workers - destitute by destiny, shunned by society and regarded by many as “ten-a-penny” - whose attacks by drunken punters, were seen as little more than an occupational hazard. Crimes such as these of often went unrecorded, unreported and unsolved.
But… by connecting these crimes together, giving their murderer a motive, a mission and a memorable name that is easily whispered from person to person? And you’ve got yourself something sensational. Therefore in a very short space of time, just the idea of “Jack the Ripper” created mass-panic, a climate of fear, a society fuelled by suspicion, speculation and sensationalist theories, and a media feeding frenzy, which still exists, even today. So, was there ever a “one-man ripper” slaughtering prostitutes in London’s East End? Probably not.
But… there was in the West End.
After the Blitz of 1940-41, as London was gripped in a continual state of fear as German bombers loomed overhead, a maniac prowled the seedy dark-lit streets of Soho. He attacked by night, during air-raids, when the city was at its blackest. And every street lamps was off, every house-light was out, every curtain was closed, and every door was shut.
His name was Gordon Frederick Cummins. But you won’t have heard of him. Very few people have. As during war-time, with London’s debilitated public morale at an all-time-low after a constant barrage of nightly bombardments and for fear of starting a panic, much of this story was suppressed. The Press called him “The Blackout Ripper”…
…he brutally slaughtered four women…
…and attempted to murder two more…
…all in just six days.
Sunday 9th February 1942: Pharmacist named Evelyn Hamilton was strangled in an air-raid shelter in Montague Place using her own stockings. With no signs of assault and her handbag containing £80 missing, Police suspected this was a simply robbery.
Monday 10th February 1942: Unemployed actress and part-time prostitute Evelyn Oately (known locally as “Nita Ward”) was found murdered in her Wardour Street flat by a workman who had come to read the meter. She’d been strangled, beaten, stabbed, and severely mutilated with a can-opener.
Tuesday 11th February 1942: Veteran sex-worker Margaret Lowe (“Pearl”) was also strangled, beaten and stabbed, but as The Blackout Ripper’s confidence grew, so did his sadism, and he mutilated her with whatever household utensils came to hand.
Wednesday 12th February 1942: Doris Jounette (alias “Doris Robson”) was the fourth victim of “The Blackout Ripper”. So horrific were her injuries even Home Office Pathologist Bernard Spilsbury would only comment that they were “quite dreadful”. But, as The Blackout Ripper’s confidence grew even further, so did his arrogance, and it is that which would bring about his downfall.
Friday 14th February 1942 “Valentine’s Day”: Fuelled an overwhelming compulsion to kill again, “The Blackout Ripper” picked up two more prostitutes – Greta Hayward and Catherine Mulcahy - in quick succession. Both women were attacked in broad daylight. Both women survived. And both women gave the Police an identical description of their attacker… which wasn’t enough to identify him… or it wouldn’t have been, had he not left behind his RAF issue belt and gas-mask, inside which were inscribed three important details; his name, rank and serial number.
Gordon Frederick Cummins (“The Blackout Ripper”) was tried at The Old Bailey on the 24th April 1942. So conclusive was the evidence against him that over just a one-day trial, the jury found him guilty in just thirty five minutes. He was executed on the 25th June 1942 at Wandsworth Prison by the famed executioner Albert Pierrepoint, ironically… during an air-raid.
Oddly, Gordon Frederick Cummins didn’t fit the usual profile of a serial killer; he had no prior convictions, no known mental illnesses and no history of violence, he was married, well-educated and he came from a good family. But Scotland Yard would later confirm that he had murdered two other women, just five months earlier in October 1941, whilst on a “day-trip” to London. But it wasn’t until 1942 that he was assigned to the Regent’s Park RAF Reception Centre on a three week course. By the time of his arrest, Gordon Frederick Cummins, dubbed “The Blackout Ripper” by the press…
…had brutally slaughtered four women…
…and attempted to murder two more…
…all in just six days…
…but (had he not been arrested) he could have gone on to kill for another twelve.
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a writer, crime historian and tour-guide who runs Murder Mile Walks, a guided tour of Soho’s most notorious (and often forgotten) murder cases, featuring 12 murderers, 3 serial killers, over 15 locations, totalling 75 deaths, over just a one mile walk.
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a crime writer, podcaster & tour guide of Murder Mile Walks, hailed as one of the best "quirky curious & unusual things to do in London".
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