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Welcome to the Murder Mile true-crime podcast and audio guided walk of 300+ untold, unsolved and often long-forgotten murders, all set within one square mile of the West End.
Episode Thirteen: Margaret Cook and the Long Confession. On 10th November 1946, a 26 year old club singer and prostitute Margaret Cook was brutally gunned down outside the Soho nightclub known as the Blue Lagoon, and although the murder remains unsolved, her life is even more mysterious than her death.
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Ep13 - Margaret Cook and the Long Confession
INTRO: Thank you for downloading episode thirteen of the Murder Mile true-crime podcast. This week, there’s no waffly intro, just a simple hello to regular listeners, a welcome to new listeners, and a thank you to those who left reviews. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook and for photos, videos and maps of each case, go to the Murder Mile website – murder mile tours.com / podcast.But before we begin, here’s my recommended true-crime podcast of the week - Corpus Delici. (promo) That’s it folks. Enjoy the episode.
SCRIPT: Welcome to Murder Mile; a true-crime podcast and audio guided walk featuring many of London’s untold, unsolved and long-forgotten murders, all set within one square mile of the West End.
Today’s episode is the unsolved murder of Margaret Cook, a woman whose death is a mysterious as her life itself, and yet almost 70 years after that tragic day, her death would make British legal history.
Murder Mile contains grisly details which won’t be suitable for delicate daisies, as well as realistic sounds, so that no matter where you listen to this podcast, you’ll feel like you’re actually there.
My name is Michael, I am your tour-guide and this is Murder Mile.
Episode 13: Margaret Cook and the Long Confession.
Today, I’m on Carnaby Street, a pedestrianised shopping district within spitting distance of Oxford Circus and Regents Street, which – over the last few years – has been forced to have a much needed facelift to make it look modern, stylish and funky. And yet, still being synonymous with the swinging sixties, it looks less like a typical London street and more like a tacky Austin Powers style theme park, riddled with a kaleidoscope of offensively bright colours, an ever-playing cacophony of Beatles tunes and is chock full of garish British stereotypes such as minis, beef eaters, red phone boxes, portraits of The Queen and with everything everywhere emblazoned with a Union Jack. Urgh!
But Carnaby Street (like most of Soho) is a place of ever-changing fortune; where once the in-crowd would go and before next it was a no-go zone, swinging from pop groups to gangsters, designers to druggies, pop art to prostitution. Today, it’s a street on-the-up, with neatly restored four-storey buildings on both sides of the street, and packed full of over-priced fashion outlets for those attention seeking tosspots with no personality such as Muji, Pepe Jeans, Dr Martins, Vans, The Kooples and – of course – the Ben Sherman store, where the life of Margaret Cook would end and our story begins.
But to tell her story properly, we can’t start at the beginning, standing outside of 50 Carnaby Street in the middle of the 1940’s? Instead we need to go right to the very end of the story, to Canada in the summer of 2015. (Airplane noise, then to hospital sounds)
A 91 year old man lies in a clinically white bed in an undisclosed nursing home in Ontario (Canada); we don’t know his name, we don’t know his address and we don’t know his description. He sits upright in bed, his pyjamas on and a freshly brewed cup of tea in his hand, which he slowly sips, it’s a familiar taste that brings flooding back some fond but also painful memories from his past, the mental scars of which are etched across his pale yellowy skin, his furrowed brow and the heavy bags under his eyes.
Although mentally sharp, physically he looks much older than his 91 years, as the stress of decades of emotional guilt and many sleepless nights presses down on his shoulders. Beside him, a heart monitor bleeps, a nurse is on standby as he’s carefully fed by intravenous drip a steady concoction of pain killers, glucose and saline to give him some quality of life before his inevitable demise having been recently diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. And with time running out, he sits upright, to make what may become his death-bed confession.
Three men sit around him; not family, not friends, but strangers in suits whose demeanour is calm, considered and cautious as they quietly question the dying man about his past. Being police detectives, all three are highly experienced in the art of interrogation, but this time there’s no good-cop / bad-cop routine, there’s no coercion, no shouting or no strong-arm tactics that they’d deploy with any common criminal, as – unusually for a murder case – it was the dying man who invited them there, having handed himself in at a local police station just a few days earlier.
But unusually for a Canadian murder investigation, only one of the detectives seated around the bed is Canadian. The other two are British, having flown the 3 ½ thousand miles from the Metropolitan Police’s Homicide and Serious Crime Command in London to Ontario (Canada) to visit a Canadian national who was once one of their fellow countrymen, who had confessed to the murder of an unnamed woman, in the 1940’s, on Carnaby Street.
Armed with the scantest of details including a basic description of the victim, a location and a rough date, the two detectives trawled through the cold case archives to unearth any solved or unsolved murders which fitted those few details. Before him, on the dying man’s tray-table, the detectives placed twelve black and white photos of slightly different but visually similar women, with each photo looking slightly faded, brown and dog-eared at the edges, as if they’d been roughly man-handled many moons ago and then filed away for the span of at least three generations.
With his glasses perched on his nose, the dying man leaned forward to get a closer look at the photos; and although some were blonde, some were brunette, some were redheads, and all were in their early to mid 20’s, out of the twelve only one drew his attention. And as he held her small tatty photo in his trembling hand, his eyes began to fill with tears and the heart-monitor’s bleeps got steadily quicker, as with a slowly growing lump in his throat and his subtle Canadian accent scored with a strangely British twang, the man turned to the homicide detectives and said “it’s her… that’s the woman I killed”.
The woman in the photograph was Margaret Cook. (INTERSTITIAL)
Margaret Cook is a true enigma, and as little as we actually know about the night of her death and her murderer himself, we know even less about her life after it began and before it ended.
Abandoned shortly after her birth to unidentified parents somewhere in Bradford (West Yorkshire) on an unspecified date in 1920, the unnamed female child was legally adopted by Mrs Dorothy Gladys Willis of Swain House Road in Bolton, who had no children of her own and named her Margaret Willis.
And what started in such an inauspicious, mysterious and often troubled beginning, continued along the same vein for the bulk of her brief life, as with no formal education, training or qualifications, all that is known of her formative years is that she spent a short while in borstal (which is a brutal juvenile prison), repeatedly ran away from home, and one year before her murder, Margaret married a 24 year old labourer in Bradford called Joseph Cook, but they separated a few months later, after which she moved to London.
Being of average height, weight and size, with a striking yet instantly forgettable face, Margaret Willis also known as Margaret Cook was forever changing her appearance from brunette to blonde to redhead, not just to keep abreast with the latest fashion, but to evade the West End police with whom she was very well acquainted having been arrested in an impressively short period for an unspecified number of charges for theft, robbery and solicitation, and always under a variety of different aliases.
If you’re wondering why I’m not being as pedantic as I usually am about digging down to the bare bones of the truth of who Margaret Cook was, that’s because the original police investigation file on the life and death of Margaret Cook is held in the National Archives until 2024, and given the recent revelations about her potential Canadian killer’s confession, that date is likely to be extended even further, so what little evidence there is, is based on a wealth of very unreliable sources, none of which I can verify as actual facts.
Widely known by those who knew her as a woman of mystery, Margaret Cook was incredibly secretive about what she did, where she lived and who she shared her life with, with many friends nicknaming her “sealed lips” and the local police giving her the moniker of “Milady”, owing to her love of putting of a posh affectation to her voice, pose and mannerisms, as if she was better off than she actually was, and was disguising her real roots, background and identity. And although we know that she briefly lived with a female friend in Devonshire Terrace in the East End, during the 18 months that she lived in London she also lived in at least 20 different locations, rarely returning to the same place twice.
And although she was a singer by trade, some sources report that she was a prostitute, an escort and a bride-for-hire (even though she was still technically married to Joseph Cook and always wore her platinum wedding), it is known for certain that she was an exotic dancer, a stripper and a “torch singer” at the infamous Blue Lagoon club at 50 Carnaby Street.
Now housing the recently renovated Ben Sherman store in all its glass-fronted and wood-panelled glory, 50 Carnaby Street has – for much of the 20th century – has been a seedy nightclub of varying infamy; beginning as Florence Mills Social Parlour in the 1930’s, the Blue Lagoon in the 40’s, Club Eleven and the Sunset Club in the 50’s, the Roaring Twenties in the 60’s and Columbo’s in the 70’s, before it was abandoned in the 1980’s, having hosted fledgling bands such as The Who, Queen, The Beatles and famous British comedians such as Max Bygraves, Tommy Cooper and Spike Milligan.
And although it was suitably situated in the heart of the West End, the Blue Lagoon was not a high-profile nightspot frequented by the great and the good, where the wealthy went wild, the famous frolicked and the beautiful boozed, surrounded by a sea of stretched limos, a mountain of mink-stoles and a fountain of freshly fizzing champagne flutes.
No, the Blue Lagoon was a much less classy affair, as – having been hidden in a dark, drab and dingy Soho basement – the club was little more than a front for gambling, bootlegging, hawking, drug-dealing and prostitution; it was a notorious hang-out for every West End wastrel, East End gangster and local ne’er-do-well, where (before you enter) you’d have to hand in your hat, coat and gun at the cloakroom, and where fist-fights were frequent, police raids were plentiful, dodgy deals were done and even in its brief history it had its fair share of murders, including that of Margaret Cook.
Now. If (like me) you’re British, there’s one teeny tiny little detail in that last sentence which has probably got you a little bit confused, and it’s this – that at the Blue Lagoon, before you entered the club, there was a cloakroom where you had to hand in your hat, your coat… and your gun.
Yes, that’s right, your gun.
Which begs the question: “wow, what kind of hell-hole was this, where the staff half expected its ragtag bag of questionable clientele to turn-up to a fun night out, all suited, booted and packing a pistol?” Well, actually, in that regard, this was a very normal nightclub, with exactly the same fire-arm policy as almost every other British venue in the 1940’s. You see, as much as we may criticise the lax gun laws of other countries, gun-control in the UK is still a relatively new concept.
Before 1900, almost any British citizen could carry a gun. By 1903, the Government introduced the first permit and age-restriction which limited children and some teenagers access to weapons (yes, you heard that correctly). By 1919, a mandatory firearms certificate was introduced meaning you had to have a “good reason” why you should own a gun (examples of which included hunting, target practice and rat-catching). In 1936, short-barrelled shotguns and fully automatic weapons were outlawed and a “safe storage” policy was introduced to stop guns falling into the wrong hands. And by 1946, the year that Margaret Cook was shot to death, the police deemed “self-defence” no longer a good enough reason to own a gun, and yet it wasn’t until 1953, six years later, that carrying any kind of firearm, outside of supervised and permitted areas, for any reason except hunting, was made illegal. Hence that death by shooting in the UK after 1956 is still extremely rare.
Although this may seem like merely an interesting factoid about the state of UK gun-control, it actually gives important context to the murder of Margaret Cook, as even though the tabloid press (and their dubious sources) had suggested that she was shot to death by a pimp, a gangster, a robber or a crook, having become embroiled in a seedy gangland feud involving sex, drugs and dodgy deals, which – you have to admit is a much more exciting story - she could have been shot by literally anyone.
But surely, as we’ve never really had a “gun-culture” in the United Kingdom, there wouldn’t have been all that many firearms on the streets, right? Well, that is true, but it wasn’t in the mid-to-late 1940’s, as the streets were flooded with legal and illegal firearms, so much so that even today, many are still being discovered in the hands of collectors and criminals, with some having been brought home by returning servicemen wanting to retain a war-time souvenir, and others being sent, in bulk, to Britain by America.
Following the military failure (but political success) of the Battle of Dunkirk, when the allied troops were forced to retreat back across the English Channel and the ever-present threat of a Nazi invasion was imminent – with every available weapon in active service – there wasn’t enough privately owned firearms to protect the people. So needing a quick but steady supply of guns to protect the homeland, the UK turned to its old ally the USA. In November 1940, The American Committee for the Defence of British Homes sent out an urgent appeal (which appeared in American Rifleman Magazine) asking for US citizens to donate their “pistols, rifles, shotguns and binoculars” to the British people, which they did in droves. And for that, we thank you. And although many of these firearms were either returned, destroyed or dumped in the channel (for fear that our peaceful isle would descend into the Wild West), sadly a large proportion of guns remained in private ownership and were sold on the black market.
And yet, context aside, very little is known of the whereabouts of 26 year old Margaret Cook on the night of her murder, and what is known is spurious and sketchy at best.
The evening of Saturday 10th November 1946 was a classic British autumn evening as the weather was as indecisive as always, it was neither raining nor dry, instead a light drizzle peppered the air, seeming never to feel wet and yet everything it touched it soaked, as a blustery wind whipped up the discarded litter that swirled about the dark-lit streets of Piccadilly. The war was over, the streets should have been a veritable riot of light and colour with the blackout no longer imposed, but with the infamous lights of Piccadilly Circus still out of action, the streets pockmarked with bomb-craters, every other building being unsafe and almost every streetlamp still broken, the only light sources were the passing glow of the occasional car headlight, the yellow dull glow of gaslight, and a small pockets of fireworks which illuminated the London skyline but disappeared into the gloom of the overcast sky.
Dressed in a fashionable fawn coat, with a bright pink blouse, a brown chequered dress and fawn high-heeled shoes, between 8:45pm and 9:10pm, Margaret Cook was witnessed walking the side streets of Soho such as Great Windmill Street, Denman Street and Sherwood Street, which all intersect with Brewer Street, the infamous prowling ground and pick-up place for prostitutes and punters. So whether she was on the game that night is debatable, as (if – based on her last known movements - she was deliberately avoiding Brewer Street) that could either mean she was solely socialising that night, was unwelcome on a rival prostitutes turf, or that she was specifically trying to avoid someone? But that we shall never know. Of course, if she was a “working girl” who (unlike Ginger Rae) didn’t live local and had no place to entertain her punters, then maybe the bomb-damaged side-streets were her next best option, as – like most out-of-town sex workers who travelled into the West End to try their luck - she serviced her clients in the damp, cold but ultimately free bomb-craters and disused air-raid shelters which dotted the streets, saving her a pretty penny. But again, that we shall never know.
According to her friends, the ever secretive Margaret whose love-life was as mysterious as her natural hair-colour, was said to have confided in an unnamed flat-mate at her Devonshire Terrace flat that an undisclosed man was trying to extort money from her and that her new boyfriend (whose identity was never revealed) had recently threatened her with a revolver. All of which are easily spurious press reports which cropped-up only in the days after her death, and with no evidence to back this up, it’s hard to substantiate whether they are true, half-truths or outright lies invented by cash-strapped friends or devious chancers hoping to make a quick quid off a salacious news-story.
And yet, even the suspiciously scant details of Margaret Cook’s actual murder are open to debate, as what we do know, doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense.
Later that evening, as Carnaby Street fizzed and bristled with the excitable buzz of pub-goers, who bustled amidst the dark-lit street deciding where to go next in that last hour before the dancehalls, jazz joints and nefarious nightclubs opened. But busy as it was, the passageway just to the right of 50 Carnaby Street, where soon-enough an eager throng of excitable customers would queue up to enter the infamous Blue Lagoon, the passage way was dark and sparse, all except for the faint glow of cigarette tips from a couple whose conversation – it is said - was heated.
Although in shadow, the woman was described as slim, mid-20’s, five foot seven inches tall and fashionably dressed in a mix of subtle fawn and bright pink, who spoke in a slightly affected posh voice which was accentuated by her natural Northern accent when angered, and although she went by many names, most people knew her as Margaret Cook. In the alley, although what was said is unclear, there was no denying that an argument was taking place with an unidentified man described as “aged 25-30, 5 foot 8 or 9 inches tall, with a dark complexion, dressed in a Burberry style raincoat and a pork-pie hat”. Was he her boyfriend? Was he her pimp? Was he a customer? That we shall never know.
But at 9:35pm, as the fiery exchange between the feuding couple escalated, the numerous spurious sources who reported this fracas have suggested that either Margaret was heard to shout “This man has a gun!” or “I know you have a gun, put it away”. Now whether or not either phrase was actually said is unclear, but immediately after this, an unidentified man who according to various accounts was either a former policeman, an off-duty copper or none of the above, attempted to intervene (even though he was unarmed) but was aggressively chastised by Margaret Cook’s pork-pie hat-wearing companion who either shouted “mind your own business” or “get on your way chum, this has nothing to do with you", which means the same, but are very different sentences. At which point, the maybe possibly off-duty ex-policeman either stayed or walked away, all before her pimp, pal or punter in the pork-pie hat, pulled out either Russian-made .25 calibre pistol or a German-made .30 calibre revolver, and with a single bullet, shot Margaret Cook in the heart. Fearing arrest, he supposedly ran in two different directions, either east down Broadwick Street or north towards Oxford Circus, where (although he was chased) he disappeared.
His name is unknown, his identity is unknown and his whereabouts today are unknown. He was never photographed, he was never fingerprinted and he was never caught. His face was half-obscured, he dropped nothing, he wasn’t known to the locals, and - over the bustling hubbub of the street and the cacophony of exploding fireworks – his exact accent could not be determined. And although the Met Police’s homicide detectives conducted a thorough investigation; they found no gun, no shell-casing and – with an entrance wound over her heart and an exit wound in her back – they found no bullet. Sadly, as she lay there, the lifeless body of Margaret Cook slumped against a bricked-up emergency water tank in the shadowy passage of 50 Carnaby Street – with the night being wet and her corpse surrounded by gawkers as the scene wasn’t sealed-off quick enough – much of the evidence was lost.
And although, just four days later, the Met Police questioned a 27 year old builder from Strathavon in Lanarkshire (Scotland) called Robert Currie Wilson, who was 5ft 8in, with blue eyes, black hair and a pale complexion, who was muscular with heavily tattooed forearms and hands and a scar beneath his chin - a description which, at best, only half fits our suspect – he was released without charge. Along with her ex-husband Joseph Cook, who on the night of his wife’s murder, was in prison, in Bradford (170 miles away) awaiting trail for theft. And although the trashy tabloid press have often lazily attributed the murder of Margaret Cook to the infamous killer known as Soho Jack, a mysterious maniac who (supposedly) murdered four Soho prostitutes in quick succession including Ginger Rae, Black Rita and Russian Dora, the murderer of Margaret Cook was never caught.
(Pause) So I guess you’re expecting a big reveal about now? A surprise ending? A twist involving an intricate piece of previously undisclosed evidence unearthed by myself in the National Archives which conclusively proves or at least hints at a possible suspect for the murder of Margaret Cook?
Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you.
This isn’t a fairy-tale. This isn’t a detective novel. And – as with any murder - this doesn’t have a happy ending. It remains an unsatisfying story and with no obvious conclusion, which leaves us with a series of unanswered questions and no real answers. By its very nature, prostitution is a secretive business, and even though – in cases such as the brutal murder of Ginger Rae, where her last known movements were wonderfully documented by those who loved her - in the case of Margaret Cook, a mysterious outsider who closely guarded her privacy, disguised her roots and lived a life of secrecy, her murder may never be solved.
So, what about the confession? What about the 91 year old British ex-pat lying on his death-bed in an undisclosed nursing-home in Canada, who confessed to the killing of Margaret Cook?
Well, we don’t know his name, we don’t know his location and we don’t know his description. So whether the dying man was 5 foot 8 or 9 inches tall, with a dark complexion, who was dressed in a Burberry style raincoat and a pork-pie hat”, who owned either a Russian-made .25 calibre pistol or a German-made .30 calibre revolver, that we shall never know.
What we do know is that he was British, and having served in the Army during World War Two, he was demobbed in 1945, and five years after the murder of Margaret Cook (not a day, not a week, but five years later) he emigrated to Canada, and settled in Ontario, where he became a Canadian citizen, he married and raised a family. And at the time of the murder, he was 24 years old.
Robert Currie Wilson, the heavily tattooed Scotsman with a scar on his chin who was questioned by the police was 27. So they can’t be the same man. Not only because on the passenger manifests for 1951, travelling from the UK to Canada, there is no Robert C Wilson, born in 1919, but also because he never left the UK and died in the mid 1980’s. Just like her husband Joseph Cook. Which means, as far as known suspects go, we have none.
In the summer of 2015, it was reported in the press that the UK Director of Public Prosecutions Alison Saunders sought the extradition of the Canadian man to stand trial for the murder of Margaret Cook, as they felt they had a realistic prospect of a conviction and he had been deemed mentally fit. But as extradition requests are confidential state-to-state communications, the Government of Canada can neither confirm nor deny the existence of such a request, but given the dying man’s advancing age, medical needs and his declining physical infirmity, and even though - with his confession coming almost 70 years after the murder of Margaret Cook, this is now the longest gap between a crime and a confession in British legal history - it is highly unlikely that he will ever stand trial.
But how safe is this confession? As it’s never been released (and probably won’t be in our lifetime) that’s hard to tell, but let’s ask the question, how reliable is this confession? He’s a 91 year old man dying of liver cancer, a debilitating disease which causes nausea, exhaustion and confusion, who’s 70 year old confession was so full of holes, that having supplied the Met Police with such scant details, they returned with twelve possible victims, and placed in front of him the tatty dog-eared photos of similar looking women, and asked him to pick-put a face he last saw in a dark alley on a rainy night just after World War Two, of a woman who’s name (he says) he didn’t know, or has since forgotten.
Maybe he did murder Margaret Cook and this truly is his deathbed confession? Maybe the dying man is confused and recalling a murder that he remembers reading about during his time in London? Or maybe, he’s just a confused and lonely man wanting a little bit of attention before he dies?
And – two years after his confession - whether he’s actually still alive, even that we do not know, therefore the murder of Margaret Cook remains unsolved… and may never be solved.
OUTRO: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for listening to Murder Mile. Soon, I shall do a catch-up episode, so if there are any loose threads on any of the solved or unsolved cases we’ve discussed in earlier episodes, we can address them there. But in the case of Margaret Cook? Good luck.
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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… William Stoltzer and the Unusual Defence
Thank you and sleep well.
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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” and featuring 12 murderers, including 3 serial killers, across 15 locations, totaling 75 deaths, over just a one mile walk.
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a crime writer, podcaster of Murder Mile UK True Crime and creator of true-crime TV series.
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