Murder Mile UK True-Crime Podcast #104: The 'Elementary' Murder of William Raven
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Welcome to the Murder Mile UK True-Crime Podcast and audio guided walk of London's most infamous and often forgotten murder cases, set within and beyond the West End.
EPISODE ONE HUNDRED AND FOUR:
On Thursday 15th October 1942, in flat 34 of Chalfont Court at 236 Baker Street, the body of William Raven was discovered. He was an elegant sociable divorcee and co-owner of a gentleman’s outfitters with no enemies, who was found battered to death in his own bed. Everybody liked him. But was this a bungled robbery, a revenge attack, or was it something a little more ordinary?
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The location of Chalfony Court at 236 Baker Street, NW1 where William Raven was murdered is located where the rum and raison triangle is. To use the map, click it. If you want to see the other murder maps, such as Soho, King's Cross, etc, access them by clicking here.
I've also posted some photos to aid your "enjoyment" of the episode. These photos were taken by myself (copyright Murder Mile) or granted under Government License 3.0, where applicable.
Credits: The Murder Mile UK True-Crime Podcast was researched, written and recorded by Michael J Buchanan-Dunne, with the sounds recorded on location (where possible), and the music written and performed by Erik Stein & Jon Boux of Cult With No Name. Additional music was written and performed as used under the Creative Common Agreement 4.0.
This case was researched using the original declassified polcie investigation files held at the National Archives, as well as many other sources.
UNEDITED TRANSCRIPT OF 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 and beyond the West End.
Today’s episode is about the murder of William Raven, an elegant sociable divorcee and co-owner of a gentleman’s outfitters who was found battered to death in his own bed. Everybody liked him. But was this a bungled robbery, a revenge attack, or was it something a little more ordinary?
Murder Mile is researched using the original police files. It contains moments of satire, shock and grisly details. And as a dramatization of the real events, it may also feature loud and 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 104: The ‘Elementary’ Murder of William Raven.
Today I’m standing on Baker Street in Marylebone, NW1; three streets east of the photographic studio where John Reginald Christie took naked snaps of one of his victims, one road south of Regent’s Park barracks where the Blackout Ripper was arrested, a ten minute walk from the Regents Business School where Martine Vik Magnussen first met the cowardly billionaire’s son who became her killer, and a short dawdle from the odd but unsolved murder of Gladys Hanrahan – coming soon to Murder Mile.
Up by the tube station, at the junction of the Marylebone Road, the north side of Baker Street is a real disappointment to the millions of excitable tourists - who flock to stand next to a semi sort-of look-a-like waxwork of a pseudo-celebrity-nobody at Madame Tussauds - only to realise there’s nothing else here. Nothing but smog, smoke, bogs and bedsits choked by belching buses on a death-trap of a road.
Baker Street is famous for a few things; there’s Gerry Rafferty’s sax solo (which every busker is forced to play every hour of every day or risk losing their licence to rip-off real artist’s records), the home of celebrated sci-fi author H G Wells (which is only memorialised by a small plaque), an obscure tribute to The Beatles (who fled their beloved Liverpool faster than they forgot how to say “ah, de-do-doh-don’t-de-doh”) and, of course, there’s the infamous residence of fictional detective Sherlock Holmes.
Still being as smoggy and murder-strewn as it once was, at 221b Baker Street sits the Sherlock Holmes museum; a shrine to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s literary creation where avid-fans fork-out actual cash to “oooh” at the deerstalker this imaginary character never wore, “aah” at the pretend pipe that this made-up detective never smoked and “wow” at an out-of-work actor sitting behind a blatantly fake desk that Sherlock never sat at, only to get to the gift-shop and realise the tv series were once books.
But as these museum patrons queue up, they have no idea that directly opposite, on the sixth floor of 236 Baker Street was a real murder; a baffling mystery so odd, it initially had the detectives perplexed, but through dogged persistence and a clinical Investigation, the Police would have it solved.
As it was here on Thursday 15th October 1942, in flat 34 of Chalfont Court, that William’s Raven’s death looked like a case for the great detective himself, and yet its solution was ‘elementary’. (Interstitial).
(Sherlock line) Real murders are rarely as thrilling as they may appear in detective stories. The victims and killers are almost always connected, whether as family, friends, lovers or rivals. Their motives are usually clear; whether wealth, love, revenge or pride. And although a tale full of plot-twists makes for a gripping story, real murders are rarely pre-meditated, carefully planned or cleverly executed. Killing is an act of extreme emotion, so being desperate to flee, murderers rarely leave clues or red-herrings.
The murder of William Raven had all the tropes of a ‘locked-room’ mystery – a respected businessman is found beaten to death in his own bed, on the sixth floor of a secure mansion block; the door was locked from inside, the key was in place and there were no signs of a break-in. Nobody heard a sound or saw anything strange and although they hadn’t touched anything of any value, they had stolen two pounds from the victim’s wallet, a pair of shoes, a fawn suit and (oddly) two pairs of white underpants.
And yet, even more bafflingly, having been seen by several witnesses that night; in that flat, the killers would leave their fingerprints, a pair of boots, a dirty uniform and two sets of soiled underpants, giving the police a big clue as to their description, occupation and – eventually - their names. But was this an unplanned murder, a message or a masterclass in deception and misdirection by a cunning criminal?
So, who was the victim?
Born on 26th November 1900, forty-one-year-old William Raven, known to his associates as Bill was an elegantly-dressed bachelor and well-regarded director of Horstman & Raven, a gentleman’s outfitters for the city’s well-heeled and high-status clientele based at 80 Regent Street, near Piccadilly Circus.
Raised in Leeds, although his modest northern roots were hidden by a cut-glass English accent, being keen to be seen as prosperous and cultured, even as a boy he was always immaculate and polite, with dreams of being finely dressed in a tailored suit, handmade shoes and a silk handkerchief in his pocket.
As an apprentice, seen a skilled tailor, William worked-hard to learn his craft and through long hours, patience, an innate sense of style and a meticulous eye for detail, he established a solid reputation among the society elite. Financially? He had some money, but every penny was invested in the shop. His shop’s manager was an old and trusted friend, his business partner was like the brother he never had; they had no rivals, no debts, no threats and although (being war-time) they had the savings to weather the storm, very little cash was kept on the premises, and his killers had never visited the shop.
In terms of family? He had very little left, except for a married sister in Leeds. Sadly, his parents had long since deceased, he had amicably divorced from his wife and as she had recently passed-away, their two boys – John & Alan – were being raised by their mother’s parents in Cockermouth. As families go, they weren’t close, but there were also no disputes, no secrets and nothing which raised suspicion.
During the war - being too old, too small but more importantly a pacifist – William did his duty as manager of the Merchant Navy Supply Association, issuing and repairing uniforms for military units, including a few bespoke orders for the Special Operations Executive, who just two years earlier had recruited the super-spy Christine Grenville and who were based only a few doors down from his Baker Street flat. And yet, although an interesting detail, William was not a spy, a soldier or a secret agent.
Socially? William was a real character and being just five-foot-five, with a slim frame, pale skin, elfin-like features, black swept back hair and a ‘pug-like’ nose, he was well-known and easy-to-spot. He was charming, chatty and generous. He preferred wine but drank rum or ale to suit his guests, he didn’t gamble, fight, argue or do drugs, he was never rude or nasty, and he treated everyone with respect.
Sexually? Since his divorce, although illegal, William had come-out as a gay-man. Feeling free, he kept a diary of his sexual conquests, but wasn’t looking for a lover, as he preferred the thrill of anonymous sex with a stranger. Usually they were rough young squaddies from tough backgrounds, many of which he picked-up in gay-safe pubs like The York Minster on Dean Street, The Swiss Tavern on Old Compton Street and The Volunteer opposite his flat on Baker Street, where he always ate his nightly supper.
And that’s pretty much it. William Raven was a businessman who wasn’t rich, a widower who wasn’t disliked, and a gay man who wasn’t being blackmailed or bullied. He had no jealous lovers, no business rivals, no criminal connections, no secret past and no family feuds. His death made no sense. Of course, this could have been an attack on a known homosexual? But we know that wasn’t the case.
So, if this was a robbery – believing this to be a two-man job as three sets of fingerprints (including William’s) were found - how did they get in? how did they get out? Why did they steal just enough cash to last one person for two days, but left behind his silver cigarette case, lighter and silver wrist watch? Why did they steal nothing of any value from the flat, just a fawn-coloured suit, a set of shoes and two pairs of white underpants, and yet they left behind a military uniform?
Was the uniform his? Were his killers’ military? Or was this somehow connected to his business?
Strangely, even though he had only lived at 236 Baker Street for thirteen weeks, this wasn’t the first and only unusual robbery which had occurred in Flat 34. On Sunday 11th October 1942, although there were no signs of a break-in, burglars had stolen every single item of his clothes. But once again, in a strange similarity, they touched nothing else; no art, no jewellery, no electricals and no paperwork.
Was this copy-cat robbery just a coincidence, an insurance scam, a war-time crime of high-quality suits in short supply to be sold on the black market? Or was this heist merely a ruse to gain entry to his sixth-floor flat in a secure mansion block, as part of pre-meditated, carefully planned and cleverly executed murder? Rightly, he reported this burglary to the Police, but there was little they could do.
Four days later, William Raven would be brutally beaten to death in his own bed (Interstitial).
Thursday 15th October 1942 was William’s last day alive… only he wouldn’t know that, as compared to any other day, it was neither odd, unpleasant nor remarkable.
After a good breakfast of egg, toast and tea, most of his morning was spent in his flat, where a young handsome locksmith replaced his door-lock (as a precaution having just been burgled) and although an invasion of his privacy, he wasn’t worried, as he knew that this kind of thing happened in a big city.
With his shop under the care of its manager (Wallace Staggle), William had a spot of lunch with an old pal in Soho, did a stock-check at the Merchant Navy Supply Association and visited several outfitters in the West End as he liked to keep abreast of the current trend in men’s fashion.
At 3pm, dressed in a blue pin-striped suit, a white shirt, a dark tie and pair of black shoes, William popped into his Regent Street shop and regaled Wallace with the tale of his unusual burglary. As was common practice, Wallace gave his boss £20 in £1 notes out of the till, which he signed for, and (to temporarily replace his missing clothes) into a bag William packed a stylish but inexpensive fawn-coloured suit, two white shirts, two pairs of white socks and two pairs of white underpants, identical to the ones which would be stolen, and then he left. His mood was upbeat and relaxed.
That evening, being in his usual good spirits, William and an unidentified gentleman in his mid-forties known only as George - who was plump and small with a face caked in a thick white powder – met for drinks at The York Minster, a gay-safe pub at 49 Dean Street in Soho. Being war-time, the streets were full of squaddies and the pub was packed-to-the-rafters with artists, singers, drag acts, ladies seeking a safe place to drink, many openly homosexual locals and a smattering of secretly gay soldiers who had deliberately come here – away from their disapproving comrades – hoping to be themselves.
As usually happened - as the camaraderie flowed, drinks were sunk and the hot bodies mingled in the tightly packed bar - William’s roving eye was instantly attracted to two boys who were just his type.
Being half his age, with a come-hither finger he beckoned forth two short, slim but well-built boys in their early-twenties. One had jet-black parted hair, the other had mousey curls, and - as the mirror opposites to his elegant refinement and his high-class sophistication - these two Canadian soldiers were both scruffy, uncouth and rough-looking, but that was exactly the type that William liked.
Greeting these two cuties by cooing “call me Bill” and engaging them in a bit of saucy banter, William made every stranger feel like a friend. And having treated both boys to a few cheeky beers, a little light supper and having (shockingly) discovered that they hadn’t booked a hotel for the night – being the epitome of generosity, living just a tube hop away and unwilling to turf two lovely young boys out on a bitterly cold night such as this –having sunk a few more beers at the notorious homosexual hang-out of the Swiss Tavern on Old Compton Street, William and his two new pals left the pub at 10:30pm, caught the Bakerloo line to Baker Street, and – as had become routine for a gay bachelor with a capacious sexual appetite and a gap in his diary of sexual conquests – William and the two young soldiers entered Flat 34 of Chalfont Court. They were happy, laughing and a little bit tipsy.
That night; they sat, chatted, drank and - with not one witness hearing a single sound – they all went to bed. The next day, William was found dead and (once again) a very odd robbery had occurred.
Detective novels thrive on many devices to make a hum-drum killing seem more thrilling; by adding plot-twists, misdirection, red-herrings and duplicitous characters, with the big clues being nothing and the smallest of details being everything. Sherlock Holmes knew that the solution to any case was down to the arrogance of the criminal mastermind who would make a tiny but elementary mistake.
Real murders are usually self-explanatory, but strangely, the murder of William Raven was not. Almost all victims and killers have long-established connections, but in this case, they weren’t. Their motives are usually clear; whether wealth, love, revenge or pride, only this time it wasn’t. And although real murders are rarely pre-meditated, this murder looked entirely spontaneous. But was it?
At 9:40am, William’s cleaner (Mrs Rose) unlocked the outer door to Flat 34, but found the inner door was locked from within. She left, alerted no-one and was the only other person with a spare key. At 11am, Margorie Vogt in Flat 35 - the flat immediately next door who heard nothing the night before - saw the morning’s newspaper still sticking out of William’s letterbox, but didn’t notify anyone till three hours later. At 2pm, having informed the head porter, Frederick Bowen climbed up the fire escape, entered the flat via the bathroom window, and in the bedroom, he found the body of William Raven.
The room was messy, chaotic and bloody, but all of the violence had been contained in just one room.
Having called the Police, at 2:35pm, PC Allan Ireland entered via the fire escape to preserve the crime scene for evidence. Clearly, the tastefully decorated bedroom was once small, neat and pristine white, but with the plush carpet scattered with a mishmash of khaki clothes and the once-fragrant air buzzing with feverish flies who fed off a thick soupy puddle of blood which pooled at the head of the double bed and slurped at the gloopy spatter which was too dry to drip down the patterned wall, seeing the slightly-build semi-naked man slumped face-down on the floor with his sweet features beaten to a mushy swollen pulp, PC Ireland stood guard over the dead body until the detective arrived.
At 3:40pm, the Police Division Surgeon arrived to confirm life as extinct, but seeing a subtle rising and falling of the sticky pyjama-clad chest and a gentle pop as blood bubbles formed about the lips, the PC had missed an important clue. William Raven wasn’t dead but barely alive. A full twelve-to-fourteen hours after his brutal attack, William was rushed to nearby St Mary’s hospital, but he died at 6pm.
He never regained consciousness, he never identified his attackers, he never gave a statement and he never said a single word. The last and only independent witness to his murder had been silenced.
The only way to solve the case was through the evidence presented before them, and yet, this brutal Baker Street murder didn’t have the luxury of being investigated by an infamous yet fictional detective with books, films, a statue and even a museum in his honour… but they did have the next-best-thing. Detective Inspector John Smale; he was smart, methodical, savvy and – best of all – he was real.
The crime-scene presented the detective with the following pieces of evidence which suggested that this wasn’t a pre-planned murder, but a spontaneous emotive attack and an opportunist robbery.
With no sign of a break-in, the door was the only entry point and both men were welcomed in by William, who (as a habit) locked the inner door to the flat and popped the key on a hook in a cupboard. Neighbours said that William and the two young soldiers were happy, laughing and a little bit tipsy.
In the sitting room, three sets of fingerprints were found on three glasses and a bottle of whiskey, rum and cordial, indicating they all continued to drink. One man sat in the armchair, two men shared the settee and (at some point) someone briefly slept in the small guest bed in the sitting room.
With all but one bottle of white wine consumed, the three men retired to the bedroom. Here, they undressed; William hung-up his blue pin-stripe suit, and the two Canadian soldiers casually dumped their scruffy Army-issue uniforms on the floor; their khaki clothes were dirty and worn, but not torn. At some point during the night, all three men removed their underpants, which were found on the floor.
According to his diary, William was a known homosexual, who frequented gay-friendly bars and had a capacious sexual appetite. If sex did take place, he didn’t note it in his diary, and yet, his post-mortem would confirm that the last three inches of his anus was dilated, congested and smooth, suggesting that – as a passive male – he had engaged in anal sex with another man shortly before his death.
So far, this had been a very ordinary evening for William… but abruptly, the good mood would change.
The post-mortem conducted by Sir Bernard Spilsbury confirmed that William had been subjected to a fast and viscous attack, by one or two men. The six lacerations to the back of the head matched the bloodied raffia of a broken bottle found at his feet, and six heavy blows from a fist to his left eye, left hand and mouth caused multiple skull fractures, unconsciousness and he died of a brain haemorrhage.
The tell-tale signs on the wallpaper of pear-shaped blood spatter in a downward trajectory confirmed that William had been standing at the time at the time of the attack, the smeared bedsheets indicate where he had fallen, and a six-inch pool of blood around his swollen head was consistent with being unconscious for the twelve-to-fourteen hours, until he was found. So, at no point, had he been moved.
Possibly out of panic and shock, the killers made no attempt to conceal the body or the crime. They stole nothing of any value; not even the silver lighter, cigarette case and watch. Instead, they took two pounds, a fawn suit, two shirts, a pair of socks, a pair of black shoes and two sets of white underpants. So, for Detective Inspector Smale, it was clear that the robbery wasn’t an act of greed, this was need.
When questioned, none of the witnesses could recall the names of the two Canadian soldiers William was seen with that night, but they all agreed that the men were dishevelled, penniless, rough-looking and - having nowhere to sleep that night – William had invited them to stay at his flat.
On William’s bedroom floor lay a crumpled Canadian Army issue forage cap, a pair of filthy black socks, two sweat-stained khaki shirts (with the label of Warrendale, a uniform manufacturer for the Canadian Army), a very worn pair of Army-issue boots (in size 7 with the soles worn down to the leather) and three pairs of underpants; one made by Horstman & Raven, a gentleman’s outfitter on Regent Street, and the other two pairs of underpants were Army-issued and very dirty, smelly and heavily soiled.
Desperate to flee the murder scene, out of panic, they tried to unlock the flat’s front door using three keys they had found rather than the actual key which William had popped on a hook in a cupboard. So, unable to unlock the inner door, they fled by the bathroom window and out onto the fire-escape.
Because of the overwhelming evidence, Detective Inspector Smale requested the fingerprints and details of all Canadian soldiers serving in Britain who had been reported missing since the time of the murder, or were being held under detention for being ‘Absent Without Leave’. Admittedly this was like searching for a needle in a haystack, as the list of possible suspects was huge, the war was raging on, the Army was not compliant and the interviews would take almost a year.
But was the detective right? Was the evidence as simple as it seemed? Was the unplanned murder of William Raven really just a spontaneous attack and an opportunist robbery, or had this humble copper got it wrong, having been duped by a cunning criminal in a masterclass of deception and misdirection?
On 17th July 1943, after nine long months of interviews, having dredged the bottom of his suspect list, Detective Inspector Smale went to Eire Camp in Headley Down (Hampshire) to question a twenty-year old Canadian Private called Henry Smith. With the murder having plagued his guilty conscience, Henry confessed and named his pal, twenty-one-year-old George Frederick Brimacombe as the murderer.
The evidence supported his story, the witnesses identified their faces, their fingerprints were an exact match and being rough-looking young men, who wore uniforms and came from difficult backgrounds, although neither (for good reason) admitted they were gay - they were just the type that William liked.
Having enlisted into the Army to escape the horrors of their family life, Henry & George absconded from their units at the end of September 1942, but with no plan and very little money, soon they were hungry, broke, homeless, and their uniforms and boots were worn-out, tatty and soiled. And (possibly) in return for companionship and anonymous sex, William Raven offered them food, drink and a bed.
On the 14th September 1943, at the Old Bailey, Henry Smith and George Brimacombe were charged with murder, but with no evidence of pre-meditation, Henry was acquitted and sent back to Canada, and George was found guilty of manslaughter and served just three years at Wormwood Scrubs prison.
So, you see, sometimes the simplest answer is usually the right one and although this story has all the hallmarks of a classic ‘locked-room’ mystery, it was really just a very simple tale of two young lads, on the run, in need of a few basic things; money, food, a place to sleep and a clean pair of pants.
On the surface, William’s Raven’s death may have looked like a case for the great detective himself, and yet, even Sherlock Holmes would agree that its solution was ‘elementary’ (“Watson, the needle”).
OUTRO: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for listening to Murder Mile.
For me, that’s the hard bit done; all the research, all the writing, with just three days of editing to go. Urgh! And now it’s time for pointless bit which takes zero effort. In fact, I couldn’t probably do it in my sleep… if Eva didn’t insist that I’m on hand all night to mix her cocktails. Huh! That woman eh? Sigh!
Before that, a big thank you to my new Patreon supporters who are Rhiannon Williams, Christina Hughes and Julie Davis, I thank you all for your support, it’s much appreciated. With a welcome to all new listeners and a thank you to the hard-core listeners who’ve been there since the dawn of time.
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.
Thank you for listening and sleep well.
*** LEGAL DISCLAIMER ***
The Murder Mile UK True Crime Podcast has been researched using the original declassified police investigation files, court records, press reports and as many authentic sources as possible including eye-witness testimony, confessions, autopsy reports, first-hand accounts and independent investigation, where possible. But these documents are only as accurate as those recounting them and recording them, therefore mistakes will be made. As stated at the beginning of each episode (and as is clear by the way it is presented) Murder Mile is a 'dramatisation' of the events and not a documentary, therefore a certain amount of dramatic licence, selective characterisation and story-telling (within logical reason and based on extensive research) has been taken. It is not a full representation of the case, the people or the investigation in its entirety, and therefore should not be taken as such. It is also often (for the sake of clarity and drama) presented from a single person's perspective, usually (but not exclusively) the victim's, therefore it will contain a certain level of bias to get across this single perspective, which may not be the overall opinion of those involved or associated.
*** LEGAL DISCLAIMER ***
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 "one of the best true-crime podcasts at the British Podcast Awards", one of The Telegraph's top five true-crime podcasts and featuring 12 murderers, including 3 serial killers, across 15 locations, totaling 50 deaths, over just a one mile walk.
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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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