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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, all set within and beyond the West End.
EPISODE ONE HUNDRED AND SIXTY-EIGHT:
On Saturday 30th January 1965, at 10:50am, two men met for the very first time on the west bound Metropolitan Line of King’s Cross underground station. The first was a 44-year-old porter called Lawrence Gwyther, and the other was a 42-year-old homeless alcoholic called John Ritchie.
Until that very moment, the two men had never met. And although their brief interaction would last just a few seconds, this incident would change both of their lives forever. And yet, their paths would only cross owing to circumstances outside of their control.
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The location of the attempted murder is marked with a purple raindrop near the words King's Cross. To use the map, click it. If you want to see the other murder maps, access them by clicking here.
SOURCES: This case was researched using some of the sources below.
RITCHIE, John: attempted murder of Lawrence GWYTHER on 30 January 1965 in King's Cross underground station, London by pushing in front of train. Convicted of attempted grievous bodily harm http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C10878991
UNEDITED TRANSCRIPT OF THE EPISODE:
Welcome to Murder Mile.
Today I’m standing at King’s Cross station; two roads south of where Glyndwr Michael’s heroic after-life began, one road north of the Sad Faced Killer’s hotel, a few feet from where the Camden Ripper picked up sex-workers, and one road east of the man who mumbled – coming soon to Murder Mile.
Below King’s Cross sits a subsurface station which connects the Piccadilly, Northern, Victoria, Circle, Bakerloo, Hammersmith & City and the Metropolitan lines. As one of the busiest tube stations in Europe, more than a hundred and fifty thousand people a day pass through this station; for some it’s part of their commute or a place of work, and for others it’s somewhere to stay dry and beg for change.
King’s Cross is a haven for the homeless. Here you’ll see such sights of sadness, as a family of haggard refugees huddled in a rain-sodden doorway, a ragged mess dressed in nothing but a soiled duvet, a brutally honest alcoholic “mate, I just wanna get pissed”, and my personal favourite, the red-headed man with the imaginative ploy who once said to me “I’m saving up for a boob job, ain’t I?”.
Everyone of them has a tragic tale to tell; whether a life of hardship, struggle, addiction or abuse. Some are criminals, some are heroes, some are lost, and others never want to be found. We all make assumptions in the few seconds it takes to apologetically tap our pockets or toss them a few coins to feel better about ourselves. But no-one really wants to get involved… and that’s the real problem.
On Saturday 30th January 1965 at 10:50am on the westbound Metropolitan Line of King’s Cross tube station, two men from very different worlds met for the first time. One was a 44-year-old porter called Lawrence Gwyther, and the other was a 42-year-old homeless alcoholic called John Ritchie.
Their interaction was brief, their words exchanged were few and their lives need never have crossed. And yet - for reasons outside of their control - it did, and changed both of their lives forever.
My name is Michael, I am your tour-guide, and this is Murder Mile.
Episode 168: The Outcast.
It was a day which began for both men like any other…
Lawrence Francis Gwyther was a 44-year-old bachelor who lived a good life in a small lodging at nearby 23 Granville Square. As a hard-working warehouse porter, he did his job, he paid his taxes and he kept out of trouble. He was tall and slim but sturdy, and having suffered with epilepsy since childhood, he’d been unable to enlist as a war-time soldier, but he did his duty for King & Country as a messenger.
Described as “a quiet thoughtful man” who was no bother to anyone, he kept to himself but he wasn’t afraid to speak up if he felt that something wasn’t right. That morning at 10:30am, as regular as clockwork, Lawrence began his walk to work, heading one mile north to King’s Cross station. (whistle)
In contrast - according to his extensive criminal record - John Ritchie was a 42-year-old ‘vagabond’ with a long history of drunkenness, theft and violent assault. Having been unable to hold down even the most menial of jobs since his teens, he hadn’t worked a day in the last seven years, and living in a hostel funded by tax-payers, he leeched off the system and squandered his benefits on booze.
That morning, having already sunk two bottles of wine, a quart of cider and a hip-flask of whiskey – at least that’s what he could recall – being broke, John stumbled onto the Victoria Line at Walthamstow.
Having arrogantly leaped the barrier and barked abuse at the ticket inspector, this shambling mess rode the tube for free and accosted every commuter for cash, as this scruffy ne’er-do-well staggered about wreaking of piss - as on his shoulder and sleeve, a splash of last night’s puke slowly congealed.
In court, he couldn’t account for how he got there, as being in an alcoholic haze of anger and hate, he “hated these bastards” and everything about them, and yet – the irony was - he needed their money.
At 10am, eye-witnesses report seeing John in a tunnel to the side of the ticket hall of King’s Cross tube station. Sitting slumped, although sloshed, he begged for change by playing his mouth organ. For the station staff, John was a habitual pest, but – momentarily lost in his music - he wasn’t being abusive.
At 10:45am, Lawrence entered the main hall, he purchased a ticket, he went through the turnstile and he turned right into the tunnel towards the Metropolitan Line. A few feet behind him was Eric Mueller-Ahsmann, a 40-year-old Planning Officer who would state “…my attention was drawn to a scruffy man playing the mouth organ”. Just as Lawrence would, “as I passed him, he kept playing, but held out his hand for money. I carried on by, and as we do, I said “not now, another time”, or something like that”.
That was the first time that Lawrence and John had met; they didn’t speak nor interact, but the porter would have seen there was just a few pennies in the dirty outstretched hand of this pissed-up vagrant.
At 10:46am, Lawrence descended the wide stone stairs, turned left onto the westbound Metropolitan Line platform, and stood near the mouth of the tunnel alongside thirty other people. Number 184, a six-car train was (add Tannoy) “about to depart Farringdon and would/will arrive in four minutes”.
Eric continued: “a few minutes later, the man had made his way onto the platform. He was swaying about, I thought he was either off-his head or simple. I saw him go to two youngsters sitting on a seat”. Being schoolboys and intimidated by the rambling drunk, (Eric) “one of them gave him a penny”. But with a penny of the boy’s pocket-money not enough to buy booze, John held out his hand for more.
Hugh Ferry, a 51-year-old interior decorator told the court; “another man told the mouth organ player he should not be begging”. Others would clarify what Lawrence had said “do your begging elsewhere”, followed by an afterthought of “maybe put your cap on the floor, you might be more successful?”.
From the second they had first met to this final interaction, Lawrence and John’s encounter had lasted no longer than three minutes and ten words at best. They hadn’t made eye-contact, there were no raised voices, Lawrence’s words were neither abusive nor threatening, and – not wanting to cause a scene – the warehouse porter calmly moved a third of the way down the platform, away from John.
(Tannoy) “The next westbound Hammersmith & City line train will be arriving in two minutes”.
At 10:48am, being six hours into his shift manoeuvring the 184 from Whitechapel to Hammersmith, Albert Copeland had left Farringdon on time. Driving the six-car train at 40mph through the tunnels, although it would slow to 25mph as it approached the platform, even if the emergency brake is pulled in time, it would still take a few hundred feet for this two-hundred tonne train to come to a stop.
Standing three feet from the platform edge, Lawrence was minding his own business.
And to all who would witness what was about to be unleashed, it seemed as if the scruffy little vagrant was too, as his mouth-organ parped a little ditty and his filthy scratched hand reached out for change.
Eric would state “…he turned to the people on the seat and said something, pointing to the man who just shrugged him off. He was making a nuisance of himself, passing remarks and appeared to be under the influence of drink. He seemed to be seeking their sympathy and carried on playing the mouth organ… then he stopped, and pointed to the man who was then standing at the edge of the platform”.
To many, it looked as if John was mocking him, but (rightly so) Lawrence just ignored him.
(Tannoy) “The westbound train will be arriving in one minute”.
Whether what happened was fuelled by anger or stupidity - with any rational thoughts clouded by a booze-fuelled haze - as the shambling mess of a man sidled up the platform, having accosted all and sundry, he stopped behind Lawrence. Hugh would state “he came up behind him, and with his foot near his buttocks, he made a gesture as if he was going to push him. I took this to be a sort of joke”.
Lawrence didn’t know this, he didn’t see it, and he didn’t feel it… but it was not a joke.
(Tannoy) “Please stand back, as the train is now approaching”.
At 10:50am, bang on time, as the westbound train hurtled through the pitch-dark tunnel into bright blinding light of the platform, (Eric) “the drunk man gave his buttocks a violent shove…” towards the 630-volt electrified track. “It was a heavy kick and the man lurched forward”. And although – being blessed with quick reflexes – having seen it happen, Albert had pulled the emergency brake…
…but it was too late… (Albert Copeland) “…I heard him strike the train”.
The chance of anyone surviving being struck by a 200-tonne train at 25mph over a 630-volt track would be one-chance-in-a-million. But miracles do happen, as this was obviously not Lawrence’s day to die.
Later, he would tell the court that “I felt a blow in the pit of my back, and this happened just as a train came out of the tunnel. I fell forward and managed to turn, at the same time I hit the side of the train”.
Having been kicked a split-second too late, he had missed being smacked by the roaring train by inches or falling onto the track underneath the train’s wheels. Instead, the right hand side of his body hit the motorman’s cab, and having bounced off the window, Lawrence was thrown back onto the platform.
Lawrence: “I don’t know what happened next, but I gathered my senses”. And as Albert brought the tube train to a standstill, he was amazed to see not only that Lawrence was alive, but still standing. The only injuries to his body were a bruise to his palm, a cut on his little finger and a ripped fingernail.
Whether it was down to fate, luck or maybe just a drunk who couldn’t kick straight…
…someone was watching over him.
With John Ritchie attempting to flee, the train driver and two witnesses grabbed him by his sleeve and frogmarched the stinky reprobate to the Station Inspector’s office in the ticket hall. Kicking up a fuss and wreaking of whiskey, as he unleashed the foulest of language, when Lawrence told PC Dugdale “…this man tried to kill me”, John admitted “I did, and I’ll fucking do a proper job of it if I go down for this. I’ll kill the cunt. He’s not going to touch me up” - an alleged sexual assault that no-one had seen.
With five eye-witnesses, John Ritchie was taken to Caledonian Road Police Station and charged with causing Actual Bodily Harm under Section 47 of the Offences Against Person Act of 1861.
Tried at Clerkenwell Magistrates Court, the jury heard of his history as one of life’s wastrels. Described as a “scoundrel”, a “rogue” and a “vagabond”, John Ritchie was nothing more than a recalcitrant and a drunk. Since the age of 19, he had spent 9 years 10 months and 8 days of his 42-years in prison for a never-ending catalogue of crimes, such as; robbery, theft, burglary and assaulting three policemen.
Throughout his life, repeated attempts were made to improve his behaviour - with three years spent in corrective training and six months in a psychiatric hospital - but as a remorseless drunk who flouted bail and often broke his probation, it was clear he didn’t care and was unwilling to change his ways.
With the magistrate feeling that a charge of Actual Bodily Harm was a sentence too lenient given what could have happened, the case was escalated to the Old Bailey on the charge of attempted murder.
(Cell door / silence).
And that was it. There was nothing else to say. The evidence was water-tight, the witnesses were clear and – although drunk at the time of the attack – John Ritchie did not dispute these events. He did it. Those were his words. And he wouldn’t use an insanity plea or diminished responsibility as an excuse.
The prosecution had put before the jury every reprehensible thing he had done in his life to paint him as the leech on society which (he would agree) that he was. But he also felt that unfairly this was only one side of his life-story and that there was more to him than just a criminal record. His was a history of hardship, and maybe if he appealed to a sympathetic ear, he wouldn’t go to prison for life?
In a letter to the Court of Appeal, John wrote “My Lords, I have no wish to minimise the charges against me. It was a wrong and foolish act, and I am sincerely sorry. However, I feel that my case was badly defended and that the court was not informed as to my actual physical state at the time”.
This was what the jury did not hear…
John Ritchie was born on the 30th April 1922 in Paisley, Scotland, as the second eldest of eight siblings in a small cramped lodging where every week they struggled to make-ends-meet. When asked, John’s memory of his childhood was vague, as maybe he couldn’t recall or maybe he chose to forget? What he could remember was that his father was an angry abusive drinker who was handy with his fists.
Until the age of 14, John was educated at Abercorn Public School in Paisley where he learned to read and write. As a short slightly-scrawny kid, although a chatty little fella, he got a reputation as a bit of a scrapper as the bigger bullies picked on the feisty lad at school, and then again when he got home.
Whether he was abandoned or fled in fear, being barely in his teens, he would lose almost all contact with his family. As far as he knew; his siblings had scattered, his mother had died of cancer and his father was alive eleven years ago, although - by now – it was likely that he had drunk himself to death.
His first job was as a newspaper boy in Glasgow, making a pittance for long hours standing in the cold and wet. Determined to earn his own money and stand on his own two feet, he slogged his guts out for two years and did himself proud. By 1938, aged 16, he was training as an apprentice car mechanic; he was learning a trade, he lived in a rented lodging, he had food in his belly and a bright future ahead.
Socially he drank, as many would do to dull the edges of the daily grind, but his real joy was music. He would play his mouth organ to keep himself calm and to escape to a better place, far from his past.
Life was going well for John… until the world changed everything.
In August 1939, under orders to fight for King & County, 17-year-old John Ritchie was conscripted to fight as a rifleman in the Cameronian Rifles, seeing active service in the Middle East, Sicily and Italy.
He was a just small frightened kid, sent off to fight, to kill, to die in a foreign land of unspeakable horrors. Images it was impossible to scrubs from his memory once the blood was etched into his brain.
With no outlet for his trauma, he drank. And the more death he saw, the more he drank, until getting wasted was the only way to survive the moments when his eyes were open. Deep down he was a good lad, and (some say) decent when he was sober, but when he drank, the drink unleashed his demons.
On 14th May 1943 and 4th January 1946, Private John Ritchie was court marshalled for two cases of ‘drunkenness and desertion’ and was sentenced to a total of 14 months in prison. During his desertion, he had turned to crime; being bound over for 3 years for ‘robbery with violence’, 3 months hard labour for ‘stealing cigarettes’ and 6 months for ‘burglary and theft’. Following this last conviction, he was discharged with ignominy from the Cameronian Rifles, making him ineligible for veteran’s benefits.
Distanced from his family, traumatised by the war and denied the most basic of income he was owed, alcohol became his way to cope. This was his vicious circle; as the more he drank, the more he stole.
With nothing of any value in his life, ‘John the Veteran’ became ‘John the Vagrant’; a shambling mess who drifted from town-to-town causing a nuisance. His crimes were minor; March 48, Marylebone, 3 months for stealing 29 shillings; September 48, Clerkenwell, 7 days for the theft of an egg-cup and gravy boat; August 49, Glasgow, 90 days for drink driving; October 49, Glasgow, 3 months for the theft of cigarettes; May 50, Bow Street, assaulting a policeman; and June 50, 6 months for drink driving.
On paper, when read out to a jury, this brief passage from his lengthy criminal record makes him seem like a selfish remorseless thief. Only he wasn’t, he was an addict, and he was trying to fight it. In 1951, as he had done many times before, John had battled his demons and sobered up; from January 51 to July 52, he worked for eight months as a packer at Cowan de Groot in Holborn, and eleven months as a machine operator at Babcox & Wilcox nearby. He was sober, polite, prompt and well-liked.
After a decade in the wilderness, he had finally got his life back on track…
…only (of all his battles) drink was the most difficult demon to slay.
In July 52, after his fourth conviction for driving while drunk, John was sentenced to 6 months at Long Grove Mental Hospital, where he would be detoxed under strict medical supervision. Every day was pain and every night he screamed, as his torturous demons refused to let his addled brain be free.
But he did it and he was clean.
In November 52, he found work as a handy-man at Frederick Simons in Holborn, and again got his life back on track. But as often happens, having kept his criminal record a secret (as no-one wants to hire an ex-con); he lost his job, his lodging and - gripped with depression - he fell back on booze.
His life continued this way through the 1950s and into the 1960s; he was in and out of prison, on and off of jobs, and back and forth from the bottle. Some days he was clean, others he was sloshed. Some weeks he had a roof over his head, and others he slept shivering in a rain-soaked doorway. In prison, at least he was fed and dry, but regardless of his crimes, he was always a prisoner of his own body.
From 53 to 58, he barely worked a few weeks or days as a packer in a factory, and being sacked from his last job as a kitchen porter in Margate, for the rest of his life he lived off benefits of £4 and 17s per week, which he squandered on drink – news which would only have rankled any tax-paying jury.
On the 11th December 1964, John was released HMP Dartmoor; he had been unemployed for 7 years, a prisoner for 10, homeless for 15 and he had been battling alcoholism for almost quarter of a century. With a criminal record stretching over four pages, he was known to every pub or off-licence, constable or court, and his rap-sheet listed him as a “vagabond”, a “rogue” and a “scoundrel”.
In short, he was dirt.
One month after his release, John was living in a half-way-house at 99 Church Hill in Walthamstow; a depressing bedsit in a hostel crammed full of sex pests, druggies and drunks. He had no job, no roots, no friends, and with those old familiar demons calling his name, he knew that he needed help.
John “As I have no wish to spend the rest of my life in prison, I tried to do something to affect a cure. I walked into St Mary’s in Paddington. The best they could do for me was to see a psychiatrist the next week. I attended” and seeing the seriousness of his sickness “I was recommended hospitalisation”.
A possible cure for his illness was in sight, John “I was fixed an appointment for the 9th February 1965, and in the interval, I truly tried to do without alcohol… but the compulsion was too strong”; as it’s easier to stay sober on a ward, but almost impossible when you’re stuck in a dingy depressing bedsit.
On Wednesday 27th January, he contacted the Probation Service who tried to intervene, as seeing his pain and desperation to get clean, they knew if he got back on the booze he would go back to prison.
Somehow it worked. That day, John received confirmation. On Monday 1st February 1965, one week earlier, he would be committed to St Bernard’s psychiatric hospital to treat his alcoholism.
This was John’s moment to kick his addiction forever…
…all he had to do was to wade out the weekend without touching the booze. But that’s about as easy as telling a hungry mouse to stop nibbling a wheel of cheese. He would try, but he would fail. John: “I was arrested that night for drink and bailed when sober. I failed to appear in court. I was arrested again and fined, arrested again and bailed out. And I carried on like this in an alcoholic haze…”.
On Saturday 30th January 1965 at 10:45am, as John Ritchie played his mouth organ to soothe his pain beside the westbound Metropolitan Line tube; having been drunk, tired and hungry for four days, and having sunk two bottles of wine, a quart of cider and a hip-flask of whiskey that morning alone, he had no memory of how he got there and - having fallen off the wagon – he had lost his one shot at sobriety.
John was back to square one; a homeless drunk stuck in a vicious circle. And as every person passed him, no-one had any idea about his past or his struggle, as to them he was just a dirty drunk. (End)
At 11:10am, having been dragged by a baying mob to the Station Inspector’s office of King’s Cross; as five witnesses spoke of how he had kicked Lawrence Gwyther into the path of a moving train, it was the drink who spoke up for John Ritchie – (Lawrence) “…this man tried to kill me”, (John) “I did, and I’ll fucking do a proper job of it if I go down for this. I’ll kill the cunt”. And with that, his fate was sealed
Taken to Caledonian Road Police Station, he was charged with ABH and he was held at Brixton Prison.
When his case was heard at Clerkenwell, the jury would learn of every bad deed he had done, but not the context for his drinking and his aggression. Escalated to the Old Bailey, on 11th March 1965 John Ritchie was tried on the more serious charge of ‘attempted murder’, which – if found guilty – would warrant a life behind bars. Again, his history was ignored, and he was sentenced to 5 years for ABH.
Hoping to be heard by a sympathetic ear, he sent a handwritten letter to the Court of Appeal imploring “I truly state that although I was provoked into this assault, had I been of the right mind, reason would have controlled impulsive emotions, that - at the time through continual drinking, a lack of food and sleep - I was in a poor state both mentally and physically. Considering these facts my Lords, I consider the present sentence of five years is severe and I appeal for leniency. Yours. John Ritchie”.
His appeal was rejected and he was sent to Wandsworth Prison. In March 1987, Lawrence Gwyther died in Hendon at the age of 67. And after his release, John Ritchie’s whereabouts remain unknown.
** 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, which are freely available in the public domain, 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, and are always incomplete or full of opinion rather than fact, therefore mistakes and misrepresentations can be made. As stated at the beginning of each episode (and as is clear by the way it is presented) Murder Mile UK True Crime Podcast 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 to create a fuller picture. It is not a full and complete representation of the case, the people or the investigation, and therefore should not be taken as such. It is also often (for the sake of clarity, speed and the drama) presented from a single person's perspective, usually (but not exclusively) the victim's, and therefore it will contain a certain level of bias and opinion to get across this single perspective, which may not be the overall opinion of those involved or associated. Murder Mile is just one possible retelling of each case. Murder Mile does not set out to cause any harm or distress to those involved, and those who listen to the podcast or read the transcripts provided should be aware that by accessing anything created by Murder Mile (or any source related to any each) that they may discover some details about a person, an incident or the police investigation itself, that they were unaware of.
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 nominated "one of the best true-crime podcasts at the British Podcast Awards".
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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