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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 EIGHTY:
On Wednesday 22nd July 1942, the body of a woman was pulled from the water right here. She had been missing for more than a week, but no-one had reported her missing. We know her only as Lena Cunningham. How she got here, why she died, and what she was running from is still a mystery, but her death and life was a tragedy which is all too common, but should never have happened.
As many photos of the case are copyright protected by greedy news organisations, to view them, take a peek at my entirely legal social media accounts - Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
The location is marked with a mustard raindrop at the left of Paddington. 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.
Lena Cunningham found dead in the Grand Union Canal at Harrow Road, Paddington on 22 July, 1942 https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C1258013
UNEDITED TRANSCRIPT OF THE EPISODE:
Welcome to Murder Mile
Today I’m standing beside the Wedlake Street footbridge in Paddington, W9; three roads north-west of the home of Gladys Hanrahan, one road west of the long rest of Minnie Barry, and four roads north of the brutal torture in a Hyde Park flat by a gang of trained dancers - coming soon to Murder Mile
Stretching over the Grand Union Canal, the Wedlake Street footbridge is a simple steel structure which lets pedestrians cross to the busy Harrow Road. Being part of the city’s canal-system, some boaters refer to this stretch as ‘bandit country’; as it’s not uncommon to have your boat broken into, to be roughed up by teenage hoods, chatted up by toothless crack addicts, or to crash your boat into a submerged stolen moped while drunks fling dog-shit at your stern and bored kids shoot at your bow with air-rifles. Oh yes, this is a lovely place… but then again, it’s not as bad as Slough. (Hilly-Billy guitar).
Hundreds of canal boats pass this stretch every week, chugging through the murky brown churn. With the bend tight and the water shallow, it’s a spot notorious for causing your propellor to get fouled by rubbish in the water; whether by old ropes, bin-bags, dirty rags or – sometimes – a dead body.
On Wednesday 22nd July 1942, fifty feet west of the Wedlake Street bridge, the body of a woman was pulled from the water. We know her only as Lena Cunningham. How she got there, why she died, and who she was running from remains a mystery. But her death wasn’t the real tragedy… it was her life.
My name is Michael, I am your tour guide, and this is Murder Mile.
Episode 180: Lena – Alone and Unloved.
These are the opening words of the report into Lena’s death “the deceased was a loathsome type who had been sleeping on the canal bank for some time, she earned a few shillings by prostitution”. In the eyes of an uncaring society; Lena was a nothing, a nobody, no-one cared for her while she was living…
…and even less would mourn her when she was dead.
Originally built in the 1800s, the Grand Union Canal stretched from Birmingham and London, and was once a vital inland transport link for Britain’s heavy industry. By the 1940s, with bigger roads and faster rail proving more efficient, the waterways were in its death-throws and were on the verge of collapse.
Being roughly seven miles from the River Thames, under the Wedlake Street footbridge an average of ten steel boats - six feet wide by seventy feet long and ladened with up to 200 tonnes of cargo – would pass this stretch of the canal every day. At a sedate 3 miles per hour, they were slow but powerful.
As a residential area encircled by gas works and factories, the towpath was not the kind of place you hung out, as being unlit and thick with industry, you only went there for work or nefarious purposes.
Being a forgotten part of a fast-paced city, the water was far from clean. Having filled with one and a half centuries worth of silt, becoming a dumping ground for builder’s rubble, and with a fine slick of oil and sewage on the surface, the boat’s propellors would churn through a thick brown murky stew.
That day, being busier, by 11:30am six boats had navigated this section. Burdened by a tight bend, trained boatmen often drop their speed - as although the canal looks deep - even if the boat was dead-centre, the bottom was only two-to-three feet down, giving the boat’s hull a clearance of a few inches.
A skilled captain always listened for the tell-tale sound of scraping against the hull, or an ominous rev and sputter as unseen detritus in the water fouls their propellor, risking a loss of power and steering.
Sometimes it can rectify itself as the spinning steel blade rips the sodden rags to shreds, or a discarded rope spools around the propellor but causes no concern. From the rear of the boat, it’s impossible to see many obstructions until they collide. But boatmen expect rags, ropes and even the odd mattress…
…but rarely a dead body.
It was said that Lena Cunningham was born in Ireland in 1899…
…and although these details are vague, not one of them could be true.
Lena was a woman with no history. According to Edgar Dench, the last man she had lived with “she said she came from Ireland but I could never find out what she had been doing before I met her”. She had no family photos, no people she called friends and no stories of her struggle or tales of her past.
It was estimated she was 42, but given the stresses of her life, she may have looked older.
Being just five-foot one-inch tall and weighing eight-stone, her body was both scrawny and bloated, having spent her life half-starved, gorging on scraps and binge-drinking booze to fight off her demons.
With her fresh face all weather-beaten, the only colour to her pale skin was the flushing of her cheeks, an unkempt mop of black hair, and - encircling the blue innocence of her eternally reddening eyes - lay two rings of purple bruises, having been beaten by yet another drunk who saw her only as a hole.
With a scarred left cheek, an old broken nose, untreated gonorrhoea and a yellow set of dentures held in place by her last black molar, this was a woman who’d had a hard life for a long time. And although her clothes were little more than second-hand rags, she always tried her best to look presentable.
Lena was a mystery; unmarried, childless, alone, and yet her name could have been one of six aliases she had used for more than two decades. What little we know of her life comes from her criminal record. But what it does show is a woman who was always running, always hiding and trusted no-one.
Most likely, this was her real name, as the first evidence we have that she even existed was on the 13th January 1921, when - possibly aged 22 - she was ‘bound over’ at Marlborough Street Police Court in Soho for theft and four other offences including prostitution, under the name of Lena Cunningham.
Across her 21 years of known criminal convictions, she deliberately used aliases which were as vague and forgettable as any other; Lena King, Lucy King, Maggie King, Mary Smith and Iris Smith. But what’s odd is that, at the start of the Second World War, when every British citizen was required to identify themselves under the National Registration Act, Lena Cunningham used the alias of Alice King.
Based on her crimes – of more than 80 convictions for prostitution, drunkenness, theft and living rough – Lena was a woman living day-to-day, who was hiding from her past and unable to face her present.
She traveled from city-to-city, borough to borough, moving on when her face became too well known to the Police and she never stopped in one place for too long. She was a drifter with no roots; whether in West London, Aldershot, Chichester or Liverpool. And yet, she would never return to Ireland.
Like a stuck record, Lena’s life was an endless cess-pool of misery. Arrested simply for trying to survive and unable to pay her fines, repeated months of prison time weren’t a lesson learned but a blessed release. As being behind bars; with a roof over her head, a bed under her back and three-meals-a-day in her belly, inside she had no reason to run. But on the outside, Lena would make herself invisible.
On the 22nd June 1931 in Aldershot, she served two months for sleeping in an abandoned shed. Selling her body for 18 pence a punter, each night she would need two men to violate her, to afford her food and lodging. But being a hopeless alcoholic – who squandering her pittance on ‘Red Lizzie’, a cheap fortified wine - most nights she slept wherever she could; like a doorway, a toilet, an alley, or a hedge.
As a lost soul with no friends nor enemies, although she was described as a public nuisance, she wasn’t violent or rude, as being a wanderer with no-where to go, she was as memorable as she was forgotten.
On the 3rd July 1936 at Brentford, Lena was sentenced to 7 days for being ‘drunk and incapable’. With significant injuries to her face and body – a broken nose, a fractured eye-socket, several cracked ribs and bruises to her throat – for neither the first nor the last time, Lena was attacked by a customer.
Considered a common risk for such a dangerous occupation, her assailant was never caught…
…and suffering two black eyes, she would be attacked again just a few days before her death.
It was a little after 11:30am on Wednesday 22nd July 1942, when Harry Stevens, a labourer working at Globe Wernicke spotted something odd in the water: “I was coming down an iron rung ladder at the back of the works when I saw something floating”. The sky was clear and the canal was muddy brown. It was not uncommon to see black bits of crap bobbing below the oily surface… but this was white.
Having telephoned Harrow Road police station, within minutes, PCs Hithersay & Glen had arrived. 10 yards west of the bridge, seeing the unmistakable form on a woman floating face down, with the aid of two grappling irons, they brought her to the bank and laid her cold and lifeless body on the towpath.
Police Surgeon Dr Tweddle attended the scene and declared her life as extinct. With her flesh slightly bloated making her eyes thin like mere slits, it was clear she had been in the water for at least a week.
For the police, her identity would be a mystery; as she had no handbag, no purse, no papers, no ticket stubs, no tattoos, no photos nor birth marks. And as the dead don’t speak, she could tell them nothing.
How she ended up here was impossible for the detectives to tell, as with multiple injuries, each one could have occurred moments before or after she had entered the water, or either side of her death.
As for her clothing, at some point before her life was taken, she had been fully dressed. On her feet, all that remained was one black shoe. On both legs was a pair of black tights held up with lace garters. Every inch of skin from her knees to her chest was naked, except for a single ripped sleeve of a brown coat on her right arm, the torn fabric of her blue floral dress which was rolled up and wrapped tightly around her neck like a brightly coloured noose, and – oddly – she had no bra and no knickers.
Briefly examined on the bank, she had several unexplained injuries which needed a pathologist’s eye.
Along her legs, her back, her buttocks and her breasts were a series of thick deep bruises, and with several ribs broken and her left forearm fractured, it looked as if she crushed under a heavy object.
With no canal water in her lungs, it was clear that she hadn’t drowned, but had died of asphyxiation and shock. And although a strange series of identical semi-circular lacerations had sliced up her body from her buttocks to her scalp, the police couldn’t find what weapon would have done such damage.
But what was most baffling were the items which were missing; she had no purse, no handbag, no house keys and no jewellery. She didn’t have a savings book and she had no bank notes, and yet hidden in her left garter was a single shilling, and in the ankle of her right stocking, one shilling and six pence.
Patrolling the towpath from Paddington Basin to Wormwood Scrubs, the police found several ripped fragments of the victim’s dress in the water, and among a tall patch of grass by Scrubs Lane bridge, a brown felt hat which matched her coat, and two pieces of hard yellow soap wrapped in brown paper.
Who she was, where she had come from, and how she had ended up here was all a mystery?
But what concerned them the most was this…
…having been dead for a week, why had no-one reported her missing?
In July 1936, following the assault in Brentford which left her broken and bedridden, unable to earn a shilling for a night’s sleep, Lena was kicked out of a lodging house at 13 Duncan Terrace in Islington.
Hobbling and swollen, again Lena drifted to a new part of the city where she was known by no-one – the East London town of Wanstead. Being rough, gloomy and smog-thick with industry, it was the perfect place where a nobody could stay unknown, and yet, it was here that she would find someone.
Almost three decades her senior, Edgar Dench was a 69-year-old scrap-metal dealer. With varicose veins and festering ulcers on his legs owing to a lifetime of toil, he struggled to walk unaided. But with no savings to allow him to retire, like Lena, he lived day-to-day with each penny as precious as the last.
Living alone in a small wooden hut in the bowels of the scrapyard, Edgar was a lonely man with no-one to love, whose only pleasure in his shitty little life was a pint at The Green Man pub in Leytonstone.
One night, being bedraggled but neat having to sleep in a hedge at Epping Forrest, Edgar got chatting to Lena, he bought her a drink of ‘Red Lizzie’, and hearing her plight, they came to a mutual agreement.
In return for cooking, cleaning and sorting the rags, for a modest wage of £1 per week, she would get food, warmth, friendship and a bed in his little wooden hut in the scrapyard at 72 Eastern Avenue.
As an unassuming little man, Edgar provided a hint of stability in her life and she stayed for six years. She had found a home of sorts, she was rarely arrested, and she had quit selling her body for sex.
Finally, Lena had stopped running and hiding….
…but her demons were never far behind.
By the 1940s, Edgar was the closest thing that Lena had to a friend or a family, and yet he only knew her as Alice King. When he asked about her upbringing, the tears would flow, so his questions stopped.
Edgar was a good man who treated her well and he genuinely loved her, later saying “had it not been for her drinking, I would have married her”. From the darkness, he had given her life a glint of hope and happiness, but after so long living in the wilderness, something in her past would make her run.
Every few months, without warning, Lena would vanish.
At first, Edgar feared for her safety. But after a few weeks, she always stumbled back; her clothes ragged, her face bruised, and having been arrested for drunkenness, he would pay off her fines.
With her bed and belongings in the scrapyard, as well as a man who truly loved her, keen to give her a home but also space, he never reported her missing, as he always knew that she would return…
…until one day, she didn’t.
With three fines over two weeks and a brief stint at Holloway prison for drunkenness, on Friday 12th June 1942 at 4pm, she was arrested on Cambridge Park Road for being intoxicated and incapable.
Fed-up with Lena - as he had done many times before - Edgar asked her to leave. She packed a small leather case with a few essentials, like two pieces of hard yellow soap wrapped in brown paper. From the rag pile, she selected an old but presentable outfit; a blue floral dress, a brown overcoat and a matching felt hat. And in her black leather handbag, she placed her employment papers, her National Registration card, and – to pay the fines that she owed - 30 shillings which Edgar had given her.
On the morning of Saturday 13th June 1942, she left the scrapyard having been summoned to attend Stratford Petty Sessions. Only, she didn’t arrive at court, she never paid the fines, she squandered the 30 shillings on ‘Red Lizzie’, and in a different part of town, Lena went back to selling her body for sex.
Expecting her to return, one month later, Edgar would only learn of her fate when he read about a dead woman whose body was found floating in the canal, who locals only knew …
… as Alice King.
An autopsy was conducted by Sir Bernard Spilsbury. With a series of five-inch wounds from her legs to her head; breaks, fractures and crush injuries, he concluded “it was possible she had been knocked down by a car and killed, and that her body had been thrown into the canal, possibly from a bridge”.
Police scoured every garage and spoke to each mechanic seeking a damaged car, but found none. They interviewed the landlords of every local lodging house, but no-one knew of her. With a few small bits of food in her stomach, they quizzed every nearby café owner, but no-one could recall her. And as a woman who wanted to remain anonymous, she would be as memorable as she was forgotten.
By chance, at Scrubs Lane bridge, just over one mile west of where her body was found, officers found “a deep impression in the tall grass where someone had slept”. Hidden by a brick wall, they spotted Lena’s brown felt hat and a brown overcoat (as later identified by Edgar) and two pieces of hard yellow soap wrapped in brown paper. With her identification and bags missing; either she had been mugged, she had lost them, or someone had stolen them in the week between her death and her discovery.
Knowing that this was where she had spent her final night alive…
…the Police would piece together the last known movements of Lena Cunningham.
First seen one week before her death, Frederick Edmunds, a park-keeper at Wormwood Scrubs who knew the prostitutes who plied their trade there, noticed a “newcomer”; with dark hair, blue eyes and a brown outfit, she went by the name of Alice King and hung out at The Pavilion pub on Wood Lane.
On Wednesday 15th July 1942, a month after she had left Edgar, she was seen three times in the pub; the first at 5pm when it opened for evening orders, and at 10:30pm after last orders had been called.
Sporting two black eyes, Lena (along with many local prostitutes) picked up men on Wormwood Scrubs Common, as – being war-time – the 172nd AAZ Battery of the Royal Artillery was stationed there.
Just shy of 9pm, at the back of the prison, Lena was seen talking to two soldiers through the barbed wire fence. Identified as Gunners Paget & Coulson, they would state “she said she hadn’t had a break all day” – the passing trade was sparce and needing a shilling for a night’s lodging – “she asked if we’d like to come with her for eighteen pence”, Only they said they didn’t take her up on her offer of sex.
Having seen her since the Saturday, as always; she was drunk, her clothes were dirty, her bruises were fresh, and with her shoes described as “shoddy”, she walked awkwardly as one shoe had a bad heel.
During the night, she was seen with a grey-haired man at the rear of the prison, which may explain why she had coins in her stockings, as the police in Wanstead said that was where she hid her earnings.
A few minutes past 10:30pm, Lena was seen by Frederick Edmunds talking to a man as she hobbled on a broken shoe up Wood Lane and towards the canal. It was dark, so he was unable to describe him.
At some point during that night, Lena Cunningham would die…
…and although Dr Spilsbury had stated his theory that she had been hit by a car and dumped in the canal, based on the police’s investigation, a second autopsy would cause him to revise his conclusion.
The deep impression by Scrubs Lane bridge suggested a theory; having taken a man or several back to the canal for sex; she had been paid and had stashed her coins in her stockings (as she did). But being too late and too drunk to seek out a night’s lodging, again, she bedded herself down in the tall grass.
Often drinking till she passed out, the autopsy would confirm that seconds before she had died, she had vomited. Staggering to the canal and choking as her last undigested meal had blocked her airways – stumbling on a broken heel – she had slipped, fell and hit her forehead on the canal’s stone edge.
Immersed in water, unconscious and unable to breathe, it was the shock and lack of air that killed her.
Speaking to the Chief Patrol Officer of the Grand Union Canal who had recovered hundreds of bodies in his 24-year career, he would state “she would have sunk and rolled into the centre of the canal”, which (on some stretches) is heavily silted, murky brown, strewn with rubbish and a few feet deep.
Being submerged for several days, the water would have carried her east towards Paddington.
With her injuries consistent, the Police identified all of the boats which had traversed this stretch from the 15th and 22nd July. Job Neal, captain of a working boat called The Tyburn would recall his propellor being fouled half-a-mile west at Ladbroke Grove bridge, a few days before her body was found.
Examining his hull – as he would do when his engine stalled - around his prop’, he had cut away several thick rolled shreds of a blue floral fabric (having been ripped from Lena’s dress). With his boat sitting two-and-a-half feet below the waterline, it’s likely – with only a few inches clearance – that Lena was hit and rolled underneath his (and certainly several other boats) as the 20 to 200 tonne bulk rolled over her, and their three-foot wide propeller blades cut thick slices up the length of her body. (End)
Lena’s details were posted in the newspaper. Coming forward, Edgar would identify her body, and she was later be formally identified as Lena Cunningham owing to the fingerprints in her criminal record.
On the 8th August 1942, at Hammersmith Coroner’s Court, the inquest into Lena’s death concluded. The coroner would state “there is no evidence that the deceased met her death as a result of foul play” and as there were insufficient fact to suggest a suicide or accident, he recorded an ‘open verdict’.
How she died, when and why shall always remain a mystery to everyone, but Lena.
With it mentioned in the press that she had money on her person and no known next-of-kin, several men claimed to be her husband and the rightful heir to her money, but found to be liars, those two shillings and six-pence went to pay for her burial, in an unmarked communal grave in Paddington.
In life she was invisible, in death she wasn’t even seen as human. In the police report which described her as “loathsome type”, it would state “the idea that such a wretched creature was raped is out of the question, owing to her known immoral character and the fact that all she was known to charge was 18 pence, with many of her clients more or less of not much of a better class in life than herself”.
Lena may not have had much, but she was worth more. As a woman fleeing the horrors of her past - maybe as a child in Ireland - she deserved a better life and – at least – a hint of happiness. But unable to trust others (even those who gave her a home), Lena would die as she had lived - alone and unloved.
** 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".
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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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