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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 one square mile of the West End.
On Monday 2nd July 1945, British serial-killer John George Haigh lured the reclusive parents of his first victim and friend – William Donald McSwan – to his basement at 79 Gloucester Road to be murdered and their bodies disposed of in acid. But how did he do this, and why?
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.
I've added the location of the murder basement at 79 Gloucester Road where the murder of William, Donald & Amy McSwan took place where the yellow dot and their home at 45 Claverton Street marked with a purple dot. Their home to the basement is 2.8 miles away, so (with no car) he had to lure them into his basement. To use the map, click it. If you want to see the other murder maps, such as Soho, King's Cross, Paddington or the Reg Christie locations, you access them by clicking here.
Two little videos for you to enjoy with this episode; on the left is Stanhope Mews West, the back entrance to 79 Gloucester Road (where Johnny lured Mac in, had the acid bottles delivered and came stumbling out when he almost gassed himself to death) and on the right is 45 Claverton Street in Pimlico where Donald & Amy McSwan lived (now demolished).
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.
Left to right: a rare photo of Amy McSwan (sadly there are no photos of Donald), the invoice for the acids to dispose of Amy & Donald's bodies, the Power of Attorney of William Donald McSwan in favour of John George Haigh and the forged signature of William Donald McSwan by Johnny Haigh, in which instead of Donald he wrote "Ponald". He found this most amusing.
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.
SOURCES: This series was researched using the original declassified police files held at the National Archives, the Metropolitan Archives, the Wellcome Collection, the Crime Museum, etc.
TRANSCRIPT OF THE EPISODE: PART THREE OF SULPHURIC.
(Drain) Glug after glug, as little Johnny Haigh wrestled to stop the forty-gallon steel drum from tipping too far over, the thick black gloop slowly slid into the dark festering sewer, hidden behind the locked back-door in the basement of 79 Gloucester Road. As the smoking stew slopped up the rim, the acrid stench of acid stung the air and the last of the shapeless fatty goo oozed down into the drain - seeing no eyes, hair or skin, just a yellowy-green layer of ominous grease – this was all that remained of 33 year old William Donald McSwan. And with the manhole cover replaced, Mac was gone.
Being the first of six (supposedly) perfect murders, although this baby-faced psychopath would soon bloom into one of Britain’s most infamous serial-killers, in truth, as a murder virgin, Johnny had badly bungled his first slaying, but somehow – with his deathly cherry popped – he had got away with it.
But as a convicted fraudster, experienced forger and a charming liar, the rest would be textbook.
(Haigh) “I had known McSwan for some time, and on seeing his mother and father, I explained that he had gone off to avoid his ‘call-up’. I wrote a number of letters purporting to be from him and posted them in Glasgow and Edinburgh, explaining various details of the deposition of assets”, which included a company, four homes and seven bank accounts, worth a quarter of a million pounds today.
Last seen on Saturday 9th September 1944, as a shy introverted recluse who hid in the shadows, Mac would be missed by nobody but his doting parents who would swallow an entirely plausible story that their only son - a shamed petty criminal, an absconded parolee, a conscription deserter and a secret homosexual, with so much to lose – would flee the city, leaving his only friend in charge of his affairs.
It seemed logical; so strung-along by a sweet little man that Mac saw as a sibling and for fear of leading the Police to their terrified child, his timid parents kept up the pretence that their boy was away on business, all the while unwittingly aiding his murderer. And just as Johnny had done with his body, the cocky little killer would strip, dissolve and dispose of all Mac’s assets… until not a single trace of him would ever be found. (Interstitial*) Only Mac didn’t have a single penny or asset to his name.
On Tuesday 12th September 1944, with the trifling little matter of murder ticked-off his ‘to-do’ list and Mac’s sludgy remains slopping its way towards one of several sewage plants across the city - after a decent night’s nap, a solid breakfast and another quick peek at a rather-nifty dark-green Armstrong-Siddeley saloon he had his eye on in a nearby car showroom - Johnny set-about cleaning the basement.
There was no real rush though; having rented the premises for three months he had barely used just a week, the landlord (Albert Marshall of Taylor Lovegrove & Co) was fully aware that any odd whiffs emanating from the floor below was due to Johnny undertaking “experimental work for a government contract”, and so with Mac only missing, the Police wouldn’t find this crime-scene until five years later.
Being a filthy basement soiled by several previous tenants, Johnny’s clean-up would be (at best) a slap-dash affair; he swept a bit, moved some stuff and tipped a bucket of hot soapy water, but as he disliked hard work, he really wasn’t all that bothered, especially now that Mac’s money would soon be burning a hole in his pocket. Desperate to get the job done, Johnny had a scrap man destroy the steel drum, Canning & Co collected three empty bottles (a 6lb Winchester and two ten-gallon carboys) and seeing no reason to waste a £7 a month on a perfectly serviceable (but now seemingly pointless) place for a murder, Johnny sublet the dingy basement to Ronald A Fontana… a pleasant fellow who needed the storage space and was happy to be left a few odd and sods that Johnny really couldn’t be bothered to bin; you know, stuff, like pinball table legs, a length of lead-pipe and an old rusty axe.
And so, eager to turn his tatty threads into a tailored suit, his sofa-surfing spree into a private room at the upmarket Onslow Court Hotel and his scuffed shoes into a sports car - having treated himself to a slap-up dinner - the almost bankrupt Johnny Haigh assumed the identity of the wealthy Mac McSwan.
In an era where the best security was a signature, becoming Mac would be no biggie. Besides, having swiped his ID, although dead, for Johnny’s scheme to work, he would only need Mac to exist on paper.
Clutching the keys he had rifled from the corpse, Johnny helped himself to a few necessary knickknacks he had filched from Mac’s ground-floor flat at 22 Kempsford Gardens; a cheque book, a suitcase, some clothes, a nice pen, a few handwritten letters, a surprisingly good suit and Mac’s Imperial typewriter.
Not that this crime was as uncouth as a common burglary, or as petty as pilfering a fridge. Johnny wouldn’t stoop so low as to half-inch a few cheap trinkets to pawn off for a pound. No, these personal possessions had purpose… and besides, it was entirely coincidental that, on that same day, some low-life broke into Mac’s workshop - although quite what this hoodlum had nicked, may never be known.
That aside, the banks and lawyers would be a push-over, a few stuffy old men easily duped by a legal letter and an ID, signed in an identical scrawl, but for his superior scheme to truly work, Johnny needed Mac’s parents to believe that their beloved son wasn’t dead… but that he had voluntarily disappeared.
And yet, with a little bit of effort, a large dollop of knowledge, a few days spare and several pounds in his dwindling account, Donald & Amy McSwan swallowed it whole… and Johnny did most of it by post.
But how did it work and why? Well, the McSwan’s weren’t all that different to his parents - The Haigh’s.
Born in a staunchly Presbyterian house in Menstrie, a small rural village in the Scottish lowlands snuck between Edinburgh and Glasgow, Donald was the second youngest of seven siblings; to Christina, a devoted housewife and William, a ball-man (who tested the quality of whiskies) at the local Glenochil Distillery; a skilled profession for a strict teetotaller who was always punctual, steady and sober.
As with The Haigh’s, Donald’s upbringing was dictated by two core beliefs; the family and serving God. So the rest of his early life, you can probably guess.
Raised to be neat, clean and polite, just like his son, Donald was a slightly undersized boy with a long weary face and a thin weedy frame, all barely held together by the expression of a haunted boy who fear was forcing him to fold-in on himself, as (owing to an awkward birth) he walked with a stoop. And being just one in a family of nine; he never stood out, never felt loved and always hid in the shadows.
Surviving many brutally bitter winters in an austere Victorian era where only the rich had nest-eggs to save them from the hard-times ahead, although the family were far from poor, their faith had taught them to spend frugally, live sparsely, waste nothing and squirrel away whatever they could.
Graduating Menstrie Public School aged 13, young McSwan - who was Donald to his mum, never Don; “boy” to his dad, never “son”, and to his friends… well, he didn’t have any friends – eager to appease his domineering father who was never drunk just disappointed, he earned a living at the distillery. But being swamped by three burly brothers, as a quiet bookish boy and the runt-of-the-litter who had learned to type and to take shorthand, instead of a tough sweaty manual job, Donald became a clerk.
Throughout his life, Donald feared his father and as an unmarried man being denied his independence, although he had never set foot out of Menstrie, let-alone to the nearby cities of Edinburgh or Glasgow; in 1908, aged 30, holding all he owned, Donald fled his home, his county and his country, travelling 475 miles south to Tunbridge Wells in Kent. Had he fled any further, he’d have drowned in the sea.
Whatever had caused this rift is unknown; he missed his family, he grieved their deaths and he longed to be loved, but – so deep was the pain – that Donald never spoke or wrote to his parents ever again.
That year, Donald became the secretary at the Tunbridge Wells Spa Hotel; here he found work, a wage, a purpose and a place to stay… as well as falling for the woman he would love until his dying day.
Amy Beatrice Paige was a waitress. Just like Donald; she was slight, quiet and neat; a painfully shy Presbyterian who spoke in a tiny whisper, stood with a timid stance and always avoided eye-contact, but was forced into unsuitable work to earn a modest wage for a large fractured family. And yet, with Donald as her manager, she found love, support, strength and someone who made her feel safe.
Donald & Amy were a very decent couple, moral but modest, fiercely loyal but easily forgettable; they never kissed in public and yet always held each other’s hand, they never wore bright colours except for a little flower he popped in her lapel, and – as two recluses - they said and did very little, but were always happiest together in their own home, away from the dangers of strangers.
In October 1910, Donald & Amy fell pregnant. It was a blissfully jubilant time for the two solitary lovers who (one day) dreamed of becoming a family, but conceived by mistake and born-out-of-wedlock, that month, Donald & Amy hastily became The McSwan’s, having married in secret.
On 12th May 1911, William Donald McSwan was born; a small but healthy boy who (as their only child) was always loved and hugged; given everything and denied nothing, raised well but never spoiled, being different he was never forced to be anything but himself, and – no matter what – The McSwan’s would do anything to protect their beloved boy… whether he was alive, dead, or (allegedly) in hiding.
And yet, it was their lives which shaped the future of Mac McSwan… for better and for worse.
In December 1915, with World War One raging, just as it would for his son a quarter-of-a-century later, 36 year old Donald was conscripted to fight with the 6th Royal Fusiliers on the French Frontline. As a small, weak, terrified pacifist with a stoop, whose religion forbade him to kill and who cried every night that he didn’t see his wife and baby, it’s nothing short of a miracle that (being little more than cannon-fodder) Donald survived more than two years in the trenches. But in February 1918, his luck ran out.
Blasted by a mortar shell, his only physical injury was small scar over his right eye, but the bloody war had taken its toll on Donald, and for the rest of his life, traumatised and plagued by night terrors, his right-hand would perpetually-shake with an involuntary tremor, a sad souvenir of the (so-called) Great War. Demobbed in July 1918, although he was hailed as a hero and given two medals, Donald swore that (from this day onward) he and his family would never be apart, ever again. For the next twenty-five years, Donald, Amy and William McSwan spoke daily, were parted rarely and always wrote…
…but all that changed the day they met Johnny Haigh.
His subterfuge was simple…
(Haigh) “I explained to them that Mac had gone off to avoid his call-up”, a dilemma Donald understood which was why he supported his son’s decision to do whatever he could do to avoid the draft. “I wrote a number of letters purporting to be from him”; the typed one’s matched his typewriter, the signature was a perfect match and the handwriting on the postcards mirrored his style, tone and grammar. And having “posted them in Glasgow and Edinburgh”, the two nearest cities to Donald’s hometown, he explained the “various details of the deposition of assets” which were to be left to his old pal Johnny. The retired recluses reassured by their boy’s words that he
was fine, well and would be home soon…
…unaware that he was already dead and dissolved.
As per his letters, on the 18th September 1944, one week after the murder, Donald arrived at his son’s office to inform the workshop’s owner (Herbert Woodman) that Mac was “out of town, on business, indefinitely”. On 5th October, Donald paid his son’s rent at 22 Kempsford Gardens, ended the tenancy and removed his boy’s belongings, noting the items that Mac must have taken with him; a cheque book, a suitcase, a nice pen, a few handwritten letters, his best suit and his Imperial typewriter.
The McSwan’s totally believed this logical ruse that their beloved son had vanished by choice, was laying low and for fear of alerting the Police to his whereabouts, they never reported him missing. All the while giving his killer ample time to destroy any evidence, assume his identity and steal his assets.
Johnny’s plan to murder for money was perfect… sort of.
The McSwan’s were so like The Haigh’s, two devoted parents - neat, shy and reclusive - who would do anything to protect their boy, but as Mac’s life collapsed, as much as he trusted his old pal, Johnny was too arrogant to see his fatal mistake - Mac liked Johnny as a brother… but he wasn’t family.
On 5th November 1943, just as ex-con Johnny was seeking his first victim having been released from Lincoln Prison, with the war draft looming closer, Mac did what many serviceman and civilians in war-time did and visited his bank - the Belgravia branch of Lloyds - where he signed a Power of Attorney granting financial control of his affairs to the only people he trusted without question – his parents.
Everything; from his bank accounts, to his stocks, shares and his company, everything but his homes.
Again, Johnny had made another fatal mistake… only this one was obvious.
Just like his own parents, and to some extent Mac himself, Donald & Amy lived a very frugal life in a small, sparsely furnished top-floor flat in a less desirable part of town, rented weekly for just £1, and – as a solitary couple who didn’t own a car, didn’t socialise or go on holiday – they scraped by on a meagre pension of 22 shillings a week. To Johnny, they looked like they didn’t have two farthings to rub together, but to Donald & Amy, they had everything – their family, their faith and their fortune.
Technically, Mac didn’t have a single penny or asset to his name… but his family did. They always had.
As their faith had taught them to live sparsely, waste nothing and squirrel away their nest-eggs, all three McSwan’s jointly owned and rented-out the four homes in Beckenham, Wimbledon and Raynes Park, so with total control over their son’s assets; as much as Johnny’s letters lied, it was all for nothing.
Johnny’s bank account was empty…
…of his last £26; the basement had cost seven quid, the acids three and with a few shillings for sundries like letterheads, business cards and his victim’s last meal, in total Mac’s murder had cost him a tenner, and although (anticipating a rather wonderful windfall) he had slightly prematurely toasted his success with a teeny little spending-spree of a few suits from Hawkes of Saville Row, exquisite din-dins at The Punch Bowl Club, good seats for classical concertos at the Albert Hall, a few big bets on the gee-gee’s and doggies over at the White City Stadium, and several decent snoozes on soft linen sheets at the upmarket Onslow Court Hotel for the princely sum of £5 a week (plus 10% service charge, obviously), but what irked him the most was the endless expensive of chugging back-and-forth from London to Edinburgh to Glasgow to post a few forged letters from the McSwan’s dead son…
…a now-needless charade, which - having cruelly teased him with a taste of ‘the good life’ and left a nifty little Armstrong-Siddley saloon stuck in the showroom - this whole grand plan had bled him dry.
On 12th January 1945, aided by a stolen chequebook, a forged signature and a devious little dollop of duping Mac’s dad, Johnny syphoned-off monies from one of Mac’s accounts, a scam he would repeat on 3rd February and 8th March, draining £210 (almost £8300 today). Admittedly, this was a pitiful little sum which would tide him over for a bit, but it wasn’t a quarter of a million, which was rightfully his.
If only there was a way to make Donald & Amy McSwan vanish completely? Hmm. (Interstitial*)
(Haigh) “I had known the McSwan’s for several years. I took them to the basement, disposing of them in the same way as their son”. As before, he made it sound so simple, so precise and so superior, but with no plan to become a serial-killer and believing that he was made-for-life having offed a big mark like Mac, with all of the tools of his murderous deeds either destroyed or disposed of, Johnny would have to start from scratch. And although he was no longer a murder virgin, where-as the first of his six (supposedly) perfect murders was laughably inept, the second and third would be totally absurd.
It’s safe to say that Johnny Haigh hadn’t learned his lessons…
Having leased the basement at 79 Gloucester Road to Ronald Fontana, his perfect execution site was gone. So being unwilling to totally give it up, on 22nd January 1945, the two men agreed to split it; Ronald had the front-room for his storage and (separated by a thin wall and a single door) Johnny had the back rooms for his murders. Still, at least he had sole access to the drain, so that was something.
On 10th February, Johnny ordered a Winchester of hydrochloric and three ten-gallon carboys of sulphuric from Canning & Co at a cost of £4 pounds 12 shillings and 4 pence, but with his funds dry, the cheque bounced, so the usually swift delivery of the bottles were delayed by a further two weeks, and Johnny’s company - Union Group Engineering - had a black-mark placed against their name.
Having scrapped the drum and needing two, Johnny borrowed a set of old, rusty and warped but (hopefully) watertight 40 gallon steel drums off a builder’s merchant.
Having almost scorched his hands and suffocated on the fumes, this time he would wear protection; only being too cheap to buy, too lazy to borrow and too superior to steal, he made-do with an old tatty trench-coat, a pair of leather gloves and a makeshift gas-mask made from cardboard and string.
Again, having forgotten how impossible it was for a 150lb man to decant a 165lb carboy into four foot high steel drum, which took two men to lift, once again he opted to slop the lethal liquid in by bucket.
And yes, as before, he failed to purchase (possibly) the most important thing – a murder weapon – so instead, the same shoddy crap he left lying around would have to suffice; a pinball table leg, a length of lead pipe or an old hand-axe, whatever… I mean, it had worked fine last time… hadn’t it?
With the preparations for the double-murder of the McSwan’s done and dusted, now all Johnny had to do was to lure this frail old couple into his lair, just as he had done with their son, but (once again) he had overlooked one small detail which would prove to be his biggest mistake…
…Mac McSwan liked Johnny, he trusted him, but Donald & Amy did not.
Over the next four months, Johnny struggled to speak to (let alone see) the McSwan’s. As two shy and reclusive homebodies - who rarely went out, invited nobody in and mostly communicated by letter, sometimes by phone and once-in-a-blue-moon on the communal doorstep at 45 Claverton Street, all within earshot of a busybody landlady and two nosey tenants - even if he could lure them out (which he couldn’t), be invited in (which he wasn’t), or break-in (which he couldn’t) to murder them in their own home? Without a car, or any transport, how would he cart two dead bodies from a top-floor flat in Pimlico to his basement, three miles away in South Kensington? What was he to do, charter a bus?
No, Johnny was well and truly stuck. And then it got worse.
Unable to afford the extortionate train fare to Scotland, Johnny had to stop writing the letters. When Ronald Fontana moved-out, for safety’s sake, Johnny had to use his last penny to take-up the full lease on the basement. And being broke, like a hobo with nowhere to go, he was forced to bunk-down in the dark dingy basement, asleep on an old mattress, surrounded by two steel drums gathering dust.
And then, it got even worse.
On Monday 30th April 1945, with Hitler dead, the war over and conscription to-be abolished, as people cheered in the streets that their loved one’s would soon be coming home, as Mac had been missing for nine months and silent for three, the McSwan’s began to ask the question - where was our boy?
And then, his whole plan collapsed.
On Wednesday 6th June, Albert Marshall (estate agent at Taylor Lovegrove & Co, one floor above) gave Johnny one month’s notice to vacate the basement. With no money left, to time to waste and no other options, it was now or never. But how do you lure two shy recluses out of their home? (Interstitial*)
On the evening of Monday 2nd July, (Haigh) “I took separately to the basement, the father Donald and the mother Amy, disposing of them in exactly the same way as the son”.
As a frail elderly couple – one a petite lady with a tiny whisper, a timid stance and a little a flower in her lapel, and the other, an awkward battle-scarred veteran with a haunted face, a painful stoop and a perpetually trembling hand – were easy kills. Coshed, hog-tied and drowned in sulphuric acid, as the twin drums shook, boiled and the dirty fizzing stew stripped their hands, feet and faces to the bone, Johnny stirred the deathly brew, his trench-coat, leather gloves and makeshift gas-mask doing the job.
And although we know they both died that day, it’s still uncertain whether they were dead, alive or dying, as side-by-side, he dissolved their bodies in acid, but being an uncaring sort of chap, it’s possible.
Two days later, all that remained was a black acrid gloop.
Glug after glug, as little Johnny Haigh wrestled to stop the steel drums from tipping too far over, and the hot gooey residue of the elderly recluses slid into the dark festering sewer, behind the locked back-door in the basement of 79 Gloucester Road - after nine long months of patiently waiting, praying and hoping – finally, Donald & Amy McSwan… were reunited with their boy. (Drain. End)
As per his tenancy, on 6th July 1945, Johnny vacated the premises; he had the empty carboys collected and (should they ever be needed) the drums relocated to Allan Stephen’s yard at 2 Leopold Road.
Eleven days later, rightly assuming the banks and lawyers to be a push-over, ‘Turner, MacFarlane, MacKintosh & Co’, a firm of Glasgow solicitors were asked to draw up a Power of Attorney for William Donald McSwan, Donald McSwan and Amy Beatrice McSwan assigning full control of their assets to John George Haigh. ID was produced, all three signatures matched and having checked the documents (Haigh) “the solicitor would (and did) confirm they were legal, because in his eyes, they were”.
Selling-off the business, their homes and all stocks, savings, shares and war-bonds, although he didn’t steal every last penny that the McSwan family had ever earned - not for the want of trying - in total, from these three murders, Johnny’s pocket would be flush with enough cash to last a lifetime.
With his bank balance brimming, his belly full of fine foods and his suits stylish once again, as a dapper sophisticated bachelor - who was finally living the life he deserved… and had earned - Johnny became a permanent resident in Room 404 of the exclusive Onslow Court Hotel, outside of which he parked his brand-new, rather nifty, Armstrong Siddeley saloon – and now, his dream was complete.
Johnny Haigh was a wealthy middle-class man, living a lavish life in an affluent part of town. Yes, to get it, he had slaughtered three people, plundered their assets, dissolved their corpses and poured the sludge into the sewer, but as no-one had reported them missing? Where was the problem?
In the end, it took very little effort to lure the McSwan’s into his lair. In fact, it was simple.
Johnny had made many mistakes in his first three murders, the biggest being to assume that he knew his victims better than they knew themselves, and although the Haigh’s were similar to the McSwan’s in many ways, by watching them, Johnny knew that they all had one fatal flaw which he didn’t – love.
As two doting parents who would do anything to protect their boy, having swallowed an entirely plausible story that their only son (a shamed petty criminal, an absconded parolee, a conscription deserter and a secret homosexual) was missing, after three months of silence, when Johnny showed them proof of life in the basement of 79 Gloucester Road, they only saw what they wanted to see; the handwriting was a match, the date was recent, the postmark was local and the loving words on the postcard reassured his worried parents that their boy was fine, well and would be home soon.
By the summer 1945, having made enough money to last a lifetime, the killing spree of John George Haigh, one of Britain’s most infamous serial-killers should have come to an end… but it didn’t. (Interstitial*)
OUTRO: Friends. Thank you so much for listening to Murder Mile. That was part three of Sulphuric; the true story of John George Haigh, with the fourth part of six continuing next week.
A big thank you to my new Patreon supporters who are – Tracey Lawrence, Cindi Ortiz, Kim Cook, Stephanie Enns and Jennifer Venn – with a special thank-you to Kaz Every and Jason Abercrombie, the wonderful admins on the Murder Mile Discussion Group in FaceBook. As well, as always, to everyone who has liked, shared, commented and reviewed this small independent podcast.
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.
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 2018", 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
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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