London – but not as you know it

Head 20 minutes west along the A40 from the Hanger Lane gyratory and the ranks of suburban semis that occupy the ancient Anglo-Saxon hamlets of Greenford and Northolt, start to give way to larger patches of useless green and scrubby fields.

Press on and at Swakeley’s Corner -the last exit before you leave the capital – swing north west towards Harefield. Here you enter the Green Belted horn of Greater London, jutting out peninsula-like into the Hertfordshire countryside, below it a neckless of lakes forming a natural border with South Bucks.

To call this London is like calling a  BMX a Harley Davidson; both have two wheels and handle bars but there the similarity ends. A more accurate name is Middlesex, a Middlesex that would have been familiar to a traveller 150 years ago and less. A place of rolling fields and woods, rather than the bricks and mortar ghost county of Harrow and Hayes, revealed only by postal address and county cricket club.

There be farms (Damien Carr)
Big skies over Middlesex (Damien Carr)

Middlesex is an ancient county, its name deriving from the early Middle Saxon bands that settled here having rowed up the Thames from their footholds on the east coast and blazed trails through the dense forest, which surrounded ancient Londinium and which still survive in pockets around here in the form of Ruislip Woods.

These people are still dimly remembered in the emblem of Middlesex – three curved knives or ‘seaxes’ – from which the Teutonic Saxons took their name. By the time Alfred the Great had resettled Roman London in 886, the Middle Saxons had been long-subsumed into the more powerful Kingdom of Wessex.

Hillier and more heavily wooded than the alluvial flatlands by the Thames, the northern part of the county was dominated by dairy farming, hay production, orchards and market gardens serving the great capital.

Walking the streets of Greater London north of the Thames, it’s hard to imagine that fact. Hackney for example, was famed for its market gardens, attracting genteel day trippers escaping the crammed and dirty streets of 18th century London. Meanwhile for much of the 19th century, present-day Angel was given over to pasture to feed dairy cows that would provide milk to the City as late as 1879.

Harefield is Middlesex’s last true village, surrounded as it is by a swathe of greenery. But despite first appearances this no rural idyll, for like most areas that exist on the edge of towns and cities there is that hint of the industrial about it. The Grand Union canal brought with it industry, including a copper mill that manufactured the copper sheets nailed to the wooden hulls of Royal Navy ships. Later in the late 19th century, asbestos would be manufactured from lime quarried on the site.

The land today is punctuated by pylons, and the remnants of old chalk and brick earth pits litter the landscape still; even the tranquil fishing and sailing lakes that form the Colne River Valley are flooded gravel pits used in the construction of the original Wembley and the M25, and is still extracted today, albeit at a smaller scale than before.

This is the land described in the book ‘The unofficial countryside’ written by Richard Mabey, most famous for his foraging guide ‘Food for free’. An often forgotten borderland; a ‘liminal’ landscape, the neither-countryside-nor-urban landscape, described by writers such as Will Self, Ian Sinclair and relative local boy Nick Papadimitriou.

So long buster. A mini pet cemetery in a filled in chalk quarry (Damien Carr)
St Mary’s church, Harefield (Damien Carr)

This is not Metroland

When social historians talk of London’s westward expansion, they tend to think of John Betjemen’s comfortable Metroland which sprung up along the Metropolitan Line through Harrow, Pinner, Ruislip, Northwood and on out to Ricky and Chorlywood; areas that by-and-large retain their solid middle-class commuter roots. Not so semi-rural Harefield or the suburban wastelands of Hayes, Uxbridge and Yeading to the south.
For just as their East End counterparts moved out along the A127 to Southend and the south Essex badlands after the war, so the natives of Shepherds Bush, Ladbroke Grove and Acton migrated along the A40 to Hillingdon and beyond to Bucks and Herts.

And with them hard men like Irish-born John Twomey, career criminal and leader of £1.75m Heathrow heist gang (which he vehemently denies) who grew up in Paddington before moving to Ruislip and finally Hampshire, before finding himself at the Old Bailey and being sent down for 20 years.

John Twomey

But Harefield has a  particular reputation among its neighbours for lawlessness, bad behaviour and inbreeding. In this neck of the woods, you are as likely to find scrap yards and weed farms as you are diary farms; sink estates as you are country manors; and fly tipping as you are fly fishing. Walk the footpaths and you may stumble across a blacked-out beemer parked on the side of a country lane, motor running waiting for someone or something. In America they call areas like this the Boondocks.

It’s not always a green and pleasant land in these parts (Damien Carr)
Low rider (Damien Carr)

Harefield is London’s very own Wild West, where as the evenings get lighter, the local Irish Travellers and Gypsies – and there are many – take to their pony and traps. A place where certain extended families still command respect; whether they are traveller, gypsy, straight up London, it’s hard to tell.

On maps this may be London, but not as you know it.


A Soho state-of-mind

Sex shops, coffee shops, beer shops, record shops, noodle shops, theatres and clubs. The artists may have swerved east, but Soho remains London’s brash playground, where clip joint tourists still get rinsed of their cash and office workers still feverishly drink away their workaday stress in beer-soaked boozers.

Sex shops
Sex shops (Damien Carr)
Coffee shops
Coffee shop  (Damien Carr)
Beer shops
Beer shops (Damien Carr)

It was to Soho in the summer of 1987 that my 16 year-old self first sampled the exhilarating highs of clubland, at the Wag and Mud clubs, which were then dominated by the sounds of James Brown and Public Enemy.

Brought up on my mum’s stories of Georgie Fame at The Flamingo – precursor to the Wag night club – and self-consciously listening to my dad’s jazz vinyl, Soho encapsulated glamour, danger and louche morals; to me it was London’s answer to New York’s West Village and going Soho-bound was to my teenage mind like carrying on a family tradition.

Young Modernists outside The Flamingo Club
Young Modernists outside The Flamingo Club

The funky drumming of Rare Groove and Hip Hop would soon be replaced by the repetitive beats and squelches of Acid House and Techno; the sounds of our youth changing with the seasons.

And so did the landmarks. The Mud Club closed its doors years ago, as did its neighbour the Astoria; both finally demolished in the construction of Cross Rail, along with Anne Summers’ first shop opposite Centre Point. Further west in Wardour Street the Wag club has been replaced by the ubiquitous coffee shop chain.

Trip at The Astoria, 1988 (Dave Swindells)
Trip at The Astoria, 1988 (Dave Swindells)

Change is of course part of London; buildings come and go, are reused and re-remembered, but the essence of Soho as the capital’s entertainment district remains a constant, as does the crime that goes hand-in-hand with it.

In December 2013, for example, 200 police officers raided 22 brothels and lap dancing clubs, arresting 29 and seizing quantities of Class As. It was the culmination of an 18-month operation to root out drug dealing, prostitution and people trafficking.

Speaking to The Evening Standard, Commander Alison Newcomb of Westminster Police said: “Yes its edginess is why some people come here, but when they do come here we want them to be safe, not to be robbed, and enjoy their night out.”

People are attracted by Soho's edginess.
People are attracted by Soho’s edginess.

You are 146 times more likely to be robbed in Soho than in the rest of the UK, an unsurprising statistic, when drunks and tourists and drunken tourists present themselves as such easy pickings in Soho’s surprisingly dark streets and alleyways. But to illustrate the point, The Daily Mail has helpfully included a compilation of CCTV footage of people getting their heads kicked in.

It's not all bright lights
It’s not all bright lights
A deserted street
A lonely rickshaw ride

But of course, as the records of the Old Bailey tell us, it was ever thus. The archives of the famous criminal court, which stands opposite the location of the old Newgate prison, is littered with cases of violent street robbery going back to 1674.

Gin Lane by William Hogarth
Gin Lane by William Hogarth

Take William Yateman who on 10 May in 1772 was robbed at gunpoint in Dean Street by William Herbert and two accomplices, including a boy of 14 or 15. Giving evidence, Yateman said:

“The first clapped a pistol to my head, when the others came up and swore, if I did not deliver my money immediately, they would blow my brains out.”

The jury found Herbert guilty and he was sentenced to death.

Strangely, on that very same date 39 years earlier in 1733, John Violene, a French immigrant was assaulted by Edward Taylor and two accomplices. The court recorder captures faithfully Violene’s foreign accent:

“It vas vary dark in de night, and dare vas von or two men, and so soon as I go cross de street, von take old of mine hat and pull me down, and den von nock me down upon de arm vid a great stick, and I taut mine arm vas broke, da take ava mine hat.”

All three claimed to be sick at the time, and despite being implicated by an associate, were each acquitted by the jury made up of Englishmen who perhaps couldn’t see past Violene’s Frenchness.


Violene was one of the many French Protestant Huguenot refugees who settled in Soho. In the mid-eighteenth century William Maitland could claim: “Many parts of this parish so greatly abound with French that it is an easy matter for a stranger to imagine himself in France”.

By the mid-19th century, Soho was the destination for immigrants from across Europe, notably Germany and Italy. In the 1890s northern Italians from Piedmont came to wait and cook at the Italian restaurants that were springing up.

In 1904, one such restaurant on Greek Street called Lorenzo’s was the scene of a fight between restaurant owner and namesake Juan Lorenzo and Tossi Maximino. Lorenzo had refused to loan Maximino money, saying “I give to eat, but I do not give money”. Maybe Maximino had been promised the loan or maybe he was simply a chancer who had wandered in off the street; either way the comment caused Maximino to fly into a rage and lob a sugar basin at Lorenzo’s head.

At this point kitchen porter Leopold Gaudion tried to intervene but in the scuffle the two men ended up trading blows outside in the street, before Maximino pulled out a revolver. Gaudion tells the court: “He had his arm straight out with the revolver and fired—he pointed it a second time in my direction—I heard the shot and ran away.”

Maximino, realising the gravity of shooting at a man in a crowded street in broad daylight, fled towards Soho Square where he was apprehended. When later questioned at a police station with the help of an interpreter, Maximino simply said: “I was afraid, I did not intend to kill.”

Soho’s restaurants, pubs, clubs and brothels had by now become favourite destinations for London’s fun-seekers; and where there’s entertainment, there’s money to be made – a truth well understood by criminals. Between 1897 and 1900, for example, the police raided 37 premises, 20 of which were illegal gambling dens and the rest brothels.


The feared Albanian Mafia and the home-grown Hunt Gang out of East London, who allegedly control much of the sex trade today, are simply the latest in a long line of gangsters to rule the Soho roost. In the first decade of the 20th century, the Titanics (AKA the Hoxton Boys) and the Elephant Boys from over the water, fought for control of Soho’s streets.

But the 20s and 30s belonged to Darby Sabini and his brothers, Irish-Sicilians born and bred on the mean streets of Saffron Hill, or Little Italy as it was known because of its large Italian community.

A rare photo of London's gang bosses taken in the 1920s  Darby Sabini, is second from the right on the front row)
A rare photo of London’s gang bosses taken in the 1920s Darby Sabini, is second from the right on the front row)

Sabini and his crew were kings of the racetrack wars, which saw gangs from across England cut and slash each other for the lucrative protection of the illegal bookmakers during this period. And from their base in Clerkenwell, the Sabinis kept a grip on Soho’s gambling and drinking clubs, preying on lesser criminals for a share of their ill-gotten gains.

Then WW2 came; the Sabini brother were interned as enemy aliens and Soho became the cash cow for their rivals the White Gang led by Big Alf White.

Yet it is the gangster Jack Spot and self-styled ‘King of the Underworld’ Billy Hill who are most synonymous with Soho. As Fergus Linnane describes in his book London’Underworld, Spot – the son of Polish Jews – was a flamboyant hoodlum and club owner from the East End, who had risen up the underworld ranks, dealing violently with anti-Semites, including Mosely’s Blackshirts, along the way.

Jack Spot
Jack Spot

Billy Hill was born into a crime family from Seven Dials, near Covent Garden and the old Rookery of St. Giles. He made a fortune in protection rackets, the black market and gambling during the war. He also had a liking for chivs and used them with a certain panache, carving the ‘V’ for victory sign on opponents cheeks.

Billy Hill
Billy Hill
Billy Hill
Billy Hill mugshot
Dudley Street, Seven Dials
Dudley Street, Seven Dials

Both had profited from the black market and race tracks during WW2 and coveted Soho for the money and reputation it could give them. They formed an unholy alliance to seize their prize from the Whites. In 1947 Spot and 10 henchmen caught Big Alf’s son Harry and two others at a Piccadilly pub. Declaring Harry had been “Yiddified”, Spot bottled him and the other two were set upon. Everyone expected the Whites to seek their revenge but when they were called out for a final showdown, they didn’t show.

A period of peace ensued and for the next decade the good times rolled for Spot and Hill until inevitably, ego got the better of them and the two fell out. By now middle aged and comfortable, the services of the next generation of mobsters were required, Spot using the sociopathic Kray twins to guard his race track pitch at Epsom and Hill recruiting notorious underworld enforcer and infamous tooth-puller, Mad Frankie Fraser.

Soho - 1956
Soho – 1956

As the rivalry between Spot and Hill grew more bitter, Spot was finally attacked outside his apartment and had his face carved up by Hill’s thugs, including Fraser.


Unable to stomach the fight, both men faded from view, their position taken by a succession of gangsters eager for the riches that Soho’s vice, drugs and nightlife could provide – the area, for example, would briefly provide a glittering backdrop to the Kray’s dark deeds.

Of course it’s easy to overplay Soho’s history of crime, just as it’s difficult to define its geographical borders; Soho is a state of mind, a place to get on it and get some action – the crime’s just incidental.

London's playground
London’s playground (Damien Carr)
Out on the town
Out on the town (Damien Carr)

Murders beneath a bone-white spire

A few years back I happened to be working in Aldgate on the eastern edge of the City. I was just beginning to investigate my long family connection to Shoreditch, Spitalfields, Whitechapel and beyond to Stepney and Bethnal Green, so it was an opportunity to visit the places named in the family records I’d been reading.


The Gherkin Tower reflected in a Bishopsgate puddle.

As a west Londoner born and raised, I’m about as East End as your average American tourist or shire-bred hipster. So I did what any self-respecting tourist does, I got out my camera and pounded the streets, my grandparent’s memories as background music. It was also a chance to soak up that rich seam of crime for which Whitechapel and Spitalfields has become known – this, after all, being Ripper country.

Alleyway near Sandys Row

Jack the Ripper and the five grisly murders he carried out in the autumn of 1888 has come to encapsulate a whole era of London – think of Jack and you are likely as not to think of fogs, top hats, grimy courts, storm lanterns, screams and whistles. The mayhem and terror he caused in such a short space of time has reverberated down the decades from the hysterical contemporary newspaper reports, right up to the present day with BBC’s drama Ripper Street and dare I say it, this blog post.

Suffice to say, if you want to find out more about the man and his work, there are a surplus of books, films, guided tours and websites peruse. A good place to start is, which sets out the facts including official documents, details about the victims, plus contemporary maps and other historical sources.

Casebook has transcribed 5449 contemporary articles in 298 different newspapers around the world, which fed the huge public appetite for lurid details of the victims and and their horrific murders. These stories even provided the inspiration for a knife attack south of the river in Peckham.

On 15 October, just two weeks after the murders of Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes on 30 September, Frank Hall cut the throat of Sarah Brett after her husband Thomas Onley drunkenly offered him 10 shillings to carry out a “Whitechapel murder” before passing out.

There was also intense interest in the place where such horrors could happen and the newspapers were only too willing to oblige. In “An autumn evening Whitechapel”, published in Littel’s Living Age, the reporter takes a night time stroll soon after the height of the terror:

‘Turn down this side street out of the main Whitechapel Road. It may be well to tuck out of view any bit of jewellery that may be glittering about; the sight of means to do ill-deeds makes ill-deeds done.
The street is oppressively dark, though at present the gloom is relieved somewhat by feebly lighted shopfronts. Men are lounging at the doors of the shops, smoking evil-smelling pipes.
Women with bare heads and with arms under their aprons are sauntering about in twos and threes, or are seated gossiping on steps leading into passages dark as Erebus.
Now round the corner into another still gloomier passage, for there are no shops here to speak of. This is the notorious Wentworth Street.
The police used to make a point of going through this only in couples, and possibly may do so still when they go there at all.”


Contemporary sensationalism

Two of the murders took place in the shadow of the bone-white spire of Christ Church, the Nicholas Hawksmoor church that dominates Spitalfields, one of six churches built by the protege of Christopher Wren during the early decades of the 18th century.


Christ Church, Spitalfields

A mythology has built up around Hawksmoor, in which he is cast as a Free Mason occultist who not only designed his churches according to sacred pre-Christian geometry, but aligned them along ley lines, which attracted a dark malignancy. Built on plague pits and with its odd proportions, obscure pyramid, and severe lines, Christ Church certainly has a brooding presence.

Writer and London’s lead psychogeographer Ian Sinclair, fired the starting pistol of this occult trope with his 1975 poem Lud Heat, which was continued by contemporary novelist Peter Ackroyd in his thriller Hawksmoor. Alan Moore, writer of The Watchmen, drew the strands together in From Hell, in which Jack the Ripper is William Gull, Queen Victoria’s surgeon, occult practitioner and Mason.


From Hell

Moore’s work is powerful and solidly researched, weaving esoteric speculation with historical fact, all the time laying bare the horrendous conditions and stark, precarious lives that Whitechapel’s residents endured. For it was poverty, hunger and illness that remained their everyday horrors, long after Jack disappeared.


A poor woman of Whitechapel, 1888

Showcards and ticket writers

Just north of Oxford Street is Marylebone Passage, a narrow secluded alleyway that helpfully cuts the corner off Wells Street and Margaret Street.

It’s typical of the many passages that crisscross central London – grime blackened walls with the faint smell of urine. Block out the hum of traffic and it’s easy to imagine a London of the peasouper and Hackney Carriage.


The building that dominates this scene is an old workshop belonging to ‘Pring & Rose. Showcards, Ticket Writers & Printers‘.

Illustrated showcards were used to advertise goods and services and mounted in shops and restaurants. Showcards, and their theatrical equivalent, the bill poster, were produced by ticket writers, like the man appropriately nicknamed ‘Tickets‘ shown below who eked out a living in Brighton.


Marylebone is famous for the elegant grid of streets and squares developed by Edward Harley, Earl of Oxford and the Portman family in the 18th century. But Marylebone Passage is a reminder of a less well known past; one of ordinary working people, of the workhouse, the doss house and of families crammed into single rooms. And also of crime.

The clearance of the St. Giles ‘Rookery’, the infamous crime-ridden slum between Bloomsbury and Covent Garden was blamed for shifting its thuggery and poverty to neighbouring areas, including Marylebone.

The excellent Proceedings of the Old Bailey certainly shows that Marylebone had its fair share of pick-pocketing, burglary and sometimes even murder.

Perhaps the most notorious murder was that of a local retired builder by his former employee, John Devine in 1864. Devine killed the old man for two gold sovereigns and was hanged a month later.

And maybe a ticket writer was employed to write up a poster of his execution similar to this one, circa 1800-1860.


Bloomsbury and Holborn at Night

I’ve always loved the streets and squares of Bloomsbury, so a couple of years ago, having worked late at the office and needing some fresh air, I took the long way to Holborn Tube. Perhaps attracted by the museum,  the area is a centre of the occult and esoteric knowledge. Treadwell’s and Atlantis Books, famous occultist bookshops are both within walking distance, as is the Swedenborg Society and of course Freemasons’ Hall, headquarters of the United Grand Lodge of England.

British Museum
The main entrance of the British Museum.

Despite the hotels and student accommodation, this area of central London, hemmed in between Euston Road to the north and High Holborn to the south, seems to get particularly empty at night.

Lighting the way to the School of Oriental and Asian Studies

Approaching the entrance to the pedestrianised Sicilian Avenue, with its al fresco restaurants. A mile or two east of here is Saffron Hill and Clerkenwell, known as ‘Little Italy’ because of the thousands of immigrants from southern Italy that settled there in the mid-late 19th century.

Sicilian Avenue
Closing time in Sicilian Avenue

And finally to Holborn Tube Station on the corner of Kingsway and High Holborn, the ‘end’ in the ‘West End’.

Holborn Tube
The Kingsway entrance to Holborn Tube

I think the escalator at Angel is supposed to be the longest in London…but only just.

Tube escalator
The long trip underground