Authors: John Healy
I have now moved up to Kensington High Street and I'm passing Kensington Palace, where Princess Diana lived. I will never forget the day she died, the whole area was covered in flowers, soft toys, framed photos and a multitude of affectionate memorabilia. It was a sea of tributes spread over so much ground.
A few years previously I remember driving my cab down Sloane Street when Diana tried to cross the road to reach her car, which was driven by her bodyguard. I did not brake in time and she smiled at me and walked behind my cab to cross the road. I guess that was the day that I blew my chances of a knighthood. I was surprised at the negligence of her bodyguard. He had left her alone in a street in London on the other side of that road. How bad is that?
I remember the Princess was a regular user of a gym in Townmead Road, SW6, called The Harbour Club. I took many a posh customer there. The paparazzi drove poor old Diana mad by standing on tall stepladders and peering over the ten-foot wall of the gym. They would wait for hours to get a valuable photograph and were there most mornings as I passed by in my cab.
When Prince Charles was courting the young Diana, she lived in a large block of upmarket flats in Old Brompton Road, near Earls Court. If they ever erect a blue plaque to the Princess outside her old apartment that flat will fetch a fortune.
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I now turn right into Queensgate and on the right hand side is a house with the number two on the door. There is a large blue
plaque here to the famous comedian Benny Hill. This was his town house. Every time I had a few Americans in the cab, and pointed out this house, they always shouted, âStop the cab'. My passengers would all pile out and take photos. The same applied to most tourists, particularly the Japanese. Everybody loved Benny Hill, and any time I pointed out something interesting resulted in a larger tip.
If I continue on down Queensgate we come across the Onslow Court Hotel. This hotel featured prominently in the escapades of the mass murderer John George Haigh, the Acid Bath murderer. He was a long-time guest here and charmed elderly widows and spinsters to invest in his manufacturing outlet in Croydon. The business did not even exist but he did have a run-down premises in Croydon. He would lure these vulnerable people to his so-called factory and shoot them dead.
He then placed their bodies in a vat of acid. After a week or so he would pour away the remaining sludge on the ground at the rear of the factory. Haigh made the classic mistake of thinking that acid would dissolve everything and that if there was no body, there could be no charge. He was so wrong. One of the top police pathologists, Dr Keith Simpson, discovered plastic false teeth, gallstones and fingernails in the sludge, and this was his downfall. John George Haigh was hanged in Wandsworth Prison in 1949. Apparently the hangman could not keep his trap shut...
That hangman was (again) Albert Pierrepoint. He had once executed twenty to thirty women in one day after the Nuremberg trials in Germany, all Nazis that had been convicted of horrendous crimes in the death camps. I read somewhere that he said he always felt a little sorry for those he was about to drop but this was the only time that the same feeling never came over him and he was glad to rid the world of these cruel women. Pierrepoint's book
Executioner Pierrepoint: An Autobiography
is a really great read.
Dr Keith Simpson became a leading pathologist and went on to solve many a high profile crime, but the man who was his
tutor was once the most respected pathologist in England. His name was Sir Bernard Spillsbury and he was a leading figure in the Dr Crippen case. This man was so famous in those days that they even erected a blue plaque in his honour. Sadly, Spillsbury committed suicide and one of his pupils carried out the autopsy on him. That pupil was Keith Simpson. How uncanny is that, to open up your own mentor and have a look inside.
Speaking of Dr Crippen, he murdered his allegedly promiscuous wife Cora and fled back home to America with a woman dressed as a boy called Ethel Le Neve. Half way to America the captain of the ship recognised Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen, and used the newly developed ship's wireless system to alert the London police. Two detectives were dispatched to the States on a fast steamer and were waiting for the pair of runaways when the ship docked.
Crippen and Le Neve were returned to London for trial and Crippen was hanged at Pentonville Prison in 1910. This was the first time that wireless was used to capture wanted fugitives. I have always felt a little sorry for this small meek man who fell in love with another woman. His wife treated him with the utmost contempt. Fairly new evidence has come to light recently and it seems that the body found at the Crippen home was not that of his wife. Today, there are a few relatives who want the case reopened. I wonder what they would find with today's high quality forensics?
The Crippen house has long since been torn down and a block of flats built in its place. People who take London murder tours end up being driven past this block of apartments but there really is nothing to see.
I once picked up a couple of Americans from the Cumberland Hotel at Marble Arch. They had their thirteen-year-old son with them and said that they wanted Paddington Station. When we got there they asked for platform nine-and-three-quarters. Well! I nearly fell out of my cab door. First of all, it was the wrong station â it should have been King's Cross â and secondly they were on about Harry Potter, who never existed. They must have seen the film and really believed in his existence. If he was a real character and grew a beard, would they have called him âHairy Potter'? Ha ha. Anyway, I told them it was only fantasy.
In King's Cross Station there is a baggage trolley that disappears half way through one of the platform walls, in line with scenes from the films when Harry and his friends are returning to school. I could plainly see that these people were somewhat disappointed and they said that they wanted to go back to the hotel. So as I was doing my U-turn near to St Mary's Hospital, I showed them a plaque on the wall stating that Alexander Fleming made the great discovery of penicillin in the room on the second floor in 1928. Some culture dishes had been on the table over the weekend and when they came back days later there were strange growths on the plates. It all took off from then and was perfected in 1940, with help from the Yanks, and was a real lifesaver in the last war. My Americans were so grumpy, they even claimed that it was them that discovered the penicillin but without Fleming they would have gotten nowhere. I was glad to see them disappear through the hotel doors, and yes, you guessed it, no tip again. But I still like most Americans.
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Just around the corner is Marble Arch. These were the original gates to Buckingham Palace and there are actually a couple of rooms inside the Arch that were used for the comfort of the gate men. As landau carriages and larger coaches had difficulty getting through the gates the arch was dismantled and moved to its present site at the top of Park Lane. I believe it was replaced with the beautiful marble Queen Victoria Memorial. This enormous work of art was taken from the design of the wedding cake of Albert and Victoria and is known to all London cabbies as the QVM, or more affectionately as âThe Wedding Cake'.
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If you walk down the Mall, have a look at each lamp post and note the large ship at the top of every street light in the form of galleons. They say that Lord Nelson is supposed to be looking at his ships in the Mall from his column in nearby Trafalgar Square but I think the Admiral is actually looking towards Whitehall. Anyway, Nelson never had any galleons.
We now drive around Marble Arch where we can find a small circular plaque on a triangular pavement. It states it is âThe site of Tyburn Tree'. This is the spot where public executions were carried out during and after the fifteenth century. The first gallows was set up in Tyburn in 1571. By the eighteenth century a new type of gibbet was used for public hangings called the Tyburn Tree, where they could hang at least three people at the same time. Executions at Tyburn were like a big festival. There was food, trinket stalls, musicians, street acrobats, whores and a whole host of entertainment going on whilst awaiting the arrival of the condemned criminals from Newgate Prison, which was about four miles away.
The procession would leave in a prison cart full of condemned criminals, drawn by a couple of horses. The group would stop at an inn for refreshments such as beer swigging. This was in the St Giles area. The gaolers would have âone for the road' but the
condemned were not allowed any drink as they were âon the wagon'. This is supposed to be where the sayings came from.
When Newgate Prison was knocked down, the Old Bailey was built on the site. There is a pub nearby, The Viaduct Tavern, at the eastern end of Holborn Viaduct, where one can still find remnants of this feared prison. All you have to do is to ask the landlord and he will take you down into the basement, and then down a little deeper. Here he will show you the remnants of five of the original cells of this old gaol. It may be that the condemned men and women were glad of death just to get away from their sadistic, Quasimodo-type gaolers who would beat, rape and rob these poor unfortunates inmates. Can you imagine the hygiene, it must have been hell on earth.
Nearby is West Smithfield, where there is a beautifully designed marble memorial telling the reader that this is the very spot where they executed Sir William Wallace, the Scottish Knight who became a rebel and eventually a martyr. A movie was made about his exploits called
, starring Mel Gibson. The executioner only partially hung him, then drew out his intestines while still alive and finally quartered this poor devil. They sent the arms and the legs to the four corners of England and his head was stuck on a spike on London Bridge. He most certainly went to pieces. How evil is that?
Every time Scotland is playing football at Wembley you will find a crowd of Scottish fans, in their kilts with all the Scottish regalia, laying flowers and standing around this large plaque in silence. I think this is what one calls true patriotism. Wallace died in 1305, the execution ordered by King Edward I, whose nickname was Longshanks. He hated the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish. I think they are all lovely people and they all love the English. Well, most of them do.
Nearby one can find St Bartholomew's Hospital â Barts for short. Founded by King Henry I, and reformed by Henry VIII in 1546, there has been a hospital here for 900 years. Henry was better known for knocking down churches and chopping off the heads of his many wives and his enemies, so reforming Barts was one of the few good things he did in his turbulent life. There is a statue of him above the main entrance.
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Not far away is St Sepulchre's church, founded in the twelfth century and rebuilt in the fifteenth. There is a large hand bell in a glass case in the church that was always rung just before an impending execution. The cemetery of this church has the only watch-house left intact in London. Erected in the eighteenth century and rebuilt after the last world war, the bereaved had to pay men to watch the grave of a deceased family member to protect the corpse from grave robbers. After a month had elapsed the body was not in a fit state to be sold for dissection so there was no longer any need to keep watch. These body snatchers would dig up a new grave and sell the corpse to Barts. The hospital always needed fresh cadavers to teach anatomy and surgical skills. There was even a price list. The fresh body of a young Jewish girl, for instance, would fetch the highest price. Young corpses were in high demand and sometimes the watchmen had two employers: the bereaved family who would pay them to watch, and the grave robbers who would pay them to turn a blind eye. They could not lose.
The most famous of all grave robbers were Burke and Hare, two nineteenth-century grave robbers who found a lucrative business providing cadavers for an Edinburgh medical school. Hare betrayed the other for immunity from execution and Burke was hanged in 1830. After they were apprehended they told the authorities that they actually only robbed one or two graves but had then started murdering to order, which was apparently less strenuous work. They always had a full order book for bodies. These two murdering scallywags killed sixteen innocent people, including two cripples, some whores and drunks. They never left a mark on their bodies that may have been connected to a murder. A movie was made about the Edinburgh body snatchers showing them digging up a grave in some fog-locked cemetery. It certainly painted a gruesome picture.
The robbing of graves was punishable by death at the end of a rope and I do believe a price list still exists to this day in some museum or other. It may be in the London Hospital museum,
where the skeleton of Joseph Merrick the Elephant Man is kept. I remember seeing the list on some television documentary a very long time ago. It's hard to imagine a price list for the deceased.
Referring to the Old Bailey, I recently joined an Over Fifty's club in Wandsworth, south west London, and the organisers arranged for an evening's visit to this most famous courthouse. Twenty or thirty of us all met up at St Paul's tube station. When we arrived at a side door of the Bailey, we were greeted by a man who looked and dressed like a judge. He did these tours because he took great pleasure in showing visitors around. We were taken straight to the number one court and divided into groups.
Some were put in the jury box, others were installed in the witness box and the rest were sent to the public gallery. But one lady and I were ordered into the dock and told to be quiet. Apparently, we were the Accused.
The scene was set. A little mock trial took place in order to give us a feeling of how the courts work. What an experience, none of the public are usually allowed in this dock. It felt like the real thing. âMy female friend and I know that we are innocent, M'lud.'
It was here that the infamous were tried for horrendous crimes, such as the Yorkshire Ripper, Lord Ha Ha, The Kray twins, Dr Crippen, Dr Harold Shipman, and far too many other criminals to be included in these short chapters. To think I have stood in the exact spot where those scoundrels stood makes me shudder.
I remember in the old black and white crime movies the judge would wear the black piece of cloth on his head, sentence the villain to death and then say, âTake him down'. I now know what he meant. I was able to look down the dingy, dimly lit stairs that he was referring to, a white tiled stairway leading to the
temporary holding cells where the accused was held. Later they took us all down for a little tour of this grim and foreboding place.
When the tour was over, most of us went to the pub across the road. It's the one that I mentioned earlier, The Viaduct Tavern, which has access to what is left of Newgate Prison. What a great night! Only the chosen few can experience entry to the number one dock of the Old Bailey, unless you commit murder most foul.
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Quite a few years ago I was driving four foreign people to Lincoln's Inn Fields in London. As we were very near to Portugal Street I thought they might like to see the Old Curiosity Shop that was immortalised by Charles Dickens in his novel of the same name. This sixteenth-century shop looks so old that one would think that it was just about to fall down. It survived the Great Fire and the German bombings. A friend of mine whose father owned the shop once took me into it and let me have a look upstairs. Whilst inside, I was mentally transported back to the Dickensian era. Talk about ramshackle. It had old crooked wooden beams with lath and horsehair plaster. I could see that it was really authentic but my passengers were not the slightest bit interested in this old shop. To tell you the truth I don't even think they had even heard of Charles Dickens. Again no tip â but that never did worry me.
Charles John Huffam Dickens (1812â1870) had a house nearby, 48 Doughty Street, which is now a museum. It should be number one on every tourist's list. If you put your mind to it you can feel the presence of this great writer as you enter the museum. This was the place where he wrote
, in around 1838. You can almost hear the word âmore' echoing around the old living room.
Dickens was a great reformer in his day. Two of his daughters were born in that house, and his sister died in the same building.
In total, he fathered ten children, so he can't always have been writing! He wrote
at another house in Broadstairs, Kent, which was turned into a really good Dickens museum but is now in private ownership.
When Dickens was twelve, his father was imprisoned in the notorious Marshalsea debtors' prison in Southwark. He was totally insolvent. The family were left without cash and the young Charles had to take a job working at a boot blacking factory.
I believe some relatives are still around to this day, because they all assembled recently at Westminster Abbey to commemorate his 200th anniversary and Prince Charles laid a wreath on his tomb. He is buried in one of the world's most prestigious places, Poets' Corner, in the splendour of Westminster Abbey.
Is it not ironic that I am writing about Dickens, and in a previous chapter I wrote about John Mills who, as a young man, played Pip in the Dickens novel,
? The film of the book was made in 1946 and also starred a teenage Jean Simmons. Charles Dickens died before he finished his very last book,
The Mystery of Edwin Drood
. What a weird name.