Murder, mayhem and meat rationing during the blitz

Murder and racketeering were as common as bombs dropping during the Blitz in Fitzrovia and Soho. Mike Pentelow reviews “An Underworld At War; Spivs, Deserters, Racketeers and Civilians in the Second World War”, by Donald Thomas.

Cartoon of police officer investigating whether rationing laws were being broken

Cartoon: Kipper Williams

By Mike Pentelow

There was never a dull moment at Tottenham Court Road police station during the second world war… whether it was dealing with off duty commandos blowing up buildings in Soho, or checking if eating giraffes and crocodiles infringed the strict food rationing laws.

The diversity of the crimes are outlined in “An Underworld At War; Spivs, Deserters, Racketeers and Civilians in the Second World War”, by Donald Thomas.

It was in June 1943 that a drunken French commando and an RAF airman were marched into the police station at 55-59 Tottenham Court Road.
They had been found slumped in Oxford Street by an air raid warden, after they had set off bombs which had shattered buildings in Dean Street. The warden at first thought they were dead, but they woke up, and slurringly asked him for a match to set off their next bomb.

He humoured them by saying they might get some matches at the YMCA building on the corner of Tottenham Court Road and Great Russell Street. Instead he took them to the nearby police station.

When the police asked the commando what he had in his haversack he frankly replied: “Bombs, I am a commando and know how to use them.”
On duty at the police station during the war was Detective Inspector Robert Higgins, who had some gruesome murders to deal with during the blitz.
One was the killing of 43-year-old prostitute Margaret Lowe at Flat 4, 9-10 Gosfield Street, who was strangled and mutilated by a young airman Gordon Cummins on February 11, 1942. He murdered four women in four days during the blackout and was finally identified when he dropped his gas mask, with his number on it, after attacking another woman. He was hanged during an air raid.

Det Insp Higgins also investigated the murder of another prostitute, Margaret Cook, who was shot outside the Blue Lagoon Club in an alley off Regent Street near Oxford Circus, but was unable to track down the killer.

Higgins also noted that American soldiers were also involved in violent crimes – they were held by their own military police in a central guard house also in Tottenham Court Road from 1942 onwards.

One stabbed to death an American waiter in a dance hall in Windmill Street in September 1945 as the band played “Don’t Fence Me In”, and two drunken soldiers punched to death a doorman outside Frascati’s restaurant at 26-32 Oxford Street. They were acquitted after Gower Street pathologist Bernard Spilsbury gave evidence that the victim’s brain blood vessels were so fragile he could have died at any time. This restaurant, incidentally was often used by murderer Dr Crippen (hanged for poisoning his wife in 1910) and his lover Ethel le Neve.

Another murder victim, just after the war, was Warren Street car dealer and black marketeer Stanley Setty, who was killed by car thief Donald Hume after he found his wife was having an affair with Setty.

According to Donald Thomas, in his book, Setty was suspected of supplying aircraft, stolen from the RAF with whom Hume had served, to a Jewish organisation in Palestine prior to the Arab-Israeli war, but may have double crossed the purchasers.

Black marketeers often used car dealing in Warren Street as a front for trading in stolen ration coupons. They also sold stolen cars after giving them log books from similar scrapped vehicles.

A major illegal coupon racket was cracked in July 1944 by Detective Sergeants Baker and Dawson, who posed as buyers for the coupons outside the Dominion cinema and theatre at the bottom of Tottenham Court Road. After arresting the criminals they found 10,000 merchant navy clothing coupons, and 7,000 more coupons stolen from a shipping office at Cardiff.
Those attempting to get round food and drink rationing were also apprehended and punished severely in the area.

Grocer John Garner in Store Street was fined £100 (worth about £4,000 today) in April 1941 for selling without coupons meat, bacon and butter to an unregistered customer, who was also fined £50 for buying them.

The proprietress of an off licence in Tottenham Court Road paid £200 for 150 cases of whisky, supposedly “straight from the distillers”, from a confidence trickster who never delivered, and they both ended up in Marlborough Street magistrates court in January 1945. (In the same court four months later three youths appeared for breaking and entering an office in Berners Street, armed with revolvers, who had been arrested on the roof by Police Constable Munn).
A clothing manufacturer in Great Portland Street was imprisoned for six months for obtaining eggs illegally in April 1947.

But one hungry local resident, Mr L Brightwell, managed to get round the rationing in a rather unusual way. He regularly visited London Zoo and was allowed to take animals that had recently died, and then tuck into them.
In May 1942, for example, he turned a four-foot crocodile into a casserole and said it was “jolly good,” tasting like veal but a little stronger. He also consumed giraffe neck, elephant trunk, coypu rat, camel, porpoise, seal, wild cattle, deer, and antelope.

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