London crime walk: bankjobs and blowjobs

Posted at 9:15 am, June 24, 2012 in Fun London
Crimewalk Map

From Oxford Circus to Shepherd Market, the great city crime walk promises to give you a taste of the seedier history of the West End this weekend. This walk takes the Eastcastle Street hold-up as its starting point, then heads down through Mayfair, where money, crime and sleaze have always been bedfellows.

Just north-east of Oxford Circus, Eastcastle Street is now full of art galleries, but in 1952 it was a quiet backstreet of offices and warehouses. At 4am on May 21, a Post Office van was held up there and robbed of £287,000, equivalent to more than £6 million today. Prime Minister Winston Churchill put 1,000 police officers on the case, but no money was ever recovered. The raid was planned by Billy Hill, who ran various rackets in the West End, and it was rehearsed under the guise of making a movie about a stick-up; it falls neatly between two classic British films of the era involving hold-ups on vans: the ‘Lavender Hill Mob’ (1951) and ‘The Ladykillers’ (1955) and is referred to in the latter (‘I’ll tell ’em she planned the big one, the  Eastcastle Street job’). It’s a neat example of how crime and popular culture increasingly cross-fertilised after WWII.

Walk south through Hanover Square and along Brook Street until it joins Davies Street. No 29 (now Elizabeth Arden) was formerly the Bank of America, scene in 1975 of a hold-up that netted £8m, at the time a record in the UK. Carry along Brook Street to the point where it joins Duke Street at Grosvenor Square. Here (exact address unknown) was the Court Club, later the Carroll Club. Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be executed in Britain, worked as a hostess at the club, and it was there she met David Blakely in 1953. In April 1955 she shot Blakely five times outside a Hampstead pub, and was hanged for murder that July.

Next, head along the bottom edge of Grosvenor Square into Upper Grosvenor Street. No 48 was the scene of one of  the most famous sex scandals of the 1960s, the so-called ‘headless man’ affair. A series of Polaroids of Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll, were produced during divorce proceedings. They showed her in a bathroom of the house, naked except for her famous pearls, fellating a man whose head was out of the frame. Bizarrely, it was claimed thatthe duchess’s notorious promiscuity was a result of a wartime fall down a liftshaft, which also made her lose her sense of smell and taste (perhaps an aid to sexual adventuring in the immediate postwar period). Suspects included minister of defence Duncan Sandys and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. A graphologist concluded the latter had written the captions on the snaps, although Fairbanks always denied it.

Track back along Grosvenor St, then right into New Bond St. In 2009, Graff Diamonds at No 8 was held up to the tune of £40m by two men in prosthetic make-up. The same shop had been raided six years earlier: on that occasion the robbers got away with £23m (without make-up). Go back up the street and into Bruton Street, then along it and into Berkeley Square. As the nightingale did its stuff, Billy Hill (see above) ran a cardmarking scam, ‘the Big Edge’ at the Clermont Club (No 44), relieving the celebrity clientele, who included Peter Sellers, Lord Lucan, Lucian Freud and Ian Fleming, of thousands of pounds.

Walk south out of the square along Curzon Street, then left down Hertford Street into Shepherd Market. Until the eighteenth century this was a rackety area, home to the annual ‘May Fair’, a kneesup that went on for days and caused widespread mayhem. In the ’50s, it was a hang-out for well-heeled crims, and by the 1980s, it was the centre of operations for Mayfair’s upmarket hookers, one of whom, Monica Coghlan, met Jeffrey Archer in a pub here in 1986. He sued the Daily Star over the story that he’d paid her for sex, and won. In 2001 he was convicted of perjury during the 1987 libel trial and jailed.

Time for a drink, and in the spirit of geezerishness, go back across Curzon Street and up Chesterfield Hill, at the top of which is the Punch Bowl pub (41 Farm St), owned by mockney fantasist Guy Ritchie. If you’re flush with loot, go in and drop an ‘Archer’ (two grand – what Coghlan was paid to leave the country) on the unsuspecting punters. Or have a half of something. Chris Waywell

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