Reviewed by: Paul Rogerson
Author: James Morton
Publisher: Piatkus Books
The Gazette’s own James Morton, stalwart of Obiter, is a serial chronicler of London’s inter- and post-War gangland and its retinue of hangers-on, including the often dubious lawyers and journalists who operated on its fringes. Gangland Soho, which has been available in paperback for some months, is a characteristically readable addition to the oeuvre. Where Morton excels is in his ability to evoke a monochrome London of faces, spielers, squealers and blaggers that now seems almost as remote as the London of Samuel Pepys.
Soho still has its prostitutes, strip joints and drinking clubs, of course, and doubtless its protection rackets too. But in that more unworldly age, that compact grid of streets between Shaftesbury Avenue and Oxford Street must have seemed impossibly exotic to outsiders - particularly the legions of British and US servicemen who descended on London during the Second World War. They were serviced by another army - an army of vice girls - not least the Frenchwoman Marthe Watts, who got through 49 clients on VE Night. The pimping concession was largely the province of the Maltese Messina Brothers, who punished girls who stepped out of line with medieval savagery.
The dramatis personae in Gangland Soho have appeared in Morton’s writings many times before. As well as the Messinas, ‘usual suspects’ Ronnie and Reggie, Charlie and Eddie (Richardson), and the diminutive but deadly ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser are all here, wielding their chivs, coshes and wartime issue revolvers.
From the inter-war period, we are introduced to the Sabinis and Cortesis of Clerkenwell and Saffron Hill. Their activities were abruptly terminated when war was declared on Italy and members of both families were - unfairly, but expediently - interned as enemy aliens. They barely had a word of Italian between them. Frankie Fraser was a confederate of both the Richardsons and the legendary Billy Hill, perhaps the most successful of post-war gangsters.
Hill was born in a long-gone Seven Dials rookery off New Oxford Street - an archetypal den of thieves. He was the brains behind the Eastcastle Street job of 1952, in which £280,000 was stolen from a mail van. No-one was ever caught, and so celebrated was the crime that it merited a mention in Ealing classic The Ladykillers three years later. It was the Great Train Robbery of the previous generation, but with one crucial difference – Hill got away with it.
Detective Superintendent Leonard ‘Nipper’ Read, nemesis of the Krays, was a keen student of Hill, who had kept his robbery team locked in a room before the Eastcastle Street job to avoid any leaks. Read used the same tactic before his squad of detectives swooped on the Krays in 1968, Morton recalls.
Billy Hill’s great rival as the self-styled ‘King of Soho’ was Jack ‘Spot’ Comer, aka Jacob Comacho, an ebullient, Jewish racecourse bully who claimed to have fought Mosley’s blackshirts at the Battle of Cable Street. One of Comer’s lieutenants was the unimprovably nicknamed ‘Moishe Blueball’, so-called because of the coloration of one of his testicles.
‘Spot’, himself nicknamed because (he claimed) he was always ‘on the spot’ when trouble flared, didn’t entirely fit the stereotype. A family man and teetotaller, he was married to a beautiful Irish woman, ‘Rita Spot’, who stood by him for years in spite of his colourful professional life.
Spot was no gentleman, it must be stressed, describing his tactic of ambushing enemies in pub lavatories thus: ‘Bump, down he goes, into the piss.’ He was immortalised by iconic fifties pulp-fiction novelist Hank Janson, author of Jack Spot, Man of a Thousand Cuts.
Spot and Hill were allies for years in the forties, but the relationship soured as Hill prospered and effectively replaced Spot as de facto senior partner. Morton recounts with forensic relish the seminal event of Soho gangland in the post-war period – the so-called Battle of Frith Street in 1955, in which Jack Spot fought with Hill enforcer Albert Dimes, a Soho bookie and loanshark. Both were seriously injured, the knife fight only ending when the heavily built lady fruiterer who ran the shop on the corner of Old Compton Street crowned Spot with a pair of weighing scales.
Spot’s fortunes went into inexorable decline thereafter and Hill was dominant – until those extremely dangerous young twins from Bethnal Green began to make their presence felt in the early sixties.
There’s much more than the villains here; every paragraph incorporates an anecdote or character of Dickensian curiosity. Albert Dimes knew Ronnie Scott, owner of the eponymous Soho jazz club, and gave him a magnum of champagne to be opened when the club made a profit. The bottle lay gathering dust on a shelf at the club for many years.
There are shady briefs, crooked solicitors’ clerks, crusading journalists and several stations full of bent coppers, all circulating in the same after-hours drinking clubs and often operating by much the same rules. Soho porn baron Jimmy Humphries, once immortalised in celluloid by Malcolm McDowell, contributed to the partial cleansing of the augean stable in the early seventies when his revelations about policemen on the take led to Scotland Yard's biggest post-war corruption scandal. I shall conclude by declaring that - as Ronnie Kray might have said - it would be a ‘diabolical liberty’ not to buy this book.
Paul Rogerson is editor in chief of the Law Society Gazette