Crime and mystery in London

Crime is big in London. Jack the Ripper is the undisputed star of the city’s Themed Walk industry while Madame Tussaud’s Chambre of Horror and the London Dungeon are playing to capacity crowds – as does The Mousetrap, in its 60th year. Paris may embody the world’s idea of a perfect spring morning; but London has cornered the market for November nights, specifically those that come with a dense fog and a corpse around the corner. No other city in the world revels as much in the sombre and grey. Of course, other cities have their crimes, too. These cities may even be even more violent than London, their criminals more brash or brazen. But the archetypical London crime oozes an unrivalled sophistication, as though concocted by Agatha Christie. New York villains blow their enemies up or mow them down in a hail of gunfire, London villains invite theirs for a civilised conversation – and then slip some Plutonium into their cup of tea. This collection features five of the most famous London crime scenes. You can connect them into a walk that leads you from central London eastwards on the northern bank of the Thames to Whitechapel.

  1. Waterloo Bridge

    On 7 September 1978, Georgi Markov waited for a bus on Waterloo Bridge that would take him to the other side of the Thames where he worked for the BBC’s Bulgarian Language Service – when suddenly he felt a sharp pain in his right leg. He turned around, and a man with an umbrella who appeared to have bumped into him apologized “in a heavy accent”, as Markov later told his colleagues.

    That evening, Markov developed a high fever, and three days later he was dead. It took the British police weeks to establish what had killed him – a ricin-filled pellet in a cartridge that was designed to melt at body temperature – and much longer to name a prime suspect, although it was almost immediately surmised that the Bulgarian secret service and the KGB were involved. Nobody, however, has ever been formally charged with the murder, and the main suspect remains free to this very day.

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  2. Blackfriars Bridge

    On 18 June 1982, a man in an expensive suit, his pockets stuffed with bricks and $15,000 in cash, was discovered hanging from scaffolding at the northern arch of Blackfriars Bridge, just above water level. The man was quickly identified as Roberto Calvi, the former head of Banco Ambrosiano, Italy’s second-largest private bank which had just gone belly-up in its own way.

    One week before, Calvi had fled Rome on a false passport, and one day before his body was found, his assistant had fallen to her death from a fifth floor window at the bank.

    These are the undisputed facts of the case. All the rest is engulfed in an Italian quagmire of masonic lodges, corrupt politicians, high-ranking clergy (Banco Ambrosiano was “the Vatican’s bank”) and the mafia – some of whose money, it appears, was lost in the Banco Ambrosiano bankruptcy. Most people nowadays – including Calvi’s family – believe that this is what ultimately spelled the banker’s doom.

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  3. Ten Bells Pub

    No piece on London crime scenes would, of course, be complete without an item on Jack the Ripper. The addresses where he committed his crimes can be easily found on the Internet (you can even connect them to make your own “Ripper Trail”), but you’d better be ready to spend the most boring afternoon of your life. Unfortunately because this trail will lead you past 1970s housing estates and modern office blocks in search of streets that have ceased to exist.

    Much better to visit one of the last remaining places with an authentic Ripper feel: the Ten Bells Pub. It was here that he met at least two of his victims and where Mary Kelly – victim no. 5 – solicited clients outside on the sidewalk.

    Also take a look at nearby Fournier Street and Wilkes Street which have largely survived in their historic shape, providing you with a good impression of the dark, dank and narrow streets of late Victorian Whitechapel.

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  4. Gunthorpe Street

    Victorian Whitechapel was a violent area, with or without the Ripper. In one of the so-called Whitechapel Murders that preceded the Ripper’s crimes, Martha Tabram was stabbed 39 times near her “lodging house” at the bottom of Gunthorpe Street on 7 August 1888.

    The housing estate just on the other side of Wentworth Street covers what was once the heart of “Ripper country”, a dense maze of alleyways that included Flower and Dean Street, the “most depraved street in town” which alone featured 30 lodging houses, notorious hostels for beggars, thieves and prostitutes. Slum clearances have radically changed the street pattern, but the top end of Gunthorpe street (near Whitechapel High Street) with its small Victorian textile factories has largely remained intact.

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  5. The Blind Beggar

    A London crime with a distinct transatlantic flavour, because its perpetrators, the notorious Kray Twins, had self-consciously styled themselves after American gangsters – and in particular after their hero Al Capone.

    The East End was the Krays’ turf, they were prepared to defend it ferociously, and when the Richardsons, a rival gang, appeared to make inroads from their South London base, there was no way a polite conversation could settle this.

    On 9 March 1966, Ronnie Kray walked into the saloon bar of the Blind Beggar, put a gun to the temple of George Cornell – one of the Richardsons’ enforcers – and pulled the trigger before walking out as quietly as he had come in. The pub at the time was full of people, but nobody had seen anything or was willing to testify, such was the Krays’ reputation, and it took the police two more years to engineer a case and produce a conviction.

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