Bad Penny Blues is based on a real crime and some real people, who lived and worked in the streets of Ladbroke Grove between the years of 1959 and 1965. It’s a tale of prostitutes, Pop Art, swinging detectives and Spiritualism, in a post-War, pre-Swinging London where the dawning of the Space Age, the crumbling of the British Empire and the reconstruction of the capital inspired a wave of creativity in art, music – and murder.
The book centres on the true, unsolved case of a fiend called Jack The Stripper, who, during those years, picked off eight working girls and left their nude bodies in or along the Thames, sparking the biggest hunt in Metropolitan Police history. The identity of the murderer was never officially revealed, and there have been several true crime accounts of the case published in the years since, all offering differing solutions. The aim of this book was not to try and solve the mystery, but rather to create a parallel universe in which an explanation could be offered that tied together a series of intriguing coincidences uncovered during the course of research.
The title comes from the hit trad jazz single by Humphrey Lyttleton that was engineered by Joe Meek at Lansdowne Studios in Holland Park, where the book begins. The last sighting of the first Stripper victim, Elizabeth Figg, was on the night of 17 June 1959, when she was dropped off by a punter on the corner of Holland Park Avenue and Lansdowne Crescent, directly opposite the ominous-looking tower where Meek was at the time secretly working into the night on his space pop opus ‘I Hear A New World’.
Across the road from Lansdowne Studios was the headquarters of the Christian-Spiritualist Greater World Association, run by the trance medium Winnifred Moyes. Meek was infamous for dabbling in Spiritualism. Using radios to pioneer new sonic frontiers and holding séances to inspire him, the series of spooky singles he produced during the years of the Stripper case formed the soundtrack to the book’s investigation.
In 1959, Joe Meek lived in a flat in Arundel Gardens, W11. It was here he conducted the séance that would haunt him for the rest of his days, predicting the death of his idol Buddy Holly on 3 February 1958. Holly was actually killed in a plane crash on 3 February 1959, and Meek would take his own life, along with that of his landlady Violet Shenton, at his Holloway Road studios on 3 February 1967.
Five of the eight Stripper victims lived and worked in Ladbroke Grove, the same ‘little Napoli’ as Colin MacInnes’ Absolute Beginners, the same social circles as the Profumo Affair. It was a shady, shifting world, humming with radical politics and an uneasy racial mix, where writers and artists could find cheap rents, upper class girls rubbed up against the rude boys and gangsters and lords carved up the spoils.
Ken Russell’s 1962 Monitor film Pop Goes The Easel offers a tantalizing glimpse of this world, following four recent RCA graduates and pioneers of Pop Art through their bedsit studios to the basement jazz clubs of the Grove. The most luminous figure amongst them, though perhaps the least well-remembered, is that of Pauline Boty. A vivacious, Bardot look-alike, Boty’s collages and paintings took a mischievous dig at the way women were represented in popular culture, exemplified by her appropriation of the James Brown song title It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World.
The characters of art students Stella Reade and Jenny Minton were partially inspired by Boty and also by the character of Jenny Linden in Edmond T Gréville’s 1959 juvenile delinquent movie Beat Girl. Although a light-hearted and none-too-realistic look at the beatnik milieu, the dichotomy of the film’s Jenny Linden and her architect father Paul, busy constructing a concrete city of the future while living in luxury in Kensington, provided poignant inspiration for Jenny Minton’s father Alex, who aims to remake Ladbroke Grove into his own Brutalist design. Offered further parallels with Pauline Boty too – the ‘No More Ugly’ demos staged by Jenny Minton in Bad Penny Blues are based on the actual demos staged by Pauline Boty and her friends in 1958 against such concrete cathedrals as Kensington Town Hall – next to where, on 25 November 1964, the body of the penultimate Jack the Stripper victim, Frances White, would be dumped.
Jenny Minton’s boyfriend and partner in art pranks, Dave Dilworth, is a proto-hippy agitator who was partially informed by Joe Meek protégé Screamin’ Lord Sutch. Sutch’s mission to expose the hypocrisy inherent to politics in both his Teenage and subsequent Monster Raving Loony parties was matched in show-stopping originality by the rockin’ vaudeville of the records he made with Meek – including the classic ‘Jack The Ripper’, which the duo promoted by driving a hearse through Whitechapel.
Trying to make sense of the Stripper murders is fictional detective Pete Bradley. Bradley becomes embroiled in underworld Soho while working with Detective Sergeant Harold Wesker, whose unique methodology was inspired by the real life antics of Detective Sergeant Harold ‘Tanky’ Challenor, who was invalided out of the Met in 1963 after the notorious ‘brick case’. Challenor, the originator of the phrase: “You’re nicked, me old beauty!” and the inspiration for Inspector Truscott in Joe Orton’s Loot, had been an extremely brave soldier during WWII, working undercover ops for the SAS, and subsequently found fame as the detective who would ‘clean up’ Soho. But when he was accused of planting pieces of brick on several protesters arrested during the state visit of Queen Frederika of Greece in July 1963, in a defence mounted by the Council for Civil Liberties, Challenor was declared to be too ‘unwell’ to take the stand. He was declared insane and sent to convalesce indefinitely.
Challenor’s world links to the Stripper case by persistent rumour and urban myth. The nightclubs he patrolled included the one owned by the ex-boxer and showbiz personality Freddie Mills, who was mooted as the man responsible for the unsolved murders by ex-gangster Jimmy Tippett in 2001. Mills himself died in mysterious circumstances in July 1965, five months after the final Stripper victim was found, having apparently committed suicide by shooting himself twice in the head in a car parked outside his West End club. He was further rumoured to have been having a clandestine affair with the singer Michael Holliday – who also killed himself back in October 1963, ten days before the discovery of the decomposed body of the second Stripper victim was unearthed. Mills was supposed to have been being muscled by the Kray Twins prior to his death, as was Joe Meek in the months before his demise.
Further darkening the waters were the connections that the victims themselves had to a clandestine world of sex parties and stag films, a world that connects to players in the Profumo scandal that would eventually bring down the government of Harold Macmillan.
Hannah Tailford, found floating in the Thames on 2 February 1964, told stories of a sinister party she attended in a big house in Eaton Square in the Autumn of 1960, in which she was duped into providing a floorshow with a man in a gorilla suit for an audience of the great and the good.
Irene Lockwood, beached on the shores of the Thames on the morning of 24 April 1964, was a shakedown artiste known to blackmail marks with the aid of a photographer, who had known Tailford and the circles she moved in. Just before her death she had been aiding the caretaker of the Holland Park Tennis Club, one Kenneth Archibald, to fleece punters in illegal late night card games. After her body was discovered, mention of a man called ‘Kenny’ was found in Lockwood’s diary – and then Archibald himself turned up at Notting Hill police station, claiming responsibility for her death. He appeared to know the exact time she had been dropped into the Thames, the method of her murder, and the location from which her body was dumped. But with no evidence other than his confession to prove it, Archibald was acquitted and subsequently told the press he had made the whole story up while depressed. The police had no reason to suspect otherwise – Archibald was a frail, bumbling old man on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Besides which, there had been another murder while Archibald was in custody – that of Helene Barthelemy, found in a cul-de-sac in Brentford on the morning of 24 April 1964.
The body of Barthelemy, a half-French-half-Scottish former circus performer, provided the police with what they thought would be a breakthrough. She was covered in paint spray. From the moment of her discovery, the force concentrated their efforts on attempting to match the colours of the spray to those used in garages – the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of garages in London. This trail would prove as frustrating and ultimately fruitless as the ‘Wearside Jack’ tapes would be to the West Yorkshire police’s efforts to ascertain the true identity of the Yorkshire Ripper a decade later.
But curiously, the next two victims also hailed from Scotland. Mary Fleming, originally from Glasgow, was a well-known Ladbroke Grove working girl who frequently boasted of having serviced every lord in London. Her body was found outside a garage in Acton on 14 July 1964. Not the garage the police were looking for, obviously. But was the killer taunting the Met with his choice of location?
Frances Brown, whose body was discovered outside an underground civil defence bunker on Horton Street, by Kensington Town Hall, was also from Glasgow. Moreover, in the year before her death, she had twice testified in defence of the disgraced osteopath Steven Ward, alongside Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice Davies. Brown and Fleming were friends who had traded false identities in the past. To the girls who drank in the Warwick Castle on Portobello Road, running a sweepstake on who would be next, it seemed like the Stripper could have mistaken their identities. On the night of her murder, Brown was picked up alongside a friend who was wearing an identical outfit to hers, by two men with separate cars. They were supposed to be travelling in convoy, but somehow the car driving Brown was separated from that of her friend, who escaped her encounter unscathed, physically at least.
The final victim appears unconnected to the five women murdered in 1964. Bridget O’Hara, a native of Dublin, was found on a factory estate in Acton, close to a garage with a paint-spraying operation, on 16 February 1965. O’Hara was not widely known to have been a prostitute. She lived in Shepherd’s Bush with her husband and children and had no social links to any of the others. Although she had been missing for a month when her body was found, it was in perfect condition. That pathologist concluded that she must have lain in cold storage until her body was dumped.
There were conflicting accounts of where O’Hara was last seen on the night she disappeared. But one witness put her on Holland Park Avenue, near the tube station, from where Elizabeth Figg had taken her last ride five and a half years previously.
After that, the killings stopped.
But was Elizabeth Figg connected to any of the others? Only 21-years-old at the time of her murder, Figg had no previous convictions for prostitution and had not been on the game for very long. Her body was discovered on a patch of common notorious for late night assignations, on the morning of 17 June 1959, by the banks of the Thames in Chiswick. She had been manually strangled, her dress ripped open, her shoes and handbag missing.
It would be another four years and five months until the badly decomposed body of the second victim attributed to the Stripper was found.
Gwynneth Rees, from Barry in south Wales, had been in the ground for months. She was naked but for a pair of stockings around her ankles and the pathologist could only conclude that strangulation was the most likely cause of death. Like Figg, Rees was a short woman with dark hair. Unlike Figg, her career as a working girl had been long and notorious – congenitally unable to develop any street smarts she had bounced around the East and West Ends in a disastrous attempt to make money from hooking or stripping. She had apparently made a lot of enemies.
Neither of these girls had any social connections to the five of ’64 either. But Rees had been buried in a shallow grave on the opposite side of the river to Figg, behind a pub called The Ship in Mortlake. Just before the next victim, Hannah Tailford disappeared, she had told friends that she was about to leave her common law husband for a man who was going to take her to live in Mortlake. Her body was found on a floating pontoon by members of the London Corinthians Sailing Club, on the Upper Mall between Chiswick and Mortlake.
But why such a gulf of time between the murders of Figg and Rees?
The methodology of murder was what led the police to connect the eight. All were asphyxiated or strangled. All except for Figg were naked, but for Rees’ stockings and the pair of panties found lodged in Tailford’s throat. The last four women also had teeth missing, apparently knocked out by force, although there was no bruising around their mouths. The cause of these injuries baffled the pathologists who studied each corpse.
Location would also seem to be a suggestive key to the case. Seven bodies were found in a short distance of each other, in or around the Thames, each getting closer to the final destination of Bridget O’Hara, near to the paint shop on the factory estate in Acton. Which was the re-sprayer with the correct colour match for the corpses.
All except for Frances Brown. Not only was the Kensington locale where her body was dumped an anomaly, but Brown’s body had been carefully hidden, under a pile of branches and a dustbin lid. All the others had been left in plain view.
All of the women were short, around five feet tall, and all had dark hair – except for Lockwood, whose bouffant style was defiantly bleached blonde.
Bad Penny Blues is an attempt to join these threads and try and make sense of them. But most importantly, to take these women’s brief lives and horrible deaths seriously, to give each one of them a voice that was denied them and not denigrate them for what they had to do for money. Their names have been changed because this is a fiction and cannot possibly be what really happened. But their fates have been buried under too much dirt, left in the dark for too long.
Like the original Pop Artists, the materials used to create this parallel universe drew upon imagery from popular culture, occult folklore, the silver screen and the jukebox, to offer up a meditation on a crime that once defined a time but has now slipped from our memory.
Bad Penny Blues is published by Serpent’s Tail