Tony Broadbent is the author of the Smoke Series, three excellent crime novels set in London in the period immediately following the Second World War.
Two weeks ago, he penned a post entitled London Peculiar. You can find it in our archives by entering those two words into the search box at the foot of this page.
Now, Tony's back with a second installment, another one you're sure to enjoy:
London Particular – Regarding Murder Most Foul
‘The de Antiquis Affair’
Murder and murderers have a very particular notoriety in the annals of crime, and perhaps nevermore so than when they occur in a country’s capital city—inevitably the center of government, banking, policing, the arts, and the media. As for London—statistics from the last hundred and fifty years or so show that more than half of all murders in Britain have taken place in and around the ever-expanding city—and as sobering a thought as that might be, it is—on reflection—hardly surprising.
In London—and again in the larger scheme of things perhaps not entirely unexpected—patterns of crime tend to follow patterns of housing—in terms of location, class of housing, and population density. For instance, in the days when London required a large servant population—think the town and country of Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey—most murders occurred where the servant population was most concentrated. In middle-class areas—especially the more genteel suburbs to the west—it was bigamy and fraud that most often led to murder. Whereas, in the working class East End—and more immediate areas south of the river—such as the Elephant and Castle—it was street fights and gang activities that invariably proved the most lethal.
Yet of all the many murders committed in all the many boroughs of London, some murders still stand out from the rest. One such murder—now mostly forgotten even by Londoners—occurred back in April 29th, 1947—where ‘East’ meets ‘West’—just north of Soho—in London’s ‘Fitzrovia.’
The murder shocked capital and country as if to the very core and became known as ‘The de Antiquis Affair.’ And for many people, its callous, almost careless brutality—its very randomness—came to symbolize the crime wave that then appeared to be threatening to overwhelm all of post-war London.
It all began one afternoon, just gone two o’clock—‘Double Summer Time’—when three masked men—attempted to rob Jay’s The Jewellers, at 73-75 Charlotte Street, just off the Tottenham Court Road.
The gang entered the shop brandishing revolvers—two of them with pistols in each hand. One of the raiders jumped over the counter and grabbed for a tray of diamond rings. Ernest Stock, a 62-year old director of the firm, lunged forward to stop him and was knocked down and was savagely pistol-whipped for his efforts. All of which gave Bertram Keates, the firm’s 70-year old manager, time to slam the safe door shut.
The gang then turned on Keates and demanded he hand over the keys to the safe. At which point a 17-year old shop assistant, Leslie Grant, threw a wooden stool at them. One of the gang turned and shot at him, but the bullet hit a glass-paneled door and buried itself into a wall—another brief diversion that then allowed Keates to press a button that set off the store’s burglar alarm.
The sudden noise and clamor unnerved the would-be robbers and they turned and fled outside to their waiting car—a Vauxhall saloon they’d stolen prior to the robbery. They all bundled in and it was only then that the driver realized the motorcar was hemmed in, at the kerb, by two parked lorries and a newly arrived delivery van.
Alarm bell ringing. People gesticulating wildly and shouting: “Stop thief!” “Police! Police!” The gang abandoned the getaway car and began to run off down the street. And it was at that precise moment that Alec de Antiquis—a 31-year old father of 6 children—was passing by on his big, red, Indian motorbike.
De Antiquis took in the situation in an instant—saw three masked gunmen trying to make good their escape—and he attempted to block their progress by switching off the motorbike's engine and steering it directly at them. When both he and his bike eventually slid to a stop, one of the robbers shot him in the head and the gang then quickly vanished into busy, nearby streets.
As Alec de Antiquis lay dying, in the gutter, attended by stunned onlookers, a press agency photographer, Geoffrey Harrison, took the photograph—a single, striking, black and white image—that was forever after associated with the crime and which was to focus the world's attention on London gangland and the intense murder investigation that then ensued.
Enter stage right—Detective Superintendent Robert Fabian of Scotland Yard. Fabian was already well known to the public for having successfully foiled a terrorist bomb-plot at Piccadilly Circus, just before the war. His role—to head up the enquiry that in time would become one of the London's most intense murder-hunts. A large scale operation that would see brilliant detective work, and bring into play the very latest in forensic and ballistic methodologies and technologies, and eventually see the flooding of London’s streets by policemen—in a conscious attempt to so severely interrupt the everyday execution of crime, that it’d cause London’s underworld to want to search for and give up the murder suspects themselves—just to re-establish the natural order between thief and thief-taker.
Twenty-seven witnesses made statements—most of which turned out to be at odds with each other—but one, a taxi-driver, reported having seen two masked men disappear into Brook House, Tottenham Court Road, soon after the time of the murder. And when the police searched the premises they found a discarded raincoat and a scarf folded into a triangle, as might be used for a mask.
The raincoat was eventually traced to 23-year old Charles Henry Jenkins—who had a criminal record—and he was duly brought in for questioning. (It’s important to note here that postwar Britain was living under stringent Government mandated rationing measures—and was still doing its level best to survive the peace. All clothing was subject to strict annual, coupon-based allowances and so most overcoats sold had a supplier’s label sewn inside and, as like as not, a serial number, too, hidden away somewhere.)
Against all the odds, the two guns that’d been fired in the incident were then discovered down by the river by two schoolboys—the first a .455 calibre ‘English Bulldog’ revolver found by a ten-year-old, near Shadwell Docks—the other, a .320 revolver, by a seven-year-old, on the muddy foreshore, a mile away, at Wapping. Both boys had attempted to fire the guns, themselves, but neither had been unable to pull back the triggers. Ballistic tests—by firearms expert Robert Churchill—later conclusively proved that the first gun found was the one fired in Jay’s the Jeweller’s—the second gun to be the one that fired the bullet that had killed Alec de Antiquis.
There was a bit of a step-back when all 27 witnesses to the shooting then failed to pick out Jenkins in a police identity parade. However, by that time, the police had also arrested two of Jenkins' known associates: Christopher James Geraghty (aged 21) and Terence Peter Rolt (aged 17). Under questioning, Geraghty was first to talk, then Rolt, and it was his confession that directly implicated Jenkins for the murder of de Antiquis.
All three men were then charged with the murder of Alec de Antiquis. And after a week-long trial—at the Old Bailey—when it took the jury but 15 minutes to return a verdict of guilty—all three were found guilty. Rolt, being under 18-years of age, at the time of the crime, was sentenced to be detained at His Majesty's Pleasure. Jenkins and Geraghty were sentenced to death and were duly hanged—side-by-side—in a double execution—on 19 September 1947—by famed hangman, Albert Pierrepoint—who’d dispatched all the Nazi war criminals after the Nuremburg War Trials—at London’s Pentonville Prison.
Much of the press reaction at the time focused on the breakdown of law and order, the increasing rise in youth crime, the spread of illegal firearms, and the deterrent value of capital punishment. Not unnaturally, it also led to questions being asked in Parliament—a sure sign that events had touched a national nerve.
However, the de Antiquis Affair also brought together a number of unique personalities—all of whom were famous in their own right. Among them, the pioneering forensic pathologist, Sir Bernard Spilsbury; the crusading Fleet Street journalist, Duncan Webb; hangman, Albert Pierrepoint; and, of course, Scotland Yard’s very own Detective Superintendent Robert Fabian. Fabian’s matchless detective work—and leadership—led to the creation of the hit television series 'Fabian of the Yard’, which later inspired the classic film, 'The Blue Lamp'—a huge box office success starring Dirk Bogarde and Jack Warner. And that film—in turn—then gave rise to one of England’s longest running police procedural television series: Dixon of Dock Green.
The de Antiquis Affair touched British popular culture as few murders and murderers have done—save perhaps for London’s grim catalogue of serial killers such as Jack the Ripper, John Reginald Christie, and John George Hague—but in many regards—it remains unique in the annals of London crime.
There is, of course, much, much more to The de Antiquis Affair and all the many individuals who played a part in it—and for any Murder Everywhere reader interested in delving deeper into the crime, I can’t recommend Paul Willetts’s wonderful book North Soho 999 highly enough—it’s a brilliant tour de force—much of it cold, hard fact—but it reads like an out-and-out, unabashed thriller.