London is special. Beautiful, ugly, intimate, sprawling.
The capital fed my interest in writing about the 60s’ Nude Murders, to explore how the place has evolved. I was a child at the time and my memories are vivid of a Highbury still shattered by the war, paraffin heaters and markets thick with shoppers.
To say nothing of the pop songs on transistors all around, the TV – Corrie hairnets in black and white – even the way old relatives used to talk. Oh, do give over!
From squalor to £4m houses
The contrast between then and now is jarring. Living conditions, for example. One of the victims of the Nude Killer, Helen Barthelemy, lived in a bedsit in Willesden.
The house was crammed. Helen was in one room on the ground floor. A Jamaican nurse, who became her friend, lived in the back room. On the first floor were two young couples with a single child each, both families living in one room. One room! Toilet and kitchen facilities were shared.
Mary Fleming, another of the women killed during the murderer’s campaign of death, which lasted through 1964, lived in similar conditions in Lancaster Road, Notting Hill. What was once a squalid, overcrowded house in a slum area is today worth £4 million.
London crime scenes
Researching The Hunt for the 60s’ Ripper led me to visit all the crime sites in the company of two recently retired detectives, Brian Hook and Andy Rose, who were generous in their efforts to explain to me the contrast policing methods from the Sixties with those of today.
One of the areas we toured was Chiswick, by the Thames. It was on the foreshore that two victims were found, Hannah Tailford and Irene Lockwood.
At the time the area was a bustling commercial neighbourhood of factories and warehouses, dealing with trade coming up the river and transported through wharves. Today it is a collection of dull private flats and gated estates. No doubt expensive, but gentrified and ‘improved’ to within an inch of its life.
Street prostitution and destitution
The book is, of course, concerned with a part of London life that is vastly different today – the street trade in sexual services. After the war sex workers were easy to see on many street corners from Hyde Park to Shepherd’s Bush.
I interviewed one former policeman, Frank Gibbings, now in his seventies and living in Paignton. He was a young CID officer in Kensington during the 1960s. He said, ‘Street prostitution wasn’t just concentrated at Queensway and Bayswater, it was all over the place. The underpass in Fulham was also a regular beat. There were a lot of street girls, a lot of them.’
He also mentioned to me a little known feature of this era – the number of homeless former Second World War soldiers who were sleeping rough. ‘You had a lot of ex-soldiers dossing on the street,’ said Gibbings. ‘Many would lie on the benches in Kensington Park. I know this was the Sixties, 20 years after the war, but many of them had no life.
‘You look at it now and would say many had post-traumatic stress, but in those days they came back from the war and would just be told to get a job and get on with it. We had to disturb them and ask them to move on. A lot of them had their medals on their chest under their army greatcoats. They would pull back their coats and show us their medals, and we would say, “All right, mate, go to sleep, you’ll be all right.”’