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Wartime London: A criminal’s paradise?


The natural inclination, when thinking about wartime London, is to imagine its people huddled in Tube stations and bomb shelters, singing rousing choruses of “Roll Out the Barrel”; of a defiant population fortified by Churchill’s soaring oratory.  Certainly, there is truth to this—but there lurks another bloodstained truth beneath the heroic veneer.  While the blackout and bombings gave rise to stories of sacrifice and selflessness, they also created ample opportunity for more sinister deeds.

Committing vile acts with knives and tin openers, the Blackout Ripper stalked the darkened streets and alleys of Soho, leaving behind a trail of human wreckage over a bloody five-day killing spree. John Reginald Christie, the infamous killer of Rillington Place, used his position as a volunteer policeman to prey on victims and establish his gruesome house of corpses. Air-raid warden Harry Dobkin tried to use the Blitz to conceal his wife’s murder. These are but a few of the killers who took advantage of the wartime chaos.

In addition to violent crime, the blackout and deprivations of wartime London gave rise to sinister industries that would have been hard-pressed to flourish under normal conditions, but “normal” proved to be an elastic concept for a city on the frontline. The capital was a criminal’s paradise. For hustlers, thieves, black marketers, pimps, and other shady characters of questionable disposition, the blackout and destruction wrought from above meant good business.  Looters stalked the streets and picked through the ruins of shattered homes for anything of value. They often plied their trade during air raids, operating with little fear of capture. Between the first week of September and the end of November 1940, the police received nearly 400 reports of looting. 

London’s Public Morality Council, a group of concerned citizens who feared the war’s corrupting influence on the English sense of decorum, had much to worry about.  Prostitution was a primary concern, with the blackout enabling a bustling sex trade. The matter, however, remained beyond the council’s control. A woman in London could not legally solicit a man for sex, but she could work as a prostitute. The muddled law did nothing to deter the profession, which became a major blackout business with a large military clientele.

Indeed, the police had their work cut out for them. Bombs and the dangers of patrolling London in the dark cost the police 100 men during the war.  Petrol rationing and mandatory radio silence also put a strain on investigations, but whether walking the beat or arriving at a blood-splattered crime scene with Murder Bag in hand, the constables and detectives of London’s Metropolitan Police force rose to the challenge in the face of harsh wartime conditions. From gangland violence to looting, murder and missing-persons cases, they tackled the width and breadth of criminal enterprises. Their skill and dedication, under the most adverse conditions, ensured that the likes of Christie, the Blackout Ripper, John Haigh—the notorious Acid Bath Killer—and others ended their vile careers at the end of a rope.

By Simon Read

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