I’m not able to talk about certain aspects of my working life, no I wasn't a Police Officer but came across many social undesirables in my working life including a few murderers. in our early years in London I was occasionally asked to take charge at the London Emergency Centre at a dingy office at Alexander Fleming House, Elephant and Castle, long since turned into a block of flats.
This was a weekend centre for the indigent flotsam and jetsam of London society, open from ten am to ten pm on Saturdays and Sundays. Runaways, victims of crime, people delivered by police officers, they came seeking help, advice or just a government funded ‘handout.’
I had a fund of cash available, delivered to me with great ceremony by a man in a grey uniform, always the same man, from the Treasury who never spoke, not even good morning and insisted on me using only the pen he brought with him for the signature on his clipboard.
My interviewing staff of about a dozen were keen to impress on me at my first day on the job that the vast majority of the hundred or so people an hour who called seeking help were scroungers ‘trying it on’ and I should not be swayed by sob stories. It took only a single morning to change me from a gullible person to a fully formed cynic. Excellent training for life.
I mostly made decisions based on the evidence provided to me by my staff. On the rare occasions I interviewed a ‘customer’ I soon realised my very experienced staff knew what they were talking about. I doled out small cash sums to people whose wallet containing their wages had been lost or stolen and tried to find safe lodging or a place of safety for life’s unfortunates. I would estimate we believed only ten per cent of these tales of woe and yet my staff still shook their heads at my rampant generosity. They weren’t being unkind, the vast majority of callers were indeed trying it on and many of them said ‘oh well, worth a try’ after being refused.
It was never dull. I remember a drunken woman coming in asking for a new winter coat as she was cold. I’d just had a call from a Salvation Army hostel to say they had room for one of my customers and they’d mentioned a large quantity of clothing being available. I told the woman I was arranging for a coat to be provided shortly, but she became abusive insisting she wanted money to go and buy one from Selfridges. I moved on to deal with another matter and within five minutes we had to evacuate the waiting room to put out a fire. The woman had collected a pile of newspapers, set fire to them and was ‘getting warm in front of the fire.’
Over a thirty year period a statistically high number of people fell to their deaths in front of tube trains on the Northern Line. Sadly, it’s a fairly common experience and both Marigold and I heard the station announcer informing waiting passengers of a delay in service ‘owing to a body on the line’ on several occasions.
My route to work at the Elephant and Castle involved a trip on the relentlessly grim Northern Line of London Underground. After cashing up and locking up on Saturday and Sunday evenings I didn’t ever relish a late night trip on the tube with assorted drunks and druggies for company and the Northern Line was pretty grim even in daylight.
One of the Emergency Centre ‘regulars’ was a local rough sleeper who came in fairly often to ask for money to buy ‘just a bit of comfort.’ He was a hardened drinker, well into the stage of imbibing methylated spirit, and inclined to become violent even though he was very short and slight of build, as befitting the jockey he occasionally claimed to have been in his native Ireland.
Alcoholics, rough sleepers, down and outs, I have come across a great many of them over the years. They’re prone to exaggeration, wild flights of fancy and unsubstantiated boasting so I didn’t take the claims of Kieran Kelly to have pushed his best friend under a tube train and repeated the act with strangers on several occasions at all seriously.
I did on one occasion mention his name to a police officer who came to collect a teenage runaway who wanted to go back home to Leeds. It had been a frustrating episode requiring confirmation from the police in Leeds that a 14 year old runaway would be cared for back home as I was about to issue a rail travel warrant. The boy’s parents sent a message back along the lines of, ‘keep him, we don’t want him back’ and it was while I was still trying to resolve the problem that I drew the attention of the police officers to the claims of mass murder on the Northern Line only to be told, ‘oh, he tells everyone that. Ignore him.’
Between 1953 and 1983 when he was finally sent to prison for life, Kieran Patrick Kelly committed at least 18 murders and possibly as many as 24. Kelly, a vagrant alcoholic was well known to the police and had a long history of drunkenness, violence and thefts to support his alcoholism. These murders were all recorded as suicides, often as a result of a helpful member of the public providing a statement saying he had been standing close to the person and seen them leap in front of the approaching train.
Over that thirty year period Kelly would be arrested for robbery or drunkenness, serve a few months, come out of prison, be arrested again and be back in prison within days. Finally, In 1983 he was arrested for stealing a ring and a watch from a 65-year-old man on Clapham Common in south London and while in the cells of Clapham police station he killed a fellow vagrant William Boyd because the other man was snoring.
He readily admitted killing Boyd but claimed he had killed many others by pushing them under tube trains. Computers as an aid to linking events were unknown then and it had never been noticed before that soon after Kelly came out of prison, someone committed suicide on the Northern Line.
Even more remarkable was the evidence gained from British Transport Police files revealing Mr Kieran Patrick Kelly had been a witness at each of the reported suicides.
Murder trials are costly so the Director of Public Prosecutions only tried Kelly on five murder charges. When he was found guilty of murdering William Boyd and Hector Fisher, another vagrant who was found stabbed in a graveyard in 1975, and given a life sentence the DPP decided not to proceed further.
Despite his confessions, later rescinded on legal advice, he was never convicted of any of the 16 Northern Line murders.
My lead receptionist, Harry, a middle aged man who wore half a dozen wristwatches on each arm, part of his ‘stock,’ all available for sale, and ran three market stalls on Petticoat Lane as his day job was the most cynical man I ever met. He would have said he was a realist and any con artists who tried to get a free handout soon realised they’d met their match.
His market trader expertise in the garment industry had been the inspiration behind his friends Ronald Wolfe and Ronald Chesney writing The Rag Trade, a hugely popular tv sitcom starring Peter Jones, Miriam Karlin and a very young Barbara Windsor.
He was also the man behind my introduction to a world I never knew existed, the otherworldly and distinctly seedy area of Whitechapel. It may be trendy now, but like many areas of London* now considered desirable it was a real eyesore.
*Islington? Not a celebrity, fancy restaurant or wine bar in sight in1969. It was one of the many places best avoided after dark, like Brixton or Notting Hill.
One day we traipsed through Petticoat Lane to go and queue at Blooms, the Jewish delicatessen for a lunch meal I will never forget. I had salt beef sandwiches with pickles. I can taste that sandwich even now.
Most customers were Hasidic, ultra-orthodox, with long side curls known as payos below their hats, dressed in black and speaking Yiddish. I couldn’t believe we were still in London. Being with someone who knew everybody else meant listening to a dozen conversations at once. The waiters and serving staff were conspicuously rude, surly and unhelpful. This was said to be their trademark, the USP (unique selling point) of Blooms.
As we left to rush back to work I was still trying to compose myself in readiness for real life again so paid little attention to the fiftieth person who had stopped to say hello to Harry. Very small, very perky with a rather vulgar laugh, that’s all I remember.
After she’d gone I realised it was Barbara Windsor.
If you get this far you’re probably thinking I’ve been rambling on long enough already by now.
Okay, I agree then, I shall bloviate no more, ça suffit !