London Letter

London Letter

BEVERLEY BAXTER August 18 1956
London Letter

London Letter

BEVERLEY BAXTER August 18 1956

London Letter

How London vice laughs at the law


There is nothing very exciting about Maida Vale. It is just another part of that vast condensation of humanity known as London. The shops are of no particular size or importance and such dwelling places as exist possess no unusual architectural value.

In one of these houses lived a forty-five-year-old man named Thomas Smithson. He seemed to have no particular hours of work and, according to his neighbors, was rather a night-bird.

But he was not without friends, or, at any rate, acquaintances. In fact, the other night three men arrived at the home of a friend whom he was visiting, burst into the room and shot him. A passer-by telephoned the police, and an ambulance rushed Mr. Smithson to hospital,

There he was visited by the police, but Mr. Smithson, who had only five more minutes to live, refused to give any information about his assailants. Instead, he uttered a last curse upon the police and went to his death, having proudly maintained to the very end his reputation as the silent man of London's underworld.

Apparently the police were not wholly surprised by Mr. Smithson's exit from this world. It could not be said of him that he was a man without ambition, and the police were aware of this human frailty. In fact, Mr. Smithson had been working in the salubrious London district of Soho for a Maltese vice racket.

He was doing well but he wanted to do better. Indeed, he was determined to run a bigger and better vice racket than his employers. Shocked by such unworthy aspirations, three of his employers called upon him on the night that I have described. In fact, it was they who did him in.

Let us agree that the world is no poorer for the exit of Mr. Smithson, but it is all very embarrassing for the Rt. Hon. Gwilym Lloyd-George who, as home secretary, is responsible for the administration of law and order.

This agreeable son of a great father has been having a hard time. No one doubts the sincerity of his conversion, but it is rather awkward that, as a private MP. he voted with the rest of us to do away with hanging in 1948 and now, as the sole minister who can grant a reprieve, has changed his mind and is in favor of retaining the gallows.

But that is not his chief trouble. The fact is. the organized vice racket of Soho has now reached such a level that the late Mr. AÍ Capone might well stir with envy in his grave.

It is true that the racketeers of London have never achieved the homicidal level of Mr. Capone’s organization. Normally, when a rival gangster tries to muscle in on the established rackets, he is on not shot but merely cut up with razors.

You probably have heard how, a few months ago, two gangsters fought openly in Soho Square until they were covered with blood. At the police court an eighty-year-old clergyman gave evidence that they had not fought at all, but merely argued. At the Old Bailey trial it transpired that the cleric had been losing money on horses and was in the gangsters’ clutches.

It seems strange to be writing such words about this greatest of all cities, but the ugly fact remains that beautiful London has a cancer in the very centre of its being. Then why is the cancer not removed? That is the question that everyone is asking and I cannot believe that it will remain unanswered for long.

Part of the trouble is that the vice laws and penalties are the same as a century ago. For example, it is not against the law for a prostitute to stand at night in a doorway or in front of a lighted shop window and speak to a man. Only if she causes a disturbance does she come under the law.

In these lovely summer evenings I enjoy walking home from the House of Commons, up Park Lane to Marble Arch. Park Lane is the very artery of tourism with its hotels and fashionable restaurants, and like a guard of honor the prostitutes stand a few yards apart along the entire route.

They behave perfectly. They merely Stand and wait, and except for a quiet, “Hello, darling!” they cause no disturbance of the peace.

But off the main route it is not always peaceful. Some friends of mine have a flat overlooking Hyde Park and regularly at one or two in the morning a car swerves into the sleeping square and the vice racketeers collect the earnings of the prostitutes.

There are curses, shrieks of anger, and blows are sometimes struck. The language is vile but somehow the police are never on hand. But since the only charge could be that of disturbing the peace, there is nothing for the gangsters to fear.

A few months ago I went to Bow Street Police Court to pay a fine for having left my car in a no-parking area. Waiting outside the court room were some twenty prostitutes. Eventually they were brought in, fined two pounds each and dismissed. There was no reproach from the magistrate, no urging that they should change their occupation, and no threat of a bigger fine, or imprisonment, if they did not mend their ways. The fine represented no more than a night’s tip. But that is the law.

Which brings us back to the three Maltese gangsters who murdered Mr. Smithson. They had allowed themselves to be lured by ambition. They saw themselves as big shots in the vice ring and were also interesting themselves in the bookmaking racket so that eventually they could force the loud-mouthed shouters of odds to pay for “protection.”

Therefore, we can understand their annoyance when Mr. Smithson actually tried to set up in opposition. The curious thing is that they made no attempt to hide after the murder. Perhaps they were too proud. Perhaps they thought the police would be afraid to act.

At any rate two of them were at home when the police called on them early next day.

According to the statement subsequently issued from the Yard, the detective-superintendent told them that he was making enquiries into the death of Smithson. “1 believe that you men were present at the time,” he said. “Would you be prepared to tell me if it is so?”

No doubt feeling that such courtesy deserved its reward, the No. 1 Maltese said, “Sure, it was me that shot him."

Not to be outdone by such candor the second Maltese, whose name is Spampinato, said, “I was with him when he shot Smithson. He is my friend and what he says is okay by me. I will tell you the whole setup if you like.”

It only remains to state that later in the day the third Maltese was arrested and admitted at once that he was with the others at the time of the shooting.

The whole episode might have come from the pen of the Sardonic Satirist. But why did these evil creatures make no attempt to lie to the inspector? The only possible explanation is that they had grown so arrogant, or been so bemused by American gangster films, that they actually believed the police would not dare to arrest them.

But the Sardonic Satirist was not finished. On the very day that the murderers were being questioned, the House of Commons met for the final debate on the abolition of hanging. I do not ask for your tears, but do have a little sympathy for those of us who have brought this bill through all its stages.

By the end of the debate you might have thought that our little group of Tory abolitionists, who had combined with the socialists to alter the law, were in the pay of the vice racketeers. We were soft-headed, bemused, sentimental, obstinate, illogical blunderers. The British press had already said it but the Tories said it all over again.

But our Tory splinter group, like the guards at Waterloo, refused to budge. To the scorn of our blood brothers we went into the lobby with the socialists and imposed our will upon parliament.

But the fault is not ours, nor arc the police to blame for the little Chicago that has grown up in London. Successive governments have failed to grapple with the vice problem. By the stupid obstinacy that has never altered the outdated vice laws and maintained a fine that is no more than a night's tip for the prostitute, we have permitted a vast racketeer empire to come into being.

It gives me no pleasure to write these words. To live in London is to lose one’s heart to London, and this evil growth should have been crushed years ago. But public opinion is now thoroughly roused and 1 cannot think that Sir Anthony Eden's government will let things rest as they are.

Meanwhile, the abolition bill was stalled once more when the House of Lords, sensing the anger of the public, refused to pass it. Indeed, in doing so it had public opinion behind it.

Personally, I feel like taking up the amiable hobby of bird watching, or attending four-day test matches between England and Australia.

The road that the reformer treads is rough and long and weary. ^