Gun Crazy

Be warned, this contains plot spoilers…

You can seldom flick through a London newspaper these days without seeing an item about teenage gangsters and the proliferation of illegal firearms. More often than not, the so-called “gun culture” is portrayed as merely the latest in a litany of undesirable American imports. Like many other apparently novel cultural developments, though, there’s nothing new about the menacing figure of the gun-toting young gangster. His appearance may have changed over the years, but he first joined the ranks of Britain’s urban bogeymen at least six decades ago.

Far from bringing peace to the nation’s bomb-scarred cities, the ending of the Second World War heralded an unprecedented crimewave. The full impact of this epidemic of lawlessness, fuelled by commodity shortages and the black market, was felt in London. As well as products such as sugar and clothes, unlicensed guns could be purchased from the flamboyantly dressed spivs who prowled the bleak post-war cityscape. A high proportion of those guns were probably battlefield souvenirs, smuggled into the country by returning servicemen. When the Metropolitan Police announced a brief gun amnesty during 1946, 18,000 firearms and over a quarter of a million rounds of ammunition were handed over. The weaponry ranged from revolvers to machine-guns. Despite the efforts of the police, firearms remained even cheaper and more readily available than they are now. For as little as £5 – equivalent to about £140 in 2007 currency – a high-calibre revolver could be purchased from underworld dealers. For £10, you could buy an automatic pistol – a Lüger or some other ex-German military-issue weapon. 

Small wonder, then, that gun-crime became a daily occurrence in the capital, provoking lurid headlines such as 6 AXE AND GUN BANDITS HOLD-UP COUPLE, AGED 70. Many such armed robberies were blamed on what the press portrayed as a new breed of criminal: the ruthless and amoral young gunman, his speech, behaviour and sartorial style copied from violent American movies. 

By 1947, a staggering 10,300 Londoners between the ages of fourteen and twenty were convicted members of criminal gangs. Alongside these fresh-faced gangsters, there were the established criminals, not to mention an estimated 17,500 deserters who, without the ration books necessary to buy most items of food, had to break the law in order to survive. 

The Metropolitan Police, its ability to contain the crimewave inhibited by a severe manpower crisis, soon found itself under more pressure than ever before. Officers took to joking about how Britain had defeated the Axis powers but was losing the war against the underworld. That war would reach its dramatic climax on the streets of the West End. 

Around 3 a.m. on Tuesday, 29 April 1947, a constable on patrol surprised a gang of three men loitering outside a darkened shop on Eastcastle Street. When P.C. Meredith, the constable in question, approached the men, two of them ran off. The other threw a box-opener or jemmy at him. Meredith ducked just in time. His assailant sprinted after the rest of the gang, then turned to fire four shots at Meredith. These missed their target, all but one of them piercing the window of A.J. Lewis & Co., the shop outside which the gang had been loitering. Meredith reported that the gunman and his accomplices had escaped in a car. Less than twelve hours later, the gang were implicated in an even more serious incident when Fitzrovia – at that time widely known as “North Soho” – provided the backdrop to one of the biggest news stories of the decade.

Shortly before 2.30 p.m., three masked gunmen made their way past the restaurants, cafés, shops and other small businesses synonymous with North Soho. The gunmen headed for the crossroads where Tottenham Street meets Charlotte Street, then dominated by the ornate nineteenth-century facade of the Scala Theatre. Their destination was a single-storey building close by. The building, later demolished to make way for the concrete bunker now occupied – appropriately enough – by the Traumatic Stress Centre, housed a combined jeweller’s and pawnbroker’s. 

Had the robbery gone according to plan, the gunmen would have emptied the contents of the window-display before making their escape. In true film noir style, though, their plans soon went awry. Confronted by the gang, the shop’s elderly manager put up a fight, forcing the gunmen to retreat to the waiting getaway car. Unfortunately, their escape-route had been blocked by a delivery van which had just stopped in the middle of the road. Worse still, their getaway driver was such a novice behind the wheel that he couldn’t reverse the car and speed off in a different direction. Panicking, he and the rest of the gang got out and sprinted down Tottenham Street. 

As they reached the intersection with Charlotte Street, an approaching motorcyclist tried to block their path. He was a working-class, Anglo-Italian garage owner named Alec de Antiquis. One of the gunmen reacted by shooting him in the head from close range. Watched by shocked passers-by, whose screams echoed around the soot-stained buildings on either side, the gang fled through the busy streets.

While the gunmen made their escape, the hangman Albert Pierrepoint, who was destined to execute two of them, walked past the dying motorcyclist. A crowd of curious passers-by already encircled the spot where the motorcyclist lay. Pierrepoint assumed that Antiquis had been the victim of a traffic accident. Paying scant attention to the disturbance, he hurried down the road to the Fitzroy Tavern, a famously bohemian watering-hole patronised by the likes of Dylan Thomas, Robert Capa and Ingrid Bergman. There, the jovial Pierrepoint was due to have a quick drink before heading off to occupied Germany to execute the next batch of Nazi war criminals. 

Seconds after Pierrepoint had beetled past, Geoffrey Harrison, a photojournalist who had heard the fatal gunshot, rushed over to the scene of the crime just in time to snatch a picture of two detectives stooping over the victim’s body. The consequent image would become the most famous British crime photo of the 1940s, a photo reproduced on the front-pages of countless newspapers both at home and abroad. It would, in the process, become emblematic of the post-war crimewave. 

In the months leading up to the North Soho murder, there had been a number of other fatal shootings. Partly thanks to Harrison’s powerful photo, the Antiquis shooting stood out from these. What also distinguished it was the fact that the victim had been gunned down on a crowded shopping street in the afternoon. Added to that, there was Antiquis’s conspicuous heroism, the circumstances of his death resembling a scene from a Hollywood thriller. 

For the senior officers at New Scotland Yard, the Antiquis shooting represented the beginning of “a new era in crime”. To deter other gangsters from cold-bloodedly murdering passers-by who got in their way, the Commissioner of the Met felt it was essential to apprehend the culprits as quickly as possible. With that in mind, Chief Inspector Bob Fabian, the detective in charge of the investigation, launched what would turn into the largest-scale murder-hunt staged so far that century. 

During the next twenty days, the press would follow the investigation which, with its generous quota of red herrings and unforeseen twists, resembled the plot of a classic crime novel. The lives of Fabian and several others connected to the story, notably the pioneering pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury, would be transformed by the Antiquis case. It would turn Fabian into a celebrity, his status endorsed by a newspaper column and a bestselling autobiography. It would spawn Fabian of Scotland Yard (1954-56), Britain’s first hit television cop show. And it would inspire The Blue Lamp (1950), the film that not only propelled Dirk Bogarde down the path to movie stardom but also became one of this country’s biggest box office successes. 

Despite the enduring impact of the North Soho murder, there’s no memorial to mark the spot where it happened, where a succession of apparently inconsequential decisions brought Antiquis face to face with his killer. Since then, some of the buildings at the crossroads have changed. So too have the shops and general ambience. Yet the fear of gun-crime, fuelled by events that fateful afternoon, remains undiminished. 

Using Format