Not Quite Murder Mile
In the third of her stories Linda Wilkinson recounts Columbia Rd’s history of violence and death
Angela Flanders, the perfumer of Columbia Rd, believes Zodiac signs are manifest upon the earth as well as in the stars. Her belief is that Columbia Rd represents Cancer the Crab and it draws people to its bosom in a fond embrace. This is as much to do with the shape of the road as the fact that, for centuries, half of Columbia Rd was called Crab Tree Row, much latterly being united with Birdcage Walk to become Columbia Rd as we know it today.
In total, the road is just eight-hundred and fifty yards long, far short of the traditional length of a ‘murder mile’ yet, even so, it seems that the cancerous motif signals not a welcome but something more akin to dark alchemies.
The overspill of the weaving industry from Spitalfields gave rise to the first recorded murders for – although the deaths were sanctioned by the powers that be – the hangings of John Doyle and John Valline in 1769 were murders nonetheless. They were weavers who had fought for a better wage and had the temerity to belong to a Union. They were hung in Bethnal Green outside the Salmon & Ball Pub.
With the collapse of the weaving trade, Cancer the Crab in the guise of Crab Tree Row, saw the affluent summer houses of the wealthy Huguenot weavers crumble in the late eighteenth century and fall into disrepair and squalor. In the early nineteenth century, law reform led to a dearth of hangings and it was this which, strangely, brought new murders to the Crab itself. In 1831, the ‘London Burkers’ murdered three – possibly more – people and sold them for dissection to the London medical schools when, quite simply, there were not enough stiffs for the students to study.
Living opposite the Birdcage Pub, on the infamous Nova Scotia Gardens and next to a dung heap of enormous proportions, John Bishop and accomplices moved on from ‘resurrecting’ corpses to drugging and drowning their victims in a well in the garden. Their crime became known as the ‘Italian Boy Murder,’ even though the boy in the case was not Italian and there was more than one death.
They too, hung for this but the murder – or worse – of a young girl in 1900 was never solved. As reported at the time, “A man dressed in ragged clothes and wearing a bowler hat took a girl of about five years, into a lavatory on Columbia Rd, Bethnal Green, stripped her of her clothing, leaving the clothing behind.” In spite of a report that a man was seen with a sack on his back with a young child’s leg sticking out of it, she was never found and what her fate might have been can only be surmised.
Just before this grim event, in 1898, two young women from Columbia Rd committed suicide together in a lake at Wanstead, leaving a note that they should be buried together.
Then, in the next century, on the 7th September 1940, literally on the site of the ‘Italian Boy Murder,’ a million-to-one-chance saw a fifty kilogramme bomb enter the air vent to a vast underground bomb shelter beneath old Columbia Rd market building where it exploded, killing fifty-three people and injured many more. This shelter had become a home to beleaguered East Enders – a place where marriages were performed, religious worship took place and a piano entertained locals and troops alike, until it became awash with their blood.
Times remained hard on Columbia Rd post-war. In the nineteen-sixties, there were at least two suicides of long-term residents and, of course, the Kray twins treated the street as their playground. Every Sunday, they held court in the Globe pub, collecting protection money and intimidating those who refused to pay. Firebombing was their preferred method of persuasion for recalcitrant business owners. Gang crime spiralled out of hand and a high-speed (for those days) car chase by the police saw the criminals’ car crash outside the Royal Oak pub where a gun was pulled on a curious passer-by.
Although the Krays went down for their crimes in 1969, the next year Mrs Beber, an old lady who ran a confectioners on Columbia Rd was murdered in her shop, leaving her ninety-year-old husband a widower, and the crime remains unsolved to this day.
Is the site of the ‘Italian Boy Murder’ cursed? In August 2007, a frenzied knife attack saw a girl of four years old, her mother and her uncle hacked to death in Sivill House, which is built on the site of Nova Scotia Gardens and the bomb shelter that saw so many deaths. Another murder of an old lady called Nora by a drug addict took place in the same building not long after.
All told, in eighty hundred and fifty yards, there have been ten murders, not counting the fifty-three bomb deaths, at least four suicides and five people hung as a consequence of local crime. Of the murders, three remain unsolved.
The crossroads at the Salmon & Ball pub where Doyle and Valline were hung in 1769
May, Bishop & Williams in the dock
John Bishop’s house in Nova Scotia Gardens
The huge dust heap that dominated Columbia Rd
The Birdcage pub, 1930
The Black Buildings of the Columbia Market Complex after a bombing raid in 1941
Now the Stringray, the Globe pub was once a Sunday haunt of the Kray Twins
Report on the still-unsolved murder of Mrs Beber in 1969
Sivill House was built on the site of the ‘Italian Boy Murder’ and has seen a few incidents itself
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A fundraising pub quiz for the Columbia Market War Memorial is taking place on Monday 24th November 8.30pm at Ye Olde Black Bull, 13 Broadway, Stratford. E15 4BQ. £3 per person entry with teams of up to six people accepted. There will be a prize for the winning team and a raffle. Donations to Treasurer, Columbia Market War Memorial Group, c/o Dorset Centre, Diss St, E2 7QX.