Archive for the ‘Soho’ Category

The Prince of Wales Theatre, Dickie Henderson and the Ross Sisters

Tuesday, September 19th, 2017
Comedian Dickie Henderson uses a stool as a prop while he waits for his plane at London Airport.

Comedian Dickie Henderson uses a stool as a prop while he waits for his plane at London Airport.

When the last chord of ‘Twist and Shout’ came to an end, the Beatles grouped together at the front of the Prince of Wales Theatre stage. The blue curtain swished closed behind them and, from the waist and in unison, they bowed  first to the ‘cheap seats’, then turned and bowed again to the ‘jewellery wearers’ in the Royal Box. With the orchestra playing and the audience still applauding they skipped and ran off  the stage with boyish energy.

It was the comedian Dickie Henderson, unenviably, who was next to perform, and after the applause had died down he said: ‘The Beatles … young … talented … frightening!’ The audience laughed, but it had been said with feeling. He, like most of the other acts on the bill of the Royal Variety Performance in November 1963, including Marlene Dietrich, who couldn’t understand why all the camera lenses had been pointing at the four young men from Liverpool, suddenly felt very old-fashioned.

The Beatles relax backstage at London's Prince of Wales Theatre, before the Royal Variety Performance, 4th November 1963. They are supporting Marlene Dietrich in the show. (Photo by Mark and Colleen Hayward)

The Beatles relax backstage at London’s Prince of Wales Theatre, before the Royal Variety Performance, 4th November 1963. They are supporting Marlene Dietrich in the show. (Photo by Mark and Colleen Hayward)

Henderson’s fame was at its peak that November, and it was on purpose and as a reassuringly safe pair of hands that Bernard Delfont had asked him to follow the Beatles that night. The theatre impresario had had too many bad experiences with pop groups dying in front of indifferent mink-wearing Royal Variety audiences,and when he had booked the Beatles earlier that year, on the advice of his daughter Susan, he had never heard of them. The primetime Dickie Henderson Show had recently finished on ITV (it was a staple on the channel between 1960 and 1968) and that summer Henderson had been top of the bill of a popular show called Light Up the Town at the Brighton Hippodrome.

Today you would almost have to be a pensioner to remember Henderson in his prime, but he was once described by Roy Hudd as ‘perhaps the most versatile and certainly the smoothest, most laid-back comedian it had been my pleasure to see’, adding that ‘he danced, sang and delivered one-liners wonderfully, and even his prat-falls were, somehow, classy … He was, without doubt, the best I ever saw.’

Dickie had come from a ‘showbiz’ family. Before the First World War his sisters, Triss and Winnie, were a pair of popular dancers and singers called the Henderson Twins, while his father, Dick Henderson, was a rotund, bowler-hatted comedian and singer known in the music halls, where he had made his name, as ‘The Yorkshire Nightingale’. His trademark was his breakneck banter, salty and censorious, and delivered in a strong Hull accent. Part of his act was to tell the audience that he didn’t want any applause because he was there ‘strictly for the money’. He is perhaps most famous for the first British recording of ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips’, with which, accompanying himself on the ukulele, he usually entered and exited the stage.

Dick Senior, like his son, also performed at Royal Variety shows, the first of which was in 1926 when King George V laughed at: ‘I went to get married and asked the vicar how much it was. He said, “What do you think it’s worth?” I gave him a shilling. He took one look at the bride and gave me twopence back!’

Henderson was a fat man and he usually started his performance by standing sideways, showing o his large belly, saying: ‘I was standing outside a maternity hospital, minding my own business … ’ He died in 1958, just a few days before what would have been his third Royal Variety show. Dickie Henderson’s first job in show business was, as a ten-year-old, playing Master Marriott in the 1933 film of Noël Coward’s play Cavalcade, a movie made while his father was in California performing in vaudeville.

Henderson Senior, despite losing most of his life savings in the Wall Street Crash, was earning reasonably good money in the States where he was commanding top billing in the smaller houses, and was a much appreciated feature act in the bigger circuit halls. Even though the popularity of vaudeville was on the wane, Henderson Senior often earned an impressive $1,000 per week. Dickie tells a story in his half-finished autobiography that Hal Roach had once offered his father, a stout gentleman who never performed without his bowler hat, to ‘test’ with Stan Laurel, another Englishman from the north of England. His father turned him down, however, as the money was only half of what he was earning on stage. Henderson Senior always regretted this decision but later admitted that, compared with Oliver Hardy, ‘I would never have been as good.’

Henderson Senior did make a few films, however, including The Man from Blankley’s in 1930, which starred Loretta Young and John Barrymore, now unfortunately lost. It wasn’t necessarily an easy life in Hollywood at that time, despite the warm Californian sunshine. Noël Coward, unhappy that everyone seemed to ‘work too deuced hard’, once described a typical day while working on Cavalcade: ‘They get up at 6.30 … stand around all day under the red-hot lights … eat hurriedly at mid-day, and because they are too tired to sit up, late at night have their supper served on trays. That’s no way to live, and certainly no way to work.’

Calvacade 1933

Young Dickie on the left in a lobby card for Cavalcade released in 1933

The Henderson Twins and Dick copy

Dickie and the Henderson Twins, c1936

2. Dick Jnr with his father and Max Miller in Things are Looking Up 1934 copy

Dick Jnr with his father and Max Miller in Things are Looking Up, 1934

After the young Dickie had completed his part on Cavalcade, for which he earned $400 for the month’s work, the whole family returned to England on the liner RMS Lancastria. Ten years later, on 17 June 1940, the Lancastria, sank in twenty minutes after it was bombed by the Luftwaffe near the French port of Saint-Nazaire. The sinking of the Lancastria has almost been forgotten but it was the largest loss of life from a single engagement for British forces in the Second World War – about 4,000 men, women and children died. It was also the largest loss of life in British maritime history – greater than the Titanic and Lusitania combined.4 Dickie left school at fifteen, and became ‘prop boy’ with Jack Hylton’s Band, with whom his twin sisters, two years his senior, were singing.

Two years later, the twins had become ‘headliners’ throughout the country and Henderson was learning everything about stagecraft, which he would put to good use for the rest of the career. Looking back at this time he once wrote:

The time on the road, when not performing, we spent learning. Every morning jugglers, acrobats, dog acts and dancers rehearsed. Always rehearsing. In exchange for dance steps from dancers, the jugglers taught dancers how to twirl a cane. Acrobats put you in a harness and taught you back-somersaults. That is why performers, then, could do a bit of everything. I was fortunate to have been part of it, before ‘that school closed’, to quote the great Jacques Tati.

In September 1939, at the start of the Second World War, all the theatres were instructed to close. Dickie became a messenger boy with Air Raid Precautions (ARP), given a bicycle and told to await instructions. There never were any instructions, and when the theatres reopened, after just two weeks, he was back to his pre-war life and travelling around the country as a junior touring performer.

Lieutenant Henderson, 1942

Lieutenant Henderson, 1942

Just as he was about to appear, along with Naunton Wayne and the Hermiones Gingold and Baddeley, in A La Carte, his first West End show, Henderson was called up. It was 1942 and he was nineteen. In the next three years he had, in his own words, ‘an extremely cushy war’. He didn’t have to leave Britain and he saw no action.

Second Lieutenant Dickie Henderson wasn’t able to re-join civilian life until 1946. He was just one of over 4 million servicemen who were demobilised between June 1945 and January 1947. Like thousands and thousands of others, he made his way to Olympia to swap his service uniform for the ubiquitous ‘demob’ outfit. Most of the servicemen in the queues were grumbling about the length of time it had taken for them to get there. The first illustration in the book Call Me Mister! – A Guide to Civilian Life for the Newly Demobilised was a cartoon of an old and decrepit man holding his release book and saying, ‘To think I should really live to see myself demobbed.’

Call Me Mister! A Guide to Civilian Life For the Newly Demobilised published in 1945

Call Me Mister! A Guide to Civilian Life For the Newly Demobilised published in 1945

Demobilisation_of_British_Service_Personnel._H42442

Demobilisation_of_the_British_Army_BU8067

Demobilisation_of_the_British_Army_BU8063

By the end of 1945, 75,000 de-mob suits were being made every week and supplied by tailors such as Burtons, a company founded by Montague Burton and where, perhaps, the phrase the ‘full Monty’ came from – meaning the full set of demob clothes supplied by the firm. Anthony Powell, who served in the Welch Regiment and later the Intelligence Corps during the war, used a scene set in the demob centre at Olympia in the closing passages of his 1968 novel The Military Philosophers: ‘Rank on rank, as far as the eye could scan, hung flannel trousers and tweed coats, drab mackintoshes and grey suits with a white line running through the material’. He pondered whether the massed ranks of empty coats on their hangers somehow symbolised the dead.

The ‘full monty’, as it were, included socks, a shirt, a tie, a hat, cu links and collar studs and came in a ‘handsome box bound with green string’. The accompanying label featured the magic word – to men who had been in the services for six or more years anyway – ‘Mr’, followed by their name. The de-mob suit, often ill-fitting due to the lack of the right sizes available, was a subject to which literally millions of people could relate and became an important ingredient of much post-war comedy. The comedian Norman Wisdom, whose suits were always far too tight with ‘half-mast’ trousers, had been demobilised in 1946 and was once described by John Hall in the Guardian as ‘Pagliacci in a demob suit’.10 Frankie Howerd, yet another of the generation of British comedians who came to prominence in the years after demobilisation, performed in a badly fitting demob suit, probably because, like countless others, he had nothing else to wear.

Dickie himself described his new demob clothes as a ‘grey double- breasted three-piece pinstripe suit, snap trilby hat and a flannelette shirt a air, rather like pyjamas’. He also mentioned his ‘cumbersome shoes’, and it was often joked by the new civilians that the footwear provided by the government needed to be particularly stout and rugged to stand up to the constant wear and tear as they tramped around endless pavements in search of suitable employment.

After his visit to the Olympia De-Mob Centre, Dickie later wrote about how embarrassed he was of his new civilian clothes when, walking down Piccadilly on his way to see his sister Triss, he bumped into a snappily dressed Jack Hylton, who was wearing a suit from Hawes and Curtis in Jermyn Street, a Sulka shirt from the shop on Old Bond Street, and shoes by Walkers of Albermarle Street. Triss Henderson, who had sung with Hylton but was now dancing solo after her sister had met and married a GI during the war, was appearing in a revue called Piccadilly Hayride at the Prince of Wales Theatre. The same theatre, located on Coventry Street between Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square, where Dickie would be compering the 1963 Royal Variety show seventeen years later.

Triss Henderson, Dickie's sister from the Piccadilly Hayride programme.

Triss Henderson, Dickie’s sister from the Piccadilly Hayride programme.

The Ross Sisters, from the Piccadilly Hayride programme

The Ross Sisters, from the Piccadilly Hayride programme

Sid Field performing as Slasher Green the spiv in Piccadilly Hayride.

Sid Field performing as Slasher Green the spiv in Piccadilly Hayride.

The Piccadilly Hayride revue at the Prince of Wales Theatre, where Dickie’s sister Triss Henderson was performing, was actually the comedian Sid Field’s triumphant return to the stage after the disappointment of the expensive technicolour film London Town released the previous year. Much to Field’s relief, the disastrous reception of the movie didn’t at all damage the mutual love affair he now had with the West End audiences and theatre critics and it cemented his reputation as perhaps one of the greatest comedians ever to appear on the West End stage.

Preceding Field’s first sketch of the show, entitled The Return of Slasher Green, Triss Henderson performed the opening song called ‘Let’s Have a Piccadilly Hayride’ with fellow performer Pauline Black, the daughter of the theatrical producer, George Black. At Al Burnett’s nightclub The Stork, just off Regent Street, Pauline introduced Dickie to a young woman called Dixie Ross, part of an extraordinary American singing, dancing and contortionist act called the Ross Sisters (‘Pretzels with Skin’ said some of their posters).

Dixie Jewell Ross was just sixteen and along with her two elder sisters, Veda Victoria Ross and Betsy Ann Ross, eighteen and twenty years old respectively, had travelled to Britain on the RMS Queen Mary, docking at Southampton on the 10 September 1946. Each sister, presumably so they could perform ‘legally’ in clubs in the US and subsequently the UK, had assumed the identity and birthday of the next older sister, and carried passports to this effect. The eldest of the trio, Eva, managed this by taking the name and birth date of Dorothy Jean Ross, the first-born sibling, who had died just a few months old of whooping cough in 1925. Informally the sisters continued to use their original given names, but formally their ‘legal’ names became Dorothy Jean, Eva V and Veda V. Confused? You will be, because the Ross Sisters often used the stage names of Aggie, Maggie and Elmira.

1th September 1946:  Actress sisters Betsy, Vicky and Dixie Ross at Waterloo Station, on arrival in London on the Queen Mary boat train. They are to appear in the new Sid Field show 'Piccadilly Hayride'.

1th September 1946: Actress sisters Betsy, Vicky and Dixie Ross at Waterloo Station, on arrival in London on the Queen Mary boat train. They are to appear in the new Sid Field show ‘Piccadilly Hayride’.

 

US Promotional photograph of the Ross Sisters c.1944

US Promotional photograph of the Ross Sisters c.1944

Dixie Ross

Dixie Ross, c.1944

Whatever they were called, just four years previously the girls and their parents were all living in a trailer near New York. The Ross Sisters’ parents were originally very poor dirt farmers from west Texas. When the dust storms drove them off the land,Mr Ross started working on the Texan and Mexican oil fields, while the girls’ amateur acrobatics were good enough to perform at county fairs and such like. Eventually they were good enough to appear in theatres around the country, and they pooled their money and bought a trailer.

In 1942 they got their big break, being asked to join the cast of Count Me In, a musical starring Charles Butterworth at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway. In the evenings the girls were appearing in a Broadway show while living in a trailer parked at Ray Guy’s Trailer Park, Bergen Boulevard, which is about a mile across the George Washington Bridge in New Jersey. American syndicated newspapers reported that they were ‘thrilled about their first trip to New York. “But,” says Betsy, who is twenty and the eldest, “we certainly aren’t going to give up our trailer until we are sure of the future.”’

The Texan-born sisters had been invited to the West End by Val Parnell, the managing director of the Moss Empire theatres network, who thought they’d work really well in Piccadilly Hayride. Parnell had seen the Ross Sisters’ performance in a film called Broadway Rhythm, an MGM hodgepodge of a musical released in 1944. It starred Ginny Simms and George Murphy, who played a Broadway producer looking for big-name stars, while ignoring the talent around him from his family and friends. The film was essentially a pageant of various MGM speciality acts, including impressionists, nightclub singers and tap dancers.

The short New York Times review of the film included the line: ‘Three little girls, the Ross Sisters, do a grand acrobatic dance.’ The ‘grand acrobatic dance’ is pretty well all that’s remembered of the  lm these days, and seventy years or so after the  lm was released, their remarkable performance has been seen by millions on Youtube and certainly by many more people than on its original cinema release in 1944.

The extraordinary performance by the Ross Sisters in Broadway Rhythm

Snapshot of the Ross Sisters in the US, c.1944.

Snapshot of the Ross Sisters in the US, c.1944.

Dixie Ross doing what she did best, c.1944.

Dixie Ross doing what she did best, c.1944.

If Broadway Rhythm wasn’t particularly successful, Piccadilly Hayride, riding on Sid Field’s incredible popularity, certainly was, and it ran for an incredible 778 performances and took over £350,000 at the box office. The original songs for the revue were written by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, one of which, ‘Five Minutes More’, was sung by the Ross Sisters, and a version by Frank Sinatra became one of the most popular songs of the year.

Dickie fell in love with young Dixie, and although he was performing in a touring revue entitled Something to Shout About (a title it didn’t live up to, according to Dickie) when he was in London he took her to nightspots such as the Coconut Grove at 177 Regent Street – a club where the Latin American bandleader Edmundo Ros had performed during the war. Dickie would later appear in cabaret there, and describes it in his autobiography: ‘It was like all night-clubs at the time: a cellar where one could drink scotch or brandy after hours out of a cracked co ee cup in case of a police raid. It was never raided during the three months that I was there, and with Savile Row police station only one hundred yards away, I drew my own conclusions regarding the dogged efficiency of the police surveillance.’

When Piccadilly Hayride closed, Dixie and her sisters went to France to perform at the glamorous Bar Tabarin on rue Victor Massé with the likes of Edith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier. Meanwhile, Dickie went into pantomime in Brighton with the double-act Jewel and Warriss. After the six-week run, a broke Dickie used up his last £10 for a flight to Paris and immediately proposed to Dixie. He assumed that, if she accepted, he had time to save some money as she and her sisters had planned to tour Australia for six months.

The next morning they strolled down the Champs-Elysées and Dixie turned to Dickie and said, ‘Darling, I have some wonderful news… ’ The middle sister, Vicki, had fallen in love with the French ventriloquist Robert Lamouret (who performed with a Donald Duck-a-Like called Dudulle and was also part of Piccadilly Hayride). He had proposed to her but she didn’t want to break up the act. ‘But she can now, as we are getting married too!’ said Dixie. Henderson and Dixie Jewell Ross married in the summer of 1948 at Westminster Cathedral, with the comedian Jimmy Jewel as the best man.

Entertainment - Dickie Henderson - London Airport

Dickie leaping over Dixie at home in Kensington on his 37th birthday, 1959.

Dickie leaping over Dixie at home in Kensington on his 37th birthday, 1959.

Exactly fifteen years later, on 10 July 1963, a few weeks before he followed the ‘frightening’ Beatles on to the Royal Variety stage at the Prince of Wales Theatre, Dickie Henderson arrived at his home in Kensington, only to be told his wife had died on the way to hospital. Dixie Henderson, at the age of thirty-three, and according to the coroner, had taken fifteen or sixteen barbiturate sleeping pills. She had left a note for the ‘daily’ saying that she wasn’t to be disturbed. Whether it was suicide or a tragic cry for help, the coroner gave an open verdict and it was noted that it had been Dickie and Dixie’s fifteenth wedding anniversary.

In fact Dickie hadn’t seen his wife for two weeks, and would write in his unfinished autobiography that they were on a trial separation at the time, and that he was actually returning home to discuss a reconciliation. Dixie was buried in Gunnersbury Cemetery in Acton. On the gravestone it says ‘Dixie’, but the marriage and death certifcate both have her name as Veda Victoria – the name she borrowed from her older sister twenty years before and never officially relinquished.

Dixie Henderson's grave in Gunnersbury Cemetery in Acton.

Dixie Henderson’s grave in Gunnersbury Cemetery in Acton.

Invariably a safe pair of hands, the ‘classy’ Dickie Henderson went on to perform in eight Royal Variety shows. After making his television debut on Arthur Askey’s Before Your Very Eyes in 1953, he became a much-loved national star during the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s. Some forty-seven years after making his inauspicious stage debut as an ‘eccentric dancer’, the always neat and dapper Dickie succumbed to pancreatic cancer in 1985.

Dickie Henderson on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1959

This is an excerpt from my new book called High Buildings, Low Morals and due to be published on 15 October 2017. Contact me by email or twitter if you’d like a signed copy. More stuff from me, occasionally about London, can be found at flashbak.com.

High Buildings, Low Morals - Another Sideways Look at 20th Century London

High Buildings, Low Morals – Another Sideways Look at 20th Century London

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Warren Street and the Murder of Stan ‘The Spiv’ Setty by Brian Donald Hume in 1949

Thursday, April 18th, 2013

Stan ‘The Spiv’ Setty in 1949.

On March 8 2013 Camden Council permanently closed Warren Street to cars. The road had long been used, presumably for decades, as a rat-run for drivers hoping to avoid the congestion that would often build up at the junction between Tottenham Court Road and the Euston Road.

Closing a road to traffic in central London is hardly unusual these days but in this case there was a certain irony. For much of the 20th century Warren Street had been the centre of the used-car trade in London and was the oldest street car market anywhere in Britain.

“It’s a nice little runner” – Two car dealers on Warren Street in November 1949.

It all started in 1902 when Charles Friswell, an ex-racing cyclist and successful engineer,  astutely hopped on the running board of the new burgeoning car industry and opened Friswell’s Automobile Palace at 1 Albany Street on the corner of the Euston Road. It was a five-storey building that could accommodate hundreds of vehicles in garage and showroom spaces, with repair and paint shops, accessory sales and auction facilities. It was known as ‘The House of Friswell’ and ‘The Motor-World’s Tattersalls’ and was a huge success.

Friswell’s Great Motor Repository at Albany Street.

Friswell’s in Albany Street by the Euston Road.

Smaller car dealers started to open along the Euston Road but as the traffic got busier it became harder and harder to park cars outside their main showrooms. Many of the premises, however, had entrances or exits that opened up on the parallel Warren Street (the road was actually built in the 18th century as an access road for the newly built properties on Euston Road).

By the start of the First World War most of the car sales were actually now taking place in Warren Street. The main dealerships were soon joined by ‘small-fry’ or ‘pavement dealers’ – men who bought and sold cars of questionable provenance on street corners, cafes, milk-bars and pubs. Frankie Fraser described Warren Street in his book Mad Frank’s London:

They’d have cars in showrooms and parked on the pavement. There could be up to fifty cars and then again some people would just stand on the pavement and pass on the info that there was a car to sell. Warren Street was mostly for mug punters. Chaps wouldn’t buy one. People would come down from as far away as Scotland to buy a car. All polished and shiny with the clock turned back and the insides hanging out. And if you bought a car and it fell to bits who was you going to complain to?

Car dealers on Warren Street in November 1949.

Warren Street March 2013. Photograph by Lucy King.

Dodgy car-dealer spivs outside 54 Warren Street in 1949.

 

54 Warren Street today. Photograph by Lucy King.

In December 1949 the magazine Picture Post published an article about the used-car market in Warren Street. They described the road as the northern-most boundary of Soho (Fitzrovia is actually a relatively recent construct and only really been used since the fifties) and explained that was the reason why, “ it attracts a fair amount of gutter garbage from the hinterland.” The reporters feigned shock at the numerous cash-deals that were going on;

Bundles of dirty notes were going across without counting…there is nothing illegal about a cash sale unless, of course, the Income Tax authorities can catch them – which they cannot – or thieves fall out and pick each other’s pockets – or unless, of course, someone gets killed.

And someone did get killed. His name was Stanley Setty, a shady Warren Street car-dealer, with a lock-up round the corner in Cambridge Terrace Mews . He hadn’t been seen since 4 October when he had sold a Wolseley Twelve saloon to a man in Watford for which he received 200 five pound notes. The next day Setty’s brother-in-law called at Albany Street Police station to report him missing but it also didn’t take long before Setty’s fellow traders and black-marketeers noticed his absence from his usual patch outside the Fitzroy Cafe on the corner of Fitzroy Street and Warren Street.

Car dealers loiter outside the Fitzroy Cafe on the corner of Warren Street and Fitzroy Street in London, 19th November 1949. Stan Setty used the cafe as his personal office.

The former stamping ground of Stanley Setty on the corner of Fitzroy Street and Warren Street today. Photograph by Lucy King.

Stanley Setty’s Citroen parked outside his garage in Cambridge Terrace Mews just north of the Euston Road and west of Albany Street.

Stanley Setty had been born in Baghdad of Jewish parents and arrived in England at the age of four in 1908. Twenty years later he received an eighteen month prison sentence, after pleading guilty to twenty-three offences against the Debtors’ and Bankruptcy Acts. In 1949 he was still an undischarged bankrupt and thus unable to open a bank account. Despite this, or more likely because, Setty dealt in large amounts of cash and he was what was called a ‘kerbside banker’.

It was widely known that, on his person, he never carried anything less than a thousand pounds, and, if he was given a couple of hours notice, he could produce up to five times that amount. His real name was Sulman Seti but to many he was known as ‘Stan the Spiv’.

A spiv in 1945 with a Voigtlander camera for sale on the blackmarket in London. The brooches on his lapels are also for sale.

Spiv is a word that’s almost non-existent today and a couple of years ago there were more than a few blank faces when Vince Cable showed his age when describing the City’s much-maligned bankers as ’spivs and gamblers’. After the Second War, however, the word was almost ubiquitous. It was used to describe the smartly-dressed black-marketeers that in a time of controls and restrictions lived by their wits buying and selling ration coupons and sought after luxuries.

When the war had come to an end in the summer of 1945 it was estimated that there were over 20,000 deserters in the country and 10,000 in London alone. These deserters, all without proper identity cards or ration books, had only one choice to make (if they didn’t give themselves up and receive a certain prison sentence) and that was to be part of the huge and growing black market underground.

The word ‘spiv’ had been used by London’s criminal fraternity at least since the nineteenth century and meant a small time crook, con-man or fence rather than a full-time and dangerous villain. The exact origin is lost in the London smog of thieves’ cant, and is etymologically as obscure as the derivation of the goods the spivs were trying to sell. In The Cassell Dictionary of Slang, Jonathon Green suggests the word originally came from the Romany spiv, which meant a sparrow, used by gypsies as a derogatory reference to those who existed by picking up the leavings of their betters, criminal or legitimate.

In 1909, the writer Thomas Burke, in a short story featured in the Idler magazine entitled ‘Young Love in Bermondsey’ mentions ‘Spiv’ Bagster, the ‘Westminster Blood’ who can ‘do things when his dander’s up’. Henry’ Spiv’ Bagster actually existed and was a newspaper seller and petty-thief. His many court appearances for selling counterfeit goods and illegal street-trading were occasionally mentioned in the national press between 1903 and 1906.

Thomas Burke wrote about characters from and around Bermondsey including Barney Grierson who was ‘always handy in a scrum’; Hunky Bottles, ‘captain of the Walworth Whangers’, Battlng Bert, Jumbo Flanagan, Greaser Doodles as well as ‘Spiv’ Bagster.

Another theory about the word ‘spiv’ is that it could well have come from the slang term ’spiff’ meaning a well-dressed man. This turned into ’spiffy’ meaning spruced-up and if you were ‘spiffed up’ you were dressed smartly.

Over time the two meanings of ‘spiv’ seemed to have mysteriously combined and in 1945 Bill Naughton, the playwright and author brought up in Bolton but best known for his London play and subsequent film – Alfie, used the word in the title of an article he wrote in September 1945. Written for the News Chronicle, just a few weeks after the end of World War Two, Meet the Spiv began:

 Londoners and other city dwellers will recognize him, so will many city magistrates – the slick, flashy, nimble-witted tough, talking sharp slang from the corner of the mouth. He is a sinister by-product of big-city civilisation.

James Agate in the Daily Express reviewing Naughton’s article described the spiv as:

That odd member of society… a London type. Which would be a Chicago gangster if he had the guts.

The word ’spiv’ caught the imagination of the public of all classes. People who would have normally described themselves as law-abiding, appreciated, albeit grudgingly, what the spivs had to offer. During the war many people would have felt that without the black market it was almost impossible to have any quality of life at all and the spivs offered an escape from the over-whelming and suffocating strictures of austerity, rationing and self-denial. The sympathetic acceptance of the men with the flashy suits with the wide lapels and narrow waists only increased when the war came to an end. The wartime restrictions were now just restrictions, and the diarist Anthony Heap summed up the mood of much the country at the end of 1945:

Housing, food, clothing, fuel, beer, tobacco – all the ordinary comforts of life that we’d taken for granted before the war and naturally expected to become more plentiful again when it ended, became instead more and more scarce and difficult to come by.

By 1946 the archetypal spiv character was more well known, the columnist Warwick Charlton in the Daily Express wrote in November of that year:

The spivs’ shoulders are better upholstered than they have ever been before. Their voices are more knowing, winks more cunning, rolls (of bank-notes) fatter, patent shoes more shiny. The spivs are the “bright boys” who live on their wits. They have only one law: Thou shalt not do an honest day’s work. They have never been known to break this law.

When war came they dodged the call-up; bribed sick men to attend their medicals; bought false identity cards, and, if they were eventually roped in, they deserted. War was their opportunity and they took it and waxed fat, sleek and rich. They organised the black market of war time Britain. Peace had them worried but only for a moment. Shortages are still with us, and the spivs are the peace-time profiteers.

Seventeen days after Stan ‘the Spiv’ Setty went missing, on the 21 October 1949, a farm labourer named Sidney Tiffin was out shooting ducks on the Dengie mud flats about fifteen miles from Southend when he came across a large package wrapped up in carpet felt. He opened it up with his knife to reveal a body still dressed in a silk cream shirt and pale blue silk shorts. The hands were tied behind the back but the head and legs had been hacked roughly away.

It was estimated that the truncated body had been immersed in the sea for over two weeks and without the head it was thought almost impossible to identify. But the celebrated, not least by himself, Superintendent Fred Cherrill of Scotland Yard’s fingerprint department managed to remove the wrinkled skin from Setty’s fingertips which he then stretched over his own fingers to produce some prints. Prints that turned out to be a match for those of Setty’s.

Within a few days the police found more evidence after they had instructed bookmakers around London to look out for the five pound notes they knew Setty had on his person the day he went missing. Five pounds was a lot of money in 1949 (worth over £150 today) and at that time any five pound note withdrawn from a bank would have had its number noted by the clerk along with the name of the withdrawer.

On the 26th October one of the Setty fivers was found at Romford Greyhound Stadium and on the next day five more were traced back to a dog track at Southend. The police were closing in and on 28 October a man was arrested and taken to Albany Street. Not long after a flat was searched at 620B Finchley Road near Golders Green tube station.

Brian Donald Hume with his wife Cynthia. At the time of his arrest in October 1949 they had a three month old son. She was a former night-club hostess and went on to marry the crime reporter Duncan Webb.

The man arrested was Brian Donald Hume who had originally met the physically imposing Stanley Setty two years previously at the Hollywood Club near Marble Arch. Hume had been impressed with Setty’s expensive-looking suit with the flamboyant tie and his general overall wealthy appearance: “He had a voice like broken bottles and pockets stuffed with cash,” Hume later recalled.

Setty realised that Hume could be useful for his illegal operations and they became ‘business’ partners dealing with classic ‘spiv’ goods such as black market nylons and forged petrol coupons but also trading in stolen cars which Hume stole for Setty to sell on after a quick re-spray. Hume was also useful as he had qualified for a civilian’s pilot’s licence after the war and had been getting a name for himself within London’s underworld as ’the Flying Smuggler’.

Hume was born illegitimately in 1919 to a schoolmistress who gave her son to a local orphanage to bring up. He was retrieved after a few years and brought up by a woman he knew as ‘Aunt Doodie’ but who actually turned out to be his natural mother. According to Hume she never properly accepted him as she did her other children and he would later comment: “I was born with a chip on my shoulder as big as an elephant.”

In 1939 he joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve as a pilot but left in 1940 after getting cerebrospinal meningitis. An RAF medical report at the time, however, described him as having ‘a degree of organically determined psychopathy’.

Hume as RAF Officer c.1943

During the war he bought an RAF officer’s uniform and used his knowledge to masquerade as Flying Officer Dan Hume, DFM. Hume passed off forged cheques at RAF stations around the country (“it was a great thrill to have everyone saluting a a bastard like me”) but he was soon caught and in 1942 he was bound over for two years.

On 1st October 1949, Setty and Hume’s thin veneer of friendship was stripped away during an argument at Hume’s Finchley Road flat. Setty had recently upset Hume by kicking out at his beloved pet terrier when it had brushed up against a freshly re-sprayed car and the confrontation soon became physical. Hume, not a person who particularly found it easy to control his temper, was now in a violent rage and reached over and grabbed a German SS dagger that was hanging on the wall as decoration. He later told a reporter:

I was wielding the dagger just like our savage ancestors wielded their weapons 20,000 years ago . . . We rolled over and over and my sweating hand plunged the weapon frenziedly and repeatedly into his chest and legs . . . I plunged the blade into his ribs. I know; I heard them crack.

Hume stabbed Setty five times after which he lay back and watched his victim’s last breaths. He wrote later: “I watched the life run from him like water down a drain”.

Hume dragged Setty’s hefty thirteen stone into the kitchen and hid the body in the coal cupboard. The next day, while his wife was out, he started to dismember the body with a linoleum knife and hacksaw, eventually wrapping the body parts in carpet felt adding some brick rubble for additional weight.  The following morning Hume arranged to have his front room redecorated, and had the carpet professionally cleaned and dyed to get rid of any stray blood stains. What upset him most was having to burn £900 worth of bloodstained five pound notes.

Later that day Hume took the carpet felt parcels to Elstree airport and hired an Auster light aircraft to dump Setty’s remains over the English Channel. It took several attempts, and broke the plane’s window in the process, before Hume was successful in getting the parcels to slide out of the small side-door. As it was now getting dark Hume decided to land at the closer Southend airport and had to hire a car home for which he paid, of course, with one of Setty’s left-over fivers.

The actual Auster light aircraft used by Brian Hume to dispose of Setty’s body.

Brian Donald Hume, 1949.

A week after his arrest on 5t November Hume appeared at Bow Street Magistrates’ Court charged that he:

Did, between 4th and 5th October, 1949, murder Stanley Setty, aged 46 years. Against the Peace.

By now there was so much evidence collected by the police including fingerprints, identified torsos, blood-stains found in the flat of the accused, hire cars paid by the victim’s proven money and so on that anyone involved in the case thought that realistically there could only be one verdict.

The trial at the Old Bailey started on the 18 January 1950 and Hume’s defence was based around a story that he had originally contrived for the police. Essentially, it was that he had been paid £150 to dump some heavy parcels over the English Channel by three former associates of Setty called Max, Greenie and The Boy. Hume’s descriptions of the three men seemed so accurate and detailed that the story sounded credible to many in the courtroom.

The defence also called on Cyril Lee – a former army officer who lived within earshot of Setty’s lock-up for three years. He was no friend of Setty’s and admitted that he disliked the sort of men that had been habituating the garage at Cambridge Terrace Mews. He told the court that although that they weren’t ‘the sort of people I would like to see round my doorstep,’ he had heard two people that were called ‘Max’ and ‘The Boy’ and also acknowledged that he had seen a man who looked like Hume’s description of ‘Greenie’.

Queues for Brian Hume’s trial at the Old Bailey, 18th January 1950.

Police officers carry bloodstained carpet and floorboards from the home of Brian Hume into the Old Bailey at his trial, London, 18th January 1950. A week later, Hume was convicted as an accessory to the murder of his business associate Stanley Setty.

The Judge, Mr Justice Sellers, spoke to the jury about the inferences and assumptions they had to make but also told them that if there was any doubt about what had happened then they were compelled to return a verdict of not guilty.

The jury were ready in less than three hours to return their verdict and to most people’s surprise, it was that they had failed to agree on one. Hume was retried, and on the 26th January 1950, and after the judge had instructed the new jury to return a not-guilty verdict for the charge of murder, he was found guilty of being an accessory after the fact.  Hume was sentenced to just twelve years in prison but he didn’t hide from the courtroom that he had expected less.

Three years before the case of Setty’s murder caught the imagination of the British public in 1946, George Orwell wrote the essay ‘Decline of the English Murder’. What he thought of the Setty murder case we will never know as on the very same morning that Brian Hume was taken to begin his sentence at Dartmoor Prison, Orwell’s funeral was taking place at Christ Church on Albany Street. The church was situated just round the corner from Stanley Setty’s lock up in Cambridge Terrace Mews and on the very same road where Friswell’s grand Automobile Palace once stood and where Hume was originally taken in for questioning at Albany Street Police Station.

Brian Hume was released from Dartmoor Prison on 1st February 1958. It was almost certainly the only time in Hume’s life that his behaviour was described as ‘good’ but it was for this reason he was released four years early. Because of the law of double jeopardy Hume was secure in the knowledge that he could no longer be retried for murder and he brazenly sold his story to the now defunct Sunday Pictorial. The front page splash began:

I, Donald Hume, do hereby confess to the Sunday Pictorial that on the night of October 4, 1949, I murdered Stanley Setty in my flat in Finchley-road, London. I stabbed him to death while we were fighting.

For the benefit of the Sunday Pictorial newspaper Brian Hume was photographed celebrating his release from prison with champagne. It didn’t go down well with the public.

Hume admitted in the article that he had murdered Setty alone and Max, Greenie and The Boy was just figments of his imagination. The astonishing detailed accuracy of the descriptions of the trio that had successfully fooled some of the jury were actually based on the three policemen who had originally interviewed him.

In May 1958 Hume, complete with a false passport and what was left of the money he had received from the Sunday Pictorial, fled to Zurich in Switzerland. To raise more money he started committing bank robberies back in England that were cleverly synchronised with flights at Heathrow enabling him to flee the country before the police had even started their enquiries. Eventually Hume’s luck ran out when he shot and killed a taxi driver after another attempted bank robbery. This time it was in  Zurich and Hume was ignominiously captured by a pastry chef before being rescued by the police from a gathering angry crowd.

Hume was at last found guilty for murder and he received a life sentence with hard-labour. In 1976 he was was judged to be mentally unstable by the Swiss authorities and this gave them the excuse to fly Hume back to England where he was incarcerated at Broadmoor Hospital. Hume was eventually released in 1998 but it was just a few months later when his decomposing body was found in a wood in Gloucestershire. The body was identified as Hume’s by it’s fingerprints.

Not unlike the Manson Family killings in 1969 that seemed to bring an end to the peace-loving hippy era and the summer of love, the shocking Stanley Setty murder changed the public perception of the typical Spiv as a loveable rogue forever. There was always something slightly comical about the Spiv and indeed the exaggerated clothes and manners lent themselves to caricature. The spiv-like comedy characters continued to be part of British popular culture for the next couple of decades or so – notably Arthur English’s Prince of the Wide Boys, George Cole’s ‘Flash Harry’ in the St Trinian films, and Private Walker in the early Dad’s Army episodes.

London, 1950. British actor and comedian Arthur English dressed as the spiv known as ‘Prince of the Wide-Boys’.

But it was rationing that gave spivs a major reason to exist and during the General Election of 1950 the Conservative Party actively campaigned on a manifesto of ending rationing as quickly as possible. The issuing of petrol coupons ended in May 1951 while sugar rationing finished two years later and finally in 1954 when the public were allowed to buy meat wherever and whenever they wanted, it brought an end to rationing completely.

By the time Brian Hume was released from prison in 1956, the era of the Spiv had essentially come to an end.

 Baby Wren Films

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