FRANCES BROWN, A PORTOBELLO MYSTERY
Old Notting Hill, London West 11, how many untold stories? I visited Hayden's Place, off the Portobello Road, on a cold December night in 2022. Hayden's Place is a forgotten landmark in British criminal history. It is where, on the 23rd October 1964, Frances Brown was last seen alive. Here, what little luck she'd known in her short life, ran out. Frances Brown, aged just 21 is on record as victim number seven in a series of eight murders known as the Hammersmith Nude Murders. Eight young women, all murdered and placed at various locations in West London. The killings shocked and mystified the country back in the late 1950's and early 60's. I'm convinced that there were more than eight murders.
There's a couple of hard and fast rules that I adhere to when discussing this case. Rule 1: I try to never sensationalise. That's why I never use the term 'Jack the Stripper'. Jack the Stripper is nothing more than a catchy name thought up by an American newspaper editor. Jack the Stripper ensures that we all picture a shadowy lone killer - and not a covert group of people. Rule 2: I never use the word prostitute to describe the victims. For me, when you stick that label on someone, it's like separating them from the rest of us in terms of ethics and basic human rights. The women in question were vulnerable young adults doing what they had to, in bleak circumstances. We're talking about a time when London was still in the throes of post-war economic resurrection. Theirs was a game of day-to-day survival, played out against a backdrop of bomb sites and rat-infested slums.
Glasgow born Frances endured a terribly dysfunctional adolescence. She fell pregnant way too young and, after leaving the baby in her mother's care, headed south to London. In London, she fell immediately through the cracks into a shady existence on the streets. Within a couple of months, she'd picked up her first conviction for soliciting, and there'd be plenty more down the line. Frances also experienced mental health issues. In 1962 she spent a period at the Springfield Mental Hospital in Tooting. There were suicide attempts, and beatings at the hands of her boyfriend Paul Quinn. When Quinn wasn't working as a scaffolder, he'd be in and out of prison for burglary. Frances and Paul drank heavily, they had a child together. Frances, at one point, received a three-month custodial sentence for child neglect.
The only love she ever knew...
In 1963 she gave evidence during the Old Baily trial of celebrity osteopath Stephen Ward. Ward played a central role in the sensational Profumo scandal that bought down the conservative government. He had introduced the Secretary of State for War, John Profumo to 19-year-old strip club model Christine Keeler. Profumo, a married man, and Keeler jumped straight into bed, and the rest is history. Ward, an MI6 asset, had a large number of girls 'on his books', Frances Brown was one of them. The trial uncloaked a direct link to what Frances called the 'society vice web', a hidden world inhabited by diplomats, politicians, magistrates and high-ranking police officers.
Through the darkness, one small shard of light. Frances' murder and the events leading up to it, form the bulk of evidence that blows the 'nude murders' number one red herring clean out of the water. Harold Jones is not the culprit. In 1921, Welsh lunatic Jones, aged fifteen, killed two young girls in Monmouthshire. Because of his age, he avoided the death penalty, instead serving twenty years in prison. In 1948 he relocated to Fulham, West London. This relocation, for some, is enough evidence to convict Jones of the eight unsolved murders.
I reckon his name has been strategically placed into the mix, to throw us all off the scent.
The Hammersmith Nude Murders sparked Britain's biggest ever criminal manhunt; the police took detailed statements from thousands of people. London motorists endured weeks of systematic roadblocks and questioning. Countless pimps, pushers and bullied women were interviewed. Female cops patrolled the streets undercover, secretly recording conversations. Brothel keepers accepted immunity for information, and their embarrassed punters faced interrogation. Nobody mentioned a Welsh guy.
Would a convicted child murderer risk driving around with an another victim onboard, during Britain's biggest ever manhunt? The men responsible for placing the bodies knew West London intricately. A patrolling policeman found the first known victim, Elizabeth Figg, in Dan Mason Drive, Chiswick (without wishing to offend anyone, the word Mason stands out for me) Helen Barthelemy's body turned up in a quiet alleyway off Swyncombe Avenue in Brentford. I lived in that neighbourhood for a decade and walked past Swyncombe Avenue hundreds of times without noticing that alley. You'd never know it was there. Bridgit O'Hara was discovered lying in the narrow gap between a storage shed and perimeter fence on the Heron trading estate in Acton. Are we supposed to believe that by the early 1960's Welshman Harold Jones had acquired the knowledge of a London black cabbie?
This is Wikipedia's definition of Constable George Dixon, the main character in 1960s TV cop series, Dixon of Dock Green: Dixon was the embodiment of a typical 'Bobby' (policeman) who would be familiar with the area and it's residents in which he patrolled and often lived there himself.
At around 2.20am on July 14th 1964, a workman named William Kirwan was painting a window frame in a back room of the ABC restaurant on Chiswick High Road. The room overlooked a darkened car park. He watched as a grey van reversed in with its lights off. The driver got out, looked about suspiciously and walked around to the van's back doors. Kirwan, who described the man as a 'suit wearing office type', said: '"Whilst the man was walking round the vehicle he was looking all around him as if to see that the coast was clear before doing something, that's what made me shout at him. I shouted to him, 'Who dat out dere?'" Startled, the man dived straight back into his van and tore out of the car park, turning right into Acton Lane. Berrymede Road, a quiet cul-de-sac off Acton Lane, is no more than a five-minute drive away in that direction. At daybreak, victim number six Mary Fleming’s body was found there, on the small garage forecourt of number 48.
A suit wearing office type, in a grey van.
In early October 1964, just weeks before her disappearance, a grey van pulled up beside Frances, and she jumped in. The driver produced a Metropolitan Police business card and introduced himself as CID. After asking how much she charged for business, he explain to her exactly how the unsolved murders had been committed. He described how the victims were strangled with their own clothing. While he spoke, Frances turned around and noticed jumbled items of clothing in the back of the van. Understandably she panicked, and got out at the first opportunity. She relayed this experience to her newfound friend and work colleague Beryl Mahood.
One last drink
4On the night of Friday October 23rd 1964, Frances and Beryl, a strapping Liverpool lass met up for a drink at the Warwick Castle in Maida vale. The pub turned out at 11:30, and the tipsy pair walked down Westbourne Park Road, towards the Portobello Road. Both girls were dressed and prepared for passing offers of business. It's the only life they knew. As they approached the traffic lights at the junction of Westbourne Park Road and Portobello Road, two men, in separate cars called out to them. The driver of the car in front, waved at the two girls to follow, as they drove around the corner into Portobello Road, and then left into Hayden's Place. Both men got out of their cars. The shorter of the two, confirmed that they were mates. He spoke with a London accent, and did most of the talking. The taller man also spoke with a London accent. Not Welsh. Frances suggested that they all travel together in one car to find a quiet spot. The shorter man insisted that she travel alone with him. The girls, who had been drinking for five hours, agreed. Frances jumped into his grey Ford Zephyr and was driven away. Beryl hopped into the second car, and they tailed the Zephyr down to Ladbroke Grove and up to Holland Park Avenue. On the approach to Shepherds Bush Green, they lost sight of the leading car. Beryl's driver remarked: "it doesn't matter, he knows where to find me at the flat." Beryl lived to tell the story, poor Frances didn't. On Wednesday 25th November, Civil Defence Officer Dennis Sutton found her body, she'd been placed in a carpark next to the Civil Defence HQ at the rear of Kensington Library. The man who drove Frances away that night obviously wasn't the same man who'd shown her the Metropolitan Police business card two weeks earlier. Frances would never have agreed to it. So that gives us three prime suspects. Three men who would've been happy to let the terrified public keep on picturing a shadowy lone killer. Jack the Stripper.
The Hammersmith Nude Murders case files are held at The National Archives in Kew. They have been closed to public inspection by Metropolitan Police Records Management, for 100 years from the time of the last active minute. Two recent Freedom of Information requests, regarding the death of victim number five Helen Barthelemy, have hit the same brick wall.
'The document contains the sensitive personal information of a number of identified individuals assumed still to be living, including the criminal histories and personal family information of named individuals. These individuals would have no expectation that this information would be made available in the public domain during their lifetimes.' - Quality Manager Public Services Development Unit, The National Archives Kew Richmond'
Assumed still to be living. Harold Jones died in 1971. If Harold Jones committed the Hammersmith Nude Murders, why are Metropolitan Police Records Management protecting him? Truth is, there isn't a single scrap of evidence that links Jones to any of the nude murders. If there was, we'd have heard all about it long before now. The police would have sung his name from the rooftops. I've no doubt, that the man with the Metropolitan Police business card was one of the murderers. And both of the men in Hayden's place. Detectives all three. Three superiority complexes, shrewd, tight-lipped and unspeakably evil. Suit wearing office types. Sworn into fraternal brotherhood, with connections in high and low places. Untouchable. At least one of them will have served in the armed forces, and not been at all fussed about handling corpses.
On hearing that Frances had been killed, Beryl contacted the police and gave them a detailed description of the man who drove her away. She also telephoned the Evening Standard crime desk: "I got a good look at the man, and have given police his description. Now I'm terrified he will try to kill me." On the night before she spoke to the Evening Standard, a van carrying two men attempted to run her over. Beryl also spoke to The News of The World, her story made front page. Later the same week, she was assaulted while leaving a nightclub, and warned to keep her mouth shut. She'd never seen the assailant before.
I think we can safely say that the intimidators were not working for Harold Jones. Child killer Harold Jones did not commit the Hammersmith Nude Murders, that red herring is hereby blown out of the water. Beyond that, I don't suppose we'll ever know. Old Notting Hill, London West 11, how many untold stories?