BLOOD ON THE CROSSROADS
an extract from NORTH SOHO 999
A True Story Of Gangs And Gun-Crime In 1940s London
By Paul Willetts
Just before 2:30pm on Tuesday 29 April 1947, three men clutching revolvers entered a shop in central London. The shop, which they intended to rob, was a combined jeweller’s and pawnbroker’s called Jay’s. It occupied a narrow, single-storey building with two entrances, one of them through an adjacent yard, the other on Tottenham Street. Jay’s was at the end of a row of small shops and other businesses. On that side of the street, there was a greasy spoon café, a hairdresser’s, a scrap metal dealer’s and a shoe repairer’s. Opposite there was a fish and chip shop, a timber merchant’s and a cheap restaurant, popular with the writers, artists and students who flocked to this area, regarded in those days as being an extension of Soho.
During the immediate post-war years, Soho was, thanks to its large French, Italian, Jewish, and Greek communities, famed for its lively, cosmopolitan ambience, an ambience found nowhere else in London. Most of the area’s main streets possessed a distinctive character. Old Compton Street was known for its aromatic shops that stocked what were then regarded as exotic foods: fresh herbs, macaroni, rollmops, pickled anchovies, root ginger and nutmeg. Wardour Street – ‘the only street in the world that’s shady on both sides’– was synonymous with the film industry.
Neighbouring Dean Street was noted for its tiny preview cinemas and for the Rehearsal Rooms where anyone from opera singers to zoot-suited black musicians performing tired imitations of the Ink Spots could be heard ploughing through their repertoires. Every day except Sunday, Rupert Street was where fruit, vegetables and flowers could be bought from roadside stalls. Poland Street was the preserve of sweatshops manufacturing clothes. Greek Street was renowned for its restaurants, all hamstrung by the imposition of a five shilling limit on the cost of a meal and the unavailability of key ingredients, among them olive oil and parmesan. Berwick Street was where predominantly Russian, Polish and Jewish market traders sold a dizzying array of goods that encompassed fish, stockings, paraffin and cloth. Archer Street was the informal musicians’ employment agency where a loud, gossiping throng convened each afternoon. And Charlotte Street was associated with the bohemianism that permeated the pubs, restaurants and cafés of what was dubbed ‘North Soho’.
Only about fifty yards separated Jay’s from where Tottenham Street bisected Charlotte Street. Though the lunchtime rush had died down by the time the armed gang entered the shop, there were still plenty of people around the crossroads, some of them walking past, others loitering in the street. None of them seem to have paid much attention to the three intruders.
About a minute later, a muffled gunshot was audible from inside Jay’s.
Unperturbed by the noise, which sounded similar to a car backfiring or the tailgate of a lorry being slammed shut, the people in the street carried on with what they were doing.
A few seconds after that, a customer emerged from the front entrance to Jay’s. Like a rugby player evading a tackle, he instantly stepped to his right. He then stood outside the greasy spoon café next-door and watched the gunmen exit the shop. They were wearing raincoats, flat-caps with the brims pulled down and scarves tied over the bottom halves of their faces. Backing across the pavement, they kept their revolvers trained on the shop’s staff who had gathered in the doorway.
The gang’s getaway car, a black four-door Vauxhall Saloon, paintwork gleaming in the warm sunshine, was parked in front of Jay’s. One of the gunmen hurried round the bonnet and climbed into the driver’s seat. The other two scrambled through the near-side doors. As they did so, a delivery van rattled past. It slowed down and came to an abrupt halt in the middle of Tottenham Street. Lorries were already parked on both sides, so the gang’s intended escape-route was blocked. The driver didn’t even have the option of mounting the kerb and going round the blockage because there were too many pedestrians in the way.
Instead of reversing and trying a different route, the driver yelled something, then leapt out of the car. He was accompanied by the other masked men, still brandishing their revolvers. Coats billowing behind them, the gang sprinted towards Charlotte Street.
There were shouts of ‘Stop, thief!’ and ‘Police! Police! Stop them!’
These reverberated between the low, shabby buildings on either side, the façades of which were coated with soot from innumerable chimneys. To the left of the gunmen, a dilapidated, chest-high picket-fence enclosing a bomb-site flickered past. Audible in the distance was the stutter of a motorbike engine. The noise rose in volume as the gang approached the crossroads, which was dominated by the New Scala Theatre, an Edwardian replica of La Scala Opera House in Milan. Moments before they reached there, a powerful red motorbike appeared from the righthand side. Its rider, Alec de Antiquis, was a thickset, handsome Anglo-Italian in his mid-thirties. He wore a leather jerkin, gauntlets and goggles, along with a helmet that concealed his wavy black hair, cut short at the sides and neck. On his back he was carrying a heavily loaded khaki rucksack. When he saw the masked gunmen running along Tottenham Street, he decided to intervene. It was a split-second decision that would have dramatic repercussions.
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