Today (August 16) in London History – “the most heinous crime”

One of the three defendants in “the most heinous crime in a generation” appeared in court on August 16th, 1966. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Well, what did I tell you about August 12th. It’s known as “the glorious 12th” – celebrated because it’s the start of the shooting season for red grouse. 

But as the podcast a few days ago for the day sets out, there’s a case to be made for it to be called the goriest 12th. 

So here we are four days later – August 16th, 1966 – and we’ve got the appearance in court of a man charged “with others” of the murder of three London plain clothes police officers. And sure enough, the policemen were shot dead on August 12th. 

Constable Geoffrey Fox, Detective Constable David Wombwell and Detective Sergeant Christopher Head were gunned down in Braybrook Street, near Wormwood Scrubs prison. In the middle of the afternoon. The slayings could hardly have been more brazen. 

The killings launched the largest man-hunt ever known in Britain. 

The police officers were young men – 41 years old, 25 years old and 30 years old. The slain police offers were part of a massive Scotland Yard drive against two highly-organised London gangs operating a protection racket. But – as I’ll set out below – the killings had nothing to do with that gangland investigation. The officers were the crew of one of Scotland Yard’s 16 Q cars – based at Shepherd’s Bush police station and used for special duties.

The officers’ Q car – driven by Constable Fox – had pulled over a battered old Standard Vanguard. 

One of the bitter ironies of the case is the perps weren’t big-time protection racket London gangsters. They were small-time criminals. 

Small-time criminals with a couple of handguns. They were going to steal a Corsair and then rob a rent collector. They couldn’t find a Corsair. So they were in their own vehicle, the banged-up Standard Vanguard. It was a car that was always going to attract police attention. The exhaust pipe was dangling from a wire. There was no silencer. The owner and driver of the car, was John Edward Witney, a petty criminal with 10 convictions to his name. When the Q car pulled them over – just a routine stop –Witney’s insurance had expired only three hours before and he had no road fund license.

In the front passenger seat was the hard man of the three, a 30-year-old ex-soldier named Harry Maurice Roberts. When the police pulled them over the petty criminals were worried that their firearms would be discovered. Detective Sergeant Head and Detective Sergeant Wombwell were questioning the driver, John Witney, when Roberts pulled his Luger out of the glove compartment and shot Sergeant Wombwell in the eye. Officer Head fled toward the Q car. Roberts got out of the Standard Vanguard and shot the officer in the back. The third perpetrator, John Duddy, went to the police car and shot the driver, Constable Fox, through the nearside rear window. 

It was all over in 15 seconds.

Horrific violence on a London street that could have been an enactment in a Martin Scorsese film set in Hunts Point in The Bronx. Except this wasn’t in the Bronx, wasn’t in America, it was in London. It wasn’t a film. It was real. 

And yes, it gave rise – in a matter of minutes – to the largest manhunt ever known in England. An unrelenting, ceaseless police investigation that got off to a very good start. At midnight on

August 13th the battered old Standard Vanguard used by the killers was run to ground. Police found it in a garage near the Albert Embankment. The investigators had caught a break early on. A neighbour, an alert young mother, had noted the registration number of Witney’s car.

As leads go, that registration number was a super highway. 48 hours later 

the armed Flying Squad teams had the names of three men police believed were involved in the killings. A day later – today, August 16th – one of the three men, 36-year-old John Edward Witney of Fernhead Road, Maida Vale was in court, charged, “with others”, of the murders.

Witney sang like a bird. Named names. The second gunman, John Duddy, was a Scot, a Glaswegian. He’d fled to Glasgow. Police caught up with him in his home town. The third man – the hard man – the alpha male of the trio – the ex-soldier Harry Roberts was a tougher nut to crack. He was at large for three months. He’d fled to a forest in Hertfordshire. Had fashioned himself a jungle-type hiding place. Roberts had already done a stint behind bars and he’d vowed he’d never go to prison again. He was of course armed. Police believed he had two handguns. In fact, he only had one. He’d buried the other one on – wait for it – Hampstead Heath. He later showed the police where he’d buried it and they recovered it. There were many sightings by the public. A public that had been warned that Roberts was an armed, dangerous, brutal man. This dangerous, brutal man was finally confronted by two traffic cops in a storage barn at Thorley. Cornered, he whimpered, “please don’t shoot me.”

The three were tried at the Old Bailey. They were found guilty and given life sentences. Sentencing them, Justice Glyn-Jones said they had committed “the most heinous crime for a generation or more.”

Their life sentences came just nine months after the abolition of the death penalty in this country. I think it’s fair to say that less than a year separated them from the hangman’s rope.

And after that, time for purification, time for something cleansing. So for a Today in London recommendation – well, looking ahead a little bit, how does A Night at the Opera by Candlelight sound. At Christopher Wren’s only West End church, the exquisitely beautiful St James’ Piccadilly. 7.30 pm on September 9th.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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