PETER FROST takes us to Camden Town and fails to solve several notorious murder cases.
This amazing story, or rather series of stories centres on one of Britain’s best known Music Halls, The Bedford in Camden Town. The Bedford opened in 1861, was rebuilt in 1898 and didn’t quite last the century closing after 98 years in 1959.
The list of characters in our story includes, among others, the Queen of the Halls, Marie Lloyd, Jack the Ripper, Doctor Crippen and one of Britain’s best known painters Walter Sickert.
Let’s start with Marie Lloyd, Queen of the Music Halls. The Bedford was her favourite hall, just a short evening cab ride from her home, up the hill, in Hampstead and just as convenient for her later home in Golders’ Green.
She performed at the Bedford all her working life and even celebrated her fiftieth birthday at the theatre just a couple of years before her untimely death in 1922. This is her at home just a few years before her death.
Marie Lloyd collapsed on stage at, another London Music Hall, the Edmonton Empire, during a one of her most famous songs I’m One of the Ruins That Cromwell Knocked About a Bit.
The crowd thought that the staggering around that preceded the collapse was all part of her act. They laughed and applauded.
Marie was desperately ill however, and died soon after on 7th October 1922. One hundred thousand people were reported to have attended her funeral five days later in Hampstead.
Walter Sickert was a painter and printmaker who immersed himself in the world of the halls in his desire to capture modern life.
A Sickert nude.
For Sickert the music halls were a serious subject for art – a spectacle of light, colour, movement and sound, with female performers who were a never-ending source of artistic inspiration.
At one time there were over 500 music halls throughout the British Isles. Virtually all are gone and only a handful of the buildings survive and even fewer still function as places of entertainment.
In its prime the Bedford attracted not just great acts but also famous audience members. Painters like Walter Sickert and writers like Virginia Woolf were regular visitors as much to soak up the atmosphere as to see the acts such as Charlie Chaplin and the ‘Queen of the Music Hall’ Marie Lloyd pictured below early in her career.
Marie loved the Bedford for its democratic atmosphere and its place at the centre of a buzzing community. Born in Hoxton, when Marie, got rich, she loved the atmosphere and the buzz of working class areas of London like Camden Town.
At the turn of the century, Camden, with its canal basins and railway yards, was a thriving economy. It was home both to the affluent and also many skilled manual workers working in new businesses.
Piano making was important for the area, with 300 instrument makers in the Edwardian era. This established Camden as a hub for all aspects of the music business.
Throughout his career Sickert spent long periods in and around Camden. In 1907 he was renting four properties simultaneously in the area, including studios on Mornington Crescent and Brecknock Road. The studios were in close proximity to the Bedford, and provided different light and stimuli for his painting.
For Sickert, the vibrant and colourful working class life he found in the music halls were a rich source of inspiration for his paintings one of which is below. He had a life-long passion for performance, and had even worked briefly as an actor.
Somewhat strangely Sickert often dressed up in costume, taking on different identities.
Sickert’s relationship with the Bedford began in 1885. He later described it as ‘my old love’.
Here he could blend into the crowds, and the proximity of the audience to the stage allowed him to observe and sketch the many performers close-up.
The Bedford’s rich decoration, gilt, mirrors sculptured female nudes and grand theatrical architecture made a spectacular background for his works.
His portraits included the child performer Little Dot Hetherington, and the singer and comedian Vesta Victoria.
Sickert developed a taste and fascination for some of the more unsavoury aspects of Camden Town working-class life.
In September of 1907, Emily Dimmock, a local prostitute was murdered in her home in St Paul’s Road. This is now Agar Grove Camden. Her murderer slit Emily’s throat as she slept.
The crime gained notoriety as the Camden Town Murder and filled the papers with gory headlines and stories.
Sickert produced a series of salacious nude paintings and named them – or actually renamed them ‘The Camden Town Murder’. Each features a nude woman and a fully dressed, but often shadowy male figure.
In fact some of these pictures had been shown before under different, less contentious titles such as ‘What Shall We Do for the Rent?’ and ‘Summer Afternoon’.
Sickert’s ‘The Camden Town Murder’ paintings reawakened a connection between the painter and the famous Jack the Ripper murders.
Sickert had had a long interest in the famous Whitechapel murders. He even believed he had taken lodgings in a room used by Jack himself.
Sickert’s landlady had her suspicions about a previous tenant and shared the idea with the painter. He made a painting of the room and called the picture ‘Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom.’
The rather fuzzy work portrays a dark, melancholy room with hardly any detail. You can see the painting today at the Manchester City Art Gallery.
In more recent times this painting and the series featuring the ‘The Camden Town Murder’ have led a number of modern writers to suspect Sickert of actually being Jack the Ripper or at least an accomplice.
In 1976, Stephen Knight, published ‘Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution’. In the book Joseph Gorman claimed to be Sickert’s illegitimate son.
Knight’s book put the Ripper murders down to the royal family, their doctor and their connections with high-ranking freemasons.
The main suspect was the King’s physician William Withey Gull.
Gull was a working class Essex boy, born on a barge on the marshes. But this local boy really did make good.
He became a doctor. Indeed Gull was the first medical man to identify and name Anorexia Nervosa. Eventually Gull reached the top of his profession, he was made physician to the king.
Unfortunately for Gull the royal family had a most delicate job for him to do. Prince Albert Victor, grandson of Queen Victoria – and always known as Eddy, got himself into a bit of trouble with a girl.
On one of Prince Eddy’s visits to the more sleazy corners of London he met and had a brief affair with a shop girl named Annie Crook. Annie got pregnant, some even say Eddy married her in a secret ceremony.
The Royal family realised something drastic had to be done. The prime minister turned to Gull. The Royal physician used his influence to have poor Annie Crook locked away in an asylum. She wasn’t insane, but life in an Edwardian mad-house soon made her that way.
That wasn’t the end of the scandal. Four of Annie’s friends knew about the romance with Prince Eddy, They also knew about the baby, and poor Annie’s fate.
They were Mary Kelly, Annie Chapman, Polly Nichols and Elizabeth Stride. And along with poor Annie Crook they needed to be silenced.
You may find those names familiar. They were all murdered by Jack the Ripper – a man all the evidence suggested had real medical knowledge.
Stephen Knight put forward the theory that Gull and his coachman Netley terrified Whitechapel as they silenced the witnesses and created for posterity the demented character of Jack the Ripper to cover their real motive.
A 1990 publication ‘Sickert and the Ripper Crimes’, by Jean Overton Fuller also seeks to prove Sickert was the Jack.
Even more recently, in 2002, American crime novelist Patricia Cornwell, in Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper—Case Closed, maintained that Sickert was Jack the Ripper.
Cornwell decided the psychological motivation for Sickert to carry out the Ripper murders was a congenital anomaly of his penis.
Cornwell previous writing career had provided enough wealth for her to buy over thirty of Sickert’s paintings.
Rumours spread that the author destroyed some of these works trying to extract Sickert’s DNA. She, however strenuously denies it.
She does say she was able to scientifically prove that the DNA on a letter attributed to the Ripper and on a letter written by Sickert belong to only one percent of the population. However at the time of the murders that one per cent would have amounted to nearly three million suspects.
Just a mile up the road from the Bedford Music Hall was the rather posh Hilldrop Crecent. Here at number 39 we find the site of yet another notorious murder again with close connections to the Bedford Music Hall down the road.
At the Hilldrop house the infamous Doctor Crippen had murdered his wife, Music Hall performer Belle Elmore, (above) and buried her in the cellar (below).
Crippen took elaborate steps to hide the evidence. He burnt her bones in the domestic oven, dissolved her internal organs in an acid bath, and finally buried what was left of the body under bricks in the basement.
He took her decapitated head away in a bag which he threw overboard on a day-trip to Dieppe.
Hildrop Crescent as quite a salubrious address about a mile from the Bedford Music Hall.
Crippen attempted escape to Canada on the SS Montrose with his young lover Ethel Le Neve disguised as a young man.
Captain, of the trans-Atlantic ship Henry George Kendall had his suspicions and sent a telegraph back to England.
“Have strong suspicions that Crippen London cellar murderer and accomplice are among saloon passengers stop. Moustache taken off growing beard stop. Accomplice dressed as boy stop. Manner and build undoubtedly a girl stop.”
Chief Inspector Dew, who had already once interviewed and cleared Crippen took the faster White Line steamer – the SS Laurentic – to Canada.
On the 31 July 1910 the Inspector greeted Crippen and Le Neve on the ship as it docked.
Dew introduced himself as from Scotland Yard.
After a pause, Crippen (below) broke down.
“Thank God it’s over.” Said Crippen, as he extended his wrists for the handcuffs. “The suspense has been too great. I couldn’t stand it any longer”.
Crippen and Ethel Le Neve returned to England under arrest.
They were tried separately at the Old Bailey. It took the jury less that half an hour to find Crippen guilty. He was hanged at Pentonville prison in November 1910.
Ethel (below in the magistrate court’s dock with Crippen) was acquitted. She lived on quietly and died in 1967. By then the house at 39 Hilldrop, with its macabre history had been demolished. by a German WW2 bomb. Today the site is occupied by a boring block of flats.
The Bedford has many claims to fame. Towards the end of its long career Peter Sellers actually lived at the Bedford with his mother and grandmother in a rented flat above the entrance in Camden High Street.
Sellers’ parents had moved there when performing in a production called ‘Ha! Ha!! Ha!!!’. When the revue finished, Sellers father Bill suddenly left home. He never came back.
Mother, grandmother and young Peter had to fend for themselves in the flat upstairs at the theatre.
A young Peter Sellers tried his hand as a drummer.
Sellers was still living in the flat above the Bedford when he performed, at the age of five, with his mother in a revue called Splash Me! at the famous Windmill theatre in Great Windmill Street.
The Bedford Music Hall in Camden Town, North London was among the best and most popular of the breed but like them all it struggled as audiences began to favour cinema and home entertainments like radio record players and television.
The Bedford Theatre’s fortunes eventually declined and, like many other theatres and music halls in London, it eventually closed completely in 1959.
For many years it lay derelict, a convenient, if decrepit, shelter for Camden’s many homeless and destitute. Ten years after it closed it was demolished to make way for a new building.