In this story we enter the sordid world of gangland London in the 1950s and investigate the murder of Tommy ‘Scarface’ Smithson in Carlton Vale, Kilburn.
After the War, the vice and gambling industries in Soho were run by gangs: the main ones were the Maltese Messina Brothers, and the London born Billy Hill and Jack Spot. They controlled their interests by bribing the police, with the threat of a razor attack for anyone who stepped out of line. As one gang member coldly put it:
‘People were paid a pound a stitch, so if you put twenty stitches in a man you got a score. You used to look in the papers next day to see how much you’d earned.’
One person who dared to defy the gangs was Tommy Smithson. Born in Liverpool in 1920, the sixth of eight children, his family moved to the East End of London two years later. Tommy served time for theft in a reform school where he learned self defence and boxing. During the War he joined the merchant navy as a stoker and served on ammunition ships to Australia. He returned to Shoreditch in 1950 and was soon sentenced to 18 months for a robbery. In prison he got to know people who ran the Soho gambling clubs. By 1954 he had his own gang which included the young Kray twins, Ronnie and Reggie, who looked up to Smithson as a hero.
The Maltese gang members had taken advantage of subsidised passages to England for as little as three pounds to establish a network of gambling and drinking clubs, servicing a string of prostitutes. Smithson decided to target the Maltese. He began by working as a croupier for George Caruana in one of his clubs in Batty Street, Stepney. Caruana and his Maltese colleagues were keen to avoid trouble and when Smithson set up a protection racket he was soon taking a regular share of the takings in all their ‘spielers’. The club owners paid him a shilling in the pound, it doesn’t sound much but Tommy was making up to £500 a night.
|Tommy Smithson (Getty Images)|
He opened his own clubs, such as the Publishers Club (supposedly for authors – but nobody was fooled!) Then following police raids, he went to Brixton prison until a whip round of his friends paid the fine. He started to seriously annoy people when he set up as a bookmaker in Berwick Street, in competition with Billy Hill and Jack Spot. Then he got into a fight and cut Freddie ‘Slip’ Sullivan in French Henry’s club. Sullivan had a brother in the Hill-Spot gang and retribution was swift.
A week later Smithson was told a peace offering was on the table and that there was no reason the gangs couldn’t get along. He went to meet Spot and Hill behind the Carreras ‘Black Cat’ cigarette factory in Camden Town. He was carrying a gun, but surprisingly handed it over when asked by Billy Hill. The signal for the attack on Tommy was a cigar butt being thrown on the ground. He was slashed in the face, arms, legs and body, then thrown over a wall into Regents Park near Park Village East, to bleed to death. Amazingly, he survived and 47 stitches were put into his face. As a reward for honouring the ‘code of silence’ he was paid £500 from Billy Hill and earned his nickname of ‘Scarface’. Tommy opened clubs and fenced stolen goods for a time but he got another set of stitches when the word spread that he was a ‘grass’. This ended his entry into the big time and he decided it was safer to work as a protector for the Maltese.
Tommy fell in love with Fay Richardson, a mill girl from Stockport who came to London to work as a prostitute. The press described her as a ‘gangster’s moll’ and a ‘femme fatale’. She was certainly dangerous to know; three of her lovers were murdered and others suffered severe beatings. In his memoirs Commander Bert Wickstead of Scotland Yard said: ‘She couldn’t have been described as a beautiful woman by any stretch of the imagination. Yet she did have the most devastating effect on the men in her life, so there must have been something about the lady.’
The handsome and dapper Smithson appealed to Fay and they began living together. When she was held on remand for buying clothes and records with bad cheques, Tommy raised money for her defence. He collected £50 from his former employer, George Caruana, but complained bitterly that it should have been a £100. On 13 June 1956 Smithson and two other men confronted Caruana and fellow Maltese Philip Ellul (who ran a small prostitute racket) and asked for more money. In the ensuing fight, Caruana was cut on the fingers as he protected his face. Another £30 was produced at gunpoint and in line with standard gangland practice, Ellul was ordered to start a collection book for Fay’s defence.
Tommy had gone too far this time. Just two weeks later on 25 June 1956, he was found dying in a Kilburn gutter. The rundown Number 88 Carlton Vale near the junction with Cambridge Road, was a brothel or ‘boarding house’ owned by Caruana. Smithson thought he’d been sent there to collect protection money. He was in the room of ‘Blonde Mary’ Bates when Philip Ellul, Vic Spampinato and Joe Zammit came in. Ellul shot him in the arm and the neck but the .38 revolver jammed. Smithson crawled down the stairs into the street. Bizarrely, his last words to the people who found him were said to be; ‘Good morning, I’m dying.’ He was a hard man. He was taken to Paddington Hospital but died shortly after he arrived.
The hit men, who fled to Manchester, were reassured they’d only be charged with manslaughter if they turned themselves in. But it was bad advice, they had been stitched up and they were tried for murder. Spampinato told the court he was only defending himself when Smithson attacked him with a pair of scissors. ‘Blonde Mary’ confirmed the story and he was acquitted. But it later emerged that Blonde Mary was Spampinato’s girlfriend. Ellul was sentenced to death for murder. Then 48 hours before his execution, the sentence was commuted to life, of which he served eleven years in prison.
After he was released, Ellul came to London to collect the money had been promised by the organization. Sixpence was thrown on the floor and he was ordered to pick it up. Then he was taken to Heathrow for a flight to America and warned, ‘Don’t ever come back. If you do we have a pair of concrete boots waiting for you’. He did as he was told and stayed in America.
Smithson’s funeral was an old style gangster one: Rolls Royce hearses, elaborate floral tributes and members of ‘the firm’ attending. Thousands watched as the coffin was taken to St Patrick’s Cemetery in Leytonstone. The young Kray twins were there but Fay was still under arrest and wasn’t allowed to attend the funeral. She sent a wreath saying, ‘Till we meet again, Love Fay’. She was put on probation that August and ordered to live with her mother in Stockport.
Pathe News has a film clip of the funeral, (but there is no sound). About three and a half minutes into the clip, the hearse has a flat tyre and has to be replaced!
Later, Smithson’s dear old mum who was well respected in the East End, had a large statue of an angel put on the grave. One of the firm said, ‘I had to laugh, a villain like Tommy Smithson with an angel over his grave!’
As crime reporter Duncan Campbell graphically says in his book, ‘The Underworld’, ‘There were almost as many theories as to why Smithson had died as there were scars in his face’. And the background behind Tommy’s killing didn’t become clear until 17 years later. In October 1973 ‘The Old Grey Fox’ Bert Wickstead, one of the Big Five at Scotland Yard, was leading the Serious Crime Squad. He decided to move against the Syndicate who had taken over most of the vice in Soho after the Messina brothers had been deported. Said to be earning as much as £100,000 a week, the organization was run by Bernie Silver (the only non-Maltese member), and 18 stone Big Frank Mifsud.
Just as the police raids were due, Silver and Mifsud had taken off on an ‘extended holiday’ after being tipped off by a member of Wickstead’s team. So Wickstead went through an elaborate pretence of having the warrants withdrawn and leaked a story to the press that he had given up the case. The papers responded with stories along the lines of, ‘The Raid That Never Was’. The ruse worked and members of the Syndicate started to return to London. Bernie Silver was arrested while he was having dinner with his girlfriend at the Park Tower Hotel on 30 December 1973.
Other members of the gang were seized at the Scheherazade Club in Soho. In the early hours of the morning, Wickstead had stepped on stage to announce that everyone was arrested. One person shouted out, ‘What do you think of the cabaret?’ and another wit replied, ‘Not much!’ The guests, staff and even the band, were taken to Limehouse police station where the band continued playing and everyone sang songs. A total of 170 members of the Syndicate were taken into custody but Frank Mifsud had been warned about the raid and fled abroad.
Wickstead said that Silver and Mifsud had ordered the murder of Tommy Smithson. The argument was that when Smithson had demanded money for Fay Richardson’s defence and an increase in his protection rate, it came at a bad time for Silver who was preparing to expand his empire. He couldn’t afford to be seen as a weak man by giving in to a small time crook like Smithson, so he told Ellul and Spampinato to get rid of him.
Wickstead and his team traced Spampinato to Malta. Elluh was run to ground in San Francisco after ‘The Old Grey Fox’ had appeared on an American TV show and a photo of Elluh appeared in the magazine, ‘True Detective’. Both men agreed to return to London and testify against the Syndicate in return for police protection. Spampinato gave useful evidence at the committal proceedings but refused to attend the Old Bailey trial. Elluh did not give any evidence in court. He managed to slip away from the police who were protecting him and returned to America. The grapevine said the price of their silence was at least £35,000 apiece.
Frank Mifsud was extradited from a Swiss clinic after claiming he was mentally unfit. In December 1974 after a long trial, he and Bernie Silver were given six years for living off immoral earnings. Then in July 1975 Silver was sentenced to life imprisonment for Smithson’s murder but a year later the Court of Appeal squashed the conviction, as they said that the case had been built on the evidence of unreliable witnesses.
In 1976 Mifsud was also tried at the Old Bailey for ordering Smithson’s killing. He said he was a property and club owner earning £50,000 a year. He claimed that he was a friend of Smithson and was sorry to hear he had been killed. When asked if he knew that Billy Hill had occasionally employed Smithson as a gangster, Mifsud simply said that Billy Hill was, ‘a kind gentleman who lent money’. Mifsud was acquitted of the murder but sentenced to five years imprisonment for living off immoral earnings. This was overturned by the Court of Appeal the following year.
In January 1977 the Thames TV programme ‘This Week’, broadcast a film called ‘An Exercise in Law’. They had interviewed Elluh and Spampinato who both said they didn’t know Bernie Silver and that he had nothing to do with Smithson’s murder. The programme implied that Commander Wickstead had wanted to destroy the Syndicate and had falsely linked Silver and Mifsud to the Smithson murder.
Friends close to Smithson always maintained that the Maltese had become tired of paying him off and organized his killing. One said the message to British gangsters was, ‘Watch out for the “Epsom Salts” (Malts), they will retaliate.’
But according to Philip Elluh, the motive was far more mundane. After Smithson had attacked him and George Caruana, Elluh heard that Tommy was going to shoot him. So he went looking for him, and when he found Tommy in Carlton Vale he simply shot him first.