Jack the Stripper and the Hammersmith murders

Left, a policeman at the site of one of the Jack the Stripper murders, right, an identikit of the suspect

The grisly murders of six prostitutes in West London and around the Hammersmith area between 1964-65, is still today the biggest unsolved serial murder case in British police history. Also known as The Hammersmith Murders, the case has attracted a slew of theories about the identity of the killer ranging from an associate of the Kray twin gangsters to conspiracies surrounding the infamous John Profumo scandal of 1963 which involved celebrity ‘call girls’ Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies.

 Lately, a BBC documentary pinpointed the potential suspect as possibly being family man ‘Tommy Butler’ who moved to Fulham after WW2 and as a boy of 15 had been charged and imprisoned for twenty years for the brutal murder of two young girls in his home town of Abertillery, Wales in 1921. Jones died of bone cancer in 1971. 

Whether this recent investigation by a respected criminologist will eventually prove to be correct, the fact remains that six, possibly eight women, most of whom were mothers, suffered terrible fates at the hands of the same callous psychopath. This article focuses on the six young women, known to have been attacked by the killer given the moniker Jack the Stripper from 1964. However, it is possible that the same man was responsible for the murders of two known prostitutes in West London, that of 21-year-old Elizabeth Figg in 1959 and 22-year-old Gwynneth Rees (also known as Tina Smart and Tina Dawson) in 1963.    

First river murder victim

Hannah Tailford had been missing for ten days when in a cold February 2nd morning, 1964 her naked body was found in the Thames near Hammersmith bridge. It was established that Miss Tailford’s body had been thrown in the water 24 hrs earlier from Duke’s Meadow, a quiet spot on the river near Chiswick.

The 29-year-old known prostitute who was pregnant with her third child was not at the time recognised as a victim of crime, despite displaying head injuries and having been found naked bar her stockings. Tailford was part of a group of ‘business girls’ who worked their trade along the Bayswater Road which runs alongside Hyde Park which was a popular hunting ground for men looking for casual sex. Although at the time Tailford’s short height of 5’2 was not dwelt on by the police these physical characteristics were to prove significant with subsequent murders in the months to come. 

London in 1964 was considered a ‘swinging’ city where a loosening of the strict morals of generations before meant that Striptease clubs and prostitutes, particularly in Soho were more visible than ever before. Life for most street workers was a tough one, with many suffering abuse and violence and rarely seeking the help of the police who preferred to arrest the likes of Tailford for plying their trade in sex for money. Tailford’s tragic death, leaving two young children motherless, was never established and assumed to be a suicide like many others pulled from the Thames each year. Such a dismissive view was to change just two months later.

Second river murder

The shocking discovery of a second naked body of a woman also found on the shore below Duke’s Meadow suggested that the act of murder was now most likely for both victims. 

26-year-old Irene Lockwood was a known prostitute who was also pregnant at the time of her death. Like Tailford she worked the same areas of business off the Bayswater Road and the surrounding area in west London. Blonde and noted for being of short stature at 5ft, it was established that Miss Lockwood had been assaulted and strangled elsewhere before her body was moved to the river. It wasn’t long before national newspapers began making an association with the gruesome killings of Jack the Ripper a hundred years before. Lockwood’s horrific end demonstrated the often violent encounters that street workers experienced but where most attacks and assaults were rarely reported. Irene’s own flat-mate had been battered to death just a few months before her own tragic murder. 

The newspapers, eager for a big story, soon coined the headline Jack the Stripper for the still-unknown killer 

If the police didn’t realise they had a potential serial killer in their midst they would make that link two months later when a third victim was discovered displaying what was to be recognised as the psychopath’s twisted signature of his unique grisly handiwork.

Macabre modus operandi

Helen Barthelemy, a strikingly beautiful girl aged 22 and known as ‘Teddy’ was found dumped in a quiet alleyway known as Swyncombe Avenue a couple of miles away from Duke’s Meadow. 

The latest victim had also been strangled and three of her front teeth were missing, believed to have been extracted after death. It was a macabre signature of the killer that was to prove consistent. The young Barthelemy, born in Scotland and convent educated, had sought her fortune in London’s Soho after a brief period working as a striptease artiste in Blackpool. Her post mortem results suggested that she may have been strangled during the sex act of fellatio as she was found to have swallowed semen at the time of death. 

The newspapers, eager for a big story, soon coined the headline Jack the Stripper for the still-unknown killer as two Detective Superintendents joined the local police team in what was now a major manhunt for a psychopathic killer with an obsession for killing short prostitutes.
Because ‘Teddy’ had not been submerged in water like the two previous victims the forensic team was able to establish a vital clue; that Barthelemy had tiny specks of paint on her skin. In an era decades before the development of DNA technology, this was the only concrete fact to link the killer to his victims. 

False confession

Three days after the discovery of ‘Teddy’s’ body, a middle-aged caretaker Kenneth Archibald walked into Notting Hill police station and admitted to killing 2nd victim Irene Lockwood. Archibald ran a drinking club and a card from the same club had been found in Lockwood’s flat. ‘I killed her’ admitted Archibald to detectives explaining how he had picked Irene up for sex and after quarrelling over money had then killed her, later rolling her body into the river. But at the Old Bailey, the oddball character who had alibis for the two other murders changed his story and admitted he was drunk when he confessed. The jury acquitted him in less than an hour.  

Hunt for a serial killer

Extra staff was soon drawn into police operations as it was now confirmed that Scotland Yard was doubling its efforts to find a multiple killer of young women in the West London area. The one lead investigators had was the paint flecks discovered on the body of ‘Teddy’ Barthelemy, which were assumed to have come from a high-pressure paint sprayer when her body was stored before being moved. The search began for workshops that possessed such equipment.

The triangular area encircling where all three bodies had been discovered was now saturated with police officers. A cordon around western London was set up where cars crossing the roadblocks between dusk and daybreak were logged and drivers interviewed. Such an operation involving a huge amount of data that needed to be cross-referenced would not be seen again until a decade later with the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper.

Fourth river murder victim

A fourth tragic victim, Mary Fleming, was to provide police with a much-needed big break. The 22-year old’s naked body was found in Berrymeade Rd, just off Chiswick High road and within a short distance of two previous victims. Mary, like the others, was a prostitute, short in height and discovered with her front teeth missing. She also had swallowed sperm prior to her violent death. Forensics found minute paint specks on her body. The big question for the police was where the killer was hiding the bodies, for whatever reason, before dumping them.

Detectives now feared that murders from several years before could be linked to those known to be carried out by the Hammersmith serial killer, particularly those of Elizabeth Figg in 1959 and Gwynneth Rees (1963). In total around five unsolved murders of young girls going back to the late 50s were reinvestigated for possible similarities.

Celebrity victim no. 5

The fifth victim brutally murdered by the now much-feared Jack the Stripper was discovered on the 25th November in a car park in Hornton Street some distance away close to busy Kensington High Street. This was the first time that a victim had been found outside of the killer’s murder territory in West London. Francis Brown, whose real name was Margaret McGowan was in a different league to the other murdered prostitutes. She was known as an up-market ‘call-girl’ who mixed with the rich and famous. A year before Margaret’s murder her face had become familiar to newspaper readers when she appeared as a court witness during the era’s notorious sex scandal involving John Profumo, the secretary of state for war. The disgraced Profumo had shared the favours of known prostitutes Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies with a Soviet attaché and the scandal threatened to bring down the then Conservative government. Margaret, like the other strangled women, was also short in height and found to have a tooth missing. Importantly for the investigators, her body revealed the now-familiar paint specs.

Vital facts

Despite a lack of hard evidence pointing to the identity of the killer responsible for five known murders the only facts the police could be assured of was that the strangled victims had been stored in a place where a high-velocity paint sprayer had left a residue of paint specks on their bodies. As for the assumed motivations of the killer, it was suggested that the act of storing the bodies before dumping them may have been out of a desire on the killer’s part to gloat over his prey or more disturbingly carry out necrophilia.

An identikit picture of the serial killer was issued after friends of the last murder victim Margaret McGowan recalled seeing her with a client in a pub. A second but vague sighting by a courting couple at night of one of the victims with a male client described the man as short and wearing a trilby. However, one unsubstantiated lead or tip-off after another continued to flood the overburdened enquiry room as the team tried to keep up with a growing amount of information that needed to be cross-referenced. 

Mumified body

The last and sixth victim took place almost a year after the first murder of Hannah Tailford. On a cold, foggy morning of 16th February 1965 an electrical fitter on his way to work at the Heron Industrial Estate in Acton was surprised to see bright red toenails peeking out from a bracken of grass in an alleyway. Bridget O’Hara, from Dublin, was also known as ‘Bridey’ and had left Ireland to earn a living as a sex worker in London. Bridey had been missing from the 11th January and may have been held in storage for a month before her body was moved to its last resting place at the Heron Industrial estate. 

This time it was found that the body was partly mummified suggesting it had been kept somewhere hot. This detail was now another clue police officers had as part of their search for the desperately sought ‘storage’ location for the bodies. It was evident to investigators that whoever the killer was, they had knowledge of a bolt-hole or secluded place in west London to take his dead victims to and store until the moment he decided to dump them. 

Five day Johnny

Scotland Yard decided to recall from vacation Chief Superintendent John Du Rose, one of the force’s most respected and experienced investigators to try and help solve a murder case as controversial as Jack the Ripper’s horrific attacks a 100 years before. Superintendent Du Rose was nicknamed ‘Five Day Johnny’ due to his reputation to get to the bottom of baffling cases within a short space of time. Du Rose requested a huge addition to the investigation team by employing an extra six hundred officers ranging from a three hundred strong special patrol group, two hundred plainclothes detectives and one hundred extra uniformed officers. 

Du Rose’s priority was to concentrate on the one concrete clue left on the victims’ bodies, the paint flecks. This vital evidence could lead DuRose to the location where the bodies were stored, an area near a paint spraying plant.  Officers scrutinised an area that was 24 square miles in West London looking for such a place. No detail was seen as too small as Du Rose insisted that his team interview every man working at such plants and to establish whether any used or had access to spray guns, particularly those who worked at night.

Deadly profile and breakthrough

During his investigations, Du Rose surmised that the unknown serial killer was a sexual sadist who took pleasure in killing his victims during the act of fellatio. This intimate sexual act where the women were physically vulnerable gave the killer the opportunity to grab the victims’ heads, both suffocating and strangling them in the process. Gradually the huge police manhunt involving interviewing hundreds of men known to frequent prostitutes, or those caught kerb-crawling presented a long list of suspects that was gradually whittled down to a few. Du Rose was now determined to move in and identify the killer. 

The big break was to come from where Bridey O’Haras’s body had been found on the Heron Industrial Estate. A pattern of paint matching that on four of the victims was located at the site of a nearby transformer. The building was opposite a paint spray shop and was discovered to be the place where the bodies had been kept.

Murders cease

While 7000 men who worked on the Heron Estate were questioned the random killings appeared to have stopped, suggesting that the murderer’s opportunities to go out and attack were now limited by an encroaching and visible police presence. The process of elimination of the suspects was gradually narrowed down by Superintendent Du Rose to three and then to one. The prime suspect was a Security Guard on the estate whose duty rota appeared to perfectly fit with the dates of the murders. He was a quiet family man who was seen to have access to the building where the bodies were known to have been stored. But before the suspect could be questioned he unexpectedly took his own life and was never formally charged.

The murders had by now stopped and despite there being no concrete evidence suggesting the security guard was the notorious Jack the Stripper, the huge investigation was inexplicably wound down and left on the cold case files. Whoever the serial killer with an obsession to kill short prostitutes as it was assumed he had either died or had become incapacitated to be able to carry on his horrific deeds.    

With no charged suspect facing justice the highly publicised gruesome murders of six women in just over a year, attracting global headlines soon entered the annals of police history as one of the most controversial unsolved cases of serial killing. Six young women brutally murdered fifty years ago are still waiting for the undisputed recognition of their sadistic killer, no more so than by the grown-up children of the murdered victims who desperately need answers and closure.