Extortion at Epsom
Before the Brummagems and the Sabinis, bookmakers were subject to any passing bully who fancied a cut of their earnings. Some bookies employed bodyguards. Often these were then used to dissuade winning punters from pressing their claims for payment.
The racecourse gangs brought in an organised protection racket. Their cut could be as much as half of their profits, but at least it was predictable. And many of the paying public were pleased about the presence of the Brummagems. Pickpockets caught operating on their patch could expect a punishment beating. The Sabinis took a different approach. A gang member used to chalk his hand and on recognising a pickpocket, they would greet the man like an old friend, slapping them on the back. The chalk marked back would be noted by the police happy for an easy arrest. On top of this reciprocal relationship, the Sabinis also made sure a percentage of their profits went in backhanders and bribes to the local police. In return, the gang were left alone at their racecourses.
THE RACECOURSE RACKET
Every opportunity was taken to extract money. Just to operate, the bookies had to pay to stand at their ‘pitches’. Non payment meant instant intimidation. In addition, gang members surrounded the non compliant bookie so that no punters could place bets. Sometimes they would start fights to scare the paying public away.
Tribute would soon be paid.
Once established, everything they needed also cost. The chalk, the boards, the sponge, their stools to sit on, the list of runners, even the water to wash the board with, all had a charge attached. And after all that, the bookie would then be expected to pay a percentage of their profits to the gangs. The gangs didn’t, however, share any losses. On a course like Brighton, they could clear as much as £5,000 in a day.
When the Brummagems targeted Ascot and Epsom, the most lucrative racecourses, and on the Sabini patch, gang war was declared.
THE RACECOURSE WARS
Author Brian McDonald’s ‘Gangs of London’ details the fights that followed, such as ‘The Battle of Bath’. Fights could be a hundred strong and involve hammers, spanners, mallets, bottles, knives, cut throat razors and sometimes guns. One, ‘The Battle of Lewes’ was said to have partially inspired Graham Greene’s gangster classic ‘Brighton Rock’. These tit for tat encounters were costly. On top of the casualties and occasional fatalities, the police were forced to arrest gang members fighting in public. And a gang member in prison was no longer earning.
Accounts differ as to why on 27 March 1921 Billy Kimber went to Sabini’s King Cross flat. Some say he had decided to put peace and profits first and call a truce. Others believe he was there just to ‘pour oil on the troubled waters’. What is certain is that the meeting ended suddenly when a fight broke out. Then one of Sabini’s men, a particularly violent man called Alfie Solomon, shot Kimber.
Kimber was found outside Sabini’s with a bullet in his side. Alfie Solomon later stood trial for attempted murder. He was acquitted after everybody lost their memory. Even Kimber refused to give evidence. A jury accepted the shooting was accidental.
That April the police were tipped off that there would be a reprisal. But by the time they turned up, they just found two badly beaten Brummy bookmakers. Later, two Jewish chauffeurs for Sabini were ambushed. One had been shot twice. Predictably, neither could identify the shooter.
The night before that year’s Epsom Derby, one of the Brummagems was attacked in Covent Garden. He needed 70 stitches. Desperate for revenge, and hoping to put an end to the bloody gang war, the Brummagems planned a final showdown.
They planned to sort the Sabinis on the first day of the Epsom Derby. They knew their rivals would be out in numbers. But so were the Metropolitan Police. So as to avoid a confrontation with the law, the Brummagems left the race meeting early. They drove a very conspicuous vehicle, a bright blue charabanc. They hid it behind some bushes and laid in wait for the Sabinis at Ewell – a few miles from Epsom. The spot they chose on the London Road was a perfect ambush point because anyone coming from Epsom would have to go past them.
When the Brummagems thought they saw two of their enemy’s car coming, they pulled out their own car to block the way. With a car in front and Birmingham boys behind them, there was no escape for their targets. Armed with an array of weapons, the Brummagems went to work first on the cars and then on the stunned occupants. The Brummagems pulled them out and in a frenzy, broke arms and slashed heads.
The attack was incredibly vicious. The Brummagems used guns, hatchets, house bricks, iron bars, knives and razors. Fingers were cut off. It was described as ‘a scene of carnage.’ The people in the surrounding houses screamed in terror. The road was soon littered with bodies. Only when it was too late, did the Brummagems realise the bloodied bodies that lay around them weren’t from the Sabini gang.
In their blood frenzy, they had beaten up their allies, the Leeds Mob.