Crime In East London

Horace Thorogood (1891 – 1963), was a journalist who covered several well known criminal and historically interesting cases, most notably the trial of Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen and the Siege of Sidney Street.

He also worked with cartoonist David Low (1891 – 1963) (later Sir David Low) on a series of whimsical articles about life in London, and on the London scene in general.

In 1935 he wrote an article in which he looked back on some of the criminal cases he had reported on to that point, which took a close look at crime in the East End of London in particular.

The article is of interest in that, although he was too young to have worked on the Jack the Ripper case, he was certainly privy to the way in which journalists of the age went about gathering the information for their stories.

His article is also interesting in that he provides his own personal opinions on things such as the death penalty; the fact that, as he saw it, criminals were often shaped by their circumstances, as opposed to being born into a life of crime; and of the fact that, as the social conditions began to improve in the districts of Whitechapel and Spitalfields, so the crime rate declined accordingly.

Here is the article in full:-


“Many people regard it as a sign of national decay that British crime is not what it used to be. They compare it with the much more flourishing state of American crime. And certainly, something vital seems to have departed from the industry.

The newspapers give it the most generous encouragement, featuring it daily and raising every murderer to the rank of a national hero. The publishers do their best for it, too; nearly half the books on the book stalls are crime novels. Yet there is this flagging in the industry year after year.

In the East End of London one notices it particularly. It used to be the happy hunting-ground of the detective and the crime reporter.

When I first came to London as a cub reporter, if news was dull everywhere else we could always rely on giving the front page the necessary lurid touch by “hitting up” the East End police-court reports, or sending a man down there to discover a “den” or a “gang” or a “thieves’ kitchen.”

And, every now and then, something sensational would turn up of its own accord, like the Whitechapel murders, or the Commercial Road shop crime, or the Hounsditch shootings.

Ah, those were the days!

The ” Jack the Ripper” murders were before my time.


But I had the felicity to make a “scoop” on the Commercial Road affair, in which an old woman, who kept a little shop for the sale of tobacco and newspapers, was robbed and murdered.

I was sent down on a Sunday evening on a rumour of two arrests, and got a tip from a policeman as to the address where one of the arrests had been made.

It was being officially kept quiet so that the detectives could enjoy the full glory of telling the story at the police court next morning.

The address given me was a long way up a narrow street, dimly lit by sparse gas-lamps, and I did not at all like the job of going up it to knock at the door that had that day concealed a suspected murderer.

But with beating heart I went.

I am not a man of high physical courage, having no qualifications at all as a fighter except a kind of desperate fatalism when actually faced with danger – a quality useful enough since danger generally dissolves before any show of indifference, as it did in this case.

The street engulfed me in its menacing darkness, but at the particular house there was no difficulty. A shabby old fellow half-opened the door, and through that sliced aperture told me how the man Conrad, a foreign seaman, had been taken in bed there by detectives who had advanced upon the house, covered by the early morning winter fog, over neighbouring roofs – a picturesque tale.

I also learnt in this unexpectedly easy fashion that it was Conrad’s half-brother whom the police had also arrested, and the address, in one of the lane-like streets near Limehouse Church, where he had been taken.

A call there, and a brief conversation with a decent, frightened girl at the door, confirmed that, too; and my paper next morning was alone in being able to describe the full circumstances of these important captures.

How trivial it all sounds now.


I was also out night after night for weeks on the Hounsditch murders case, in which several policemen were shot by men surprised in an attempted burglary during a week-end.

A Russian anarchist, answering to the picturesque name of “Peter the Painter”, was suspected of a hand in this, which gave the newspapers rich opportunities for sensational copy about secret societies and the ways and haunts of alien desperadoes.

The case threw a glamour of mystery and underworld plotting over the whole East End.

The public doted on it.

The reporters engaged on it were constantly pursuing false stories of police raids and impending arrests, and spent hours prowling about Stepney and Whitechapel in the middle of the night waiting for events that never came off.


Herbert Grover, once a well-known tenor soloist in oratorio and then a reporter on the Daily Mail, was one of us; a fat, genial man with an infectious laugh, who, when police stations refused to give him information, would often sing them a song in his beautiful voice and charm them into consent.

He is dead now, jolly, melodious Herbert of the corpulent stomach.

It was exciting and amusing work.


I remember specially an occasion when we were told that a body of detectives were to make a night raid near the docks. They were to be disguised as dock labourers just returning from work.

The information proved quite true; but what a disguise!

From our hiding-place we heard the ringing footsteps of the “dock labourers” approaching in the stilly night for minutes before they appeared.

Their police boots alone would have given them away, but they were also marching in double file, in careful step, exactly like a posse of constables going on duty!

Such was the intelligence of some police work. No wonder we heard no more of that particular coup.

After all our tedious labours, it was the day staff of reporters who got the “jam” of that story.


The Leman Street police station kept us entirely in the dark about their intention to pounce on 100 Sidney Street, and sent us home to bed in the snowy early hours with the assurance that there was nothing doing.

When I left my house about eleven next morning, the early editions of the evening papers were full of the story of the siege of Sidney Street, the soldiers firing from behind sandbags, Winston Churchill in attendance, the besieged men shooting from the windows, detectives crouching on roofs, and Fleet Street friends of mine who had shared none of the chill and burden of the night watches writing up the most astonishing story of the year from the roof of a neighbouring public-house, which took half a sovereign each from them for the privilege.

My chagrin was extreme.


I do not agree that the acute interest displayed by the public in murders and divorce cases is unhealthy.

In both, the origin of the trouble is usually passion.

There is a story of a disgraceful old man who, convicted of a shocking offence and asked if he had anything to plead in excuse, replied in a piping and unregenerate voice: “All I have to say is, you may send me to prison for twelve months or twelve years, but you’ll never make loving unpopular!” – “loving” being not quite the word he used.

The observation was just, though the occasion was inappropriate.


Not only the passion of love, but the passions of hate and jealousy and greed are matters of universal interest, because we are all liable to them, and all liable to be overthrown by them.

A man kills his wife out of jealousy – who among us has not felt the awful urge of jealousy to some mad action of dreadful consequence?

In the prisoner in the dock we see ourselves as we might well have been if we had given our own passion but a very little more rein.

Or maybe we ourselves have been the victims of a passionate hatred; the corpse lies there, a stranger’s corpse, just as it might have been ourselves, but that our enemy was baulked, or had restraint to refrain from the extreme incitement of his rage.

These public cases are sobering examples of the folly and the tragedy of undisciplined passion. We are wise to observe them closely.


Is killing one’s enemy ever justified?

Leaving out war, it seems clearly ridiculous to answer “No” when the law deliberately puts to death every year a certain number of people on the ground that they are enemies of society.

The hangman is not a murderer; but I have often wished that the judge who sentences a fellow-creature to death were compelled to carry out the sentence with his own hands instead of thrusting the odious job on to somebody else.

We should soon see the abolition of capital punishment then.

I have seen with a sick horror judges whom I knew to be good and kindly men looking a poor wretch in the face and telling him, “and that you be taken out and hanged by the neck until you are dead.”

Like mercy, the quality of revenge is not “strained”; it curses him who takes and him who receives, whether they be judge and criminal, or husband and lover.


Whether private killing is ever justified is a more difficult question, but the answer is even more decidedly, “No”.

Crippen was a man I always felt a great sympathy for.

I was present through all the stages of his trial.

The home life of this quiet, likeable little man was made wretched by an uncongenial wife who treated him with contempt. She was a worthless creature. She filled his house with people whom he despised and who despised him. He saw his life wasted in working to keep up a menage that was detestable to a man of his gentle tastes.

Then came the girl Ethel Le Neve into his dreary life; a simple, good-natured London girl who was sorry for him and grew to return his love for her. They could have been blissfully happy together. But his wife, that vulgar, noisy woman, stood in the way.

So one night he poisoned her, and, being a medical man of sorts, he cut up the body and buried it.

Here, if ever, was an excusable crime. The woman had no known relatives and no children. There was no one to mourn her loss. The fact that she was an American gave plausibility to his story that she had gone there on a sudden visit and died there. She was out of the way, and, not only was no one the worse for it, but it made at last possible the happiness of the lovers.

That they sincerely loved one another was obvious.

The most vivid recollections I have of the Bow Street proceedings is of Crippen’s listless, meek attitude in the dock suddenly stirred to a solicitous and tender concern whenever the girl by his side (at first she was joined in the murder charge) made any movement of weariness. He was drained of all interest and emotion but for her. I don’t suppose he minded much being hanged. The blindfolding and the pinioning and the scaffold would seem to him a lot of fuss about nothing.

But of course he was rightly hanged, assuming it is right to hang anybody. Had justification been admitted it would have licensed anyone to be the judge whether another human creature were better dead or not; and few of us are capable of forming infallible opinions on that score.

But, because Crippen’s case is one that peculiarly appeals to one’s sympathy, it is a specially weighty argument in defence of the public interest in murder trials. They correct rash sympathies and teach that “the sanctity of human life” is more than a smug phrase.


The decadence of crime, I began by saying, was particularly noticeable in the East End.

There is a good deal of petty, thieving, especially by children, but violence is rare, and this can no doubt be attributed to the same causes that have reduced matrimonial troubles so markedly among the poor.

Life is easier for them.

With the “dole” and the various pension payments and the excellent care organizations, there is far less reason for anxiety about keeping body and soul and the home together; and free education, together with the abundance of cheap innocent amusements that have sprung up and the wise restrictions on the sale of drink have civilized the tastes of the younger generation.


All this goes to prove that criminals are made by bad social circumstances, not by any special badness in the criminal.

There are exceptions, of course. I have known thoroughly bad men, but they were generally men in whom heredity had mixed uncongenial blood. They could no more help it than I can help being a careful citizen.

But they should be hanged, all the same, with kind regards and strong recommendations to mercy should they have the ill luck to drop into a future life.

As a matter of fact, it is not the bad men who commit the worst crimes against the law – they are too artful; it is the good men goaded to desperation, like poor little Crippen, by jealousy or injustice, or fear.

That is what makes crime so romantic and so tragic.

The convict prisons are full of you’s and me’s, souls like ours but trapped by that agent provocateur of God, the Devil.


East End life used to be full of traps for the folks who lived there.

Hunger made them steal, cruelty made them brutes, the gin palace made them beasts, ignorance made them gross.

Such things went necessarily with poverty. The East End was a dark jungle.

But the worst of the traps have been removed now, and see what an extraordinary change has come over the place.

All the people needed was a fair chance.”