When I was a boy and dad came to stay, he would sit on the edge of my bed and send me to sleep with his stories. I best remember the tale of him sailing the high seas in a boat called the Flamingo. His captain was a smelly man called Beamish. Dad bought uniforms for the motley crew, to make them look more professional, but the order got mixed-up and they all came on deck dressed like captains. Then Beamish, or somebody, set the boat on fire and that was the end of that adventure. My dad was an old man and he’d lived a sensational life. His name was Billy Hill and, in his day, he was Britain’s criminal mastermind.
More than twenty years before he told me bedtime stories, dad published his autobiography, Boss of Britain’s Underworld . This is his story of a life of crime and punishment and his ruthless rise to the top of his profession. The book came out in the middle of dad’s feud with Jack Spot, his rival for the underworld crown. I think it was a smart piece of criminal public relations, designed to reinforce his position as Gangster Number One. It’s also an entertaining read, giving the reader some insight into what made Billy Hill tick. For the past fifty years this book has been quoted in every British true crime history of the period. Some writers have ripped it off to pad out their own largely inaccurate books: the sort of behaviour my dad would have called ‘taking a liberty’. Copies of the 1955 edition are rare and can fetch more than £200 on EBay. I am pleased to reissue the original text so that you can enjoy this slice of history.
Duncan Webb, the top crime writer of his day, was my dad’s ghost-writer and this book was serialised in his newspaper, ‘The People’, which then sold a staggering four and a half million copies every Sunday. The launch party (held on November 15th 1955 at Gennaro’s Rendezvous restaurant in Dean Street, Soho) attracted a lively mix of criminals, celebrities and fascinated journalists. Billy and Frankie Fraser rubbed shoulders with Lord and Lady Docker, who were the ‘Posh and Becks’ of their era.
Each guest had a brazen invitation, bearing Billy’s fingerprint, which I have reproduced for the first time in this edition. ‘A sorry day’, moaned the Daily Mail, ‘when a gangster’s book justifies a gilt-edged invitation’. The book was ‘a primer for gangsters, hold-up men and cosh boys’ wailed the Daily Sketch. Of the launch it wrote: ‘There has been nothing like it since the days of Al Capone. It was the most insolent gesture the underworld has ever made’. My dad was not lacking in audacity.
In this book Billy explains how crime was his natural career. He says he was born in 1911 in Seven Dials, near Leicester Square. Today London’s most fashionable shopping district, it was then known as ‘Thieves Kitchen’, a place where the police always patrolled in pairs. However, the address given on Billy’s birth certificate is 126, Cleveland Street, St Pancras and by 1914 the family moved to Netley Street near Camden Town. With 21 children to feed, breaking the law was a way of life for the Hills. Billy’s dad Septimus had several convictions for fighting coppers and his Irish mum Amelia believed the poor had a right to rob the rich. Billy couldn’t remember all his brothers and sisters, but most became thieves, like his favourite sister Maggie who was “the best hoister in town”. She spent so long in Holloway jail that, when she died, the authorities planted a tree there in her memory. The ‘black sheep’ of the family was Maisie, who turned to religion. When Billy got rich he gave her thousands – and then he complained loudly that she’d donated it all to the Catholic Church.
Maggie’s husband, Brummy Sparkes was an accomplished thief and a mentor to young Billy (though, years later, when Brummy battered Maggie, Billy had him beaten up). Eddie Guerin was another regular at the Hills hothouse. He had been caught robbing the American Express bank in Paris and was one of the very few to escape the horrors of Devil’s Island. He enjoyed a love affair with the illustrious Chicago May but she tried to shoot him when he reached London. “Eddie was a great friend of our family”, wrote Billy. “To me he was a colourful character. I looked up to him like other kids looked up to Jack Dempsey…”
At school Billy didn’t learn much except arithmetic: “I knew unconsciously that I would need this knowledge in later life”. He also relished stories of swashbuckling heroes like Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, Clive of India and Captain Cook. Maybe they stirred his taste for the sea although he drew different conclusions from those in the school textbooks:
“And weren’t they gangsters? Weren’t they nicking something that didn’t belong to them? Only because it was on behalf of their Government that made it legal…Look at the way public opinion made us give India back to the Indians and parts of West Africa to the Africans. Well if we gave it back to them, it must have belonged to them in the first place….So when we learned all about this Empire stuff at school we felt nothing wrong in nicking a bit of fruit from the stalls in Seaton Market near where I lived…so far as I can see the British Empire and all empires for that matter were all nicked in the first place”.
If Billy were alive today he might look at the bankers and speculators (who have stashed away billions, made a royal mess of the economy but still get compensated from the public purse) and ask: who are the real criminals?
By the age of 16, Billy was a full time burglar and landed a three-year Borstal sentence. He escaped with a fellow convict, broke into a big house and coshed a housemaid by mistake. Instead of bolting, the runaways stayed to bring her round and were recaptured. Billy was given a spell of hard labour and twelve strokes of the birch. Forty years later he spoke about this to the writer John Pearson:
“… the birch tears you to pieces but once you’ve had it you feel you’ve really overcome something. You’re tougher, and from then on I knew that nothing on God’s earth could stop me”.*
Billy came out of Borstal (“the finest finishing school for criminals any underworld could hope for”) and bought himself a set of burgling tools. He spent most of the next two decades in jail but, when he was free, he was busy thieving and honing his skills as a gang leader with a brain:
“My boys respected me, not because I was a loud-mouthed bully, a drunk or a big demonstrator. They fell for me because I liked to work things out a bit. I was fond of timing jobs to a second, dwelling upon and figuring out all the details beforehand, and planning it to schedule so that if any mistakes did occur they were the unforeseen incidents for which we could not cater”.
Billy was versatile. In the early 1930s he followed a lucrative spell of screwing (house burglary) with a spate of blagging (coshing people to relieve them of the large sums they were carrying to the bank). Then he cruised London in stolen cars doing scores of daring smash-and-grab raids on jewellers and furriers. The media outcry prompted an expansion of the Flying Squad, set up in 1919 to catch professional crooks.
Sometimes, instead of smashing the shop window, Billy sent in a man who posed as a wealthy customer. As soon as he had grasped a tray of rings, he dashed out to the waiting car. When a Camden Town gangster called Connelly agreed to do one of these run-out jobs, Billy made him look the part:
“Clerical grey suit, a bow tie, bowler hat, a nice pair of neat spats, a nifty umbrella, horn-rimmed glasses and yellow gloves. To cap it all we supplied him with a copy of The Times and a brief-case. Parrotlike, Connelly repeated his stock phrases to us as we drummed into him exactly what he had to say. ‘And say it posh like we’ve taught you’ I told him.”
Billy had a strong work ethic and took a lot of money which he spent and gave away as fast he stole. Hungry from his years inside, he enjoyed the company of many women and married one of them. Aggie begged him to give up crime but he wasn’t convinced:
“What was there to go straight about? Who in the world would give me a job? I didn’t know anything but thieving. I might have got a job as a lorry driver or something. But it would have been the same old story with me as it had been with thousands of others. Once they found out that you’ve got a bit of porridge behind you they give you your cards, and then all you’ve got is the dole or public relief. Nice prospect for the rest of my life. Odd job here. Odd job there. Three months on the dole. Six months on the parish. Starving all the time. No decent clothes to wear. Dirt and filth in a slum flat of one or two rooms. A bit of food on Friday night and starve the rest of the week. Like hell! I’d rather take my chance on getting a good bit of bird once in a while than live that sort of life. I saw too much of it when I was a kid. I went to school with kids from Camden Town whose fathers were honest. But they went to gaol just the same. They went to gaol because they were honest. Because they were in debt. That’s why they went into the nick. I could see it happening to me too. So I thought to myself, if I’m going to do bird, I’m going to do it for something”.
The blackouts and shortages of World War Two gave Britain’s crooks golden opportunities. In 1940 Billy was making about £300 a week: £12,000 a week at today’s prices. As well as feeding the black market with goods robbed by the lorry-load, his gang also blew hundreds of post office safes. Later on, they briefly turned their hand to kidnapping and they brutally interrogated a man who double-crossed them. Billy wasn’t buying a ticket to heaven.
It was a time of vicious fights, especially around Soho’s spielers and drinking clubs, where nicked cash and gangster blood flowed. The main divide was between the tearaways who ran protection rackets in the West End and on the race courses, and the thieves. Billy saw himself as a businessman thief and professionally superior to mere thugs. But he gained a reputation as a warrior who would wield his chiv (knife) to slash the face of any mobster taking a liberty:
“When I realised that you only had to use your chiv with a bit of extra weight, and use it often enough, to get what you wanted, I went Up West with impunity…I’m not boasting about it, I’m only saying that in the underworld they recognise only one law. The law of the jungle – of the jungle where the rules are usually tougher for men than they are for tigers”.
Sometimes Billy got as good as he gave. I remember the scars that lined his face, especially a deep one that ran all the way along the side of his nose.
After the war, Billy led a coalition of London gangs in a showdown with the White mob, breaking their grip on the West End. This is described in chapter one where, for legal reasons, the Whites are called the Blacks. It didn’t happen exactly as dad described it and the outcome was an alliance between Billy and Jack Spot who effectively shared the underworld throne. Then ‘Spotty’ got jealous and dad dealt with him. Dad wrote Boss of Britain’s Underworld as part of that battle but, apart from a derisive reference to Spot as ‘Jack Delight’, he doesn’t tell the story here. You can find out what really happened in my own book. (Go to www.billyhill.co.uk for details).
By 1948 Billy had spent almost half of his 37 years inside. The Criminal Justice Act threatened repeat offenders with preventative detention and his next arrest could have meant a fourteen-year stretch. Billy had done his share of porridge:
“So I made up my mind that I had seen the last of the inside of the nick. And I meant it”.
He loved gambling and started running a string of West End spielers. These were illegal (until the 1960 Betting and Gaming Act) but the police usually turned a blind eye, especially for a back-hander.
Billy became a mastermind, organising two spectacular jobs. The 1952 mailbag robbery brought in £287,000: about £6 million at today’s prices. This was a meticulously planned ambush of a Post Office van in Eastcastle Street near Oxford Circus. In chapter twelve, Billy gleefully tells much of the story. His alibi withstood intense police surveillance:
“… they treated me with more care than they would have given to a V.I.P. During those days it would have been impossible for me to have been murdered or even attacked. I had minders with me all the time”.
Billy was proud of his work:
“No robbery has ever taken place like it. No robbery has ever been carried out with such perfection, from split-second timing down to the concealment of evidence…I have reason to think that now Scotland Yard may know who actually carried out that job, but any evidence to prove it has gone”.
He had an ambivalent relationship with Scotland Yard which he described as “the best police force in the world”. Several officers were on his payroll and helped him to stay out of jail. But the 1954 bullion raid made even bigger mugs of the Yard. In rush hour traffic, and without a punch being thrown, £45,000 in gold bullion was snatched from a lorry owned by the Dutch airline KLM. Once again, Billy had an alibi: he was being interviewed by his ghost-writer Duncan Webb at the time.
Billy began to enjoy the fruits of his crime, developing a taste for foreign travel. A visit to South Africa in 1947 was curtailed after he nearly killed Arnold Neville, a giant local wrestler and racketeer. In the early 1950s he enjoyed trips to Monte Carlo, Cannes, Spain, Gibraltar and, above all, Morocco. Tangier became his home from home.
He left Aggie and fell in love with a beautiful woman known as Gyp who became his common-law wife, changing her surname to Hill by deed poll. Then still in her twenties, Gyp was a stunner with lustrous black hair and electric blue eyes. She was also a street fighter who could take on any man.
In Boss of Britain’s Underworld, Billy refers to her briefly as “someone who seemed to see something in me that I hadn’t seen before, and I found myself dwelling on this proposition more than ever”. He was shielding the woman who was at his side. They were like Bonnie and Clyde. Gyp was a driver on the Eastcastle job and, after the bullion robbery, she got a black eye when the Flying Squad raided their flat on Whitechapel Road. She also stood on the shore in Tangier, biting her lip as Billy vanished behind the waves on a crazy Flamingo voyage.
My book will tell the story of Billy, Gyp and me. It’s a tale of love, infidelity, skulduggery, glamour and heartache, culminating in Billy and Gyp’s last fight with the law: to rescue me from an abusive children’s home.
I’m writing it because I am tired of ‘true crime’ books that lie about my family. Wensley Clarkson’s recent effort says that I was adopted and probably spirited out of the country. Mr Clarkson, do you know anything about real research? I’ve lived in the UK for most of my life – you could have called me!
I will defend the honour of Gyp, the woman who became my mum. As Frankie Fraser (a gentleman who knew Billy and Gyp well) has pointed out, Gyp was never a prostitute. She brought me up lovingly and she always refused to speak to the press about the past. But now it’s time for Billy Hill’s son to reveal the truth.
Boss of Britain’s Underworld ends with my dad’s cheeky promise to retire from crime. Just before it came out, he and Gyp tried to get away to Australia but the immigration police turned him back at Sydney Harbour. Billy soon withdrew from the limelight but he stayed in the game: mentoring the Krays, fleecing the aristocracy at card tables and even helping in the redevelopment of London. As they say, that’s another story.
Justin William Hill
*’The Cult of Violence’, John Pearson, Orion, 2002