20th Century Gangland: Billy Hill, London's wartime crime blitz and the real Casino Royale.
There is a tale to be told about London during the Blitz in which the bravery, resilience, public-spiritedness and togetherness of its people do not feature quite as largely as they usually might. It is a secret history, rather, of a wave of criminality so brazen and rampant that it not only pushed the crime rate through the roof relative to the pre-war period but also set the pattern for what was to follow once the war was over - the classic gangland era of the Fifties and Sixties.
It is a story, in the end, of the people who took advantage of the confusion caused across the capital to make their criminal fortunes - as most of the city, and the nation, pulled together to help each other, others were very busily helping themselves, in a darkened, damaged, under-policed city with a huge black market in stolen goods.
When the declaration of hostilities was announced in 1939, the gates of Britain's prisons opened for any inmate with less than three months left to serve and all the juveniles who had completed six months in 'Borstal' to walk through. One of the first to benefit from this initiative was Billy Hill, who was to play a major role in the crime Blitz and emerge from the war as the leading figure in the capital's underworld. Never, as he put it, a 'King and Country man' - like so many of his peers, many of whom had to be dragged towards military service or prison in chains - he saw straight away the fantastic opportunities the Blitz presented.
Here's what he has to say in his book Boss of Britain's Underworld, published in 1955:
'So that big, wide, handsome and, oh, so profitable black market walked into our ever open arms. Some day someone should write a treatise on Britain's wartime black market. It was the most fantastic side of civilian life in wartime. Make no mistake. It cost Britain millions of pounds. I didn't merely make use of the black market. I fed it.'
Hill went on to have a highly successful post-war period, doing everything from mentoring the young Kray twins to pulling off some of the most spectacular robberies and scams of the era. In 1952, for example, he is said to have planned the Eastcastle Street postal van robbery, for which nobody was ever convicted, which netted £287,000 (going on for £8 million in our money). Then, in the Sixties, he teamed up with John Aspinall, owner of the Clermont club in Mayfair, to swindle some of the wealthiest people in Britain out of millions of pounds, thanks to a gambling con known as the 'Big Edge'. You can read all about this here:
And this provides a good overview of the wartime situation from which Hill and co. emerged: