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The Murder Gang: Fleet Street’s Elite Group of Crime Reporters in the Golden Age of Tabloid Crime

Neil Root

By Neil Root on 14/03/18

The Murder Gang: Fleet Street’s Elite Group of Crime Reporters in the Golden Age of Tabloid Crime

Between the mid-1930s and mid-1960s a group of tabloid crime hacks chased murder exclusives, the weirder, more emotional or bloodier the better, to fill the crime-sheets which sold papers, and kept daily and Sunday newspaper circulations in the millions, some peaking at between six and eight million in the 1950s.

The Murder Gang got its name after Hilde Marchant, a forthright and excellent female journalist with many scoops of her own at a time when journalism in Britain was very male-dominated, wrote a feature article about them entitled ‘Fleet Street’s Murder Gang’ for the Picture Post in 1947, along with atmospheric photos of the gang by the legendary photographer Bert Hardy. The Murder Gang were  ‘men in overcoats, camel-hair and Crombie’, who worked long and irregular hours, chain-smoked and drank heavily, many fuelling their days and nights with amphetamines but always getting their stories.

Always on the move, ready to travel anywhere in the country at a moment’s notice after a police tip-off (often paid), or a lead from the Press Bureau at Scotland Yard, where some almost lived when not propping up the bar of the Red Lion across the street, they arrived with their notepads out, sometimes before the police at crime scenes, after listening in to police radios. It was not unheard-of for Murder Gang members to try to meet serial killers on the run from the law, and some of their papers paid for a murderer’s defence costs in return for the inside story and access in custody, and huge sums were paid after acquittals. These hacks learned to speak in pubs without moving their lips, to protect their stories, especially when speaking to sources.

Family members of murderers charged and convicted were often manipulated to get the ‘inside gen’ (inside information), and the images of victims and those charged with murder were often manipulated to suit the taste of the readership. A classic case of the latter was Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain in 1955 for shooting dead her lover David Blakeley, who had emotionally and physically abused her. The tabloids played on her platinum-blonde hair and attractive face, making this fragile woman a femme fatale, sexualising and objectifying her, with just a few voices such as the Daily Mirror’s Cassandra writing articles deploring her execution, which would help the abolition movement gain momentum in the late 1950s and early 1960s. There was also the tabloid vilification of Derek Bentley, especially by the Sunday Dispatch, which certainly helped turn public opinion against Bentley, when it was Christopher Craig who killed PC Sidney Miles, the almost illiterate and ‘backward’ Bentley falling victim to the incredibly dangerous law of Joint Enterprise. 

Murder Gang members such as Percy Hoskins of the Daily Express, Harold ‘Jeep’ Whittall of the Sunday Mirror, Harry Procter of the Sunday Pictorial, Tommy ‘Duncan’ Webb of the People, Bill Ashenden of the Daily Sketch and Hugh Brady of the Daily Mail were larger-than-life characters, and almost household names by the end of the 1940s. These men, along with another fifteen to twenty journalists who made up the Murder Gang at different times, drank in the same pubs, shared jokes and a hard-bitten culture but were absolutely ruthless when following a story, often sabotaging each other to make the splash themselves. They also knew their job well, became increasingly professional, and were not afraid of hard work. There were no press releases for them, just leads from police and judicial informants, the cultivation of which was very much part of the job, as was, in the words of the journalist Nicholas Tomalin, ‘rat-like cunning and a little literary ability’. 

They reported murder, often in brutal words, but could bring a crime scene, perpetrator or victim to life in words, pen-portraits of darkness, but the reporting itself could be vicious, the methods used dubious, sometimes unethical, occasionally illegal, but they were different times and, in the words of LP Hartley, ‘the past is a different country. People do things differently there.’ The phone-hacking scandal, which implicated several British tabloids in 2011 and led to the Leveson Report, exposed a culture which is the grandchild of the Murder Gang. Some things never change.

The Murder Gang: Fleet Street’s Elite Group of Crime Reporters in the Golden Age of Tabloid Crime is published by The History Press.