Jan. 31, 2021

Strange Stories UK The Rise and fall of the Messinas, vice in London 1930-60

Strange Stories UK The Rise and fall of the Messinas, vice in London 1930-60

Please be advised that I now have a website where I can be contacted.
www.strangestoriesuk.com
also an email address,
strangestoriesuk@gmail.com
I will be happy to answer any questions, or receive any opinions or suggestions.
 This episode is mainly about five brothers that came to the UK to make their fortune in the only way they knew how, which was in the white slavery trade, known as sex trafficking today. Their gang was known as the Messina gang, and they manipulated and controlled women. 
Other criminal gangs in London despised them but they were allowed to exist because they paid a 'tax' to dominant  criminal gangs in the areas they operated from.
I will put the sources used on the website.
I also intend to start putting some shorter podcasts up, the intention being one long podcast each month of around an hour, and two shorter podcasts each month.

Transcript

 

The Messina brothers and the vice trade in London 1935-1955

 

 

About a year ago I made a podcast on the murder of Tommy Smithson who was putting pressure on a gang of mainly Maltese gangsters who were led by Bernie Silvers who were to become the largest organisation responsible for the vice trade in Central London in the 1960/70s. 

Silver’s gang were an organisation known as the Syndicate who came to dominate the West end vice scene and make a great deal of money from it. The Syndicate had ben made up initially with the dregs of the Messina gang who had been the dominate vice gang for some time before the Messinas were forced to leave the country when their activities became publicly exposed. Silver had the ability to get people to work together for the good of business, and he was reasonably successful considering he had to deal with some very difficult people.

 

I listened to the ‘Tommy Smithson’ podcast again recently and must admit I found it quite complicated.

I think when you are working on a podcast, you tend to become quite immersed and although the writer (me) may have a good understanding, it is not always so easy for the listener to follow. On saying that it had reasonable download figures and I think it was the only podcast on the subject that had been posted.

 

I obtained most of my information for the Smithson case from the National Archives collection at Kew. 

This podcast will be constructed from some information from the National Archives but also from books and publications of which I shall give a list on the web site.

 

In this podcast, I thought I would move back a little further in time on the West End vice scene and concentrate on vice in London before, during and after World War 2 when the business was controlled by the Messina Brothers. I will try to make the story easier to understand.

 

I would like to clarify some terminology to aid understanding. 

A pimp is someone who looks for business, he is soliciting customers for prostitution and acts as a manager. 

A ponce is supposed to be employed by a prostitute as a bodyguard for protection. The Messina’s, and their like. were a perverted pimp/ponces who bullied women into becoming prostitutes and ruled them by fear.

 

White slavery in its modern understanding (from 1880s) refers to forced prostitution and sexual slavery of women working in brothels, it would be called sex trafficking today. 

Although there was international agreement to stop this trafficking in women agreed in 1904, it still went on, due to the activities of people such as the Messinas, causing the occasional moral panic when such cases were reported in the press.

The majority of women involved in the traffic were professional prostitutes or worked on the fringes of prostitution. However, there were a group of trafficked women who were made up of girls who had been tricked by the offers of marriage or false promises of employment opportunities, especially as maids or artists.

The traffickers would tamper passports and birth certificates and would know special spots to embark and disembark their “merchandise” without being impeded by the authorities. The port of Marsailles being a well known example of a port where the authorities could be easily bribed to turn a blind eye.

Licenced brothels were called ‘maisons de tolérance’ these were state approved brothels that were supposed to be inspected and regulated.

Also, a quick word on the language used. It has been suggested that the word prostitute is a loaded word and the term sex-worker should be used in its place, also using the term ‘girls’ instead of women or wimmin. I have used the terms as I have come across them. In fact quite a common term for prostitutes in the 1930s was ‘Gay Girls’ which would have a totally different meaning today. Anyhow the point I am making is that I am not making any judgements when I use such words.

 

It was 3rd September 1950 when the Messina brothers were exposed by an investigative journalist called Thomas Duncan Webb, called Duncan Webb (aka Tommy), an old school journalist that seemed to tick mall the boxes of the cliched, hard drinking, ‘cutting corners’, ‘making up his own rules’ type of journalism. 

Webb seemed to get himself in all types of jams and situations which today would have seen him sacked and denied a press card. He had various jobs with different newspapers only to leave under a cloud when his unorthodox methods came to light although Webb did seem to make a difference and bought cases to the public’s attention. 

Webb may have had criminal links and took chances that others would have backed away from. Webb had friends who were criminals including the crime boss Billy Hill who held pimps and ponces in contempt although he charged them money for operating in his zone of control.

Webb wasn’t an imposing character 5’9”, ginger hair flattened with Brylcreem, a pock-marked face often puffy with drink, he also suffered health issues and was to have an early death aged 42 in 1958. The main point is that Webb knew no fear when he was following a story, and he knew how to capture his reader’s interest.

 

When researching this podcast, I discovered that Webb married the ex-wife of Donald Hume who was another recent podcast subject. Webb had been criticised in the Hume court case by the judge for interfering with a witness in the Hume case which I suppose was Cynthia who was a stylish woman who men tended to be intrigued by.

 

When Hume was convicted Cynthia and Webb were married and Webb told the story of Hume’s crimes which fascinated the readers of the Sunday People, the newspaper he was working for at that time, this story got him the job of chief crime reporter on the paper. Circulation at that time 5.2 million, the crime reporter was top job, so Webb, a friend of gangsters was an influential opinion maker at the time. 

 

Webb ghost wrote Billy Hills 1955 biography. Billy Hill having featured in a couple of previous podcasts. Hill being perhaps the best known criminal in the UK in the 1950s and liked to think he was a character similar to the Hollywood actor Humphrey Bogart. 

 

Webb also dated Acid bath murder john George Haigh’s ex-girlfriend, presumably to get to a new take on the story.

 

So Mr Webb wasn’t shy in going into a deep role for his investigative journalism and when investigating the Messina brothers vice empire, he had to meet with prostitutes to obtain information, he always reported that after obtaining information, he made his excuses and left them, which was not universally believed. 

Some people thought Duncan Webb was a sleazy character, but he said in his autobiography, ‘Deadline for Crime’, that people speak to him because they know I can’t be bought and am not afraid and I keep my word. 

 

In his September 1950 article, Webb exposed the Messina brother’s London vice rackets that were then thriving during postwar British austerity. Webb described the the brothers as ‘ four debased men with an empire of vice which is a disgrace to London’ which in many ways it was, prostitution was noticeable in Central London, especially at the main London railway stations. 

In the past when the police had tried to crackdown on vice, they had been criticised for their zealous interpretation of the law and many cases were successfully appealed. The law on prostitution was confused and the police backed off allowing vice to flourish. It was estimated that in 1950 there were 3,000 prostitutes working central London. Some of the police working in Central London were corrupt and known to take bribes.

 

The day after that story appeared in the Sunday people newspaper, Duncan Webb was attacked in the street by a thug who described himself as a ‘pal of the Messina’s, and that it was about time that you journalists were done proper’.  It seemed like a more innocent age, one can imagine a drive by scooter shooting today with no message.

 

Webb was used to physical assault and attempted killings and accepted it as part of his life. The Messina story ran for some weeks, a different installment each week, and Webb pointed out to his readers that the Messina gang members were known to the police, but nothing was done about them. 

Webb’s journalism forced the police to act and the four Messina brothers named in the article were forced to leave the country, although Webb pursued them in Europe, being bank-rolled by the Sunday People newspaper.

 

Before he had exposed them, the Messinas were aware that they were being investigated and considered killing Webb or perhaps blinding him, then they settled on the idea of feeding him disinformation that he would publish and leave himself open to legal action and them to try to frame him for a criminal offence which was attempted, but Webb was a wily journalist and managed to stay one jump ahead until he published his articles catching the Messinas unaware.

 

The Messina’s  father was Giuseppe Messina born in Scilly next to the volcano Mount Etna ,where today, there is one of Etna’s ski resorts. Giuseppe was born in  1878 and was the son of peasants and was known for his untruthfulness. He was said to lie for the sake of lying, a trait he was to pass on to his sons. The Messina’s lied about everything to an extent that it is difficult to be sure of their ages and actual places of birth. Even their gravestones have incorrect dates carved on them

 

Giuseppe, known as Gino, trained as a furniture restorer, and got involved in the business of prostitution at an early age and soon fell out with the local mafia and had to leave in a hurry in 1896 when he left for the island of Malta.

 

Malta’s capital Valletta was a base for the Royal Navy and a ‘stop off’ for troopships heading for the Suez canal. As a result, Valletta had to cater for the troops rest and recreation, R & R. and the throughfare ‘Stada Stretta’ aka ‘The Gut’ had plenty of bars and brothels. Gino got a job in a brothel and married a local girl Virginia de Bono (although there seems to doubt on whether they were married).

 

They had a couple of sons while they lived in Malta

1898 Salvatore, later to be known as Arthur Evans.

1901 Alfredo, later to be known as Alfred Martin.

As these two boys had been born in Malta, it was thought that they could claim British citizenship, and although there was some doubt over this, they were never stripped of their British citizenship.

 

By 1904, Gino had learnt how a brothel operated, and decided, as did a lot of other pimps in Malta, to move to Alexandria, Egypt as it seemed to present better business opportunities and more money to be made. 

The British had occupied Egypt since 1882 and had regulated prostitution in an attempt to stop troops contracting sexual disease and stopping white slavery and the use of children.

As prostitution was tolerated in Egypt and there was a great demand for it, Gino thought he could exploit the new regulations and he managed to outwit the British Authorities along with great numbers of Maltese, Italian and French pimps who prospered through their ruthless business plans.

The regulationism of prostitution tended to institutionalise it. There was the establishment of State-licensed brothels in urban areas, where registered sex workers would offer their services under close surveillance by the authorities and prostitution i.d. cards. This was known as the ‘French System’ as it was a method first used in France before being copied by other countries.

The women working in the state brothels often had no support network and were often brutally treated. The women were at the mercy of the pimps and brothel house keepers

Gino Messina’s specialism was to trick and bring young women into the profession. Girls would be abducted forced to become prostitutes. They would be kept locked up, beaten and raped until they were compliant. It is suggested that some were maimed and even killed as an example to others. 

Life was cheap in Egypt at that time and many of the women were or were descendants of chattel slaves from the Ottoman Empire. Following the abolition of slavery in 1877, many recently freed female slaves turned to prostitution to survive.

It wasn’t just females, hundreds boys were involved, being exploited as sex workers or sent to the provinces as virtual slaves to local landowners. Girls were kidnapped, sold or pawned by their parents. 

 

Gino and Virginia had three more sons during their stay in Egypt

1908, Eugenio , later known as Edward Marshall.

 1910, Attilio, later known as  Raymond Maynard.

1915, Carmelo, later known as known as Charles Maitland. These three sons were not eligible for British citizenship and there was some doubt about the other two who had been registered at the Italian consulate to an Italian father which made them Italian citizens.

 

Gino Messina a white slaver, a sex trafficker and was to teach his sons the business of white slavery. They were growing up in the company of prostitutes each day and it became normal behaviour for them, and all five sons were to become involved in the family business, it was a totally corrupt family.

 

World War 1 gave the excuse for Gino to expand and he opened a chain of brothels to profit from the troops and the general lawlessness. 

 

In 1922 Egypt became independent from the British, and by 1932 there was a crackdown on vice in Egypt, and this gave the authorities the excuse to get rid of the Messina family and they were kicked out of Egypt. 

Somehow, no doubt involving bribery, all the Messina’s managed to get hold of British Passports which had been first issued during World War 1 and there was not an established system for checking eligibility. The family moved back to Malta but eventually the family would all make their way to the UK.

 

When the brothers came to England it was to carry out the only business that they knew, brothel keeping and running prostitutes. It was a fortuitous move for them as the laws governing prostitution in the UK in 1934 were confused and easy to exploit. 

 

All five sons married women who were prostitutes to get them  British citizenship and they were put to work as soon as they arrived in the UK. 

Eugenio (Edward Marshall) married Andree Astier, aka Colette in 1932 and they moved to the UK in 1934, within a month Collete had her first conviction for soliciting (by 1956 she had 128), Eugenio being the first brother to come to London, he was generally thought to be the main decision maker between the brothers.

Between 1934 and 1937, Eugenio was making frequent trips to Europe alone but always returning with attractive young women who he persuaded to come to the UK. 

Alfredo (Alfred Martin) came across in early 1935 newly married to Mary, aka ‘Marcelle’, by June 1956, she had 15 convictions, (122 by 1951). Alfred, like his brothers made trips to Europe to recruit prostitutes.

 

Salvatore (Arthur Evans) married a prostitute named Maria Charpentier

 

Attilio (Raymond Maynard) wife was a Scottish prostitute Robina Dickson Torrance

 

Carmelo (Charles Maitland) married a prostitute named Ida Poumirou.

 

All the brothers lived seemingly quite happily with their wives, living off their immoral earnings, driving them to work on the streets and in brothels. It seems to have been normal behaviour to them. Alfredo stop living with Marcelle and took up with her friend Hermione Hindon as his common law wife, but they all kept on good terms.

 

The brothers all carried weapons and had hired muscle to call on when needed, but they were not physically imposing, they were said to be arrogant. Carmelo and Eugenio were described as short and dumpy.

 

 

For many women working as prostitutes in the UK in the 1930s, they were not breaking any laws as long as she did not solicit on the street. Many women had built up a client base who they entertained in her own home which was not an offence. It was only an offence if two women worked a property, the definition of the property becoming a ‘brothel’ 

Most women working ‘on the game’ were known in their local area and had no need of a pimp or a ponce, which was the service that was offered by the Messinas. The Messina’s were traffickers who would bring in women from abroad, women that could be manipulated and controlled by them.

 

 

The second reason that it was good timing for the Messina’s to have arrived in the UK is because most criminals were not interested in vice, they looked down on it. It was left to foreigners to run the vice rings in London and by 1932 there was something of a vacuum as they had died out, killing each other in the time period of 1925 to 1935.

 There were some colourful stories regarding these people such as Charles Baladda, ‘Mad’ Emile Berthier, Juan Castanar, Casimir Micheletti, Eddie Manning and Red Max Kessel who were the ring leaders and lots of supporting characters who acted as pimps and ponces.

 Emile Allard was better known as Red Max Kessel, Kessel’s gang was supposed to be the dominate gang in the West End by 1930 after gang feuds had left the field open to them.

 

Kessel was the major player in organising ‘marriages of convenience’ and was thought to be involved with an international gang of ‘White Slavers’ bringing in foreign women to London to work in the Tottenham Court road and Soho areas. The Kessel gang members had names such as ‘Titi, the Big-Footed’, ‘Mariot of the Big Eyes’, Albert the Arab, Charlot Scarface,  Coco the Animal and ‘Bibi the Bitter’. 

 

Kessel was shot, probably at 36 Little Newport Street and his body dumped outside of London at St. Albans during January 1936. This left the vice trade in Central London with no dominate gang once again.

 

During this period, starting in 1934, the Messina vice gang were becoming established in London. Many foreign prostitutes worked the Tottenham Court road and Soho area, their ponces were usually Italian or French or sometimes Carribean. 

 

Soho was seen as a pleasure zone and London’s Latin Quarter which had a long association with the French community and prostitution. It was asked ‘Why go to Paris for a good time?’ Come to Soho instead.

 

The Messinas decided to avoid this area as it would have become overcrowded especially given the amount of foreign girls that the Messina brothers were importing. They wanted to avoid confrontations with the girls on their beats and their ponces which may draw attention to the Messina’s activities.

 

The Messina brothers decided to focus on the Mayfair area which was London’s most affluent area. They rented and bought properties in this area and put prostitutes, recruited abroad, into the properties. By 1938, they had thirty two girls working rooms in the area. The girls were strictly controlled, and the brothers were making a lot of money. They had bought a share in an Estate Agent business to avoid any problems renting flats and such a business provided a convenient front for prostitution.

The Messina sex workers were more exotic, many were French. In London, everything French was thought sexy, many prostitutes adopted a French name. It was thought that the French were more experimental in their sexual choices and the French prostitutes would cater for niche requirements.

 

 In the Mayfair area the police tended to turn a blind eye to sex work thinking that the established High Class call girls operating in that area, catering for the wealthy were not going to cause problems. 

 

The Messina’s operated on the fringe of the Mayfair area in Maddox Street and between Regent street and Bond street and they soon began to bring the area into disrepute.  

Other prostitutes disliked the French prostitutes bought over to England, they were thought of as hard-bitten professionals who spoilt the trade by undercutting others. But the French prostitutes tended not to drink or take drugs and were thrifty wanting to save up a nest egg, quit the game and return to France to buy a business or get married.

 

Eugenio Messina specialised in recruiting girls abroad. I don’t think that there was any particular target regarding the girls he tried to recruit. He dressed well stayed in the best hotels and tried to charm any suitable female that he was able to ensnare. The technique used by his father Gino was to strike up an acquaintance with an attractive and possibly susceptible female and try to corrupt her. 

One of these girls later saying, “For the first time in my life I felt that someone wanted me, his voice was so soft, so ingratiating, I thought he was a real gentleman’ this was clearly one of his more innocent victims.

 

He would introduce the girl to his opulent lifestyle and seduce her often with the promise of marriage. Once the female had become accustomed to a life of luxury it would be suggested that she should think about a life in the UK and then by various means depending on circumstances introduce her to the life of prostitution.

 

Once the girls that the Messina brothers ensnared and had come to the UK, the Messina charm soon wore off and they were strictly dealt with. They were subject to bullying, beatings, the threat of disfigurement and ultimately death if they failed to do as they were told.  

Disfigurement, either by using a razorblade or vitriol, seemed to be the .most common type of assault by pimps on their women although Eugenio would beat women with an electric flex, or brand them with a hot iron.

 

The Messina’s cast a wide met and any female that they thought would bring in money would be a target. Often the girls were already prostitutes and quite hardened to the life and were told that they could make good money in the UK and possibly be offered jobs running a brothel. 

The Messina’s would also recruit the local prostitutes in the areas they travelled on their jaunts in Europe. 

Other females that were corrupted by the Messinas were sometimes naïve and innocent and once they had been compromised, they went along with what they were told to do.

To obtain permission to stay in the UK, the women would be married to vagrants and drunks who would be paid a small sum and thus the women were legally British citizens, after a ‘marriage of convience’ to a British man with full rights of nationality.

 

The girls recruited by the Messinas were usually personable and attractive and able to manipulate a situation. As already mentioned, the brothers all married women who were promptly put to work as prostitutes when they arrived in London, sex was just business to them.

 

The marriages of convience would have been organised by the Messinas and they would charge the woman between £100 to £300 to be worked off when they started on the streets if they did not have the money up-front. 

employment offices would be visited to enlist jobless men, in order to provide grooms for the marriages.Reports claimed that the latter were paid a sum between £10 and £15 for their trouble.

 

Partly as a demonstration of professional organisation by the gangs, it became increasingly popular to organise marriages abroad, less than half taking place in the UK. This would stop any possible police interference and would make it look like that the ‘grooms’ had met their wives while working abroad.

 

When a girl arrived from abroad, they would find themselves in a country where they knew nobody and little knowledge of the language. They were dependent on their ‘protector pimp’ who would be the Messina family who would provide them with clothes, a room and a watchful maid who would report back.

The women did as they were told, the threat of being striped by a razor made them compliant. Murder may sometimes be necessary as an example.

There were a spate of prostitute murders when the Messina’s first took control in 1936, In April 1936 the ‘News of the World’ was asking if there was a ‘Jack the Strangler’ at large in Central London. John Bull published an article entitled ‘London’s murder land’

 

A well documented murder at this time was that of Constance May Hinds, aka

‘Dutch Leah’, in Old Compton Street, Soho. The press claimed that her tongue had been mutilated as she knew too much, the implication being that she had been killed as a warning to others. 

 

Other prostitutes murdered at this period were Jeannette Marie Cotton, who did not have any convictions but was reputed to be working in vice and had connections with Red Max Kessell.

 

Paulette ‘French Marie’ Estelle, said to have been a police informer.

 

And Josephine ‘French FiFi’ Martin.

 

These murders were all within a six-month period 1935/36. In all of these murders the police investigated intensively, it was said that Soho was turned upside down and everyone who was a suspect was closely questioned and investigated. The motive for the murders was not thought to be sexual or robbery. The police questioned a list of over a hundred men who had assaulted prostitutes in London during the previous 18 months but they came up with nothing and the murders were all unsolved.

 

The story put out by the media was about a ‘Soho Strangler’ who murdered prostitutes,  this was perhaps a false lead to deflect attention during a power struggle between those wanting to dominate the vice scene or maybe there was a serial killer, or maybe there was no connection between them. The truth will not be known now.

 

There was a rumour that the Messinas used an assassin known as ‘The Corsican’ who would travel to the UK on a forged passport and would often be back in Paris before the murder had been discovered; this of course could have been a rumour started by the Messinas themselves.

The Messinas where now using the Soho area as they had become established, but their main focus being concentrated on the fringes of Mayfair. They would have nothing to do with the low grade areas such as Paddington and Elephant and Castle.

 

The patch or beat of independent prostitutes were jealously guarded and the sales of them were well organised. The prostitute would pay a percentage of her earnings for an agreed number of months in return for protection by the dominate gangs.

 The gangs would make sure that there was no trouble from other prostitutes on neighbouring beats. This could prove an explanation for the unsolved murders in that not everybody respected the demarcation of the beats.

 

World War 2 provided the Messina brothers the same opportunities that their father exploited during World War 1. Although the five brothers were of an age to be conscripted they ignored any call up papers and although warrents were issued for their arrests, the brothers ‘ducked and dived’ and used corrupt methods, bribes, to avoid arrest.

 

In February 1940, 26 year old  Marie Julie Marthe Hucbourg (aka Marthe) was recruited by the Mesinna gang, she had become a prostitute aged 15 years after her father died at Verdun and after an abusive relationship with her stepfather when her mother relocated to Paris.

 After leaving home, Marthe had travelled around working at ‘les maisons de tolerance” at Milan, Rome, Naples and Florence. 

It is interesting to note the relationship that Marthe had with her first pimp, an older man names Georges. Against the advice of her fellow workers and the madam at the Brothel where she was working at in Florence, she went to join Georges in North Africa working for an unhappy two years in Algiers and Tunis in North Africa, before returning to Paris with Georges, her pimp.

She thought that good money was to be made in the UK so she invested half of her savings in organising a marriage of convience to a 63 year old drunk called Arthur Watts in order to obtain a British passport. 

When she first arrived in the UK, Marthe operated in the soho area from a flat in Carnaby street, and she would send money back to Georges in Paris.

But this was before she found a new pimp who she would soon start an affair with, Eugenio Messina ,and she moved into his apartment in Berkeley Square, Mayfair. 

 

Marthe continued to work, servicing customers and managing the girls and sometimes receiving a beating from Eugenio, who although he could be charming, he was a violent thug and unpredictable. Marthe Watts gaining noterity  of sorts on VE day when she serviced 49 customers on her shift, saying she was disappointed not to have made it 50.

 

There were rules for the girls that worked for the Messinas such as they were not allowed to wear provocative clothing and when they were with a customer, there was a 10 minute rule in that they were to spend no longer than ten minutes with a client. The girls were not permitted to stray beyond the boundaries of their given patch. The girls working hours were between 4.00pm to 6.00am. Given such long working day, 14 hours, that the girls were either working or sleeping and did not have a chance to develop any independent life.

 

At the start of the war the girls were not allowed customers who were French, Italian or American, although the American rule was soon dropped on account of their spending power.

Each girl was allocated a maid who was employed by the brothers to ensure that the ten minute rule was observed and to report directly to the brothers so as to spy on the girls. 

 

Despite the harsh regime, the girls did have money spent on them, clothing and jewellery and pocket money, worth thousands in todays money. Also the girls had no shortages in a time of rationing regarding food as the brothers wanted to be sure they remained healthy and good looking.

 

Interestingly, when conscription for women was introduced in the UK during December 1941 for unmarried women between 20 and 30, the prostitutes working for the Messinas said they were already working for the war effort as prostitutes and this seemed to satisfy the authorities who must have feared that including them in the women’s services would lead to contamination and demoralization.

 The Sunday Times newspaper exposed this in an article in 1942 headed ‘Reserved Occupations”.

 

By the end of the war, Eugenio Messina had 20 girls working directly for him, they earned on average about £100 a week from a dozen clients a night. The girls kept half of the takings giving them £50 a week when the average wage in the UK was about £5 a week.

Eugenio’s workers paid him while he was in prison and later after he fled to Europe after being exposed by Duncan Webb. 

Marthe Watts calculated that she earned £150,000 for him during the period 1940-55. That figure would be millions today.

In 1945 it was estimated that the Messina family had an income of £1000 a week which was laundered through restaurants, property and similar.

 

During the war there was plenty of business for everybody, and so many money making opportunities, that there was little conflict between those gangsters dealing in vice as there was so much business.

After the war this changed and rival gangs began to view the Messinas as a target for a takeover. Although most of Soho prostitution was controlled by the Messinas, some pimps were trying to muscle their way in.

 

One gang was that run by a particular nasty individual called Carmelo Vassalo. His history was similar to that of the Messina’s, he was Maltese, with his brothers had gone to Egypt trafficking women, he fled Egypt and made his way to the UK.

 

 The Vassalo gang had a plan in 1947, they started driving around the streets used by the Messina girls, demanding protection money and threatening to ‘carve them up’ if they did not pay him a £1 a day each. There is no proof that this was true as it may have been a story made up by the Messina’s to get the Vassalo gang arrested by police friendly to Messina. 

 

 There had been  confrontations between the Vassalo gang and the Messinas, and the Messinas were carrying around guns with them.

The Vassalo gang were convicted but so was Eugenio Messina who was the dominate brother in the gang who received three years in prison as a result of this feud for GBH injuring Vassalo with a knife.

There were other Maltese gangs trying to move into the area, Amabile Ricca ‘Ricky the Malt’ was shot and stabbed to death by other Maltese friendly with the Messinas.

 

 Although Eugenio was a model prisoner, earning full remission and being released in September 1950, the Duncan Webb newspaper story was soon to force him to flee from the UK.

Detective Chief Inspector Bob Higgins had supervised the arrests of Carmel Vassalo and Eugenio Messina in 1947 at a time when the Messina’s were under pressure from other gangs trying to move in on parts of their business. 

At the same time Higgins had been investigating the murders of two prostitutes, Rita Barrat, aka ‘Black Rita’ and Rachel Fenwick aka ‘Ginger Rae’. This seemed similar to an earlier time when there were power struggles in 1936-7 and there were a number of murders of prostitutes, the same thing seemed to be happening in 1947-8.

 

Both of these murders were also to remain unsolved. Rachel Fenwick had been born in east London on 19th August 1907, she was a widow and had been a prostitute for twenty two years in Soho. She had many convictions for prostitution and larceny, stealing from her customers. She was known as ‘Ginger Rae’ or ‘Red Rae’ on account of her auburn hair and was described as sociable and friendly and was said to enjoy her life-style. She was well liked and would always give small change to tramps or children as did many prostitutes at that time. Ginger was also known to be stubborn and outspoken.

 

Rachel was discovered murdered at her flat at 46 Broadwick street on 26th September 1948. She had been savagely attacked with a long bladed stiletto knife. It had not seemed like a sexual crime

Police thought it was a contract killing. “Ginger Rae” died instantly, having been stabbed with a “Mediterranean” style knife, either a Sphairai or Janbiya. A short-handled dagger with a curved heavy blade, designed to cut through muscle and bone, but when stabbed, can be twisted upwards, slitting the internal organs (such as the intestines, lungs, liver or heart) in one swift movement, making it a much feared weapon. Ginger Rae’s stomach had been slit open.

Suspicion fell on the Messina gang who had reputedly become associated with her whether they were pimping for her or were just getting protection money from her (poncing) it is not known.

It was suggested that the Messina gang were issuing a clear message to any of their "working girls" who stepped out of line, either by cutting off their tongue if they'd talked too much, gouging out their eyes if they'd seen something they shouldn't have, or in the case of Ginger Rae the brutal warning about ‘spilling your guts’

 

Rae had been last seen late the previous night at Brewer street which was her pitch to meet with customers. Rachel was seen talking with a man in his 30s, well built and six feet tall well dressed and he seemed foreign, possibly Maltese.

 

Rachel was an experienced prostitute who knew her area well and did not have anyone working with her as a maid or a pimp. She would have had offers of protection and it is possible that the Messina gang had approached her for a percentage as she was working in an area they controlled now. There would have been other independent prostitutes working the area who would have been similarly approached.

Messina’s prostitutes worked the same area as Rachel and although the Messina girls were expected to solve their own problems on the street, a tough cookie like Rachel, popular in the area, may have caused them a problem and if she had refused to pay any ‘tax’ to the Messinas she may have been made an example of.

 

However, there is no proof that the Messina family had anything to do with her death. The police questioned all the friends and contacts of Rachel and were satisfied that none of them had anything to do with her murder.

At the time there were a number of prostitute murders and there were rumours that Rachel was a police informer. There was another rumour that she was killed by a French gang, the remnants of the French / Algerian Micheletti gang.

 

It was a time of flux for the vice trade in Soho, Eugenio who was thought of as the leader of the Messina gang was in jail and there were rivals trying to move in on Messina territory. 

The other criminal gangs whose activities and protection rackets that could had crushed the Messinas at anytime, There was an uneasy partnership between crime bosses Jack Spot and Billy Hill. Spot and Hill where not interested in prostitution and the Messinas paid a tax to them in a fee for operating vice in Soho.

Everybody paid Hill and Spot for carrying out business, even the people selling food for the pigeons in Trafalger Sqaure.

 

A number of prostitutes had been murdered, Margaret Cook in Carnaby Street, 10th November 1946, Margaret was a 30 year old exotic dancer, which was described by Frankie Fraser as her taking off her clothes behind a fan, There was a description of a well dressed man who police wanted to interview, Margaret was shot outside the Blue lagoon club in Carnaby street.

Frances Mizzi was found strangled in her flat in Poland Street, Soho.

 

 Doris Green ‘Black Rita’ in September 1947 in Rupert street. Rita was named after her black hair, she was a striking woman of six feet and a daughter of a police officer. Rita was therefore suspected of being a police informer and it was reported that she had refused to cooperate with the Messina brothers and was killed to make an example of her. The police thought that she had been killed randomly by a man who did not like prostitutes, but as it was pointed out, such men do not carry guns.

 

Helen Freedman ‘Russian Dora’ September 1948. Helen was aged 60 and was found stabbed at her flat in Long Acre, Covent garden where the Sainsburys shop is today on the corner, (or is it a Tescos?)  Again, she was thought to be a police informer or a blackmailer and had been a prostitute for over 30 years. She was very fashionable and took a great care over her appearance when she took a care to appear younger than her 60 years.

 

 Despite police statements saying that the killings of Dora, Ginger Rae and Margaret Cook were killed by an unknown sadistic killer, the name of Teddy Machin a Soho enforcer, aka ‘Terrible Ted’ had came up as the paid killer by people.

Machin was a well known gangster who could be hired as an assassin. People that knew Machin, said that if Machin had killed them, it would have been purely business.

There was a number of unsolved murders although there is no evidence that The Messina gang or any other gang were involved. Although it would have been an option to resort to murder when taking care of business and the murders that left no clues could have been professional hits.

 

By 1949, The Messina brothers were by far the largest vice gang in Central London, it was thought that the brothers controlled 30 brothels in Mayfair and had a total of 200 girls working for them.

 

However, thanks to Duncan Webb’s journalism, by late 1950, the four Messina brothers had been forced out of the country. This did not seem to stop the gangs activities which carried on as normal.

Bent law firms would liase with the Messinas while they were abroad and money would be taken and delivered to them.

One result of the newspaper articles on the Messina vice trade was that people would come to visit the areas that the girls worked in Maddox Street or Bond street and try to spot the working girls.

Marthe Watts, Blanche Costaki and Janine Gilson who had all appeared in court to give evidence against the Vassalo gang and had appeared in Webb’s articles were known as the ‘Queens of Maddox street’

The women also received many letters from men wanting to help them!

 

Questions were being asked as to why nothing had been done to stop the vice trade in Central London and questions asking have corrupt police been allowing the trade to continue unhindered?

 The Commissioner of the metropolitan Police explained that the law gave police too few powers to take action against the trade. 

For example, a prostitute on the street soliciting, if arrested, the police would have to prove the offence, after which the offender would be given a £2 fine and she would be out on the street again in no time.

It was also claimed that members of the public were rarely prepared to give evidence in such cases, so arresting the women for prostitution was futile, although given the records of prostitutes such as Marthe Watts or Ginger Rae, they were arrested and charged many times. Marthe Watts was to have 400 convictions for prostitution. There was said to be a rota for arresting women for prostitution organised between the vice gangs and the police so that no woman would be arrested more than once every couple of weeks.

 

It was suggested that the Messina brothers had been allowed to flee the country, tipped off by corrupt police officers.

Whatever the truth, the law seemed very slow to act if it was serious in bringing the Messinas to justice. Usually there was a saying in the ‘Flying Squad’ of ‘nick them first and get the evidence later’. But this did not happen in the case of the Messinas, and they were given the chance to flee the country. Their bent solicitor William Webb advised them to stay out of the country until the fuss blew over.

 

While his brothers had fled the country after being named in Duncan Webb’s expose in the newspapers, Alfredo Messina, who had not had his name in the news, must have thought that he had avoided detection. 

But six months later, on 19th march 1951, he got a phone call from Superintendent Mahon who was investigating the vice ring telling him that his partner Hermione Hindin had been a prostitute for thirteen years anf he was living on her immoral earnings. Alfredo thought that the police had lost interest in him, but they had been watching and got the evidence they needed to convict him for living off immoral earnings.

When the police went to interview him, he tried to bribe them and at the Old Bailey in May 1951 he was sentenced to jail. On his release he settled in Brentford on the money he had acquired and died there of a stroke in August 1963.

 There had been attempts to deport him but as he had a ‘bent’ British passport he was not deported. Alfredo was buried in the family vault that had been purchased after his father died in 1946 at Gunnersbury cemetery

 

Those running the Messina business interests were now the Corsican Tony Rossi who called himself the ‘Lion of Montmarte although Duncan Webb referred to him as the jackal of Soho,  and Anthony Micallef, a cousin of the Messinas. And a host of other Maltese pimps and ponces running different parts of the Messina’s business and starting new ventures such as a Dating  Agency (dating prostitutes) and a flat renting agency (flats for prostitutes). When such businesses were busted by the police there was usually a scapegoat to take the blame and conviction. Those running the business also tried to bribe police to avoid convictions

 

Marthe Watts took over control of the ‘increasingly young’ girls who Eugenio was sending over from mainland Europe. Each girl kept her own accounts and such was the mix of loyalty and fear, it was not thought that they skimmed for themselves. Every time they had earned a thousand pounds, their reward was a trip to Paris to see Eugenio.

 

The Messinas had fled to Europe, Eugenio and Carmelo travelled together to France, Switzerland, Belguim and Holland; Salvatore stayed in Marseilles; Attillo was also thought to stay in the South of France. Eugenio and Carmelo controlled the Messina gang from Paris until Eugenio was kidnapped in November 1953 and only released after a £2,000 payment, after which they speedily relocated to Lausanne, Switzerland, after which they relocated again to Belguim where the law on prostitution was more relaxed. 

There were whispers that Duncan Webb had been involved in the kidnap after making contact with a Sicilian gang that wanted obtain protection money from the Messinas.

 

Eugenio would visit the UK on a fake British passport issued to Alexander Miller where he was looking at buying up properties in Mayfair to be used as brothels, such as 39 Curzon Street.

 

Attilio Messina had also slipped back into the UK under a ‘bent’ passport and lived at a house called the ‘Hideaway’ at Bourne End Buckinghamshire. The police knew he had been receiving money from the corrupt solicitors who sent a clerk ( Mr Watson) abroad to deliver money to the Messinas. It was trailing this clerk that led police to Attilio Messina. He was arrested in October 1951 and convicted of living on the immoral earnings of Robina Torrance going to jail for six months, attempts were made to deport him which failed.

The Messina gang not only employed bent corrupt solicitors, their legal representative, their barrister in court seemed either corrupt or incompetent.

 

Their barrister’s name was John Scott-Henderson QC his moment of fame being the chair into the enquiry into the guilt of Timothy Evans convicted of killing his wife and baby at 10 Rillington Place, Notting Hill in 1949. He found Evans guilty although there was hardly another person in the country that believed that, and Sidney Silverman MP was quoted as saying that no honest man, on the evidence before Scott-Henderson could have made the report he made…. He must have known it not to be true. Despite Scott-Henderson’s report, Evans was granted a posthumous pardon. Scott-Henderson was either a staggeringly incompetent or corrupt lawyer, or both.

 

There seemed to be a lot of solicitors who became too close to their underworld clients for their own good and several solicitors were corrupted by the Messinas being conduits to send bribes to corrupt policemen to ensure brothels would not be raided, watering down evidence, tipping off club owners of raids and arranging a rota system of arrests of prostitutes. 

There was solicitor William Webb and his clerk Mr H.Watson were crooked and were struck off after they were ferrying money and intelligence from the UK to where the Messinas were staying in Europe.

During the mid to late 1950s it was said that some uniformed patrolmen in Soho were receiving £60 a week in bribes (six times their wage!). 

 

Attilio (aka Raymond Maynard) continued to exploit vulnerable women and was arrested again in 1959 for living off immoral earnings. In court Attilio claimed to make his money from an Antiques business in Fulham for the previous seven years, the police retorted that there is a second hand shop in Fulham which is always closed and does no business, it was clearly a front and Atillio was living off prostitution.

Attilio was convicted of procuring young women for prostitution and keeping them prisoner and terrorising them, he was sentenced to 4 years with a recommendation for deportation(again!). On 17thNovember 1961, Attilio now released from jail aged 51 years of age was finally deported to Italy. It is unknown what he got up to over the next 30 years, he died in May 1991 at Costaranieria Italy. 

 

In April 2009 the body of a recluse named Raymond Maynard was found in the garage of a house in Oxford. He had died two months previously.

The body was that of a former psychiatric nurse and a self taught concert pianist  who had been born on 21 April 1938 in Chelsea. 

Raymond Maynard was a strange character who called himself various names, had tattoed eyebrows and had recently taken to dressing in a shell suit. He left his home called ‘Wuthering Heights’ to some former patients. He was clearly an eccentric.

Documentation later found at the house showed that he was the son of Attilio Messina, aka Mr Maynard and Robina Torrance.

After Attilio was deported in 1961, Robina stayed in the UK and settled down, marrying a local man running an antiques shop at Henley on Thames, she died at Henley on 30 August 1992 

 

 In Belgium, Eugenio and Carmelo were believed to be East German spies after they were caught trying to recruit East German girls as prostitutes. Telephone operators reported the frequent phone calls and informed the authorities. They were closely watched and found to be making regular trips to the UK and then they noticed that Belgium girls had been disappearing from their homes. The brothers became part of an intensive surveillance operation and it became clear what the brothers were up to.

 

31st August 1955, Eugenio and Carmelo were arrested and charged with trafficking and carrying firearms and other charges. It was this arrest that exposed the extent of their property portfolio in London, deeds of the properties they owned were found in a safe along with detailed reports gang members had sent them. They were jailed, Eugenio for seven years being freed in 1959 when he was taken to Italy and deported. He then started importing drugs from Afghanistan.

 

Carmelo served only ‘time served’ and was deported to Italy, he next surfaced in London in 1958 where he was arrested as an illegal immigrant, after a six month sentence, he was deported during March 1959 to Sicily where he had to report to the local police each day. Carmelo had a stroke and died during September 1959 aged 43 years of age.

 

Eugenio Messina later went to live in Italy at San Remo, on 21st March 1970 he married 39 year old Marie Theresa Vervaere who had worked as a Messina prostitute at Curzon street under the name Mary Smith. Eugenio died on his marriage night. 

 

When his surviving brothers Salvatore and Attilio came to pay their respects they found that the house had been looted. Eugenio’s fortune was estimated at anything between the low end of £1 million, to a high end of £17 million. There was a long battle over Eugenio’s inheritance with his wife of less than a day . Salvatore seemed to disappear, it was thought to somewhere in Italy; and Attilio as stated died in Italy in 1991.

Marthe Watts had by the 1970s gone into mental and physical decline. She wrote her memoirs in which she was selective of what she decided to write about, the book ‘The men in my life’ was published in 1960.

 

The Vice trade in 1960 were controlled by Maltese appointed by the brothers that had moved in from the east End of London. Central London was wide open now that Billy Hill and Jack spot had retired and the Messinas had faded away.

 

On 15th July 1956, Duncan Webb targeted those running the Messina gang,Tony Micallef and Tony Rossi, The People newspaper had a headline ‘Arrest this beast’ together with a photograph of Micallef, he was unaware that criminal proceedings were in progress against Micallef and these now had to be dropped as he could not be assured of a fair trial after the publicity of ‘Front page Headlines’.

 

Micallef and Rossi had proved incapable of managing the Messina business effeciently and Bernie Silver stepped in to take over the running of what was left of the Messina vice operation with his gang known as the ‘Syndicate’.

 

Bernie Silver had been working for the Messinas, he ran clubs and brothels in the Brick Lane area of the East End of London and had been acting as an Estate Agent letting out rooms to prostitutes at exhorbitant rates and collecting the rents. The rent books only recording a fraction of the actual rent, knocking off the last zero, so if the rent book showed £3, the actual rent was £30.

Silver realised that when rivals fell out, it was bad for business and he realised that a rapprochement was necessary  between the main operators in order to maximise profits.

 

The Maltese diaspora who had been involved with the Messinas formed the ‘Syndicate’ headed by the Jewish Bernie Silver and his deputy ‘Big Frank’ Mifsud. Even gang members from rival gangs such as the Vassalo gang became part of the gang, such as Anthony Mangion. The syndicate flourished for the next 20 years. With a little help from bent policemen in the Metropolitan Police.

 

So much publicity had been generated about the vice trade and the Messinas over the previous 10 years that the government set up a committee to come up with solutions.

 1957 saw the ‘ Wolfenden Report on homosexuality and prostitution’ This led to legislation such as the ‘1959 Street Offences Act’ amongst others that saw prostitution seem to disappear overnight as it forced them off the streets. This saw the start of printed cards being left in telephone boxes and signs for ‘models’ in windows sometimes lit up with a red light. 

 

To find out what happened next, check out my podcast from February 2020 called ‘Bernie Silver, the Epsom salts and the murder of Tommy Smithson’.

 

New website.