Venue: Museum of London
Closest underground station: St. Paul’s
For some reason, human beings have a simultaneous fear of and fascination with death and violence. I for one, walk a little more quickly when I’m alone on a dark street but I’m usually walking home to watch a super violent and gory episode of ‘Jessica Jones’ or ‘How to Get Away with Murder’ on Netflix (you really must watch both of these series incidentally).
The Crime Museum has been closed to the public since its opening in 1875, being in place only for the information and education of police officers and detectives. I have had an interest in this mysterious and murderous museum for many years and so when I heard that an exhibition of its ‘best bits’ was being put together for public consumption, I was seriously intrigued.
The first part of the exhibition focuses on the early years of the Metropolitan Police. Here you can see wanted posters, court sketches, mug shots and murder weapons from the 1800s and you find out that the origins of the Museum were formed on the ‘Prisoners’ Property Store’ (founded to safeguard the belongings of prisoners).
As an avid fan of murder and conspiracy documentaries, my favourite part of this section was dedicated to Jack the Ripper. I’m sure most people will know that Jack the Ripper was a murderer who killed 11 women in the Whitechapel area between 1888 and 1891. What still remains virtually unknown is the actual identity of the killer! These murders caused a media frenzy as the killer teased the public with letters admitting to the killings.
The next section focused on capital punishment. Despite the fact that capital punishment seems like a very archaic and brutal concept in the UK, it was only abolished in 1964 when the last execution took place for murder. This part of the exhibition displayed the death masks of executed convicts and the ropes used to hang various criminals in the 1800s. These public hangings would draw large crowds and the wealthier sickos even rented rooms opposite the scaffolding so that they could watch from the comfort of their windows. Public hangings were made private in 1868.
The main bulk of the exhibition focused on individual cases spanning from 1905 to 1975. This section described stories of famous and headline grabbing crimes and displayed murder weapons, evidence and photographs.
The following stories in particular caught my attention:
- William Barnett; Wounding with Intent and Indecent Assault (1955)
In early 1955, a spate of sexual assaults took place on women in Croydon. Female police officers decided to go undercover and act as “bait” for the attacker to draw him out. Two female police officers were seriously attacked but managed to escape, not before getting a good look at his face. The attacker was eventually identified as William Barnett who admitted his guilt and was sentenced to (a mere) 10 years in prison for his attacks on nine women. The police women (Kathleen Parrott and Ethel Bush) were awarded the George medal for their bravery.
- The Kray Twins; Murder (1969)
Nowadays, the Krays seem to be remembered a little more fondly and glamorously (thanks to Tom Hardy) than they seem to deserve. Ronnie and Reggie Kray were twin gangsters whose territory stretched from East London to the West End, and they carried out robberies, assaults, and fraud throughout the 1960s. Their gang seemed to rule London (with a little competition from the Richardsons of South London), but everything disintegrated when Ronnie and Reggie murdered George Cornell and Jack McVitie and were sentenced to life imprisonment. The exhibition displayed some of the weapons they had in their arsenal (but suppposedly never used), the most ingenious of which was a briefcase rigged with a spring loaded syringe of cyanide.
- The Spaghetti House Siege (1975)
It’s the equivalent of getting shanked in Pizza Express today, but in 1975 masked and armed gunmen held up Spaghetti House in Knightsbridge and attempted to rob it. Unfortunately things didn’t go as planned for the offenders and they ended up having to take the staff hostage. This gave the police their first chance to use modern psychological tactics on the hostage takers and they even managed to use the media to their advantage. After six days, the hostages were set free.
The exhibition’s final section focused on the threats that have faced the Metropolitan Police more recently. Terrorism has been a part of London’s modern history since the attacks of the IRA in the 1970s (which continued thoughout the 80’s and 90’s). After the attacks on the World Trade Centre in 2001, the threat from Al Qaeda emerged in London. In 2005 London was shaken by a series of bombings targeting the transport system. The exhibition contained paraphernalia collected from the failed attempts to bomb London; namely the rucksacks and reconstructions of the type of bomb used.
Parts of the exhibition were naturally quite graphic and disturbing, so I wouldn’t recommend it if you are someone who is easily upset. I also would not really recommend taking children under the age of 16 to this exhibition.
However, I do feel it is important to be faced with upsetting reality sometimes. Violence has been sensationalised since the birth of the media and back in the 19th Century it would have caused quite a lot of public excitement if there was a juicy murder in the papers. Today, seeing someone getting stabbed on TV evokes little to no shock as we have obviously become completely desensitised to gore. But being presented with a the knife that killed a 19 year old girl or the bloodstained scarf that was used to strangle someone brings everything back to the fact that in that moment of brutality, an innocent life was taken. In that sense, we aren’t just focusing on the criminal and forgetting the victims of these horrific crimes. As someone quoted in the exhibition “everyone is someone’s someone”.
The exhibition runs until 10th April 2016 and I would highly urge anyone interested in the subject matter to go. You may never get the opportunity to see these exhibits again!
Thanks for reading,