As I walk around taking street photos I’m always struck by how ordinary and unthreatening are the places where bad things have happened. In London it’s probably better this way because the history of the city is so long that bad things have happened just about everywhere.
Some years ago I dropped my son off at his infant school, built on an area where two rows of houses had been flattened in the Blitz, then I walked through Regent’s Park, past the bandstand blown up by the IRA. It occurred to me then, that even on a lovely summer’s day, you can stroll past scenes where people have been killed — yet life goes on, gradually expunging the horrors of the past.
For this article I decided to visit some places in London where serious incidents, such as murder, have taken place. Let me say at the outset, it’s very rare for me to set myself such a task, because my entire photographic “modus operandi” is to avoid imposing any conceptual ideas on my work. The city moves too quickly and the light is always changing — so why should anyone be able to take a good street photograph by imposing further restrictions, like: “Take a shot in this location”?
The Stage Door
I started at the Stage Door of the Adelphi Theatre in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden (see the featured photo, above). It was on this very spot, outside the theatre, that one of the most famous actors of the day, William Terriss, was murdered by Richard Archer Prince on 16 December 1897.
Terriss had become famous for his swashbuckling hero roles, such as Robin Hood, and had played many other parts in classical drama and comedies. He was currently appearing in a play called “Secret Service” when he was confronted by the younger man at the stage door.
Prince himself was an actor for whom Terriss had helped find work, but during a run of “The Harbour Lights” in which they’d both appeared, the young actor said something about Terriss which offended the older man and caused him to have Prince sacked.
Now more or less down and out, leading the life of an alcoholic and bum, Prince arrived in the vicinity of the theatre demanding money from the Actors’ Benevolent Fund which Terriss supported. When told payment was out of the question on that day, he crossed the street, waited for Terriss to emerge from the Adelphi and murdered him in cold blood by stabbing him three times in the chest with a large knife.
Arrested a hundred yards away from the scene of the crime, Prince was tried at the Old Bailey where doctors testified to his unstable condition. He was sentenced to prison in Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. There he conducted the prison orchestra until his death in 1936, much to the distress of other actors, especially Sir Henry Irving who was particularly appalled at the light sentence.
The Nowhere Place
Just around the corner from the theatre is the Nell Gwynne tavern in Bull Inn Court, where 29-year-old Detective Constable Jim Morrison — off-duty in the late evening — was having a quiet drink with his wife. He spotted a suspected thief and gave chase, all the way through Tavistock Street, the Aldwych and finally to Montreal Place where the cornered thief stabbed him to death.
This tragic case has never been solved because, despite a detailed description, the murderer was never identified. He is said to be “of North African/Algerian origin, clean shaven, average build with dark collar length hair, with distinctive tight curls at the front.” I take this quote from the location guide to London murders: murdermap.co.uk — where the density of flags forms a solid mass until you zoom into the map.
Montreal Place is a “nowhere” continuation of India Place, where a fine bust of former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru dominates the space. Nehru is quoted as saying: “Life is like a game of cards. The hand that is dealt you is determinism; the way you play it is free will.” Whether or not this is true, there’s no doubt that DC Morrison was dealt a cruel hand. Perhaps he was unwise, without a weapon, to chase an armed suspect — but his bravery cannot be questioned. His murderer is probably still walking the streets of London.
The Earlham Street Murder
At the time of writing, the next location is not listed as a murder spot by murdermap.co.uk — there are many such omissions, but the guide is still a work in progress (with, alas, the need for many recent additions).
I’ve often taken pictures in Seven Dials, the area to the north of Covent Garden where seven roads meet. Until preparing for this article I’d not been aware it was the scene of an horrific crime on Sunday 7th May 2000, when a 52-year-old paedophile stabbed a 12-year-old boy to death.
The murder happened outside what is now a Caffé Nero, near the former Sartaj Balti House — from which brave members of staff risked their lives by rushing out to detain the murderer until the police arrived. In the attack, the dead boy’s 15-year-old half-brother was also injured, but has since recovered.
For a while the tree and the three surrounding bollards where the murder took place became the site of a memorial to which local people brought dozens of bouquets to mark the spot. Nineteen years later you’d never know what had happened here. My picture (above) shows people going about their business as usual. Should there be a permanent commemorative sign? I think there should.
Seventy-nine people were injured and three died, including a pregnant English woman, at the Admiral Duncan public house when David Copeland placed a nail bomb there in April 1999. He had been trying to target London’s black, South Asian and gay communities on a 13-day bombing campaign which culminated at the Admiral Duncan in Old Compton Street, Soho. He was identified from CCTV footage and arrested soon afterwards.
Copeland was convicted and sentenced to six life sentences on 30 June 2000, with a minimum term of 50 years. Politically motivated, he said his intention was to stir up racial war by provoking the minorities until they began to fight back. In 2014 he attacked a fellow inmate with an improvised weapon and was sentenced to a further three years, effectively adding 18 months to his imprisonment.
By this time I’d realised that taking street photos “to order” by visiting specific locations was not really yielding pictures of any real quality. Why should it? The concept was all about place whereas street photography needs to focus primarily on people. In this project, the key participants were off-stage, either dead, imprisoned or at large.
So I’ve learned very little about street photography from this exercise, but I have discovered that for a long time we’ve been very lenient — shockingly lenient — in the way we treat murderers in cases where there is a hundred percent certainty of guilt.