I intended to write a piece about two ladies who lived briefly in Blackpool and were murdered. But I became interested in Evelyn Oatley and the Blackout Ripper. So this is the story.
I am a left wing bigot but however you try you cannot portray the women who were victims of the Blackout Ripper as exploited by men. The boot is on the other foot.
These murders happened in 1942. The blitz and the blackout had transformed London to gothic strangeness. The last thing the government wanted was a panic around blackout measures and so the case was not heavily reported.
To get our bearings: 1942 main events: Pearl Harbour, Germany declares war on USA (!). Singapore surrendered in the same month as the activities of the Blackout Ripper. Blackpool experienced its single most lethal murder. (???)
World War 11 was a game of two halves. An informed observer would have bet on a German victory in early 1942. The same person would bet on an allied victory at the end of 1942.
The mood in early 1942 was uneasy, fearful, exhausted.
EVELYN AND HAROLD OATLEY: A LOVE STORY
Evelyn Judd was born in Earby in 1918 which was then in Lancashire but is now in Yorkshire. She longed for the glamour of a life in theatre. Unfortunate in Earby. In newspapers Evelyn is described as “a talented actress”, but I found no evidence that she did act.
Evelyn became pregnant at 15 and her daughter was adopted. She had a very close relationship with her mother.
And how did she meet Harold who was a chicken farmer in Thornton? We don’t know but my guess is that Blackpool and dancing were involved. Evelyn loved dancing.
Harold was smitten. In 1934 he financed a journey by Evelyn to the West End. She had a flat in Great Portland Street and made a living as a dancer and a nightclub hostess. She was unable to find work in the theatre. She had a stage name, Lita Ward. She claimed to have worked at the Windmill Theatre.
What did Harold make of all this? Perhaps he thought that when Evelyn got this acting bug out of her system she would settle down to the life of a poultry farmer’s wife in Thornton. And in 1936 Evelyn returned to Thornton and on June 26 they were married at the Registry Office in Blackpool. Photographs of Evelyn show a dark blonde attractive woman. Unlike most photographs of the time they are revealing , modelled on Hollywood glamour shots.
It could have worked. Evelyn could have got this theatre thing out of her system and settled down as the wife of a poultry farmer. Her husband adored her. But it didn’t. Harold’s business did not prosper and he moved to Lyddesdale Avenue in Anchorsholme. Evelyn returned to the West End. Harold visited her regularly. She made a living as a dancer and a nightclub hostess and a prostitute. Evelyn also had affairs. And she told Harold about them. Loving Harold hoped that in the end she would realise that she did not need to seek love because she was already loved. Evelyn saw Harold as a shoulder to cry on.
When the war came there were few theatrical opportunities in the West End and Evelyn was getting on by dancer standards. The life of a prostitute was not at all unsuitable for a girl who likes glamour, and dancing, and drinking, and men in uniform. And there is a community of prostitutes in which Evelyn was highly regarded. She was confident, generous, trustworthy, she didn’t work Sundays.
Harold continued to make the round trip to see her. At one point Evelyn was in a relationship with a military man and they asked Harold if he would divorce Evelyn so that they could marry. Harold agreed. He put Evelyn’s happiness above his own. But Evelyn’s relationship with the serviceman collapsed.
On Tuesday 3 February 1942 Harold waved goodbye to Evelyn at Euston Station. Evelyn would eventually value his devotion. Maybe he was right… time was on his side.
On the night of Monday 9 February 1942 Evelyn, fashionably dressed, waved to her friends who were in the company of two air-force cadets from the Regent Park Reception Centre. She entertained various gentlemen, a Canadian military man and a civilian. She may have entertained six to eight clients that evening.
On Tuesday 10 February her body was found when a neighbour opened the door for two men who wanted to read and empty her meter. She had been mutilated and posed. She was exposed and had been penetrated with objects including a torch.
The next time Harold saw Evelyn she was a corpse. Good natured, kindly, generous Harold… And Evelyn, with her dreams of fame and her mother’s photo in her cigarette case.
Evelyn had been robbed. She had about £20 in her purse… which had the purchasing power of almost £1000 today. And her cigarette case had been stolen with the photograph of her mother inside. She had been mutilated with a can opener. The killer had concentrated on the breasts and sexual organs. The killer had partially strangled her so that Evelyn was semi-conscious. Her artery had been cut with a razor blade… blood shot six feet across the room. The killer was left handed.
Evelyn was the second victim of the Blackout Ripper.
I had intended only to write about Evelyn Oatley but I found myself bewitched by the other victims. I am not the first person to be enchanted by prostitutes (Dickens, Gladstone) . This is late romanticism where the artist identifies with the prostitute… Another strand is the notion that like priests and doctors and undertakers they have privileged access to what people are really like. The term “sex worker” that somehow puts prostitution in the same realm as working at Tesco… well that doesn’t work. Whatever, as the young folks say: it is just true that people (especially men) are fascinated.
Jack the Ripper, the Blackout Ripper and the Yorkshire Ripper. You will find all kinds of bosh about hatred of prostitutes but it does not take much thinking to work out that if you want to kill a woman and get away with it the prostitute is your best bet. The Blackout Killer’s first victim was not a prostitute.
The Blackout Ripper killed four women and attacked two over six days. Apart from revulsion there is something eye-popping about his work ethic.
Evelyn Hamilton, the first known victim, was born in the North East of England. Her father died when she was young and her mother paid special attention to her education. She went to a prestigious school and then to Edinburgh School of Medicine where she obtained a diploma as a pharmacist. She worked hard and worked at Yardleys Chemist in Romford. Among her belongings was a book on women’s suffrage.
She was a solitary figure with no close friends and no men in her life. She was anxious and depressive. Her dress was dowdy as if she never wanted to draw attention to herself. She was a Socialist. She was given notice at Yardleys the Chemists because business was dwindling but she immediately got a new job in Grimsby. She was packing to go to a new job in a town she did not know.
Edith left her lodgings for the last time on Sunday 8 February 1942. She was going to spend the night in London and travel to Grimsby on Monday. Evelyn took the railway to Baker Street. She took a taxi to the Three Arts Club. At 10.50 Evelyn took a taxi to the Maison Lyonesse, half a mile from her hotel. There is an hour when she drops from sight. At 11.45 she orders a meal and a glass of wine. It is her forty-first birthday. Four cards are found among her belongings…
On Monday 9th February at 8.30am two plumbers going to work noticed a torch outside an air-raid shelter in Montagu Street. Then they saw a leg. And then they saw Evelyn Hamilton’s body. She had fought hard against her attacker and had been strangled. Her body had been exposed, posed and mutilated. There are unexplained injuries that might have been caused by penetration with the torch. Her two pairs of undergarments are about her knees. She felt the cold on Sunday 8th February and she would never feel the cold again. Evelyn who was almost noticeable because of the care she took to avoid notice. There are anomolies about the timing. There is an unaccounted hour after she left the hotel. And how had the killer managed to get this loner into the shelter? She died ten seconds from her hotel. Why didn’t she get a taxi after her meal? The killer was left-handed and Evelyn’s money was stolen. It was her severance pay and amounted to £20, £1000 today.
Margaret Lowe the third victim of the Blackout Ripper was in a class of her own. She had the misfortune to come down in the world twice. She was born in 1899 in idyllic surroundings in Napier New Zealand. Her family returned to England. Her father died during the war and she lived in poverty with her mother widowed with three children. In 1919 she was convicted of living on immoral earnings.
In 1921 she married George Frederick Lowe. Her fortune took a turn for the better. Her husband set up a shop in Southend which flourished. In 1932 George died. They had a four year old daughter Barbara. Margaret took to drinking, the business fell apart, Barbara was taken into care, and Margaret took to prostitution.
In twelve months she had gone from being a prosperous shop owner with a husband and daughter to being a depressed alcoholic lone prostitute. Margaret was unhappy and a loner. Unlike most prostitutes she did not have a “patch” but walked in a long square near Picadilly Circus. She worked late at night. She was well-spoke and generally wore a fur coat. She did not socialise and seemed to detest both her clients and other prostitutes. Other prostitutes called her “The Lady.”
At odds with the implication of gentility was the fact that she dealt with troublesome clients violently, decisively and frequently. She was often seen drunk and singing.
The single bright spot in her life was her daughter Barbara who had grown into vivacious young lady of fifteen.
On Tuesday 10 February 1942 Margaret was in a cheerful mood when she ordered lamb livers, kidney, fat and suet. Her daughter was visiting her on Saturday and she was going to make a suet pudding.
Margaret lived at Gosfield Street in a flat that today would be worth be well over a million pounds. Neighbours heard a man leaving early on Wednesday morning.
Margaret was solitary and friendless. Her body was not found until Saturday when her daughter. Barbara, was unable to get her to open the door. A constable opened the door and found Margaret’s body on the bed. The body was posed and exposed and mutilated using things that the murderer had found in the room: a potato peeler. She had been penetrated with a candle. Margaret had been partially strangled by a left handed person. She was 43 years old.
I was puzzled that the door was locked. Did the killer use her key to lock the door?
Doris Jouannet is the only one of the Blackout Ripper’s victims who had the experience of being driven around in silver Rolls Royce. She was born in 1907 in Northumberland. She was the daughter of a single mother who died shortly after her birth and she was raised by her aunts. And that’s almost all we know. She next appears on the world stage as a prostitute in London and then her fortunes took a considerable turn for the better.
In 1935 she was 25 and she married Henri Jouannet. French born Henri was 60. Henri had interests in hotels including the Royal Court Hotel in Sloane Square. Doris became used to a very high standard of living. Various money worries including a decline in hotel trade meant that the couple were not as well off as they had been but they were still prosperous. They lived in an apartment at Sussex Gardens… a prestigious address.
In her last recorded conversation Doris said that she was not getting on with Henri and that she had a meeting with another man in Piccadilly. This man either cancelled the meeting or did not turn up and Doris set off for home. Doris had taken up prostitution again and with her tallness, her striking looks, her expensive clothes and her commanding manner she attracted wealthier clients. She was said to be Russian.
On Friday evening, 12 February Henri returned home. His wife’s bedroom door was locked and there was no reply. A policeman entered the room. Doris had been murdered, exposed, her body posed, mutilated with knives and a potato peeler that the killer had found in the kitchen. In this case too the killer seems to have locked the bedroom door.
GRETA HAYWARD AND KATHRYN MULCAHY
On Thursday 12 February 1942 at 8pm 30 year old Greta Hayward was an hour early for a date. An airforce cadet offered to buy her a drink while she waited for her friend near Piccadilly Circus. She agreed on condition that she could meet her friend by 9pm. He asked if he could meet her again and she agreed and gave him her phone number. The airman had had a few whiskies. He forced her into a darkened doorway, took off his respirator in its canvas container and kissed her. He started to squeeze her throat with his left hand. A 24 year old night porter, John Shine, sensed something was wrong and shouted “Stop police!” The airman ran off leaving behind his gas mask and its container.
About 10 pm the same day a tall slim attractive red-haired prostitute, Kathryn Mulcahy, was propositioned by an airman and took him back to her flat at 29 Southwick Street Paddington. While they lay naked on the bed, he caressed her neck with his left hand. She bent both his thumbs back till they nearly snapped and kicked him in the chest.
Kathryn screamed “Police. Murder!” and knocked on her neighbours’ doors. Her neighbours saw the airman but he was unruffled and apologised, peeled of five one pound notes and left without haste. He left behind the belt from his air force tunic.
Meanwhile Greta Hayward made her way to the Police Station in the West End. She described the airman. Five foot nine, fair hair, an air force cadet… but most importantly he had left his air force respirator in its bag. And on the respirator was a six digit service number. When Greta talked to DI Clarence Jeffrey there were a number of anomalies. Greta’s money had been stolen, but if this was a simple theft why had the attacker bought drinks for Greta and taken her phone number? If it was a planned assault why did he not have a weapon? And it was peculiar for an assailant to subdue a victim by strangulation. But funny things happen. On the plus side there was a good description of the airman, both by Greta and by John Shine and critically there was the respirator with its six digit number, 525987. The cadet was most likely at the Regents Park Reception Centre for initial training.
GORDON FREDERICK CUMMINS
At 5.45 am on Friday 13 February 1942 Gordon Frederick Cummins was interviewed. He denied the assault on Greta Hayward and was arrested, When told that he would take part in an identification parade he admitted that he had drunk too much and blacked out and he apologised. He was charged at Bow Street in the afternoon and was held in Brixton Prison.
At around the time that Gordon Cummins was arrested Kathryn Mulcahy was telling the story of her attacker. A doctor confirmed that attempted strangulation had taken place and she was able to give a good description of her attacker. She also had his tunic belt which he had left behind. There were bloodstains.
On Friday 13 February 1942 the bodies of Margaret Lowe and Doris Jouannet were discovered.
When Gordon Cummins gave an account of his movements he was relaxed and good humoured. He stuck to the facts. The investigation was hampered because comings and goings at the reception centre were inadequately recorded.
Two one pound notes which had been given by the airman to Kathryn Mulcahy could be traced to Gordon Cummins. Gordon Cummins’ uniform was taken for forensic examination and thirteen small bloodstains were found. Chief Inspector Greeno was in charge of the investigation into the Blackout Murders. At some time it must have struck him that there was a similarity between the victims and the attacks on Kathryn Mulcahy and Greta Hayward.
At 6.30pm on Saturday 14 February 1942 DS Leonard Crawford search Gordon Cummins’ flat. Odd items: a black fountain pen, a silver cigarette case, a comb with several missing teeth and a gold watch seemed anomalous. Doris’ husband identified the pen, the gold watch and the comb. Margaret Lowe’s 15 year old daughter Barbara, identified the cigarette case.
On Tuesday 27 April 1942 at Bow Street George Cummins was charged with the murder of Doris Jouannet. Meanwhile George Cummins’ fellow cadets found a cigarette case and a handkerchief hidden above a fridge. The handkerchief belonged to Evelyn Hamilton and was identified by a laundry mark. The cigarette case belonged to Evelyn Oatley. The cigarette case bore the initials LW, from Edith Oatley’s stage name, and inside was a photograph of Evelyn Oatley’s beloved mother.
In addition there was now fingerprint evidence from Margaret Lowe and Doris Jouannet’s flats.
In the face of overwhelming evidence George denied everything. The trial was at the Old Bailey. George offered no defence, called no witnesses. The trial lasted only a day and the jury took 35 minutes to find George Cummins guilty.
His parents and his wife continued to believe that he was innocent. His wife? Yes well I was coming to that.
GORDON FREDERICK CUMMINS
So what kind of man attacks six women and kills four in six days. Apart from that how did he do it? Don’t forget that George Cummins had a full day as a cadet. He was killing in his spare time. George Cummins had volunteered for aircrew possible pilot training. Who was he?
He had a loving mother and a strict father. His father was a pious Catholic and a schoolteacher. There had been a scandal in his father’s life. Some money had gone missing in a school where he worked. He claimed he was innocent but paid the missing money. He was able to go on to another teaching post.
Gordon left school at 15. He took a diploma in chemistry. He was fired from three jobs after about 6 months. His employer said he was: “abnormal and dense.” He was very easily distracted, crazy about girls and fond of drink. He adopted a posh accent.
Gordon moved to London and in 1935 he met 22 year old Marjorie Stevens, a secretary. In 1938 they were married at Paddington Registry Office within walking distance of two of the murders. The couple rented a flat in Barnes a suburb of South West London. Shortly afterwards Gordon joined the Air Force. Although he was stationed all over the country he regularly visited Marjorie. Marjorie was very private, but she believed in Gordon’s innocence until he died and she said, in a very rare interview, that their marriage was: “very, very happy.”
It may be that a combination of marriage and the Air Force improved Gordon’s behaviour. His CO said he was “exemplary” and that he “never complained.” Opinions varied about Gordon. Some found him charming. Others said that he was a liar, claiming distinguished birth and education, drunken, a womaniser and a thief. He had nicknames reflecting his grandiose claims: “The Duke” or “The Count.” He was always short of money and he needed a lot of money to fund drinking and womanising. His stay near Bath was accompanied by a series of thefts from women and two women had been hit and robbed near Bath. Gordon managed to become a member of an elite club called the Blue Peter Club. And then he ran off with the money. . His final posting was to Regents Court for pilot training one week before the death of Evelyn Hamilton.
Consider two episodes during Gordon Cummins’ killing spree.
Monday 9th February (remember he had murdered Evelyn Hamilton in the early hours of that morning) Gordon left his flat at 6pm, went for a drink with his friend, met two prostitutes, went to their flat, then he left picked up Evelyn Oatley and murdered her. It is possible he murdered Evelyn Oatley and Evelyn Hamilton on the same day as well as doing his duties as an airforce cadet and going with another prostitute.
Or on Thursday 12 February 1942. At 9 pm he attacked Greta Hayward, at 10pm he attacked Kathryn Mulcahy and about 11.00 pm he picked up and later murdered Doris Jouannet. This again after a working day as a cadet.
A possible explanation might be alcohol plus amphetamines. Amphetamines were freely available to servicemen, in Germany just about everybody including Adolf, used them. Apart from increasing alertness and wakefulness they can also make people more reckless and less fearful… a handy thing if you are piloting a bomber. Germany’s victory over France might be down to amphetamines… their tank drivers just went on and on. What do amphetamines do in combination with alcohol? I haven’t got the foggiest idea but I think its likely that they make violence more likely and perhaps induce dreamlike states. There is no evidence that Gordon used amphetamines and he certainly did use alcohol in abundance. Another feature of Gordon’s case is the robotic repetitiveness of his actions. So fear of impotence? A private almost religious ritual to appease the terrifying feminine gods? A hatred of women? All of these? None of them?
Gordon Cummins’ choice to offer no defence intentionally closed examination of his behaviour. The jury took 35 minutes to reach a decision. He was hanged on Thursday 25th of June 1942 at Wandsworth by Albert Pierrepoint assisted by Harry Allen. Harry Allen, after his retirement used to give change on Fleetwood Pier. It is claimed that Gordon Cummins, who was 28, was hanged during an air-raid. A memory of the Blackout Ripper contributed to the plot of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1972 film “Frenzy”.
It will not benefit Evelyn Hamilton or Evelyn Oatley or Margaret Lowe or Doris Jouannet to think of them with sorrow and pity. But it won’t do any harm either. And think of Harold Oatley… I believe he died in the 60’s. Did he pause in Anchorsholme and reflect on his lost love…
Many thanks to staff at Blackpool Local and Family History Centre for unfailing help. If you are interested in learning more about the Blackout Ripper the most detailed source o is a Podcast called Murder Mile which is simply wonderful. It is written and read by Michael Buchanan-Dunne who also conducts Crime Walks in Central London. Murder Mile is brilliant.