Sunday, 2nd February 1964. It is a freezing cold but peaceful morning in London, and the only sounds that threaten the serene calm near Hammersmith bridge are the distant chimes of church bells and the gentle lapping of the water on the bank of the river Thames. A man walking his dog on the footpath takes a moment to appreciate the beauty of the scene as the overnight fog begins to lift.
But within a minute, he spots something that he absolutely does not appreciate. A pale human figure has washed up on the bank and is lying there, deathly still, as the water quietly splashes around it. The man initially thinks it is a mannequin, and he is annoyed at the continued pollution of this stretch of river in suburban west London, a mile or two downstream from the factories in Chiswick and Brentford. It is only on closer inspection that his irritation turns to revulsion, as he realises that it is not a mannequin at all. It is the body of a woman.
It is possible, probable even, that there were earlier victims, but the woman hauled from the Thames that frigid morning was the first of six recognised victims of a mysterious murderer who operated in west London in the mid-1960s. All of the victims were petite young prostitutes who were subjected to horrific violence, their occasionally mutilated bodies dumped in the nude.
This was the famous ‘swinging sixties’, a time when Britain was striding confidently into the modern age amid a cultural revolution built on music, fashion and film. But nearly 80 years after a serial prostitute killer gripped London’s east end with fear, an eerily similar murderer terrorised the city’s western suburbs. Just like Jack the Ripper, this killer managed to evade one of the largest police manhunts in British history. ‘Jack the Stripper’, as the press dubbed him, was never caught.
The Scene and the Victims
Please note – details about the some of the victim’s ages and backgrounds differ depending on the source. I have tried to be as accurate and respectful as possible in detailing all of them.
When researching this story, I couldn’t believe that it is not better known. Here was a murderer with a higher body count than Jack the Ripper, who was subject to the second largest manhunt in British policing history, yet there are few documentaries or books written about these crimes. Perhaps they were overshadowed by the man who was subject to the only larger police manhunt in British history, the infamous ‘Yorkshire Ripper’, Peter Sutcliffe, who terrorised the north of England just over a decade later. Even so, I am still stunned that this series of murders is not widely known. It is the largest unsolved murder case in Britain.
I am all the more stunned because I am from west London myself and grew up within five miles of where these murders occurred; indeed, I am familiar with literally every location in this piece. How could these murders be so little known even in the areas where they took place? Granted, they occurred over fifty years ago, but it still seems supremely odd that no one seems to know about them. In any case, it is this lack of coverage and awareness that I intend to put right in this piece.
The Orange rectangle shows the part of London where the murders occurred (see more detailed map of this area below)
The names, dates and locations of the murders
The victims were all local to west London, although none of them had been brought up here. They had come to London from other parts of Britain and Ireland and fallen into prostitution as a means of supporting themselves. Most of them were known to have worked the Shepherd’s Bush area. Their bodies were discovered in Kensington, Hammersmith, Chiswick, Brentford and Ealing, all within four or five miles of Shepherd’s Bush.
In the 2020s these areas are mostly residential, stretches of anonymous suburbia with wealthy and not so wealthy parts. But in the 1960s these areas were industrial, and predominantly working class. Factories were dotted along the river in Brentford and Chiswick and there were large industrial estates in Ealing and Acton, about three or four miles north of the river. It was in this environment, not far from the swinging city in distance but far removed from it in prosperity, that a killer lurked and his victims were forced to work.
The first recognised victim of this murderer was Hannah Tailford, the 30-year-old mother whose body washed up in Hammersmith in February 1964. But I wanted to start with two other women, murdered over the years previously, who are likely to have been earlier victims of his.
Elizabeth Figg and Gwynneth Rees
The first of these women was Elizabeth Figg, a 21-year-old from Cheshire who had come down to London and settled in the Chiswick area. The only photograph I could find of her seems to have been taken when her body is lying on an autopsy table, so I have chosen not to publish it here. But I can tell you that she was petite, quiet and young-looking – exactly the type of woman the killer preyed on – and was forced to supplement her meagre income by working occasionally as a prostitute. On the night of Tuesday, 16th June 1959, Figg was spotted getting into a vehicle driven by a man, and she was never seen alive again. Her body was discovered on a path at Duke’s Meadows, a park near the river, at dawn the following morning. She was nude from the waist down, her dress had been ripped to expose her breasts, and marks on her neck indicated that she had been strangled. Police were certain that the man she had got in the car with had committed the murder, but with witnesses unable to identify the man or the car, the case soon went cold.
The next probable victim was a 22-year-old Welsh woman named Gwynneth Rees. Rees had moved to London via Essex, where she had lived with her sister. Again, she was petite and young-looking, and was forced to earn extra income through sex work. Rees’ body was found in November 1963 by the river in Mortlake, just across from Duke’s Meadows park, naked but for one sock and strangled to death.
22-year-old Gwynneth Rees (Daily Mirror)
So, we have two victims of similar crimes, similar in appearance, their bodies discovered within half a mile of each other. As we shall see, their deaths were similar to the deaths of the six recognised victims. Why were they not officially designated as such? Unfortunately, I cannot find a definitive answer. It seems to me that it could be because the other six murders happened within such a short space of time over 1964-65, or perhaps because Figg and Rees were not mutilated. However, it seems almost certain that they were victims of the same killer as the other six women.
As already outlined, the first official victim was Hannah Tailford, a 30-year-old mother of two who was pregnant with her third child when she was murdered. Similar to Trigg and Rees, Tailford was short and slim. As Richard Bevan details for the Crime and Investigation website, police initially did not see her as the victim of a crime, despite the fact that she had been missing for over a week before she was found, was naked when she was discovered and had her underwear stuffed in her mouth. Its not that they didn’t bother to look into the case – based on a post-mortem and a study of tide flows, they managed to work out that Tailford had entered the water 24 hours previously at Duke’s Meadow’s park – but they simply shrugged and called it a suicide. It seems likely that, in keeping with the unfortunate attitudes of the time, they did not really see the point in investigating the death of a prostitute.
Hannah Tailford was pregnant when she was murdered (Daily Mail)
However, the police's hand would be forced very soon indeed.
On 8th April 1964, the body of Irene Lockwood, a 26-year-old woman from Nottinghamshire, was found floating face down in the river in Chiswick. Again, she was petite (only 5ft) and slim. Again, her body was discovered naked. Again, she was pregnant at the time of her death. Police established that she had been strangled, and also noted with grim foreboding the location of her death. It is at this point that they realised (if they did not already) that Hannah Tailford had not committed suicide, and that a serial killer was on the loose. They linked Lockwood’s death with Tailford’s and with Gwynneth Rees’, but for some reason went on to omit Rees from the official list of victims.
The press was now onto the story and the sensational headlines practically wrote themselves. Making a link with the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888, they named the mystery murderer ‘Jack the Stripper’.
Within three weeks, Jack struck again. Perhaps as a result of the increased police presence along the river, the next victim was instead dumped in an alleyway in Brentford and discovered on the morning of 24th April 1964. She was Helen Barthelemy, a 22-year-old Scottish woman who had travelled down to London eager to seek her fortune. Unfortunately, her big dreams had not quite materialised before she was forced to turn to prostitution, and they were halted completely when she was murdered.
Helen Barthelemy had made her way to London with big dreams (Daily Star)
There were two significant finds on Helen Barthelemy’s body. The first was her missing front teeth – this was to become a signature on the remaining Stripper victim’s. More importantly, police discovered tiny flecks of industrial paint on her skin. This was the first big break in the case, and detectives theorised that the killer was an industrial worker who was exposed to such flecks of paint at work, or perhaps even stored the bodies at his place of work before getting rid of them.
It was not an unreasonable theory, but theories could not stop the remorseless killer.
As described by Eleanor Ovens for the Newcastle Mail, Mary Flemming was a 30-year-old mother of four who was born in Scotland but grew up near Newcastle. She had turned to prostitution when her marriage fell apart, and her body was discovered on a residential street in Chiswick on the morning of 14th July 1964. Her front teeth were missing, she had been strangled, and her body was found unclothed. Several residents said they had heard a car reverse and then speed off overnight, and the tell-tale paint specks were found on Flemming’s skin. But in an age before forensic science as we know it, this was still not enough.
The stripper’s fifth victim, discovered at the end of November 1964, was different. She was short like the others, her body discovered strangled, naked and missing front teeth like the others, and her skin was covered in paint specks like the others. But she was discovered in High Street Kensington, still in west London but in another world to the killer’s industrial, suburban stomping ground. This was a fashionable part of London that was enjoying the swinging sixties, and the victim’s identity was in keeping with that.
She was Margaret McGowan, another Scottish woman who was working as a prostitute (under the alias of Frances Brown), but at the higher end of the trade. The 21-year-old’s clients included businessmen and politicians, and she had testified with Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davis at Stephen Ward’s trial in the midst of the infamous Profumo scandal.
She had last been seen by a friend as she climbed into a client’s car in October, and when her body was discovered a month later the friend was able to tell police what kind of car it was – a Ford Zodiac – and give a rough description of the man. It was the biggest break in the case yet; but it still would not lead to the killer’s capture.
Margaret McGowan had been involved in the Profumo scandal (Pinterest)
The final victim was discovered in February 1965 on the Heron Industrial estate in Ealing. Bridget O’Hara, also known as Bridie, was a 28-year-old Irish immigrant who, like most of the victims, struggled to find her place in London and had to turn to sex work to support herself. She had been missing since 11th January, until an electrician discovered her body at dawn on 16th February. This confirmed to the police their suspicion that the killer stored his victim’s bodies before disposing of them.
Bridget 'Bridie' O'Hara had arrived in London from Dublin (Daily Express)
London’s metropolitan police had made some progress in the pursuit of their killer, but their search was ultimately proving fruitless. After the discovery of Bridget O’Hara, Scotland Yard recalled one of its top detectives, John Du Rose, from holiday to lead the investigation. Nicknamed ‘Five Day Johnny’ for his apparent ability to solve a case within five days, Du Rose mobilised hundreds of officers and had them interview practically every industrial worker in west London – including all 7,000 workers on the Heron industrial estate. He also ordered plain clothes officers to patrol the main roads leading in and out of central London at night, recording licence plates and making note of any cars they saw on multiple occasions.
Du Rose settled on the theory that the suspect was a small man, hence his targeting of smaller women, whose job exposed him to spray paint and who perhaps worked at night and had knowledge of a secure lock-up.
The investigation was intensifying, and sure enough O’Hara’s body would lead police to another key discovery. She exhibited all the signs of a stripper victim, but her skin was burnt and slightly mummified, indicating her corpse had been stored somewhere warm. Just a few yards from where the body was discovered, police found a lock-up that had a transformer, which could have been what kept the body warm. Opposite the lock-up was a spray paint shop, and the paint from that shop was found to match the paint on O’Hara and the other victims.
The police had found the killer’s storage space.
John Du Rose excitedly called a press conference in which he (somewhat truthfully) suggested his force was close to catching the killer and (completely falsely) claimed to have narrowed the list of suspects down to 20 men.
But an arrest would never be made. Just like that, the killings stopped, and the police quietly shelved the case without ever solving it.
One of the reasons the police shelved the case was that their prime suspect committed suicide. Mungo Ireland was a middle-aged Scot who worked as a security guard on the Heron trading estate and had access to the killer’s lock-up. In a 1970 interview, John Du Rose hinted that the killings had been committed by a married father he could only identify as ‘Big John’. Ireland, who already new the police were watching him, took this as a sign that he was about to be arrested. Soon after, he killed himself, leaving a note for his wife explaining that he couldn’t ‘stick it any longer.’
Could Ireland have been the killer? The police certainly thought so, and unofficially considered the case closed once he died. He certainly did have access to the storage unit identified as the place where the bodies were kept, and his regular night shifts would have afforded him the opportunity to take the bodies there without being seen. But, according to Jane Lawrenson in the Chiswick Herald, recent research has suggested that Ireland was back in his native Scotland when several of the murders occurred.
In April 1964 57-year-old Kenneth Archibald strode into a police station in Notting Hill and voluntarily confessed to the murder of Irene Lockwood. Police were stunned and couldn’t believe their luck, but immediately began to doubt Archibald’s story. For a start, there was no evidence that he had been anywhere near the scenes of the crimes, nor that he had any idea where the murder locations were. His story was inconsistent and though he stood trial in June 1964, he was quickly found Not Guilty. It seems that Archibald wasn’t in full command of his faculties when he made his original confession.
Freddie Mills was a boxing champion who was involved in organised crime. What is interesting about him is that most London gangsters of the time, including the notorious Kray twins, were convinced he was the murderer. Secondly, he was killed in July 1965, which is the same year the killings stopped. But there is not much more evidence to support the theory. Besides, if the killer was thought to have been diminutive, then a 5ft 11 boxing champion probably wasn’t your man.
Freddie Mills was murdered in 1965 - the same year the west London murders stopped (The Sun)
A Mystery Police Officer
Some of the top detectives in the investigation suspected that the killer was one of their own, that he had to have some inside knowledge that kept him safe from capture. This could explain why he was able to evade the increased police patrols, especially by the river. Again, however, there is not much evidence to support this.
This is where it gets interesting. Harold Jones, who also went by the names Harry Jones and Harry Stevens, was seemingly a quiet man from Abertillery, south Wales. He moved to London in the 1940s and lived an anonymous life with his wife and daughter at several addresses in the Hammersmith area throughout the 1960s.
But he is a tempting suspect because there was a reason he went by different names, and because there was a reason he had left south Wales. In his hometown of Abertillery, Harold Jones was anything but anonymous.
In 1921, a 15-year-old Jones was convicted of the brutal murders of two young girls in the small mining town. The details of his crimes are chilling. He lured eight-year-old Freda Burnell to the back of his family’s shop, strangled her and dumped her body in a nearby street. He was arrested for this but acquitted due to a lack of evidence. Upon his acquittal he was welcomed back to Abertillery like a hero; townspeople were convinced that he had been set up by the London detectives who had been sent to assist the investigation. One man who welcomed him heartily was George Little, a next-door neighbour and close friend of the Jones family. Just days later, Harold Jones lured George’s 11-year-old daughter, Florence Little, into his home and murdered her too. Her body was discovered in the Jones family’s attic, and it was young Harold’s father who furiously chased his son through the streets and apprehended him.
A young Harold Jones, pictured outside his family's shop, where he killed Freda Burnell around the time this photo was taken (Daily Mail)
His tender age saved him from the hangman’s noose, and he instead served 20 years in prison for both murders. When he was released in 1941, he often returned to his parents’ home in Abertillery and even made sure he was seen visiting his victims’ graves. A show of remorse? Or perhaps something more creepy, even sinister? Regardless, the folk of Abertillery were not too keen on him being back in the area and Jones decided to start afresh in London, where he eventually married and became a father.
Harold Jones has recently become the prime suspect in the Hammersmith murders (Fulham SW6)
His past crimes alone are not enough to say for certain that he was Jack the Stripper, but there is circumstantial evidence. Firstly, there is the fact that he was a proven killer who had strangled someone to death before (he had actually slit the throat of poor Florence Little) and had a habit of storing bodies before getting rid of them. What is also consistent is the choice of victim – small, vulnerable people who the diminutive Jones could overpower. He is known to have lived very close to the area where the Hammersmith murders occurred – he even lived within four streets of both Hannah Tailford and Bridget O’Hara – and the murders stopped around the same time Jones was struck down by bone cancer, from which he would die in 1971. Perhaps most striking of all, Jones was known to have been employed as a metal worker and caretaker on the Heron industrial estate in Ealing.
Due to poor record-keeping in the mid-20th century, the investigators on the Hammersmith murders never made the link between their case and a convicted child killer living in the area. Indeed, the link was only made in the 2000s by the Welsh writer Neil Milkins, who was researching for a book about the Abertillery murders and realised that Jones had moved to Hammersmith. He became convinced that Jones was the mysterious Hammersmith murderer, and is backed up by Professor of Criminology David Wilson, who introduced myself to this story with a BBC documentary in which he examined the case and put the wrap firmly on Jones.
If I had to suggest who the killer was, I would also be inclined to say it was Harold Jones. But ultimately, we will never know for sure. What we do know is that at least six, and probably eight, innocent women lost their lives to this cruel and sadistic killer. Some of them could still have been alive today had their lives not been so brutally cut short. Their children are still alive today, having grown up without mothers.
One positive aspect of the case not being widely known is that the killer does not have the same macabre notoriety as his Victorian predecessor, whose infamy overshadowed the stories of his victims. But then, by the same token, the Hammersmith victims are also not widely known. It is for this reason that I will end the piece with them.
Elizabeth Figg, 1938-1959
Gwynneth Rees, 1941-1963
Hannah Tailford, 1933-1964
Irene Lockwood, 1937-1964
Helen Barthelemy, 1941-1964
Mary Flemming, 1933-1964
Margaret McGowan, 1943-1964
Bridget O’Hara, 1936-1965
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The Ministry of History is not an academic source. I am well-versed in, and influenced by, numerous sources that I have read over the years. For this article, I must acknowledge the great help I have had from the following sources:
Cover image - fullybooked.com
‘Jack the Stripper and the Hammersmith Murders’, article by Richard Bevan on Crime and Investigation website (2019)
‘The serial killer who visited Chiswick’, article by Jane Lawrenson for the Chiswick Herald (2015)
‘Dark Son: The hunt for a serial killer’, BBC documentary presented by Professor David Wilson (2019)
‘How a Welsh child murderer may have become one of London’s most notorious serial killers’, article by Nathan Bevan for Wales Online (2018)
‘TV show in bid to solve the 1964 murder of Barrow woman’, article by Eleanor Ovens for the Newcastle Mail (2019)