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Emily, forgotten ‘butterfly of the streets’

Maggie Gruner finds a new book recalling some of the Old Bailey’s most arresting cases both entertaining and illuminating – including the Camden Town murder of Emily Dimmock

01 August, 2019 — By Maggie Gruner

IT was called the Camden Town murder – the near-decapitation of a 23-year-old woman, Emily Dimmock, as she slept in her bed.

The horror of the crime scene in St Paul’s Road contrasted with the festive atmosphere when the man who had been accused of her murder, Robert Wood, was found not guilty.

A 10,000-strong crowd outside the Old Bailey sang Auld Lang Syne and For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow as news of Wood’s acquittal spread, writes Thomas Grant in Court Number One: The Old Bailey Trials that Defined Modern Britain.

Poor murdered Emily, a part-time prostitute – or “butterfly of the streets” as a euphemism of the time would have it – was forgotten almost as soon as the case ended.

The 1907 case is one of 11 sensational trials, held in Court Number One of the Old Bailey over a span of about 100 years, explored by Thomas, a barrister who lives in Westminster.

These cases provide insight into British society’s attitudes to matters ranging from race and homosexuality to social class, the death penalty and political dissent.

The book brims with detail about defendants, lawyers, judges, witnesses, the courtroom and criminal law.

In its pages we meet Ruth Ellis, hanged after being convicted in 1955 of murdering her lover, David Blakely, outside the Magdala pub in Hampstead.

Others featured include peace campaigners Pat Pottle and Michael Randle, who helped spring double agent George Blake from prison. He was holed up in a Hampstead flat, then smuggled out of the country in a camper van.

Thomas’s book is sad, funny and sometimes mind-boggling. He told this paper he was astonished by a “completely bizarre” 1918 case he recounts, involving a libel suit brought by Regent’s Park resident Maud Allan, a dancer and Edwardian sex symbol.

The case was prompted by an article headlined “The Cult of the Clitoris” in a scurrilous weekly paper produced by MP Noel Pemberton Billing.

Rife with “egotism, hysteria, sexual terror and xenophobia” the case turned the courtroom into what one newspaper described as a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.

Thomas Grant. Photo: Heather Rajaratnam

Queues for the public gallery stretched down the street and during the trial Lord Albemarle was said to have asked fellow members of the Turf Club who “this Greek chap Clitoris they were all talking about” was.

Trials ain’t what they used to be. The often huge crowds the last century’s earlier cases attracted are testament to the excitement such events generated at a time before television and radio – and when the death sentence was still handed down.

Ability to pay for a good lawyer could mean the difference between life and death.

Quality of counsel still has a dramatic impact. But Thomas said rates of legal aid, affecting lawyers’ pay, are now so low they diminish incentives for talented people to become criminal barristers. He warned: “The criminal bar is in danger of withering.”

In the Camden Town murder case defendant Robert Wood’s employers paid what was at the time a huge sum for legal representation and although the evidence against him was strong, his barrister was Edward Marshall Hall, a man of fiery rhetoric, known as the “Great Defender.”

The trial became pure entertainment and its star was the defendant’s “box-office barrister”.

It makes you think that Ruth Ellis could have done with a Marshall Hall.

Her defence was led by Melford Stevenson QC, who, Thomas contends, needed to show Ruth as the victim of sustained mental cruelty and physical violence from Blakely, to whom she was in thrall, until she could bear it no longer.

But Stevenson’s use of language “trivialised” violent incidents.

He “seemed to find Blakely’s violence – which should have been the trial’s heart and centre – distasteful.”

Pottle and Randle conducted their own defence at their 1991 trial. They argued that they acted to prevent the psychological harm George Blake’s 42-year sentence would cause him, and their actions were therefore justified.

Although the judge came close to directing the jury to convict, Pottle and Randle were acquitted. When the not guilty verdict was announced a “shout like a football supporter’s victory whoop came from somewhere”.

Pottle’s younger son was a keen Spurs fan.

Court Number One’s status as “a kind of national cockpit” began to wane towards the end of the 20th century. Fifty years ago the Old Bailey was extensively covered by all major newspapers, that presence is now almost gone.

Justice is less scrutinised – a fact regretted by Thomas, who said: “Trials tell you about what’s going on in life. If they are not reported, the world doesn’t know what is going on.”

Court Number One: The Old Bailey Trials that Defined Modern Britain. By Thomas Grant, John Murray, £25

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