Jack The Stripper
An Occupational Hazard
The famous English poet Philip Larkin once wrote,
"Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather late for me)
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles' first LP."
His words struck a chord among the generation that grew up in post-war Britain. Back then it certainly seemed for many that sex was something that was rarely seen and barely ever heard, even if the continuing baby boom suggested it was definitely going on somewhere.
In the late 1950s, before the sexual liberation of the sixties and long before the phrase "swinging London" was ever coined, sex was a concept shrouded in secrecy, a basic human instinct which was to be tended to behind as many closed doors as possible.Yet society's suppression of it meant that exponents of the world's oldest profession were rarely short of customers.
It wasn't difficult to work out why lone women lined the streets of West London suburbs like Bayswater, Holland Park and Notting Hill after the hours of darkness. It was safe to assume they weren't waiting for a number 10 bus.
Likewise, in the dimly lit back streets of England's capital city, it was common to find cars parked up and lovers snatching a few precious minutes away from the disapproving gaze of their parents, with whom many couples still lived even after getting married. Some married men also frequented these spots without their spouses, in the company of the "street girls" referred to above. Such men were prepared to pay for the kind of services which "nice girls" such as their wives would not provide.
Duke's Meadows, on the banks of the River Thames in Chiswick, West London, was one such spot, crudely nicknamed "Gobblers' Gulch" by locals in reference to the sexual practices said to be popular there.
However, something considerably more sinister than the usual discarded prophylactics greeted police as they patrolled the towpath early on the morning of June 17, 1959. They stumbled across the body of a woman, sat up against a small willow tree, her blue and white striped dress torn open to reveal her breasts and some scratches on her throat. She had been strangled.
The body was found to be that of Elizabeth Figg, also known as "Ann Phillips" (prostitutes often changed their names after convictions for "soliciting").
Her back story was a familiar one. She came to London after her mother kicked her out for the last time, sponging off a string of ne'er-do-well lovers and dodging rent-demanding landlords.
Even in this relatively non-violent era, police were not entirely unaccustomed to finding the dead bodies of prostitutes. Many lived lives full of violence, dealt out by brutal pimps, jealous boyfriends and rogue clients. "Tarts" were the lowest of the low, and many had a barely more respectful opinion of themselves, considering such batterings as an occupational hazard. Figg was "ponced" (the word used back then for a pimp) by her Trinidadian boxer boyfriend Fenton "Baby" Ward, and while he was not above knocking her about a bit, he was soon ruled out of police enquiries into the murder.
Besides, there was something unusual about this particular dead body. In London in 1959, the kind of sex murders that often feature on this website were practically unheard of. Infamous British murderers like Haigh and Christie had been few and far between, and neither were early examples of the modern day serial killer who slays strangers and discards their corpses like human garbage.
To find a dead body abandoned nearly naked in a public place was shocking even for experienced detectives, suggesting this was different to the crimes of passion, violence or avarice that police were used to. Yet despite house-to-house enquiries, interviews with prostitutes, ponces, taxi drivers, and night shift workers, no strong clues were found as to the killer's identity.
As the case slowly went cold, Elizabeth Figg and the strange case of the semi-naked corpse were forgotten. It would be more than four years before anyone had cause to mention her name again.