Wednesday 13 November 2019

Two Villains and a Hero in Wartime London

The original version of the article below first appeared on this blog in June 2010 but as we approach the seventy-fifth anniversary of this notorious wartime crime, it seems a good time to revisit this piece, which has been updated to take into account some corrections and additional information that has come to light.

Memorial Plaque in Birchin Lane (Author's Photo)

During 2019, we have seen the seventy-fifth anniversary of some significant events during the Second World War, such as D-Day, Operation Market Garden and the advent of the German Vergeltungswaffe or V-Weapon attacks on London and other towns and cities across the United Kingdom, as well as parts of Europe that had then been recently liberated by the Allies. The anniversaries of these events have all been rightly commemorated and will no doubt continue for the remainder of the year.

However, there is another far more sinister anniversary approaching that will almost certainly not make the headlines and so should be mentioned here. It is easy to look back on life in London during the Second World War through slightly rose-tinted spectacles and imagine that the populace were as one, all pulling together with the sole aim of defeating the common enemies and returning to more peaceful lives. Despite this somewhat romanticised image, it has to said that by 1944, the citizens of the United Kingdom were becoming distinctly war weary, although most people continued to abide by the law. There was also a much shadier side to London and our other large towns and cities in the form of a significant criminal population, which due to the sheer size of the capital city, was perhaps much more prevalent in London than elsewhere in the country. It is sometimes forgotten that 'normal' crimes took place in wartime Britain but in fact, it was a real problem, made easier for the criminal fraternity by many factors, the blackout, the depleted size of wartime police forces with many war reservists filling the positions of younger men serving with the forces, rationing which helped the so-called 'Black Market' to thrive and an influx of many overseas service personnel were just some of the factors that made life easier for criminals.

One particularly notorious wartime crime in December 1944 made the headlines in both the national and local newspapers and horrified the law abiding citizens of London in particular. Today, in Birchin Lane in the City of London, many people must have walked past the unassuming black plaque on the wall of what is now a sandwich shop without giving it a moment's thought. Closer examination of the plaque reveals that it marks the scene of one of London's most notorious wartime crimes and celebrates the memory of one of the heroes of wartime London, a Royal Navy officer who died not in action with the enemy but in trying to thwart this violent crime.

Capt Binney pre-war wearing the uniform of a Commander, RN (Caroline Brodrick)

Ralph Douglas Binney was born in Cookham, Berkshire on 14th October 1888 and joined the Royal Navy as a Midshipman in 1903. Promoted to Sub-Lieutenant in 1907, he served in the Great War most notably as Gunnery Officer in the battleship HMS Collingwood and postwar in the battleship HMS Royal Sovereign before eventually taking his first command, the monitor HMS Marshal Soult in 1930. In 1934, on the completion of a final shore appointment at The Admiralty he was promoted to Captain and placed on the retired list, marking what seemed the end of an honourable career in the Royal Navy. From 1934-39, he served on secondment to the Colombian Navy and was instrumental in the setting up of their naval cadet and officer training system. He was extremely well thought of in Colombia and indeed today there is still an annual "Binney" Class within the Escuela Naval Almirante Padilla's intake of cadets.

A portrait of Captain Binney (Caroline Brodrick)

On the outbreak of war in 1939 in common with many retired officers, he was recalled to the Royal Navy and on 9 June 1940, was appointed as Flag Captain of HMS Nile, the naval base at Alexandria. On 11 June 1942, he was appointed CBE in the King's Birthday Honours List and by late January 1943 was back in the UK serving as Chief of Staff to the Flag Officer in Command of the London Area.

So it was on 8 December 1944 whilst turning into Birchin Lane from Lombard Street, perhaps on his way to or from a meeting with one of the many merchant shipping companies then located within the Square Mile, the 56-year-old Captain Binney came across an armed robbery in progress at Thomas Wordley's jewellery shop. A man had swung an axe, smashed the shop window and was rushing across the road to a waiting getaway car carrying a tray of jewellery worth £3,795 at 1944 values (approximately £167,000 in 2019), including a pearl necklace valued then at £1,700. As the car pulled away, Binney ran into the road in an attempt to jump on the running board to stop the getaway but instead of stopping, the driver merely accelerated, running over the Captain. Onlookers said that the car momentarily reversed but by this time, a member of the public had blocked the road behind them with another vehicle, so the desperate men drove forwards again with Binney caught under the car as it turned left into Lombard Street. As it sped away, horrified onlookers could hear the Captain calling for help but he remained trapped beneath the car until after it had crossed London Bridge, when he was thrown free of the vehicle as it swerved left into Tooley Street, on the south side of the bridge. Taken to nearby Guy's Hospital, Captain Binney died three hours later from multiple injuries but before he died, the getaway vehicle was found abandoned further along Tooley Street.

How the Daily Herald reported the story on 9 December 1944 (author's collection)

The Police launched a massive operation to apprehend the perpetrators and felt certain that the robbers were local men and after a three week manhunt, during which some two hundred criminals had been hauled in for questioning, they arrested two local men. Thomas James Jenkins, a welder aged 34 from Rotherhithe and Ronald Hedley, a 26-year-old labourer of no fixed address appeared in court at the Mansion House on Friday 19 January 1945, along with "two other men not in custody" and were charged with the murder of Captain Binney, who according to Mr Lawrence Walton for the prosecution "was killed while doing his duty as a brave citizen." The accused had previously been charged with shopbreaking at the jewellers and of the theft of jewellery to the value of £3,795.

Although both men denied any involvement in the robbery and subsequent murder of Captain Binney, witnesses had identified Hedley as the car driver, with Jenkins as the man in the front passenger seat of the car. Another witness, a motorist, said that he had followed the car, sounding his klaxon to alert them to the man trapped beneath but the car failed to stop and the motorist ceased his pursuit once the Captain rolled from beneath the car as it swung left from London Bridge into Tooley Street.

The Liverpool Daily Post reports from the Old Bailey (author's collection)

The men stood trial at the Old Bailey on 6 March 1945 and whilst they both admitted to knowing each other slightly, they still denied all knowledge or involvement in the robbery and murder, despite the testimony of the eye witnesses that proved their involvement. The jury took only eighty minutes to find both men guilty; Hedley, the car driver was convicted of murder and sentenced to death by hanging, whilst Jenkins was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to eight years imprisonment. After the verdict was announced, Hedley was heard to mutter "Nothing I can say will make any difference."

Hedley was due to hang at Pentonville Prison on Saturday 28 April 1945 but the day before the sentence was to be carried out, the Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison announced a reprieve and commuted the sentence to one of life imprisonment. The reasons behind this are unclear but as another man sentenced to hang, one Phillip Berry, was also reprieved on the same day, it might have been part of a wider amnesty granted with the approaching end of the European war in sight, or it was perhaps connected with a lingering element of doubt concerning the two other men "not in custody" at the time of the original arrests, whose identities never seem to have been established. Whatever the reasons, Hedley could consider himself a very lucky man given the prevailing attitudes at the time. In the event, Hedley was released after ten years in prison and so could count himself doubly fortunate.

Hedley's reprieve reported in The Citizen of 27 April 1945 (author's collection)

The death of Captain Binney marked a double tragedy for his family, as his son Sub Lieutenant David Binney, aged just 20, had been killed whilst serving in the destroyer HMS Tynedale when it was torpedoed off the Algerian coast on 12 December 1943.

As a result of Captain Binney's selfless action, his fellow officers in the Royal Navy established a trust fund to enable an award to be made to members of the public who put themselves at great personal risk in attempting to intervene in violent crimes in the Metropolitan and City of London Police areas. For many years, Captain Binney's widow would attend the annual ceremony and present the award in memory of her late husband.

The Binney Award has today been absorbed into the annual Police Public Bravery Awards but incorporates the award of a Binney Medal which is proudly presented every summer by the Captain's great niece, Caroline Brodrick to "The Bravest in The Land" and thus keeps alive the name of a man who died upholding the finest traditions of the Royal Navy, albeit in extremely unusual circumstances and surroundings.

Published Sources:

Daily Herald - 9 December 1944
Essex Chronicle - 15 December 1944
Hampshire Telegraph - 19 January 1945
Liverpool Daily Post - 13 March 1945
The Citizen - 27 April 1945
Daily Mirror - 17 January 1973

Unpublished Sources:

Caroline Brodrick's family photographs