Tuesday, 26 March 2019

The Kilburn tobacconist and the actress’s jewels

Nellie Seymour was an attractive actress, one of many who made a living from the stage; it was a hard life, often moving with a company from town to town. If you were lucky, you found a role in a production that stayed in a theatre for a few months. One such was ‘Sergeant Brue’ by Owen Hall which premiered in London in 1904. A musical farce, the plot centres around the police sergeant of the title, who comes into £10,000 a year, on condition he remains in the force and is promoted to inspector. Nellie played Vivienne Russell, a society lady and one of the chorus.
The cast of Sergeant Brue, Nellie is seated in the centre (Marianne Colloms)
The play was staged at the Strand Theatre and the Prince of Wales Theatre, running in London’s West End until February 1905. The ladies are carrying unusual animal heads or masks which they had to wear at some point in the performance. One critic disparaged another prop, paper hoops, because the ladies were expected to jump through them, despite wearing long gowns.

By this time, 22-year-old Nellie was a wealthy lady. Her fortune is unlikely to have come from acting; she was popular and featured in the professional papers but not as a leading lady. Nor did it come from her family. We know she had money because shortly after the premiere of Sergeant Brue, Nellie appeared in court in June 1904. She was described by one paper as ‘most elegantly gowned’ and was there to give evidence against 33-year-old German born Otto Kruger. He ran a tobacconist’s shop at 5 Kilburn High Road, near the Queen’s Arms public house and stood accused of stealing and receiving jewellery that belonged to Nellie. It was worth £3,000, which is about £320,000 today. It was claimed Otto had an accomplice, Marie Marthaler, who had been Nellie’s maid. The case seemed straight forward enough: Nellie had returned from a brief outing on 24 May 1904, to find Marie and her jewels missing. Marie had not been seen since; the police thought she had fled the country, but items of jewellery had been traced back to Otto.

But it was complicated by the fact that Otto’s brother, Rudolf was in a relationship with Marie. Some sources suggest it was he who persuaded her to steal the jewels, promising they would set up home together. But he too had gone missing. Police visited Otto’s shop, after they had recovered some pearls sold by George Zink. He lived near the Kilburn High Road and regularly went to Otto’s shop to buy tobacco. Zink said the pearls had come from Otto, who told the police, ‘they are the ones I got from my brother who has run away.’

Rudolf Kruger had been questioned by police before he disappeared. They found four £5 notes in his pocket. Otto denied having anything to do with the theft but admitted he had sold items for Rudolf and given him the money. He wasn’t very good as a ‘fence’, disposing of Nellie’s jewellery at well below its true value. He began to cry and threatened to shoot himself before leading the police to the cellar below the shop. Buried about six inches deep in the earth floor they found two tin boxes containing more of Nellie’s property.

In court Inspector Drew said that jewels worth around £1,000 had been recovered but the rest were still missing. Otto was sentenced to nine months in Wormwood Scrubs; the absent Marie was never charged.

After prison
The local directory only lists Kruger at No.5 Kilburn High Road in 1904 when he was sharing the premises with other businesses. The property was demolished when a WWII bomb hit the Queen’s Arms. The 1911 census reveals him, now a clerk in an estate agent’s office, living at 40 Park Road, in West Dulwich. The only other occupant of the house was Marie Marthaler! Her occupation is given as that of housekeeper. At the time of the court case in 1904, the papers reported Otto’s wife had been at the Kilburn shop when the police dug up the tin boxes, but in the 1911 census he said he was single. Martha gave her status as that of widower. There was no sign of Rudolf.

George Frederick Zink
Zink had told the police he ‘dabbled’ in jewellery but was no expert. He was not prosecuted for selling the items, presumably because he believed the jewellery belonged to Otto. In his professional life, Zink was a very talented miniature painter, regularly exhibiting at the Royal Academy between 1885 and 1902 from his Kilburn home at 34 Princess Road. In 1911, he was still living at No.34 with his wife and two sons. He died in December 1946 at 1 Randolph Gardens in South Kilburn.

Step forward the real Nellie Seymour
After considerable research we found that Nellie’s real name was Verena Georgina Venour. She was born in India in 1881, the daughter of Surgeon Major William Venour and his wife Julia Rose. The family came to England around the time William retired in 1889 and lived in Wales. The marriage was unhappy; two years later Julia accused William of a violent assault but did not appear in court, so the case was dismissed. She also petitioned for, but did not obtain, a divorce. William died in February 1903 and on 30 April, Julia married General Sir George Richard Greaves. Nellie was a witness. Charles had been on the General’s staff in India and the Venours had been Greave’s guests on the night of the census in 1901.
Nellie Seymour, 1904
Nellie apparently left the stage after her appearance in Sergeant Brue. During the London run, she had married 25-year-old Brian Durrant Kemp-Welch in September 1904. His father was a partner and Managing Director of the Schweppes mineral water company and Bruce later took over from his father as the MD. It appears his family disapproved of the match. Their witnesses were friends, not family members; the ceremony was a quick one, arranged by special license followed by a small luncheon party at the Savoy Hotel. The couple went on to have three children, Elizabeth (born 1906) and twin boys Peter and George (born 1907), but their relationship was complicated by repeated affairs on both sides. In 1908 Brian sued for divorce on the grounds of Verena’s adultery, but the divorce was never finalised. The co-respondent was Stanley Brotherhood who was the husband of Brian’s sister Vera, and this caused a rift with his family. In 1927, Brian was named as the correspondent in another divorce case and £1,000 damages were awarded against him.
Brian Kemp-Welch, MD of Schweppes
Their daughter Elizabeth (Betty) wrote her biography entitled ‘Jennifer’s Memoirs’, reflecting the fact she was the creator of ‘Jennifer’s Diary’ which appeared for many years in Tatler, Queen and Harpers, under her married name of Betty Kenward. It seems very unlikely that Betty didn’t know her mother had been an actress, but she never mentions the fact. She wrote fondly of her brothers and her father but was generally critical about Verena who she described as, ‘very pretty and very immoral and always desperately spoilt’. Her mother took no interest in her, said Betty, because Verena had wanted her first child to be a boy, not a girl. Betty was often sent by her mother to stay with friends or relatives, ‘as I was growing up and complicating her life.’ She remembered wonderful holidays in Wales with her maternal grandmother and step grandfather General Greaves, who she called ‘Dod’. Betty went on to a successful career as a social columnist, and although increasingly out of step with the times, Jennifer’s Diary ran for almost 50 years. Appointed an MBE in 1985 she died aged 94 in 2001.

Peter Kemp-Welch and George Kemp-Welch
Brian and Verena’s sons were both talented amateur cricketers, George played for Warwickshire and the MCC. They both worked for the Schweppes company and served with the Grenadier Guards during WWII. 

In 1934 George married Lucy, the daughter of MP Stanley Baldwin.Ten years later, on 18 June 1944, and now a Captain in the Grenadier Guards, George was attending a Sunday morning service at the Guards’ Chapel in Birdcage Walk when it was hit by a V1 flying bomb. The roof and most of the walls collapsed burying the congregation in rubble up to 10 feet deep. In the worst V1 attack of the war, over 120 soldiers and civilians died and around 140 were injured. George’s body was one of the last to be found three days later.
George Kemp-Welch
Both brothers are commemorated by an inscription on the font in the rebuilt Grenadier Guards’ chapel. Peter died in 1964, and his family donated a window in his memory to St Margaret’s church, Westminster.

Brian and Verena agreed to live apart until shortly before Brian’s death in 1950 at their London home in Bruton Place, following a stroke. He was 72. Verena continued to live there until her death in 1968, aged 86.

This complex story began with a simple newspaper report about Otto Kruger’s conviction for receiving stolen goods. But it required considerable time to untangle all the parts.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

The Charteris Road Murder

In the late 1950s Veronica Murray, known as ‘Ronnie’, came from Londonderry to find work in London. She eventually worked as a prostitute on the streets and clubs of Soho, and in June 1958 rented a room at 58 Charteris Road in Kilburn. When Ronnie had not been seen by her friends in Soho for several days, one of them phoned her Turkish landlord Ratomir Tasic. A shocking sight awaited him as he entered her room on 19 December 1958. Ronnie had been beaten to death and was lying across her bed. The murder squad detectives led by Superintendent Evan Davies, found that she had been hit several times on the head with an ornamental dumbbell. Some unusual circular marks were found on her body, but the fingerprints at the scene did not match any on file. The police released a photo of Veronica a few days later but this produced no suspects and the case went cold.

Veronica 'Ronnie' Murray

A year later on 11 October 1959, Mrs Mabel Hill was celebrating her birthday in London’s West End, when a man asked her for a light for his cigarette. They returned to her home in Ismailia Road Fulham and had coffee. But when she refused to have sex, he hit her and tried to strangle her with a pair of stockings. Mabel passed out and was taken to hospital where she recovered and was able to tell the police what had happened. Detective Inspector Peter Vibart noticed the pattern of circular marks on her body which could have been made using the neck of a bottle, but the forensic scientists could not say for sure. Vibart remembered similar marks on the body of Veronica Murray the year before, and the same fingerprints found at Charteris Road were also found at Mabel’s home.

In fact, there was a series of more than 20 robberies where the mysterious fingerprints were found. One was from the Hartnell Suite at the Westbury Hotel Mayfair, where the famous actor George Sanders lived. The same prints were found on 18 October, when 65 year-old Mrs Annie Belcher was hit with a poker in her home near Sloane Square after she disturbed the burglar.

On 21 November 1959 there was a robbery at a house in Markham Street Chelsea where a clock and cigarette lighter were stolen from Australian businessman William Sloane. A photo of the distinctive lighter was published in the press, and a solider contacted the police saying he bought it from a guardsman in the next bunk for 5 shillings. The police travelled to the Welsh Guards Camp in Pirbright Surrey and on 24 November 1959 Michael Douglas Dowdall was arrested and taken to Chelsea police station. His fingerprints matched the man they had been looking for. Chief Inspector Acott interviewed Michael and he was charged with burglary, the serious attack on Mabel Hill and the murder of Veronica Murray.

Dowdall confessed, and bizarrely said he had taken a pair of shoes and the toothpaste from the hotel suite of George Sanders, ‘because he liked the taste’ – the tube was found in his barracks at Pirbright. In his statement Dowdall said, ‘It is when I get drinking I do these things. I am alright when I am sober. It has been worrying me for a long time, and I have wanted to go to a doctor. I am glad it is all over.’ He said he was very drunk when he picked up Veronica Murray near Trafalgar Square and they went to her home in Kilburn by taxi. After they had sex, they got into an argument and when she called him ‘a filthy little Welsh bastard’, he hit her several times on the head with an ornament from the mantelpiece.

At his trial fellow soldiers said that when they celebrated Mick’s 18th birthday at a hotel in Guildford, he had drunk two and a half pints of gin and had to be carried to the taxi back to the camp. They said he frequently returned drunk at 7am after being in Soho for the weekend.

Michael Dowdall in dress uniform

Michael was a small, thin, young man, whose father, an Army Captain, had died in WWII when he was just 18 months old and his Welsh mother brought him up in Paddington. When he was seven his mother died, and he went to live with an aunt in Llanhilleth near Abertillery in South Wales. He was a difficult boy who got into trouble at school. When he was 15 he joined the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards as a drummer boy and was posted to Chelsea Barracks. He hated the soldiers making fun of him because of his small physique. In 1958, during his leave from Pirbright Camp, he carried out robberies and used the money to pay other guardsmen to wash his shirts and clean his boots. He said his mates in the Army made him feel like a nobody but when he had a drink he felt better and more important. Two years previously he had tried to hang himself in the guard room while under arrest for being absent without leave.

At his trial at the Old Bailey in January 1960, Dr Brisby the chief medical officer at Brixton prison, said Dowdall was a psychopath and a social misfit, who believed people mocked him. He showed no remorse for his crimes, and an electroencephalogram showed that Dowdall had a defect in his personality which impaired his mental responsibility, especially after drink. A second physiatrist gave similar evidence. The judge directed the jury that if they believed Dowdall’s mental responsibility was substantially diminished when he killed Veronica Murray, they should convict him of manslaughter not murder. The jury returned with a verdict after more than three hours discussion. On 21 January 1960 Michael Dowdall was found guilty of manslaughter and goaled for life.

He was released on licence in July 1975 suffering from a serious illness and went to live at 94 Dartmouth Park Hill near Archway. On 10 November 1976 he died at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead from a lung infection and chronic hepatitis.