Steinie Morrison in the dock, March 1911.
New Year’s Day 1911. In the early light PC Joseph Mumford set out from Cavendish Road Police Station for his patrol of Clapham Common. He passed the Bandstand, and was walking along the path which flanked the thick bushes of the woodland area, when he saw a body lying in the undergrowth. It was that of a middle-aged man, and it was clear that he had suffered a gruesome and gory end.
His head had been beaten in, he had been stabbed in the chest while still alive, and he had two S marks carved on his cheeks. Scattered near the body were personal documents, which identified him as Leon Beron, aged 47, a Russian living in the East End.
Currently, there was much in the news to disturb Londoners. In December, three policemen had been shot dead while trying to prevent a jewellery heist in Houndsditch. A few days into the New Year, at Sidney Street, armed police would fight a gun battle against anarchists. Not surprisingly, the reaction of many in Clapham was that East End gang crime had come to our peaceful suburb. But as Beron’s money and gold watch had gone, the police assumed robbery. Within a week they had identified a suspect.
On New Year’s Eve, Beron had been dining at a Polish restaurant in Whitechapel. He was joined by another Russian, Steinie Morrison, a professional burglar aged 30. They left together and took a cab to Lavender Hill. In the early hours of the morning, Morrison was seen on his own, walking from the Old Town area to the cab rank at Clapham Common Station, where he took a cab to Kennington.
Morrison, the police discovered, had worked for a baker in Lavender Hill, so he knew his way around Clapham. He was arrested, and in March stood trial at the Old Bailey for Beron’s murder.
The timing of the journeys to and from Clapham mattered, since they helped to establish whether Morrison had been there long enough to commit the crime and hide the body. Andrew Stephens, who had driven Morrison from Clapham to Kennington, was closely cross-examined.
“I came out on 31st December,” he said, “between two and three in the afternoon, and I got off the cab at half-past six next morning, after a spell of about sixteen hours. During these sixteen hours I had four fares with the first horse and I think eight with the second… I cannot tell exactly how much money I earned, but I had nineteen shillings at the end of the day.” In modern money that was 95 pence, worth about £60 today.
“I think I got to the [Clapham] cab rank somewhere between half past one and two o’clock. I picked the accused up about an hour after the last tram went, but I cannot tell the time exactly.”
The tram shelter at Clapham Common in the 1980s.
The cab rank was next to it.
The cab rank was by the clock tower, but Stephens said he did not look at the clock.
“I was on the ground when the accused came up, and I put my rug round me to jump up on my cab. It was not cold that night; it was a beautiful night. When I got to the cab rank there were a four-wheeled cab and a hansom cab there, but when I saw the accused coming along I was alone on the rank.”
He was pressed over a previous statement made to the police. “I put on there as the last tram went away … There were forty or fifty people waiting for the last tram, and there were tram people waiting there on this morning. I saw the last tram go, also the staff tram that runs afterwards, and that was how the time was first thought of. I said it was about half-past one.”
With similar confused and unreliable evidence, the trial judge did not think the evidence sufficient for a conviction. The jury had other ideas. After only 35 minutes, they returned a verdict of guilty. The judge had no option but to sentence Morrison to be hanged. The Home Office however shared the judge’s doubts, and the Home Secretary Winston Churchill granted Morrison a reprieve. He died in prison ten years later, protesting his innocence to the end.
The case has been discussed many times since, the balance of opinion being that Morrison was wrongly convicted. In 1991, the Clapham Society was contacted by Charles Dunbar, son of a tram conductor. He remembered his father working a twelve hour day without a break. His wife had to meet him at least once a day, with his tea can and sandwiches.
“Which last tram?” asked Mr Dunbar. “There might have been seven from different directions heading for the depot. At the Old Bailey the witness changed his evidence and said he meant a special car taking staff to Tooting. [The defence] could have destroyed this man’s evidence, and I am convinced that, neither on his evidence, or on that of other witnesses, could Morrison have committed the crime.”
Not guilty? – probably. But then, who did kill Leon Beron and what was he doing in Clapham?