Saturday, 14 February 2015

In the grey post-war world, Soho was the most exciting and dangerous place in Britain. Crime, sex, foreign food, and jazz, all lived side by side in this melting pot of approximately one square mile in the centre of London that is Soho.

There were no flowers near to where Jack Cohen was born; as a Jew from the east end of London, his earliest memory of a vibrant colour was the scarlet red blood that gushed from the gaping wound left by a cut-throat razor, during a street fight between two rival illegal bookmakers.

With such childhood memories it was no wonder that Cohen wandered into a life of crime. A life that took him from his humble east-end beginnings, to the top of his chosen profession, as the boss of the London Underworld.

Wage snatches and gold bullion heists featured heavily in Cohen's line of work, as did protection rackets, gambling, and taking over west-end nightclubs. None of this however, could be achieved without a high level of violence, some of which ended in death, gang warfare, bent coppers, and double dealings from all sides.

There were however, two sides to Jack Cohen; the side that everyone saw was Jack Cohen the vicious gangster, but the other side of the coin was Jack Cohen, the family man, who would have laid his life on the line for his wife and daughter.

Jack Cohen made many enemies along the way, from the early racecourse gangs during the 1930s, to the 1940s wartime racketeers, and through to the first organised sex trade gangs who were threatening the well-being of his clubs and spielers in the west end.

As the 1950s was coming to an end, the old guard were also in decline and new faces were starting to make their presence felt around Soho. Cohen was starting to feel the heat, but being the man he was, he was not about to take this new threat lightly.

Monday, 21 April 2014

A memorable meeting in Brick Lane

There was only one way that Cohen knew of drowning his sorrows, and that was to immerse himself in his work, which he did with great relish, as his work was something he absolutely loved.

He loved being able to walk through the streets of east London and to be greeted every few yards by people who knew him, others who wanted to know him, and those who made out to know him. Cohen hardly ever went anywhere on his own, he was nearly always accompanied by at least two of his cronies, more if the occasion called for it. Hymie and Meyer were his most constant companions, mainly because he had known them since his teens, and now they also worked for him.

It had now been over a year since his brief yet memorable meeting with Ruth. He still carried the scrap of paper she had given him with her phone number on it, in his wallet, but in his heart he knew he would never contact her again; he couldn’t, it would be far too dangerous. As much as he knew all this, he still couldn’t help turning round to look, every time he saw someone who looked like her. What would he have done if he had seen her? Would he stop and talk to her - who knows? He wasn’t here in Brick Lane this Sunday morning looking for love; he was here on business.

Cohen, Hymie, and Meyer had been to Blooms Restaurant in Whitechapel for breakfast, and were now making their way down Brick Lane to collect the weekly contributions from the shops and stallholders. They passed the Great Synagogue on the corner of Fournier Street, and then the Truman’s Brewery.

Their work would start when they actually entered the part of Brick Lane where all the stalls were situated, which was just after the huge iron railway bridge, which straddled the street. An elderly man was turning the handle of a large old barrel organ and smiling at passers by, in the hope of receiving a penny or two. “Who’s he looking at?” snarled Hymie. Cohen looked round at Hymie, “He’s only trying to earn a few pennies for Christ sake” Hymie wasn’t talking about the organ grinder, he was talking about one of two men who were standing on the corner of Pedley Street, opposite them.

Both men were well built, and were wearing dark suits and black roll-neck jumpers. The man with his back to them was looking up and down the street all the time, as if he was expecting someone, but the other man was staring straight at them.

There was something about these men that Cohen didn’t like. Why were they, or one of them to be precise, paying so much attention to him and his group? Even the police wouldn’t be that blatant; would they? But if they weren’t plain-clothes police officers, then they had to be a rival gang.

Cohen wasn’t worried about the men; he had handled bigger men than them in the past, but it did play on his mind as he carried on along the street, with Hymie and Meyer.

As they got to the railway bridge, a sudden deafening din assaulted their senses, and their path was almost entirely blocked by a huge crowd, which had gathered at the junction of Sclater Street and Brick Lane. The Lane was always crowded on a Sunday morning, but never this dense, and what the hell was all this noise?

One of the advantages of being tall is that you can always see over the heads of those in front of you. This came in handy for Cohen at sporting events, such as boxing, and he put it to good use now, as he raised his head up more and managed to see a man standing on the back of an open lorry. The man was Oswald Mosley, the Blackshirt leader of Britain’s Fascist party. He was shouting through a megaphone, ranting, raving, and taunting the Jews.

Cohen, Hymie, and Meyer pushed their way through the crowd; they weren’t about to let this insane Fascist denigrate their own race without giving him as good as he was giving other people, who for some reason, seemed too frightened to answer him or shout him down. It wasn’t until they reached the front of the crowd that Cohen saw why the crowd were too frightened to oppose this loud mouth, for there were at least twenty of Mosley’s men, circling the lorry, all facing the crowd, and nearly all with one hand in their pocket or inside their jacket, as if hiding a weapon of some sort.

Although he had heard about them, this was the first time Cohen had ever come face to face with Mosley or his Blackshirts. Not all big men, he thought, that was for sure, but an awful lot of ugly ones, and nearly every one wearing a black roll neck jumper, which answered the other problem, which had been nagging away at the back of his mind; the two men they had seen earlier, they were obviously Mosley’s lookouts.

Cohen, Hymie, and Meyer, were undoubtedly big men who could hold their own in a fight, but when Cohen looked at Mosley’s men, he realised they were hopelessly outnumbered. He felt like he was boiling inside, standing there and listening to the anti-Semitic taunts of Mosley, whilst being pushed from behind, closer and closer to one of Mosley’s thugs, who sneered at him and uttered, “Move away Yid, before you get hurt”

Cohen didn’t mind being called a Yid, as that is exactly what he saw himself as; his parents both spoke Yiddish, so as far as he was concerned this was no big deal, but what made his hackles rise, was being told to move away; no one told Jack Cohen to move away.

He grabbed the Fascist oaf by the collar of his jumper, pulled him forward and head butted him, immediately opening up a large gash on the man’s eyebrow. As other Mosley men rushed forward to help their stricken comrade, so Hymie, and Meyer waded in as well, and not just with their fists, but with a brass knuckleduster, and a policeman’s truncheon, which Hymie had acquired somewhat surreptitiously at a earlier fracas he had been involved in.

Within minutes the street looked like a battlefield, with many of the Jewish shopkeepers and stallholders now also joining in. This is what they had been waiting for, someone to lead them.

Stalls were overturned and shop windows were being smashed, but at least the Jews were fighting back, and Mosley was starting to look decidedly scared. The look on his face suddenly changed however, when another gang decided to join in, but this gang was the police.