Jack The Stripper
Death of a Good Time Girl
Although the pair never met, 22-year-old Gwynneth Rees had a lot in common with Elizabeth Figg. Both had come to London as teenagers, having suffered unwanted pregnancies and fallen out with their families (Rees was from South Wales, Figg from the North-west of England). Both had come to London looking for a more glamorous existence than small-town Britain could offer. Yet like so many naïve young girls before them, they had fallen into the twilight world of prostitution, chased from pillar to post by violent pimps, corrupt landlords and sleazy punters. At the time of their deaths, both were also suffering from a common problem for ladies of the night Sexually Transmitted Diseases.
Rees' body, naked but for a nylon stocking, was found barely a mile along the riverbank from Elizabeth Figg's, on a garbage dump on the opposite side of the river, on November 8, 1963. A post-mortem revealed several teeth were missing and she had in all likelihood been strangled with a ligature. She had been last seen nearly six weeks earlier, getting into a car with a man on the night of September 29, 1963.
When police looked into her background, they found no shortage of potential suspects.
Rees was ponced for a time by Cornelius "Connie" Whitehead, a violent criminal who would later be convicted as an associate of notorious East End gangsters, the Kray Twins. He thought nothing of delivering regular "whackings" to his girls, which may have been one reason why Rees left him shortly before her disappearance and he was reportedly looking for her.
That summer she had become pregnant. This was another common predicament for prostitutes in the days before the contraceptive pill became widely available, since insisting on the use of condoms was likely to reduce your appeal to potential clients. She already had two children (neither of which were in her care), and abortion was still illegal in the UK at that time. Fellow prostitutes said that at the time of her disappearance she had been looking to contact an illegal abortionist she knew of.
Two terminations she had previously undergone had left her with an infection of the fallopian tubes. That was hardly surprising given the methods used. Typically these amateur physicians would fill a syringe with boiling water, antiseptic and melted soap and squirt the resulting liquid deep inside the hapless patient, aiming to trigger a miscarriage within 48 hours. It usually worked, but there were obvious dangers associated with it, such as the above-mentioned condition, or even blood poisoning. Yet investigators had to ask themselves: even if Rees had died as a result of the abortion, and certain guilty parties had to get rid of the body, why dispose of her naked corpse on a garbage heap by the Thames, where it was always likely to be discovered? And why strangle her?
Whatever the cause of her death, once again police had precious little to go on other than speculation and casual suspicions. Inevitably, their investigations were hampered by the widespread disdain for the police that existed in the outlaw world which prostitutes inhabited.
Indeed, neither of the above cases lived long in Londoners' memory. Where prostitutes were concerned, there were rarely many worried friends and family members insisting on finding out exactly what happened, and many privately believed that "tarts" such as Rees and Figg had only themselves to blame. Even fellow prostitutes regarded the deaths as the equivalent of industrial accidents unfortunate but inevitable given the dangers inherent in their line of work.
Yet within a few months, this unloved sector of London society would be walking the streets in a climate of fear the like of which they had never experienced.