Once Upon a Time in London, written and directed by Simon Rumley (Crowhurst 2017, Fashionista 2016) and starring Leo Gregory as Billy and Terry Stone as Jack, is being promoted as the “True story of Jack ‘Spot’ Comer and Billy Hill and their respective battles to become King of London”.
Hill was primarily a thief, fraudster and enforcer, but he was also a smuggler of guns and tobacco and visited Gibraltar often, usually staying at the Queen’s Hotel. Ernest Francis, proprietor of the Queen’s, got to know Hill and remarked to me many years ago that the notorious criminal was always the perfect gentleman when he stayed on the Rock. But Hill wasn’t always well behaved in other ports, such as Tangier. This is documented in Wensley Clark’s biography Billy Hill, Godfather of London.
On one occasion in the early fifties Hill wasn’t staying in a comfortable hotel at Gibraltar but aboard an old boat in Tangier Harbour. She was, a former Royal Navy launch powered by two diesel engines and owned by fellow smuggler, spy and war hero, Eddie Chapman (see Zig Zag by Nicholas Booth). Chapman was not part of Hill’s gang, but they were friends and in late 1953 they became involved in an ambitious plot to restore Sultan Mohammed V of Morocco to power. Mohammed V had been exiled to Madagascar by the French who replaced him with his unpopular cousin Sultan Mohammed Ben Arafa.
Hill had been approached with an offer of $50,000 by a “French Soho spiv” to take on the hare-brained scheme, but he demanded, and was promised, $100,000 for the job and $25,000 in expenses. The plan was to change the name of the launch from The Fourth Lady to Flamingo and transfer the registration from British to Costa Rican. With this accomplished, in February 1954, Flamingo sailed to Tangier and Hill followed by air and spread the word that Flamingo was in the smuggling business. With this as a cover, the plan called for Hill and his gang to make their way along the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal and down to Madagascar to pick up the Sultan and transport him back to Tangier. The skipper and Chapman were the only ones who knew anything about boats and engines; the rest of the so-called crew being a collection of hardened criminals, described as a “broken-nosed, chiv-scarred bunch”.
Not surprisingly this gang of rough-necks were soon making trouble in Tangier, fighting, drinking and partying with local women. They became so notorious that large crowds gathered each day to watch the wild goings on, with some entrepreneurial types luring the men to their bars or brothels. Hill’s team did manage one smuggling operation that brought in $50,000 but then his employers told him that the Flamingo’s presence had created so much publicity that the mission had to be postponed to a later date.
The consortium did offer Hill a chance to smuggle some drugs but to his credit he refused. “We don’t run dope. It’s not our cup of tea.”
Hill and his mob sailed around the Med, checking out various ports and potential jobs, but they were followed everywhere by Interpol and police. After a drunken crew member set a fire that seriously damaged the Flamingo, Hilla decided to call it quits. He enjoyed a holiday at the casino in Cannes before slipping quietly back into London.
William Charles Hill was born on December 13, 1911, one of twenty-one children born to an Irish family in St. Pancras, London. As a kid he admired the local hoodlums and turned to criminality at an early age. He started out with petty theft from small shops and buskers, graduated to home burglary, and by the 1930s was running his own smash-and-grab gang, targeting furriers, jewellers and bank couriers. He committed his first stabbing aged 14 and became known for his ruthless, knife-related violence. In his autobiography, Boss of Britain`s Underworld, he wrote:
“I was always careful to draw my knife down on the face, never across or upwards. Always down. So that if the knife slips you don`t cut an artery. After all, chivving is chivving, but cutting an artery is murder. Only mugs do murder.”
I doubt if the new movie will feature anything about Gibraltar or Tangier, but I look forward to seeing a reproduction of the London of the 1950s and the war between Billy Hill and Jack Spot. Spot, born Jacob Colmore in Mile End, London the youngest of four children to Jewish Polish parents, also took to crime at an early age. The two were originally partners but fell out and Hill arranged to have Spot badly beaten by gang members including ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser. Spot famously said of Hill:
“I made Billy Hill. Then he got over the top of me. I should have shot Billy Hill, I really should. I’d have got ten years for it, but it would have made me happy and I’d be out by now.”
Billy Hill died on January 1, 1984 aged 72 and Jack Spot passed on March 12, 1996 aged 83.
Once Upon A Time in London is scheduled for general release on April 19.