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Billy Hill (gangster)
Going back a bit here with Billy but he was a mentor to the Krays and one of the most influential gangsters of the UK. The value of his heists would put him far ahead of most of the current ones if converted into today’s money equivalent.
William “Billy” Charles Hill (13 December 1911 – 1 January 1984) was an English criminal, linked to smuggling, protection rackets, and extreme violence. He was one of the foremost perpetrators of organised crime in London from the 1920s through to the 1960s. He project managed cash robberies and, in a clever scam, defrauded London’s High Society of millions at the card tables of John Aspinall’s Clermont Club.
Hill was born in Fitzrovia, Central London to Frances Mary A Hill (née Sparling) and Frederick Joseph Hill, who married in 1888. Growing up in an established criminal family, Hill committed his first stabbing at age fourteen. He began as a house burglar in the late 1920s and then specialized in “smash-and-grab” raids targeting furriers and jewellers in the 1930s.
During World War II, Hill moved into the black market, specializing in foods and petrol. He also supplied forged documents for deserting servicemen and was involved in West End protection rackets with fellow gangster Jack Spot. In the late 1940s, he was charged with burgling a warehouse and fled to South Africa. Following an arrest there for assault, he was extradited back to Britain, where he was convicted for the warehouse robbery and served time in prison. This was his last jail term. After his release he met Gypsy Riley, better known as “Gypsy Hill”, who became his common-law wife.
In 1952, he planned the Eastcastle St. postal van robbery netting £287,000 (2017 value £9.5 million), and in 1954 he organised a £40,000 bullion heist. No one was ever convicted for these robberies. He also ran smuggling operations from Morocco during this period.
In 1955, Hill wrote his memoir Boss of Britain’s Underworld. In it he described his use of the shiv:
‘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 usually murder. Only mugs do murder.’
Hill was mentor to twins Ronnie and Reggie Kray, advising them in their early criminal careers.
In late 1956 Home Secretary Gwilym Lloyd George authorised the tapping of Hill’s phone. At the time gang warfare had broken out in London between Hill and erstwhile partner in crime, Jack Spot. In 1956, Spot and wife Rita were attacked by Hill’s bodyguard, Frankie Fraser, Bobby Warren and at least half a dozen other men. Both Fraser and Warren were given seven years for their acts of violence.
The Bar Council approached the police and requested the tapes in order to provide evidence for an investigation into the professional conduct of Hill’s barrister, Patrick Marrinan. Sir Frank Newsam, Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, allowed them access. When this use of tapping powers was revealed to Parliament in June 1957, Leader of the Opposition Hugh Gaitskell demanded a full explanation. Rab Butler pledged that it would not be a precedent and that he would consider withdrawing the evidence and asking the Bar council to disregard it.
Marrinan was subsequently disbarred and expelled by Lincoln’s Inn, but Butler was forced to appoint a committee of Privy Counsellors under Sir Norman Birkett to look into the prerogative power of intercepting telephone communications.
The Big Edge
In the 1960s Hill was busy fleecing aristocrats at card tables. In Douglas Thompson’s book The Hustlers, and the subsequent documentary on Channel 4, The Real Casino Royale, the club’s former financial director John Burke and Hill’s associate Bobby McKew, claimed that John Aspinall ( one of Lord Lucan’s best friends) worked with Hill to cheat the players at the Clermont Club. Some of the wealthiest people in Britain were swindled out of millions of pounds, thanks to a gambling con known as “the Big Edge”.
Marked cards could be discovered too easily so instead the low cards were slightly bent across their width in a small mangle before being repackaged. High cards were slightly bent lengthwise. Hill’s card sharks were introduced to the tables by Aspinall; they could read whether a card was high, low or an unbent zero card (10 to king) thus gaining a 60-40 edge. The final stage involved “skimming” the profits from the table to avoid attention. On the first night of the operation, the tax-free winnings for the house were £14,000 (2017: £680,000). According to McKew, the 18th Earl of Derby lost £40,000 (2017: £1.2 million) in one night.
The club’s former financial director John Burke quit in late 1965, a year into the scam. He had been tipped off about an investigation but Aspinall was determined to carry on. However, Aspinall no longer had someone to deal with “the dirty end” of the operation. After two years’ operation the Big Edge was closed. Hill respected Aspinall’s decision, and the partnership dissolved.
Hill was also involved in property development. He bought for Gypsy the biggest nightclub in Tangier, Churchills, which she ran from 1966 until the mid-1970s where it is alleged the biggest money laundering business went on.
Hill retired from crime in the 1970s and died on 1 January 1984, aged 72.
In 1963, Mickey Spillane was playing Mike Hammer in The Girl Hunters in London where he met Hill and showed him around the set. When the prop department couldn’t find Spillane a real M1911 pistol, Hill brought the producers several real pistols to use in the film.