South London Memories: Garage robbery became a murder

With the Second World War just over, crime continued on the streets of South London. Author Conrad Lisk’s book With Violent Hands: Youth and Murders in 1945 Britain details one such killing, the people defending the accused and his ultimate fate…

August 1945. The war in Europe was over, although Britain was still fighting against Japan.

Blackout curtains were coming down, although the rubble from air raids and rocket bomb attacks was still visible in London and elsewhere.

Conflict came closer to home in the Red Arrow garage in Thornton Heath, Croydon.

In the office there, two young Brixton residents faced each other at opposite ends of a Browning automatic pistol. One was the garage cashier, one a would-be robber.

Shortly afterwards the cashier lay shot and seriously injured. She was 28 year old Mrs Ivy May Phillips, of Tudor Close.

Her assailant grabbed a small amount of money and ran off. Another garage employee briefly gave chase but lost track of him.

Thornton Road garage as it is now Picture: Conrad Lisk

Ivy passed away a couple of days later. The police had a difficult task investigating the crime.

Two men might have had a motive to kill her. One was her estranged husband, who had met her over the previous few days. He was a soldier based in Belgium, home on leave.

He was seeking to remarry, and also had an automatic pistol and many rounds of ammunition.

Also, the garage owner, a married man, was in a live-in relationship with Ivy. He was said to be considering ending the relationship and going back to his wife.

Not long after the police got a tip-off from a man lodging at a house in Luxor Street.

The man said that the teenage son of the family he lived with, had committed the murder.

The police invited the son – Peter Jarmain, 18, – for questioning. After initially denying it he confessed, saying the shooting had been accidental.

It later turned out that the informant had been an army deserter on the run. He fled again later, and the police arrested him for desertion.

The army undertook to make sure that he gave evidence at the trial. By then Peter was on remand at Brixton Prison.

Peter was an unemployed labourer. He had a disability from a childhood injury, and found it hard to hold down jobs as a result of prejudice.

One of his brothers was to say of him “He never had much of a life.”

Victor Mishcon. Picture: National Portrait Gallery

He had lost his father some years beforehand, and had slid into bad company, staying out late at night and hanging out with other youths his age.

Out of work and unable to cover his expenses, he had bought a gun from a soldier in a pub, to rob the garage.

The trial was held at the Old Bailey late in September. Peter’s assertion that the shooting was accidental, was not enough.

The jury were out for less than an hour, and convicted him of murder rather than the manslaughter verdict his barrister had sought.

The judge could only pass sentence of death. He dutifully put on the black cap and pronounced the dread words.

Peter was taken below, a female voice sobbing at the back of the courtroom. He was taken to prison at Wandsworth, and later Wormwood Scrubs, to await his fate.

Peter filed an appeal at once. His barrister, Frederick Lawton, argued hard for him, but the criminal appeal court decided the conviction and sentence should stand.

Now Peter’s only hope was that the Home Secretary would ‘reprieve’ him – that is, would order that the death sentence should not be carried out.

Two prominent figures came in the picture. One was solicitor Victor Mishcon, a councillor and solicitor who ran a law firm near Lewisham Town Hall.

Although he had not represented Peter in court, he took the lead in petitioning the Home Secretary on behalf of Peter’s mother.

The other was leading anti-death penalty campaigner Violet Van Der Elst. She was fond of publicity stunts, such as demonstrating outside prisons when executions were being held inside, often being arrested clashing with police.

Anti-death penalty campaigner Violet Van Der Elst Picture: Grantham Matters

Unsurprisingly, the family, through Mr Mishcon, rejected any offers of help from her.

Support also came from a woman, Grace Harrison, mourning the death of her own 18 year old son in battle the previous year.

She wrote to the Home Secretary on Peter’s behalf although she did not know him at all, asking that his life be spared.

Passionately, she argued that ‘“If we bring children up in an atmosphere of air raids and violence, teach them to extol and admire the taking of life (even in battle) then we should not hold them responsible to the point of hanging, for getting the wrong idea.”

Another teenager was also in a condemned cell north of the Thames. Armin Kuhne was a German prisoner of war, only weeks younger than Peter.

He and another prisoner were convicted by a British military court of the murder (while the war in Europe was still on) of a comrade who had supposedly betrayed an escape plan.

Detained at the Kempton Park camp (a racecourse in peacetime) Armin, too, fought to escape the ultimate penalty. He wrote petitions to the military authorities who had the responsibility of authorising his execution or reprieve.

In the event, Peter was spared, days before his planned execution date.

His death sentence was replaced by one of life in prison. Then as now, such a sentence did not mean that he would stay in prison till his death.

Peter was released after serving almost 10 years.

He found a regular job, married and had three children. He never committed another crime, and lived into the mid-1990s.

German POW Armin Kuhne. Picture: Marco Mundenk

Armin Kuhne was not so lucky.

He and the other convicted prisoner were hanged at Pentonville Prison almost two weeks after Peter’s reprieve. They lie beneath the courtyard there to this day.

Some of those connected with Peter’s case became well-known in the annals of London crime.

His barrister Frederick Lawton became a judge, and heard trials of the Kray twins and later of their gangland rival Charlie Richardson.

In 1955 Victor Mishcon was to seek a reprieve in the case of Ruth Ellis, who had shot her boyfriend dead outside a North London pub.

In that instance Mishcon was not successful, and Ellis became the last woman to be hanged in the UK.

I learned about this case during my law studies many years ago. I was surprised to find out that the crime happened near where I used to live in Croydon.

My book about this case is called With Violent Hands: Youths and Murder in 1945 Britain.

It is published by Songlome Publications, on Amazon as a paperback and Kindle. Signed copies can be bought from the author who can be contacted on conrad2014lisk@mail.com.

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