How notorious gangster Billy Hill went from teenage thief to London’s underworld kingpin

Sitting in the National Archives at Kew is a fascinating reference to Billy Hill – ‘The Boss of Britain’s Underworld’, the only record of an East End gangster who used the Second World War to build a criminal empire.

Incredibly elusive for much of his criminal career, the London mob boss died old and wealthy, after mentoring two of Britain’s most well-known underworld figures. 

Now, the proverbial ‘King of Soho’ has been brought back to life in new film Once Upon a Time in London.

Born in 1911, Hill was born to a poor Irish mother but was soon to realise his wider family lay among the criminal fraternity.

He started adult life as a burglar, but soon graduated to robbery and smash-and-grab raids. 

The chaos of the Second World War allowed him to prosper, but the success of his activities caused consternation within the Scotland Yard. 

Hill went on to mentor the Kray twins, Ronnie and Reggie, eventually handing over his criminal empire to them as he moved abroad.

He established himself as a serious criminal figure during the war, profiteering from the black market. 

This involved supplying forged IDs to deserters, providing black products such as petrol and food. He even moved in on the West End along with his rival Jack ‘Spot’ Comer.  

In the late 1940s he served his final prison sentence, and with Spot’s power in the East End racketeering business waning following a failed raid on Heathrow Airport,  he took control of much of London.

Instead of actively participating in criminal raids from then on, he would plan them and demand a share of the proceeds. 

In 1952, he masterminded a post van robbery which made £10million in modern money. This raid was later used as the template for the Great Train Robbery. 

It is believed Hill was receiving information from a large number of serving Metropolitan Police officers which led to Home Secretary Gwilym Lloyd George to authorise a wire tap on his phone.   

Ironically, the recordings did not result in any prosecution against Hill – but they were used to have his barrister Patrick Marrinan disbarred after it had emerged he had obstructed justice in a trial of two of Hill’s gangland associates. 

The phone tapping led to a national scandal – with questions raised in parliament – including one by Barbara Castle MP in July 1957 which asked if the considerable costs of the operation led to an increase in call charges. 

The government refused to divulge the information, prompting an angry response from the Labour MP.  

Mrs Castle told the House: ‘Is it not a fact that a special room has been opened in London by the Post Office for the tapping of telephones, where there is tape recording machinery installed at considerable cost and where Post Office engineers are involved in the maintaining of these tapping services? 

‘Therefore, cannot it be deduced that a considerable part of the increase in telephone charges is due to the increase in telephone tapping?’ 

Hill, at the time a household name, was known for his sense of dress and ruthless nature. 

He was a constant figure on the Soho social scene and known as a bookmaker. As well as controlling on-course bookmaking, members of his gang would regularly rip-off those in Lord Lucan’s social circle in John Aspinall’s Clermont Club in Mayfair. 

In the meantime, Hill had been cultivating the up and coming Kray twins, helping them build the foundations for their empire at which point he promised he would step away.

Having felt the heat of the government and Met Police in the phone-tapping scandal, Hill did step back, taking his wife Gypsy to their home in Tangier, Morocco.

Reggie Kray would later say of Hill: ‘He stands alone and there will never be another Billy Hill.’

He would also be among the first of the crime bosses to set up a base near Marbella, Spain, eventually attracting so many of the British gang leaders that it earned the nickname Costa Del Crime.

The pair lived out their lives on the Mediterranean coast, with Gyp running a nightclub in Tangier, and mixing with the likes of Picasso, Diana Dors and Aristotle Onassis on the French Riviera.

But for Hill it could said his greatest achievement, unattained by most gang leaders,  was to die wealthy aged 72 in 1984. He left virtually no trace of his career except for his autobiography.

Gyp eventually returned to the UK, declined all interviews and died in 2004.

Once Upon a Time in London was released in cinemas on April 19


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