Sophie Baggott meets Julian Woodford, author of the thrilling crime biography The Boss of Bethnal Green
Cast aside Sherlock, there’s a sharper detective in town –historian extraordinaire Julian Woodford.
Not only has he exposed the East End’s vilest gangster – Joseph Merceron, who hid in history’s shadows until now – but Julian has also tracked down long-lost relics (including a pistol, pictured above, fired in a royal assassination attempt).
What’s more, he has that vital ounce of empathy missing in Baker Street’s has-been.
Best of all, Julian hasn’t left it to a mere sidekick to record his findings. No offence, Watson.
Julian has laid bare his research in a thrilling biography: The Boss of Bethnal Green.
“The more I found out about Merceron, the more I realised how truly evil he was,” Julian says.
Merceron, aka the “Boss”, was born in 1764 to a pawnbroker and property merchant. The 1800s saw him evolve from a greedy landlord into a parish “blood-sucker”, with exploits ranging from bullock-racing to stripping a severely disabled girl of all she owned.
Ultimately, after decades of milking poor relief funds as a local government treasurer, he faced a trial for fraud and perjury.
It was in these legal transcripts that Julian learned about Merceron’s cruel embezzlement of Mary Cheesman, termed an “idiot” for her mental disabilities.
“Surely his worst crime,” Julian says.
On top of this, Merceron had his half-sister incarcerated in an asylum.
Imagine a concoction of the notorious East End gangster Kray twins and fraudster Robert Maxwell, then you’ve got an inkling of Merceron’s character.
In the early 1900s, husband-and-wife sociologists Sidney and Beatrice Webb wrote what little description existed of Merceron’s crimes.
Their dry passages didn’t cut it for Julian, though, who set out to investigate further and pen a richer, justifiably appalling narrative.
Julian’s journey towards publishing The Boss of Bethnal Green is itself a dynamic story, full of coincidences and near-misses.
My meeting with him even conjured up an odd twist of its own. We realised that the would-be assassin of King George III, James Hadfield, had been sectioned in Bedlam – which had once stood right where we sat in Liverpool Street.
Hadfield had been deemed “not guilty” of trying to kill the king due to mental instability.
“It was the first record of such a court verdict,” Julian says.
His pistol found its way into Merceron’s hands, as did most objects of any worth in East London at the time. Eventually it reached Merceron’s living descendants.
Through The Times’ obituaries, Julian came across a handful of family members.
Merceron’s great-great-granddaughter was just shy of her 94th birthday when he got in touch with her. He recalls how this extraordinary lady, Susan Kendall, had said simply: “You’d better hurry over to Wiltshire, I’m 93!”.
Susan hoped Julian’s book might lift what seemed to be a “family curse”, so put him in touch with her nephew – a military chaplain.
Together they hauled an old tin chest down from the attic. This mysterious box opened to reveal the Hadfield’s gun, once a treasured possession of Merceron himself.
Over a decade in the making, The Boss of Bethnal Green is the kind of book that makes you contemplate the city where so many millions live.
How many more strange flukes or branches of family trees lurk around the corner? What other historical reputations have gone unscathed by the truth?
If there’s anyone to do some digging, it’s Julian.
The Boss of Bethnal Green is published by Spitalfields Life Books. Copies are available from spitalfieldslife.com and all good bookshops.
What makes you most proud of East London?
People from all backgrounds setting an example to the world of how to get along.
Where do you like to spend most time?
Anywhere with a view of Hawksmoor’s marvellous churches.
The Organic Coffee Cup stall outside Christ Church Spitalfields.
It has to be Leila’s on Calvert Avenue.
What changes have you seen in the area?
Too many ugly office towers at the expense of affordable houses.
Is there anything you’d change?
Bulldoze the office towers.
If East London were human who would it be?
My friend The Gentle Author of Spitalfields Life, who every day manages brilliantly to hold up a mirror to the wonderful diversity of East London past and present.
What’s East London’s best-kept secret?
I’m going to say Sutton House, Hackney, a Tudor manor house that has miraculously survived since 1535 but which gets relatively little mention.
East London in a word?
It’s not a word, I think, but “Cosmopolis” comes to mind.