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March 2017

East life Search for the

East life Search for the smoking gun Sophie Baggott meets Julian Woodford, author of the thrilling crime biography The Boss of Bethnal Green Image: George Woodford 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. 6 LOVEEAST

East life 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, husbandand-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 nearmisses. 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 Rocque map of Brick Lane area 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-greatgranddaughter 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 Continued over page... LOVEEAST MARCH 2017 7

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