Part 13: The Murder of Cock-Eyed Maisie

The following account is taken from Dr Jan Bondeson’s fascinating book ‘Murder houses of South London

The book is expertly researched and is an essential read for anyone interested in the (macabre) history of this patch of London – it can be purchased here.

Dr Bondeson has kindly allowed for me to feature the following story from his book. You’ll see that the research reveals that at the time of the murder the flat was numbered as 19 Southey Road but since it is now 1A Cranworth gardens I have included it in the Cranworth Gardens – The story of a street section.

All material that follows is the work of Jan Bondeson: Troubadour Publishing Ltd. Copyright. 

THE MURDER OF COCK-EYED MAISIE, 1945

In the 1920s and 1930s, Gertrude Marjorie ‘Maisie’ Rose was quite a well-known London prostitute. She claimed that her father was Edward Rackshaw, an old railway worker, who lived in Redfield Lane, Earl’s Court, but present-day genealogical tools provide nothing to suggest that this humble labouring man ever had a daughter named Gertrude or Marjorie. Instead, there is a Gertrude Rose born in Sunderland in 1897, who married a man named Cunningham in 1915. Maisie used to say that she married a Canadian soldier during the Great War, and gone with him to his native land, returning to London a few years later after she had become fed up with him.

Maisie Rose enjoyed good success as a prostitute for many years. She does not appear to have had a steady pimp. Maisie was friendly and likeable when sober, but could become violent and argumentative when drunk. In the early 1930s, she fell in love with a black man named Charlie Bascombe, a sailor and prostitutes’ bully. Maisie pinched Charlie from another streetwalker called German Paula, and they had a short and tempestuous affair, before Big Gracie pinched Charlie for herself. Maisie retaliated by breaking the windows of Gracie’s flat. She then settled down to a calmer and more promising long-term relationship with a barman named Tom Jones, who pulled pints at the Russell public house.

In the mid-1930s, Maisie moved into No. 19 Southey Road, South Lambeth, a three-story purpose-built block of flats situated at the crossing with Cranworth Gardens. It was a four-room flat with its own bathroom, and she possessed her own furniture. Although she was losing her looks, with a nasty squint and false teeth in her upper jaw, she remained quite a successful prostitute. Maisie led a comfortable life at No. 19: a cleaner came once a week, the paperboy delivered the morning and evening newspapers, and the milkman made sure she had a regular supply of milk. Cock Eyed Maisie, as she was called, had a number of regular customers who used to come visiting in the evening, but she also had a ‘beat’ outside the Crown and Anchor public house in St Martin’s Lane, where she could pickup various late-night ‘gentleman’ friends and bring them home to No. 19 Southey Road.

The Second World War initially hampered Maisie’s business, but when London filled up with American soldiers on leave in 1943 and 1944, her prospects were looking brighter than ever. Although she was now 47 years old, she was still perfectly capable of securing a steady supply of sex-starved transatlantic servicemen. The neighbours in Southey Road, who knew Maisie’s profession, were amazed at the number of uniformed Yanks who kept visiting her; one of them, a young man in an officer’s uniform, seemed to be quite fond of her.

On March 16 1945, Maisie did not open the door to the milkman or the paperboy. Her cleaner Mrs Frances Archer, who had her own key to the flat, was aghast to find Maisie dead on her double bed, with extensive head trauma from a series of blows with a heavy shillelagh. The injuries to her hands and forearms indicated that she had put up a violent struggle against her assailant. Dr Keith Simpson, who performed the post-mortem, found evidence of recent sexual intercourse, and secured some hair samples from the killer. Signs of latent syphilis, and recent gonorrhoea, were too obvious to be overlooked. Some chemical stains in the murder room indicated that the killer had used a prophylactic kit issued to the US military to prevent venereal disease. The Irish shillelagh used as the murder weapon turned out to be one that Maisie had kept on the premises for her own protection.

The police made inquiries in the London underworld to find out more about Cock-Eyed Maisie and her habits, but with little success. This mystery woman had volunteered very little about her past, and seems to have delighted in telling lies about her family and connections. A certain Mrs Armswood identified herself as Maisie’s sister, but both her parents were presumed to be dead. Charlie Bascombe had been working as a grease-monkey on board a merchant ship at the time of the murder, and the barman Tom Jones also had a solid alibi. Instead, the detectives tried to find out more about Maisie’s transatlantic customers, but the witness descriptions of their faces and uniforms were wildly divergent. One of them was aged 35 or 40, with a pugilist’s nose and dressed in what looked like a corporal’s uniform. Several letters to Maisie from Lt. Grover O. Powers, of the 44th Bomber Group, were found inside the murder flat. He was clearly the ‘regular’ who had been quite fond of her. Since Powers had been on leave at the time of the murder, he was questioned by the police. The transatlantic aviator freely admitted knowing Maisie Rose, and consorting with her at No. 19 Southey Road, but he had a solid alibi for the day of the murder.

In April 1945, Corporal Maurice J. Gaston was interviewed by the police, since he resembled the suspect with the broken nose, but no witness could identify him or tie him to the murder scene. There were newspaper murmurations that the murder of Maisie Rose might be related to some other unsolved wartime murders of women (Audrey Irene Stewart, Evelyn Hatton). In November 1946, following press speculation that Neville Heath, who had just been executed for the murder of Margery Gardner, might well have claimed earlier victims, the police established that Heath had been in South Africa at the time Maisie Rose had been murdered.

So, who killed Cock-Eyed Maisie? One key finding from the crime scene was that she had hidden two folded pound notes, presumably the money she had been given by her ‘customer’, underneath a pillow. This indicates that she was not with one of her ‘regulars’ the night she was murdered, but with some individual she did not quite trust: a random pick-up with suspected violent tendencies. Had be become disgusted when he saw the diseased state of the prostitute he had ‘bought for the night’? Or had some insulting remark about his recent ‘performance’ in bed triggered a furious attack?

As for the murder house in Southey Road, it is clearly stated in the police file on the murder to be situated near Cranworth Gardens, with another similar block of flats at No. 21 opposite. There is only One house that matches this description, namely the present No. 1A Cranworth Gardens. It was not renamed as a result of the murder, but remained No. 19 Southey Road as recently as the 1980s.

Jan Bondeson

Murder Houses of South London (Publisher – Matador 28 Jun. 2015)