During the late 1970s and early 80s, London was stalked by one of Britain’s most notorious serial killers- a seemingly unassuming civil servant named Dennis Nilsen who died in prison earlier this year.
I have now started a series examining Nilsen’s life and horrific crimes on my second website; The Crime Compendium.
To read part one, please click here (viewer discretion is advised)
(This is Part Two of Lord Camelford’s story. For Part One, please click here)
Despite a notorious incident in which he’d assaulted his former captain, George Vancouver on Mayfair’s Conduit Street, Thomas Pitt the 2nd Baron of Camelford was permitted to remain in the navy.
Quickly rising through the ranks, he was made commander of HMS Favourite aged just 22- a controversial choice given it bypassed Camelford’s senior, Charles Peterson.
Although Peterson himself was soon granted command of HMS Perdrix a bitter rivalry festered between the two.
This came to a head when both ships were docked in Antigua and Camelford gave an order to Peterson who, claiming it was not conducive to his own vessel, refused to obey.
This resulted in a tense standoff, during which Camelford asked, “Do you still persist in not obeying my orders?” To which Peterson replied, “Yes my lord. I do persist.”
With that, Camelford stepped forward and shot Peterson dead at point-blank range.
Despite this cold-blooded killing, Camelford was acquitted.
When he returned to London in autumn 1798 Lord Camelford conjured up a plot in which he planned to personally assassinate the nation’s arch enemy, Napoleon Bonaparte.
Packing a brace of pistols, a dagger and a “Letter of introduction to the French” Lord Camelford caught a night coach to Dover where he chartered a boat, comically claiming he had a collection of fine watches and fabrics he intended to sell to potential French bargain hunters.
As Britain was at war with France during this period any attempt to cross the Channel was punishable by death.
Fully aware of this, the boat’s skipper instead took Camelford straight to the authorities who, once again, set the Lord free, this time claiming “His only motive had been to render a service to his country.”
Nevertheless, Camelford was disgusted and quit the navy in protest.
Now a man of leisure, Lord Camelford once again took to menacing the people of London.
In May 1799 he was one of “Several gentleman intoxicated with liquor” who instigated a riot at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.
During the brawl, boxes, doors and windows were splintered and smashed and Camelford punched and kicked a man down a flight of stairs.
As a result, he had to cough up £500 in damages- about £22,000 in today’s money.
Around this time Camelford also employed a servant; a black American named Bill Richmond.
Bill had been born a slave on Staten Island, New York but made it to England in 1777 where he rose to become a celebrated bareknuckle fighter.
A known boxing fan, it’s believed Camelford encouraged Bill to teach him some moves and the two men attended a number of prize-fights together.
Bill and Lord Camelford could also be seen frequenting London’s many taverns- apparently, the pugilistic peer’s favourite ruse was to stir up drunken trouble so he could delight in watching Bill knock people spark out.
Bill Richmond would later go on to own a pub named the Horse and Dolphin near Leicester Square and became close friends with fellow boxer and publican, Tom Cribb.
Indeed it was in Tom’s pub on Panton Street that Bill spent his final evening before passing away at the age of 66.
In January 1802 Britain and France announced peace with the signing of the Treaty of Amiens (a declaration which would soon transpire to be short-lived).
Properties across London were lit in celebration but Camelford’s residence on the junction of Oxford Street and Park Lane remained resolutely dark; no doubt due to his cynicism and the fact he’d been prevented from having a crack at bumping off Napoleon.
Consequently a mob gathered outside and began breaking Camelford’s windows in protest at his lack of participation in the festivities.
Unperturbed, Lord Camelford armed himself with a club and stepped outside to tackle the crowd, beating them back single-handed until they were subdued.
In March 1804 Camelford became embroiled in a spat over a woman with his former friend, Captain Best.
After a charged meeting at a coffee house on Oxford Street, Camelford refused to withdraw insulting comments that he’d made.
Only one course of action therefore was left to the two rogues: a duel which was to be held in the grounds of Holland House.
Camelford knew his old pal was a far better shot- but backing down would mean cowardice and that was not an option.
When the two turned to fire, Camelford missed but Best’s bullet found its mark, puncturing his foe’s lung. The bullet also destroyed part of Camelford’s spine, paralysing him.
With the score settled, Captain Best rushed to his old friend and tried to comfort him.
As the pair gripped hands, Lord Camelford assured the victor, “You have killed me, but I freely forgive you.”
Camelford spent the next three days in agony, during which time he managed to compose his will. In it, he stated that his impending death was his own fault; lost “In a contest of my own seeking” and that nobody was to take proceedings against his antagonist.
On March 10th 1804 Thomas Pitt, the 2nd Lord of Camelford finally succumbed to his injuries. He was 29 years old and had no heir, meaning the Camelford peerage died with him.
Following his death, Lord Camelford’s body was embalmed and placed in a crypt beneath St Anne’s Church in Soho.
This was intended to be a temporary measure: in his will, Lord Camelford had stated his desire to be buried on the shores of Lake St. Pierre in Switzerland- a place that had been dear to him since childhood- and his body was to lay in St Anne’s only until transport to The Continent could be arranged.
However, whilst stored in the crypt the corpse inexplicably vanished…
To this day, the fate and current whereabouts of the thuggish Lord’s body remains a complete mystery.
Since 1947, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists have maintained the ‘Domesday Clock’; a symbolic timepiece whose minute hand is tweaked back and forth in the moments before midnight as a visual metaphor for illustrating how close they believe the world is to a civilisation ending catastrophe; primarily nuclear war.
On the 25th January 2018 the clock was moved forward to stand at just two minutes to midnight; the closest it’s been since 1953 when both the USA and then USSR acquired the hydrogen bomb.
According to The Bulletin, the reason for this recent, alarming advance is due to the complete failure of world leaders to address current threats to humanity; something no doubt inflamed by the crisis on the Korean Peninsula and U.S President, Donald Trump’s penchant for bragging about America’s nuclear arsenal.
Tensions have also been strained further in recent weeks with Hawaii and Japan suffering false missile alerts.
In the early 1980s when the globe was still gripped by the Cold War, the Domesday Clock also stood perilously close to midnight, nudging 11.57pm in 1984.
Around this time, the BBC produced several documentaries looking at the potential consequences of nuclear war which, despite looking decidedly dated to today’s audiences, now seem as relevant ever in the current climate.
The first was a Panorama documentary entitled ‘If the Bomb Drops‘, which aired in March 1980 and was presented by a young Jeremy Paxman who took to the streets of Shepherds Bush to ask people what they’d do in the event of hearing sirens sound the Four Minute Warning; the famous time in which it was estimated the public would be warned of an incoming nuclear attack.
The no-nonsense cockneys interviewed by Paxman summed up the futility of preparing for such an event (please click below to view):
Later in the documentary Paxman takes to to the air in a helicopter to describe the impact a 1 megaton nuclear device would have if detonated high above the Houses of Parliament (please click below to view)…
‘If the Bomb Drops’ also featured a terrifying sneak-peak of the government’s ‘Protect and Survive’ public information films.
Produced by the now defunct Richard Taylor Cartoons -who were once based on Great Portland Street and are perhaps better known for creating the far more charming ‘Crystal Tipps and Alistair‘ –these films were top secret at the time and Panorama achieved quite a coup in obtaining them.
In the event of an international crisis that looked set to trigger a war, it was intended that the UK’s TV stations would go off air and be replaced by the BBC’s Wartime Broadcasting Service– on which these short films, of which there are 20, would be played on a continual loop.
Although Paxman rather chillingly predicts that these films “Won’t be seen again until nuclear war is imminent”, they are all now available on Youtube and unsurprisingly make very unsettling viewing.
Particularly eerie is the jarred, electronic jingle which concludes each segment; a product of the former BBC Radiophonic Workshop who were based at the Maida Vale Studios on Delaware Road and are best known for creating the theme tune to Dr Who
Considering this link with the Time Lord, it may come as no surprise to hear that the attack warning itself (which was intended to alert the British public had a nuclear launch been detected in the 1970s/80s) is rumoured to have featured flashing lights and ‘Dalek‘ sounds. This chilling recording remains unseen to this day.
To view the entire catalogue of the Protect and Survive films- which includes advice on how to recognise warnings, how to construct a shelter and even how to dispose of the dead- please click below….
It didn’t take the BBC long to put out another documentary presenting the dire consequences of nuclear war.
In the summer of 1982, the science strand, QED broadcast ‘A Guide to Armageddon’ which, narrated in the stern tones of Ludovic Kennedy, speculated on what fate would befall London if a nuclear warhead was detonated 1 mile above St Paul’s Cathedral.
According to the documentary, this would involve:
The vaporisation of St Paul’s mighty gold cross:
The annihilation of priceless artworks:
Cabs and double deckers set ablaze:
The combustion of homes as far aways as Battersea:
The charring of meat in Lidgates Butchers, Holland Park (used by QED as a grim metaphor for the impact on human flesh):
The total destruction of buildings under pulverising blast-waves:
A tidal wave of deadly flying glass (demonstrated here on the skin of an unfortunate pumpkin):
And some pretty scary fashion choices!
Modelled here by Joy and Eric, a Finsbury Park couple who attempted to build various nuclear shelters for the documentary.
Joking aside, ‘A Guide to Armageddon’ is very scary stuff- particularly the doom-laden end sequence in which famous London locations are depicted as ruins in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
To watch the entire episode of this QED documentary, please click below:
‘A Guide to Armageddon’ was produced by Essex born Mick Jackson who, shortly after, drew upon the experience to direct the 1984 drama, ‘Threads’ which was written by Barry Hines (author of ‘A Kestrel for a Knave’ which had been adapted as the heart-breaking 1969 film, ‘Kes’) and portrayed the consequences of a nuclear war as experienced by the people of Sheffield.
Threads is arguably one of the most disturbing dramas ever broadcast by the BBC and can be viewed here in its entirety- although please be aware, viewer discretion is highly advised.
Here’s hoping the Domesday Clock ticks back soon…