Bramerton Street has several strong historical resonances in the human and social narrative of Chelsea.
It runs from Glebe Place to the King’s Road and has always been a densely populated residential street consisting of three and two storey terraced Victorian houses with basements which is where the servants would be living in times past.
In LGBTQIA history it had the iconic entrance to the legendary Gateways Club, run from the basement of a building fronting the King’s Road, which during the 20th century was a meeting place for gay women and refuge and liberation from the prejudice and discrimination homosexual women had to deal with.
The club’s importance in cultural history has been extensively and impressively researched and written about in Jill Gardiner’s book From The Closet To The Screen: Women At The Gateways Club 1945-85.
And in June 2022, Sandi Toksvig presented an hour long BBC Television documentary ‘Gateways Grind: London’s Secret Lesbian Club.’ The programme referred to its ‘iconic green door.’ I have to say my childhood memory is that it was always a dark navy blue.
The Bramerton Street entrance door would also be identified by the presence during the 1960s, 1970s and until its closure in 1985 of club members’ scooters and motorcycles parked on the road outside.
The motorcycle parking bay is still there as some kind of homage to the cultural heritage of the location.
The club famously featured in the 1968 film starring Beryl Reid and Susannah York The Killing of Sister George, directed by Robert Aldrich.
A key scene of the film was actually shot inside the club as it was in the late 1960s and even features the proprietress, Gina Ware, and her partner Smithy, who ran the bar, playing themselves.
The Castillo family
Up until 1940 Bramerton Street was the home of a famous name in the history of general medical practice for the people of Chelsea- Dr. Richard Castillo from Malta.
From the 1920s until his extraordinary death from an unsolved murder in 1961, he built up and ran the largest practice in Chelsea.
Situated in Sydney Street this served people of all backgrounds- those living on the Sutton and Lewis estates and those residing in large houses in Carlyle Square, Cheyne Walk or Old Church Street.
Before the start of the National Health Service in 1948 he promoted a concept of equality in medical provision by subsidising services to people with modest means from the fees paid for by those who were more affluent.
He had first started working for the legendary Chelsea physician Dr James Hamilton who for 40 years up until his death in 1926 had worked out of his practice at 60 Sydney Street and gone down in posterity as the local doctor who continued to drive around the Chelsea streets visiting his patients in a big phaeton carriage always drawn by a very tall and powerful white Irish horse despite the roads now filling with klaxon sounding and hooting motor vehicles, buses, taxis and lorries.
Dr Richard Castillo took over Dr Hamilton’s practice and would later set up and run a popular nursing home for the elderly.
During the terrible Blitz on London he headed a pioneering flying squad of medics from St Stephen’s Hospital which would be on the scene of the worst incidents tending to those injured and dying, climbing and crawling across the wreckage and debris of devastated homes with his stethoscope and morphine injections to help those trapped and in the process of being rescued and dug out.
And it would be during this time that he would experience the very worst of human tragedy when on 9th September 1940 a high explosive bomb would destroy the house in Bramerton Street where his wife and children were living while he was out trying to save the lives of others on that terrible day.
A clinic and home for people with dementia in Kensington still bears his name and continues his memory.
Second World War
On the 9th of September 1940 a high explosive bomb was released onto Bramerton Street by a low-flying German bomber being pursued by a chasing RAF Spitfire.
It detonated on the even numbers at the top of Bramerton Street, west side, close to the junction with the King’s Road, directly opposite the entrance door of the Gateways Club. (In June 2022 the door was painted a bilious (perhaps only to some) lime green colour, largely because Sandi Toksvig was allowed to paint it so for her television documentary)
2, 4 and 6 Bramerton Street were destroyed and so were many of the people living in them.
Dr Richard Castillo’s wife and son were killed. His family had taken refuge in the basement.
However, his 12 year old daughter Mildred did survive, though Dr Castillo had every reason over several days to compound his grief with the appalling apprehension that he had lost all his family.
Mildred’s cries were heard after four days of digging through the wreckage and her rescue particularly by three members of Chelsea’s heavy squad at huge risk to themselves was the event which inspired the Royal Family to inaugurate the George Cross and George Medal.
King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited the scene and spoke to rescuers only a few days after Mildred was pulled out of the mountain of bricks and debris and went on to have a full recovery.
It was celebrated as one of the early miracles of human survival and endeavour in the London Blitz.
All three men responsible for her rescue: George Woodward, Wally Capon and George Pitman would receive the highest civilian award for bravery available at the time- British Empire Medals. George Woodward would later be awarded the George Medal for another herculean rescue at the Guinness Trust flats disaster in February 1944.
Bramerton Street would be hit two more times during the Blitz of 1940. On 18th September an incendiary bomb struck number 20 causing a fire which gutted the building.
On the 23rd December 1940 an unexploded British anti-aircraft shell struck number 37. This was removed by the Bomb Disposal Squad- no casualties or serious damage to property.
A contemporary Google Street view below of Numbers 2, 4 and 6 Bramerton Street with three storey houses and basements. The newer post WWII construction architecture compares with the Victorian style of terraces and building either side and opposite providing stark evidence and location of the bombing on 9th September 1940.
In addition to the devastation wrought on Dr. Richard Castillo’s family at number 4, in number 6 Mr and Mrs Anderson and their 29 year old daughter Olive were killed by the bomb.
Honorine Brown, 32, was the first occupant of number 6 whose body was recovered by rescuers on Wednesday afternoon 11th September. She was identified by her aunt, Emmeline Morris, who lived in nearby Glebe Place.
The Andersons were a working class family.
William Reginald was a retired window cleaner and his body was the second to be pulled out of the demolished building that had been number 6 Bramerton Street on the Thursday morning 12th September.
Mrs Anderson’s body was not recovered until five days after the raid on Friday 13th September. Their eldest son William, 46 years old, and other members of the family were living elsewhere.
He had a career as a porter with Lyons restaurants and showed so much courage in coming forward to identify his parents and sister and could only do so mainly by their effects.
Olive Anderson’s body was recovered a day after that of her mother’s. She was single and had been working as a domestic servant.
Visitors, servants and tenants in both houses also died. Lily Fox was a housewife and found in the wreckage five days after the bombing. She was identified by her brother-in-law.
A similar fate befell Margaret Williams in number 4. She had been the cook and general servant to Dr Castillo’s household. Her husband George had been a foreman bricklayer, but he had joined up as a sergeant serving in the engineers of the British Indian Army.
He was away on duty on the fateful day and survived her. He was able to identify her when her body was dug out of the wreckage six days after the raid.
Dr. Castillo was spared the distress of seeing the bodies of his wife and son by his friend and colleague Dr. Salvatore Ciappara from Holland Road Kensington who undertook the task on his behalf. Dr. Ciappara was also a physician and surgeon from Malta.
Jo Oakman’s experience of the Bramerton Street raid
Chelsea artist Jo Oakman directly witnessed the bombing and tore away at the bricks and debris even before the clouds of dust thrown up by the blast had settled.
This is because Bramerton Street was in her ARP area and she personally knew so many of the people living in the three houses that had been devastated. She was also a doctor’s daughter and trained in first aid.
Jo had been working with the rescue operation at the Beaufort Street air raid shelter disaster until 12.15. She went home to her house in Justice Walk for a bath and then returned to her day-time job in the food office at Chelsea Town Hall in the King’s Road.
It was 5.15 p.m. when the sirens started and she was out on her bike again to do emergency ARP work from the Wardens’ post in the Cook’s Ground Secondary School in Glebe Place.
After the war it would be renamed the Kingsley School.
At around 5.40 p.m. a German bomber dived from the sky because it was being pursued by a Spitfire. The bomber unleashed its machine-guns.
Jo was terrified beyond belief as she was caught out in the open with only her bicycle and helmet for protection.
She leapt off her bike and fled up some steps into a house in Glebe Place.
Somebody had kindly opened the door so she literally fell inside.
As the chasing RAF spitfire got closer and closer to its prey, the German bomber began to release its bombs.
The nearest one to her had fallen in Bramerton Street taking out the walls and backs of numbers 2 to 6.
She saw the houses blowing up like a pack of cards tossed into the air with clouds of smoke, dirt, rubble and plaster.
Her job was to report what happened to the control centre. At least seven people were trapped in the heap of the wreckage. She was the first rescuer on scene.
Quickly followed by the Reverend Gordon Arrowsmith from the Chelsea Rectory on the other side of the back gardens to Bramerton Street.
He had heard the terrible explosion and seen the cloud of debris mushrooming from the site.
He rushed over with a young curate, Charles Roderick. Many years later Charles would recall how he and his Rector at St Luke’s ‘toiled in the rubble to do what we could. Later that evening, in an exhausted condition and when, as we teasingly say, the balance of our minds was seriously disturbed, I proposed to my Rector’s daughter and she accepted me.’
Jo remembered how Gordon Arrowsmith’s hands were soon bleeding as he tore away at the heap of jagged debris and smashed timber to try and get at those people trapped in what had been a row of three terraced houses each with four floors if you included the basements.
Now everything had pancaked into a smouldering heap of ruin.
The first efforts managed to get three people out alive including a 17 year-old lad called Fox who had been one of the ARP messengers for the Warden’s centre at the School which had been designated as Post Don.
They had heard and recognised his voice just as they started removing the top layers of bricks.
Fox had been caught at the back of the house.
He was shaking with shock and his white pallor almost camouflaged by the swirling clouds of disintegrating plaster. He was largely unscathed- just cuts and bruises.
Other Wardens from Post Don arrived and then the heavy rescue squads with their specialist equipment took charge.
Jo remembered how they had all become ghostly white figures covered in dust and plaster powder and how they all wanted to carry on helping- ‘We wanted to! Somehow we wanted to…’
64 year old Evelyn Egorstorff, a leading figure in the nursing association, appears to have been another survivor of the bombing and escaped physically unscathed.
Incredibly she would be caught up in and survive the bombing of the basement air raid shelter in the nearby Church of the Holy Redeemer in Upper Cheyne Row only a few days later.
Uppermost in their minds were the whereabouts of at least seven people who were unaccounted for. Where were they?
The other terrible feature of these bombings is that fire would often break out in the wreckage largely because of fractured coal gas piping. Victims when found would inevitably be burned as well as crushed.
All of this had been happening in daylight and this means there was a terrible background cacophony of anti-aircraft guns in what could only be described as sunny and lovely weather.
Frances Faviell was on her way from her flat in Cheyne Place, Royal Hospital Road to go on duty at the Chelsea Town Hall. She was walking there with her Dachshund sausage dog Vicki, though many Chelsea folk affectionately called her dog ‘Mrs Hitler.’
It transpired the other bombs had fallen on Cheyne Walk, and after Bramerton Street, another high explosive hit the fashionable and modern block of mansion flats, Swan Court, very close to the town hall in Chelsea Manor Street.
This had stripped away an entire side of brickwork exposing all of the domestic interiors of bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchens and living rooms as though taking away the whole side of a gigantic doll’s house and opening it up by pulling it away on a hinged door.
But the door of bricks was now scattered over the surrounding streets.
Frances Faviell likened the scene as if all the rooms had suddenly been put on display for the public at the Ideal Homes’ Exhibition at Olympia or Earl’s Court.
More bombs fell on a block of flats, King’s Court North, west of the town hall, in Smith Street and then finally on St Leonard’s Terrace.
Frances saw and felt practically every one of the bombs come crashing down and continued, though absolutely terrified, on her way despite being shouted at by ARP Wardens on bicycles and in doorways to ‘Take Cover!’ ‘Going on duty’ she would retort and ‘Anyway, Dogs aren’t allowed in shelters.’
Noel Coward needed to write a parallel song to ‘Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.’ Frances Faviell inspired something along the lines of ‘Only German dogs and Englishwomen go out in the middle of a Luftwaffe air-raid.’
By the time she got to the Town Hall Control Centre where she was only needed as a reserve, she had ducked and fallen to the ground in time with four crashes of high explosive bombs that had wrecked a sizeable part of the Borough of Chelsea.
The ARP Wardens screaming ‘Take Cover! Get Under Cover! and Watch Out’ had become rather hoarse hurling their warnings in her direction.
It is understood the German bomber would eventually crash near Victoria Station.
Many years later a retired church warden at St Luke’s would say ‘If ever a saint walked this earth it was Gordon Arrowsmith.’ And former Town Clerk Ernest Nicholson who lived in the Rectory with him during the war said the Reverend Arrowsmith would often be the first person at any incident:
‘He would find out where the bombs had dropped and arrive on the scene with remarkable speed. He would plunge through fogs of dust into the heaps of wreckage in a fearless, a reckless way to find and comfort the injured.’
He especially remembered Arrowsmith at Bramerton Street on 9th September 1940 as usual in his dungarees and tin hat:
‘There was a woman and her small son trapped quite near the surface, but in a position where the demolition squad could do nothing without bringing down a lot more stuff and endangering others who might be alive.
Mr Arrowsmith lay half buried for an hour in the rubble with his hand at full stretch holding the woman’s hand and comforting her. There was nothing to be done for her, but he encouraged her and chatted to her until the end. I still cannot think of this incident without a lump in my throat.’
Mabel Lethbridge had survived losing a leg in an explosion at an armaments factory in World War One.
In the late 1930s she had set up a successful estate agency from 55 Oakley Street. She planned to run her home as a boarding house during the Second World War. She had just hired a butler and housekeeper.
Mabel was unaware that the butler had been released from treatment in a mental hostpital only days before.
He was in no fit state to cope with air raid sirens, ack ack fire and bombs raining from the sky.
She recalled hearing and feeling the Bramerton Street bomb screaming and tearing through the air and on detonation smashing glass windows and shattering the china in her kitchen.
It was so close at one point she was convinced the bomb had her name on it and it was heading directly for her with the aim of completing unfinished business from the Great War.
She heard people shouting ‘It’s Bramerton Street!’ which was only two hundred yards away.
And her butler was screaming and howling so loudly with terror while huddling in her basement, people were shouting that ‘Someone is hurt down there.’
Overnight Mabel had nightmares over and over again in which she relived the 1917 munitions explosion which had nearly killed her and left her permanently disabled with a prosthetic leg.
She went to look at the demolished houses in Bramerton Street on the Tuesday morning and recalled: ‘I didn’t know any of its occupants, but I had lived long in the district and I love it. Thus, I felt a throb of tears way back behind my eyes and a queer desolate ache in my heart.’
The 18 year old diarist Joan Olivia Wyndham, who was taking art school lessons in sculpture from Henry Moore in Manresa Road, heard the Bramerton Street bombing and recalled in her diaries of the war years Love Lessons & Love Is Blue:
‘The guns came nearer. We were in the back room when we heard a loud crash followed by an explosion that shook the room. Rupert, Agnes and I dived for the floor like three ninepins going down simultaneously. The doors rattled and I began to laugh hysterically. Rupert was behind the bed with three pillows on his head and Agnes was saying the only prayer should could remember which was “Gentle Jesus meek and mild, look on me a little cild.” I felt quite thrilled and stimulated, but Agnes was petrified.
As soon as the all-clear went we strode off to find the crater. It was in Bramerton Street, a whole house destroyed, the air full of smoke and dust, and all the inhabitants of that part of Chelsea beetling around the barricades like insects disturbed, pansies and lesbians and all.’
Jo Oakman checked on the progress of the rescue operation at 1.30 p.m. Fire had broken out again in the wreckage. All the missing residents were believed to be underground trapped in the basements. She was told ‘Mrs Castillo’s head has been found. Poor Soul!’
Where bombs fell during the Blitz could be affected and determined by fractions of centimetres, millimeteres, or inches of direction, height, speed of the bombers, the serendipity of navigation and even the speed of wind.
The bomb destroying numbers 2 to 6 Bramerton Street could easily have fallen in the huge open gardens surrounding the Rectory hurting no one.
Instead of hitting the even numbers west side, it could have fallen on the uneven numbers east side and devastated the building above the Gateways Club or killed the hugely respected music critic, composer, author and arranger living and working at number 5- M. D. Calvocoressi, who at 42 years old was described as the greatest living authority on Mussorgsky and a regular BBC broadcaster.
Early 20th century Bramerton Street in a Johns postcard and showing it as it was at the King’s Road end prior to the September 9th bombing. Number 4 appears to have a ‘for sale’ or ‘to let’ sign. The notorious ‘Lord Haw Haw’ broadcaster for the Nazis during WW2, William Joyce, lived at number 37 Bramerton Street for a short period during the 1930s.
The miracle of Bramerton Street
Very few people at the time could have imagined anyone in the basements could still be alive by Friday morning. Nearly four days had passed.
Fires had hampered the rescue operation.
And the blitz around them continued all over Chelsea.
George Woodward and his team had been assigned the grim task to clear the Bramerton Street site and look for the four residents still missing and presumed dead.
They were always the first to volunteer for such horrible tasks. But they were always aware of how important it was for the victim’s families to extract and retrieve the bodies of their loved ones.
George was helping the team working at clearing the debris in the centre of what had been number 4 Bramerton Street.
It was George who first heard the faint cry of ‘Mummy or Mama’ from deep in the wrecked basement of number 4.
He yelled for everyone to be quiet and stop the excavations. Had he been hallucinating?
The voice had to have been emanating from very far down. The ears of the heavy rescue team had been assailed day and night with sirens, gunfire, explosions and human crying.
In his diary George wrote ‘So I said to my boys take no notice of me. “I am hearing things.” I went away to the street to light a cigarette.’ Perhaps the rush of nicotine heightened his sense of hearing.
When he went round to the other side of the remains of the building he heard a young girl’s voice again crying out ‘Mama, Mama.’
George was astonished. How could anyone still be alive in that debris for four days and nights?
He rapidly cleared away some more of the broken bricks, mortar and plaster, and shouted ‘Anybody there? Who are you?’
The weakened and frightened voice replied ‘Mildred Castillo’- and George immediately realised this was the sound of Dr Castillo’s missing 12 year-old daughter they had all been convinced could never have survived the bombing last Monday tea-time.
George shouted to her ‘I will be with you in a minute Duck!’
George Woodward, Wally Capon and George Pitman were the three human moles of the seven man heavy rescue team.
They volunteered to tunnel their way to her. Each fragment of broken house had to be removed ever so gently as everyone was aware of the danger of one wrong move leading to tons of debris shifting and killing them all.
The other four members of the team cleared the wreckage above them and passed blocks of wood to them so they could shore up the walls of a tunnel 20 to 30 feet long in zig-zag formation and only big enough for one of them to squeeze through at any one time.
Woodward said ‘The tunnel was only big enough for us to lie flat on our tummies. We came to a wall and had to turn along it, and often as we pulled struts away, earth fell in.
George Woodward reached Mildred first. It had taken three hours. She was buried up to her neck.
George took with him a flask of hot tea with glucose which he was able to pass through to her in a rubber tube.
He was able to establish which way she was lying with her feet at the point George had burrowed to.
George told Wally Capon to dig down from above to clear the position to her feet and ‘they should have her out in no time.’ Wally worked at the task furiously though sometimes he had to come out to catch his breath when the dust was too bad.
George went in again to find out how she was. He gave her some more tea which was beginning to work as a restorative and counter dehydration.
He also quietly got to work tentatively removing debris and trying not to alarm her.
Mildred asked him not to leave her without a light. For four days and nights she had been lying there in complete darkness while her soundscape was an almost continual black symphony of hell as London’s Blitz raged on.
So George gave her his torch so she would never be in darkness again.
The tea had done its work and she was more alive and said her arm was hurting.
George managed to free it and stop the pain.
The pressure on the rescue team must have been unbearable.
That morning they had expected to be searching for those who had long passed. Now they were rescuing a twelve year old girl – most likely the only surviving member of their friend and colleague Dr Richard Castillo’s immediate family.
Perhaps there was noise or there had been a mishearing when George Woodward told one of his mates in the squad to leave a wooden beam blocking access to the area of Mildred Castillo’s feet.
But he was as anxious and desperate as any of them to get Mildred out alive and as quickly as possible.
He took a saw to it and the area around him collapsed in on him. Valuable minutes were lost digging him out which George Pitman did admirably without causing any collapse on the trapped girl.
Mildred was ok…just.
But however much of the muck they got out, they were unable to see her feet and fully release her in order to pull her out to safety.
The opening to the tunnel created by the Chelsea ARP Heavy Squad led by George Woodward at 4 Bramerton Street which after three hours of digging and shoring with wooden struts would eventually reach 12 year old Mildred Castillo. Image from Illustrated War News 27th September 1940.
She began to get agitated and nervous. All of the burrowing and clawing away of the rubble and passing it from one to the other and the desperation of her situation risked setting in panic and disorientation.
She was fully conscious and could now feel the aches and pains of everything on top of her.
She asked what day it was. They told her it was Tuesday not Friday to save her from shock.
They sang to her to cheer her up. These would have been the popular songs of the time such as ‘Roll Out The Barrel,’ ‘You Are My Sunshine’ and ‘The Lambeth Walk.’
Mildred would sing along with them as well.
She also held the torch and directed the light to help them with the digging operation.
Dr. A F Phillips and a nurse were not very far away providing medical advice and would be on hand to render first aid as soon as she was free.
He passed a sedative tablet to George Woodward to give to her with some more tea, water and biscuits and this helped settle her.
By now Wally Capon had cleared all the debris as far as her chest.
It was at this point George Woodward found himself overwhelmed with emotion. He recalled: ‘..my Mate said he would get her out this time. Then I broke down and had a good cry. The officer in charge took me away and gave me some rum.’
This fortified him and on his return he was so pleased to find that Capon had almost cleared all the debris around her.
However, just one of her feet was fixed under the stairs by a mop wedged between her legs. Capon cut it into pieces and sawed out a bit of the staircase.
He managed to manoevre her to the wall when everything seemed to cave in on top of them.
Wally Capon lay over her to shield her from the falling debris which fortunately was more light plaster than masonry.
Now all of Mildred’s limbs were free.
Mildred asked her rescuers to take the rosary from around her neck and place it into her hand and would insist on kissing each of them on the cheek as a thank you when they first appeared before her.
Capon was asked to lay on his face and Mildred told to put her hands round his neck. George Pitman clasped his hands over hers to keep them secure in their hold. And George Woodward was the lead human mole pushing and wriggling all four of them backwards with all the strength he could summon in his tired limbs and muscles through the improvised tunnel.
It was five o’clock on the Friday evening when Mildred eventually first saw the light of day having been entombed for ninety six hours.
The rescue and tunnelling operation had taken seven and a half hours.
Dr. Phillips and the nurse placed her on a stretcher in warm blankets and carried her gently along wooden boards to the pavement where an ambulance was waiting.
A Catholic priest was there and stroked her chin saying ‘God bless, my child. Are you all right?’ She replied ‘Yes, Father.’ She was actually injured about the head but managed to smile as George Woodward placed her in the ambulance.
Reporters from many news organisations had arrived as word of this remarkable rescue circulated in the newsrooms of Fleet Street newspapers and news agencies.
Woodward proudly declared ‘She never cried and showed great pluck.’ He downplayed his role saying : ‘I would like to pay a tribute to the wonderful cooperation we received from all the local rescue squads.’
A few days later on 19th September King George VI and Queen Elizabeth asked to make a private visit to Bramerton Street and meet Mildred’s rescuers. The streets though quickly filled with local Chelsea people who cheered their arrival.
They were driven directly to the scene of the destroyed houses.
There were no reporters invited, but every one from the rescue and demolition squad who saved Mildred were presented and the King and Queen shook the hands of all of the heroes.
One of them said ‘I hope you don’t mind my dirty hands.’
George Woodward, Wally Capon and George Pitman’s tunnelling exploits were explained.
King George VI and Queen Elizabeth shaking hands with and talking to the tunnelling rescuers of Mildred Castillo in Bramerton Street Chelsea, Thursday 19th September 1940. Image: Cutting from News Chronicle newspaper Friday 20th September 1940.
Pitman said: ‘We had to use our bodies as shores to rescue the girl. She was conscious all the time and when we reached her she asked for the rosary around her neck. We got her out safely.’
When the King commented ‘You have done absolutely grand work.’ Pitman replied ‘It’s all in a day’s work, sir. We all get the same pay.’
Wally Capon made the Queen laugh when he said ‘People in these days think the old ‘uns are no good, and only the youngsters matter. Now the old ‘uns are showing what they can do.’
Wally was 54 years old. It was on the following Sunday when King George VI broadcast from Buckingham Palace extolling the magnificent work of the ARP services and announced the creation of the George Cross and Medal to rank alongside the Victoria Cross in honour of courage and bravery off the battlefield and on the Home Front.
There is no doubt that the rescue of Mildred Castillo from the devastation of her home in Bramerton Street had been the inspiration.
Shortly after Mildred’s miraculous escape, Dr Castillo would learn of the discovery of the bodies of his wife Gertrude and 11 year-old son Anthony.
On April 24th 1941 George Woodward received a letter from the London Civil Defence H.Q. explaining they had recently drawn the attention of the Minister for Home Security to ‘your gallant conduct on 13th September 1940 when, with Rescue Party Members Capon and Pitman, you succeeded in carrying out a very dangerous tunnelling operation at Bramerton Street, Chelsea, which resulted in the release of a 12 year old girl from debris under which she had been buried for four days. Mr. Herbert Morrison felt that your devotion to duty was deserving of high praise and he took steps to bring the matter to the notice of His Majesty the King.’
They were going to receive the British Empire Medal (Civil Division) in recognition of their exemplary conduct.
On August 6th 1941 Dr. Castillo invited all three men round to his temporary home and practice at 75 Oakley Street so Mildred could meet them again ‘to personally thank them for all that they had done for her and congratulate them on the honour bestowed upon them.’
George Woodward would treasure a signed photograph Mildred later sent to him in December 1941 which he kept in his papers until his death and left to the Imperial War Museum.
Whenever I walk into Bramerton Street I always remember those who died there on 9th September 1940 and celebrate the memory of the courageous and plucky 12 year-old Mildred Castillo who never cried when rescued by the equally brave men of Chelsea’s Heavy Rescue team from the Carlyle School depot in Hortensia Road.
This was where the award of the George Cross and George Medal was born amid so much sorrow, tragedy, death and destruction.
Casualties in Bramerton Street during the Second World War
Justice for Dr Richard Castillo and his family
It is an astonishing turn in real life narrative that having survived such tragedy during the Blitz and given so much to the community as a general practitioner, as an acute Home Front emergency medic throughout the Second World War, in 1961 Dr Castillo would be murdered at the age of 72 late at night when lured by a fake call-out to see a non-existent patient.
And it remains an injustice to his family and the memory of Chelsea that his murder remains unsolved.
The Metropolitan Police files into the investigation have been mysteriously closed for at least another 30 years, long after the usual release of such papers and documents to the National Archives.
What is there to hide? Why hasn’t there been a cold case review? Who was or were the prime suspect or prime suspects? Why was no one ever even arrested and questioned?
Murder at midnight Saturday 6th to Sunday 7th May 1961
Dr. Richard Castillo had been out walking his dog in Chelsea on Saturday night 6th May 1961. By midnight he was dying from two skilfully inflicted stab wounds to the heart and abdomen outside 3 Albert Studios in Battersea Bridge Road on the south side of Albert Bridge.
He had been tricked into going to this address which had been vacated during the day and to see a patient who did not exist.
He had moved to Elm Park Gardens at the end of 1940 and had remarried after the tragic death of his first wife Gertrude in the London Blitz.
The telephone rang and the voice on the other end of the line was first heard by his 19 year-old daughter Angela, born in 1942 by his second wife Renée.
They had been watching the series Flying Doctor on the television when the call came in.
Angela Castillo said a man’s voice with a heavy foreign accent, possibly Turkish, asked: ‘Will the doctor come and see my wife. She has been sick with blood.’ When asked for a name, Angela thought he replied with something that sounded like ‘Alma.’
As Dr Castillo came into the house he took the phone from her and repeated the name ‘Allenby’ and ‘3 Albert Studios.’ He wrote this down on a piece of paper. Minutes later he left to attend to this call because he shared a rota with other NHS doctors.
He was on duty one weekend in four and it was his turn that night.
There was no clue or indication he was being lured into an ambush. His family could not think of any reason why anyone would want to kill him. His whole life had been devoted to saving and looking after the lives of others.
His older daughter Mildred, who had been so dramatically rescued from the wreckage of Bramerton Street 21 years before, was now living away from the family home having married Douglas Colman in Kensington in 1950.
In 1961 people who died from homicide would have full inquests if a suspect had not been arrested and charged and juries could return a verdict of death by murder and in August the verdict given was indeed murder by person or persons unknown.
The Coroner observed that the murder had been premeditated and carefully planned. The killer had selected a very suitable place indeed for an ambush and being able to escape unseen.
The wounds had been inflicted by somebody who knew how to kill with a knife which may have been a single edged weapon, quite possibly a large Boy Scout’s type of knife and easily disposed of into the River Thames nearby.
It was never found. The Coroner observed: ‘Here is a person who studies Dr. Castillo’s habits and realised he was on duty. Dr. Castillo clearly did not recognise the voice on the phone which could well have been disguised and went to do this call without any kind of hesitation or suspicion whatsoever.’
The end of Dr. Castillo’s life was horrific. People living in Albert Studios heard blood-curdling yells from the 72 year old victim after he was heard banging the door knocker of 3 Albert Studios.
When people came out from the other studios to find out what was going on, they found him staggering about and pleading: ‘I am a doctor … I have been attacked … Call a doctor’ before collapsing to the ground. He would died underneath the shadow of laburnum and lilac trees.
The site of the murder, unlike many parts of this part of Battersea, remains largely as it was in 1961. Albert Studios were built behind Albert Mansions on the Albert Bridge Road in the 1890s as a terrace of single-storey gabled purpose-built artist’s studios.
The Mysterious Dr. Ivan Weisz
There was much background to the murder inquiry concealed from the public, though some reports published in UK newspapers and abroad revealed connections and dimensions that belonged to a John Le Carré novel.
Dr. Richard Castillo himself was no master spy or participant in international espionage.
He had the misfortune of giving a refugee, apparently from Czechoslovakia, his first job in general practice in London.
But Dr. Ivan Weisz was altogether not who he seemed to be. And Dr. Castillo had no way of knowing the real identity of somebody originating from the other side of the Iron Curtain and all the disruption and devastation of Second World War Europe.
Subsequent court hearings, litigation and a professional disciplinary case after Richard Castillo’s murder would reveal a disturbing hinterland to the life and world of Ivan Weisz.
Dr. Castillo’s colleagues believed the murder could only have been set up by somebody who was fully aware of how the duty cover between GPs operated.
Dr Ivan Weisz had worked in Dr Castillo’s practice for almost a year between 1957 and 1958 as a trainee assistant general practitioner.
Dr Weisz had left to set up a rival practice and he was first based in Albert Bridge Road not far from the Albert Studios where Dr Castillo would meet this death.
Weisz was in a position to have the information which Dr Castillo’s colleague Dr David Craig said was critical to being able to trick him into going out to see the bogus patient: ‘Whoever killed him must have known that it was Dr. Castillo’s turn to take calls for three other doctors – including myself – because whoever it was used my name.’
Detectives were absolutely clear about five key facts pointing to a potential suspect:
1.The killer knew Dr Castillo’s telephone number- Flaxman 5404;
2.The killer knew that on that Saturday night it would be Dr Castillo’s turn to take emergency calls on behalf of his three doctor friends in Chelsea;
3.The killer pretended to know the name and address of a patient of one of these doctors and he certainly knew the identity of Dr. David Craig because that was the name he gave over the phone;
4.The killer spoke to Dr Castillo’s daughter and Dr. Castillo himself and had an accented voice ten minutes before he thrust a stilletto-style knife upwards through his victim’s ribs and into his heart;
5.The clinical precision with which the knife was used indicated that the killer had a sound knowledge of anatomy or knife-fighting- or both. He could have been a medical professional, served in the military, or both.
Angela Castillo had first answered the killer’s call explaining:
‘My father had taken the dog for a walk, and just as he put his key in the front door the telephone rang. I answered it and a man who spoke very fast asked for the doctor. He seemed agitated and said he was speaking for a patient of Dr. David Craig, one of my father’s oldest friends.’
Dr Castillo came in, took over the call, and scribbled ‘Allenby. 3 Albert Studios’ on a pad. Then he left to drive out to the address.
But at the time only five of the Albert Studios were occupied. No. 3 was empty because the tenant, Mrs Audrey Steadman, had left earlier in the day to stay with friends in Bayswater.
Mrs Renée Castillo said of her husband: ‘He hadn’t an enemy in the world. He had few outside interests. He lived for his family and his patients. He was the kind of doctor who never refused an emergency call.’
No doubt this was something his killer knew very well. Detectives discounted robbery as the murder motive. Cash in the doctor’s wallet was untouched.
Only weeks before the murder, Dr Castillo had complained to the General Medical Council that Weisz was systematically poaching his patients by distributing leaflets and making uninvited home visits to his patients to try and persuade them to sign up to his brand new practice set up in the rather glamorous Pheasantry building in the middle of the King’s Road next door to the Classic Cinema.
Weisz had been saying that Dr Castillo was old fashioned, was not keeping up to date with developments in modern medicine, was too old, and needed to take a refresher course. When one of his patients refused to move over to him, he was heard to say: ‘ I suppose I shall have to wait for Dr Castillo to die before I get his patients.’
In 1962, Mrs Renée Castillo insisted on the disciplinary hearing going ahead against Dr Weisz despite her husband’s death.
The Disciplinary Committee ruled on March 17th 1962 that he had been guilty of infamous conduct in a professional respect by canvassing for patients and denigrating the professional reputation of another doctor, and his name should be erased from the Register.
Putting it plainly and bluntly he had lied on oath, used quite deplorable methods to further his medical practice and wooed another doctor’s patients like a commercial traveller.
One intriguing mystery emerged from the hearing that he had provided a false account of his background and qualifications:
‘The Chairman: “Do you recall filling an application for provisional registration with this Council in 1956? You told your counsel that you graduated at Bratislava in 1941. Is that correct? You must tell the truth here; you are on oath.”
Dr Weisz: “It is not true.”
The Chairman: “So you told your counsel an untruth while on oath.”
Dr Weisz: “I did not want to disclose the name.”‘
What exactly did this exchange mean?
Weisz had described a troubled past of being born in Czechoslovakia in 1917, graduating in Bratislava, working in private practice for a short time, being sent by the Germans in 1942 to a labour camp in the Ukraine where he was severely injured in 1944 by an Allied bombing attack.
He talked of later escaping to Romania and then going to Egypt. In 1949 he was in refugee camps and came to England in 1955.
There were huge gaps and mysteries in this narrative.
In later court hearings arising from the bitter divorce from his wife Margaret in the early 1970s judges would condemn him for his dishonesty trying to conceal assets, and cashing in his wife’s life assurance policy without her knowledge.
A few years after being struck off in 1962 Dr Ivan Weisz had been allowed to resume his practice as a doctor in Brighton and Hackney, but in a court hearing in 1974 Weisz revealed he was in fact a defector from the Soviet Union.
His real name was Major Ivan Federovsky. The name Ivan Weisz was a cover provided by the British secret services.
He had met his Romanian wife Margaret while serving in the Russian Army Medical Corps. To prevent her deportation to forced labour in Russia, he had driven her over the border to Hungary to get married.
When the war ended ‘Major Federovsky’ defected, stayed with her in Hungary and they were later smuggled out through Cyprus to Cairo, and finally to England where he qualified as a doctor.
Dr Ivan Weisz died 20th April 1980 though the public records show he was otherwise known as ‘Ivan Ferenze’
Perhaps this was a misspelling of the Hungarian surname ‘Ferenc.’
His divorced wife Margaret died in Chelsea 29th March 2020 under his false name ‘Weisz.’ Her real identity is as confusing and unclear as his.
Although they claimed she was Romanian, during the divorce case he insultingly described her as ‘the German bitch.’
During the murder inquiry into the death of Dr Richard Castillo in 1961, journalists in Britain and abroad were being briefed that a defector from the Soviet Union was being questioned over this killing and this was being linked with the murder of Countess Teresa Łubieńska at Gloucester Road Underground station in 1957.
As in the case of Dr Castillo’s death it appears she had been stabbed to death with a small bladed knife. There was no attempt to steal property from her so the motive was unlikely to have been robbery.
The Countess Łubieńska was 73 when she died, one year older than Dr Castillo. She had been a Polish Resistance fighter, Home Army officer, and survivor of two concentration camps.
Łubieńska was a close friend of World War II British agent, Krystyna Skarbek, also known as ‘Christine Granville.’
The murder weapon was never found and the remarkable figure of 18,000 people had been interviewed by police including many who lived abroad.
The inquest jury also returned a verdict of murder by a person or persons unknown and the killer of Countess Łubieńska remains unidentified to this day as is the case with Dr Castillo.
By the time of Dr Castillo’s inquest in August 1961, 5,000 people had been interviewed with the intention of speaking to as many as 10,000 of his patients past and present.
There was a suggestion in media reports that inquiries were being made with the intelligence agencies of the USA and European countries to find out more on the background of the Russian defector.
The Metropolitan Police Special Branch of Scotland Yard and security officers were ‘particularly interested in a man who defected from the Communists some years ago.’
Was this Major Ivan Federovsky, alias Dr Ivan Weisz, also known as Ivan Ferenza or Ferenc?
There are four closed files on the murder case of Dr Richard Castillo lodged with the National Archives.
MEPO 2/10440 ‘Unsolved murder of Dr Richard CASTILLO at Albert Studios, Bridge Road, Battersea SW11 on 7 May 1961: original statements.’ This file is closed until 1st January 2051 on the grounds of law enforcement and health and safety.
MEPO 2/10438 ‘Unsolved murder of Dr Richard CASTILLO at Albert Studios, Bridge Road, Battersea SW11 on 7 May 1961.’ Closed until 1st January 2054 on the grounds of law enforcement, health and safety, and Personal information where the applicant is a 3rd party.
MEPO 2/10439 ‘Unsolved murder of Dr Richard CASTILLO at Albert Studios, Bridge Road, Battersea SW11 on 7 May 1961: further reports and laboratory papers.’ Closed until 1st January 2051 on the grounds of law enforcement and health and safety.
MEPO 2/10441 ‘Unsolved murder of Dr Richard CASTILLO at Albert Studios, Bridge Road, Battersea SW11 on 7 May 1961: index to statements, typed statements and completed questionnaires of Malta League members.’ Closed until 1st January 2057 on the grounds of Law enforcement, Health and Safety, Personal information where the applicant is a 3rd party.’
It seems the last time the Metropolitan Police took any action or consideration in this case was in 1982 apart from batting away subsequent Freedom of Information requests.
Dr Ivan Weisz and his estranged and divorced wife Margaret are no longer alive.
It must surely now be in the public interest to release into the public domain as much information as is possible.
It may well be the case that Dr Ivan Weisz had nothing to do with the murder of his former employer Dr Richard Castillo, that he had a cast iron alibi, and there were perfectly good reasons there was no decision to formally arrest, charge and prosecute him.
It may be the case that he risks being damned by mere circumstantial coincidences.
Despite the proven facts pointing to disresputable character and conduct, it may well be the case that Dr Weisz, whoever he really was, had rendered invaluable services to the West during the Cold War.
However, would it not be sensible and fair to now reveal more about this to clear any lingering suspicion of being linked not just to one but two murders in London?
And a compelling argument can be made that Dr Richard Castillo has been cruelly denied justice and that remains a continuing and acute injustice for his family.
As was said shortly after his death, the question on everyone’s lips had been why and who would want to murder this kindly doctor, hero of the Blitz, who was seemingly without any enemy in the world?
Chelsea’s weekly newspaper the West London Press quite rightly said ‘The knife that ended the life of Dr Richard Castillo destroyed one of the gentlest and most widely loved men in Chelsea, the last man in the eyes of his hundreds of patients and friends to have met his death by violent murder.’
It is my understanding that a High Court judge and friend of Dr Castillo, all the detectives investigating the murder, and Metropolitan Police Special Branch who carried out international inquiries and liaison with intelligence agencies in connection with the case, were confident that they knew the identity of Dr Castillo’s murderer, but they did not have enough evidence to bring the case to trial and secure a conviction.
Is it not now time to set the historical record straight and identify and confirm the identity of any prime suspect or suspects who escaped prosecution and conviction for this evil and despicable crime?
Special thanks to Karen White and Chris Pain whose families lived in Chelsea during World War Two, and Malachy John McCauley, also brought up in Chelsea, who have very kindly encouraged and assisted my research. Special thanks to Marja Giejgo for editorial assistance. Research and archive facilities from Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council library services, The Imperial War Museum and National Archives at Kew.