Oxford Street in the 1920s

Victim or thief? The strange story of the West Hampstead diamond broker

Leonard Tom – Leon to his friends – was a diamond broker. He was born in Amsterdam in 1890, but lived at several addresses in West Hampstead during his life. His family came to England in 1896, and when Leonard was 16 he joined his father in the diamond trade.

After his marriage in 1922 Leonard lived at 57 Greencroft Gardens. He was already well respected in Hatton Garden, where brokers acted as middle men, taking jewels on approval from merchants to show to prospective clients for sale on commission. In the 1930s it was common for the brokers to meet on the street or in kosher cafes around Hatton Garden to look at the goods and agree the price on a handshake. This practice continued until the war, when trade moved behind closed doors in secure premises. The London Diamond Bourse opened in 1940 in Greville Street near the junction with Hatton Garden.

In February 1932, Leonard Tom was living at 190a West End Lane (near today’s Tesco Express). At 10.30am on February 5th, Leonard Tom visited Messrs M. Gerder and Co. at Hatton House in Holborn. It was a trip he had made many times before. On this day he chose several pieces of jewellery valued at £12,350 (about £700,000 today). He then went to a café in Charles Street in ‘the Garden’ and then on to Old Bond Street to try to sell the diamonds. But the trade, like many others during the depression, was going through a difficult time and the diamond mines in Africa had closed down. There were no buyers at the right price and after lunch at Maison Lyons, a restaurant on Oxford Street opposite Bond Street Station, he decided on the spur of the moment to turn down Gilbert Street.

Oxford Street in the 1920s

Oxford Street in the 1920s

Leonard was halfway down this quiet road which runs between Oxford Street and Brook Street, when he was attacked by two men outside St Anselm’s School. They covered his face with a ‘treacle plaster’- brown paper covered in treacle which stopped him seeing anything. It was a technique copied from a famous ‘Treacle Plaster Robbery’ of a cashier in 1912.

The robbers snatched Leonard’s briefcase containing the diamonds and got away in a stolen car, which was later found abandoned in Cavendish Square. Henry Stenner, the school caretaker, witnessed the attack. He said the car had been waiting outside the school and described the men. The police were soon able to arrest Alfred Philpot and William Baldock who Stenner picked out from a line up. At their trial they were found guilty of robbery and sentenced to three years imprisonment.

Baldock was a 34-year-old piano finisher with a scar on each cheek and tattoos of a snake, a dagger, a tombstone, flowers, a woman and Buffalo Bill on his back. Philpot who was 28, had five previous convictions for stealing cars and an assault on a policeman.

The thieves may have been found, but the jewels were not. Gerder and Co., which was a very large company with an international reputation, claimed on its Lloyds insurance policy but the underwriters declined to pay. They pointed to a clause that exempted them from liability for any loss caused by theft or dishonesty by a broker. In short, they were saying that Leonard Tom, who had a spotless reputation, had stolen the diamonds.

A year later, the civil case came for trial to be heard before Justice Humphries without a jury. By now, Leonard had moved to 16 Cleve Road. The defence barristers talked about the normal day-to-day work of brokers in Hatton Garden, where millions of pounds worth of jewellery was traded in coffee shops, and where gangs of crooks were on the lookout for a chance to snatch a bag or briefcase. In the witness box, Leonard described the attack, which was so quick he had no time to react before his case was snatched.

Philpot was brought from Chelmsford Prison to give evidence. Standing with warders next to him in the box, he said that in January 1932, Leonard Tom had met him, Baldock and another man called Mark, who he assumed was the gang leader, and two other un-named men, in a teashop in Hatton Garden to plan the robbery. He said Leonard had taken them to Gilbert Street to survey the scene. Philpot was the driver tasked with stealing a car in Camden Town. After the attack, he said they met in a pub in Smithfield where they divided £200 for their part in the robbery. Leonard was pressed very hard by the barrister, and admitted that times were difficult and that in the previous six months he had earned only about £100 (today worth about £6,500). But he denied planning the attack with the gang and said he was completely innocent.

In his summing up, the judge said that if this had indeed been a real hold-up it was a most remarkable thing. He made much of the fact that the attack happened in a quiet side street where the thieves were waiting beside their car. How could they have known Leonard Tom would take that route unless he had told them? It was also strange that Leonard did not defend himself, although he had fought in the war, where he was promoted from a private to a lieutenant in the Tank Corps. The judge visited Gilbert Street and concluded the robbery must have been pre-planned. After carefully weighing all the evidence, Justice Humphries said it was a painful decision because of the consequences for Leonard Tom, but he found in favour of Lloyds against Messrs Gerder.

As a result, Leonard Tom was arrested on 20 June 1933 for conspiring with two men to commit a bogus robbery, and committed for trial at the Old Bailey. In July the jury listened to the same evidence that Justice Humphries had heard, but could not reach agreement, and a new trial was called. At the second trial the new jurors heard a director of Messrs Gerder say they still had complete confidence in Leonard’s honesty. This time the jury agreed and found him not guilty. Leonard stayed at Cleve Road until his death on 24 June 1943. He left £876 (worth about £35,000 today), to his widow Dora.

What do you think – was he innocent or did he arrange the bogus robbery?