The Black Market

It was a dark and cloudy November night in 1945 when Rueben Martirosoff took a telephone call at home.  “I have to go to meet some people” he called out as he left. A few miles away he stopped his Opal car in a quiet street in Notting Hill and two men got in, one beside him, one behind. They talked but when Martirosoff ( or Russian Robert as he was more familiarly known) was looking ahead, the man in the back took out a pistol, put it to the nape of his neck and fired. He took twenty minutes to die but was unconscious’s straight away. The two men laid him out on the back sea, emptied his pockets, taking a roll of money and some gems, and then faded into the darkness. It was both an execution and a robbery.

But the two men were not criminal masterminds. They were ex Polish soldiers who had deserted after they had been involved in killing someone in a motor accident and survived through crime – mostly by taking money under the pretence of changing it into another currency and then threatening their victim with a pistol if they wanted anything in exchange. They were violent and dangerous but no careful. The meeting with Martirosoff was known to a number people and fingerprints had been left in the blood. They were soon picked up, charged, put on trial and executed in April1946. Their defence, when questioned, was one that always bound to fail: they both claimed the other one had pulled the trigger.

The case was widely reported, perhaps because it was another drip in narrative that cast Jews as the main protagonists of the Black Market (just like today where the papers portray immigrants and/or muslims as disproportionately badly behaved, so in wartime the Black Market was reported as being disproportionately a Jewish racket). Martirosoff was a criminal, dealing mainly in gems and jewellery, though he described himself as a general trader. The Daily Telegraph wrote that he also dealt in currency and whisky i.e. he was a significant Black Market figure and the motive for the murder was rivalry and the Poles wanted to take over his rackets. However there was no evidence for this. The police thought it was a robbery as it was well known that Martirosoff always went out with a larger amount of cash. However gangland rivalry plays into an accepted underworld narrative about the Black Market; and whisky is embedded in that narrative as a high priced, hugely demanded, untraceable product that could be easily shifted.  At their trial the two Poles said the reason the three had met-up was to meet a lorry full of whisky, which Russian Robert was going to sell to nightclubs. But that night there was no whisky – it is not even clear if Martirosoff dealt in whisky (it is not mentioned in the police files).

The stories play into the myth that, in a much more grimy way, the Black Market during the 40s was a bit like America during Prohibition.

Mostly it wasn’t. For sure there was a high level of criminal activity and we know there have always been gangs and the police were worried about its organised crime. The Met Police started a register of all Black Market convictions in their region – to see if they could identify any pattern that might point to significant players. The person who originated the list Chief Inspector Davis in a memo dated 4th September 1945 said:

“Larcenies of controlled goods and goods in short supply are occurring daily. There is little doubt that these are sold in the Black Market and there is ample reason to suspect that this traffic in stolen goods is highly organised, judging from the small amount of goods that are recovered.”

But what the list revealed was not the work of the major players, instead it showed that most of the offences were committed by small traders. In reality the Black Market was more under the counter, High Street affair, rather than surreptitious meetings with suspicious characters on bomb sites¹. It was more diffuse than traditional crime, although traditional crime fed into it. It included things like putting things aside for favoured customers, barter, overcharging, and trading coupons.  in reality a lot of the Black Market was a shade of grey².

 

Whisky was often sold in this grey area. It was not illegal for it to be sold outside of the normal supply chain, at a very high mark-up, in fact it was perfectly legal. It just felt like it was wrong, as if something was not quite right, especially, as we have seen, there was quite a lot of criminal activity around whisky. (In Chief Inspector Davis’s note  it is one of those goods in short supply, not one that was controlled). Production had ceased, some warehouses had been bombed and there was an agreement amongst SWA members to ration supply. It was definitely in short supply and so inevitably there were crooks. Lorries were hijacked and the contents sold through the criminal network. Also there was a cottage industry in counterfeiting. Wherever there was a large concentration of American troops there was counterfeiting.  This could be as simple as watering down, or selling cold tea in bottles with famous labels. The more sophisticated would fill an empty bottle to the neck, pour in some molten wax to act as a seal before topping up with real whisky. Glasgow, not London was the centre of the counterfeiting trade, with the Central Station a prime spot as bottles with famous labels were sold for £5, with the seller confident in the knowledge that the customer would be far away before finding out. Publicans were also enthusiastic buyers  of ersatz bottling, as a reputation for having  regular supplies of whisky attracted customers, even if what was on sale was a mixture of whisky and meths. It says something about the demand during wartime – the absolute need for alcohol – that people would search out shite.

Well desperate times call for desperate measures.

It is though important to emphasis that whisky was not a controlled product and so not officially rationed. It could be legally sold on the free market and so there was no black market, in the strict, official definition of selling controlled goods illegally. If you legitimately owned a stock of whisky you were entitled to sell it for what you could get to whoever you wanted. The confusion comes because the unofficial rationing agreed to by members of the SWA made it seem like it was a controlled product. There were pubs who ran out and the beginning of Whisky Galore, where the community was in mourning because there was no whisky, was something real.  However Jay Pomeroy and other associates who bought distilleries and brokers were outside of the SWA and did not play by their rules. They rescinded contracts with traditional customers and broke with the whole ecosystem that had maintained the whisky industry for over a century. Everything went to the high price free market. Through brokers they sold to restaurants, hotels and clubs. The hospitality industry needed these supplies because war-time demand was high, higher than it had been pre-war. Read the accounts of people going out in wartime London and the amount of alcohol consumed. Do you think the Ritz was short of whisky? Of course not. It sourced it from Jay Pomeroy and a lot of new people who only had newly registered as traders in spirits, who sold his whisky.

This was the Black Market but it was seen as being so because there was another, more widely accepted, definition that the Black Market: it was anything sold at an extortionate price, anything where someone was getting more than their fair share. This is a moral decision rather than a legal one. You get the sense of this when you read what Stewart McBain wrote about the behaviour of Jay Pomeroy when he took over Strathisla – there is an underlying moral outrage, even though what he was doing was legal.

The situation was summed up by one of the respondents in the Mass Observation archive

“In my businessss the term Black Market is rather loosely used. For instance proprietary whisky is controlled by the distillers as to distribution and price. But there is also a free market which is legal enough but the prices are well over twice the proprietary price and the general public call it Black market whisky, which of course it is not.”

 

In summary

whisky  and the Black Market were related in three ways:

  1. Through  crime  consignments of stolen or adulterated whisky were brought into the network of gangs and spivs and so it became part of black market activity. But In official statistics this was traditional crime and not the black market.
  2. It was not controlled so sales on the free market, even at a very inflated price, were legal and not part of the black market. This was the official attitude
  3. The high price outside of the traditional, self rationed, supply chain meant that it was widely described as Black Market

 

So whisky during the 1940s was like Schrödinger’s Cat :

There was no black market in whisky

There was a black market in whisky

Both of these statements are true.

 

Notes

1:  One of the more interesting names off the register was J. Sainsbury who were fined for selling overpriced meat.  I’m sure “Try something new today” was not meant to mean “Try something illegal today”.

2: At the time, and still now, the picture that comes to mind when we think about the Black Market is that of the spiv and the spin was widely characterised in the press as Jewish. The police stopped a disproportionate number of Jews about this in the same way that today they stop and search a disproportionate number of black youths. Anti-semitism in Britain at the time should not be underestimated. Blaming members of an outgrip for bad behaviour helps maintain the national myth of a country that stoically got on with things in times of war and destruction. We saw ourselves as law abiding and orderly but one of the startling findings of Geoffrey Gorers 1951 survey of English behaviour was the frequency with which the English broke the law.

The Photos used in this post are:

The one on the front page is from a Wikipedia article on spivs and is of a 2011 re-enactment.

At the top the photo comes from the film Brighton Rock, which is an excellent depiction of the criminal world of the time

Glasgow Central Station but slightly the wrong era as this is pre-war

The Wynnstay Arms,  Ruabon 1944 from the Imperial War Museum

 

 

 

Sources

Roodhouse, Mark. Black Market Britain, 1939-1955. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

This is the main source and where I found the story of Martirosoff’s murder. it is also the source of the Mass Observation quote.

The National Archive – I followed up the story by looking at the police file on the murder investigation and also the register of Black market convictions

British Newspaper Archive – I used this to check the press reports of the trial

Jay Pomeroy

This post is obviously related to the Jay Pomeroy series:

  1. An Introduction
  2. The Two Jays – how a novel can be used as a lens to compare characters.
  3. The Years of Obscurity – the first ¾ of his life.
  4. The Glory Years – His  years as an impresario.
  5. The Whisky Tax Case – the revenge of the Revenue
  6. Sam and Jay – There were some similarities between Sam Bronfman and Jay
  7. Chinese Whispers – how the whisky literature has misrepresented Jay Pomeroy
  8. McBain and Maclean – A source of some misunderstandings
  9. And Finally – at last
  10. Kritz not Pomeroy – Mistaken identity?