Gloucester Road Tube Station. The eastbound platform of the Piccadilly Line. You don’t know it, but you’re actually stepping into a crime scene.
Being London, that’s hardly surprising. But the crime that happened here was inexplicable in the sense that there was no known motive, no witnesses and no clue. The story starts here, but ends a few stops away, down a path in Brompton Cemetery.
It’s Friday 24th May 1957. The station was quiet. The clock struck 10:19pm.
The train arrived on the platform and the passengers of the middle carriage, like all the other carriages, disembarked to carry on with the rest of their evenings. Thirteen people were in that carriage. One would not live to see the following day.
Emanuel Olu Akinyemi, one of the three members of staff on duty at the time, heard a scuffle coming from the stairs which lead down to the platform level. He was used to such noises – it usually meant some tearaway was sneaking up the neighbouring staircase so they would avoid having to pay a fare. As Akinyemi approached the source of the disturbance, the scuffling stopped. ‘Bandit!’ wobbled a voice, somewhat weakly, somewhat panicked.
Rather than finding a young scallywag playing the fool, Akinyemi found a tall lady with white hair in her early 70’s, slowly approaching the lift. Sensing frailty, he extended his arms to guide her to the lift. It was when he noticed blood pouring from her chest that he realised something was terribly, terribly wrong.
‘I have been knifed’, she gasped.
All she can muster are the words ‘Bandit’ over and over again, as Akinyemi escorts her to the lift, putting her in the care of the station master and locating the nearest telephone so that 999 can be called. A passing police officer accompanies her to St. Mary’s Hospital in Paddington where, en route, she utters her last words. ‘I was on the platform and I was stabbed’. She dies shortly afterwards. Examinations revealed she had been stabbed five times; one wound was straight through her heart.
A tattoo on her forearm with the numbers ‘44747’ instantly betrayed her past.
This was the murder of Countess Teresa Łubieńska.
Łubieńska’s end was remarkable. Despite the police conducting eighteen thousand interviews, not a single lead was found. There were allegations that people were keeping schtum and withholding information: when you find out more about the Countess, perhaps you can piece together the reasons why. You could argue that a modern equivalent can be found in the case concerning the death of Alexander Litvenko.
Her murder sent shock waves through London society. Never mind the fact it happened in a busy London Underground station, it happened at a time when the death penalty was being re-examined to determine its value to the justice system. British Pathé produced this short film the same year, which also goes on to detail other murders of the year and it does seem 1957 saw a peak in homicides.
The Countess was no ordinary old lady, either. She was born into an aristocratic family in Poland, marrying Count Edward Łubieński in 1902. She was an active member of the Polish Red Cross, serving with the 14th Regiment of Jazlowiec Uhlans, who at one point served alongside the Red Army in Kuban, southern Russia, in the First World War.
Her fighting spirit was tested during the German occupation of Poland during the Second conflict that came twenty years later. Both Soviet and Nazi forces caused huge suffering to the Polish people during these years and it was women like the Countess who gave many a glimmer of hope. Her flat in Warsaw was used as a base for for clandestine meetings of the Polish resistance; however, she was betrayed to the Nazi’s in 1942 and eventually taken to the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp via Auschwitz. In a situation where many of us would probably fall apart, Łubieńska’s assistance and support to other prisoners was ‘almost legendary’ and her life was saved after two years in confinement by the Swedish Red Cross liberated her and many others from the Gas chamber.
It is cruel to think that London, which she fled to in the aftermath, would be the place where she would meet her dreadful end. Never one to dwell on her past misfortunes, she promptly set up the Police Association of Ex-political Prisoners in German Concentration Camps to help those affected. Despite the war being over, one wonders if the Countess ever felt safe once peace was declared.
Her funeral was well documented. Taking place in Brompton Oratory, Polish speaking police officers mingled in the congregation to see if the perpetrators would reveal themselves. A requiem mass was sung and the three medals that she earned for courage and valour in life rested atop her coffin, on a plump cushion. Her final journey took her underneath the Bath stone arch of Brompton Cemetery, to an area just to the right of the main path; mourned by several hundred people.
To walk past her grave today, there is little to indicate the remarkable strength and character of the lady buried six feet beneath the weathered marble slab. Buried not far from another powerful woman – Emmeline Pankhurst – as a campaigner, Auschwitz survivor and victim of a terrible crime – no justice was served to Countess Teresa Łubieńska.
All photos (unless otherwise stated) Sheldon K Goodman, 2017.