On the night of July 24, 1965 a man was found shot in the back seat of his car in a cul-de-sac behind a Soho nightclub, with a loaded rifle beside him.
Despite doctors’ best efforts to save him, he was pronounced dead in the early hours of the following day.
The news stunned Britain because the dead man was Freddie Mills, a hugely popular former world boxing champion who, after his retirement from the ring, had become a television and film celebrity.
Mills presented programmes such as Six-Five Special – the forerunner to Top of the Pops and even appeared in two Carry On films.
His showbusiness friends included Sid James and Bob Monkhouse.
Everyone, it seemed, loved Fearless Freddie, as he was nicknamed from his days in the ring.“He was just a nice guy- a total nice guy,” – said comedian Dickie Henderson.
But Mills the sporting legend, whose public persona was so affable, had a darker side, if allegations made after his death are to be believed.
He was an associate of the notorious gangsters The Kray twins and has even been accused of being a serial killer. Could his underworld connections have been responsible for his untimely demise at the age of 46? Fifty years on from Mills’ tragic end, the mystery surrounding his death remains. Was it suicide or was it murder- and if it was suicide, why had Mills decided to take his own life?
Mills was born in Bournemouth in 1919, the youngest of four children.
His father was a scrap metal dealer. Freddie’s older brother Charlie was a semi-professionalboxer and encouraged him to take up the sport. He began fighting at fairground booths and had his first professional boxing match at the age of 16.
In 1942, while serving as a sergeant in the RAF, Mills won the British and Empire light heavyweight titles by knocking out his opponent. Boxing was hugely popular at the time and Fearless Freddie became a national hero. “He fought like a tiger. He just tore into anyone.
People loved that,” the former BBC boxing correspondent Harry Carpenter recalled. In 1948 Mills became world light heavyweight champion- a title he held for two years, before he retired at the age of 30 in 1950.
Mills didn’t have a shortage of offers after he had left the ring. His outgoing, dynamic personality made him a natural for the relatively new medium of television.
He was a regular panellist on television quiz shows such as What’s My Line? and appeared on Sunday Night at the London Palladium.
Between 1952 and his death in 1965, he also appeared in a series of British films. In Carry on Constable he played a jewel thief. In Carry On Regardless, he played a boxer. In 1961, he was a guest on This is Your Life.
“He enlivened the drabness of post-war Britain, with exhibition matches and an irresistible gift for clowning”, said James Hogg, in a BBC television documentary about the boxer turned entertainer.
At the height of his fame, Fearless Freddie did not forget his roots.
Once, when he was being driven to a film studio in his Rolls Royce, he saw an old boxing friend from the 1930s who was with his young son. Freddie ordered his chauffeur to stop the car, got out, picked up his friend‘s son, held him aloft and declared: “This little bruiser will be the next champion of the world.”
“From his wallet he took out a white fiver and pressed it into the boy’s hand,”Freddie’s boxing friend, Jimmy Stockin revealed in his book On the Cobbles.
Away from his work in the entertainment industry, Mills co-owned a Chinese restaurant, with the actor Andy Ho, which he later transformed into a nightclub. But his business brought him into contact with some dangerous characters of the London underworld, such as the Krays.
On the fateful night of Saturday July 24 1965, Mills told staff at his nightclub that he was going to his car for a nap, as he often did. He never returned.
The verdict of the inquest was that Mills had committed suicide.
It was revealed that a few weeks earlier he had borrowed a rifle from a female friend who owned a shooting gallery at Battersea Funfair.
It was also revealed that Mills was heavily in debt to a crime syndicate.
His business partner Andy Ho later said that on the night in question, Mills had not been his usual ebullient self and had appeared “slightly sad and unhappy”. There were also persistent rumours that Mills was secretly bisexual – and had killed himself because he was facing an indecency charge.
But friends and family did not accept the verdict of suicide. It seemed to be totally out of character with the ‘happy go lucky’ man they knew and loved. “He was a fun man all the time.
He was loveable, a very affectionate person, a very vivacious person,” Mills’s widow Chrissie recalled in 1985. She told how Mills had tried (unsuccessfully) to talk his friend, the singer Michael Holliday, out of suicide, stressing how it would let his family down. Ironically Holliday killed himself in October 1963 after an evening at Mills’ nightclub. She also said that on the morning of his death, Mills had bought a week’s supply of cigarettes for both of them. She believed that if her husband had meant to kill himself, he would definitely have left a note.
Also, if Mills had committed suicide, why had he shot himself through his right eye, which was still wide open? And how was it that the rifle came to be upright beside the dead body? Chrissie Mills believed that her husband was murdered by gangsters because he hadn’t paid protection money, and that his death was sent as a message to others.
In his 1991 book Who Killed Freddy Mills, former boxing commentator Tony Van Den Bergh, claimed that Mills could not have shot himself in the way the inquest had said he had. However, in 2001, former gangster Jimmy Tippett Jnr said that Mills had committed suicide because he had a very dark secret. Tippett’s theory was that Mills was actually a serial killer, the so-called Jack the Stripper responsible for the brutal murder of eight prostitutes around London’s River Thames between 1959 and 1965.
According to Tippett, Mills feared that the police were closing in on him, and decided to end his life rather than face the ignominy of standing trial.
The last Jack the Stripper murder took place five months before Mills death, but whether that was a coincidence, we will probably never never know as the murders remained unsolved to this day.
Fifty years on from Fearless Freddie’s mysterious demise, there are still more questions than answers.