Money, bombs, murder and sex

Details about Soho’s Maltese mafia unearthed in new publication.

Much of the exploits of the Soho crime syndicate once ruled by a Maltese vice entrepreneur – ‘Big Frank’ Mifsud – have seldom been given proper attention by storytellers and journalists in Malta.

True crime historians have dipped their toes into the world of the Maltese in Soho in their tomes on London gangland, with one or more chapters dedicated to the Mifsud partnership with Jewish mobster Bernie Silver. But no other book has yet directly addressed the full extent of the power held by Mifsud’s Maltese Syndicate, the violence employed to control its members and partners’ business activties, its greed for Soho real estate, and its role in murder, firebombs, bribery and threats of fellow Maltese.

This first ever history of the Maltese Syndicate, Passport To Vice, details the exploits of “18-stone” Mifsud at the head of this organisation of vice, his dealings with the Maltese who worked for him, as well as first-time details from British and Maltese police archives and communications to the Office of the Prime Minister, and the confessions of Syndicate members to police investigators.

Drawing on detailed extractions of archival documents, 1,000 press cuttings from the British press from the 1930s to the 1980s, and interviews with survivors of the era, the MaltaToday editor Matthew Vella traces the origins of Maltese vice from its roots in the Messina family and its Egyptian exploits, through to Maltese seamen on the Cardiff docks, and the gradual evolution of the Syndicate as it moved from the East End into Soho.

“I wanted to write a book that, fundamentally, addresses a Maltese readership’s thirst for a kind of narrative about the Maltese of Soho,” Vella said. “There is a lot of ‘legend’ in many books on London gangland, and a few will dedicate at least one chapter to the Maltese Syndicate. I wanted to write a book that is purely about the Maltese in Soho, carrying out the most extensive newspaper survey possible, and back up the claims with archival research and interviews,” Vella said, who spent over three years immersed in research for the book.

“I don’t think that, apart from saying ‘the Maltese controlled Soho’, we’ve had the big story about the 1956 murder of Tommy Smithson, the sheer control Frank Mifsud exerted over his men, the firebombs in the 1960s, the constant bribery of witnesses and police, the attempted assassination of George Caruana and the dealings the Maltese had with the Krays.”

In his research, Vella traced the history of a Maltese criminal class that traded exclusively in prostitution, and, by dint of the laws that were expected to control it, elevated it to a highly-organised system of police bribery and property acquisition.

“By the end of the 1970s, people like Mifsud were incredibly wealthy. They cashed out peacefully, retained some form of control on their properties through the use of offshore companies and lawyers, and managed to escape the full weight of the law thanks to the witnesses they bribed and suborned. On the other hand, the London police were pleased to have put the Maltese out of action, because the Soho sex industry was leading to mass police corruption in the ranks,” Vella says.

Vella hopes his book can answer the question as to whether the Maltese really did run a ‘mafia’. His book offers the facts with which the reader can discern the scale of the criminal influence. “You will often wonder whether the sole crime the Maltese was to have ‘put some crumpet in the house’ – as one former London Met officer put it. But when you take the statements of top police brass on the organisation and its immense wealth, the way Silver and Mifsud controlled police interest, bribed witnesses, consorted with other London crime families, inveigled their own men to commit crimes – mostly of a violent nature – and even fended off rivalries with the use of firebombs… you can’t not call it a mafia.”

Passport to Vice is published by Horizons. For other Sunday Circle magazine features, check out this concert of the Pixies in Paris or this piece about working from home blues.

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