Wilf Gregg: Collector of crime books
Monday 18 August 2008
Wilf Gregg began collecting books on crime with the purchase of a copy of the trial of the Arran murderer John Watson Laurie in the Notable British Trial series and it was through his extensive collection of crime books, which included a rare set of this series, that he wrote, with Brian Lane, the enormously successful The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers (1992). In it they defined a serial killer as "one who kills three or more people with sufficient time intervals between each killings for a cooling-off period". He also co-wrote The Encyclopedia of Mass Murder (1994).
Despite the books' success, Gregg was not enthusiastic with the overall experience and when later he joined forces with Robin Odell on Murderers' Row (2006) he was on much happier ground. Indeed he described it as a "collaboration made in heaven". He compiled a select bibliography for a reprint of Odell's Jack the Ripper in Fact and Fiction and they were working together on another project at the time of his death.
Unlike many true crime enthusiasts Gregg was never particularly interested in the identity of Jack the Ripper, suggesting in his contribution to Who was Jack the Ripper (1995) that despite literally the hundreds of suspects on offer the killer would be someone completely unknown. Nevertheless he was a member of the Cloak and Dagger Club and its metamorphosis Whitechapel 1888. He regularly contributed to "Crime Beat", a review of true crime books in the magazine The Ripperologist.
Indeed, Gregg was more interested in some of the lesser known cases which had not been so extensively reworked, particularly trials in Australia and South Africa. A favourite was the Irish case of the artist Wiliam Kirwan who drowned his wife in 1852 in what became known as the Ireland's Eye tragedy. His joy, whilst rooting in second hand bookshops, was to find a pamphlet on a little-known local murder. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of crime and criminals and delighted in being asked about, say, "The Milkshake Murder" – in fact a Hong Kong case.
Gregg, an only child, was born in 1931 in Sunderland where his father ran a stationery business. He worked as a civil servant for a short period and then as a personnel manager for the Tote for nearly 40 years. However, his day job in no way impinged on his real interest. He had been inducted into true crime by his grandmother who took the News of the World in the days when the paper enthusiastically reported court cases involving ill-behaved schoolmasters in Hull, dangerous district nurses and "lasses" selling The War Cry in public houses who suffered amazing indignities.
As a child his mother took him to Madam Tussauds in London, where the effigies of famous murderers, sometimes in their own clothes, were arrayed in what looked like jury boxes in the Chamber of Horrors. The post-war period saw the high profile cases of Neville Heath, Reginald Christie and William Haigh, the so-called acid bath murderer, whose trial at Lewes Crown Court in 1949, Gregg attended while still a teenager.
Wilf Gregg and his wife, Joy, whom he met in Paris when they were both holidaying and married in 1955 owned and bred bulldogs. Gregg would jokingly say that his collection of crime cuttings and magazines, was as something of a counterweight to her collection of bulldog memorabilia.
In July each year he held a garden party for friends and writers interested in Jack the Ripper and true crime. Beginning at midday, these could often run well into the evening during which time this gentle, self-effacing and shy man would show his guests his extensive library.
Wilfred Gregg, writer and collector: born Sunderland 7 August 1931; married 1955 Joy Staines (died 2002); died 15 June 2008.
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