Reading like a 1950s noire novel, or a Cold War thriller from the pen of John le Carré, the murder of Polish aristocrat Countess Teresa Lubienska on the platform of Gloucester Road Underground station shocked the nation, and provoked a massive man hunt that saw 18,000 people interviewed over the following months.
Using contemporary articles found in the British Newspaper Archive, we explore the circumstances of Countess Lubienska’s murder, the possible motives behind her killing, and the efforts that were made to bring her murderers to justice.
24th May 1957 was a Friday, and Polish aristocrat, Countess Teresa Lubienksa, was making her way home from dinner with friends. At 73, the Countess was a survivor. She had outlived her husband, who had been ‘stabbed to death in the Bolshevik rising,’ and her son, who was killed fighting Germany in 1939.
A political prisoner, Countess Lubienska was seized and sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp. According to the Londonderry Sentinel, ‘she still had her Ravensbruck camp number tattooed on her right forearm.’
As her friend, Mr T Heciak, later revealed to the press, the Countess was ‘tortured and seriously ill’ during her time at Ravensbruck, but she survived, and after the war later settled in London, where she lived modestly in one room in Cornwall Gardens, Kensington.
Once in London, she ‘devoted her life…to seeking redress for those of her countryman who suffered in German concentration camps.’ She kept in contact with more than 1,000 Poles who had since fled to England, and 5,000 more in Europe.
24 May 1957
And the night of 24th May 1957 was no different. As the Kensington Post reports, Countess Lubienska had been at a friends’ house in Florence Road, Ealing. She had departed in the company of Polish priest Father Krzyzanowski, who had travelled with her to Earl’s Court, where he had got off.
The next person to see the countess was Emanuel Akinyemi, who worked at Gloucester Road Underground station. As the Belfast Telegraph reports, Akinyemi ‘had just taken the lift down to the east-bound platform on the Piccadilly Line, when he heard a woman shouting: ‘Bandit, bandit, I’ve been knifed.’’
Akinyemi recalled: ‘I asked her what she was talking about, then I saw that blood was pouring out from the left side of her chest. By this time she could hardly speak, and she could not tell me her name or anything.’
Akinyemi managed to escort the Countess back up to the surface, and she was taken to St Mary Abbott’s Hospital, where she later died.
General Secretary of the Federation of Polish Exiles in London, Mr T Heciak, said of her death:
This is a great shock and loss to the Polish community in London. The Countess was very well known and very well esteemed throughout Poland and by every Pole in this country… That she could have had an enemy, especially among Poles, is quite unbelievable. She was a woman of much bravery, very religious, and always the champion of the poor.
After the incident, the police were quick to act, working throughout the night to search the ‘track, the platforms and upper part of the station for the weapon.’ The weapon, however, would never be found.
Meanwhile the Press were quick to jump to conclusions over a motive. The People, 26 May 1957, asked whether ‘the stabbing of a white-haired Polish countess on London’s Gloucester Road tube station [was] a political murder?’
Days later Countess Lubienska’s only surviving daughter, Mme Isabelle Lubienska, was reported as saying: ‘I am absolutely sure it is a political crime. For several days I felt a tragedy coming.’ The Londonderry Sentinel on the same day revealed that ‘London police are…working on the theory that a Pole who collaborated with the Germans during the War killed Countess Teresa Lubienska to keep her from revealing his secret.’
Initial persons of interest were a man and a woman – not believed to be connected, as reported in the Torbay Express and South Devon Echo. The man was about 27, tall, clean shaven, fair haired, dressed in light brown check suit and purportedly a ‘foreigner.’ The woman was dressed very smartly in a black coat and red high-heeled shoes. Both, according to the Londonderry Sentinel, ‘were seen running away from the platform at Gloucester Road Station as the Countess staggered to a lift.’
These two individuals were not forthcoming, but police pushed forward. They were keen to speak to the seventeen people who left the station at the approximate time of the murder, but few of them had been found in the days following the murder.
The police had to widen the net, as the Kensington Post highlights on the last day of May. Hundreds of London Transport employees were interviewed: to no avail. By July, no progress had been made. Detectives shifted their focus to those individuals who had been using the lift at Gloucester Road Station to go down, whilst approximately 2,000 house-to-house interviews in Kensington were conducted.
And police had moved away from the initial thought that the crime was politically motivated. As early as 31 May they were exploring the possibility that ‘a gang of youths’ was somehow involved, and that they had stabbed the Countess after she ‘had rebuked them for their behaviour.’
This theory was born out in the August 1957 inquest into Countess Lubienska’s death. The Countess’ haunting cries of ‘Bandits, Bandits’ were examined by the Coroner, who asked a relative, Adam Antony Bielinski, to explain what she might have meant by them:
Can you tell me whether the word ‘bandit’ as used by the countess would have any special meaning? – She used to say that word very often describing some hooligans. I remember it very well. Was it a word she would use rather generally? – Speaking about some people who are drinking too much, making a noise, she used it very often.
But whether Countess Teresa Lubienska was killed by hooligans, or by somebody with a political motive, was never to be discovered by police. As Detective Inspector John du Rose told the inquest, over 18,000 people had been interviewed, and he suspected that a conspiracy of silence had shrouded the perpetrators’ guilt.
Countess Teresa Lubienska was posthumously honoured by the nation she loved, as she was awarded the Golden Cross of Merit with Swords, ‘in recognition of her devotion to the cause of free Poland.’ The swords of her award recognised how her gallantry had involved personal danger to herself.
She was buried at Brompton Oratory on 1 June 1957, whilst the police searched desperately for her killer. The murder of this brave woman, who had survived so much and gave so much back to other survivors, is perhaps one of the most intriguing mysteries of the London Underground, and in the history of crime, remaining unsolved over 60 years later.