The mob mentality
The mob mentality
A day at the races was a popular pastime for people between the wars, with courses such as Brighton and Lewes attracting thousands of hopeful punters.
But the Sussex courses acquired an unsavoury reputation thanks to unwelcome visitors, who included some of London’s notorious gangsters.
For many years the most fearsome of them all was Darby Sabini, part of a large family which came to London from Italy in the 19th century. His unusual first name came from slang for being left-handed.
According to Brian Mc-Donald in a new book on gangs, Darby was about 5ft 8ins tall and had a barrel chest.
McDonald adds: “He was immensely strong with a punch that could break a jaw, especially when reinforced with his favourite knuckleduster.”
Sabini claimed to have fought 47 bouts as a welterweight in his youth and was a man few dared to cross.
With his brothers, he entered the world of crime, specialising in racecourse violence.
There were battles over bookies and protection money between Sabini’s men and other gangs from 1920 until the so-called Battle Of Lewes races in 1936.
In 1920 Sabini’s men, including Darby’s younger brother Joe, went to Brighton races. They forced bookies and punters on the free side of the course to put half crowns in a bucket or be chucked out. Razors were brandished to show they meant business.
But the following day when they tried it again, Joe Sabini and his mates had their collection money confiscated by another gang and were given a good kicking.
Darby was outraged when a paper called Topical Times alleged he ran a gang of blackmailers at racecourses in 1924 .
He sued but failed to turn up in court, unsurprisingly losing the action with substantial costs awarded against him. When Sabini failed to pay the costs and other debts, he was declared bankrupt.
After that, he left London and came to live in the suburban respectability of Hove. McDonald says today he might have chosen Marbella.
But he still remained active and when accused of assaulting a Hove bookmaker called David Isaacs, the victim did not give evidence because he was too frightened.
Sabini and the other gangsters were so violent that for a time they worried the Government, which feared a breakdown in law and order. Convictions were hard to obtain and some policemen could be bought for a fiver.
What finished off much of the raceground violence was the Battle Of Lewes when up to 40 gangsters armed with hammers, iron bars, hatchets and knuckledusters descended on the Sussex town searching for a rival group of villains. There was a spectacular fight.
Police sent for reinforcements and charges were brought against 16 men, including malicious wounding and riotous assembly. Most were sentenced to substantial prison terms.
Sabini was not among them but the court case spurred Graham Greene into writing Brighton Rock, which captures the air of menace at Sussex racegrounds.
An Italian gangster in the book bears a resemblance to Darby, while a scene in which the thug Pinkie is slashed was based on the Lewes fight.
Sabini died from natural causes in 1950 at his home in Old Shoreham Road aged 62 and was buried in the nearby cemetery. His wife Annie, who lived until 1978, joined him there.
It was a remarkably quiet and peaceful end for such a violent man. But other gangsters had long since assumed his leading role.
* Gangs Of London: 100 Years Of Mob Warfare by Brian McDonald (Milo Books £8.99).
Leading London gangsters are pictured in a rare moment of harmony at Hammersmith. Darby Sabini is second from the right in the front row.