Drive east on the A425 out of Royal Leamington Spa and you will soon come to the village of Radford Semele. The Semele is nothing to do with the princess in Greek mythology or Handel’s opera of the same name, but apparently relates to a Norman family from Saint Pierre-de-Semilly who were lords of the manor in the twelfth century. These days it is a rather prosperous village, much expanded from 1947, when it housed a mixture of the well-off and the rural poor, with nothing much in between.
Number 23 Radford Semele housed the Ashby family. Frederick, aged 48, his wife Marie, 51, son Frederick Philip, 27 and a younger daughter. Frederick junior was in the RAF. In 1947 people didn’t tend to move about as much as they do these days, and the 1911 census tells us that Frederick lived with his grandparents in Radford, while wife Marie had been born in Napton, a few miles down the road. They had married in 1921.
The late winter had been particularly savage, and after a brief heatwave in June, the July weather was cloudy and humid. Those with a radio or a gramophone could have been listening to Frank Sinatra sing Among My Souvenirs, which topped the charts for three weeks. Fred Ashby junior had been a pupil at Clapham Terrace School in Leamington and, being something of an athlete, was a member of the celebrated Coventry Club, Godiva Harriers. After a spell as a draughtsman at the Lockheed works in nearby Leamington, he had joined the RAF. He had come home from nearby Church Lawford on weekend leave, and on the morning of Sunday 27th July, had set off across the fields with a friend, Cyril Bye, to try and shoot a few rabbits for the pot.
It seems that the relationship between Fred Ashby (left) and his father was anything but harmonious. Fred senior, who was a foreman at the Coventry Radiator factory in the village, was often involved in loud arguments when his son was home on leave. At around 4.00pm that Sunday afternoon, a Radford teenager called Rose Marie Summers was standing talking to a friend outside a nearby house, when she saw Fred senior staggering out of the Ashby’s house, clutching his side, in obvious pain. He cried out, “He has kicked me.”
The girl saw Ashby walk round to the rear of the house and return with a shotgun in his hands. He pointed it through the open window of the cottage and fired.
Witnesses who entered the house shortly afterwards never forgot the horrific scene, Young Fred Ashby was kneeling on the floor, his head face down on the sofa. In his back was a gaping wound, pumping blood. The police and ambulance were quickly summoned, and the young man was rushed to the Warneford Hospital, just little over a mile away in Leamington. There was nothing doctors could do to save his life, however, and he died later that evening with his mother at his bedside.
There was never a more cut and dried case for Warwickshire Police. Even as the local bobby, PC Haines, arrived at the scene, Fred Ashby was beside the body of his dying son, trying desperately to staunch the fatal wound, saying, “I did it. I shot him.”
As the case progressed up the ladder of the criminal justice system, from local magistrates’ court to Birmingham Assizes, it became clear that the evidently mild-mannered Fred Ashby was, for whatever reason, regularly bullied by his physically powerful son and, having been knocked about and abused during the afternoon of 27th July, had finally snapped and,in a red mist, fired the shot that ended his son’s life. His plea of manslaughter was accepted, and he was sentenced to ten years penal servitude.
Whatever grief he bore for the killing of his son, Frederick Ashby survived his prison sentence and died in 1984. His wife Marie pre-deceased him by nine years. The senior policeman in the case, Chief Superintendent Alec Spooner of Warwickshire CID, is celebrated by True Crime enthusiasts as the man who led the case investigating the as-yet-unsolved ‘witchcraft murder’ of Charles Walton, at Lower Quinton in 1945, but that is a story for another day.