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1953

TRUE CRIME . . . The Easter Monday Murder

Header1953 had not begun auspiciously for East Anglia. Overnight on 31st January a fierce storm had brought devastating flooding to the coast from Lincolnshire to Norfolk. Amost exactly a year earlier, King George VI had died at Sandringham, and the preparations for the June coronation of the young Queen Elizabeth were well advanced. Wisbech Town were struggling in the Midland League, but did manage to beat Gainsborough 5-3 on Easter Saturday, 4th April.

On Thursday 2nd April, Claude Butter arrived at his mother’s house in Wisbech, having traveled down from his lodgings in Church Street, Blackpool. The 51 year-old was a civilian instructor at RAF Weeton, in Lancashire. He had been away from home since he was 16. When his father died he was abroad but in a later statement he said:

“I tried to get home, but I understand that the then Superintendent of police said my presence was not necessary. That sort of gave me the impression that I was not really wanted.”

81 year-old Susannah Elizabeth Butter lived on Summerfield Close, in a modest 1930s council house in a set of terraces built around a circular green. Her other son, Charles, lived either in Milner Road, Wisbech, or with his mother – newspaper reports differ.

That Sunday, 5th April, was Easter Day. On Easter Monday, Mrs Butter and her sons sat down to supper. It was to be her last meal. At 7.45am the next day, Mrs Butter’s next door neighbour was roused by a frantic knocking on the door. When he answered the door, he saw a dishevelled Claude Butter, who said:

Fetch the police. I have killed my mother. I am mad.”

Mr Jackson and his wife went into number 74, and found Mrs Butter slumped at the foot of the stairs, her head a bloody mess. Claude, meanwhile sat slumped at the kitchen table, muttering:

“To think I should have done this.”

Several times he also said,
“I sent her to heaven. God rest her soul.”

When the doctor arrived, Mrs Butter was pronounced dead. The police had found a poker near to her body, and subsequent tests revealed that it was stained with the old lady’s blood.

When Butter appeared in Wisbech Magistrate’s Court on 22nd April, the national press were preoccupied with the misdeeds of a certain John Christie, who had been arrested on 31st March. While the full horror of what Christie had done would only emerge over the next weeks and months, Butter’s crime was relatively cut and dried, the only question being “why?”.

Being a trial for murder, business was transferred to Cambridge Assizes, and on Tuesday 20th May, Claude Butter was found guilty of his mother’s murder, but declared insane, and sentenced to be detained “until The Queen’s pleasure be known.”

Police and solicitors struggled to find a motive for Butter’s senseless act. Defending Butter in court, Mr George Pettefar called Charles Butter to the stand. Butter said:

“The accused man, my brother, was a bachelor whose life had been centred round our mother. The relationship between them was of the highest and there was genuine affection on both sides.”
(Pettefar) “Would you agree he would not have killed her had he not had a brainstorm of some kind?”
“Yes.”

“What he did that morning was to kill the nearest and dearest person to him on this earth?”
“Yes.”

There was little for the police to do except take Butter to a secure place and try to fathom out what had possessed him to kill his mother.

It was disclosed in court that Claude Butter had made the following statement to police:

“I was not the fellow she thought I was or who anyone thought I was. I didn’t want her to know. I do things on mad impulse. All my life I have been bewitched by the devil.”

Summing up the case for the prosecution, Mr Jardine reminded the jury:

“One thing you may think is lacking in this case is any evidence of any motive for the crime. It is not essential for the prosecution’s case to prove motive, and in this case I am unable to produce any evidence of motive.”

The inner torment which drove Claude Butter to kill his mother can only be guessed at. His death was registered in the St Pancras district of London in the summer of 1960, which suggests he spent the final years of his troubled life in one of the capital’s longest established mental health institutions, St Pancras Hospital.

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THE PLOUGHBOYS MURDER

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--90000--81799_product_1230582107_thumb_largeJuly 1953
. Queen Elizabeth was scarcely a month crowned, children were drinking National Health Service orange juice from their Coronation mugs, and Lindsay Hassett’s Australian cricketers, including the legends Richie Benaud, Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller, were preparing for the Third Test at Old Trafford. John Reginald Halliday Christie was sitting in the condemned cell at Pentonville, awaiting the hangman’s noose for multiple murders.

The new Elizabethan age was certainly experienced differently, depending on which part of society you lived in. Most large towns – and all cities – still had pockets of Victorian terraces, tenements and courtyards which would have been familiar to Charles Dickens. Diphtheria, tuberculosis and polio were only in retreat because of the energetic vaccination programme of the relatively new NHS.

Teddy BoyA social trend which had the middle-aged and elderly tut-tutting was the rise of the Teddy Boy. So called because their outfits – long coats with velvet collars, tight ‘drainpipe’ trousers and crepe-soled shoes – vaguely harked back to the Edwardian era. In truth, they were more influenced by the fledgling Rock ‘n’ Roll culture which was scandalising America. Every generation has a sub-culture which, at its most harmless is just clothes and hairstyles, but at its worst is just a cover for male violence. Teddy Boys, Mods, Rockers, Chavs, Gangstas – each generation reinvents itself, but each is depressingly the same – a cloak for male testosterone-fuelled rivalry and aggression.

On the evening of Thursday June 2nd, 1953, the green sward of South London’s Clapham Common was teeming with people – young and old – out to catch the last rays of midsummer sun. There were Teddy Boys from different gangs showing and strutting about in front of their female admirers, but the lads who were sitting on a park bench away from the ‘parade ground’ were not ‘Teds’, nor were they affiliated to any particular gang. The young men sitting on the benches included seventeen year old John Beckley, an apprentice electrical engineer, Frederick Chandler, an eighteen year old bank clerk and Brian Carter.

One of the Teddy Boy gangs was known as The Plough Boys, from their patronage of a local pub, The Plough. Spotting the young men on the benches, and interpreting their different clothing and behaviour as an explicit challenge, members of The Plough Boys decided to provoke Beckley and his friends. A fist fight broke out but Beckley and his mates, realising that they were outnumbered, ran off..

Beckley and Chandler managed to get aboard a number 137 bus, but such was the determination of the Plough Boys to right imagined wrongs that they ran after the bus, and when it stopped for a traffic light, they boarded the bus and dragged Beckley and Chandler out onto the road.

Chandler, despite bleeding from stab wounds to the groin and stomach managed to scramble back on to the open platform of the bus as it was pulling away. John Beckley was not so lucky and became surrounded by the attacking Plough Boys and he was struck repeatedly. He eventually broke away and managed only to run about a hundred yards up the road towards Clapham Old Town.

All of a sudden he stopped and fell against a wall outside an apartment block called Oakeover Manor. He eventually sagged down the wall ending up sitting in a half-sitting position on the pavement, his life literally ebbing away from him.

Oakeover

Screen Shot 2017-04-06 at 09.50.10The remaining Plough Boys, realising that the situation had become more serious than a simple punch-up, ran off. One of the bus passengers, made a call from the Oakeover Manor flatsand another passenger improvised a  pillow for the victim with a folded coat.  Eventually, at 9.42 pm a policeman arrived and just one hour later, John Beckley was found to have six stab wounds about his body and one to his face. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

There was no shortage of suspects among the South London gangs. Police swiftly narrowed the field down to six suspects.  All were arrested and charged with John Beckley’s murder.   Two of the gang denied having been on Clapham Common; two admitted being there, but denied involvement.  but all under persistent questioning, later confessed to having taken some part in the attack, though all denied using a knife.

 

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Five youths were initially charged by the Police, with one more charged a few days later, and they were remanded to Bow Street.  After a three-day hearing, the case was sent to the Old Bailey for trial. The charged were a 15 year-old shop assistant Ronald Coleman, Terrance Power aged 17 and unemployed, Allan Albert Lawson aged 18 and a carpenter, a labourer Michael John Davies aged 20, Terrence David Woodman, 16, a street-trader and John Fredrick Allan, aged 21, also a labourer.

Michael-John-DaviesMichael John Davies, (right) the 20 year old labourer from Clapham, never denied being in the fight. “We all set about two of them on the pavement” he said “I didn’t have a knife, I only used my fists.”

humphreysOn Monday 14th September 1953, at the Old Bailey, Ronald Coleman and Michael John Davies pleaded not guilty to murdering John Beckley. The four others were formally found not guilty after Christmas Humphreys, (left)  the prosecutor for the Crown, said he was not satisfied there was any evidence against them on this indictment. However they were charged with common assault and kept in custody.

A Daily Mirror headline during the trial simply said Flick Knives, Dance Music and Edwardian Suits.

The trial of Coleman and Davies lasted until the following week when the jury, after considering for three hours forty minutes, said they were unable to agree a verdict.
Mr Humphreys, for the prosecution, said that they did not propose to put Coleman on trial again for murder and a new jury, on the direction of the judge, returned a formal verdict of not guilty. Coleman was charged with common assault along with the four others for which they all received six or nine months in jail.

Michael John Davies’ trial for the murder of John Beckley began on 19th October 1953. Counsel for both the defence, Mr David Weitzman, QC  and Mr Christmas Humphreys for the prosecution were the same as for the former trial and the same witnesses appeared.

1953 Newspapers Clapham Common

Having seen the attack from the top deck of the 137 bus, Mary Frayling told the Police that she had seen a particular youth whom she described as the principal attacker put what appeared to be a green handled knife into his right breast pocket.  He was wearing a gaudy tie which he removed, putting it in another pocket.  She later identified him as John Davies.

How reliable a witness was Mary Frayling? It was late in the evening and her view of the fight on the moving bus with its internal lights on must have been obscured by both the relatively small windows of the bus and the large trees along side the road. In fact Mary Frayling had initially picked out John Davies as the main perpetrator while he was standing in the dock of a local south London court and not in an organised identity parade.

Despite the absence of the knidfe that killed John Beckley, the jury took just two hours to return with a guilty verdict, and Davies was sentenced to death.

Although the actual murder weapon was never found there was a knife that was almost treated as such by Christmas Humphreys and the prosecution during the trial. It was a knife bought by Detective Constable Kenneth Drury in a jewellers near the Plough Inn for three shillings ostensibly as an example of what could have been used by Davies. Incidentally, Drury, (right) Druryone of the investigating officers in the Beckley murder case, would later become Commander of the Flying Squad in the 1970s and in 1977 was convicted on five counts of corruption and jailed for eight years.

Almost immediately after the guilty verdict there were suspicions to many that there had been a gross miscarriage of justice. Michael John Davies’ case went to appeal and eventually to the House of Lords both to no avail. However after many petitions to the Home Secretary he granted a reprieve for Davies after 92 days in the Condemned Cell. In October 1960 Michael John Davies was released from Wandsworth Prison after seven years, although not officially pardoned, he was now a free man.

The killing of John Beckley had a chilling resonance many years later with another notorious stabbing, the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Once again, there would be attack by a gang of young men. Once again, a knife would be the weapon, but would never be found. Once again it would be very much open to doubt as to who struck the fatal blow. Although Stephen’s death was due to a racist attack, the killing of John Beckley was equally tribal – a young life taken because he was different.

 

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