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Gordon Towle

THE STEN GUN KILLER . . . A brutal murder in 1949 Leamington (2)

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SO FAR – It is January 1949. Two men, Edward Sullivan (49) and Gordon Towle (19) have been working on a Leamington building site near what is now Westlea Road. There has been friction between them, with Great War veteran Sullivan (left) apparently sneering at Towle because the latter had not done his bit in the armed forces.

The events of Tuesday 25th January 1949 were to shock and mesmerise local people. At Leamington Police Station on the High Street it was 10.20am, and senior officers Inspector Green and Superintendent Gardner were leaving to carry out a routine inspection, when a burly, broad-shouldered young man entered the station. He was carrying what appeared to be a Sten gun. He said, quite calmly and without drama:
“I have shot a man. I am ill”
Green said, with some incredulity:
“Do you know what you are saying?”
The young man, who identified himself as Gordon Towle, handed the Inspector the Sten gun, along with an empty magazine and a magazine loaded with live 9mm bullets, and said:
“He has been pulling my leg and something came Into my head. I do silly things when I am funny like that. I think I have killed him. He is on the Bury Road estate; go to him. My head went funny and I shot him. I was not in the Army and they got on to me”

Towle was placed in a cell, and the officers took a police car and soon arrived at the building site. There lying in a pool of blood was the body of a man, later identified as Edward Sullivan. Around his body were found no fewer than 24 empty 9 mm. Sten gun cartridge cases – a full magazine holds 28 – and digging operations brought to light more bullets. Some were also found embedded in a nearby timber stack. When the police surgeon Dr. D. F. Lisle Croft arrived and examined the body, he was only able pronounce life extinct.

Events now moved on at pace. Chief Superintendent Alec Spooner, Head of Warwickshire CID was called, but that was a formality; there was little or no detective work required here. The first member of the Sullivan family to be told of the tragedy was son John, home on leave from the army. He had the melancholy task of telling his mother, Katherine Margaret Sullivan, that she was a widow. Above right, Towle is pictured being taken to the preliminary magistrate’s hearing.

In a newspaper report of one of Towle’s appearance before the magistrates, the journalist certainly exercised his imagination. Under a lurid headline headline, he described the scene thus:

“An unusually strong winter sun shone through the stained-glass windows of the Town Hall Council Chamber Wednesday, etching on the floor pattern in deep scarlet and blue. As the minutes went by, the shadow moved slowly and silently across the linoleum, and equally inexorably, quietly and persuasively, Mr. J. F. Claxton (for the Director of Public Prosecutions) outlined the history of the Kingsway Estate shooting on January 25th. Beside policeman, sat 19-year-old Gordon Towle, husband of less than six months, charged with murder. According a statement alleged have been made by him, Towle could no longer stand the taunts of a workmate, and so produced a Sten gun and fired two – or three, for the number is In doubt  – bursts into the body of Edward Sullivan (49), Irishman, 6, Swadling Street, Leamington.

A full public gallery heard that Sullivan was killed outright by the ten bullets which entered his body in every vital part. The proceedings were intently listened by his widow and daughter – both in deep mourning – and his son, whose Army battle dress bore, the left arm. a narrow black band. In the afternoon, when only three of the fourteen called to give evidence remained to be heard, the Court had to move into an ante-room to make way for the tea organised by the Church England Zenana Missionary Society.

Only three members of the public, the widow, the daughter and one other lady, remained. Towle, dressed a sports coat and grey flannels, with an open necked cricket shirt, appeared to take a keen interest in all that was being said, but it was noticeable that at the end of the hearing, he blinked and then screwed face as if trying desperately hard to understand what was being said to him. He was asked if he had anything to say or any witnesses to call, and replied, quite firmly “No. sir.” — the only time he spoke throughout the hearing. But as he went to regain his seat, he stumbled little though about to fall. He sat down and heard the formality of his committal for trial at Warwick Assizes”

LynskeyGordon Towle’s time in front of Mr Justice Lynskey (left) at the March Assizes in Warwick was short – if far from sweet. Doctors gave evidence that he was quite mad, and he was sentenced to spend the rest of his days in a secure mental unit. The most puzzling matter for me was how Towle came to in possession of a Sten gun. He told the court that he had simply “pinched it” from the local drill hall, (probably the one in Clarendon Terrace) and stole the ammunition – police later found hundreds of live rounds in his house – from “an aerodrome”.

A postscript, which may bring a touch of humour to an otherwise dark tale. I can vouch for the inventive ways Army quartermasters had of “balancing the books.” regarding missing firearms. Back in the day, I taught at a public school in Cambridgeshire. The school Cadet Corps was being wound up, and an old sweat arrived from Waterbeach barracks to take an inventory of the firearms. To his dismay, he discovered that the armoury held one too many Lee Enfield rifles. This sent him into a lather, as it was apparently simple to account for missing guns on an inventory. They could just be written off as damaged or stripped for parts. But one too many? This was serious, and could only be remedied by a couple of squaddies rowing out in a boat one dark night on a local gravel pit, and dropping the offending item over the side, never to be seen again.

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THE STEN GUN KILLER . . . A brutal murder in 1949 Leamington (1)

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SwadlingSwadling Street in Leamington is an unassuming thoroughfare, with houses which were built on the old Shrubland Estate between the wars. It was named after a Leamington councillor of the 1920s, and in 1931 it boasted twenty addresses. In January 1949, number 6 was occupied by Edward Sullivan. A 49 year-old Irishman and father of six children – three sons and three daughters – he worked as a builder’s labourer. Known to his mates – inevitably – as Paddy – he was working on a council house building project on Westlea Road, which was another between-wars development on what had been the Shrubland Estate.

Just a couple of hundred yards away was Bury Road – again, named after a local civic dignitary – and number 120 was the home of Gordon Towle. He was 19 years old, and lived with his wife Lilian, who he had married just three months earlier. He worked on the same building site as Edward Sullivan. Towle was a Leamington lad, and had earlier applied to join the army, but had been rejected on medical grounds. At the age of 10, he had damaged his head in an accident, and went to hospital to have the wound dressed, but was sent home again during what he remembered as “the bad raids”. There were three air raids on Leamington on 1940. The first, in August, resulted in no casualties, but as a result of subsequent raids in October and November, 7 people were killed. It seems that Towle’s mother had a history of mental illness, and had been taken in care, which resulted in Towle and his two brothers being sent to live with family friends in Rugby.

It’s worth, at this point, to digress slightly and look at what Leamington was like in 1949. The great diaspora of families from the teeming terraces south of High Street up to the new builds in Lillington had yet to happen. Names of WW2 casualties had been added to the town war memorial but, thankfully, not in the number that the stonemasons had been tasked with in 1919. The damage caused by the Luftwaffe bombs in an effort to target Lockheed and Flavels factories had been cleared away and, despite the huge swing away from the Conservative party in the 1945 general election, Leamington still had faith in its pre-war MP, Anthony Eden. I was just 18 months old in 1949, so my memories are totally unreliable but I can tell you that our house in Victoria Street still had gas lighting, a pump in the scullery, and a large ‘copper’ in which water was heated for the weekly bath.

So, back to Edward Sullivan and Gordon Towle. The two men had clearly rubbed each other up the wrong way. Sullivan had mocked Towle for his lack of military service. We know that Sullivan had a son in the British army, and he himself had been a regular soldier with the Royal Army Service Corps during The Great War. He stayed in the army after the Armistice and did a further four years service out in India, returning in 1923. People tend to forget that men from what was to become the Republic of Ireland played a gallant part in The Great War. There were also some who fought for the British in WW2, and they were treated in a shocking manner by the Irish state after the war.

Whatever the reasons for the animosity between Sullivan and Towle, things were about to come to a dramatic and bloody head. Heaven only knows how or why, but Gordon Towle had, secreted in his bedroom a Sten gun and hundred rounds of ammunition. Most lads growing up in the 1950s with access to Commando comics and other bloodthirsty stuff, will have an instant image of what a Sten gun looks like. It was a brutally simple piece of engineering – a sub machine gun designed for destruction rather than accuracy. A full magazine contained 32 rounds of 9mm bullets, and at short range it was a devastating weapon. In part two, we will discover how and why Gordon Towle had a Sten gun in his possession and – more importantly – what he did with it.

Sten Gun

PART TWO will go live on Thursday 1st April

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