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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 WISBECH TRAGEDY . . . Part Two

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It was also alleged that after the woman was in this fearful condition, Day did nothing to help extinguish the fire except to pour some water on the woman from a small teapot. He was also said to have threatened do the same for a man who was trying put out the flames if he made fuss about it. There was no other possible conclusion at the inquest other than that Frances Parlett had met her painful end through the violent actions of John Day, and that Day must face trial for murder.

The past is never far away, and it is interesting to note that the initial defence for John Day was conducted by Mr TR Dawbarn – a distinguished Wisbech name. One of the chilling things about this case is the fact that, before she died, Frances Parlett was able to give a lucid account of events. At the trial of John Day, she spoke from beyond the grave:

“I live in Wisbech with the accused. About one o’clock this morning I and accused were alone together downstairs. I woke him up as he had fallen asleep. We had no words during the evening. He said “You ….. cow. 1 will blind you.” He then took the lamp up off the table, which was alight, and threw it at me. I caught fire, and everything I had on was burnt. I was burnt, too, almost all to pieces. I screamed and ran out. but he has knocked me about so that the people took no notice it. He is always at it. The accused did nothing, not even attempt put the fire out. Mr. Brightwell, the next-door neighbour, put it out. The accused threw some buckets of cold water over me, but not before my clothes were burnt off me. I cannot remember anything else. We have been living together nearly two vears.’’

Mr-justice-bucknillAt Day’s trial in June 1905, presided over by Mr Justice Bucknill, (left, as caricatured by ‘Spy’) much was made of the fractious and often violent relationship between Frances Parlett and himself. The poor woman did not die until the next day, and in the immediate aftermath of the attack initially defended Day, but then the following exchange was relayed to the court. Sergeant Watson took the prisoner upstairs to see the deceased, and they had a conversation.
Day said,

 

“Frances, did I do it ?”
She answered,
Yes, you bad boy, you know you did it,”
Day said,
“It’s false.”
Frances repeated,
You did, you bad boy, you know you did.”
She was also heard to say,
You murderer, you have done it this time. You have had a good many tries, and you have done it this time.”

BarristerIn the event, the defence barrister for Day made great play on the grave responsibility that the jurors held. If they found Day guilty of murder, he would surely hang. In the words of the newspaper report, Mr Stewart, for the defence, remarked that the punishment for the crime with which the prisoner was charged was death, and it was not necessary to say more than that to bring home the jury the great and terrible responsibility that rested upon them. The onus of proof against the prisoner lay with the prosecution, and it was for them to satisfy the jury beyond the possibility of reasonable doubt that the prisoner was responsible for the deed. He contended that this had not been done. The statement of the woman was not in nature of a dying declaration, and it ought not to regarded as more important, or have more credence attached to it than was attached to any of the evidence called before the Court during the day.

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THE WISBECH TRAGEDY . . . Part One

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Wisbech is a small Cambridgeshire market town on the banks of the River Nene. It is Spring 1905. The Mayor is Mr H.C. Elgood, patriarch and owner of the local brewery. The Rev. R.E.R Watts, Vicar of Wisbech is retiring due to ill health, and his grateful parishioners have raised the sum of £224.19s as a testimonial. Sadly, due to the cleric’s infirmity, there is to be no public presentation.

Away from the rectories and grand villas, the world goes on. In the insanitary slum courts off the main thoroughfares, men get drunk. their women goad them, and there is violence a-plenty. One such instance is the tragic – and painful – death of Frances Parlett. Most of the following narrative is taken from contemporary newspaper reports.

Frances Parlett was married about six years previously, but left her husband, and for two years she had lived with the John Day at 18a Carpenter’s Arms Yard. At one o’clock in the morning May 2nd they were in their living room, one of two rooms in which they lived. Day, having fallen asleep, was awakened by the woman, and it was said that either in sudden anger or with malice aforethought, he seized a lighted paraffin lamp which was on the table, and threw it at her. She was at once covered in flames, and screamed and rushed to the front door.

A very worthy man who lived near, and who often heard screams, went out and saw the poor creature. With remarkable courage and pluck, this elderly man rushed hack into his house and secured some blankets, with which he put out the flames. Next day the woman died, fearfully burnt. The evidence was that the accused, about 11 o’clock that night, was heard to say to her that he would do something to her when he got home.

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Nothing remains of Carpenter’s Arms Yard today
. It was a narrow lane running off what is now West Street, and it ended just short of Tillery Field, which in those days was a cemetery. Its position was more or less where St Paul’s Close is now. By all accounts it was one of the meaner streets of the town. I have been unable to find any image of Carpenter’s Arms Yard, but it is safe to imagine that it would have been narrow, dirty and the tiny terraced houses would have been packed with residents  who were at the bottom end of society.

PretendThe photo on the right is of an existing Wisbech alley which, due to its central position has survived more or less intact, and gives us an idea of what the Yard might have looked like. Carpenter’s Arms Yard was earmarked for slum clearance in the late 1920s along with its near neighbour Ashworth’s Yard, and both were gone before the outbreak of World War II. What is now St Peter’s Road was probably more prosperous than either of the Yards, and its terraced houses were spared the redevelopments of the 1930s. It is tempting to look back and wish that more of old Wisbech had been preserved, but we would do well to remember that conditions in these old houses would be awful, even by standards of the time. Damp, insanitary and built on the cheap, these grim places contributed to the general poor health and high death rate of the time. The cemetery at the bottom of the slight slope of Carpenter’s Arms Yard was actually instituted as an overflow burial ground when a cholera epidemic struck the town earlier in the 19th century.

Back to the terrible events of May, 1905. Sadly, Frances Parlett died of her burns the next day, and the wheels of the law began to grind. The first step was a Coroner’s Inquest. At the inquest, it was reported that:

“Deceased was suffering from extensive superficial burns, extending from the knees to the armpits, and the front part was worse than the back. If deceased had been sitting at a table and the lamp capsized one would have expected more severe burns at one particular spot. There were no marks on her face or chest to show that they had come in contact with a hard substance, and would have expected to have found some marks on the body if it had been struck by the lamp with much violence.”

In answer to the Foreman, a witness said he thought the lamp could be thrown with sufficient force on the steel of the deceased’s corsets to break the lamp and not mark the body. The skin was discoloured too much to see any bruise. Herbert Brightwell, bootmaker, of 19a, Carpenter’s Arms Yard, said he heard the deceased and Day come home about 11 o’clock on the night in question. At about one o’clock he was awakened by the shuffling of feet, but he heard no voices. Immediately afterwards he heard a woman scream, and saw a bright light flash across his window. The woman continued to scream, and he went downstairs. When he opened the door of Day’s house the deceased, who was in flames, fell into his arms. Brightwell attempted to put out the flames by wrapping blankets round her.

Brightwell asked Day to assist him, but he did not do so, and said nothing. Having put out the flames, Brightwell ran to tell Frances Parlett’s sister, and Day ran after him, saying:

“What the **** are you exciting yourself about. If you don’t come back here I will jolly well put you through it as well.”

NEXT – John Day is tried for murder,
and faces an appointment with Henry Albert Pierrepoint

Part Two of A WISBECH TRAGEDY,  will go live on the evening of Friday 24th July.

THE FIVE LITTLE MARTYRS . . . Part two

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The story so far. “SCHOOLBOY GANGSTERS ROUNDED UP!”  screamed the local papers. According to Dr Meacock, who chaired the Special Children’s Court, the boys,

“constituted a centre of vice in the town,and they must be dealt with drastically.”

John Bull

Those of you who follow my posts will remember that Dr Meacock was at the very heart of the controversy surrounding the life and death of Dr Horace Dimock, twenty years earlier, an unfortunate situation which resulted in the infamous riots. So, who were these five desperadoes, and what were the Industrial Schools to which they were to be packed off, until they reached the age of 16?

Firstly the names of the boys. I received this information from the County Record Office. I imagine they are all now deceased, but at the time their names would not have been available in the press, for legal reasons. They were:

Horace Stephen Freear, age 7
Frederick Hunt, age 8
Stanley Johnson, age 9
Harry Rivett, age 10
Harry Worth, age 10

Their sentence? To spend the years in an Industrial School, until they reached the age of 16. For Worth and Rivett – a 6 year sentence; for Johnson, 7 years; Hunt would serve 8 years, and Freear a staggering 9 years.

The words ‘Industrial School’ have a vaguely worthy ring to them. There’s a suggestion that they were places where youngsters could learn a trade, benefit from a healthy lifestyle, and be taught the errors of whatever ways had led them to become inmates. Older readers will remember the words ‘Reform School’ and ‘Borstal’. These days we skip around the  truth with phrases like ‘Young Offenders Institution’, but the fact remains that Industrial schools were usually grim places which probably served as training grounds for future lawbreakers. The industrial schools were invariably grim and forbidding places but it doesn’t seem that one existed in Cambridgeshire, with the nearest one being in Suffolk.

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To their eternal credit, there were those in Wisbech who thought the sentence handed down to these boys was excessive. To use modern parlance, they may well have been “thieving little scrotes”, but even so, this was a draconian sentence, even by the standards of 1933. Spearheaded by a Baptist minister, the Reverend R N Armitage (pictured below), a fund was started to appeal the boys’ sentence.

Armitage

Then, the big guns turned on Dr Meacock and the other people alongside him who actually were magistrates. It seems that Meacock had no business being in that court, and with the benefit of hindsight, it seems that the infamous Old Pals’ Act was alive and well in Wisbech. The popular national periodical, John Bull, said its piece. After repeating the findings of the magistrates, the journal then let rip.

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Martyrs clippingThe case of the Five Little Martyrs is not simply one of a wrong being righted. It has a curiously modern feel to it, with its far-reaching echoes of relatively minor misdeeds being met by extravagant punishment. The boys were clearly beyond parental control. and their group had a velocity and dynamic all of its own. Yes, the hauls from their thieving – ten bob, some pig serum, cycle lamps and a packet of Aspros (remember them?) seem comical.

However, you only need to follow local Facebook groups nowadays to read accounts of similar misdemeanours, on the same streets as the Infamous Five frequented, to read violently worded responses from people who feel that ‘feral youths‘   (a term not yet invented in 1933) are making their lives a misery. The people who ran Wisbech in 1933 – in particular Dr Meacock – don’t emerge from this saga with any honour. Sadly, some things never change.

I write as someone who lives in Wisbech, and I can tell you that in 2020, eighty seven years on from the events I describe in this feature, modern day versions of Dr Meacock are alive and well, still with theirhands on the tiller.

So, what became of The Five Little Martyrs? The records tell us that a Horace Stephen Freear died in 1978, and that a Frederick Hunt died in 1971. Of the others, no-one knows what they did with their lives after they, briefly, became national figures.

THE FIVE LITTLE MARTYRS . . . Part one

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It is the Autumn of 1933. The summer had seen the cinema release of The Private Lives of Henry VIII featuring Charles Laughton, and an out-of-favour politician called Winston Churchill had made a speech warning of the dangers of German re-armament. In Wisbech – an unremarkable town in Cambridgeshire’s Fen country – a criminal case was the headline in the Wisbech Standard. The repercussions of this vaguely comical affair would later bring Wisbech into national focus.

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Let the report in the Wisbech Standard tell the tale of these ruthless gangsters and their reign of terror which had the honest Fenland folk cowering in their beds and in fear of their lives.

“For five hours Dr H. C. Meacock (in the chair) and other magistrates sat, on Tuesday, at a special Wisbech Children’s Court listening to the evidence in an amazing series of thefts extending over two months, committed by a gang of young Wisbech schoolboys, five of whom were eventually ordered to be sent to an industrial school.”

Those who read – in an earlier Fully Booked True Crime feature – the sad tale of Horace Dimock, and the tragic events in Wisbech some twenty years earlier, may recall the name of Dr Meacock. It could be said that he had ‘previous’. Wasn’t he the man who, twenty years earlier, was most prominent in the sad case of Dr Dimock and The Wisbech Riots? He was, the very same. One of his fellow magistrates was a certain Mr Savory, seen here on the right of the good doctor.

Meacock Savory

So, what was the nature of the criminal career of these five lads? Were they emulating the deeds of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker who were in the middle of their legendary crime spree a few thousand miles across the Atlantic? The crimes of The Wisbech Five were rather more mundane:

The defendants were first charged with stealing a purse containing a ten shilling note and 2s 6d in silver from the dwelling house of Annie Ward, at Wisbech, on September 5th.

Annie Ward, of Little Church Street, Wisbech, stated that she left her house at 11.55 am to go to a nearby baker’s establishment. When she returned five minutes later she found her purse missing from the mantelpiece.

Inspector Bush gave evidence of the enquiries he pursued after being informed of the loss, and read statements which he said were made by the defendants when he interviewed them.

The next charge was one of stealing a box of ante-serum for pigs and 5s worth of groceries, the property of Bert Clifton at Wisbech on September 1st.

Bert Clifton, a farmer, of Gedney, said that about 8 o’clock he left his motor car against the Canal railings near the Empire Theatre. In the car were some drums of ante-serum, which he valued at 22s 8d, and 5s worth of groceries. He was away from his car between 8pm and 10.45pm, and on leaving the Theatre he went direct to the car and did not miss the goods until he reached home.

Inspector Bush stated that on September 11th and on subsequent dates he interviewed defendants, one of whom he said took the groceries out of the car and handed them to another of the defendants, who threw them into the canal. Witness added that one of defendants’ parents had rendered every assistance in trying to retrieve the goods from the canal (pictured below)

Canal

All the defendants pleaded guilty except one, whose father said that he was in the house at the time of the alleged crime.

The same boys were then charged with stealing a rib of beef and a carton of cream belonging to Susannah Winters, at Wisbech on the same date.

Susannah Winters said that she left her cycle in Clare’s Passage at about 6-40pm. On the handlebars was a basket containing a joint of meat worth 2s 3d, and a carton of cream, which had disappeared when she returned to her cycle at 6.55. Inspector Bush spoke of interviewing defendants, one of whom said that one of the others took the meat home and had it cooked. This was denied by the parent. Mr A R Bennett, headmaster of the Queen’s School and Mr A V Thompson, headmaster of St Peter’s School were present when witness interviewed defendants.

Five of the boys were then charged with stealing cycle lamps at Wisbech on September 8th and 9th, the property of William Callaby, James John Harrop, Kate Rose, and another. Inspector Bush gave evidence in each case.

A charge of stealing two purses and 9d in money, the property of Ivy Irene Hurst, and another, at Wisbech on September 9th was brought against four of the boys. Ivy Irene Hurst said that she went to the Swimming Bath on the date in question, with a friend. After she had left the water, and dressed, she took her shopping bag, which contained her own handbag, inside which was her friends purse, and placed it in her friend’s cubicle. A few minutes later they both went back to the cubicle and found that the purses had been taken from the bag. Witness valued the handbag at 7s 6d. Jean Parlett corroborated the previous witness’s evidence. Inspector Bush said he interviewed defendants, who admitted being there.

Another summons was for stealing half a pound of butter, a box of Aspro tablets and two cycle spanners, at Wisbech on September 9th. Dolly Mary Willimott Barber stated that she left her cycle outside 6, The Crescent at about 6-15pm. On returning at 6-40pm, she found the articles were missing. In his evidence, Inspector Bush said he saw the defendants on September 10th, and one said that they had all shared “the white sweets, which did not taste nice.”

Five of the boys were also charged with stealing a leather handbag containing 2s 7d in money, certain photographs, and one NP match-box, the property of Ivy may Hurst, at Wisbech, on September 1st. Ivy Hurst, of Broad Drove, South Brink, Wisbech, said that at about 9-15am she left her perambulator, in which was her handbag containing the articles, outside Dr Gunson’s House. She visited Dr Gunson’s surgery at 10-10, and when she came out at 11 o’clock the handbag was not there.

Inspector Bush said that when he interviewed defendants one of them said that a boy took the bag out of the perambulator and hid it under some stones near St Peter’s School. All the boys admitted they were there when the theft was committed.

Two of the boys were finally charged with stealing 2s in silver and 4d in copper, the monies of Barbara Joyce Bush, at Wisbech, on September 9th. Barbara Joyce Bush, of the Police Station, Harecroft Road, Wisbech, stated that she left her cycle outside Peark’s shop. On the handlebars was a basket, in which was a small bag containing the money. She was only in the shop about three minutes, but when she came out her bag was missing. Inspector Bush spoke of the previous witness reporting her loss to him, and the subsequent enquiries he made. One of the defendants admitted taking the money and sharing it one of the other boys. They bought some sweets with some of the money.

This hearing took place at Sessions House, a familiar Wisbech landmark.

Sessions House

IN PART TWO
(live on Friday 26th June)

The summing up and sentencing …
The horrors of the Industrial Schools…
The town – and the nation – responds …
The five boys named for the first time ….
The ‘judge’ who had no business being in the court

THE ADVERSARY … Between the covers

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The bare – and true – facts are these. Jean-Claude Romand, the son of a well-to-do forestry official in the Jura region of France went off to study medicine. He never took any exams, but fooled his parents and university administrators into believing that he was – for years – on the verge of qualifying as a doctor. He pronounced himself a fully accredited physician. He married, had two children, and went to work for the World Health Organisation as a researcher into the causes and treatment of arteriosclerosis. As his career developed he became closely connected with several important figures in the world of international politics and medicine. His was a glittering career, except for one small problem. It was all a fantasy. He never qualified. There was no job. No connections with influential decision makers. No international conferences in exotic locations.

The AdversaryTo this farrago of lies and deception add fraud on a grand scale. Romand was able to keep himself and his family in relative prosperity by claiming that he had access to investment opportunities which would pay handsome dividends to those fortunate enough to be ‘in the know’. He relieved relatives and members of his wider family of hundreds of thousands of French francs – every one of which went into his numerous personal bank accounts. Separating his mistress and her vast personal fortune was his undoing. She was sharp enough – eventually – to call him out and, with his fantasy world on the verge of unraveling, Romand, on an icy weekend in January 1993, killed his wife, two children, and both of his parents.


Jean Claude Romand
is portrayed as a shabby Prospero, and the Caliban he commands is a breathtaking fantasy world of warped imagination and fraud. Such was his belief in his own plausibility – and the gullibility of others – that he had one final trick to play. He returned to his house (and the cold corpses of his family) and set it on fire. Suicide in a fit of remorse? Carrère – and the French criminal justice system – thought otherwise. Romand was carried alive from the inferno. The flames were real enough, but Romand calculated that he would be rescued. At the point where he had recovered enough to speak to the police, he would then tell of the masked intruder who killed his family and left him for dead.

Jean-Claude-Romand_width1024Inevitably, Romand was found guilty of murder, and in 1996 was sentenced to life imprisonment with no chance of parole for at least twenty two years. Prior to the trial, Carrère had begun a correspondence with Romand (right) with a view to writing an account of the case. In this account, aside from the factual detail, Carrère invites us to ponder the true nature of evil and insanity, and makes us wonder if the two states are totally separate, or whether or not they are actually bedfellows.

Carrère does his best to keep a neutral tone of voice as he describes the road Romand took, from his eighteen years of astonishing duplicity, via the terrible murders, through to journey’s end where he seems to have rehabilitated himself in prison, at least in the eyes of some. It would have been cheap work to write a bloodthirsty piece of tabloid jornalism, where shock falls upon shock, and adjectives become ever more spectacular, but Carrère is flesh and blood, and a compassionate human being; there is a note of bemusement as he describes the tortuous labyrinth of deception Romand builds around himself. The killings? He does no more than lay out the facts. The callousness, the brutality, the sheer casual depravity of the deeds speak for themselves. Carrère saves his contempt for the captive Romand, who seems to have cast a spell on many otherwise decent people who have been profoundly impressed with how the killer has turned to God.

Emmanuel-Carrère-1Carrère (left) concludes:

“He is not putting on an act, of that I’m sure, but isn’t the liar inside him putting one over on him? When Christ enters his heart, when the certainty of being loved in spite of everything makes tears of joy run down his cheeks, isn’t it the adversary deceiving him yet again?”

 Up to this point, I had wondered about the book’s title, but reality dawned as I recalled the vivid and terrifying image from the first epistle of Peter, chapter 5:

“Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour:”

 L’Adversaire was first published in 2000, and has been the subject of several films and documentaries. This new edition, translated by Linda Coverdale, is published by Vintage Books, which is part of the Penguin Random House group of companies.

KILLING GOLDFINGER … by Wesley Clarkson

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Even if it seems faintly indecent to make such comparisons, British gangsters and crime bosses have usually paled into insignificance when compared to their transatlantic cousins. Even The Krays, whose legend grows ever more lurid with the passing of the years, were regarded as nickel and dime operators by American crime syndicates. Reg and Ron, by the way, were not even the nastiest gangsters in Britain. That dubious crown rests securely on the heads of the deeply dreadful Richardson brothers from ‘Sarf London.’ British gangsters have generally been like lightweight boxers in the ring with heavyweights, and nothing epitomises that gulf like the painful demise of Harold Shand in The Long Good Friday, who perishes like a pygmy among giants.

Goldfinger035Perhaps the world has shrunk, or maybe it is that organised crime, like politics, has gone global, but more recent British mobsters have become bigger and, because we can hardly say “better”, perhaps “more formidable” might be a better choice of words. No-one typifies this new breed of gang boss than John “Goldfinger” Palmer. His name is hardly on the tip of everyone’s tongues, but as this new book from Wensley Clarkson shows, Palmer’s misdeeds were epic and definitely world class.

Born in Warwickshire in 1950, Palmer found that school and conventional education offered him nothing. After working with his brother for a spell, he started dealing in gold and jewellery from a Bristol address, and first came to the attention of the police in a significant way with his involvement in the Brinks Mat gold bullion heist in 1983. Palmer’s part in the affair sounds scarcely credible, but it was to melt down the gold bars into more saleable items – in his back garden. It was this action which earned him his nickname, but his claim that he didn’t know where the gold had come from convinced the jury at his trial in 1987.

Clarkson036Meanwhile, Palmer had not been idle, at least in the sense of criminality. He had set up in the timeshare business, perpetrating what was later proved to be a massive scam. When he was eventually brought to justice, it was alleged that he had swindled 20,000 people out of a staggering £30,000,000. In 2001 he was sentenced to eight years in jail, but his ill-gotten gains were never recovered.

Despite his prodigious earnings, it seemed to go against Palmer’s grain to go straight, and he continued to dabble in fraudulent timeshare selling and money laundering. He had semi-retired to a Ponderosa style property in Essex (where else?) but it seems clear that no-one spends their life stealing on a grand scale without making enemies, and he was shot dead in a professional hit on 24th June, 2015.

This brief account is all in the public domain, but Wensley Clarkson can tell the full story because of his intensive research ‘on the inside’. His knowledge has not been gathered without cost, as he and his family have been subject to death threats by criminals terrified of being exposed. Killing Goldfinger is the definitive account of an extraordinary life – and death. It is published by Quercus, and is due to be published on 1st June.

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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.

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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.

 

THE NEW CROSS DOUBLE MURDER

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BonomoThere have been many murders where a perpetrator has been allowed to roam, free to kill despite – with the glorious clarity afforded by hindsight – there being loud alarm bells ringing throughout the criminal justice system and, sadly, the offices of mental health professionals. One grim and grisly case was the double murder of two French students in New Cross in 2008. Laurent Bonomo (left) and Gabriel Ferez were gifted research scientists from Clermont Ferrand University finishing their Masters Degrees at Imperial College London.

FerezBonomo and Ferraz (right) were tied up, gagged, tortured and then subject to frenzied multiple stabbings over several hours. They were then doused in an accelerant, and set fire to. Their bodies were discovered by firefighters attending the blaze in their rented apartment at Sterling Gardens, New Cross, on 29th June 2008.

On 6 July 2008, police issued an image of a suspect, based on the descriptions of witnesses who had seen him running away from Sterling Gardens just after 10.00pm on the day that the two young Frenchmen were killed.He was described as “white, 30 to 40 years of age, of slight or slim build and wearing light coloured baseball cap, a dark top with the word Junfan on, blue jeans and white trainers”.

Following the precise description of the wanted man, a thin 33 year-old whose face and hands were badly burned had walked into Lewisham police station, apparently to confess to the killings. When he was told to wait in line at the reception by a civilian worker, he said: “I’ve got third degree fucking burns and they are not doing anything about it.” He was taken to hospital, eventually released,  and then nterviewed in custody by the police.

FarmerOn 10 July, Nigel Edward Farmer, 33, (left) unemployed and of no fixed abode, was charged with double murder, arson and attempting to pervert the course of justice when he appeared before Greenwich Magistrates’ Court. He was remanded in custody until 16 October,  at which point the case would be transferred to the Old Bailey.

The very next day, armed police arrested Daniel “Dano” Sonnex, 23, (below) in Peckham, south-east London, after Scotland Yard issued an alert to trace him. Described as “extremely dangerous” he was detained and investigated after his brother, Bernard, 35 and a woman, 25, handed themselves to the police and advised officers as to his whereabouts.

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The trial of Daniel Sonnex and Nigel Farmer began on 24th April 2009 at the Old Bailey. The jury began to consider their verdict on 29th May 2009, and on 4 June 2009, Sonnex and Farmer were found guilty of murder. Sonnex was sentenced to serve a minimum of 40 years in prison, and Farmer was ordered to stay behind bars for at least 35 years.

And what of the two murderers?

Farmer had worked as a decorator on projects including the ITN and ICI buildings in central London, but his life spiralled downwards after his relationship with the mother of his twins broke down. He drifted between the homes of various associates after leaving the family home, and his drug-taking and self-harming worsened.

Farmer developed a £100-a-day crack and heroin habit and eventually ended up lodging with the Sonnex family in Deptford. He was given residential treatment for his mental health problems, but he walked out after four days saying he was not getting the help he needed. At his trial his barrister attempted to paint him as a bemused figure watching from the periphery while members of the Sonnex family committed a series of violent attacks.

Sonnex was a member of a notorious criminal family in the area, but the scale of ineptitude from the authorities beggars belief, as this chronology reveals.

8th February 2008: Sonnex is wrongly categorised as ‘medium risk’ and released from jail with only low level supervision after multi-agenct public protection meetings are cancelled, in part because of a broken photocopier at a probation office.

10th February 2008: No action is taken by either police of probation officers after Sonnex and an accomplice tie up and threaten a pregnant woman and her boyfriend.

23rd April 2008: Sonnex is charged with handling stolen goods after stealing a handbag in a pub, but the probation service is not informed for five days. Eventually, Sonnex was found, and remanded in custody.

16th May: Sonnex, who has been in custody for the handling charge, is granted unconditional bail by Greenwich Magistrates. he then goes on the run. During June, the legal process requiring Sonnex to return to prison is finalised, but the police fail to execute the warrant for his address.

29th June: The murdered French students are discovered. Police officers, unaware that Sonnex is involved, go to arrest him under the terms of the previous warrant, but he escapes over a garden wall.

This catalogue of ineptitude, misplaced trust and woolly minded optimism by liberal-minded members of the criminal justice system takes some beating, and would be hilarious were it not for the fact that two young men, with the world at their feet have been lying in a French graveyard for the last nine years. A final thought for those who believe that criminals are equally traumatised by their actions, and that they are secondary victims who deserve our sympathy and guidance. If you want to know how the Sonnex family was chastened and sobered by the actions of one of their own, you may like to read this extract from a north Kent local newspaper in 2014.

Louise Sonnex – older sister of the brutal killer Dano – last week admitted driving a car into a double decker bus full of passengers while drunk in June. The mother-of-two, from Ash View Close in Deptford, was arrested after police found her to be three times over the limit with drugs also discovered in a car she claimed belonged to a friend.

The 40-year-old has previously been convicted for glassing a woman while screaming “I’m going to open her up like a can of beans”. In 2009 she was also given a five-year sentence for attacking her father’s girlfriend with a golf club. She is just one member of a family which has haunted the area for many years with a string of disgracefully violent incidents.

When arrested for the killings in Sterling Gardens, Dano – nicknamed ‘Mad Dog’ – turned to a detective and said: “I’m going to bite your face off”. After his sentence, the 28-year-old, who needed to be sedated during his murder trial – mouthed the words: “Fuck you” to the father of one of his victims.

Since his conviction, he has appeared in court again for trying to escape from Broadmoor prison by fashioning a pair of wings made from refrigerator shelves. Meanwhile, Louise’s father Bernard Senior has more than 26 convictions and has been to prison six times while other brother Bernard has been in prison 10 times for at least 34 offences.

Louise, who turned up to an earlier hearing in a leopard-print onesie before toppling over in the courtroom, admitted drink driving, reckless driving, driving without insurance and driving without a licence on Thursday (November 20) at Bexley Magistrates’ Court.

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