A Walk on the Wild Side

A Walk on the Wild Side

On a rain-soaked afternoon, BBC Radio Berkshire presenter Sarah Walker and I braved the elements to uncover the hidden secrets of local town of Reading’s criminal past.     We began our walk at Reading railway station, which was the town’s hub in Victorian times, as it is today. Many criminal acts were committed along the tracks in the nineteenth century, including a sensational fraud. It was also along this rail route that infamous baby farmer Amelia Dyer plied her nefarious trade in child trafficking.     Passing through Friar Street, one of the town’s main roads, we stopped for shelter under the canopy of Sainsbury’s. It was on this site that in 1946 RAF airman Eric Pocock strangled his girlfriend Connie Boothby. The Sweet Shop Strangling was either a suicide pact gone wrong, or cold blooded murder.     Next we made our way out towards the edge of the town to Howard Street, a small row of Victorian terraces where in 1845 the body of 60-year-old Elizabeth Spicer was found in the cellar of number 16. Afterwards, still in the pouring rain, we walked back into the town centre, to Cross Street. On the site of Marks and Spencer’s was a tobacconist’s where, in 1929, shopkeeper Alfred Oliver was brutally murdered. Despite a celebrity arrest and the efforts of Scotland Yard, his killer was never found.   For the second part of our crime walk, Sarah and I followed in the steps of child murderer Amelia Dyer, one of Britain’s most prolific serial killers, whose nefarious crimes came to light in Reading in 1896. We began at...
Investigating the Ilford Murder

Investigating the Ilford Murder

I’ve been enjoying the new series Murder, Mystery and My Family, recently shown on BBC One. I was particularly interested in the case of Edith Thompson who was executed for her husband’s murder in 1922, as some of the drama played out in places I know. I decided to investigate further… On 3 October 1922, Edith and Percy were on their home to Ilford after an evening at the theatre in central London. As they walked through a dark side street, Percy collapsed. His wife called out to passers-by for help and a doctor arrived soon after. Blood was pouring from Percy’s mouth and the doctor thought he’d died of a seizure. However, when Percy’s body was examined later at the police mortuary, it was discovered that he’d been stabbed 11 times.     When the police questioned Edith about her husband’s death, she seemed at first to have been unaware of an attack and could not account for his horrific injuries. Through further interviews with family members, it came to light that she had been having an affair with shipping clerk Frederick Bywaters, and he was soon in the frame for murder. Almost a century after the lovers were hanged for Percy Thompson’s murder, criminal barristers Sasha Wass and Jeremy Dein reexamined the evidence to assess whether Edith’s conviction had been sound. Much of the evidence in this case was centred on the stack of letters, uncovered by police, between Edith and Fred. Their correspondence contained many references of Edith’s wish for her husband’s death, even going so far as to suggest that she had tried to kill...
In the Line of Duty

In the Line of Duty

Police officers faced constant dangers as they patrolled the towns and cities of Victorian England, often leading to serious injury and sometimes even death. I’ve investigated two cases of police murder with astonishing similarities, but very different outcomes. On 1 August 1876, PC Nicholas Cock, of the Lancashire Constabulary, was walking his beat at midnight in the leafy suburb of Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester when he was shot. He died of his injuries. Later that same year, on 11 December, two police officers from the Berkshire Constabulary, were also killed during their regular night-time patrol near the market town of Hungerford. Inspector Joseph Drewett was shot and his colleague, PC Thomas Shorter, was bludgeoned to death.     The victims Nicholas Cock was just 21 years old and had joined the police force just eight months before his murder. Originally from Cornwall, he had moved to Manchester for work. Thomas Shorter, aged 24, was from the village of Cookham, Berkshire. Both officers were single and from large families. Inspector Joseph Drewett, also from Berkshire, was 41 years old. He was married with five young children.     The suspects In both cases, the investigating police officers knew exactly who their prime suspects were from the very beginning. In Manchester, Superintendent James Bent arrested the three men he believed were responsible for his officer’s death shortly after the murder. They were brothers John, Frank and William Habron, aged 24, 22 and 18 respectively. Having settled in Chorlton in the 1850s from Ireland, they worked nearby in a nursery garden as labourers. In Hungerford, Superintendent George Bennett arrested his suspects at 7 am...
Investigating Murder on the Orient Express

Investigating Murder on the Orient Express

‘All my life I wanted to go on the Orient Express’ (Agatha Christie)   Like the Queen of Crime, I’ve always wanted to travel on the Orient Express (I’m still holding out hope) and that’s partly because Murder on the Orient Express is one of my favourite crime novels. After my recent visit to Greenway, and ready for the release of the new film, I investigated the story.   Murder on the Orient Express was published on 1 January 1934. The 40th Hercule Poirot story features the world-renowned detective travelling on the Orient Express from Istanbul to Calais, when the train is stranded in a snowdrift. During the night, fellow traveller Monsieur Ratchett, a wealthy American antiques dealer is stabbed to death in his compartment. With no signs of entry to or exit from the train, the killer must still be on the train. Hercule Poirot, in his customary fashion, interviews the other passengers and begins to compile clues as to the identity of the perpetrator of this bloody murder.     Agatha Christie travelled on the Orient Express several times and, in 1931, she was returning home from her husband’s archeological dig in Nineveh, when she became stuck onboard for 24 hours during a heavy rainstorm. Ever the sleuth, Christie positioned herself close to the Wagon Lits director to glean information: ‘I was always in the position of having inside information. I used to creep to the door and listen.’ Observing her companions closely during their stop, she soon had a setting and ideas for characters for a brand-new crime story.     The plot of Murder on...
Celebrating with the Queen of Crime

Celebrating with the Queen of Crime

  Last Friday, it was Agatha Christie’s birthday and naturally I celebrated the birth of one of my favourite crime writers at her home. (In fact, I was on my way to the Police History Society annual conference, which was nearby). Greenway, near Torquay, is a beautiful house set in a stunning landscape and it’s easy to see why Agatha loved it so much.     Agatha Christie, née Miller, was born in Torquay on 15 September 1890 and spent her childhood in the family home of Ashfield. During one of her visits home in 1938, with her second husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan, she bought Greenway as a holiday home for their family. The house was the perfect retreat from her busy life as a world-renowned crime writer, and she even wrote two books there: Dead Man’s Folly and Five Little Pigs. The house now belongs to the National Trust and it remains much the same as it was when the Mallowans were there.     The rooms are cosy and comfortably furnished, almost as if the inhabitants had just popped out for a while. There are stacks of books, including an extensive collection of Christie’s own novels – her paperbacks are still on show in the circular bookcase that her daughter had specially made to display them. There are two desks in the house, one in the winter dining room and another in the fax room (although Agatha wrote mainly in her bedroom), and it’s easy to imagine her there, pen in hand, thinking of ingenious methods of killing people.     The house retains much of her...
The Murder of the ‘Little Bobby’

The Murder of the ‘Little Bobby’

  The man at the heart of my latest true crime investigation is PC Nicholas Cock, the victim. He was patrolling his regular beat in the vicinity of Chorlton-cum-Hardy, when he was shot dead whilst pursuing a suspected burglar. I have pieced together his story, which came to such a tragic end. Nicholas Cock was born in 1856 in Cornwall. He was the youngest of nine children, with four brothers and four sisters. By the time he was born, his brother, also named Nicholas, had died aged eight, of ‘brain disease’, which could have been meningitis. His father, Nicholas senior, was a lead and copper miner, and both he and his wife Elizabeth were illiterate. The Cock family lived in the villages near St Ive, not far from Liskeard. In 1861, the two oldest sons were both working down the mine and a daughter was employed as a copper dresser. Six years later, 59-year-old Nicholas senior died of dropsy, swelling caused by kidney or heart disease. Young Nicholas was just 11 years old.   By the beginning of the 1870s, teenage Nicholas was also working as a copper miner. As the decade wore on, many Cornish mines closed and, like thousands of other miners, Nicholas lost his job. He then moved to Durham, where he found employment as a collier with a large mining engineering firm. Just before Christmas in 1875, at the age of 20, he joined the Lancashire Constabulary. He was stationed at Chorlton police station, in a quiet suburb of Manchester.   The young police officer was 5 feet 7 1/2 inches tall. He had grey...