- Education and Science
British True Crime Stories from the Twentieth Century
True Crime in England in the UK in the Twentieth Century
The really strange thing is that I didn't realize that I was interested in true crime stories. Then one day, I was looking at the list of my articles on this site and thought 'oh yes, look how many I have about crime stories from the twentieth century'.
It was a bit of a revelation to find out. Why am I interested in that particular era? I really don't know although they do say that people are interested in stories from roughly the time they were born and I arrived just a few years after the middle of the century.
Once I discovered my interest, I tried to further figure out why. I think one of the reasons is that the penal system was so different in those days. Two of my articles (to date) deal with men who were hanged for crimes they didn't commit. Another is about a young woman who was hanged for a crime that would probably garner no more than a ten year prison sentence today.But I want to start with one that took place within my living memory - in fact, the story of a serial killer who terrorized the area in which I lived for over five years...
All images from Wikipedia Commons unless otherwise stated..
The murderer who terrorized Yorkshire
In the 1970s and early 80s I lived in Leeds in Yorkshire.
The photograph on the left is of Bradford, a nearby city. Bradford is typical of the northern 'dark satanic mills' town. At one time, it was a very prosperous place, its wealth being founded on the woolen industry. By the middle of the twentieth century though it was quite typical of many cities in England. It retained many of its older, majestic buildings but also had modern shopping centers, suburban areas and of course, a notorious red-light district.
A quiet young truck driver lived in one of those pleasant suburban streets with his schoolteacher wife. The epitome of respectability, he took his pleasures in the red-light district however. Murders began. At first the victims were 'ladies of the night'. Sad to say, some people thought that these girls had only themselves to blame but then, this quiet man began to kill what the newspapers called 'respectable' teenagers and women. This continued for five years. No woman in Yorkshire was safe.
During the search for this serial killer, why did the police manage to get everything so very wrong. Sutcliffe was interviewed several times by the police and one officer wrote a damning report about him. He was a truck driver and his job gave him the opportunity to travel around the region where his victims were killed. The police were convinced that a tape recording and letters they had received were from the killer. This led them on a wild goose chase during which time other murders were committed. Sutcliffe seemed to have magical powers when he evaded capture for so long. In fact, the police were taken fully down the garden path.
Hanged for a crime of passion
Ruth Ellis was only twenty eight when she was hanged in 1955.
She had certainly had a tempestuous life. She'd been brought up in a small town in Wales but like many young girls of her era had relocated to London in search of 'fame and fortune'. She certainly found fame - or, I should say, infamy.
She was the last woman to be hanged in Britain.Ruth was what my old mum would have called 'no better than she ought to be'. She was only seventeen - and unmarried - when she had her first child. In London, modeling work was more lucrative to her than serving behind a shop counter, particularly since she had no objection to being photographed au naturelle. But this soon led her to getting work as a nightclub hostess.
A broken marriage and another child soon followed. It was also at the nightclub that she met a posh, upper class racing driver and fell madly in love with him. A tempestuous relationship followed which ended in her lover lying in a pool of blood on a London street while Ruth looked on with a smoking gun in her hand.
Ruth Ellis didn't heed her lawyers advice when she was taken into court. They told her that she should tone down her appearance but Ruth refused.
Did she give the wrong impression to the jury? Unusually for a murder trial, only two days were spent in court. There was no doubt in the minds of the jury - she was meant to hang.
The case is an extremely complex one and this book explains in detail what took place and - importantly for British society - the impact her death had on the British legal system.
Although I was born in the nineteen fifties, reading about those days is like learning about another world - another planet almost. The stories that you'll see below shows you that in those days, murderers were almost invariably hanged. You'll also see that in some cases, the wrong person was put to death.
This was before the days of DNA testing and sophisticated forensic investigation. If you've read the story about the Yorkshire Ripper (you'll know that even in the nineteen eighties he police were bungling investigations - badly. Learn more about true crime in the UK and decide for yourself.
The wrong place, the wrong verdict
The teenager you see here was hanged when he was nineteen years old.
Derek Bentley wasn't a bright boy. Today, we would say that he was 'educationally challenged' or some similar politically correct description. But in England in the nineteen fifties wasn't like that. He had suffered head injuries as a boy during the second world war which had affected his development.
Derek couldn't hold down a job for long, his brainpower wasn't really up to it, so he had a lot of spare time on his hands and it was almost inevitable that he would fall in with other lads who were slightly on the wrong side of the law.One of these was Chris Craig.
Chris was younger than Derek - he was only sixteen - but he was a much smarter boy. After the war there were many ex-service revolvers available in England and Chris owned one, along with ammunition. One evening, the two teenagers decided to rob a local warehouse but were spotted and the police were called. The results were disastrous.Derek was caught but Chris fired his gun. Derek yelled to Chris 'let him have it!'
What did that mean? Did it mean 'give the officer the gun? The courts didn't think so. The pair was found guilty of the murder of the policeman. Chris was too young to hang. Derek wasn't.
As far as I'm aware, there is no book that is currently available which is an account exclusively about the Craig and Bentley case. However, the story was re-enacted in the film that you see here. When I first watched this, I was sure that the film was a good reflection of the accurate events of the day and contemporary professional reviewers agreed. It's very thoughtfully created and you'll certainly feel an empathy for all the characters especially the two young teenagers, one in particular who had a learning disability, who due to what was a mere teenage prank helped changed the course of the British legal system in the nineteen fifties.
The hanging of an innocent man
This is Timothy Evans. Like Ruth Ellis, he was born and spent his childhood in Wales and later moved to London. Like Derek Bentley, he too suffered from illnesses as a child that prevented a large part of his schooling.
Unlike Derek though and despite being unable to read and write, Timothy was able to hold down a job and in his early twenties he married a girl who became pregnant shortly afterwards. When their daughter was born, the couple were delighted to be able to rent a tiny flat at the top of a house in a London street.
Soon afterwards, Timothy, his wife Beryl and their young daughter would all be dead.
Timothy was twenty five years old when he was hanged for the murder of his wife and baby.Living on the ground floor of the house - the infamous 10 Rillington Place - was a middle-aged man called John Christie.
The Evans couple were somewhat in awe of the older man. He had been a special constable, he told them, during the war and he worked respectably for the post office. He became even more involved in their lives when Beryl found out that she was pregnant once again. She insisted that she wanted to get rid of the baby. There was hardly enough room in the poky flat for the three of them let alone another child. Abortion was illegal in those days - available but expensive - and the couple were so grateful when Christie, showing them diagrams from his first aid book to demonstrate his medical knowledge, said that he would perform the illegal abortion.
Similarly, the book about the case that was responsible ultimately for Evans receiving a pardon is out of print. Today, despite all the evidence, it is fashionable to declare the Evans did indeed murder his wife and daughter although few people can adequately explain why two killers were both operating from the same tiny house at the same time. If you want to get an accurate idea of the events of the murders, this DVD is beautifully acted and portrays the atmosphere of London in the seedier areas in the nineteen fifties - something that it's almost impossible to imagine today.
British bloodshed in the Bahamas
The man we see here wasn't a murderer, or someone wrongly convicted of murder, he was the victim of the most mysterious murder ever to take place in the beautiful Bahamian Islands. Bahamas? British? Yes, the islands were under British rule at the time of the crime (1943) and Sir Harry Oakes was a British citizen who had been knighted for his work in the UK, the Bahamas and Canada.
What's more, the Bahamas were , at that time, presided over by the 'disgraced' British king who had abdicated his throne so he could marry an American divorceé.
Oakes was brutally murdered in his bed in his palatial home as a tropical storm raged through the island. His body was found by a friend on the following day. Who had wanted to murder this captain of industry who had been made into a baronet for his philanthropic works?
His son-in-law was an immediate suspect. But the governor of the islands, the ex-king the Duke of Windsor took over running the investigation of this powerful man. Was the mob involved? Was it a domestic murder or more than it seemed? Did the Duke of Windsor bungle the investigation? Why were detectives brought in from Miami?
If you've read my article you'll know that this brutal murder was never solved. Within the confines of these webpages, I've been unable to go into great details about the complexities of this case that would need and entire website; or this book. A casino was planned in the Bahamas that would bring valuable tourist revenue to the area - was that part of the motive? Was the Mafia involved as they so often are with gambling operations? What part did H G Christie play? He was the friend who was staying in the Oakes home on the night of the murder. He says he heard nothing during the night because of the violent thunderstorm. Could that be true? And then we have the Edward and Mrs Simpson connection too. This book explains.
This is my current collection of true crime British stories. I have many more planned which will be added to this page as soon as they are published. Read about these tragedies and murders and let me know what you think. If you'd like to read more about the cases mentioned above, scroll down for an excellent selection of books that are available online.