In the last post I described the basic facts concerning the unsolved murder of Nottingham pub landlord George Wilson in September 1963. This time I’m going to delve deeper into the crime, reflect on the facts in more depth, look at contemporary newspapers of the period, and put forward some ideas & theories. The newspapers I believe can shed some light on matters.
For those of us who didn’t experience the 1960s first hand, it’s tempting to define the period using easy pop culture references such as mini-skirts, Merseybeat and the football World Cup. Those who did live during that era would doubtless find this a short-sighted view. Flick through newspapers of the 1960s and you’ll find stories of armed robberies, knife attacks, muggings, suicide gassings, burglary and vandalism. Crime in the 1960s was not dissimilar to crime now.
I mention this to contextualise the stabbing of George Wilson. There is no doubt it was horrific, but it was by no means carried-out in some otherwise twee, quaint & innocent era. In the 1920s, Britain had become home to the Sabini family, who loansharked to punters with bad gambling debts and protected illegal Jewish bookies carrying huge sums of cash at race courses at Epson, Brighton and Lewes. There were rumours that the police struck a deal with them, too, to protect the courses from incursions by other firms. By the 1960s, violent and murderous gangs or ‘firms’ such as the Richardsons and Krays had started to establish themselves in London, mixing criminal brutality with celebrity. 1963 was the year JFK was assasinated amid persistant rumours that the shooting(s) had been initiated by a scheming coalition of disgruntled politicians and mafia members. The world in that year was more complex than ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ might have you believe.
When I started looking at newspaper reports about the Pretty Windows murder, I felt closer to the crime than when reading modern accounts. I suppose they reflected how the story gradually unfolded to Nottingham residents at the time. In part two I’ll deviate from the chronological summary approach of part one by looking at facets of the case individually.
Writer Steve Jones says of George Wilson’s murder, ‘Like every unsolved case there are those, including policemen, in Nottingham, who are said to know the identity of the murderer, but cannot or will not prove their suspicions.’
A local history forum post online here includes the assertion: ‘I heard in later years that a couple of detectives involved in the case had a good idea of the motive, and had a prime suspect for the murder. But they just couldn’t gain enough solid evidence to bring the case to court.’
The sources of these claims aren’t cited, and so it’s hard to delve further into this theory. They may be largely groundless, and stem from the natural human desire for intrigue. Most people’s thoughts and theories on crime are shaped by fiction – books, TV, radio, movies and so on – where a clever but logical narrative is required to impress the audience. Real life isn’t necessarily like this. Thriller writer Tom Clancy is quoted as saying, “The difference between reality and fiction? Fiction has to make sense.”
As disssatisfying as it may be, we should be prepared to accept the fact that maybe even if we knew ‘the truth’, it might make very little sense, or not fit in with some larger narrative. Sudden, spontaneous fatal attacks are carried-out by panicked and enraged individuals all over the world every day. George’s awful murder may have been an example of one of these.
Below are my thoughts and speculation on what may have happened to George Wilson, given the fragmented details we know. Some and maybe all will be utter rubbish, and others are contradictory of each other. I’ve tried to avoid favouring one overarching theory and shaping the facts to make it fit. I’ll largely be thinking out loud, stating ideas on what I consider each signicant facet of the case.
(1) THREATENING BEHAVIOUR
Around the time of George’s murder, there was a spate of anonymous telephone threats made to pub landlords in the city centre. George had received such a threat about two months before the stabbing. Like the other three threatened landlords, George managed a Home Breweries pub.
One of the other landlords, Harold Dawson – landlord at the Sawyer’s Arms in Greyfriar Gate – received a phone call after George’s death in which he was told, “It’s your turn next.”
Harold told police the caller’s voice was “refined and cultured”, and could have been a woman. Could the Pretty Windows murder have been the horrific result of a campaign against Home Brewery Company Ltd? Was a criminal gang or family attempting to impose a lucrative protection or extortion racket upon the Nottingham company? Police failed to establish a clear motive for George’s murder. They highlighted that George was an amiable man, generous with his staff and customers, and no evidence existed whatsoever suggesting he was involved in an extra-marital affair. If George’s murder had been carried-out by someone working for extortion or protection racketeers, it would follow that his likeable nature and the apparent lack of motive evident in his lifestyle would be irrelevant; in this hypothesis he was murdered to be made an example of and frighten the brewery that supplied his ales.
(2) THE RUNNING MAN
I had a mooch around the old Sneinton wholesale market to get an idea of the lie of the land, specifically thinking about the man in the Fedora who was nearly hit by a security truck. The Nottingham Evening Post referred to him as ‘the running man’.
I walked from Longden Street, where the near hit happened, to the now boarded-up pub and it took me two minutes, allowing for traffic on Bath Street on a Saturday afternoon. Running, it could be reached directly in a minute especially at a time when far fewer pedestrians and vehicles were present. The Nottingham Evening Post reported that Betty found George around 12:54am. The security driver estimates he nearly struck the running man around 12:50am. Even allowing for misjudgments in witness timings it’s consistent to think that somebody stabbing George and fleeing the scene before Betty opened the door could be the same person nearly struck by the vehicle on Longden Street.
Several routes are possible to get to Longden Street from the pub, the most direct seeming to be Freckingham Street and then Avenue D. Dashing across Bath Street the assailant would have entered Longden Street on the southern side, and begun to run across to the northern side when a horn sounded and brakes squealed. It was at the junction of Aberdeen Street that he found himself staring terrified into the dazzling beam of a delivery truck’s headlights. He was statuesque for a second and the driver glimsed the swirling raincoat, the ‘chisel’ (or sheathed knife) in his hand and the hat upon his head, before the running man continued running. The Evening Post featured a diagram showing the relative positions of the pub and the near hit. I’ve recreated it below using a satellite image from Google Maps.
Despite police appeals, the running man never came forward, which sparks a possibility that he was involved.
(4) ROOF TILES AND BURGLARY
When sifting through newpaper archives at Central Library researching the Pretty Windows murder, I glimpsed this article and initially presumed it related to our case, but was then astonished to discover the newspaper was dated 6th Septmember 1963; three days before George would be stabbed. I had been certain it somehow related to Pretty Windows.
ACCUSED IS REMANDED ON BREAK-IN CHARGE
Man with dagger caught on roof – police. Court is told of struggle above public house
Armed with a double-edged dagger and with a blue silk scarf across half his face, 38-year-old James Betteridge was caught on the roof of a Nottingham public house last night as he was about to break in, it was alleged at Nottingham Guildhall today.
Betteridge, of Hampden-Street, Nottingham, was charged with being found by night, armed with an offensive weapon, with intent to break into the house of Beryl Dainton, the Mansfield Arms public house, Mansfield-road, Nottingham, to steal.
He was remanded in police custody until next Monday after Det-Sgt. W Redfern had said that the police had numerous inquiries to make.
P.c. Fred Reacher said he was on radio patrol at 11.8 last night when he was directed to go to the Mansfield Arms public house.
“I went to the flat roof over the lounge. There I saw Betteridge lying on the floor held down by the witnesses Mills and Lambert, with a pale blue scarf half way across his face” said the constable.
He said one of the witnesses handed him a double-bladed dagger and said: “We have caught this man on the roof with this.”
Betteridge was struggling and had to be handcuffed, said P.c. Reacher.
He was searched at police headquarters and a leather belt round his waist was found to have a sheath into which the knife fitted, said the constable.
Cautioned, Betteridge was alleged to have replied: “Yes, I was going to screw it.”
The similarities between the situation described at the Mansfield Arms (which is now Keogh’s Irish Bar) and that at the Fox & Grapes are noteworthy; a pub, a low roof, a double-bladed dagger, an after-hours disturbance. Betteridge would have still been in custody when George was stabbed, but perhaps trends occur in the methods of criminals in the same way they occur in many other parts of society. Maybe carrying a dagger and accessing a pub via a low roof was known at this time in criminal circles as being effective. There isn’t necessarily a firm link between them any more than there’s a firm link between two fashionable male students sporting big beards; in both cases, the participants may be unrelated other than following a popular trend in their particular subcultures.
Alternatively, could a gang of burglars have decided to target pubs, and both Betteridge and George’s murderer be members of this gang? Perhaps pubs, daggers and low roofs were part of the modus operandi of this particular gang. Steve Jones tells us, ‘The police had been tipped off that the Fox and Grapes was on the hit-list of a gang of Scottish burglars operating in Nottingham. The gang and their associates were all cross-questioned but no information was forthcoming’.
Some accounts tell us that George was stabbed as he left to begin his dog-walk, but given that Betty found him about 20-45 minutes later, I think it more likely that he had completed the walk. This would explain how come Mr Smith (who left at 12:15am) presumably didn’t witness and report the stabbing, and it may also go some way to explaining the slates. The slates mentioned as being found on the ground near George’s body were proven to be from the section of low roof in the north-west corner of the pub, immediately beside the door where he was attacked.
If Betty retired to bed as her husband went on his walk, a burglar arriving ten or so minutes later might reasonably think the household was sleeping and hope to get inside to swipe a busy Saturday night’s takings. The burglar might carry a Bowie knife not only as a threat or tool of self-defence, but also to lever windows. We have already seen that a man was arrested a few days earlier with exactly such a weapon.
In my site visit to the pub, I checked the low roof. It leads to a window which is now barred, and seems to connect with the residential house portion of the building. Has it always been barred, or was this a precaution taking in later years?
On the low roof, our hypothetical burglar could suddenly have been disturbed by the sound of George talking to Blackie and jangling keys as he returned from his walk. The burglar is distracted and loses his footing, slipping down the roof and knocking slates as he goes. He grips the drainpipe and manages to break his fall, then sees George scrabbling to get into the pub to call for the police. The burglar drops from the drainpipe to the ground. George is moments from safety. If he could get inside and slam the door, the immediate danger would be over. It isn’t easy, though. There are several keys on his keyring and his hands are shaking. He tells himself to focus on the task and get inside to Betty and the children. The burglar, too, is panicking. He raises the Bowie knife and delivers the first terrible blow. Blackie is barking wildly and a light comes on inside the pub. George tries to call hoarsely to Bettie to telephone the police, but his voice is drowned-out by the barking. The burglar needs to silence George, and within moments his crime has escalated from attempted burglary to murder. The pub door is being unlocked, and the vicious attacker sprints away down Avenue B or onto Southwell Road, leaving the dog barking after him, and poor Betty to find her mortally wounded husband. Why would a burglar need to kill George, rather than wound him and escape? Could it be that George Wilson recognised his murderer, or at least got a good enough look to have identified him in the future? Furthermore, could the ferocity have come from a desire to finish-off George before Betty opened the door? Did both of them know the assailant?
Again, this is complete speculation, but does encompass the slates and the panicked, frenzied assault. I considered a variation on the above in which the slates are a result of an escape from rather than an arrival on the scene, but couldn’t reasonably rationalise this to any great extent.
(5) STRANGE SIGHTINGS BY MOTORISTS
In the first post I mentioned that police investigated a large number of leads, but I only included details of two sightings on the night of the murder; the running man we’ve already looked at above, and a couple who asked for directions to West Bridgford. When I wrote the first post, they were the only sightings referenced in the sources outlined, but since poring over the newspapers of the following days I realise there were a number of extremely bizarre goings-on around the Fox and Grapes that night.
One witness reported that he was driving up Carlton Road, and – at a spot about 500 yards from the Pretty Windows – a man dressed in army uniform without a beret darted into the road and waved his arms.”It was possible he was just asking for a lift, but he seemed distressed,” the witness told the Evening Post. “He came out of nowhere, and could have been drunk. His hair was ruffled.”
A separate incident – similar in some ways, but generally more bizarre – occured opposite the Fox and Grapes late on Saturday night. A man flung himself in front of a car and the drived slammed on the brakes. The man then lay in the road with folded arms, before jumping to his feet and walking away.
The final incident was closer to the pub (only 200 yards away), and occured only minutes after George had been stabbed. A man was seen waving his arms in the air before abruptly turning and running away up Carlton Road. This incident and the previous one may have involved the same man.
(6) KNOCKING AND BANGING
Steve Jones tells us that an hour or so before the stabbing, something curious had happened at the pub. As mentioned in part one of this blog post, the colleagues were enjoying a post-work drink to wind down after a busy shift. There was a knock at the door around 11pm. It’s not clear from the accounts who answered the door, though I understand that it was not George. When the door was answered, no one was there.
The Nottingham Evening Post carried a paragraph that seems related. It said a taxi driver saw a man in a white coat banging on the door of the pub just before the stabbing. Police appealed for the man to come forward, though whether or not he did is uncertain. Could the man banging on the door wearing a white coat be the running man, who apparently wore a light-coloured raincoat?
Given the time (11pm, half an hour after pub closing time), there is a reasonable chance that both the knocking and the banging (and the strange behaviour in the previous section) could have simply been the result of drunken mischief by a passer-by.
(7) THE KNIFE
Why would the murderer need to hide or discard the murder weapon? It initially sounds a silly question, but the police don’t have authority or resources to conduct a search of an entire city and all the buildings within it. Couldn’t a knife be hidden effectively within the murderer’s house in an attic or cellar, or under a floorboard, at least temporarily? If not, why not? Maybe the murderer didn’t live alone, so this could be an impediment to hiding the weapon in a house.
Perhaps it wouldn’t be so strange to think that the murder was desperate to dispose of the weapon if we imagine the police would clearly feel they had reasonable grounds to search the murderer’s house, and so produce a warrant. But why think that the police would want to search his house? Maybe he was known (or could reasonably be assumed) to own a knife akin to the one that was used to kill George Wilson.
In retrospect, the murder weapon has been referred to as a Bowie knife. The design of a Bowie knife makes it a multipurpose implement for hunters and poachers. Using one part of the blade, an animal’s fur or skin can be trimmed away, whilst the other facilitates the cutting of the meat inside. A taxidermist might make good use of such a knife. Bowie knives are often mistaken for butcher’s knives. So, perhaps the murderer was a hunter, poacher, taxidermist or butcher, or perhaps he was known to the police for owning a Bowie knife under some other circumstance; did he perhaps have a criminal record already? Did a hunter, poacher, taxidermist, butcher or known offender live close by, just beyond Longden Street if we assume the running man to be the killer? Did someone matching one of these descriptions have a grudge against George, or some reason to resent him? Realistically, we will not be able to check this.
In the days after the murder, the Nottingham Evening Post reported: ‘Police have questioned a man said to have brandished a knife in a public house near the Fox and Grapes.’ The outcome of this questioning is not reported, and nor is the man’s identity or details of the previous incident.
(8) THE HITCHHIKER AND THE CARAVANS
On Wednesday September 11th – three days after the murder and six days before the knife was found – a motorist picked-up a hitchhiker on Radcliffe Road. He was picked-up at Polser Brook, almost the same spot where the knife would shortly be found. He was about 30 years old, thin, 5’8″ with receding auburn hair that was brushed back. He wore glasses, a college scarf, and a raincoat with a small gold cross on the lapel. The motorist stated they discussed a broad array of topics including chiropody and monastaries. The hitchhiker never came forward despite police appeals after the weapon was found.
One of the local history forum posts mentioned earlier also includes this claim: ‘Shortly afterwards a caravan on a site in Radcliffe was burned out.There were rumours at the time that the local plod linked this to the murder.There was talk of the caravan being linked to a group of homosexuals which was a big no no in those days.The local gay community were very tight knit and further information was not forthcoming…the leads dried up.’ (sic)
This is not expanded upon, nor sources cited. The author of the comment acknowledges that it is based merely on rumours of a link so potentially incredibly flimsy. To my knowledge, the only link is the fact that Polser Brook and the caravan site are both in Radcliffe on Trent.
Curiously, another caravan site was checked by police, too. The Nottingham Evening Post reported that on Tuesday September 10th, Notts County police had ‘checked 15 caravans on waste land near the Chilwell by-pass.’ A senior officer for the county force, though, explained: “It was just part of the many enquiries we are making.”
I wonder if the police had a hint of the murderer’s identity, and knew him to own caravans at Chilwell and Radcliffe on Trent.
(9) THE RADFORD CONFESSION
More than one individual came forward and confessed to George’s murder, and all of them proved to be lying. False confessions are far more common than most people realise. They are tied to psychological disorders such as pathalogical lying. In a BBC article (here), chartered psychologist Dr Ian Anderson says that false confessions may be given by, “Someone who wants attention to the extent that even negative attention is better than no attention.”
Steve Jones tells us that many of the details of one confessor – a convict from Radford imprisoned in Dartmoor at the time of confessing – were consistent with elements of the case that hadn’t been publicised. The narrative of this confession asserted that the confessor had had a disagreement over Nottingham Forest’s form with George earlier in the night, and returned after hours as he was so enraged by the landlord’s comments. The confession was dismissed, however, when he failed to identify George or the knife from a selection of police images.
One possible explanation for this could be that the Radford confessor had heard or overheard details of the murder given by another inmate, and then chosen to claim the killing as his own. This would seem irrational to most of us, but pathological liars make claims that are irrational. The BBC article cited above mentions a case in 1932 in which ‘200 people came forward to claim responsibility for the kidnap and murder of the aviator Charles Lindbergh’s baby in New Jersey’.
I wonder if the real murderer was imprisoned in Dartmoor for another (presumably lesser) crime at the same time as the Radford confessor, and had boasted to his cellmates about other brutal acts he’d committed that the authorities couldn’t pin on him. Had the real murderer passed away or been released since revealing the details, meaning the confessor was free to stake his sick claim on George’s murder? Sadly, Dartmoor records are not easy to trace and investigate, but I’d love to know if a Nottingham man had been imprisoned there for a lesser crime than murder, who died or was released before the Radford confessor made his claim.
(10) THE TIP-OFF
In the days immediately after the murder, The Nottingham Evening Post received a telephone call in which a ‘well-spoken’ female said, “I have a good clue to the man the police are looking for, but I don’t want to be involved.” The Evening Post stated: ‘She then gave a message which has been passed on to the CID.’
George Wilson was 43 when he was murdered. If he was still alive today, he’d be 96 years old. I mention this to highlight how unlikely it is that the case will ever be solved. The murderer may have been a similar age, but even if he was half George’s age at the time, he’d still be a pensioner now. Strange to think that someone’s grandparent or great-grandparent could be alive today in a nursing home, harbouring such a secret.
Any number of hyptheses could be formed to include all of the facts of the case. The difficulty for us is knowing what elements outlined above are related directly to the murder and which are incidental or even irrelevant. Anyone who’s walked sober through the city on a Saturday night will know that the actions of drunken people can seem bizarre. Car or bus horns sound from time to time as people stagger out into the road, so the oddness decribed in (5) may be down to drunken antics. The soldier may have been seen with ruffled hair and without a beret if he’d been in a silly, drunken scuffle. Perhaps the slates from the roof mentioned in (4) were blown off by the wind. The hitchiker (8) and the running man (1) may have been reluctant to come forward for several reasons. Maybe one or both had committed crimes less severe than George’s murder that night, but still didn’t wish to come forward in case their actual crimes were uncovered. Maybe one or both were married, and had been conducting extra-marital affairs, meaning again that they wouldn’t want their activities being scrutinised. Perhaps there is a link between the hitchiker and the caravan reported to have been used by gay men which may explain why he didn’t respond to the police appeals. Homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK four years later. It’s important to remember that this is complete conjecture, and because something could be true, it doesn’t mean it is.
For what it’s worth, my own theory is that George disturbed a young and inexperienced burglar who panicked and stabbed him, fearing he’d be identified further down the line. He ran away, got into his car, and drove to the nearest desolate spot he could think of. There, he hurled the murder weapon into a ditch. The threats to the Home Brewery pubs had been made by fledgling organised criminals planning purely to frighten the landlords into speaking with the brewery about safety concerns. They hoped the brewery would have felt pressurised into accepting the firm’s offer of protection to the premises. The timing of the threats and the murder were coincidental. The telephone call telling Harold Dawson, “It’s your turn next,” was pure opportunism by the firm. No other landlords were murdered. The young murderer was apprehended and tried for a lesser crime and sent to Dartmoor. Inside, he sought to improve his standing by boasting to the more experienced men who valued violent, criminal acts, and was overheard by the Radford confessor. The murderer was eventually released and the pathological liar went to police, suspecting that his own notoriety in the prison would be boosted. The crazy men running in front of cars and banging on the door of the Fox and Grapes that night were drunks. The hitchhiker was innocent of murder but had other reasons for not coming forward.
Perhaps this is all a bit too neat and tidy. It’s really just a theory, nothing more. If I’m right there could be a man aged about 75 reading this online who is responsible for George’s murder, and whose children and grandchildren pass us in Nottingham streets every so often. It’s a strange thought. I wonder if the murder had read this post and finds my theories laughable. I can live with that if he can live with having murdered a man.
I’m intrigued by the case and will continue researching. I hope that one day the truth will be known, even if the murderer has passed away. Realistically, though, I guess I should be ready to face the fact that this is an unlikely outcome.
George’s murder is still an open case. If you have definite information about his murderer you should contact Notts Police.
The comments by Steve Jones are taken from his book, Nottingham…The Sinister Side (ISBN 1-870000-06-4).