Graham Greene’s Alternate Reality Nottingham

Writer Graham Greene’s most celebrated works are Brighton Rock and The Third Man, but for Nottingham residents there’s another that will be of much more interest. A Gun For Sale was first published in 1936, and is a dark thriller concerned with the escapades of a cold-blooded, disfigured assassin. Beginning in London, the story quickly shifts to the fictional city of Nottwich.

Greene had worked in Nottingham as a journalist at the Nottingham Journal newspaper in the mid 1920s, and for me there’s little doubt that Nottwich is based on our city. The etymology would work, since ‘-wich’ simply means village, and ‘Nott-‘ would be from the Saxon chieftain Snott, so Snott’s village (losing the ‘S’ after 1066 as Normans found it impossible to pronounce) is entirely reasonable as place name.

Anyway, onto specifics. Here are three quotes from the book concerning the setting, along with my own comments.

‘The street was full of people; they stretched along the southern pavement, past the theatre entrance, as far as the market. They were watching the electric bulbs above Wallace’s, the big drapers, spelling out the night’s news.’

This section mentions a theatre, a market, and a big drapers store. In the 1920s, Griffin and Spalding’s huge shop on the corner of Market Street and the Market Square was subtitled ‘the General Draper’s Store’. At the top of Market Street was the Theatre Royal. The geography doesn’t match exactly, but maybe reinventing Nottingham as Nottwich allowed Greene to condense or simplify the environment to ensure more concise writing.

‘It came in sight all along one side of the market place, as big as a railway station, of red and yellow stone with a clock-face in a pointed tower… There were sculpted figures in between every pair of windows; all the historic worthies of Nottwich stood in stiff neo-Gothic attitudes, from Robin Hood up to the Mayor of the Nottwich in 1864.’

This description of the Metropole hotel strikes me as an amalgam of several Nottingham landmarks. Victoria Station’s facade was crafted from red brick and yellow stone cladding, and featured the clock tower we now know as heralding Victoria Centre’s side entrance. The Elite Building on Upper Parliament Street would have been recently opened and a huge attraction during Greene’s time on the Nottingham Journal. It was also a short walk from his place of work, so I wonder if the sculptured figures on the Metropole may have been influenced by the representations of St George, Shakespeare and others that adorn the Elite. The old Black Boy Hotel stood ‘along one side of the market place’ (more or less) in Greene’s day, and was considered a landmark hotel. Designed by Watson Fothergill, it is conceivable that the Black Boy featured sculpted figures since many of Fothergill’s surviving buildings do, too. The Black Boy stood on the site now occupied by Primark. The mention of Robin Hood can hardly leave any doubt to Greene’s intentions.

‘Over the way, fifty yards down towards the market, he could see the portico of the Royal Theatre.’

Another reference combining the market and the theatre; this time named as the Royal Theatre. Our own Theatre Royal features a portico entrance atop Market Street, a scant two minute walk from the Market Square.

I began reading A Gun For Sale purely because of my interest in Nottingham history, but quickly became immersed in the tale. It’s masterful story-telling in the noir tradition, featuring long shadows, fedoras, cunning women and brutish men. I’ve only listed three short Nottwich/Nottingham references here, but the book is peppered with them. There are liaisons in restaurants, altercations in office buildings, and hideouts in housing estates. It was a pure delight for me because it felt like being whisked back in time to Nottingham ninety years ago. Sadly, it’s the only novel set in Nottwich as far as I can tell. That’s a shame, but I’d heartily recommend it to fellow history-loving Nottinghamians.

A Gun For Sale on Amazon

Graham Green on Wikipedia

The view from Holy Trinity tower

I was lucky enough to be invited to tag along on a visit to the recently reopened Holy Trinity Church, Lenton (NG7 2FF), last Sunday. As if glimpses of a genuine 12th century font and a hidden crest from the once majestic Lenton Priory weren’t enough, I was also allowed to clamber up through several layers of cobwebs, bellframes, creaking ladders and startled pigeons to the roof of the 1842 church tower, where a splendid view awaited me.

I’ve stitched together a panorama of the snaps I took from up there, and added a few labels of some of the more noteworthy sights.

View from Holy Trinity tower 19 Feb 2016

ST ANN’S LOST CHURCH

If my mum’s parents were still alive, they would have celebrated their 80th wedding anniversary this year (assuming they hadn’t divorced). They married at St Ann’s Church on St Ann’s Well Road in 1936.

St Ann’s is one of the many lost churches of Nottingham. It stood on the northern side of St Ann’s Well Road, a short distance from the entrance to Robin Hood Chase. On Picture The Past there’s a nice photograph of the church from around 1910. On the left of the image are some railings, and the entrance to Robin Hood Chase. Beyond the railings, a number of tall trees grow. There seems to be a group of three or so people walking up the Chase. There are four people in the centre of the picture, on or near the pavement. One of them may be riding a bike towards town, while the others are headed up St Ann’s Well Rd. One of them – a woman, I think – has paused at the corner of the now vanished Corporation Rd and looks back down St Ann’s Well Road.

The church is visible beyond the turning for Corporation Road. It seems a tall, striking building, and would doubtless have been central to the heart of the community in a time when organised religion played a more pivotal role than today. Two whitewashed gateposts are visible, flanking an entrance to the church grounds. A blurred figure crosses the cobbled road, and behind them a tram is visible. There are three (or maybe four) figures walking along the pavement by the church.

I went out earlier today and took an image of the modern scene. It was a grey but pleasant morning around 7am. The entrance to Robin Hood’s Chase is largely unchanged from the 1910 picture. The pavement outside the Chase entrance has been modified to make a crossing giving pedestrians priority when trying to traverse what can become a busy road later in the day. The trees of course are thriving, and in the colour picture look so much more alive than the grey representations of their earlier selves. Corporation Road and St Ann’s Church are no more, and the areas they occupied are now paved land leading to a relatively new building housing a Post Office and One Stop shop with residential flats above. You often hear people moaning about the closure of suburban Post Offices but not much is said when a new one opens. The skyline of the modern scene is far shorter than the image of yesteryear, which isn’t something you can say about a lot of picture comparisons. Beyond the shop is the St Ann’s Valley Centre, a combination of library, open access computers, and NHS services.

St Anns Well Road

As much as I love pictures of the past, I don’t want the world to remain unchanged in any particular time. I appreciate that cities and their suburbs need to shift and evolve, but I enjoy noting the changes. People were married and christened at St Ann’s Church, some of whom may be alive today. Others may have benefited from a collection for the local needy, or found words of inspiration or enlightenment in a particular sermon. I suspect my grandparents were married there as my granddad’s family were very local to the church, living on either Northampton or Southampton Street depending on whose information you listen to (or maybe different elements of the family lived on both).

St Ann’s is much derided, especially because of the new housing and street plan that was stamped onto the area in the 1960s, but in truth it’s an area with a rich and diverse history. I’m certain your neck of the woods will be similar. Nottingham and the surrounding shire aren’t new settlements, and I’d wager there’s a rich social history underpinning all of our local neighbourhoods.

1940s day at Brewhouse Yard

On May bank holiday I had a lovely time at the annual 1940s day at Bewhouse Yard. There were displays of vehicles of the era, people sporting 1940s fashion, dancing and of course music.

Brewhouse Yard is often considered little more than an appendage to Nottingham ‘Castle’ but in truth this council-owned site has its own rich history, and regular family events all of its own.

I made a little slideshow of my photographs from the day, accompanied by a piece of music by French group Latche Swing. You can see the slideshow here:

THE FORGOTTEN FOTHERGILL OF HUNTINGDON STREET

Much is made of the destruction of legendery architect Fothergill Watson’s Black Boy Hotel on Long Row East and it’s replacement by the functional concrete box that now houses Primark. Terms such as ‘bureacratic vandalism’ are often employed in criticism of the Council (or Corporation) on the matter. However, the Black Boy was not the only glorious Fothergill building to be whisked away and replaced by a nonedescript cuboid.

Huntingdon Street – along with the streets that spring from it – is an unofficial museum of both architectural forms, and Nottingham social history. Flat-fronted terraced houses rub shoulders with tarmacked car parks, deserted print shops neighbouring shisha lounges face high rise student housing, and large 1970s retail buildings are positioned opposite steam-stained brick walls from a Victorian train station. This patchwork quilt, along with the Robin Hood allusion in its name (presumably from the outlaw’s historically dubious title, ‘the Earl of Huntingdon’) makes Huntingdon Street a neat micrososm of Nottingham as a whole.

On the eastern side of Huntingdon Street, between Watkin Street and Wellington Street, is a building that houses digital printing business John E Wright. The building’s exterior is a bland, brown brick affair and stands on the site of Fothergill’s old St Mark’s Hall. I found a picture of St Mark’s Hall on Picture The Past and this morning went and took a photograph from a similar viewpoint. I’ve put them side by side below. You’ll notice that the house on the left of both images (at the top of Wellington Street) remains largely unchanged, much like the house on the right.

You don’t hear many people talking about St Mark’s Hall by Fothergill Watson, even when discussing the great man’s impressive portfolio. For all new buildings there’s a chance that something more beautiful was swept aside to accomodate it. This is both inevitable and subjective, but it’s a shame to me that something as wonderful as St Mark’s Hall can disappear without many of us even knowing of its existence.

NTGM019592.ti
NTGM019592.ti

The Pretty Windows murder part 2: Theories and speculation.

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.
02 Longden St

(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.

Remanded
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.

Struggling
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?
03 low roof.jpg

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).

Pretty Windows: An account of an unsolved Nottingham murder from 1963

Ficticious tales of ‘cold cases’, unsolved crimes of yesteryear, are incredibly popular in TV and literature but – as the old cliche says – factual accounts are often a great deal stranger. There’s a sinister example from Nottingham’s past that I’ll describe here, and examine in further detail in the next post.

I travel by the tragic site of this mystery several times a week. The main building has been deserted and boarded-up for several years now, but the area round about is being redeveloped. It’s curious to recall this ominous incident amid the positivity of the redevelopment.

The summary below is drawn from the book Nottingham…The Sinister Side by Steve Jones, two articles on the BBC news website, a contemporary Nottingham Evening Post article, and – for geography, distances etc. – information from Google maps and Insight Mapping. I found that some details in the written accounts clash slightly. Where this is the case, I have given preference to the account able to sight its sources most precisely. I have tried quite deliberately to write this in a flat and impartial way, simply to present what is known rather than attempting to lead the reader towards any particular conclusion. In the next blog post I’ll include some conjecture and theories.

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The case occurred in an area that was once the wholesale market in Sneinton, before it moved over to Meadow Lane. The wholesale market sat between what is now Sneinton Market and the Ice Arena. Naturally for Nottingham, a pub was established to keep the market folk lubricated. The pub was named the Fox and Grapes, but locals generally used the nickname Pretty Windows, on account of the establishment’s decorative glazing. It sat on Southwell Road, between two streets named Avenue B and Avenue C. The pub later became known as Peggers, and now sits abandoned. The image below of the ‘modern’ pub (thought it’s already out of date) is from the superb website, http://www.sneintonmarket.co.uk.

nottingham_peggers

In 1963, George Wilson was the landlord of the pub. George was a former miner from Rossington in Yorkshire and lived at the pub with his wife Betty, their young son and daughter, and the family dog, Blackie. The building consisted of a pub area at the front, and a connected house occupied by the family at the back. The house abutts a market building immediately to the north-west, and seems to have been built as part of the same structure. There are three exterior doors; the main door from the pub which leads out onto Southwell Road,  and two side doors from the residential part, leading to Avenue B, and Avenue C.

pretty windows street plan

On Saturday 7th September 1963, at least four people had worked behind the bar; George and Betty Wilson, and a couple learning the pub trade named Arthur and Irene Ash.  A regular named Mr Smith was drinking in the bar along with several others. Towards closing time, a sing song took place. At 10:30pm, the pub closed, the drinkers were ushered out and the door locked. Mr Smith remained behind. The pub was tidied and cleaned-up, and the five people – George, Betty, Mr Smith, and Mr and Mrs Ash – settled down to enjoy a post-work drink together in the Wilson’s lounge in the residential part of the building.

Arthur and Irene left the premises at some point, and George, Betty and Mr Smith remained. At about 12:15am, George left the pub to take the dog for a walk, as was his habit, and bid goodbye to Mr Smith. Betty remained indoors. Reports differ slightly over the time that elapsed, but 20 to 45 minutes after George had left, Betty was disturbed by a noise. It was Blackie, barking outside in Avenue B. Betty opened the side door and found George lying bloody on the pavement outside, barely alive. His keys were beside him. Some slates which later proved to be from a low part of the building’s roof were smashed on the ground near him. George had been ferociously attacked; stabbed 14 times in his face, neck, head and back, with one wound three and a half inches deep. The notion that he may have been mugged was rejected when a wallet containing cash was found upon his person. George passed away before the ambulance arrived.

Composite

Two incidents that may be related to the stabbing were reported that evening to police. A security driver said that around 12:50am he had nearly run over a man in Longden Street, about 125 metres from the Fox & Grapes. The man had been running and apparently carrying a chisel in one hand. He wore a light-coloured raincoat and a ‘Robin Hood’-style hat. In the 1950s, certain types of fedora were referred to as Robin Hood hats, and so it’s likely this was still the case in the early 1960s.

The second incident was a couple in a small, black car stopping at the Fox and Grapes around the time of the stabbing and asking for directions to West Bridgford. Who they asked for directions isn’t clear from the newspaper report. The couple came forward the following day, but were unable to provide any information related to the stabbing.

Nine days later the murder weapon was found. Two young boys playing at Polser Brook, near Holme Pierrepont, discovered a sheathed knife which they handed in to police. Bloodstains on the blade tallied with George Wilson’s blood group, and in the sheath fibres were found which matched the clothing George was wearing during the attack.
The significant investigation continued over the following months, with three hundred possible suspects having their movements checked, and thousands of people being interviewed. Images of the knife and appeals for information were put on posters around the city and on Co-op dairy vans. There was a confession from a Radford man imprisoned in Dartmoor which proved false when — despite many details being accurate — the confessor couldn’t identify George or the murder weapon when presented with a choice of images.

George’s family moved away after his murder. Some time later, Betty received an anonymous message stating that she should travel alone to Derby bus station with £100 one night to learn the reason for her husband’s savage death. She didn’t attend. Betty passed away in 1997. In 2013, police appealed anew for information in a bid to get the case finally closed. Newspapers and broadcasters featured reiterations of the stabbing 50 years earlier, and emphasised that — due to the likely age of the murderer and anyone else involved — this was probably the last chance to discover the truth. Despite police stating they were encouraged by the response, the case remains unsolved to this day.

You can watch a contemporary TV news report (now owned by ITV News) on Vimeo by clicking here.

In the next blog post I’ll postulate some theories and raise some possibilities concerning the stabbing. George’s murder is an open case and if you have information handed-down by friends or relatives you should contact Notts Police. If you have ever heard any theories or recollections concerning the Pretty Windows murder, feel free to post them below. This is a public site and George’s relatives may chance upon the article one day, so I’d urge anyone posting to be mindful of this please.

 

 

On forgotten bus stations and taking local history personally

I’m more intrigued by pre-me Nottingham than the Nottingham I remember from my youth. I guess it seems more mysterious, and I have an sentimental affection for places that would have constituted the world experienced by my parents, grandparents and beyond.

I saw this image on Picture the Past and felt a little frustration that I couldn’t quite place it, despite a detailed caption. I’ve added some number labels that will be explained later.

pic1 bus stations blog

The caption read: Looking NE from King Edward Street. The bus station was first used on 1st January 1930. Note the early presence of traffic lights at this busy junction. The main bus station re-located into Victoria Centre in the 1970’s (sic), and this bus station gradually became unused. The location now houses furniture showrooms and small business units.

I walk down King Edward Street (at the side of Ritzy’s/Oceana/Palais de Danse) most days, and so felt I must be able to visualise the modern scene. Regular blog readers won’t be surprised to hear that my next port-of-call was Insight Mapping. I viewed the map of King Edward Street in the 1930s and looked to the area north-east of that, lead by the photo caption. It was quickly clear where the bus station was situated. I was able to place the scene not by the structure of the bus station itself, but by those neighbouring it. The buildings I’ve labelled (2) and (3) on the photo seem pretty clear on the old map, whilst a zoom-in on my photo software showed (1) to likely be the old car park.

pic2 bus stations blog

My last job (and often the most intriguing) in any piece of historical sleuthing is to discover what occupies the site now, and what (if anything) remains of the past. Occupying the site of the bus station now is the Litmus Building, whilst the car park (1) is incorporated within the area until recently occupied by the big Staples sationary store. Most exciting for me are the parts of the photo that remain. I’m ashamed not to have recognised them sooner, but (2) and (3) still stand proudly at the St Ann’s Well Road roundabout. Like King Edward Street, I pass them most days. (2) is pretty functional, and my daily view limited by Litmus itself. (3), however, is a wonderful red-brick structure that now houses The Depot Climbing Centre.

pic3 bus stations blogSo, in the 1930s picture two structures are present that I’m pretty familiar with nearly ninety years later, though the scene had initially seemed alien. This is fact, backed-up with maps and the image itself. The sentimentalist in me also wonders about the people in the picture, and whether the bus station brought any of my ancestors to Nottingham, or took them elsewhere around the country. Maybe some of the people crossing the road are ancestors of mine, or yours. A significant portion will have descendants alive today and there’s a chance one will be us. Actually, have a closer look at that one near the front in the long coat; I might be wrong, but I can see a lot of you in them.

 

The Case of the Missing Shopping Centre

Knowing my penchant for archive images of Nottingham, a friend forwarded me an photograph from the 1970s the other day and asked if I could place it. I was fleetingly stumped. Certain bits were incredibly familiar, but I couldn’t understand where the photographer could have stood to have captured them all in one shot. Was that Broadmarsh? And surely that was Lister Gate, wasn’t it? I’ll put the image below. My friend had grabbed it off Facebook and hadn’t noted any credit details. If it’s your image, or if you can reference whose image it is, let me know and I’ll credit it properly.20151208_214626000_iOS

After a while, I realised the flaw in my attempts to discern the scene. I hadn’t allowed for the possibility that one building at the heart of the scene was only partially built, and so now – about four decades after the initial image was captured – that same view was significantly different.

I went to test my theory, and found it correct. The shot is a view from the multi-storey car park above Broadmarsh bus station, looking towards a pedestrian crossing on Colin Street. I couldn’t copy the original image exactly, since the photographer’s viewpoint seems to have been on the ‘wrong’ side of the car parks wall – possibly on scaffolding.

Broadmarsh itself was largely missing from the original picture, which is what had initially confounded me. I took a few images of my own that illustrate the difference between the scene now and then. I’ve posted the most demonstrative below alongside the original, with little markers highlighting the same spot on each. I’ve also posted a rough composite image I cobbled together showing the old foreground with the modern background limiting the view.

All photographs are special since they capture a unique moment. Any features in the scene, such as clouds, traffic, or people, will never again fall into the exact same poses or configuration, and so each image is a reflection of a moment that has already passed. Photographs featuring a half-built or half-demolished structure accentuate the ennui, since the physical environment itself is undergoing change.

Colin St sidebyside

Colin St composite

The footfalls on Ghost Lane

Ghost stories were cemented as a Christmas tradition by Victorian authors such as Charles Dickens and MR James, so I feel it appropriate that my Yuletide post – and the last of the year – will be something a little spooky. There’ll still be maps and history, though, so don’t worry if you’re not of a ghostly disposition.

One morning I was walking with my mum to the shops. We were walking from our home in Lenton Abbey to Beeston town centre. I was aged about 9 or 10 I guess, and had the important task of pulling the shopping trolley. Between Arden Close and Salthouse Lane was a little footpath and – as we walked along it – I suddenly heard footsteps approaching quickly from behind us. I dropped back and walked behind mum so that this other person could overtake us. I turned instinctively towards them as I manoeuvred, and was astonished to find there was nobody there. I actually stopped to look fully behind us, but still no-one was visible. I turned back to mum to find she, too, had stopped, presumably at the sound of the shopping trolley wheels coming to an abrupt halt. I looked enquiringly at her and she gave me an understanding glance and said, “Oh, yes. That sometimes happens to me down here.”

I was bewildered more than scared, and I don’t recall us talking about it any more on the journey. It’s only looking back that it seems chilling. I’ve walked along what me and my friends came to know as Ghost Lane many times and nothing out of the ordinary has occurred. I have no particular hypothesis about what happened. Could it be an acoustic trick of some sort? Perhaps the footfalls of somebody walking nearby at the same time were warped by their immediate environment and echoed, by chance sounding as though they were progressing along Ghost Lane. Frankly, I would be as astonished by this as I would by the ‘stone tape’ theory of traditional ghosts; that I had heard the spirit of a former occupant of the site performing an activity they had a multitude of times, and that had somehow been partially recorded and was intermittently  replayed by the environment that hosted this activity. Like many real-life spooky or uncanny occurrences, there is no more to the tale than this. I didn’t discover that someone had once been murdered on the lane, and now wandered back and forth looking for their attacker. I didn’t discover that the bones of someone who long walked the area were buried beneath the spot I heard the footfalls. Real life is rarely as neat and tidy as the ghost stories we read in books.

I looked at some old maps on Insight Mapping, hoping to see an old footpath that existed before the 1930s housing of Lenton Abbey, but there was none. Before the large council estate, the land seems to have been agricultural or pastoral. Geographically, Ghost Lane is interesting; the northern end is in Nottingham city, the southern is in Nottinghamshire. It also transcends a social boundary, joining the residential area primarily occupied by Nottingham locals with the area of student housing around Broadgate. Salthouse Lane is potentially a very old thoroughfare, for the word salthouse is found several times in the Domesday Book (though not, as far as I know, referring directly to this lane). In the modern age it’s entirely reasonable to overlook the importance of salt, which over the centuries has been an enormously valuable commodity and used on occasion as currency. The term salthouse is used to describe somewhere that salt was extracted, processed, or stored, and so Salthouse Lane may have been an important location in commerce and economics as far back as the 11th century.

Whoever was the unseen source of the footsteps I heard and whatever era they originate from, I feel grateful to them. They gave me a jolt, awaking me from the trance state of my trolley-pulling chore, and giving my brain a buzz. I would have been unlikely to have researched the history of that one specific area had it not been for the footsteps, and I wouldn’t have read articles online about the Domesday book, salt or the stone tape theory, and noticed on the old maps how the site had been transformed from fields to housing in the 1930s. In short, I picked-up some intriguing information due to the sound of some spooky footsteps I heard three decades ago. This is what it is to be a local history nut; following the most offbeat of leads to an illogical conclusion and enjoying the scenery along the way.  Merry Christmas, everyone.

Ghost Lane composite