A blade of grass...................
On Friday 2 June 1939 at about 11pm a 25 year old strikingly handsome brunette left a staff dinner at Messer’s Frears Biscuit Works in Woodgate, Leicester never to return home.
Miss Evelyn Smith left the social dinner with her work colleague James Walter Brownlow. James, a smart young married man of twenty-four and wearing a blue striped suit had been working at the biscuit factory for about four years. He didn’t live far from Evelyn, so walking her home didn’t seem out of the ordinary. Accompanied by Mr Francis Daniels, another employee at the biscuit factory, Evelyn and James walked arm in arm and together with Mr Daniels they made their way through the back streets of Woodgate, from Littleton Road to Bradgate Road. Mr Daniels, just before leaving Evelyn with James asked if she was alright - “Yes, but I don’t know my way home” she replied. James responded “ I’ll see her the way home”. But he never did…..
Evelyn Mary Smith lived at home with her father Edward Smith a tram cleaner and her mother at number 6 Parker Drive, Blackbird Road in Leicester. Evelyn had become engaged at Christmas to Edgar Gough who lived on Oxford Street in Coalville. When her mother went to call her for work on the Saturday morning she found Evelyn’s bed had not been slept in. Every Saturday, Evelyn would meet her father after work at lunchtime, and when he learned at the factory that his daughter had not been to work that day, he became anxious and reported her absence to the police.
Mr & Mrs Smith firstly visited Coalville to inquire if she had been to her fiance’s home but she had not been there, so they returned to Leicester and a search was began.
An employee at Frears's had seen Evelyn walking home from the firm’s entertainment with a James Brownlow or ‘Midge’ as he was known to his acquaintances. ‘Midge’ at one time had something of a reputation as an amateur boxer, but he was better known as an accordion player, a singer, and a tap dancer, who often appeared in concerts.
Detective-Superintendent Harry Ashburner and Detective-Sargent Eric Pym learned that Brownlow could usually be found at one of the public houses in the North end of the city late on Saturday night. They had a list of the public houses and telephone numbers and Brownlow was at the first one they telephoned. Although it was now 10pm – closing time in the City Pubs, the licensee kept him talking until the police arrived.
DS Ashburner asked James Brownlow where Evelyn Smith was and he replied “I’ve done her in. I left her on some waste land near Bradgate Street. I will go with you and show you.” He was cautioned as he led the officers down Abbey Gate where he had been drinking towards Bradgate Street and there they saw the body of the dead woman. She was lying on her back, her handbag on the ground and her left hand glove was turned inside out next to her body. She was still wearing her engagement ring. Evelyn’s face and neck bore distinct signs of violence. The grass on the waste land was unusually long, except for the small area around and under Evelyn, where it was flattened, and showed signs that a struggle had taken place. Evelyn’s blouse was open in the front, and soaked with blood around her the heart, the body showed multiple small bruises, the nose was fractured and the hyoid bone in the throat was broken, this bone is only usually found if squeezing around the neck is severe. Death was concluded as asphyxia by strangulation.
James Brownlow was taken to the police headquarters on Charles Street in Leicester where he was found to have two very slight scratches, one on the left side of his face and one on the neck but they showed no signs of bleeding. The same day D.S Ashburner paid a visit Brownlow’s home and took possession of a blue stripped suit and trilby hat.
James Brownlow lived at 108 Abbey Lane with his young nineteen year old wife Helen who he had married in August 1937 and their baby daughter, Joyce. (110 Abbey Lane being roughly where The Abbey Public House stands)
Before marrying, James lived with his parents in Emerald Street, which is at the rear of the Frears’ factory, where he met his wife who was living with her father and mother, Mr. and Mrs, Harris at 81 Emerald Street.
On June 4, just one day after discovering Evelyn Smiths battered and bruised body, D.S Ashburner charged James Brownlow with murder and he appeared at Leicester Police Court the following day.
During the proceedings and envelope containing grass was exhibited in court. Medical Officer Professor Henry Smith Holden, director of the Home Office Forensic Science Laboratory, Nottingham had examined the blue stripped suit, trilby hat and the blood samples taken from Miss Smith. He had also visited the murder scene and took samples of grass. The sample of blood taken from Miss Smith was blood group A. He found extensive bloodstains on the garments, and there were smears of human blood on the hat. The stains were of Group A. Tightly coiled beneath the top button on the right sleeve was a piece of grass. Two further pieces of grass were present on the trousers. The grass was of two species. Both kinds of grass were abundant on the waste land where Evelyn was found. In the Medical Officer’s View he said grass found on Brownlows suit was similar to the grass found on the waste land where Miss Smiths body was found.
On the application of Deputy-Chief Constable Gabbitas, the magistrates ordered Brownlow to be remanded in custody for one week. As the accused turned to leave the dock, he was recalled by the chairman who asked: “ Have you any means to provide yourself with professional means of defence” Brownlow replied “No, sir “ The chairman asked “Do you wish have a certificate for legal aid ? “ Brownlow: “Yes, sir” and the request was granted.
On 12 July 1939 James Walter Brownlow was found guilty but insane at Birmingham Assizes of the murder of Evelyn Mary Smith, and ordered to be detained during his Majesty’s pleasure. He was brought back to Leicester Prison to await an order for his removal to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum.
Evelyn Mary Smith of 6 Parker Drive in Leicester was laid to rest at Gilroes Cemetery on Wednesday 7 June 1939 just five days after her murder.
Dense crowds swamped both sides of the street in Woodgate as the cortege passed to St. Leonard’s Church for her funeral service. Groups of sympathisers, mostly women with prams, had watched the departure from her home, but the majority waited in Woodgate, where police had to keep the crowds from impeding the traffic.
Inside St. Leonard’s Church were a hundred or more fellow employees from Frears Biscuit factory. Male employees acted as bearers, and also as ushers. The service was conducted by the Vicar Rev. A. E. Kimpton, who, in a short address, said: “We want first of all to express our very deep grief with the family in this heavy and unexpected sorrow.”
A number of police, under Superintendent J. Wicks, were at Gilroes Cemetery, but there was only a handful of the general public at the graveside.- Mr. Kimpton conducted the committal service, and when the family mourners had left it was the many beautiful floral tributes that marked the graveside. A wreath of roses, irises, and lilies, bearing the simple inscription “Love from Edgar,” her fiance. In addition to the family tributes were also wreaths from the directors, managers and work colleagues of Messrs. Frears, girl friends and from neighbours.
James’ wife Helen moved in with her parents at 81 Emerald Street in Woodgate, Leicester. One year later, Helen passed away aged only twenty at the Leicester Sanatorium. James after being released from Prison died in Leicester in 1989 aged 74.
Image: THE LEICESTERSHIRE INDUSTRIAL HISTORY SOCIETY Issue 16
Littleton Street, Woodgate
Bradgate Street, Woodgate
Both images: Copyright Dennis Calow. 1964 licence: Vanished Leicester. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/uk/:
Image: Leicester Daily Mercury. July 1938
Image: Leicester Daily Mercury. June 1939
Crowds outside St Leonard's Church (now demolished) Leicester
Images: Leicester Daily Mercury. June 1939
A 1904 map showing Woodgate and route (red arrows) Evelyn and James would have taken. By 1939 Bradgate Road had been extended to Blackbird Road. Parker Drive is at the top end of Blackbird Road.