Unsolved Murders

Olive May Gardiner Bennett

Age: 45

Sex: female

Date: 24 Apr 1954

Place: River Avon, Stratford-upon-Avon

Olive May Gardiner Bennett was found dead in the River Avon at Stratford near Holy Trinity Church on Saturday 25 April 1954.

She had been strangled and it was thought that her body had been weighed down with a cemetery tombstone which was found in the river when it was dragged by the police. However, it was also suggested that her death might have been an accident.

The tombstone had come from a grave in Holy Trinity Churchyard. It had belonged to the grave of Edward Adams who had died in 1875 and its inscription had read, 'In the midst of life we are in death'. The tombstone was said to have weighed 200lb. It was noted that it took four policemen to lift the tombstone out of the river and it was said that if one person had lifted it then they must have been exceptionally strong.

The police said that they were working on the theory that Olive Bennett had been assaulted and then pushed into the river from the top of a wall with the stone tied to her. Olive Bennett was found about 60 yards further downstream in the river from where the tombstone was found. The police found Olive Bennett's brown felt hat, her purse which contained money and her black handbag lying beside the tombstone in the river.

A verdict of 'Murder by a person or persons unknown' was returned at her inquest on Wednesday 30 June 1954.

Her post mortem stated that there were many severe injuries to practically every structure in Olive Bennett's neck which had been sustained shortly before her death and that severe pressure and squeezing would have been necessary to have caused them. The post mortem concluded that her death was due to asphyxia by manual strangulation.

She was seen at 8pm on the Friday night 24 April 1954 when she left the Monroe Devis Maternity Home in Tiddington where she worked at which time she had been wearing her brown felt hat. When she left work she had told people that she was planning on going into Stratford where it was understood that she was going to meet a friend. It was said that she had taken the bus from Tiddington to Stratford. She had been working at the maternity home since 27 March 1954 and had previously worked in maternity and nursing homes around Malvern and Worcester. It was later found that she had worked in two nursing homes in Malvern and determined that whilst there she had not been working as a midwife as she had not been registered to do so with the Worcestershire County Council.

It was noted that whilst she was working in Malvern that she had visited local hotels and that on one night she had complained to the owner of one that she was being followed and the police were called who went back with her to the nursing home where she worked.

She was last seen at about 10.30pm on the Friday night by a barmaid at the Red Horse Hotel.

The police said that they were on the look out for abroad-built middle-aged man with fair hair who they believed might be able to help with their inquiries after it was said that someone had seen a man with that description with a woman near the cemetery on the night.

To help the police in their dragging operations, the River Avon was lowered by about three feet for the first time in many years by means of the weirs. The police spent two hours dragging the river looking for the tombstone.

Olive Bennett's body was found on the Saturday  after the Gardener of Holy Trinity who lived in Sanctus Road, had found a pair of spectacles, a shoe and the lower half of a set of dentures on the low wall between the churchyard and the 15 foot drop into the River Avon.

It was thought that Olive Bennett was murdered on the Friday night 24 April 1954.

She was described as:

  • Medium height/small
  • Slightly built.
  • Curly, sandy hair, going grey.
  • Wearing a black and grey striped coat, brown felt hat, blue woollen dress, brown shoes (one missing), fawn pigskin gloves.
  • Carrying a black leather box-type handbag.
  • Wearing spectacles with light pink half-frames.
  • A diary was found on the riverbank.

The diary was said to have contained the names of a number of people and the police interviewed many of them. It was described as a small diary that had its cover missing and also had a number of pages missing from it, having been torn out.

It was noted that several men that had had a friendly association with Olive Bennett had come forward, but without any developments.

The police said that Olive Bennett was known to frequent bars in Stratford. A member of staff in one public house said, 'Miss Bennett was well known to me. She often came into the bar and drank sherry. She was always alone and appeared to be a very reserved type of woman'. It was said that she was quiet and kept herself to herself and that often when off duty she would sit alone at the local inn sipping sherry.

The barmaid at the Red Horse Hotel who saw Olive Bennett leave at 10.30pm said that Olive Bennett had been there from about 9pm until closing time. She said, 'She drank sherry, but I'm quite sure that when she left the hotel she was sober'.

A night porter at the Red Horse Hotel said that he saw Olive Bennett at about 11.45pm on 24 April 1954 standing by herself outside the hotel. He said that he had previously seen her at the hotel earlier at about 9pm but said that she had left soon after. He noted that she frequently drank at the hotel.

The police said that they were particularly anxious to trace anyone that had been in Bridge Street between 11.45pm and 12 midnight on the night of 23 April 1954, especially including those who had driven their cars from the street car park during that time.

The police added that they thought that there were people that could give useful information but could be holding back because they might feel that their information was not sufficiently valuable.

The police determined that Olive Bennett had developed an association with a commercial traveller in farming implements who was thought to have been Scottish and they appealed for him to come forward. It was heard that Olive Bennett's 71-year-old father had said that he and his wife had been worried for some time over Olive Bennett's association with the commercial traveller after Olive Bennett's mother found a latter in Olive Bennett's handbag.

Olive Bennett's father said, 'I last saw my daughter in February of this year in Glasgow. She was on holiday from a hospital where she was working in Malvern. She seemed perfectly happy. Since she moved to the Monroe Devin Maternity Home at Tiddington about five weeks ago, she seemed extremely happy at being there. While she was there she was made a sister which pleased her greatly. During twenty-three years she had been a nurse at many hospitals throughout the country. It was when my wife found a letter in my daughter's handbag last October that we really began to worry about her. It was a letter from the commercial traveller with a forwarding address to a club in Whitehall, London. When my wife spoke to her about it she said she had given up seeing him. He was a middle-aged man, rather stout, and in the region of fifty years of age. I think she had been seeing him since. My wife told her that she should have nothing to do with him. Another thing that worried us about her and this man was that she was drawing quite a lot of money from her bank book. I don't know how much she had in there, but she had been making some withdrawals'.

Olive Bennett's father later said at the inquest, 'As far as I know Olive had only ever made one man friend. I got to know something about this last October when my wife found a letter in Olive's handbag. At the time she was at Malvern. We were very upset, and my wife spoke to Olive about it. Olive said she had given up seeing the man, but it appears doubtful that she had. He was a middle-aged man and we do not know whether he was married or not. I think she had seen him since then. I am not quite sure whether he has been in Stratford. She was not frightened of him, she seemed very fond of him. I asked Olive what a man in the region of 50 could want with my daughter and my wife told her she must not have anything more to do with him. But she did not always spend her leaves in Scotland and may still have been seeing this man. She had been a changed girl since meeting him. I have been very worried about this man and my daughter. In the past few weeks she had been drawing money from her banking account. She had quite a lot of money in the bank. She had been smoking rather heavily too, and we spoke to her about it. Olive was not a drinker, and we do not now anything about her going in public houses. She would not do a thing like that. My wife and I have been shocked by things we have learned in the last few days, but we are determined to get this matter cleared up. She had been very happy since she came here to Stratford. She had been made a sister at the at the home and was very pleased with the way things turned out for her after moving from one place to another for long, sometimes due to petty jealousies among nurses. In her letters there was glowing praise of the people at the home in Stratford'.

It was additionally reported that Olive Bennett would sometimes spend her holidays in Edinburgh with her parents, but her father said that he didn't think that was every holiday. He added that he had no idea where she went.

On Friday 30 April 1954 the police cordoned off Bridge Street, a busy main thoroughfare and 30 uniformed officers then quizzed the people using it for several hours. It was later reported that those that had given information in the round-up were helping more than they perhaps realised as it was said that it was obvious that someone in Stratford must hold a clue to the strangler's identity. It was noted as such that the police had staged their check under conditions as near as possible to those when Olive Bennett had left the Red Horse Hotel in Bridge Street the previous Friday night.

It was said that it was thought that Olive Bennett had been waiting in the Red Horse Hotel in the hope of meeting someone.

It was reported that it was certain that within a few moments of leaving the comfort and security of the bar that Olive Bennett had stepped into the arms of the man that was to strangle her with savage ferocity. It was thought that after meeting that they had then walked down the road past the Memorial Theatre to the quiet churchyard where it was thought that she was seen with a burley, fair-haired man.

The police also carried out enquiries at snack-bars and cafes along the waterside within 100 yards of where she was found to see whether she had been seen in any of them on the night she was murdered.

On 4 May 1954 it was reported that a letter-card had been received at Shrub Hill Hospital in Worcester where Olive Bennett had formerly worked. The letter-card was apparently posted in Carmarthen in Wales on 16 or 18 March and was addressed to Nurse Bennett and read, 'Hope to see you Wednesday, 24-3-54 eight pm outside GW and again Thursday about eight pm'. It was reported that after the card was found that the police raced off to Worcester, Malvern and Carmarthen to try and trace the rendezvous names as GW, it being noted that it could have meant a railway station or a local hotel. However, it was suggested that the reference to GW was the Great Western Hotel in Worcester and it was noted that there had been a train that left Carmarthen at 1.27pm due for Worcester at 8pm and that the Great Western Hotel was two minutes’ walk away.

The card was signed and the police said that it was the first indication that the police had had of him as being a friend of Olive Bennett.

However, it was also noted that Olive Bennett had not received the letter-card as she had already moved on to two other addresses by that time. The letter-card had been written in a deep blue ink in a neat hand.

A sister who was employed at the Monroe Davis Maternity Home in Tiddington where Olive Bennett had worked said that four days before her death that Olive Bennett had returned to the home in the early hours of the morning and said that she had been to Stratford and had been out with a boyfriend. The sister said that Olive Bennett once complained of feeling very cold and that she had been by the river and that on another occasion had volunteered the information that her boyfriend lived four miles out of Stratford.

The sister said that she last saw Olive Bennett at about 3.10pm on 24 April 1954 when she told her that she was going out and would be back at about 2am.

The police said that they thought that the writer of the card had been a traveller because he was making a date to meet Olive Bennett that was eight days in advance and more than 100 miles away and it was thought that he might have been in Worcester on business that day.

Later in May 1954 it was reported that the details concerning a hitch-hiker being seen at Bridgefoot Coach Station in Stratford had been reported to the police. It was said that the hitch-hiker had been seen there in the early morning of 19 April 1954. He was described as being middle-aged, not wearing an overcoat and being of the 'working class type'. He had had a breakfast of bacon and eggs at an all-night coffee stall and was later seen around dawn enquiring about the route to a distant town and the police said that they were anxious to trace the man. The lead came about after detectives from Lancashire CID made enquiries amongst members of a works trip from an Oldham factory who had been in Stratford on the night of the murder. It was heard that some members of the coach party, apparently seeking an early morning cup of tea had noticed the man by the coach park.

During their investigation, it was also reported that the police had examined the visitors books at various places of historic interest in Stratford including Shakespeare's birthplace and Ann Hathaway's cottage.

In July 1954 it was reported that the police were sent a letter that they thought was of the utmost importance and samples of the writers handwriting were sent to the press in the hope that it could be identified.  It was reported that it was thought that the letter had been written by a woman and contained a reference to Stratford that the police said could be of the utmost importance.

At the time of the investigation the press coined the term the 'Stratford Strangler' for Olive Bennett's murderer. Holy Trinity Church, near to where Olive Bennett was found is noted as being the place where William Shakespeare, the writer, was buried.

Olive Bennett was a native of Edinburgh where her parents lived. It was reported that she had first started training to be a teacher in Edinburgh, but that at the time there were too many students and too few appointments.  It was also reported that she had worked as a social visitor without pay and had then gone to Edinburgh University where she had taken classes on social problems. She then left university when she was 21-years-old and took up nursing.

It was noted that her family had been rudely shaken by Olive Bennett's death, it being noted that her youngest sister had died after an accident in 1937.

Olive Bennett was noted as having been a retiring woman until sometime shortly before her murder when it was reported that she started to drink and smoke and smarten herself up and go out and meet men, which was said to have been a complete turnaround for her. She was said to have taken great efforts over her makeup and to have drawn large sums of money out of her Post Office bank account for that purpose.

In 1962 two women said that they had been in the churchyard with two men and that one of them had threatened to throw them into the river with weights attached to them, but the police were unable to trace the men or make any further developments from the women's information.

In1984 it was reported that after a former serviceman was questioned by police in Vancouver in connection with a motoring offence that he started talking about an old murder in Stratford-upon-Avon, but nothing more is known.

*map pointers are rough estimates based on known location details as per Place field above.

see www.truecrimelibrary.com

see Birmingham Daily Post - Wednesday 28 April 1954

see Birmingham Daily Post - Tuesday 13 July 1954

see Coventry Evening Telegraph - Friday 30 April 1954

see Coventry Evening Telegraph - Tuesday 04 May 1954

see Western Mail - Wednesday 05 May 1954

see Birmingham Daily Post - Wednesday 19 May 1954

see Daily Herald - Wednesday 28 April 1954

see Aberdeen Evening Express - Wednesday 28 April 1954

see Coventry Evening Telegraph - Saturday 01 May 1954

see Wolfie Wiseguy

see Mysterious Murders