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Unsolved Murders

John Gwilym Roberts

Age: 44

Sex: male

Date: 2 Apr 1952

Place: Old School House, Talsarnau, Merionethshire

Source: discovery.nationalarchives.co.uk

John Gwilym Roberts died from arsenical poisoning from weed killer on 6 March 1952 at his home at Old School House in Talsarnau, Merionethshire.

His 52-year-old wife was tried for his murder at the Swansea Assizes in July 1952 but was found not guilty.

At the trial she said that she had no knowledge whatsoever of how weed killer came to be found in his body.

John Roberts was a native of Talsarnau and had five children and had since Christmas worked as a foreman ganger for a firm of contractors at Towyn. His first wife had died in 1945. His children from a previous marriage were:

  • 17 year old son.
  • 14 year old daughter.
  • 19 year old daughter, worked in Birmingham at Cadburys.
  • Son D.
  • Child E.

John Roberts was also known as 'Big Jack'.

John Roberts's wife had been formerly employed at St David’s Church Priory in Holyhead and had previously been married to a man who died in June 1949. Following the death of John Roberts, the former husband’s body was exhumed and following a post mortem on his remains, an open verdict was returned in relation to his death. John Roberts's wife had had three children, two of whom she had adopted:

  • 28 year old son.
  • Adopted daughter A.
  • Adopted daughter B.

The general timeline of events are:

  • 6 June 1949: John Roberts's wife's first husband dies, his body was later exhumed and it was determined (31 July 1952) that arsenic must have accelerated his death and an open verdict was returned..
  • 3 March 1951: John Roberts and John Roberts's wife marry.
  • 6 March 1952: John Roberts died from arsenical poisoning.
  • 11 March 1952: John Roberts's wife attempts suicide at Penrhyndeudraeth Police Station after going there to help police with their enquiries.
  • 13 March 1952 (approx.): Two tins that had contained weed killer were found on waste ground behind the Old School House.
  • 2 April 1952: John Roberts's wife charged with John Roberts's murder.
  • 17 April 1952: Body of John Roberts exhumed and a fresh post mortem carried out.
  • 30 April 1952: Body of John Hughes exhumed.
  • 8-11 July 1952: John Roberts's wife found not guilty of John Roberts's murder. She pleaded guilty to attempting to commit suicide on 11 March 1952 at Penrhyndeudraeth Police Station and was given a conditional discharge.
  • 31 July 1952: Home Office Analyst at the inquest on John Hughes stated that in his opinion that arsenic must have accelerated his death.

At the trial it was heard that seven grains of arsenic were found in John Roberts's body.

Three chemists at the trial also said that John Roberts's wife had asked them for poisonous weed-killer.

When his wife was seen by the police on 2 April 1952 at the Caernarvon and Anglesey Hospital in Bangor after the police determined that John Roberts had died from arsenical poisoning and she attempted to commit suicide, she was asked some questions relating to his death and was then invited to make a written statement.

It was noted that when John Roberts's wife and her 28-year-old son had gone to the Penrhyndeudraeth police station earlier on 11 March 1952 to assist the police with their inquiries, that John Roberts's wife made an excuse to go to the lavatory and once there attempted to cut her throat with a safety razor blade. However, at the trial, the judge told the jury not to attach undue importance to that.

It was also noted that the lengthy statement that John Roberts's wife had made on 2 April 1952 was not referred to at the trial after the defence asked it not to be used.

A detective inspector said that he saw her at 10.15am on 2 April 1952 at the hospital where they said, 'I told her that I was taking her into custody on a charge that she on March 11 1952 at the Police Station, Penrhyndeudraeth, did attempt to commit suicide by cutting her throat with a razor blade. I cautioned her and she replied, 'It is my fault, I've done it'. She was taken to Bangor police station and later to the police station at Penrhyndeudraeth, and after an identification parade held at this police station at 8.30pm, I charged the prisoner that she, on Thursday March 6, 1952, did murder her husband, John Gwilym Roberts of Old School House, Talsarnau. I cautioned her, and she replied, 'I'll say nothing'.

Before she finished her statement she was shown an empty tin of 'Gardener's Friend' weed killer and a drum of 'Weedicide' weed killer that contained a small quantity of liquid.

She said that she had never seen the drum before and had never bought one like it and had never seen a drum like that before at her house. She also said that the smaller tin was similar to one she had bought for John Roberts in Penrhyndeudraeth before the previous Christmas. She said that she had not known what was in the tin, but said that she understood that it was harmless and non-poisonous, and said that the chemist had not warned her about it. She also later admitted to having bought the drum of weedkiller.

It was heard that after she made her statement she was told that it had been established that John Roberts had died from acute arsenical poisoning and that the police had received information that a woman bought the 'Weedicide' drum of weed killer at Portmadoc on Tuesday 4 March 1952 and that a tin of weed killer similar to the 'Gardener's Friend' weed killer  had been bought at a chemists in Penrhyndraeth some time in February 1952.

After she was told that she said, 'I don't know when I bought that tin, I thought it was before Christmas'.

John Roberts's wife was then told that an unidentified woman had ordered a drum of 'Weedicide' Arsenical Weed Killer at a chemist in Penrhyndeudraeth on 29 February 1952 and that it was intended to arrange an identification parade at the police station in Penrhyndraeth in which she would be put up with at least eight other ladies to see if she could be identified as the woman who had bought and ordered the Arsenical Weed Killer. When she was told that she made no comment. She was then taken to the police station.

In her statement, John Roberts's wife said that she lost her first husband about four years earlier. It was noted that his name was John Hughes and that his death was also considered suspicious and after it was determined that John Roberts had died from arsenical poisoning, his body was exhumed and an open verdict was returned at his inquest.

She said that John Hughes had been a blacksmith's striker in the LMS at Holyhead and that at the time of his death that they had lived at 24 Station Street in Holyhead.

John Roberts's wife said that she had one boy and had adopted two girls, one when she was 7 days old and the other when she was 5 days old, noting that she never had a penny with them. She said that the first of the girls had come from just outside Northampton and that her mother was lost in Dunkirk, noting that she didn't know that and that she would die if she found out, adding that the girl loved her very much. She said that the other girl had come from the Gorse Maternity Home in Holyhead and that they were both adopted through the Court at Holyhead and that someone had the adoption papers.

She said that John Hughes had been gassed in the first World War and that he was ill almost throughout their marriage and had suffered from his chest.

John Roberts's wife said that after John Hughes died that she went to keep a Youth Club in 'Cyaru Groes' in Holyhead at The Priory, Holyhead. She said that she was there for about 12 months but that as the lease on the place was finishing and the church could not afford to buy the building that she was given three months' notice. She said that she had no wages thre, but said that it was rent free and that she had fire and light. She noted that she used to run the Youth Club there and organise dramas.

John Roberts's wife said that when she knew that she had to leave The Priory, that a friend of hers who lived in London Road, Holyhead, put an advertisement in the newspaper for a joke, stating that it was something to the effect of, 'Smart widow wanted to correspond with a friend'. She said that she thought that it appeared in English in the Chronicle and said that they had a lot of fun over it, noting that she had about 82 answers, half of which she said she didn't read.

She said that one of the replies came from John Roberts who at that time was living in Old School House in Talsarnua. She said that his letter was so pitiful, stating that he had been left a widower for five years and had five children that she answered it and corresponded with him for between 8 or 10 months, during which time she said that she twice saw him at Talsarnau and stayed there with him for two weekends.

She said that he was very decent and that she had every respect for him. She said that she was undecided over whether she should marry him or be his housekeeper and look after his children and said that she stayed with him for a few weeks before they got married. She said that his sisters had been worrying her to get married to him but said that she was not over friendly with them as she didn't believe in it.

She said that she married John Roberts on 3 March 1951 at the Registry Office in Blaenan, Festiniog and said that they lived quite happily and that there was never a cross word between them.

She said that John Roberts's eldest daughter was a mischief maker and had been working in Birmingham at the time at Cadbury's and had a good job there and was getting about £5 a week.

She said that John Roberts also worked in Birmingham with White Dairies in Handfield for a few weeks before Christmas 1951, noting that he got the job through one of the Birmingham papers. However, she said that he could not get a house there and that he would have had to have waited five years for a Council House. She said that John Roberts then left his job in Birmingham and went to work for an old lady at The Mansion in Knotty Ash as a handyman and gardner and said that he later came home from there on Christmas Eve 1951. She said that John Roberts had had very bad lodgings in Birmingham and that he would not go back.

John Roberts's wife said that after Christmas John Roberts was on the dole for a while until he got a job with a Birmingham firm at the Camp in Towyn as a ganger. She said that he used to travel to work on the 6amm train and would come back at 7.30pm everyday bar Saturday when he would finish at midday and be home about 1.30pm.

She said that John Roberts used to take some of his food with him, saying that he would take sandwiches with him in a square food tin and that she used to give him 1/6 on some days to buy his food at the canteen on the camp and 1/11d for his 'Black and Tan' and about 40 cigarettes a day. She noted that John Roberts used to smoke about 60 or 70 cigarettes over the weekend, saying that he was a heavy smoker. She added that John Roberts would eat anywhere as long as it was food.

She said that John Roberts was always vomiting, noting that his doctor who had been attending him for the previous six years would attest to that, and said that he used to get a bottle of medicine about three times a week and tablets. She said that he wouldn't be happy unless he had his medicine. She said that he was very tiring on the doctor and that he would send for the doctor at any time. She noted that the medicine was all colours.

John Roberts's wife said that she used to be ashamed to go to the doctor for him and said that she used to tell him that he used to do well out of the National Health.

She said that she had seen him vomiting every day, noting that the Welsh term was 'Cyfog Gwag', retching.

She said that he used to drink his medicine from the bottle.

John Roberts's wife said that after they were married for some time that there was some trouble with his sisters. She said that the trouble was about anything they could make and said that as a matter of fact that they didn't like her. She said that she was a vice-chairman of the Woman's Section of the Labour Party and said that they didn't like that and that they would make trouble over any little thing. She said that if she turned around twice, that they would not like it and that she would be doing wrong.

John Roberts's wife said that she later stopped the children going there as they used to question them, asking them things like, 'What did you have for breakfast'. She said that one of her daughters used to go for milk for one of them every morning but suddenly took it in her head that she wouldn’t go, and noted that, 'and of course I could not make her', and said that she would not force her if she didn't want to go, which she said, of course, upset them. She said that she didn't go to see John Roberts's sister and neither did John Roberts.

John Roberts's noted that she wanted to live in peace and said that as she had a bit of a temper that she never knew what might happen if she did visit them.

However, John Roberts's wife said that the trouble with John Roberts's sisters did not interfere with their married life and said that John Roberts did not take any notice of them.

John Roberts's wife said that about a fortnight before he died that he had been worrying about something and could not sleep. She said that John Roberts's daughter who had been working at the Cadbury's factory in Birmingham had written home saying that she wanted to come home from Birmingham and for John Roberts and another daughter to give her some pocket money and for her to keep her at home. She said that the daughter who had worked at the Cadbury's factory was a very nasty girl to live with and very moody and said that she thought that that was definitely the cause of John Roberts's worrying, noting that he was very highly strung. She said that he had a temper like a flash of lightning.

She said that the daughter came home about a fortnight before John Roberts died for a weekend noting that she was bad that weekend and that the daughter made her stay in bed. She said that the daughter went back to Birmingham on the Monday morning on the same train as John Roberts and his other daughter. She said that after the daughter got back to Birmingham, she wrote a letter to them saying that she was coming home and giving up her job. She said that after that letter that she told John Roberts that if the daughter was coming home that she would not stay, adding that she knew that she could not live with the daughter. She said that John Roberts tried to get her to stop but said that he knew that he could not stop her once she had said it, and said that they didn't quarrel about it, but said that as husband and wife, they perhaps sulked about it for about half-an-hour.

She said that on Wednesday, 5 March 1952, that she got up at a quarter to five in the morning as usual to get breakfast ready for John Roberts and two of their children. She said that she was down in the kitchen first and made the fire, saying that they had porridge oats, a bit of bacon and bread and butter and tea. She said that she made the oats in the back kitchen and brought the saucepan into the kitchen and dished the porridge out for the three in the kitchen. She said that only the three men had porridge and that afterwards they had the bacon and bread and butter and tea.

She said that after breakfast that John Roberts had 'Cyfog Cunt', retching, and that she made him lie on the sofa. She said that he didn't vomit, but that he wanted to. She said that she then went for some brandy and a syphon of soda water from the Ship-a-Ground public house in the village and said that he took a drop of brandy and soda water and was better.

She said that John Roberts wanted to go to work on the next train, but said that she told him to go to bed and that she then phoned for the doctor from the telephone box by the Ship-a-Ground public house at about 8am and said that the doctor said that he had to do a PM examination and wanted to go to Beddgelert and told her to send for a bottle of medicine and to call him again if John Roberts got worse. She said that her son then went for the medicine that night after he got home from work. She said that it was a sort of watery coloured medicine and that when John Roberts tasted it, he said in Welsh, 'Ni wyf wedi cael y diawlpeth yma o'r blaen'. She said that she gave him the medicine which she said she thought was in a glass but said that she could not be sure.

John Roberts's wife said that during the Wednesday that John Roberts was not very ill, noting that she had seen him worse dozens of times, and said that she thought that he had had about three doses of medicine adding that he took one dose himself from the bottle. She said that he did vomit during the day, but said that it was only like water and that there was nothing to be alarmed about.

She said that she didn’t go to bed on the Wednesday night, but just undid her clothes and lay on the bed beside John Roberts. She said that he slept for hours but woke up at about 3.30am on the Thursday morning and said that he wanted something to eat, telling her that he could do with a good plateful of something but she said that she persuaded him not to eat at that time.

She said that he went to sleep after that, off and on, and that she got up at about 4.45am and made a fire and made breakfast for the two children and then made a cup of tea for John Roberts and took it up to his bedroom. She said that at first, she thought that he was sleeping, but said that she then realised that something was wrong with him and called the boys up. She said that she called them when she was on the stairs on her way down and that they both went up and that one of them then went to call the doctor, but made a mistake and told the doctor that she was bad, not John Roberts. However, she said that her son then called the doctor and said that the doctor arrived in no time and that then two neighbours came in.

John Roberts's wife said that sometime before Christmas 1951 that she bought a small tin of weed killer from the chemist in Penrhyndeodraeth by the police station, stating that it was harmless weed killer and that there was nothing in it to hide from the children. She said that it was a small tin similar to a syrup tin and that she thought that it cost about 1/4, noting that it was the chemist there himself that had served her.

She said that John Roberts told her to get that weed killer as he wanted to get rid of the weeds in the garden and that he was going to do the garden for her. She said that the tin was kept on the mantle-piece at their home in the kitchen for quite a while and that John Roberts later put the contents of the tin in a bucket of water and threw it over the garden at the back of the house. She said that she didn't see him using it but said that he was somewhere around the back door. She said that there were nettles miles high at the back and around the sides of the house. She said that she didn't know what happened to the tin afterwards and noted that the stuff didn't have any effect on the weeds which she said came up just the same.

She said that that was the only weed killer that she had bought in her life. She said that she had a good garden at Holyhead and did not need it there as she had fowls in the garden, about 60 of them.

She said that she had never bought any sort of weed killer at Portmadoc nor in Blaenan Festiniog and had never ordered any sort of weed killer at any shop. She said that she didn't often go to Portmadoc as she had no reason to go there and had only once been to Blaenau Festiaiog apart from the day that she was married there which she said was in the middle of January when the show was down and she went to see the secretary to the MR of Merionethshire to try and get a grant for their son to enter a laboratory as he had passed his school certificates and she wanted to get him to do something better than being a bricklayer. She said that she also visited an ironmongers’ shop in Blaenau Festiniog near the entrance to the Crossville Garage where she bought a dish there for 2/3, noting that that was the only shop she went into that day.

She said that she had been to the other chemist shop in Penrhyndeudraeth for small things but said that she had had nothing on order there and had never asked for any weed killer there.

She said that she had been to Barmouth twice, once to see the headmaster of the Grammar School and once to see the welfare officer.

She said that John Roberts had no patience with the garden and that she had never seen him using any weed killer apart from the time when she got the non-poisonous weed killer for him from the chemist in Penrhyndeudraeth.

At the trial, the defence asked, 'When you saw the garden at Talsarnau on March 29 would it be right to describe it as a weed ridden wilderness?'.

John Roberts's wife said that when they got married to John Roberts he had a dog called Rex which was a sort of greyhound mongrel and that she had a dog of her own called Scruffy which was also a mongrel. She said that her dog was at the time of her interview with friends at Talsarnau at Llidiart Gare.

She said that Rex was always running after cars and that sometime before Christmas 1951 that he was hit by a green car, noting that Rex hated green cars and motorcycles. She said that she saw Rex hit by the car which was travelling towards Harlech, noting that she didn't suppose that the man knew that the dog had been hit and said that the car didn't stop. She said that the dog died a few days after and said that it was as if it had been suffering from pneumonia, noting that she had kept it in the house until it died.

She said that she cried her eyes out when Rex died and said that their children buried Rex in the back garden. She said that she didn't call the vet as she thought that Rex would get better and said that she was very fond of animals and had always kept a dog.

It was noted that the body of the dog was later recovered by the police and sent away for examination after it was found in an old lead mine.

John Roberts's wife said that sometime after she got married to John Roberts and his daughter was working at Harlech and living at home, the daughter came home one day and said that she wanted a Welsh Dresser that her aunt had bought, and she said that if the dresser came into the house that she would certainly leave. She said that there was an argument between her and John Roberts over it and that John Roberts tried to persuade her to take the dresser, but she said that she would not give in. She said that he then told her that he was going to commit suicide, saying that he was going to hang himself in the Celli and that he was going to drown himself if she would not take the dresser in as the villagers would talk if she did not take it in. She said that that happened at the end of the previous summer.

She said that John Roberts would often tell her that he would do away with himself if he could not get it all his own way and that she never took any notice of him, noting that people often said things that they didn't mean and that if they intended to do anything like that that they did not broadcast it.

She concluded her statement by saying that on the whole, as far as she was concerned, that John Roberts was happy and led a perfectly normal life.

John Roberts's wife was remanded on a charge of murder and attempting to commit suicide on Thursday 3 April 1952.

At the trial, John Roberts's 14-year-old daughter said that she had never seen anything like the weed killer tins that were shown in evidence before or anyone using them at her house. She gave her evidence in Welsh. She said that on the night before he died that she saw John Roberts leaning over his bed and wanting to vomit and groaning. She said that she elater woke when she heard John Roberts coughing and groaning and said that she then went to his door and said, 'I was just opening the door when my stepmother wanted me to go from there'.

When she was questioned at the trial, she was asked whether on the night that John Roberts died she had seen her step-mother trying to help him, and replied, 'No, she was not. She was just lying there and not trying to do anything'.

At the trial, John Roberts's 19-year-old daughter said that on 9 March 1952 that John Roberts's wife told them she was now mistress f the house and told them to get out. The 19-year-old daughter said that on the morning of 9 March 1952 that she went in to see John Roberts's wife in her bedroom in bed, noting that she knew that she intended to stay in bed all day, and asked whether there was a clean shirt for her brother (son D) as the one he was wearing was filthy and she wanted to take him out. At the trial she said, 'That did it. She said she was the mistress of the house, and I and the children could go to hell for all she cared', and then told her to get out.

John Roberts's wife's 28-year-old son gave evidence at the trial stating that on the morning of 4 March 1952 that his mother had prepared porridge for breakfast in the back kitchen and had served it from a saucepan. He said that he, his mother and another brother were down for breakfast first and that John Roberts came down a little later. He said that the following day, 5 March 1952 that they again had porridge and that it was again served in the saucepan. However, he said that John Roberts said that he didn't feel well that day and said that when he later got home from work that he found that John Roberts was in bed.

The 28-year-old son said that he later collected a bottle of medicine from the doctor for John Roberts who he said went to bed between 8.30pm and 9pm. He said that he was later awoken by retching noises at about 12.30am on 6 March 1952 from John Roberts's room and went in to see him. He said, 'My step-father was half lying and half sitting in the bed. My mother was with him and she was fully dressed. I next woke about 3.30 and went into my stepfather's room. He seemed much better and said to my mother in Welsh, 'Alice, fach, I could do with a plateful of food now', she said, 'I wouldn't have too much now, John. I will make you a good breakfast''.

When John Roberts's wife's 28-year-old son was asked how his mother was between 6 and 11 March 1952, he said, 'None too well. She had pains in the back of her head and fainting spasms'.

He said that he had never seen any poisonous substances in his mother's possession.

He said that when they were served breakfast on 4 March 1952 that he, John Roberts and another brother had all been served from the same saucepan. He added that the milk had come from a jug that had been on the table and that they had each helped themselves from it. He also said that the sugar was served in the same way and that they had all had tea from a communal teapot. He added that he also saw John Roberts served in the same way on the morning of Wednesday 5 March 1952.

He said that he himself felt no illness, diarrhoea, or stomach pains after eating breakfast. When the pathologist gave evidence at the trial, he said that he had detected the presence of arsenic in every organ in John Roberts's body, finding in total 6.93 grains, stating that in his opinion John Roberts had received more than one dose a short time before his death.

He noted that the minimum fatal dose was about 6 grains.

He said that he carried out some tests with five grains of one type of weed killer which was in the form similar to methylated spirits except that it was slightly thicker. He said that he spread the weed killer on a plate containing porridge and said that in a few seconds the porridge was tinged with a light green colour which conveyed itself into the milk as well. He said then, that after pouring away the milk he was left with a normal porridge surface and that when he added fresh milk again and took a sppoful of the porridge, that he got no impression of any peculiar taste. However, he said, 'Fifteen minutes later I noticed a very considerable burning in my mouth and constriction at the back of my throat. This passed off in about ten minutes'.

John Roberts's doctor at the trial said that he had known John Roberts as a big eater who had suffered occasionally from vomiting attacks, but said that he didn't otherwise appear to have anything seriously wrong with him. He said that he regarded John Roberts as a nervy kind of man and a hypochondriac.

He said that when John Roberts's wife called him on the Wednesday 5 March 1952 and told him, 'John has had the vomiting again', that she did not seem anxious when he told her that he would not be in the village to call that day. He said that she then later called again and asked him for John Roberts's usual sedative medicine and said that John Roberts's wife's 28 year old son collected it.

He said that he had no reason to think that there was anything seriously wrong with John Roberts until receiving an urgent call the following morning and said that when he called found that he was dead from no apparent cause. The court heard that the doctor had been really puzzled. It was heard that, 'He knew of no physical reason which could have caused such a sudden collapse, and his knowledge of him made his sudden death almost inconceivable'.

The doctor said that when he first told John Roberts's wife that he wanted a post mortem, she at first agreed, but then came to him and said that it was a pity to have it done and that a dead man should be left in peace. He said that she also mentioned possible unpleasantness in the family.

When John Roberts's wife was asked at the trial whether she was afraid of there being a post mortem, she said, 'Not in the slightest as regards myself. I did not like it because people down the country don't look at it in the same light, and I thought they would blame me for letting the examination be conducted'.

It was heard that after John Roberts's post mortem, the pathologist formed the view that John Roberts's death was due to acute arsenical poisoning and had found nearly seven grains of arsenic in his body, noting that two grains was about the minimum fatal dose recorded and four to six grains was a deadly quantity. He then concluded that John Roberts must have swallowed a very large quantity, between 10 and 12 grains, which he said he thought would have been putting it mildly, considering so much was found in his body.

The Attorney General at the trial said, 'I believe this amount of nearly seven grains is the largest quantity that has been identified in a body in any case of homicide'. He said that the evidence excluded accident and suicide and pointed irresistibly to murder.

It was said that about a week after John Roberts died that the police found two tins that had contained weed killer on waste ground behind the Old School Building and that both tins had had the names of the chemists where they had been bought on them.

A chemist from Penrhyndeudraeth then identified one of them as having been sold by him to John Roberts's wife in either January or February 1952. He said that because she was a regular customer that he let her have it without having to sign the poisons register but said that he told her to be very careful with it. He admitted at the trial that that was a serious omission for a chemist to make and agreed that he would not be surprised if his evidence was looked on with some suspicion.

The other tin, a gallon drum, was said to have been similar to one sold by a chemist from Portmadoc who said that he sold some weed killer to a woman who he later identified as John Roberts's wife. He said that she had refused a non-poisonous type and had ordered arsenical weed killer in a gallon drum which she had collected on 4 March 1952, signing the poison book as 'AJ White, the White House, Talsarnau'. However, it was noted that there was no such place as White House in Talsarnau although at the trial John Roberts's wife admitted that she had bought the gallon drum of weed killer and signed her name as AJ White, saying that she had done so because she had recently signed as AM Hughes.

At the trial, parts of a statement that John Roberts's wife had made on the day of John Roberts's death were read out. Part of that read, 'He did not sleep well during the night. He was still complaining of pains in his stomach. I did not go to bed. I remained in the bedroom with my husband and sat on the bed. At about 3am on March 6 he told me that he felt better and said he could eat a good meal. I told him a heavy meal would do him harm and asked if he would like a piece of toast, but he said he would not eat anything. I went downstairs at 4.45am to prepare breakfast for the two boys. I took a cup of tea to my husband and found that he was unconscious. The doctor was sent for and he arrived about 6am and told me my husband was dead'.

The doctor said that about two months before John Roberts died that John Roberts's wife asked him for his opinion on John Roberts's health and said that he reassured her. He then said, 'She then started to tell me how unhappy she was living the life that she was with Roberts. Apparently, there were differences between the two families over the children, her children seemed to be more clever at school than his'. He added that John Roberts's wife also told him that John Roberts had been making excessive sexual demands on her.

At the trial, John Roberts's wife said that she had no idea at all how John Roberts came to have arsenic in his body. She said that John Roberts was kindness and consideration itself except that he made excessive demands and said that he sometimes spoke of suicide.

She said that for some months after their marriage that John Roberts had still been away from work and that he had advanced the theory that his stomach trouble had begun when he was at a chemical factory, saying that he had told her that he had thought that he had recieved some poison there.

When she was asked whether his vomiting was a rare thing, John Roberts's wife said, 'No, sir. It was an everyday occurrence'.

When John Roberts's wife was asked whether John Roberts was a person who did not like taking medicine, she said, 'No. He would take anything. In fact he would take anything that a friend would offer, which I used to get on to him about'.

John Roberts's wife agreed at the trial that she had bought the pound tin of 'Gardener's Friend' weed killer from the chemist, saying that they had been trying to tidy the surroundings around the Old school House which she said were overrun. She said that they had been expecting the school authority people, who were going to build a new school and said that John Roberts had told her to get the weed killer for him to try out. However, she said that she could not say whether he had used it all or not. She added that after having bought the tin and taken it home that she did not handle it herself. She said that John Roberts had scattered some weed killer round the paths at the house and had told her that he did not seem to think it was much good. She said, 'He told me I would have to get a more poisonous one to get rid of them'. She said that John Roberts had mentioned sodium chlorate but that he had not thought that it had had much effect.

It was said that the tin of 'Gardener's Friend' had contained about 50% arsenic.

When John Roberts's wife was cross-examined at the trial and asked whether or not she was concerned as to whether the weed-killer was poisonous or not, it was heard that she had said, 'No, not so long as it did its work'.

At the trial she was said to have spoken in a low voice in Welsh and to have said that when she went to see the chemist about the weed killer that she had not asked for arsenical weed killer. She said that she then went to another chemist for some powder for her baby and said that she mentioned the weed killer there.

She said that before she called for a gallon tin of weed killer on 4 March 1952 that she had drawn her widow's pension.

When she was asked whether after her marriage to John Roberts that she had continued to draw her widow's pension in her former name, she said that she did, 'Stating, 'I did it because of difficulties in trying to keep things going in the proper manner. There was nothing coming into the house except two guineas a week and the school money of £6 12s a month.

When at the trial John Roberts's wife was asked about signing the name AJ White in the poison register at one of the chemists, she said 'I did it because a few minutes before I had signed my name 'AM Hughes' and I suppose it was just in agony of mind. I thought I said the Old School House and not the White House'.

When she was asked whether she felt happy about the name 'White' that she had used at the chemist, she replied, 'No, I had a lot on my nerves'.

When John Roberts's wife was asked at the trial whether she had given a false name and address because she had it in mind to use the weedicide to poison her husband and didn't want her identity to be traced, she replied, 'No, I did not think that whatsoever'.

She said that she later put the tin of weed killer on the top of a spare dressing table in an empty attic, 'out of the way of the children'. She said, 'When my husband came home, I casually said I had got it, and told him  where it was', and said that she never saw him handle it.

She said that two days after the issue of whether a post mortem on John Roberts's body was brought up that she got took the tin of weed killer from the attic and poured it down the lavatory because, 'It struck me something might be thought different than was right'.

When she was asked whether she noticed whether the weed killer that had been kept in the attic had been opened before she poured it down the lavatory , she said 'No, I did not bother to see'.

She said that after she poured it down the lavatory that she then threw the drum away.

When the defence summed up before the jury, he said, 'In my submission it would be monstrously unfair to draw the inference that that woman was by her act admitting the guilt of the charge now preferred against her. There was no crime, even on he prosecution evidence, of which she could possibly be guilty. On February 25, the doctor told the son in quite unmistakable terms that his mother was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. People who are on the verge of a nervous breakdown, are they people who are potential suicides or not?. Of course, they are. The prosecution have put before you certain facts and they have said to you that the inference you ought to draw from these facts is that this woman killed her husband. There is an essential piece of evidence missing here, there is no eye-witness.

The court was then asked what they knew about John Roberts and the defence stated that they knew that he was an emotionally unbalanced man who had fits of irrational depression and who had been told by his doctor that there was nothing physically wrong with him and that he was a man who more than once talked of suicide.

The defence added, 'On the evidence in this case are you able to eliminate the possibility of suicide?'. The defence added that neither did they have to go so far as suicide and said that it was also possible that John Roberts might have taken the weed killer with some other thought on his mind.

When the prosecution summed up they submitted that John Roberts's wife and bought weed killer at least twice and that no one had seen that weed killer in the house. The prosecution also submitted that traces of arsenic were found in sweepings from shelves in a cupboard at the house and that there were also traces of arsenic in the drain outside the scullery door and at the end of the culvert that ran from the drain. The prosecution said that the amounts of arsenic were extremely small in the culvert but were larger in the gully near the door.

The prosecution noted that John Roberts's wife had been seen by the police on 2 April 1952 and had made a long statement, but noted that he would not refer to that at all 'because counsel for the defence has asked me not to'.

When the judge summed up at the trial, he told the jury that it was no part of the prosecutions duty to prove a motive, but noted that there was some evidence that indicated intentions or desires, stating that John Roberts's wife had told the doctor that she had reason to complain of his behaviour to her. The judge said, 'She said he was a brute. She had not been accustomed to that kind of life. She gave certain other details to the doctor, and she mentioned the possibility of running away or emigrating'. The judge also noted that there was also clearly ill feeling between John Roberts's wife and her step-children, particularly the 21-year-old daughter of John Roberts who had worked at Cadburys in Birmingham. As such, the judge said that it was a fair deduction that John Roberts's wife might have desired to get away from John Roberts and his children. He said, 'It is also clear that she was dreadfully overworked in looking after a family of eight'.

The judge then told the jury that they had to answer two questions, first whether John Roberts died as a result of taking arsenic and second whether that arsenic was administered to him by his wife intentionally.

The judge said that the prosecution had said:

  • That John Roberts's wife had administered poison to her husband.
  • That she had purchased two quantities of weed killer.
  • That there was no evidence that weed killer was used in the garden or for any other purpose at the Old School House.
  • That she had signed a false name and address for the gallon tin of weed killer.
  • That she also had ample opportunity to administer it.

The judge then said, 'In these circumstances the prosecution ask you to draw the conclusion that it was administered by her. You will appreciate that the finding of about seven grains in the body means that the man must have taken a very much larger amount'.

However, the jury found John Roberts's wife not guilty of murder.

It was noted that one of the people seen by the police during their inquiries into the death of John Roberts was found hanged in the boiler room of the Royal St David's Hotel in Harlech. The man was 50 years old and had been the head waiter at the hotel and was a well-known amateur conjuror and entertainer in North Wales. It was said that he had left a note.

It was also noted that John Roberts's 19-year-old daughter had been selling photographs of John Roberts and his wife to the press for £5 each.

John Roberts's wife's former husband was John Hughes who died on 6 June 1949 and had been a railway worker at Holyhead. His body was exhumed by grave diggers working by torchlight on the night of 30 April 1952. His death was also said to have been accelerated by arsenical poisoning but it was also said that his health had not otherwise been good and that in the beginning of June 1949 he had been suffering from acute bronchitis and was attended by a doctor. An open verdict was returned at his inquest in 1952.


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


see National Archives - ASSI 84/136, ASSI 91/41

see Portsmouth Evening News - Tuesday 08 April 1952

see Portsmouth Evening News - Thursday 03 April 1952

see Portsmouth Evening News - Tuesday 08 July 1952

see Liverpool Echo - Saturday 22 March 1952

see Birmingham Daily Gazette - Friday 04 April 1952

see Portsmouth Evening News - Friday 11 July 1952

see Portsmouth Evening News - Saturday 12 July 1952

see Portsmouth Evening News - Wednesday 09 July 1952

see Portsmouth Evening News - Tuesday 08 July 1952

see Portsmouth Evening News - Saturday 17 May 1952

see Portsmouth Evening News - Thursday 01 May 1952

see Portsmouth Evening News - Thursday 31 July 1952

see Portsmouth Evening News - Wednesday 02 April 1952

see Portsmouth Evening News - Friday 11 July 1952

see Portsmouth Evening News - Tuesday 08 July 1952

see Dundee Courier - Saturday 17 May 1952

see Liverpool Echo - Thursday 17 April 1952

see Portsmouth Evening News - Wednesday 09 July 1952

see Portsmouth Evening News - Thursday 20 March 1952