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Alice May Johnson

Age: 62

Sex: female

Date: 14 Nov 1963

Place: White Cottage, Tern Hill, Shropshire

Alice May Johnson was killed in her home during a burglary.

An unemployed 31-year-old  farmworker was tried for her murder but acquitted. There were two trials, the first being stopped by the judge after something that one of the witnesses said.

The time-line of events are:

  • 13 November 1963: Alice Johnson murdered.
  • 14 November 1963: Alice Johnson found dead.
  • 24 November 1963: Transmitter radio stolen from White Cottage was found in a field.
  • 16 January 1964: Unemployed man charged with murder.
  • 11 March 1964: Trial at Shopshire Assizes opens. Judge then orders a retrial.
  • 17 March 1963: Unemployed man acquitted on the direction of the judge.
  • 7 April 1964: Inquest resumed.

Alice Johnson was found in the living room at her cottage with severe chest and abdominal injuries on Thursday 14 November 1963. The police were called to her cottage after a friend of hers had been there but had got no reply. Her friend, a member of the Methodist chapel had called at her home to get the keys for the chapel. The friend said:

I was not alarmed when I could get no reply at first because she could have been out. When I went back later and things were still the same I became anxious and told the police.

She had been kicked and beaten and was also found to have had strangulation marks on her neck. The police said that there was no sign of a struggle and that they didn't think that a murder weapon had been used.

Her home, White Cottage in Tern Hill was described as an oil lighted cottage ten yards back from the A41 Birkenhead to Birmingham trunk road, about 100 yards from the Tern Hill cross-roads.

Alice Johnson had lived alone at the cottage for many years. It had formerly been a public house run by her grandfather.

Alice Johnson was described as having been a trusted member of the village Methodist chapel.

A relation that had lived in Shrewsbury said:

She was so frail and inoffensive.

Following her murder, the police used tracker dogs to try and find the murderer.

Scotland Yard were also called in and carried out an examination of her home, including checking for fingerprints.

The police later made loud-speaker appeals to the Market Drayton market-day crowds, for anyone that had been near the Tern hill cross-roads at about 4pm on the day of the murder to come forward, resulting in about twelve people coming forward.

Road-blocks were also set up in three places, two on the A41 and another on the Market Drayon to Shrewsbury road from 4pm until 10.30pm on Wednesday 20 November 1963 and motorists stopped and questioned.

A transistor radio set that had disappeared from her home on the night she was murdered was later found in a field in the Tern Hill area. It was found on 24 November 1963 around lunch time. It was taken away for fingerprint analysis. The find coincided with the publication by the police of 2,000 posters carrying a blow-up picture of the radio which were to be exhibited publicly all over the country.

It was noted that it had been the only item that it had been possible to establish had been missing from her home.

The radio had been a blue and beige Fidelity Florida portable transistor radio with an arial.

The police added that her cottage had not been ransacked and that apart from the radio, apparently nothing else had been taken.

A neighbour that had lived next to Alice Johnson for three years said that Alice Johnson had been apprehensive of strangers and she wouldn't open her door to them, noting that beggars often called at her home. She said:

She would not be likely to let a stranger in, not unless they told her who they were.

She noted that there was a cafe close to her home that closed at about 10pm.

The pathologist that carried out the post mortem examination said that the injuries from which Alice Johnson died had been inflicted with maniacal force. He said that her strangulation injuries had been sufficient to have caused her death, but that in his view the injuries to her chest and abdomen were inflicted whilst she was alive. He added that her neck injuries would have caused unconsciousness in a matter of seconds.

When the judge asked him whether her injuries had been inflicted with a degree of savagery, the pathologist described it as extreme violence. When asked whether they had been inflicted by someone not really in control of themselves, the pathologist replied:

I would say maniacal.

The unemployed man admitted that he had gone to White Cottage on the evening that Alice Johnson was murdered, but said that he went away after finding it in darkness. He added that he didn't touch the door. He had lived in Ash Hollow, Weston-under-Redcastle.

His defence submitted that there was no case to answer, stating that there wasn't the slightest shred of evidence that he had gone into her cottage and that nor was it true that he had been without money before the murder and had money afterwards.

At the magistrates it was heard that the unemployed man had been stopped by the police in the early hours of the morning and when told of Alice Johnson's murder, he said:

You are not going to pin that on me.

He had been stopped by the assistant chief constable of Shropshire constabulary and another police officer that had been travelling by car from Weston-under-Redcastle to Hodnet at 12.40am on 15 November 1963. They had seen him about three quarters of a mile along the road on the Hodnet side of Weston-under-Redcastle walking along and carrying a bundle of unwrapped clothing under his arm. When they asked him whether he would accompany them to Market Drayton police station, he was alleged to have said:

Why should I? I have done nothing wrong. I'm not going there. I'm going home. You are always picking on me. If anything happens around here it is always me who has done it, never anyone else.

The assistant chief constable said that they told him that they were checking and questioning all persons found out during that time and that he had then become disgruntled. the assistant chief constable said:

It was obvious from his attitude and the smell of his breath that he had been drinking, but he was not drunk.

The unemployed man then told the police that he had been in Shrewsbury all day, having gone to Hodnet to have a haircut, but to have found the shop shut. He added that he had later bought the bundle of clothes in a public house in Shrewsbury.

When he was asked whether he had been in the Tern Hill area the previous night, he said that he had, saying:

I was there last night and I walked home. I got home between 10pm and 10.30pm.

When he was asked whether he was sure of the time, he said:

I'm certain it was before half-past-ten. The television was on. It was the Naked City thing or something like that.

When he was asked whether he knew Alice Johnson who lived in the cottage near Griffiths' farm at Tern Hill, the unemployed man hesitated, and then said:

You mean Miss Johnson who lives at Tern Hill? I know her, she works at Griffiths’.

When he was then told that she had been found dead, he said:

Ah, you are not going to pin that on me. You don't think I did anything to her?

When he was then asked why he said that, the unemployed man replied:

I told you just now, if anything happens it is me who has done it.

When he was then asked whether he would go to the police station with them he said that he would if someone would look after his 70-year-old mother, and when he was told that someone was looking after her he agreed to go.

After arriving at the police station he agreed to make a statement at 3am in which he described having visited several public houses in the Market Drayton area on 13 November 1963 and then going on to Tern Hill, where he had another drink. He said:

I came out on my own somewhere near 8pm and went into Tern Hill police station and saw a police constable who told me to mess off home. I came away and went back to the Stormy Petrel, but changed my mind and walked towards Tern Hill crossroads. I walked along the A41 to Tern Hill crossroads and turned left. I did not stop at all at the crossroads and did not see anybody or speak to anybody. I walked through Hodnet and down to Ash Hollow. I did not notice anybody or speak to anybody. I had my supper and went to bed.

When he was asked how much money he had, he took out some coppers from his trousers pocket and said:

That's all I have.

The police said that they then searched his home but found nothing of any significance.

A man that had lodged at the Green Dragon in Shrewsbury, said that when he saw the unemployed man in the public house on 14 November 1963 that he had had a £5 note and one or two pounds. He said that he spent between £3 and £4 and bought drinks all round three or four times. He said that the unemployed man had told him that he had been on a week's holiday and had drawn money from his employer.

A farmer at Ivy House Farm, said that the unemployed man had been employed from12 October to 16 November 1963 and that during that time he had taken no holidays and nor had he been paid any holiday money. He noted that he didn't make any  deductions from his wages for his wife's maintenance payments. He added that he always drew the wages of the farm employees in £5 and £1 notes.

The first trial was halted after something that a leading aircraftman said whilst giving evidence. When the judge stopped the trial he told the jury that it was one of the fundamental principles of fair play in British Courts that they should have their attention directed solely to the evidence, adding that as a result of something the aircraftman had said, which he could not be blamed for and which could not have been anticipated, that there would have to be a retrial.

At the opening of the trial it was heard that the farmworker had been seen in the vicinity of the Tern Hill crossroads in an aggressive and argumentative state from about 6.30pm until 10.05pm, and that within that time there were two periods in which he was not seen, nor could be accounted for. It was further noted that both of those times fell within the time limit of 7pm to 11pm which the medical evidence showed that Alice Johnson would have died in.

The prosecution then invited the jury to say that it was within those times that the unemployed man had killed Alice Johnson.

The prosecution went on to note that the following day the farmworker should have been at work, but he was not, and that he was instead seen spending money fairly lavishly for a man of his calibre, being seen drinking in a public house throughout the day and evening and then later buying a box of clothes for 7s 6d.

The prosecution further noted that the farmworker went on to make several statements regarding his movements, culminating in one in which he said he went to the door of the cottage, but didn't go in.

The prosecution noted that it was a capital murder charge and that it was for them to establish that the murder had been committed in the course or furtherance of theft, that being the theft of either money, or the radio or both and for the jury to decide whether that was the case, and that if they felt that the murder was not carried out in the furtherance of theft that it would be open for them to find him guilty of murder, but not capital murder.

At the trial it was heard that when the farmworker was first questioned by the police that he had been under the influence of alcohol and the judge noted that it would have been most improper for the police to have taken a statement from him in that condition with the object of finding out where he had been at the material time.

He had made his statement at Market Drayton police station at 3am on 15 November 1963. He was said to have spent the day that Alice Johnson's body was found, 14 November, drinking in a Shrewsbury public house. A detective inspector said that when the unemployed man was taken to the police station that he was not drunk, adding:

But you could tell he had been drinking. He had a hangover.

The judge asked the detective:

To take a statement from a man at three o'clock in the morning when you know he has been drinking, is that in your view, as an experienced police officer, the best time?

To which the detective replied:

There could have been a better time.

When he was asked why he didn't let him sober up, the detective said:

I was instructed to take it then.

A police superintendent said that he disagreed that the unemployed man was still under the influence of drink. The judge said to him:

If he had been under the influence of drink it would have been most improper to take a statement with the object of finding out where he had been at the material time.

The superintendent replied:

I consider he was in such a condition that it was right to interview him.

After hearing the prosecution’s case the defence submitted that there was insufficient evidence to leave the matter to the jury, and after consideration the judge told the jury:

I have come to the conclusion, and so I direct you, that on the evidence as it stands no reasonably minded jury could properly find this man guilty. It follows that I must direct you now to acquit this man on this indictment. The responsibility of that direction is mine and mine alone and I accept it.

The judge stated that after hearing the prosecution evidence that he found that it went no further than suspicion, and that on that ground, the matter, which was a particularly serious one, should not be left to the jury.

After the unemployed man was acquitted, he said:

I never had any doubt about the verdict. Now all I want to do is get another job and settle down.

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

see find.galegroup.com

see National Archives - DPP 2/3802, ASSI 84/387, ASSI 6/292

see "News in Brief." Times [London, England] 17 Jan. 1964: 15. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 2 Oct. 2015.

see "News in Brief." Times [London, England] 18 Mar. 1964: 17. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 2 Oct. 2015.

see Birmingham Daily Post - Saturday 16 November 1963

see Birmingham Daily Post - Tuesday 14 January 1964

see Staffordshire Sentinel - Wednesday 11 March 1964

see Staffordshire Sentinel - Thursday 16 January 1964

see Staffordshire Sentinel - Tuesday 26 November 1963

see Liverpool Echo - Wednesday 11 March 1964

see Staffordshire Sentinel - Tuesday 17 March 1964

see Birmingham Daily Post - Monday 18 November 1963

see Hull Daily Mail - Friday 15 November 1963

see Staffordshire Sentinel - Tuesday 07 April 1964

see Staffordshire Sentinel - Thursday 21 November 1963

see Staffordshire Sentinel - Monday 25 November 1963

see Birmingham Daily Post - Friday 17 January 1964

see Leicester Daily Mercury - Tuesday 17 March 1964

see Birmingham Daily Post - Tuesday 17 March 1964