Date: 9 Oct 1932
Sidney Marston was found dying just after dusk in a garden at Cannon Hill.
He had been stabbed in the chest and also had head wounds.
He was seen at the entrance to a house where he collapsed and was then carried into the front garden where he died.
At first it was suggested that he had committed suicide, but it was later determined to have been murder and two women were charged for his murder, however, the case collapsed and they were acquitted.
At his inquest the pathologist ruled that the stab wound to his chest could not have been self-inflicted.
It was heard that at about 7.36pm or 7.37pm a man and a woman were passing 63 Willows Crescent when two girls came rushing out shouting 'Murder, fetch the police. Get this strange man out of my house'.
The man then at once entered the house and found Sidney Marston standing against the wall in the hall who he then grabbed and said, 'What's your game?' and said that Sidney Marston replied 'I have done nothing. I have done nothing'. The man said that Sidney Marston then began to sag at his knees and sank to the floor. The two girls then said 'Get him outside. He is only shamming, he has done that before'.
The two girls were sisters and the older sister said that Sidney Marston had struck her in the mouth and the younger sister said that she had cut her hand trying to get the knife off of him.
The man said that he then asked the sisters who he was and the older sister said, 'He is a complete stranger to us, I have never seen him in my life before'. The woman that the man had been with said that the older sister also said, 'We were both upstairs getting ready to go out and a strange man walked into the house. I had never seen him before. He had a knife in his hand. He hit me in the mouth. There was a 10/- note on the table and it has gone.'. She said that the younger sister also said, 'I tried to get it off him and cut my thumb'.
The man then pulled Sidney Marston into the garden where he lay.
Two other men were then called, and the older sister then said, 'My sister had gone for cigarettes and I was upstairs powdering my face. My sister came back by the back way and went upstairs to powder her face, then I came down stairs and met this man. He tried to catch me by the throat and stab me, I shouted for the police and for my sister, and my sister came down stairs'. The younger sister then told one of the men that she had seen Sidney Marston holding her sister by the throat and trying to stab her and that she took the knife from him and cut her finger and then the older sister said, 'He hit me on the lip. He started to go like this (waving her arms) but he is only pretending'.
The younger sister then said, 'The handle of the thing is in the house, I picked it up and put it down again'.
One of the two men that were called then went off and got a dentist who came back to the house and examined Sidney Marston and declared him to be dead having been stabbed in the left breast.
Both of the men stated that neither of the sisters was dressed to go out.
The events that took place in the front garden were also witnessed by the maid from the house next door. She said that she heard the older sisters saying 'He is only pretending. He's been staggering about in the house', and also said that she heard the younger sister say that her sister came downstairs and found a man with a knife in his hand and said that the older sister had then added 'The man held the knife up to me and I pushed him away. He done it again and my sister pushed him away and cut her hand'.
Two policemen arrived at the scene between 8.25pm and 8.29pm. They took statements from the two sisters as well as from the six various witnesses who had turned up during the affair.
The police found the younger sisters belt in the hall as well as some beads from a broken necklace. The blade of the knife was found subsequently in Sidney Marston's overcoat pocket when his clothes were searched and a crimpled 10/- note was found in his waistcoat pocket.
It was reported that the older sister and the man that she had been living with denied knowledge of the knife and said that there was otherwise only one knife and two forks in the house.
A photograph of the knife pieced together was published in the press and on 11 October 1932 a property repairer stated that he had seen a knife like it on the shelf in the pantry at 63 Willows Crescent on 28 September 1932 when he had been there on behalf of the landlord for the purpose of repairs and to spy out the land.
It was also stated that two of Sidney Marston's fellow workers knew that he had met the older sister before in John Bright Street and that Sidney Marston had been to 63 Willows Crescent before and had also said that the older sister was too expensive. The police also found an entry in a note book of Sidney Marston's that had the name of the older sister and the address 63 Willows Crescent, Cannon Hill in it, written in Sidney Marston's writing. It was heard that when the older sister was informed of that she had then admitted that he had been there once before.
The police report states that the two sisters came from a notorious family which they described as probably the worst in Birmingham, noting that seven of them, all except the younger sister, having been convicted from time to time. It states that the older sister was bound over in 1925 for stealing beads and in July 1926 she was sent to an Industrial School, but absconded after four days and stole the matron's handbag and money. The report stated that after that she continued on a course of misconduct, the details of which were too lengthy to include in their report.
It was stated that in February 1931 the older sister had gone to Manchester where she had a sister and lived for a time with a coloured man who she subsequently married in March 1931. It was said that during that time, and after, she acted as a prostitute on the streets. It was said that one time the coloured man invited a negro to go upstairs to a bedroom in their house with the older sister and that after he had undressed, his clothing was taken from him and he was attacked by the coloured man and that the older sister had then hit him on the head with a milk bottle such that he had to be conveyed to the hospital. The report stated that at the time the older sister had said that the negro had made immoral suggestions to her, but her sister subsequently stated that he had refused to give her sufficient money.
The older sister then later went to live with her sister and was then convicted for assisting in keeping a brothel and sentenced to one month's imprisonment.
She also later became associated with a coloured alien who in February 1932 was sentenced to six months hard labour and recommended for deportation for living on her immoral earnings.
Later, when the older sister was working as a prostitute in Manchester and Salford, she met a man who left his wife to go and live with her. It was said that on one occasion during an altercation she had tried to stab the man with a bread knife. The man later lost his situation and they then went to live in Birmingham around 1 July 1932 and lived at various addresses and then about 8 September 1932 they went to live at 63 Willows Crescent in Cannon Hill where they obtained a few articles of furniture by hire purchase. It was said that the older sister then practised prostitution about Bristol Street accompanied by her younger sister.
It was noted that the man that the older sister was living with at 63 Willows Crescent at the time had almost exhausted his money and had gone into town at about 6.30pm and visited a railway enquiry office and the Midland Red bus office enquiring into fares to London and as such it was considered impossible to connect him in any way to Sidney Marston's death. He had returned to 63 Willows Crescent at 11pm.
The police report stated that at first it was suggested that Sidney Marston had committed suicide but that after the post-mortem it was stated that it was murder. It was shown that the stab wound, which could scarcely have been self-inflicted, had cut the aorta and that there was much internal bleeding but little outside. Sidney Marston was also found to have bruises on both sides of his head and abrasions on his face and to have had a slight concussion just before his death. It was also shown that his hand was cut as though a knife had been drawn through his fingers and his clothes were torn in places. It was stated that he had died about half a minute after receiving the stab wound which was in its nature not consistent with suicide.
The two sisters were arrested on 24 October 1932 and on the Tuesday 25 October 1932 were remanded in custody until 31 October 1932.
The Solicitor for the defence asked that the case be proceeded with without delay and it was decided to proceed with the evidence on 31 October 1932.
Five witnesses were interviewed, and their statements taken. In doing so a couple of them asked for copies of their statements and it was decided to give each of the witnesses a copy of their statements. The two sisters were also interviewed, and copies of their statements were given to their defence.
However, it was noted in the police report that the act of giving the witnesses copies of their statements caused a problem with the judge and was partly or wholly the cause of the case collapsing.
The police report stated 'The point raised by the judge in this case is new. I have not heard it raised before. I have never heard it suggested that it is improper to hand a copy of his statement to a witness. Some witnesses indeed, demand a copy when making their statement, and I believe that they are entitled to it. Some witnesses write their own statements, and no doubt keep copies. A witness who has difficulty in remembering is entitled to refresh his memory from the statement taken from him, and may even do so from the depositions. It is a common practice for a policeman to refresh his memory by reference to his own notes. It is difficult to understand, during how long a period a witness is to be expected to remember facts which he has described in a statement made at the time of the occurrence, without being able to refresh memory from it. Such a length of time might elapse that the matter might have become almost obliterated from his memory, and if a witness, under such circumstances, were not allowed to refresh his memory from the statement made at the time when the facts were fresh in his mind, many criminals, no doubt, would escape.'.
It continued, 'So long as the police act honestly, as the judge said they did in this case, and that the witnesses are disinterested and honest witnesses, as they were in this case, I can see no possible objection to their having been allowed access to copies of their statements. In the present case the murder took place on the 9th of October, when statements were taken. The arrest took place on the 24th, and the first evidence presented to the court was on 31st of October, and the witnesses were interviewed on 30th October. It should be remembered also that when the case first presented itself it was assumed to be a suicide whereas it developed into the more serious crime of murder. The statements consist principally of conversations with the two girls, who were subsequently accused, and they must have been much clearer in the minds of the witnesses at the time when they made their statements than subsequently. Four of the witnesses were closely questioned by the judge and defending counsel, and all of them stated that they had not memorised their statements but that they had given evidence of what actually occurred on that night. On said that he had not even read them.
The inspector was asked if copies of these statements had been handed to the defence. It is surprising to hear a question of that kind asked, as everyone concerned in the administration of criminal law knows that statements of witnesses for the prosecution are never handed to the defence unless so ordered by the court, and then only on condition that they are made exhibits in the case. This was done in a previous case. The defence are entitled to copies of the depositions under Sec. 27. of the Indictable Offences Act 1848.
The practice as to statements is clearly defined. In Stephens Digest of the Law of Evidence page 151, article 136, it is laid down that, 'a witness may, while under examination, refresh his memory by referring to any writing made by himself at the time of the transactions concerning which he is questioned, or so soon afterwards that the judge considers it likely that the transaction was at that time fresh in his memory. The witness may also refer to any such writing made by any other person, and read by the witness within the time aforesaid, if when he read it he knew it to be correct.'. '.
The police report later stated 'The learned judge when charging the Grand Jury gave the impression that they should not find a true bill against the younger sister. The Grand Jury however found a true bill against both. The man that had first entered the house after hearing the cry of murder was cross-examined and although much confused by the questions and the method of putting them, he adhered to his original statement. In his depositions he had said 'The light was on in the hall when I first noticed the house'. On cross-examination at the police court he had said 'I had not seen a light in the house before the door opened. Both of these statements appeared on the deposition. He was cross examined about this point. He was also questioned about the word 'Shamming' and it was suggested the word was 'pretending', 'shamming' was the word first used to him and his friend. 'Pretending' was the word used afterwards to the other witnesses and heard outside by another witness. The witness was not shaken. Then, on page 18 he was asked if he had read his evidence and memorised it, he said that he had read it but not memorised it.
The police report states that it is then that the judge began to enquire into giving of the statements to the witness, who was confused, however, as to the date when he received it, and by many of the involved and complicated questions asked. From this point during the cross-examination of the witnesses the trial developed into an effort on the part of the defence to lead the jury to think that the police had acted unfairly in giving statements to these witnesses and that they had memorised them. That their evidence was what they had memorised, and unfair, and not what they remembered as having actually taken place on 9th October. All the witnesses however stated that they had given evidence of what actually took place. The judge took the opportunity of enquiring from these witnesses as to their having been supplied with copies of their statements. He afterwards required from the inspector a report in which the inspector stated, 'It is the custom to hand to witnesses copies of their statements prior to police court proceedings'. I have enquired into this and find that it is not a custom, but that it has been done from time to time when considered necessary.
It went on: My attention had not been directed to this matter before, but now that it is, I fail to see any irregularity or unfairness in it. All criminal prosecutions are not police prosecutions. The inspector points out that in private prosecutions the solicitors acting in them hand to police officers copies of their statements. No doubt they also supply all the witnesses for the prosecution similarly. Is it suggested that these solicitors should not be permitted to do so? Here I may remark that to me it is almost incredible that and eminent counsel and a judge who has been a celebrated prosecutor in criminal cases should be unaware of a matter such as this, and express surprise as at a new discovery.
The report also stated, To our surprise the judge directed a verdict of Not Guilty in both cases, without calling upon the defence and then made remarks. The judge seems to have it in his mind that because copies of statements were handed to five witnesses that they had memorised them and that the evidence was only what they had learned by heart and not what actually occurred and therefore unreliable. All the witnesses denied having memorised their statements and said that they spoke as to the facts as they occurred. The fears of the judge have, therefore no foundation. It is extremely awkward to find myself in opposition to the opinion of the learned judge, but I am satisfied that he has taken the wrong view of this matter. Anyone who has studied Locke should appreciate that the facts in any matter gradually fade from the memory through the process of time, but that reference to a memorandum made at the time at once revives the memory and the incident comes up once more clearly in the mind. An everyday illustration of this is exemplified in the keeping of diaries where quite cryptic references once they are read bring clearly to one's mind the incidents that have occurred long ago.
The police report went on to state: Both sisters had evidently been exploited by a section of the press, and after the trial were photographed in fine motor cars smoking cigarettes and drinking wine in a private room in the Queens Hotel. I have good reason to believe that had the case taken its course, in all probability, at least the older sister would have been convicted. The general opinion in the town is that both sisters are guilty. A mob gathered around their mother's house, where they went when liberated, and there was a hostile demonstration against them. Violence would have been used had it not been for the police.
The police report concluded that as it is, this police force has been given a bad name. A leader appeared in the Birmingham Post of 8th December, headed 'An undesirable practice' and worse appeared in other papers. An adverse and unfair comment appeared in the Justice of the Peace of 17 December. I respectfully suggest that it might be desirable to consult the Director of Public Prosecutions before any decision is come to or any opinion expressed as to the proprietary or otherwise of the police supplying copies of statements in such criminal cases as may seem necessary. It is a most important matter that nothing should be done to hamper the police in the investigation of crime. I have heard the opinion expressed by competent lawyers that the action taken by the police in this case in supplying statements to these witnesses was quite in order.
I regret to have to report that the Inspector mentioned in this case, shot himself dead on 28th December 1932.'.
see National Archives - HO 144/19834, DPP 2/120, ASSI 13/62
see Western Daily Press - Thursday 20 October 1932