Unsolved Murders

Phyllis Hirst

Age: 8

Sex: female

Date: 28 Oct 1938

Place: Little Horton Green, Bradford

Phyllis Hirst was found dead in a private lane in Little Horton Green near All Saints' Church on the night of 28 October 1938.

She was the daughter of a painter and had lived in Sterling Street and was one of five children.

It was thought that she was attacked and outraged in a building in the neighbourhood and that when she was dumped in the lane she had still been alive.

She was found behind a wall in the private drive at little Horton Green.

She was last seen alive by a playmate between 8.50pm and 9.00pm in William Street where they were playing, not far from her home. It was said that Phyllis Hirst had had tea with her playmate at about 5.30pm after which they had both gone out to play in the street. It was said that the two girls visited Phyllis Hirst's home in Stirling Street for a short time and had then went back out again. It was said that they had been playing in William Street at the gate of the playmate's father's house when Phyllis Hirst had said goodnight to her and started to walk off home at about 9pm.

It was said that Phyllis Hirst would have walked home via Swan Street, John's Gate and Sharpe Street to get into Manchester Road and then go on to Stirling Street.

It was heard that some of the streets would have been dark and quiet at the time, and narrow, many of them being bordered by warehouses, offices and blank walls.

The playmate said that she and Phyllis Hirst had been playmates for three years. She also added that while playing at the bottom of Stirling Street on the day that Phyllis Hirst was murdered, just off Manchester Road, that a strange man had gone up to them and given them a penny. She said that the man also gave the boys some money.

The playmate said, 'We had never seen him before, and we didn't know who he was, or how he was dressed, because the light was going. We bought toffee with the penny and didn't see the man again all evening'.

A woman that lived on Sterling Street said that she had been standing on her doorstep at 9.30pm when she had seen Phyllis Hirst run up Sterling Street towards her home. She said that when Phyllis Hirst was opposite her house she paused and then ran back towards a man who was standing on the other side of Sterling Street, near the Manchester Road end. She said that Phyllis Hirst jumped up and tried to take the man's arm but said that she was too small to reach it. The woman then said, 'She walked away with him, and they turned up Manchester Road. I didn't hear any words spoken'.

Her body was found, still warm, at 10.30pm by a woman who was walking her dog. She said that she was attracted to her body by her dog which was straining on the leash at something in the shadow of a high-walled carriageway. She said that she ran home and brought a lighted taper.

The following day the police gave out the description of the man that they wanted to trace. They said that he was about 20-25 years of age, 5ft 5ins in height, clean shaven with a fresh complexion and black hair, inclined to be light at the front and combed straight back. He was said to have been wearing a blue suit, a fawn raincoat and brown shoes.

They said that the man that had murdered Phyllis Hirst would have been bloodstained.

The police said that they were also interested in speaking to a man that had been seen talking to a tram conductor. He was said to have been under the influence of drink and was described as being young. He had been on the Stanningley route, at about 9.15pm, but was later identified and after speaking to him, the police said that they could rule him out of the investigation.

Analysis of materials taken from under her finger nails was also carried out which it was understood was being compared with earth from different parts of the district.

Phyllis Hirst's mother said that she last saw Phyllis Hirst at 5.15 on the Friday 28 October 1938. She said that Phyllis Hirst had been in good health and noted that when she was last seen she had been wearing articles of clothing that were not on her body when she was found including a pair of canvas pumps and light blue knickers that had elastic band at the waist and elastic band at the bottom of the legs.

Two right foot shoes were later found during the investigation. The first was a white canvas shoe that was found in the Hammerton Street rubbish destructor, and on the weekend of 5-6 November 1938 a dirty white canvas shoe was found on waste land in Coates Terrace off Manchester Road which was about 20 minutes’ walk from Sterling Street and 10 minutes’ walk from Horton Green where Phyllis Hirst's body was found. It was reported that Phyllis Hirst's mother said that she was sure that the second shoe was one of a pair that Phyllis Hirst had been wearing on the night she was murdered.

Shortly after the murder, the police released the descriptions of three men that were seen with little girls in the Horton Green district on the night of the crime and on 5 November 1938 they released a fourth description which was that of a thin-faced man with very long fingers who was seen pushing a bicycle in the vicinity some time before Phyllis Hirst was found. It was said that there had been a bulky sack on the bicycle.

The police said that they had made an intensive search soon after Phyllis Hirst was found dead, which included searching in the vicinity of the carriageway and also nearby fields and barns, using long sticks to turn over grass in their search for clues. It was said that the grounds of Horton Hall, the residence of the Bishop of Bradford were searched as well as the small passage that led off the carriageway into the grounds of Horton Hall. The police said that they also searched the interior and exterior of All Saint's Church thoroughly.

A doctor said that when he was called out to the lane at 10.45pm he found her body with her clothing turned up above the waist. He said that the lower part of her body was cold but that the upper portion was still warm and that she was dead. He said that he had formed the impression that she might have been dead for under two hours. He said that rigor mortis had not yet set in and thought that she had died not more than an hour and a half before her body was discovered, and possibly only a matter of minutes.

The doctor said that she had bruising on her neck and found bloodstains on her abdomen and right thigh. He said that there was also a fresh, moist bloodstain near her heel.

He noted that he saw no signs of a struggle where her body was found and said that she had an attitude of repose as though she had been laid there. He noted that the gravel of the footpath would probably not have shown footprints when dry.

He also said that her hands were clenched and the tips of the fingers of her left hand were covered with brick dust that was similar to the brick dust on the path that she had been lying on, as if her hand had been moving on the path after she was laid there. He said that as such, he thought that she had almost certainly been living when she was placed there. He added that the place where her left hand had been lying had a scooped-out area in the gravel.

The doctor said that when he examined Phyllis Hirst's body later at the mortuary he found that her clothing had been rolled up and not pushed up. He said that he also found small flecks of haemorrhage about her lips and teeth and blood oozing from her body. He said that her right hand was extensively bloodstained and had some small cuts and that there were smears of blood across the lower part of her abdomen that might have been caused by Phyllis Hirst drawing her hand across her body.

He said that he found three small parallel pressure lines near the back of her neck at the left that might have been caused by pressure of a hand, but he thought, more likely caused by her clothing adding that it looked like her clothing had been pulled tightly round her neck. He said that there was a superficial mark in the hollow of her neck at the front that he thought had been caused by the pressure of a button from her clothes. He added that there was also a small bruise to the right side of her neck that he thought could have been caused by hand pressure.

He said that internally she had a bruise on the skull that he said had nothing to do with her death, and certain other bruising that could have been caused if her body had been thrown down. He said that he found further bruising on each side of her windpipe and inside the larynx, and on a portion of her spine immediately behind. He also noted that her lungs were fully expanded, but not extremely so and said that the signs indicated that partial strangulation had taken place.

The doctor said that her injuries indicated that considerable force had been used and said that there must have been extensive haemorrhage from the injuries resulting in more blood being lost than was found on the path where her body was found.

He said that when Phyllis Hirst had been put on the path she would have been living, but unconscious and said that her cause of death was shock and haemorrhage from injuries, accelerated by partial strangulation.

The Coroner's jury returned a verdict of murder against some person or persons unknown.

In early November 1938 it was reported that at least four little girls had within the previous fortnight been stopped by a young man in the neighbourhood where Phyllis Hirst's body was found. It was said that on one occasion a man was seen to speak to a girl and was chased away by two women and a clergyman.

On 5 November 1938 it was reported that two mediums had carried out a seance at the spot where Phyllis Hirst's body was found. The female medium said that her trance had been disturbed by the headlamps of a passing car but the male medium said that he was able to describe the arrival in the carriageway of the assailant and Phyllis Hirst, adding that the name of the man and the name of the firm that he worked also came through, but the police said that their enquiries concerning the names provided by the medium proved fruitless.

On 14 November 1938 the police said that they had examined the contents of more than a thousand gully grates in the district. It was also noted that they had visited every house within a two-mile radius of the place where she was found and had taken over 1,000 statements and questioned between 5,000 and 6,000 people. It was reported on 1 November 1938 that over 60 detectives had been working on the investigation.

Phyllis Hirst was buried on 1 November at the Central Mission in Bradford. It was said that there were about a thousand people there who packed the hall, including sobbing mothers holding babies. The Bradford schools were on holiday and scores of Phyllis Hirst's schoolmates attended. The minister of the mission said that 'Whoever it was who perpetrated this outrage was unworthy of a place among any people'. He went on to say, 'Whoever it was, who dared to stoop so to injure an take the life of a little child, is unworthy of a place among any people, and we want it to be known that if such a person is yet going about, that his conscience shall never be settled, and that he will, by way of God Himself, come to discover punishment for his sin. There is no room for him in the Kingdom of God. We hope all the efforts being made to trace those who are guilty of this crime will be successful, and that the punishment will meet the crime'.  He also warned the children not to go far from their homes during the winter nights. It was reported that the police mingled with the crowds and a schoolgirl that was assaulted a while before was there accompanied by a policewoman, apparently on the look-out for the assailant.

Later, in January 1939, a man was convicted of sending an anonymous letter to the police in Bude, Cornwall stating that he was the murderer and stating that he was going to kill again. It was stated that he sent the letter on 7 November 1938 and that it had caused the police between 8 November 1938 and 15 November 1938 to spend 85 1/2 hours making enquiries and keeping observation that caused the Cornwall Constabulary, maintained at public expense, to spend their time and services into the investigation of the false statements and thereby temporarily depriving the public of the services of the officers involved and rendering liege subjects of the King liable to suspicion, accusation and arrested, and in doing so had effected a public mischief.

The man was ordered to be detained at the Royal Western Counties Institution at Starcross, which was an institution for mental defectives.

The letter read, 'Bude, November 6, 1938. Dear Sir, I am the murderer of Phyllis Hirst. I am staying in Bude. I am looking out for to do another crime. I often see a good chance, since I have been here a short time. I hope you will have a good hunting before you get me. I nearly had a girl on the golf course on Sunday night. I went towards her, but she ran away. Better luck next time, I hope. From Bradford'.

The police said that as a result of the letter they made special enquiries in Bude and a large number of hours were devoted to keeping observation within the vicinity of the golf course on the downs and the police had to make a thorough investigation of hotels and boarding houses and examine registers of people staying there.

The police said that when they caught the man on 15 November 1938 and examined his movements they said that they were quite certain that he had not left the area in the previous six months and had nothing to do with the murder of Phyllis Hirst. The man said, 'It is only four letters I have written. I saw it in the newspaper no one had been locked up for murdering the girl Phyllis Hirst. I am sorry. I realise the seriousness of it now'.

Another letter was received by the police in Bradford that had been sent from Bramley on 20 November 1938, but it is not known what it contained. A photograph of the letter was published in newspapers appealing for members of the public who could identify the handwriting to come forward.

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

see www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk

see Lincolnshire Echo - Wednesday 16 November 1938

see Yorkshire Evening Post - Tuesday 01 November 1938

see Yorkshire Evening Post - Saturday 29 October 1938 (includes photo of Phyllis Hirst)

see Gloucestershire Echo - Saturday 29 October 1938

see Gloucestershire Echo - Tuesday 01 November 1938

see Aberdeen Press and Journal - Saturday 05 November 1938

see Western Morning News - Thursday 03 November 1938

see Birmingham Daily Gazette - Wednesday 28 December 1938

see Yorkshire Evening Post - Monday 07 November 1938

see Yorkshire Evening Post - Wednesday 16 November 1938

see Yorkshire Evening Post - Tuesday 22 November 1938

see Western Morning News - Wednesday 11 January 1939