Unsolved Murders

Flora Alice Childs

Age: 27

Sex: female

Date: 17 May 1945

Place: River Nene, near Thorney, Cambridgeshire

Flora Alice Childs was found dead on the banks of the River Nene, near Thorney, Cambridgeshire on 17 May 1945.

Her death was considered suspicious and a full investigation was carried out but at her inquest a verdict of found drowned was returned.

The body of Flora Childs was found at 9.15am on 17 May 1945 by a dredging and construction engineer employed in examining the river Nene on the north bank of the river near Thiorney, Isle of Ely. The river was described as a fast flowing tidal river running through the Isle of Ely in Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire and then entering the sea at the Wash,

The police were then called out, but they were unable to determine anything other than that her body had been washed up by the receding tide.

Her body was found to be partly decomposed and after photographs were taken it was taken to the mortuary at Thorney.

In an endeavour to establish her identity, her body was stripped and her wet clothing was examined and letters and figures on her brassiere indicated that she was identical with Flora Alice Childs, age 27, and ordinarily stationed at Happisburgh, Norfolk and in the WAAF and who had been missing since 4 May 1945.

A friend identified her body and also her brassiere, a platinum wedding ring and a metal shamrock brooch that she had used to pin the end of her tie.

It was initially thought that Flora Childs had been the victim of foul play as, due to her decomposed state, certain marks on her mouth and nose created that impression. That impression was strengthened by the fact that certain articles of clothing, her knickers, a stocking and her shoes, were missing, and as such, the matter was brought to the attention of the Chief Constable and a post-mortem was arranged.

The doctor that carried out her post-mortem stated that he thought that Flora Childs had died two weeks earlier and that the condition of her body was in keeping with her having been wholly or nearly so, emerged in water for that period. He gave her cause of death as being due to asphyxia due to drowning.

There were three injuries found, all of which were of a minor surface character. The first was a half-inch split in the scalp over the prominence of the back of her head, about an inch to the left of the mid-line which the doctor stated in his report was clearly caused at or after death, there being no bruising at the site of the injury. It was also noted that as she died from drowning that she must have received that injury whilst in the water.

The two other injuries were described as being of an even more trivial character but had been sustained in life. One consisted of a 1/4 inch diameter bruise on the skin of the mid-line of the back over the '8th chest vertebral spine', and the other a 2 x 1 1/2 inch area of bruising of the skin over the lower tip of the right shoulder blade. Regarding the injuries, the doctor said, 'No material injury of any kind had been sustained and a number of interpretations of quite incidental character, such as merely falling over backwards, might adequately account for these trivial bruises'.

However, it was noted that they were the only injuries found and that the marks on her nose and mouth that had at first aroused suspicion were not due to injury, but were due to decomposition.

It was noted that Flora Childs was not virgo-intacta although noted that she was a married woman, and an examination of her private part provided no evidence of recent interference, violent or otherwise. A swab taken from her vagina failed to reveal the presence of any spermatic fluid.

Samples of her hair (head and pubic) were taken and an attempt was made to to obtain scrapings from her fingernails but the condition of the flesh around her nails made that impracticable.

The police also took samples of her gastric contents but none of it was of any use in the enquiry. However, it was determined that samples of fluid found in her lungs and stomach were found to be similar to samples taken from the water and silt in the river Nene.

When the doctor completed his report into Flora Childs's death he concluded that the 'Autopsy reveals no cause for suspicion of foul play on medical grounds, the conditions found giving evidence only of death from drowning. There is, further, no injury capable of affecting deceased's ability to save herself from an involuntary immersion, and no natural disease capable of bearing on the circumstances'.

However, the police report noted that the result of the post-mortem did not rule out the necessity for further enquiry and the police then went through and checked the known facts.

The police report stated that when Flora Childs's body was found it was lying full length, face downwards on the grass bank of, and parallel, with the river Nene, with her head to the east, at a spot near Bassnimoor Farm in Thorney, which it was noted was well off the beaten track and away from any public roadway. It was lying well below previous tide levels and the surrounding grass bank was extremely soft and muddy and would have given a clear indication had anybody or anything been near the spot and that the only marks found were those made by cattle grazing on the bankside.

When she was found, her clothing was extremely muddy and her skirt was up around her waist and she was not wearing any knickers, had no shoes and was missing a stocking.

The police stated that they satisfied beyond any doubt that Flora Childs's body had been washed up by the river at the spot where she was found, an opinion supported by the fact that fluid samples from her lungs and stomach matched samples of the silt and water taken from the river.

When the police then checked Flora Childs's known movements they found that she had left her station at Happisburgh on a 36 hour pass on the early morning of 3 May 1945 to visit her mother-in-law at Hailey Lane in Hertford Heath, Hertford and was due back by 11.59pm on 4 May 1945. However, it was found that she had failed to return. When the police made enquiries, they found that Flora Childs had visited her mother-in-law on 3 May 1945 and had left to return to her station at 1.45pm on 4 May 1945, telling her mother-in-law that she intended to hitch-hike her way back. It was noted that she had told her mother-in-law that she had also hitch-hiked her way out on 3 May 1945.

It was noted that it was Flora Childs's custom to hitch-hike her way about the country and that on former occasions of visiting her mother-in-law, she had hitch-hiked along the direct route between her station at Happisburgh and Hertford, ie the Norwich, Newmarket, Cambridge Road, returning the same way. It was noted that she was not known to have previously travelled to Hertford by any other route and as the Cambridge to Norwich Road did not run anywhere near the river Nene, the finding of her body in the river increased the suspicion that the police already felt concerning the manner of her death.

As such, the police stated that at that time the position, briefly, was that they had the body of a young woman, Flora Childs, who had drowned in the river Nene and that there was no medical evidence of foul play but that against that they had the following facts:

  1. Certain articles of her clothing were missing from her body.
  2. That seemingly, she must have been off the direct route to her station.
  3. As far as was known, she had no reason, and was not the type to commit suicide.

As such, the police said that they had three possibilities:

  • Murder, thought unlikely but could not be ruled out merely on account of the medical evidence.
  • Suicide, thought possible but unlikely.
  • Accident.

The police stated then that it was a case of doing everything possible to ascertain the following:

  1. Flora Childs's movements on and after 4th May.
  2. To make a complete check of her history, habits and general character.
  3. Her service history.
  4. Her family history.

In regards to the first point, the police circulated Special Enquiry Notices bearing her photograph and description to police throughout the whole of Central and East Midland Counties calling for special enquiries, where possible by CID officers, at firms of carriers, motor haulage contractors, and service camps etc., in an endeavour to trace and interview any driver who might have given her a lift or any person who could give information concerning her movements. The police added that in that respect that also prepared notices that were posted at hotels, public houses, roadside cafes, coffee stalls and eating houses etc., throughout those counties. The police also sought the assistance of the local and national press and provided them with photographs and descriptions for publication.

The police report noted that a great many people were interviewed as a consequence of their enquiries, but stated that none of them were able to assist in tracing Flora Childs's movements during the period in question. It was noted that people from all over the place had said that they thought that they had seen her, but it was found that enquiries proved them to be wrong.

The police noted that points 2, 3 and 4 in the above list were dealt with later in their report.

In addition, the police made a thorough examination of both banks of the river Nene along the whole of its 25 mile tidal course, but nothing was found.

The report stated that it was felt locally that Flora Childs had gone into the river between Guyhirne Bridge and Wisbech and more probably at Wisbech, as it was only between those two places that a road, incidentally a main road, ran alongside the river, with the river elsewhere running through fields and being well away from any highway. It was noted that the distance between Guyhirne and Wisbech was roughly five miles and that the whole of that area was within the jurisdiction of the Isle of Ely Constabulary.

Every conceivable effort was made to obtain useful information along the main stretch of the road and house to house enquiries were made along its five mile stretch, but without luck. The enquiries including a check on all traffic using the road and checks on the movements of local epileptics, persons of unsound mind and criminals given to violence and /or sexual offences.

The police report stated that another reason that it was felt probable that Flora Childs went into the river at Wisbech was that the road there was the main road to Norwich and was used vey considerably by long distance lorries, cars, and army vehicles etc., and that had Flora Childs managed to get a lift to Wisbech she would not have been far off her direct route, and would further have stood an excellent chance of completing her journey. It was also noted that many members of the services hitch-hiked along that road.

It was noted that the Nene with its fast flowing, swirling tidal water (a twenty foot tide being not unusual) and treacherous undertow, was regarded locally as being extremely dangerous, particularly so at Wisbech because there, the sides of the basin had been cemented to above water level and the banks were almost perpendicular. The wooden guard rail between the road and the river was no higher than 18 inches in many places and it would have been quite a simple thing for anyone to topple in as had happened before.

It was noted that once in the river, a person would be very hard put to save themselves and the general view was that they would drown, and noted that a sailor had recently fallen in from a boat, and although he was able to swim and was seen initially to swim, disappeared under the water and his body was found five and a half weeks later.

In regards to points b, c and d, the police determined at Flora Childs was born at Gaya in India, her father being employed as a guard by the East India Railway Company, on 4 November 1945 and that she later joined the WAAF on 14 November 1941 when she was a single woman, her maiden name being Scott and her home address being in Orchard Park, Kelso in Scotland.  When she joined the WAAF she underwent a course of instruction in Radio Location work and subsequently, on 30 June 1942, was posted for duty at a station at Shoreham where she met her husband who was also engaged on Radio Location work at the same station. They then married on 18 March 1944. Her husband was later posted for service in India in July 1944 where he was when Flora Childs was murdered.

Flora Childs was transferred from Shoreham to a Radio Location Station in Happesburgh, Norfolk in November 1944 where she was attached until the time of her death.

When her officers and friends were questioned in Happesburgh, they described Flora Childs as a person of the highest moral character. One of hr friends described Flora Childs as 'a thoroughly honest, reliable, clean living and decent girl' and added, 'I am sure in my own mind that she was very devoted to her husband and I am also sure that she was absolutely straight to him. I have not known her to associate in any way with any man other than her husband. She was physically strong. I am quite sure she could take her own part in anything with anybody. She had no worries to my knowledge. She liked a glass of light beer. I have been with her at a local public house and on one occasion she drank a couple of pints and suffered no ill effects'.

The police report noted that when her body was found her knickers were missing and that when they asked her friend about about the matter she said that she had not known Flora Childs to not wear knickers but was unable to speak of the position on 3 May 1945 when Flora Childs left the camp. She said that the knickers that Flora Childs wore were always 'civilian loose legged type and the elastic in those in her possession was well worn which would render them very loose fitting'.

The police report noted that when they inspected the whole of Flora Childs's belongings at the camp they found amongst them twelve pairs of civilian loose legged type knickers which were all soiled and very much worn and which had knots tied in the elastic waistbands to prevent them slipping. The police report noted that at no stage in their enquiry were they able to establish whether or not Flora Childs had been wearing knickers on 4 May 1945, noting that neither her friends at the camp nor her mother-in-law with whom she stayed on the night of 3/4 May knew.

However, the police report stated that it was their view that Flora Childs had been wearing knickers and that in all probability they were similar to those found amongst her other belongings at camp and that she had either removed them, or they were removed by the action of the tide during the two weeks her body was in the river. The police report noted that had they been forcibly removed, that they would have expected to find some medical evidence of an assault, of which there was none.

When the police considered how her shoes became removed, it was stated that one of her friends said that she was quite sure that Flora Childs could have removed her shoes without undoing her laces, saying, 'I am quite sure that she could have removed her shoes without undoing the laces, most women can'. The police stated that the point of that was that according to the medical evidence, Flora Childs when she had entered the water was fully conscious and that being a swimmer, it was thought that she would have naturally started to swim and that finding that her shoes were hampering her had removed them.

Another friend who was questioned said she last saw Flora Childs on 3 May 1945 when they left camp together at about 6.30am and parted company at North Walsham Station. She said that Flora Childs told her that she was going to take the train to Norwich and to then hitch-hike to Bishops Stortford. She said that she was in very good spirits and that she had told her that she was going to visit her husband's people and would be back at camp the following night.

The police said that when they interviewed Flora Childs's mother-in-law who lived in a very small country cottage in Hailey Lane, Hertford Heath, they were unable to obtain any kind of a lead from her. The mother-in-law said that Flora Childs arrived at about 2pm on 3 May 1945 in uniform and told her that she had hitch-hiked from Norwich to Ware. She said that Flora Childs appeared to be in good health and that during the evening of 3 May 1945 they had a family gathering and at 9.30pm Flora Childs went to bed.

She said that they had breakfast in bed the following morning and got up at about 11.30am and then had lunch at about 12.30pm and that Flora Childs then left to return to her station at about 1.40pm to 1.45pm. She said that Flora Childs told her that she intended to take a bus from Amwell Cross Roads which was the nearest main road to Bishops Stortford and that she was then going to hitch-hike from there. She noted that Flora Childs had a little money on her, between £1 and £1.10.0, but had no valuables. She added that she didn't think that Flora Childs had made any arrangements to be picked up, saying that she had said nothing about it and had not done so on any former occasion.

The police said that after Flora Childs left the cottage she was seen by a local gardener at about 1.45pm walking towards a bus stopping place near Amwell Cross Roads and that as far as the enquiry was concerned that he was the last person to have seen her alive.

A bus conductress said that she remembered picking up a passenger in the WAAF at Amwell Cross Roads at 2.15pm and dropping her at Bishops Stortford, but said that she was not able to identify her.

The police report stated that an incident worthy of mention was that soon after Flora Childs left, Flora Childs's mother-in-law found a wallet belonging to her that contained her Service Identity card, her RAF Station Pass and some other documents and that believing that Flora Childs would think that she had lost it would worry and so she told her daughter to take it to the Post Office and send the wallet in a registered package to Flora Childs at her station as well as a telegram to inform her of what had happened. However, it was also noted that of course, Flora Childs did not receive either.

Following every possible enquiry, the police said that they were unable to trace any movements of Flora Childs after she was seen at Hertford at 1.45pm on 4 May 1945 or to obtain any direct evidence as to how she came to meet her death.

The police stated that in their own minds, they thought that she had obtained a lift to Wisbech, noting that the fact that the driver of the vehicle had not come forward should not be taken as indicative of foul play. They noted that if the driver was a person who did a lot of driving  that it it was highly probable that they might have given lifts to a great number of people in the services, both male and female and could have quite easily forgotten assisting Flora Childs.

The police also noted that there was nothing outstanding about Flora Childs's appearance, stating that she was a very ordinary looking person and was wearing a uniform similar to that worn by thousands of others.

In summary, the police stated that it seemed clear from the medical evidence that Flora Childs died on 4 May 1945, but that the question of whether it was murder, suicide or accident remained unsolved.

Murder: The report also stated that murder was possible, but highly improbable, stating that it could probably be ruled out for the following reasons:

  1. There was no medical evidence of foul play, a most important matter in the case because Flora Childs was a strong, healthy young woman and quite capable of looking after herself.
  2. That the explanation put forward concerning her missing knickers and shoes (considered early on as being suspicious) was satisfactory. That the missing stocking was, in all probability, washed off by the action of the tide, otherwise they would have expected to have found evidence of an assault. That all clothing that was found on her body was in order, her uniform jacket buttoned and so on and that apart from being very wet and muddy, was perfectly normal.
  3. That in making her way to Wisbech, which they thought that she did, she was not far off her direct route, which was at first suspected.
  4. An absence of motive. There was no evidence of jealousy, pregnancy, assault, rape, robbery etc and that the only insurance policies in existence, one for £18 and another for £12.10.0 were taken out and paid for by Flora Childs's mother in Scotland.

Suicide: The report stated that suicide was thought possible, but unlikely for the following reasons:

  1. No apparent reason why she would want to kill herself was known. Also she was very happily married and was not known to have any worries, financial or otherwise.
  2. That basically, she was quite sound physically and mentally.
  3. She was a good swimmer and it was unusual for a swimmer to commit suicide by drowning.

Accident: The police stated that they had given the theory of Flora Childs having died following some kind of accident some thought and throught that that was the answer and that in their view Flora Childs had fallen into the river at Wisbech.

Flora Childs's inquest was opened at Thorney on 18 May 1945 and then after identification of her body was adjourned until 29 June 1945. When the hearing resumed on 29 June 1945 before a jury of seven men the evidence was heard and when the coroner summed up he dealt at length with the three possibilities as outlined by the police in their report and when reaching the third possibility, said, 'Then, of course, there is the third possibility, that it was an accident, and to my mind that is the more likely. It is likely that she got as far as Wisbech and fell into the river somewhere there. Not a difficult matter, and as you know, the river is very dangerous at Wisbech because there is a length of quite two or three hundred yards, where it would be impossible even for a good swimmer to get out, particularly if the tide was in a certain position'.

However, the coroner went on to say, 'But having regard to the whole of the facts, you might want to consider a fourth verdict, 'Found Drowned'. Not very satisfactory I agree, but I think the more obvious'.

The jury then retired and after a few minutes returned and gave their verdict as 'Found Drowned'.

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

see www.nationalarchives.gov.uk

see National Archives - MEPO 3/2295

see Daily Record - Monday 21 May 1945

see Scarlet Boy 44