Unsolved Murders

Clara Cropper

Age: 41

Sex: female

Date: 12 Aug 1948

Place: Sunnyside Pontoon, Ellesmere Port

Source: discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk

Clara Cropper was found dead on some waste ground on 12 August 1948. She had been missing since 2 July 1948.

Her face had been 'bashed-in'.

A 52-year-old Norwegian seaman was tried for her murder but acquitted at the Chester Assizes on 13 November 1948. The jury retired for 8 minutes before returning their verdict. He had pleaded not guilty.

Clara Cropper was found dead and naked on a piece of wasteland at Sunnyside Pontoon, a dry dock in Ellesmere Port on 12 August 1948, close to the Shropshire Union Canal. Her body was found by two boys aged 13 and 14 from Sunnyside. They said that they had been pulling an old bicycle frame out of a blackberry bramble when they found her body, after which they went home and told one of their mothers and then went to the police.

When Clara Cropper was found her body was in a state of decomposition.

She had lived in Lees Cottages in Cromwell Road in Ellesmere Port.

The identification of her body was initially unknown as her body was so maggot-eaten that it was unrecognisable and the police called in a dentist to consult with and attempted to trace a tattoo that Clara Cropper was known to have, although a dress that was found near her body was quickly identified as belonging to her. The police also found a wedding ring that was on the third finger of her left hand which was later identified as being hers as well as an upper set of dentures, which were found about six inches from her face, which were also identified as belonging to her. A pair of navy blue high-heeled shoes and a coat were also found.

The pathologist said that he found signs of a blow to the side of her face and jaw which he said was not done by hand, noting that it could have been done with a beer bottle. He said that considerable violence had been applied to the front of her face and to both sides of the skull with the result that all the small bones of the front of the face were fractured as well as the two arch bones on the sides of the face leading towards the eves. He said that Clara Cropper had a haemorrhage within her skull and that the injuries described had brought about her death. Two beer bottles were found on the piece of land, but they were not directly connected with her murder. The pathologist added that the medical evidence did not shew any signs of a sharp instrument having been used.

A seaman that was known to have been with Clara Cropper on the night that she died was at the time of the initial identification of her body sailing aboard a ship between the United Kingdom, France and Norway.

Her two daughters, aged 19 and 21, said that Clara Cropper was in a very happy frame of mind on the night that she was last seen, noting that they had all been saving their rations to celebrate the 80th birthday of her mother which fell on the day she disappeared. It was noted that a cake had been ordered and their cook had made other cakes and pastries for a party which was never held and that carefully saved rations were still in their larder.

Clara Cropper had married, having previously lived in Ellesmere Port with her husband, but they had separated 19 years earlier, although her husband had visited Lees Cottage since the discovery of her body.

She was last seen on the night of Friday 2 July 1948 when she spent the evening at the Canal Tavern in Ellesmere Port with a woman and the Norwegian seaman. They had left together and gone to the woman's house at 7 Sunnyside in Ellesmere Port where they were for some little time before Clara Cropper and the Norwegian seaman left either together, or momentarily one after the other. Clara Cropper was never seen alive again.

The Norwegian seaman had at the time been a seaman on the steamship SS Borgholm that had been docked at Ellesmere Port. He admitted being at 7 Sunnyside, but said that he left her there and that when he left she was alive and that he never saw her again.

Clara Cropper was found dead on 12 August 1948 lying in some thick grass on waste land about 130 yards from the back door of 7 Sunnyside. Her body was in grass behind a thorn bush about three yards from the road near an old cement works. She was lying face upwards and was in an advanced state of decomposition.

Her post mortem found that she had a fractured jaw bone that would have needed considerable violence to have caused and that both sides of her face were smashed in, which in the opinion of the pathologist, could not have been caused by a blow by a fist, but could have been caused by a blunt instrument such as a beer bottle.

It was also noted that two rubber washers were also found in her hair.

After the discovery of her body the police scythed the grass nearby and found a skirt that matched exactly a coat that belonged to Clara Cropper but which she had not been wearing that night. The police also found a silk stocking with part of a suspender attached to it and a right court shoe, both of which were also identified as belonging to Clara Cropper. Also, when the canal nearby was dragged, the police found several other items of clothing that also proved to belong to Clara Cropper.

The police also found two empty half-pint beer bottles and an empty pint beer bottle.

At the trial, the prosecution said that whilst at the Canal Tavern, the Norwegian seaman and Clara Cropper had a conversation during which the Norwegian seaman asked Clara Cropper if he could take her home and that shortly before closing time Clara Cropper bought some bottles of beer which the Norwegian seaman paid for and that they then went off to 7 Sunnyside, arriving shortly before 10pm.

The prosecution said that then, at about 10.25pm, there was a tremendous row outside after a man came to the door at 7 Sunnyside and started an altercation with violence with the woman that lived at 7 Sunnyside. It was said that the woman from 7 Sunnyside then went next door to 8 Sunnyside and got help from a man there who then went out to calm the other man at the door down, and that whilst he was doing so, the woman stayed in his house, 8 Sunnyside. Meanwhile, it was said that a young boy went into  7 Sunnyside and saw the Norwegian seaman and Clara Cropper, saying that Clara Cropper was drinking a glass of beer and that after a short while she said 'Goodnight' and picked up some beer bottles. He said that the Norwegian seaman also put some in his mackintosh pocket and that they then both went out through the back door.

The prosecution said that when the woman from 7 Sunnyside came back from her neighbour’s house, both the Norwegian seaman and Clara Cropper had gone.

A woman that lived at 6 Sunnyside said that on the night of Friday 2 July 1948 that she was awakened by the noise and that when she looked out of her back window she saw a man and a woman who she could not identify going down the backyard of 7 Sunnyside. She said that she saw them unfasten the gate and go off and added that she watched for about ten minutes and said that she didn't see them come back.

The prosecution said that then 'a very odd thing happened, which may be of vital importance one way or the other'. He said that at about 11.50pm, a young man who had lived at 23 Sunnyside, had been returning home from a dance and that as he was walking along the grass path leading from Pontoon Road to Sunnyside he saw a man standing on the path and a woman lying on the ground about eight inches from the path, and said that the man was the Norwegian seaman.

The prosecution then noted that the watchman at Bowater's paper mill who had been at the gate of the paper mills until midnight said that up until that time no taxis had gone through the gates, but said that at about 1am the following morning Saturday 3 July 1948, a man did go in, but that he could not say whether it was the Norwegian seaman or not, but did say that he took him to the steamship Borgholm. He said that the gate to the wharf where the steamship Borgholm was berthed was bolted at 10.30pm on 2 July 1948.

The prosecution noted that if the statements of the boy that had seen the Norwegian seaman take the beer bottles, the woman at 6 Sunnyside who said that she had seen the Norwegian seaman leave via the back with Clara Cropper, the man that said that he had seen the Norwegian seaman standing over a woman on the grass and the watchman who said that the wharf gates were bolted and that no taxi had gone through them were all true, then the Norwegian seaman's account must be untrue.

The prosecution said that the following morning, Saturday 3 July 1948 that the Norwegian seaman was again in the Canal Tavern in Ellesmere Port and that whilst there he asked the woman from 7 Sunnyside to give Clara Cropper a message to the effect that he 'would not be up early but would be up later' as he had to work. The prosecution added that later that evening Clara Cropper's mother spoke to the Norwegian seaman, who said that he told her that Clara Cropper had left him to catch a bus.

It was then said that the Norwegian seaman was again in the Canal Tavern the following day, Sunday 4 July 1948 and had spoken to one of Clara Cropper's daughters, asking, 'Have you heard anything more about your mother?', to which she had replied 'No' and that he then told her that when he last saw Clara Cropper she had been going to catch a bus and that he had left her to get a taxi. It was said that the Norwegian seaman then gave Clara Cropper's daughter his name and address and told her that she had better go and see the police, which she did. As a result, the police went to see the Norwegian seaman on his ship and he told them that he had been with Clara Cropper on the evening of 2 July 1948, but that he had left her at 7 Sunnyside. He said that she was going to get a bus and that he had not seen her since. It was said that he made a statement to the police in which he said, 'I hope you find her. It looks bad for me as I was the last person with her. I took a taxi from the Customs House back to the ship'.

The prosecution noted that shortly after, the Norwegian seaman's ship sailed and he left England, but that he returned to England on 26 August 1948 when he was again interviewed by the police on his ship off Gravesend.

It was said that when the Norwegian seaman was told that Clara Cropper had been found dead, he had said 'I know nothing about that'. He then said that Clara Cropper didn't leave the house with him, saying that she went to the back gate with him but no further. He then said that he didn't know anything about Clara Cropper's death. When he was formerly charged with her murder, he said, 'All I can say is I am not guilty of the charge'.

The pathologist at the trial, who was from the North Western Forensic Science Laboratory in Preston said that he had found hairs on the skirt that were similar to the hair of Clara Cropper.

The man that Clara Cropper had lived with at Lees Cottages in Cromwell Road said that he had lived with her since 1940, and noted that he had never seen her husband or heard of the man that had gone to 7 Sunnyside on the night of 2 July 1948 and started the row with the woman there.

One of Clara Cropper's daughters said that she had her grandmother went to the Canal Tavern on the 3 July 1948 where they saw the Norwegian seaman and said that her grandmother asked the Norwegian seaman if he had seen Clara Cropper the night before and said that he told them she had left him to get a bus for Hull. Another of Clara Cropper's daughters said that she saw the Norwegian seaman on 4 July 1948 at the Canal Tavern and said that he asked her whether she had seen Clara Cropper and that he then gave her his name and address on a piece of paper and told her to go to the police, which she did, and gave them the piece of paper.

When the woman at 7 Sunnyside was cross examined, she denied threatening to 'push the man's mouth in', referring to the man that had later started the row at her house, whilst they were at the Canal Tavern. She said that she didn't know the man and that neither did he know Clara Cropper. She said that the man knocked at her door at 11.15pm and that after he had grabbed her, she noticed that she had blood on her clothing and that there was blood on the man's face and hands. She said that after seeing it she thought that he must have been fighting but noted that it wasn't with her. At the trial the woman from 7 Sunnyside denied asking the man that started the row why he had burnt his suit.

When the woman from 7 Sunnyside was further questioned, she said that she knew Clara Cropper's husband, but not to speak to.

She also denied saying to Clara Cropper, 'It's you he wants', when the man came to her door.

She added that when Clara Cropper left, she told her that she had to go to Hull to get her home together.

At the trial, the man from 8 Sunnyside said that he saw the other man that started the row outside 7 Sunnyside bleeding on his face and hand. He added that when he looked into 7 Sunnyside, he saw Clara Cropper in between the middle door and the front door.

The man that said he had seen the Norwegian seaman as he was coming home from a dance, who was an apprentice boiler maker living at 23 Sunnyside, agreed at the trial that it was very dark when he had come home and that there was no moon. He added that at first he had entertained some doubts as to whether the man he had seen was the Norwegian seaman. He noted that his brother had lived at 7 Sunnyside until 'last Saturday', 6 November 1948. He said that he had attended an identification parade  where he had picked out the Norwegian seaman as the man that he had seen standing over the woman on his way home from the dance, and denied that he had noticed that the Norwegian seaman was the only man with a squint.

At the trial, the patrol man at Bowaters' Paper Mill said that at about 1am he had gone to the steamship Borgholm with a man who he said was 'rather distressed' and whose shirt was torn down the front. He said that the man had 'fierce' eyes and that he was prepared to identify the man on any parade. However, he said that at an identification parade he was unable to identify the man he had taken to the steamship Borgholm and said that it was not the Norwegian seaman. He added that at about 12.25am he saw the tail end of a car disappearing down the dock road.

When a policeman gave evidence, he said that he knew of a taxi-driver, who he named, who had worked for Gregory's in Station Road, Ellesmere Port and who had died in either August or September.

The policeman added that he had also determined from enquiries by the police in Norway that it was true that the Norwegian seaman had 'an absolutely clean character' and that there were no prosecutions or convictions of any kind against him. He added that he was aware that the steamship Borgholm had been back to Norway and that there had been nothing to prevent the Norwegian seaman from leaving the ship and signing on with another ship sailing to another part of the world. He noted that the Norwegian seaman had said that he had 'nothing to fear'.

A police inspector said that he had been at the identification parade and said that the apprentice boiler maker recognised the Norwegian seaman immediately, but that the patrol man at Bowaters' Paper Mill failed to pick the Norwegian seaman out as the man that he had walked back to the steamship Borgholm with. He added that he was not aware that the Secretary to the Norwegian Legation had telephoned the day before the parade asking for more than one squint-eyed man to be on the parade. He said that it had not been possible to secure squint-eyed men for the parade in the time available. He also agreed however that he had heard about the matter of the telephone call from the Legation mentioned.

When Clara Cropper's husband gave evidence at the trial, he said that he had left his wife 17 years earlier and last saw her five years before casually. He said that he was not in Ellesmere Port on 2 July 1948 and when he was asked if he had killed his wife, he said, 'How could I kill my wife when I was not in Ellesmere Port?'.

The man that had gone to 7 Sunnyside and had the row was 21-years-old and had lived in Cannon Street in Ellesmere Port and said that he had gone to 7 Sunnyside on the night of 2 July 1948, but said that he did not see Clara Cropper nor even know her. When he was asked by the prosecution whether he murdered Clara Cropper, he said 'No'. He also denied spending some of his Army gratuity on Clara Cropper and said that he had gone to 7 Sunnyside because he had heard that one could have 'good times' there.

He said that when he was about 100 yards from 7 Sunnyside, he saw the woman that lived there talking to a man at the corner of Sunnyside. He said that he waited, and the man went down the road. He said that he didn't know the man and said that he then saw the woman go into her house. He said that the woman then told him to go away. He said that he didn't say anything, but that she then said that he had struck her, and he then grabbed her by the shoulder.

When the man that started the row was questioned further at the trial, he admitted that he had had blood on his hands but denied having burnt his suit or coat. He said that he had been in the Station Hotel earlier on in the evening and had left at 10pm and had then gone to the Majestic Ballroom looking for his friend and that he then struck a man near a convenience, which he said took him two or three minutes. He said that he had had about seven pints of beer on the night and that when he had left the Pontoon, he crossed the footpath, went along Meadow Lane, Station Road and Princess Road and arrived home at about 11.30pm.

The manager of Gregory's taxi proprietors in Station Road, Ellesmere Port, who had lived in Green Lane, Ellesmere Port, said that he had had a driver who had died on 15 July 1948, noting that he had ceased work on 11 June 1948 and gone into hospital on 2 July 1948. The facts were supported by a night sister at the Ellesmere Port and Whitby Hospital that had lived in Dye Works Cottages in Ellesmere Port who confirmed that the taxi-driver had been in bed in the hospital during the night of 2 July 1948.

When the Norwegian seaman gave evidence, he said that he had never been in trouble with the police before. He went on to say that he had two glasses of beer at the Canal Tavern on the evening of 2 July 1948 and then went to the woman’s house at 7 Sunnyside with Clara Cropper and the woman whose house it was, taking with them six pint size bottles of beer. He said that they were there for about an hour when there was a knock at the front door. He said that after the quarrel at the front door had lasted a while Clara Cropper took him by the shoulder and led him to the back door and said, 'stay out of this'. He said that he then left her at the back gate and went straight back to his ship, getting a taxi from near Customs House. He noted that whilst at 7 Sunnyside he remembered seeing the young boy put his head round the door for a few minutes. He also noted that he didn't take any beer bottles out with him.

He said that he and Clara Cropper parted as friends and said good-night and that they had no quarrel of any kind and arranged to meet the following day at the Canal Tavern. He said that he noted that Clara Cropper had not had her coat on when he left and so he supposed that she went back into 7 Sunnyside.

He said then that the driver of a car stopped and asked him if he wanted a lift and that he replied, 'Yes, please. Take me back to my ship'. He said that the car drove through the dock gate and down to the ship and that he arrived there just before midnight. He said that he then went straight to his cabin.

The Norwegian seaman said that the following day he went to the Canal Tavern but couldn't remember seeing the woman from 7 Sunnyside. He said that he left a message for Clara Cropper saying that he would probably be working late but went back to the Canal Tavern later that night and that whilst he was there the bar-keeper asked him to go outside, which he did and then met Clara Cropper's mother, daughter and a man, and said that he told them exactly what had happened when he had last seen Clara Cropper. He said that he then asked Clara Cropper's daughter about Clara Cropper and that when she told him that there was no news, he told her to go and see the police and gave her is name and address. He added that he later gave a statement to the police.

The Norwegian seaman said that on Monday 5 July 1948 he was going to see his doctor and asked the police to let him know if they heard anything about Clara Cropper because he was worried about her disappearance. He said that he then sailed on 7 July 1948, with his ship calling at Swansea, Amsterdam, Antwerp and Norway. He noted that many of the other crewmembers on the steamship Borgholm signed on with other ships when the vessel reached Norway.

He said that he had 'a shock' when he heard of Clara Cropper's murder after the police told him about it at Gravesend and noted that the police there told him 'to come clean'.

At the trial the prosecution asked the Norwegian seaman 'Did you kill Clara Cropper?' and he replied, 'No'. They then asked him 'Did you lay hands on her that night?', and he replied 'No'. The prosecution then asked him, 'Did you have any kind of quarrel?' and the Norwegian seaman replied, 'Absolutely no'.

When the Norwegian seaman was cross examined about why he went to 7 Sunnyside, he said that he went there for no other reason than to drink beer and said that he had not asked to take Clara Cropper home.

When he was asked about what happened when he left 7 Sunnyside, he said that he was only with Clara Cropper for a moment outside the back gate, and added that he didn't hear her say 'good night' to the young boy there. He said that Clara Cropper went through the back gate and that the woman whose house it was was still quarrelling at the front door and that he paid 5s for the taxi which took him through the dock gate straight down to the ship, arriving before 12 o'clock. He said that a watchman opened the gate, but that it was not the watchman that had given evidence at the trial, but another watchman who he described as taller and slimmer than the watchman that gave evidence. He added that he didn't remember whether the taxi that he went in had a meter.

It was noted that at the trial, the Norwegian seaman gave his evidence through an interpreter.

When the defence addressed the court, they noted that they were concerned only with who murdered Clara Cropper. They noted that the prosecution had tooth-combed the country without producing a single fragment of evidence to shew the jury why the Norwegian seaman should commit the murder. They said that there was no motive, no suggestion of a quarrel between him and Clara Cropper, no reason such as jealousy, hatred or money, noting that 'offences of this gravity are perpetrated for a motive. None has been disclosed in this case'. The defence asked whether there was anything about the Norwegian seaman that pointed to guilt or was inconsistent with complete innocence and did not ring with innocence. They noted the Norwegian seaman's actions and his oral and written statements.

The defence noted that whether they liked it or not, that the prosecution had to place some reliance on the evidence of the woman who lived at 7 Sunnyside and added that it gave him no satisfaction to attack a woman in Court, but said that in this case he was going to do so, saying, 'Do you think that in any criminal case you can attach any moment to anything she might say? In any conflict of evidence, you could not take her word'. The defence noted that they were not concerned with the woman's morals, except that if the jury thought she was lying, the more readily they might reject her evidence.

The defence then noted the statement of the apprentice boiler maker from 23 Sunnydale who had said that he had seen the Norwegian seaman standing over a woman on the grass on his way back from the dance and asked, 'If the king-pin on vital examination has a flaw, are you going to say that the case of the prosecution is absolutely fool proof?'.

The defence then noted the actions of the man that had  gone to 7 Sunnyside and had started an argument with the woman there, noting that he was a most revealing witness, 'shewing No 7 Sunnyside in a light that the woman that lived there had not painted it'.

Following the evidence and arguments, the jury found the Norwegian seaman not guilty and he was discharged.

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

see Cheshire Observer - Saturday 13 November 1948

see Cheshire Observer - Saturday 21 August 1948

see Hull Daily Mail - Friday 13 August 1948

see Gloucester Citizen - Wednesday 01 September 1948

see Cheshire Observer - Saturday 16 October 1948

see National Archives - ASSI 84/63