Date: 28 Apr 1951
John Kenneth Willets was shot shortly before midnight on the night of Saturday 28 April 1951.
A 51-year-old company director was charged with his manslaughter, but the charge was later dismissed at a magistrate’s court on the grounds that there wasn't enough evidence to prosecute.
It was said that John Willets had gone to the house of the company director with another man to ask for some water to drink at about midnight and that the company director had shot him.
The company director was charged with manslaughter following the shooting but said that he had shot him in self-defence.
John Willets was a grave digger and had lived in Stepping Stone Street in Dudley in Worcestershire.
John Willets had been a member of a coach party that had stopped in Hagley on the way home from Worcester to Dudley on the Saturday night. When the coach stopped in Hagley he got out with a friend and was found a few minutes later lying with a gunshot wound in the chest in the driveway of the company director's house.
The company director said that he and his wife were startled by a hammering at his door and thought that an attempt was being made to break in. He said that when he opened the doorhe saw two men on the porch and that one of the men said, 'We will murder you' and that the taller of the men raised their fist and came forward. He then said, 'I fired my gun. It was pointing to the ground. I aimed it between the two men'. He said that he had been petrified that the men were making a determined effort to break into his house.
The defence said, 'There was a peace-loving home-loving man quietly preparing to go to bed, not setting out to look for burglars. Why did two men in their condition go to the door and create a disturbance? To ask for water at night? You cannot wipe out of your mind the effect of the Wooldridge case in this locality. It would be a travesty of justice if this case was sent for trial'.
It was noted that the Wooldridge case had caused considerable alarm in the Hagley district the year earlier, February 1950, and had involved a man shooting two other men with a gun less than a mile away from the company director's house. The case resulted in a man being tried for attempted murder, although he was acquitted on that charge and convicted of armed burglary, wounding two men with intent to cause grievous bodily harm, robbery of two women and aggravated assault on a third woman and the man involved being sentenced to 14 years. It was said that the man had appeared at the front door of the man's house at Sunningdale, Red Lake Road in Pedmore with a revolver and said that he wanted money. He was said to have then knocked the man unconscious and made a woman hand over her rings and brooch and then forced another 83-year-old woman to do the same. It was said then that when a doctor arrived at the house that he was hit with a table. It was said then that the man had left but returned for his hat and found the domestic servant telephoning the police and so he knocked her down.
When the company director's wife gave evidence, he said that on the night of 28 April 1951 she had been getting ready for bed and that the company director was in the lounge whilst their four children and two servants were asleep upstairs. She said that she and her husband then heard a terrific pounding and hammering on the front door, saying that she immediately thought that somebody was trying to break in. She said, 'My husband went to the door and called out, 'Who's there?', I said to him, 'Do be careful, someone may be armed'. She then said that as her husband went upstairs to get his shotgun that he told her to phone for the police. However, she said that she didn't telephone at first because she was afraid to go into the hall, saying that she remembered a previous incident at a nearby house. She said, 'I was in a state of terror and went to the phone, and as I dialled 999 I heard my husband continually warning someone to go away'.
She said 'I heard a man threaten to murder him. There was a shot, and as I ran to the door, swarms of people seemed to be coming up the drive'.
When John Willets's wife gave evidence, she said that John Willets had been one of a coach party that had been returning to Dudley after a trip to Worcester and that they had stopped at Hagley and that John Willets and the other man had got out for a drink of water. She said that after hearing the shot that she and other members of the party went to the house and found John Willets lying wounded on the ground and that the company director was there with a shotgun in his hand.
It was heard that the coach party had left Dudley for an evening tour and that the party had stopped at several public houses and that whilst on their way home from Holt Fleet that the driver was asked to stop by several passengers. The driver said that he then pulled up as requested just past Chandos Lodge and that John Willets and another man then got out and went into the grounds of Chandos Lodge.
The driver said that he heard them knock loudly at the door and and then heard a man say, 'I have seen your sort of people before' and that shortly after that he heard a shot and then found that John Willets had been shot.
When the company director gave evidence, he said, 'There were two men in the porch. I asked them what they wanted, but there was no reply. I had a feeling that one of the men was definitely armed. The other man said, 'We are ---- well coming in' and I thought it was a desperately determined attempt to break in. I showed them that the gun was loaded, and the shorter man threatened to murder me. I was petrified because I realised that these men were going to make an attack on me. Again I implored them to go away, but the bigger man came forward with his fist raised to strike me. I fired the gun. It was definitely pointing to the ground. I aimed between the two men. I could not have fired over their heads in the confined space of the porch. Willetts lurched forward in a peculiar manner. Until then I had seen no signs of drunkenness in either man'. He said that he had fired at John Willets when he was about a yard away from him.
The company director had used a 12-bore shotgun which the police later took away for examination. A firearms expert later said after examining the gun that it was not liable to accidental discharge.
The pathologist that examined John Willets's body said that the gunshot wound was a downward one. He said that his death was due to shock and haemorrhage and that at the time of his death he had been under the influence of alcohol.
After the company director was taken to the police station, he said, 'I am sorry about that, but the man was trying to get into the house. I had to do something to protect my wife and four children. What am I supposed to do? Must I let them come in next time and then get knocked about? I warned them I would shoot. I showed them that the weapon was loaded, and I fired at their legs'.
When he later made a statement, he said, 'My wife and I were in the lounge at the rear of the house preparing to go to bed, when we were startled at hearing a terrific banging, knocking, and hammering at the front door. We could hear the handle of the door wrenched and twisted violently'. He said that he shouted to find out who was there, but said that there was no reply and so he told his wife to call the police because somebody was trying to break into the house. He then said, 'I went upstairs for my 12-bore shotgun and put in one spent and one live cartridge'.
He said that he and his wife then went to the door and opened it and said that he saw John Willets and the other man and said that they both looked as though they were intent on doing serious harm. He said that he told them to clear off as he had a loaded gun, but that they insisted that they were coming into his house. He then said, 'My wife was terrified. One of the men was working his way round to one side to get into the house. I told him not to come. The gun was pointed to the ground resting in the crook of my arm. He said he was not afraid of the gun. The other man raised his right arm and ran towards me. I raised my gun as he ran, and he lurched forward as I fired towards the ground. It was this lurch which caused him to be hit in the left side. As I fired, he was on the step below me about a yard away. I took this action against what I took to be a personal attack upon myself and wife and to protect my four children upstairs'.
He said that he then phoned for the police and an ambulance, but said that before he had had the opportunity to give aid to John Willets that a crowd gathered and adopted a threatening attitude, adding that he didn't know that they were part of a coach party.
The man that John Willets had been with, a warehouse labourer from Stafford Street in Dudley, said that after getting out of the coach that he and John Willets went together to the door of Chandos Lodge and knocked as John Willets had wanted a drink. He denied that he heard a dog barking or heard any voices shouting from inside the house before the door was opened. He said that he had had ten half-pints of beer that night and had been quite sober and that John Willets had shown no signs of the effect of drink. He denied that they had threatened to enter the house or had attempted to and denied that John Willets had threatened the company director or raised his hand in attack.
At the magistrate's hearing, after hearing the company director's evidence, the defence said that there was no prima facie case against him and said that a man was entitled to meet force with force. The defence said that it was not a case where in the protection of his own body the company director had shot a man, adding that there was his home and his castle which he was entitled to defend to, even at the cost of life.
The company director was then found not guilty and discharged after the magistrate directed the jury that there was not enough evidence and that no jury properly directed would convict on the evidence.
Following his acquittal, the company director was said to have gone back to his business, it being said that he was talking over tea on his lawn at his house and catching up on work. When his brother was called, he said, 'You will appreciate that his business affairs have been held up. Neither of us have been able to do anything for some days. My brother is very busy, he cannot be disturbed. All he wants to do now is to let this thing die down'.
It was reported that in cars and busses that passed down the busy Stourbridge road outside Chandos Lodge that nine out of ten curious occupants slowed to read the faded letters on the gatepost and to catch a glimpse of the white door where the shooting took place.
It was reported that when the company director came to his gate to show some guests away that he waved others aside with a cheerful smile and said, 'It's all over now, I don't want to talk about it'.
When his gardener was spoken to after leaving Chandos Lodge, he said, 'I knew how the case went the moment I saw the company director's face as he got out of his car'.
It was also reported that eight miles away in Stepping Stone Street, Dudley that John Willets's was sat alone in her black dress on the 11th anniversary of their wedding. She said, 'For 13 weeks I shall get a pension of 43s for myself and my daughter. After that I don't know what I shall be allowed. My family are helping me all they can. Next year my daughter will be five and start school. Then I shall go out to work'.
Following the acquittal, several complaints from the public displaying strong feeling and the dismissal of the manslaughter charge were received. However, the Director of Public Prosecutions said, 'There can be no reason for surprise' at the decision to acquit the company director. Following the complaints, the Attorney-General stated that it was perfectly competent for a single magistrate to take the depositions in a criminal case and decide on the evidence whether a prima facie case had been established. However, he noted that, 'The justice's decision in this respect is not binding. The prosecution is entitled if it so thinks proper to apply for a voluntary bill of indictment, and this course is sometimes taken when the prosecution feels that a different view may be taken from that formed by the magistrate'.
However, it was heard that the Director of Public Prosecutions, who would take such action, had stated that in their view, having regard to all the evidence, that there was no reason for surprise at the decision of the Justice of the Peace and the case was not taken any further.
see Liverpool Echo - Thursday 31 May 1951
see Birmingham Daily Gazette - Thursday 24 May 1951
see Dundee Courier - Friday 25 May 1951
see Birmingham Daily Gazette - Tuesday 12 June 1951
see Birmingham Daily Gazette - Tuesday 01 May 1951
see Birmingham Daily Gazette - Friday 25 May 1951
see Gloucester Citizen - Wednesday 17 May 1950
see Aberdeen Evening Express - Wednesday 23 May 1951