Unsolved Murders

Gertrude Florence Hands

Age: 52

Sex: female

Date: 19 Nov 1951

Place: 129 Francis Avenue, Southsea, Portsmouth, Hampshire

Source: www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk

Gertrude Florence Hands was murdered in her home at 129 Francis Avenue on Monday 19 November 1951.

A soldier was convicted of her murder at the Winchester Assizes and sentenced to death but appealed and his conviction was quashed on Tuesday 29 April 1952.

The general chronology of events was:

  • 19 November 1951: Gertrude Hands found murdered at her house.
  • 4 December 1951: Soldier was arrested on suspicion of Gertrude Hands's murder.
  • 7 December 1951: Soldier was charged with Gertrude Hands's murder.
  • 26 March 1952: Soldier was convicted of Gertrude Hands's murder at Winchester Assizes and sentenced to death following a five-day trial.
  • 29 April 1952: Soldier acquitted on appeal at Winchester Assizes of murder of Gertrude Hands following a two-day hearing. He had spent 35 days in the condemned cell.
  • 30 April 1952: Soldier was remanded at Bow Street on two charges of breaking-in and theft. He had been rearrested on the burglary charges about 50 seconds after his murder conviction was quashed.

Gertrude Hands died from asphyxia from strangulation by coat belt. The police said that because the belt used to strangle Gertrude Hands had come from a coat that had been hanging in the hall that they thought that she had been murdered on an impulse.

It was also noted that she had been seduced.

It was estimated that she had been murdered between 9.45am and 11.45am.

It was known that she was alive at 8.50am.

It was heard that the evening before, Sunday 18 November 1951, that several friends had called on Gertrude Hands's at her house to play cards and that the last of them to leave left at about midnight. She was later seen early the following morning by her son-in-law who lodged in the same house with his wife, Gertrude Hands's daughter, who said that he saw Gertrude Hands at 6.45am when he went off to work. His wife then got up and after a hurried breakfast, as she was late, left the house at 8.20am. She said that as she left, she called out to Gertrude Hands.

It was noted that a chimney sweep said that he saw a man leave the house at 129 Francis Avenue between 10.30am and 10.40am. He later identified that man as the soldier and his identification was central to the prosecutions case at the trial although it was noted that he had only observed the man leaving the house for about 3 seconds.

The chimney sweep said that he saw the soldier come out of the door and said that he noticed him, because, in his own words, the man looked like a 'spiv'. He said that the man that he saw had been wearing a trench coat and no hat and that he had had a piece of paper in his hand that might have been a piece of newspaper folded up or a letter.

He later picked out the soldier at an identification parade as the man that he had seen.

It was also heard that another man said that he had seen the soldier around the same time. The man said that he had been driving his van along Francis Avenue at about 10.30am and said, 'I happened to see through the hedge of no 129, the head and shoulders of a man coming down the forecourt. He came out on the footpath. He looked at me as I went past. I was driving about 20mph. In his right hand he had something white, something like a handkerchief or a bunch of cards. He pushed it into his mackintosh pocket. I have no doubt whatsoever that that man I saw was the accused'.

The man also picked out the soldier on an identification parade on 5 December 1951 at Fratton police station.

It was said that it was his description of the soldier, the man that he had seen walking down the path, that was published in the Evening News in Portsmouth on 23 November 1951.

When Gertrude Hands's daughter came back home at about 1pm she knocked at the door but got no reply and so she let herself in with a key.

She said that she walked along the passage to the breakfast room and then into the kitchen, but said when she didn't see Gertrude Hands that she went back and that whilst doing so glanced towards a little recess leading to the cellar and saw Gertrude Hands lying on her stomach with her head hanging over the top step of the flight leading down to the cellar.

She said, 'One shoe was on and the other off. One leg was bent up from the knee'.

She said that she realised that something was wrong and summoned her neighbour and that between them they tried to lift Gertrude Hands into the passage but were unable to do so.

The neighbour then went off for assistance and whilst she did so, Gertrude Hands's daughter said that she noticed the belt round Gertrude Hands's neck, saying that it had been knotted very tightly at the back.

She noted that the belt had come from a mackintosh coat that had been hanging behind the door leading to the cellar.

The doctor that was called out to 129 Francis Avenue said that he arrived at 1.30pm on 19 November 1951. He said, 'Lying in the hall was the body of a woman, with a handkerchief over her face. I recognised her as the late Mrs Hands. I examined the body and concluded that she was dead. There was considerable congestion of the face, which was unusual for natural death. I made a quick look round and spoke to other witnesses. I informed the police myself. There was a policeman walking along outside'.

Gertrude Hands's son-in-law, who was a motor-mechanic, said that when he arrived at 129 Francis Street after the murder he looked about and noted that his watch was missing from the dressing table in his first floor bedroom along with his leather toilet case and his Post Office Savings money-box.

He noted that when he had left the house that the back-garden gate leading to the right-of-way was closed but not locked.

The police said that they were convinced that the murderer had called at 129 Francis Avenue on some sort of business, possibly in answer to the advertisements, whilst the street was comparatively deserted.

The police said that it appeared that the only items stolen where the watch, the Post Office Savings home safe and purse and said that they did not think that robbery was the motive for her murder. However, it was later stated that a leather toilet case that had belonged to Gertrude Hands's son had also been taken, and that the toilet case was later exchanged for a camera at a shop in Southsea, the man making the exchange signing a receipt that was later traced to the soldier. The evidence of the exchange of the toilet case was critical in the trial as it was said that the soldier could not read or write and had the writing ability of a six-year-old. However, at the appeal it was heard that the dealers evidence, stating that the soldier had exchanged the toilet case for the camera was either incorrect with regards to the date or a lie.

It was also noted that the stolen watch was later traced after it was sold to a pawnbroker.

The leather toilet case was said to have bourne the initials AD in one corner. It was said that a man tried to sell the leather toilet case to a shop keeper at 65 Fawcett Road at 1.30pm on the day of the murder, 19 November 1951.

It was said that a man had been in the shop and that when the other man had come in to sell the leather toilet case, that he had suggested that he be served first and said that he then saw the man pull the case out of his mackintosh and say that he wanted to sell it. However, the shopkeeper didn't buy it, and neither the shopkeeper nor the other man that had been in the shop identified the soldier as the man that they had seen come in and try to sell it.

It was heard that the man with the leather toilet case tried to sell it to two other shopkeepers before going into the shop at 120 Fawcett Road where he made a similar offer. However, the shop keeper/dealer said that he told the man that he was not prepared to buy it, but offered instead to swap it for any other article in the shop and said that the man agreed and that he then picked out a camera. He said that the man then wrote out his name and address on the back of the receipt which was later a central piece of evidence in the trial as it was claimed that the soldier could not read or write and could not have done that.

However, it was noted that the shopkeeper later picked the soldier out, without hesitation, at a subsequent identification parade as the man that he had made the exchange with.

The shopkeeper said that he realised the significance of the transaction on 26 November 1951 and recovered the leather toilet case for the police which he had not as of yet sold. However, it was later suggested the the dealer knew he was handling stolen property that was not properly accounted for in his books and had made up the story of the soldier exchanging it for the camera to cover himself.

It was noted that the murderer had entered Gertrude Hands's house without causing her neighbour’s dog to start barking. The neighbour said, 'I cannot understand why he did not bark. My dog Rory normally barks when anyone comes to my front door or that of Mrs Hands'.

The soldier had been a fusilier in the 1st Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and was also a deserter.

He was arrested on 4 December 1951 in Victoria Road North in Southsea and later put up for identification. He was spotted by several detectives in a car walking down Victoria Road North. He had been wearing a trilby hat pulled well down over his eyes and was seen to go into a boarding house there and was followed in by the detectives who went to his room.

The detectives said that when they went into his room they told him that they were police officers and asked him for his name and address and said that he told them his real name and his address in Brixton Road, London and added that he was a private in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and was stationed in England but was on leave.

The detectives said that they then told him that he answered the description of the man wanted in connection with a murder and took him by police car to the police station where a statement was taken from him.

It was heard that when he was asked to say where he was on the morning of 19 November 1951, he had said that he had been in bed at his home in Brixton Road, London. However, it was heard that when a detective went to leave the room saying that he would check his statement, the soldier said, 'I should not bother. I was not there'. He then said that he slept at the Walldorf Hotel in London and was in bed on the morning of 19 November 1951. However, the court later heard that whilst he had slept there, it was on the morning of 28 November 1951 that he had slept there, not 19 November 1951.

He later admitted to having stayed at the Connaught Hotel in Southsea between 14 November and 21 November 1951, but said that on the night of Sunday 18 November 1951 that he had been in London where he had slept rough and had gone to Portsmouth the following day. However, the prosecution noted that the proprietor of the Connaught Hotel in Southsea said that he had taken tea up to the soldier at the hotel on the morning of 19 November 1951 and remembered it well because the chambermaid had been away and that he remembered taking the tea in to the soldiers room where he saw that he was there in bed.

The soldier denied ever having been near her home. When he was arrested, he was asked whether there was any reason why he should not be remanded, he replied, 'No reasons. I can prove I was nowhere near the scene of the crime'.

He also denied either selling the leather toilet case at the dealer's shop in Fawcett Road or receiving a camera in exchange for it. He also denied having bought a lighter from another shopkeeper sometime after the murder. However, it was claimed at the trial that the man that had allegedly sold the lighter to the soldier had also identified him later at an identification parade.

It was noted that whilst in borstal, the soldier had been graded age six and a half based on his reading and writing skills. It was said that when he had detained at borstal the year earlier that he had been initially graded 5, but that when he had left, he was graded 6 1/2.

Gertrude Hands's daughter lived in the house opposite Gertrude Hands at 138 Francis Avenue in Southsea and said of her mother, 'She was very fond of dancing, and so was I. We went to dances together about once a week. My mother danced with various people and we nearly always came home together. On Sunday, November 18, I went to see my mother at about five o'clock in the evening. I left her at about midnight. We had had four friends in. They had left by midnight and I was the last to go'. She said that she left the house and walked over to her gate and turned round, saying that the last time she saw Gertrude Hands was when she was closing her front door.

She said that Gertrude Hands was very active and very healthy and said that if she had known any attack was going to be made on her that she could have put up a very good account of herself. She also noted that Gertrude Hands had no particular men friends in Portsmouth that she knew of although she added that she did think that Gertrude Hands had had one man friend in Birmingham. She also said, 'I cannot think of anyone who would have had any sexual interest in my mother'.

She also noted that Gertrude Hands had been in Portsmouth for about six years and said that she used to go to the Yorkshire Society dances on her own about once every six weeks, noting, 'That was the only place she went without me'.

An appeal for information regarding her murder was made at a football match at Fratton Park on Saturday 24 November 1951. The appeal took place during a Portsmouth and Tottenham Hotspurs football match, stating: 'Between 9am and 1pm on November 19, Mrs Gertrude Florence Hands, of 129, Francis Avenue, Southsea, was murdered. Will any person who can give information respecting this matter please communicate with any police station'.

The police also appealed to local landladies who had had inquiries from people asking for rooms within the previous two weeks to come forward.

At the trial on 25 March 1952, when the judge summed up, he said that the best points of the prosecution’s evidence was the evidence of the chimney sweep who said that he had seen the soldier leaving 129 Francis Avenue between 10.30am and 10.40am and that of the man that bought the toilet case that had been stolen from 129 Francis Avenue from the soldier as well as the answers that the soldier had given when he was interviewed by detectives.

It was noted however, that the defence stated that the soldier could not read or write and noted that the person that had exchanged the toilet case that came from Gertrude Hands's home had written the words, 'Allan Davidson, 32, Eastfield Road, permission to transfer to book', on the receipt, stating that it was quite impossible that the soldier could have written, 'permission to transfer' on the receipt.

The soldier said that he would not read or write and that he was only able to write his address by copying it.

At the trial his exercise book from borstal was shown as evidence in which there was a sum, and the prosecution asked the soldier how, if he could not read, did he know how to come up with the answer, and the soldier said that he was either told, or that there were signs there. The question read:

'I have got 10s. If I spend 5s 11 1/2d how much is left?'.

And the answer read:

'4s 0 1/2d'.

When the judge asked the soldier whether if he saw a bus, that he would not know whether it was going to Southsea, Bournemouth or Newcastle, the soldier said that he would not. the judge then commented, 'You must find it very difficult to get through life'.

The defence also noted that it appeared that the person that was said to have exchanged the toilet case had also tried to sell the case to four other people, none of whom were able to pick out the soldier as the person that had tried to sell it. The defence said of the four witnesses:

  • Man A: Did not pick the soldier out at the identification parade.
  • Man B: Did not pick out the soldier at the identification parade although he did hesitate in from of the soldier but said that he did not pick him out because he thought that the man that he had seen had had fair hair.
  • Man C: Did not pick out the soldier at the identification parade and added that he was definite that he was not the man, stating that he thought that he knew the man that had done so.
  • Man D: Did not pick out the soldier at the identification parade and said that the soldier was not the man that had tried to sell him the toilet case and in fact picked out another man from the identification parade.

It was noted however, that the shopkeeper that had exchanged the toilet set did identify the soldier at an identification parade as the man that he had made the exchange with. However, it was later noted that after the soldiers conviction that fresh evidence was found that suggested that the dealer was either mistaken in the day he said that he had made the transaction, or he was lying, and it was that fresh evidence, in the light of the fact that his evidence was crucial to the prosecution that was instrumental in bringing the appeal to a hearing  and the subsequent quashing of the conviction.

It was also noted that the man that had bought the watch that was stolen from Gertrude Hands home at the time of the murder was also unable to identify the soldier as the man that had sold it to him.

It was noted that the chimney sweep, although he had only had a few seconds to notice the man leaving 129 Francis Avenue, had given the police a written description and also picked the soldier out at an identification parade from twelve other men.

However, the defence stated that the nature of the chimney sweep's identification of the soldier was exceedingly unfair, noting that it was over-confident and that the chimney sweep was an unreliable witness. The defence noted that the chimney sweep had said that he had seen a man leaving 129 Francis Avenue, observing him for a maximum of three seconds. He then noted that of the description that the chimney sweep had given of the man that he had seen, that there was not one shred of evidence to show that the soldier had had at any time a light-coloured mackintosh with flaps on the pockets and no evidence that at the material time the soldier had had a pair of black shoes.

The defence also noted that the question of the assault on Gertrude Hands was on the face of it exceedingly improbable and said that they had not produced any evidence of anything of a convincing nature to show that the soldier had committed the assault.

At the trial it was heard that the soldier had told some lies during his interviews, and his defence later said, during their summing up, that he had done so in order to cover up other offences that he had committed as well as he could.

When the judge considered the handwriting evidence, he appealed to the jury not to elect themselves handwriting experts. It was heard that many signatures had been seen and that whilst there was a general similarity between many of them, he pointed out that the general structure of the writing was not always the same. He said, 'I beg you not to constitute yourselves handwriting experts in this case or attempt to decide this case because you feel that the nature of this writing on the receipt is so similar or so dissimilar to any other examples which you have got of the accused's writing. It is rather dangerous to do so'.

The judge went on to say that the question was really as to whether they could believe or not believe the accused and his witnesses when they said the writing on the receipt, was in their opinion, not the soldier's writing in so far as the supporting witnesses were concerned and whether they believed the soldier when he said he never took the toilet case to the dealer and never signed the receipt.

The judge also told the jury that they were entitled to ask why the soldier had bought evening newspapers and said that they might even think that the soldier could read rather better than he would have them believe. However, he added that whether he could read was not nearly so important as whether he could write and how much he could write.

The appeal was heard on 27 April  to 29 April 1951 following fresh evidence concerning the dealer who said that it was the soldier that had traded the leather toilet case with him at his shop on 19 November 1951 for the camera. At the appeal it was heard that the second-hand dealer was a most important witness so far as identification was concerned and it was in respect of his statement over the transaction that he said that he had had with the soldier that the court had admitted the fresh evidence. It was then heard that from that evidence that it was clear that he was either mistaken in the day that the transaction had taken place, or he was lying. It was noted as well that the soldier had denied seeing the dealer on the day of the murder, exchanging the toilet case for the camera or writing his details on the back of the receipt.

At the appeal the court heard that it was a fair and most likely view of the transaction that the dealer, having acquired property that he knew had been stolen and had made no record of in his book, and knowing that the police were active in tracing the toilet case, knew that if he disclosed it to the police that it might be awkward as there was no record in his book and so he prepared the document, the receipt detailing the exchange.

It was said at the appeal that that view was not presented to the jury at the trial and that if it had of been that one could not say what their decision would have been, in so much as the evidence of the dealer and the receipt might have been considered unreliable evidence.

It was also heard that a handwriting expert should have been brought into state whether they thought the document had not all been written by the same man.

The appeal also heard that the evidence of the chimney sweep was not put in the correct way by the judge in his summing up.

It was also heard that on the third leg of the prosecution’s case which detailed the lies that the soldier had told the police about his movements between Southsea and London, and stated that it was unsafe to convict a man on lies that he had told.

It was also noted that in the court's view that certain cross-examination bout a toy pistol was irrelevant, as the soldier had not put his character in issue and he was not liable to be asked the questions that were put to him.

At the appeal, the judge said that the verdict could not be supported having regard to the evidence and that there was also sufficient misdirection by the trial judge to invalidate the conviction. The judge said, 'The verdict of the court was unreasonable on the facts as we now know them. Furthermore, there is sufficient misdirection to invalidate the conviction'.

The appeal was then allowed, and the soldiers conviction was quashed, however, he was soon rearrested on another charge about 50 seconds later.

He was then remanded at Bow Street  in London on 30 April 1952 on two charges of breaking and entering and theft involving articles and money to the total value of £678 in the West End in relation to two break ins that took place in October 1951. It was heard that the first charge related to a break in at the home of a solicitor in Park Lane where a gold cigarette case, clothing and other articles to the value of £500 were stolen and that the second charge related to breaking in to the Mayfair offices of the Colonial Development Corporation.

Gertrude Hands's funeral took place on the morning of Saturday 24 November 1951 at St Bartholomew's Church in Outram Road. She had a short service with no choir or hymns.


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


see National Archives - MEPO 2/9128, DPP 2/2121

see Portsmouth Evening News - Saturday 01 December 1951

see Portsmouth Evening News - Saturday 24 November 1951

see Portsmouth Evening News - Tuesday 29 April 1952

see Portsmouth Evening News - Monday 24 March 1952

see Daily Herald - Friday 21 March 1952

see Birmingham Daily Gazette - Wednesday 30 April 1952

see Portsmouth Evening News - Tuesday 25 March 1952

see Belfast Telegraph - Friday 21 March 1952

see Daily Herald - Wednesday 30 April 1952

see Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail - Tuesday 29 April 1952

see Birmingham Daily Gazette - Thursday 01 May 1952

see The People - Sunday 30 March 1952

see Portsmouth Evening News - Saturday 22 December 1951

see Portsmouth Evening News - Monday 26 November 1951

see Belfast Telegraph - Saturday 15 December 1951

see Birmingham Daily Gazette - Wednesday 21 November 1951