Unsolved Murders

Hilda Winifred Lee

Age: 7 weeks

Sex: female

Date: 3 Sep 1917

Place: 55 Henrietta Street, Birmingham

Hilda Winifred Lee died during a burglary at her home whilst her mother, who had her in her arms, tried to stop some burglars.

Two men, a brasscaster and a labourer, were tried for her murder but acquitted. However, they were afterwards convicted of housebreaking and sentenced to three years' penal servitude.

They were said to have broken into the house at 55 Henrietta Street, and to have caused the death of Hilda Lee as they attacked her mother whilst trying to escape after she came home and disturbed them in an upstairs room.

It was said that they had broken into the house at 55 Henrietta Street and that the mother had tried to prevent them from leaving, whilst holding her baby, and that the brasscaster knocked her down and that the labourer then hit Hilda Lee on the head with a jemmy.

However, they both denied having seen the baby.

Hilda Lee's mother said that on the Monday afternoon, 3 September 1917, at about 2.15pm, she had gone to the General Hospital to see a relative, taking Hilda Lee with her in her arms.

She said that she arrived back home at about 3.10pm, letting herself in with the front door key. She noted that all the outer doors had been locked prior to her departure.

However, she said that when she arrived home that her suspicions were aroused by finding that a drawer had been opened and the case containing her husband’s Army discharge papers disarranged. She said that she further noticed that a door that had been closed was then wide open and that the kitchen door at the back was also open.

She said that she later heard loud laughter from two men upstairs and that she then called out, 'Is that you?'. referring to her husband. She said that after repeating the question twice that she received the reply in a man's voice, 'Bo, it's Alice', followed by laughter.

She said that she then next heard the same man utter the words, 'Oh! we're catched', and then some sounds as though the men upstairs were passing into the other room at the back. She said that she then started to go upstairs, but said that the men then came down, and said that she squealed, and returned to the kitchen screaming, Hilda Lee still in her arms.

She said that the brasscaster, who had followed her closely behind, struck her on the back of the neck and that she fell to the floor on her left side, the side on which she was holding her baby and that her head banged the door to in the fall.

She said then that on rising, that she saw the two men, side by side.

She noted then that Hilda Lee's eyes were open.

She said that she then said to the labourer, 'I know your face', and that the labourer then took something from his pocket, which she believed to have been a hammer with a clean stale, and that she cried out, 'A hammer'. She said, 'With an exclamation, the labourer swung the hammer-stale round towards me and the child, but I could not say whether it struck me or the baby'.

She said that the labourer then got outside, leaving part of his coat fastened to the door, but that he got free by opening the door a little way and that that was the last she saw of him until his arrest. However, she said that the brasscaster was still in the house and that he continually punched her in the face. She said that she got a firm hold of him and that they struggled together in the house for quite seven minutes, during which time he seized her by her shoulder and threw her straight down, noting that Hilda Lee had still been in her arms at that time.

She said that the brasscaster then also escaped into the yard and that she then got up, leaving Hilda Lee on the floor and caught him outside in the yard by his coat pocket and that they then continued to struggle there together until they got into the big yard beyond the house where she forced him against the motor-house door.

She said that she still kept a grip on him, but said that he then passed into the street and that when in the middle of the carriage way that he swung her off her feet, but that she still managed to cling on to him and regained her foothold, but said that he then struck her a heavy blow on the chest, sending her to the ground where he kicked her on the left side and ran away.

Hilda Lee's mother said that she then got up and chased him along Henrietta Street and Hospital Street into William Street north, but lost sight of him near Summer Lane.

She said that she was then taken home and then, with Hilda Lee, was conveyed to the General Hospital in the motor ambulance by the police. However, Hilda Lee was found to be dead on arrival.

She noted at the inquest that when she got home she picked up a piece of steel in the kitchen that didn't belong there, and at the inquest, the Coroner noted that it was a jemmy.

She added that when she had gone upstairs that she found the drawers and boxes open and the contents disarranged.

When Hilda Lee's mother was questioned at the inquest, she noted that when the brasscaster threw her down in the kitchen, after the labourer had left, that neither she, or Hilda Lee, struck any piece of furniture in the fall.

Hilda Lee's mother said that she identified the brasscaster the following morning, stating, 'I shall never forget his face'. She later identified the labourer on the Wednesday.

When questioned, she said that she was quite sure about the identity of the labourer, saying that his face had never passed from her mind, and that it had been ever before her.

She said that on the Tuesday, she said to the brasscaster, 'You are the man who killed my child', but said that she remembered nothing after that.

She said that the following day she said to the labourer, 'You're the man'.

However, it was noted that at the inquest, whilst the defence was questioning Hilda Lee's mother, that she started to become very excited about the questioning, and that whilst efforts were made to restore her to her earlier calmness, that her self-possession deserted her and he adopted a menacing attitude towards the men charged.

However, the Coroner said, 'I should not have liked to have gone through what this poor woman has suffered', and he enquired from the defence what the object of his questioning was, and he said that it was their position that the labourer had not been there at all.

A doctor that examined Hilda Lee at the General Hospital, said that Hilda Lee was dead when she reached the institution. He said that she had a swelling on the left side of her skull and that one of the bones was completely broken into two portions. The doctor said that in his opinion that her death was due to a fracture of the skull and that in his judgement that the injury was more likely to have been caused by a direct blow rather than by Hilda Lee's mother  having fallen upon her. However, he agreed that it was possible for the injury to have been caused by Hilda Lee's mother dropping her, if her head had struck the floor or any other object with any violence.

Two women, one of Lancaster Street and the other of Henrietta Street, gave evidence identifying the brasscaster as the man that they had seen Hilda Lee's mother struggling with, whilst the woman from Henrietta Street said that she saw the brasscaster striking Hilda Lee's mother.

The woman from Henrietta Street said that when she afterwards went to 55 Henrietta Street that she saw signs of disorder, as well as the jemmy, which was on the table and Hilda Lee, who she saw on the floor.

A police constable that was called out to 55 Henrietta Street said that when he arrived that Hilda Lee appeared to be dead.

The mother of the brasscaster, who lived at 1 back 59 Hanley Street said that her son came running home to her house on the Monday afternoon, and said, 'Lock the door, the police are after me'.  She said that the police later arrested him upstairs.

A refreshment house keeper in Summer Lane said that the brasscaster and labourer had been at his house at about 2.15pm on the Monday afternoon, noting that the labourer left about five minutes before the brasscaster. When he was cross-examined, he said that although they had both been in his house at the same time, that he didn't see them conversing together.

A police sergeant also gave evidence saying that he had seen both the brasscaster and the labourer with three others in Summer Lane prior to Hilda Lee's mother finding two men in her house.

Another police sergeant gave evidence at the inquest describing his hunt for the brasscaster. He said that after searching several outhouses, that he knocked on his mother's door several times but got no response. He said that another police constable then arrived and that he was about to enter the house via the cellar grating when he saw a woman's shadow on a wall inside the house. He said that after they threatened to burst open the door, that the brasscaster's mother let him in, and they then found the brasscaster in bed. They said that when they found him that he said, 'What! Is it time to go to work?'.

However, the police sergeant said that when he pulled down the bed-clothing that they found blood on the brasscaster's left hand.

When the brasscaster was charged at the police station with causing the death of Hilda Lee, he replied, 'Not me'.

When he later made a statement he said, 'Do your best for me. I shall plead guilty to breaking in, but I never saw the kid'.

When the police went to the labourer's house in the early morning of the next day, he said, 'I've been expecting you since ten o'clock'.

When he made a statement, he denied having been at 55 Henrietta Street at all on the Monday afternoon, and said that at the time spoken of by Hilda Lee's mother he had been witnessing the afternoon performance at the Gaiety in Coleshill Street.

When they were later charged at Kenyon Street Police Station, the brasscaster said, ‘I've got no chance of getting out, but I never saw the kid. If the kid was hit I did not hit him'. He was said to have then turned to the labourer and said, 'Why don't you come it, as I never saw the kid? Did you jump on the woman downstairs?', to which the labourer said, 'Hush, nark it. I'm going to say I was at the Gaiety'. The brasscaster then said to him, 'You had the stick (the jemmy), where did you throw it?'.

They were tried at the Birmingham Assizes on 7 to 8 December 1917 for murder, but pleaded not  guilty. However, they both pleaded guilty to breaking into the house and stealing a quantity of jewellery and a £1 Treasury note.

They both positively denied that Hilda Lee's mother had had Hilda Lee in her arms, and said that in fact, they didn't see the baby at all.

At the trial, the doctor from the General Hospital said that the injury to Hilda Lee's skull, which was fractured, might have been caused by a glancing blow from the jemmy, or it might possibly have been caused by a fall on the floor.

They were both acquitted of both murder and manslaughter.

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

see www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk

see National Archives - ASSI 13/47

see Birmingham Mail - Saturday 08 December 1917

see Birmingham Mail - Friday 14 September 1917

see Birmingham Mail - Thursday 06 September 1917

see Exeter and Plymouth Gazette - Saturday 08 December 1917