Unsolved Murders

Margaret Peel

Age: 37

Sex: female

Date: 2 Mar 1938

Place: Village Stores, Fewston, West Yorkshire

Margaret Peel was beaten to death in the shop she ran in Fewston.

She had been hit around the head eleven times. It was thought that she had been reading a newspaper or mending some clothes at the time she was attacked. When the bloodstains were examined it was thought that she would have been sitting down when first attacked.

It was said that she had been battered to death by someone with maniacal strength, raining blow after blow on her head.

It was thought that she had been hit with an instrument that was not sharp, but which had a small striking surface.

She was found by a 17-year old domestic servant that had called at the shop at about 10am. She found her lying in a pool of blood on the floor of the living room that adjoined the shop.

It was thought that she had not been long dead when her body was found as she was still warm.

After Margaret Peel was found, the police were called, and they went in and put some cushions under her head and went off to call for a doctor from the post office. Shortly after the husband and the vicar then arrived, but were not allowed in. It was noted that in the period after the husband arrived at the shop to when he was allowed him, he had stood out in the lane, described as fidgeting, by one woman.

Her 39-year old husband was arrested for her murder on 10 March 1938 and tried for her murder but acquitted on Friday 13 May 1938 at the Leeds Assizes.

They had been married for 11 years and had a 10-year-old daughter. Her husband said that he had always been on good terms with Margaret Peel. He had worked for the Leeds Corporation for 16 years and of that service had been at the Waterworks at Swinsty in Fewston for 14 years.

On the second day of the investigation, 4 March 1938, the Assistant Chief Constable of the West Riding said, 'This is a clueless murder, and one of the most mysterious we have had in the county for a long time'.

It was noted that there was a 30-minute gap between 9.30am and 10am, the times from which she was last seen alive to when she was found in a welter of blood on her living-room floor that was otherwise unaccounted for.

After her husband had left the house, Margaret Peel had been seen by three people:

  • About 9.00am: The local postman who delivered a letter at the house and bought some tea and mustard from her.
  • About 9.20am: A man visited the shop and bought eggs from Margaret Peel who came from the living room to attend to him. He said that he didn't see anyone else there.
  • About 9.30am: The butcher's assistant said that he had driven a motor van passed the stores and saw a woman, who was presumed to have been Margaret Peel near the shop

Witnesses were also found who could give evidence as to having seen her husband after he was said to have left home for work:

  • About 7.40am to 7.45am: A woman said that she saw Margaret Peel's husband at her house when he delivered a newspaper.
  • About 7.45am: Margaret Peel's husband’s foreman said that he saw him at Grange Hill Bottom and instructed him to clean rubbish at the edge of the part of Swinsty Reservoir known as the Lagoon. He said that he had his bicycle with him and should have started work at 7.30am but said that Margaret Peel's husband didn't say anything to him about why he was late. He said that they then went to his house where Margaret Peel's husband went to get a five-pronged fork for the work but said that he didn't see him get it or leave. He said that he didn't see Margaret Peel's husband again until between 10.20am and 10.30am the same day when he saw him with the vicar near the Lagoon gates. It was noted that nobody saw Margaret Peel's husband at work that morning other than the vicar who said that he had been working when he had gone for him. The foreman said that the amount of work that he had seen done was about what he would have expected in the time, but the police stated that they thought that the work could have been done in half the time.
  • Nearly 8.00am: A woman whose house faced Fewston Church said that she was shaking a duster at the door to her house when she saw Margaret Peel's husband going across a footpath known as The Toad Hole leading behind the vicarage to the church yard. She said that he was wearing a soft hat. She said that she knew Margaret Peel's husband and had seen him on previous occasions going to stoke up at the church at about 8.00am during the cold weather.
  • About 8.30am: A roadman said that he saw Margaret Peel's husband on the embankment (road) come from the direction of Pinfold Lane and pass him near the gates at the south end of the Embankment, noting that he was wheeling a bicycle and carrying a fork. He said that he stopped at the gates on the Lagoon side of the Embankment but said that he didn't see him go through the gates and didn't see him again. It was noted that the roadman was uncertain of the time but said that he knew that he would reach the point where he met him at about 8.30am because he worked that length of the road each morning.
  • Between 10.15am and 10.30am: The vicar said that he went to the Lagoon in his car and saw Margaret Peel's husband working alone on the north bank of the lagoon.

It was noted that a policeman had passed the shop at about 9.45am and was informed that Margaret Peel had been attacked almost immediately after.

The policeman said that when he went in he saw Margaret Peel lying in the living room. He said that her feet were hidden from view by a curtain which projected about two feet beyond the end of a wooden partition. He said that her head and shoulders were in a linen basket and that her body was on her left buttock and her right buttock was slightly raised from the floor. He said that her feet were pointing towards an easy chair between the wood partition and the table. He said that he then took her head and shoulders out of the linen basket and laid her body on its back. He said that he then covered her lower portion of her body with a mackintosh and then pulled the curtain down and placed it over her body, but not up to the face and neck.

The policeman said that when he saw Margaret Peel's husband he asked him, 'Has she any bones broken? Is she badly hurt?', and said that they then went into the house, noting that Margaret Peel's husband was never in a position to get any blood on his clothing. He said that before Margaret Peel's husband entered the house he was extremely pale and noticeably quiet. He said that he occasionally remarked how cold it was.

The superintendent said that he found that Margaret Peel had an Insurance Policy of £50 on her life. He said that he also found that Margaret Peel had bank books and savings certificates totalling £458.1.4d and that her husband had £228.2.1d.

The chief superintendent said that he found no signs of a struggle, noting that for the most part, the blood stains were low down, very few being more than 2 1/2 feet high.

He said that he then asked about the bag that was missing and said that Margaret Peel's husband told him that it was a black bag and that it should contain about £15. However, he said that Margaret Peel's husband seemed uncertain as to whether the bag was actually missing and said that when he questioned him further he said, 'I really don't know how much there was in the bag. We went out on Sunday. Usually when we go out together I put the notes in my waistcoat pocket. I did not count the notes on Sunday. I never count the money. It's my wife's. Judging from the size of the wad there would be about £15'. The chief superintendent said that owing to the uncertainty over whether the bag was missing he asked Margaret Peel's husband to go into the house to show him where it was usually kept.

The chief superintendent said that when they went over to the desk, Margaret Peel's husband pointed to a pigeon hole and said, 'This is where it is kept'. The chief superintendent said that when it was pointed out to Margaret Peel's husband that the pigeon hole was hardly big enough for a bag, Margaret Peel's husband said, 'I don't think it was actually in a pigeon hole. It was a large bag and had to be placed cross-wise or the lid of the desk would not close'. The chief superintendent said that owing to his manner he was questioned further, and he said, 'Well, if it is not on the desk or on the floor it has gone'.

Then, when looking in the kitchen drawer, the chief superintendent found a piece of white paper with what appeared to be a blood stain on it. It was heard that when he asked Margaret Peel's husband if he had seen the paper before, he said, 'Yes, I was making some dart papers on Sunday and cut my finger and that is how the blood got there'. However, it was noted that when the piece of paper was examined by a doctor, the stains were found to not be blood stains.

The police examined the husband’s car on 11 March and on 28 March 1938 they recovered a tyre iron from the lagoon of the reservoir with an electric magnet. It was said that the tyre iron had been the murder weapon and it was found near to the waterworks where the husband worked and was later stated to have been one that had been in the husbands possession.

When the husband, a waterworks worker at Swinsty Reservoir, was first questioned at 1pm on 2 March 1938 he said that he had got up at 6.30am on 2 March 1938 and that Margaret Peel got up just after and got his breakfast. He said that they lived alone except for their little 10-year old girl who was in bed at the time and said that he then went off to work at about 7.20am to 7.25am. He said that Margaret Peel had been standing by the fire when he had left, and said that before he left he said, 'good morning' and kissed her.

He said that the vicar came to his place of work at about 10.15am at Swinsty Reservoir and told him that his wife had had an fallen and said that when he got home he saw Margaret Peel lying on the floor in a pool of blood.

He noted that Margaret Peel kept money in a black handbag in a desk in the kitchen. He said that she dealt with all the money matters, but said that he knew where she kept the money noting that as far as he knew, the bag would have contained about £15 in Treasury notes and silver. He said that she also kept some money of her own in a handbag in the bedroom and as a rule, some money in the shop till.

He said that during the 10 years that they had been at the stores, Margaret Peel had looked after the shop by herself whilst he had been out at work.

He said that the distance from his home to his place of work was roughly between 1/2 ad 3/4 of a mile and said that he went to work on his bicycle. He said that he saw the foreman before he started work who gave him instructions as to his work that morning. He said that during the morning, until the vicar came for him, he had worked alone and out of sight of any other workers but had been in sight of the road. He said that his work that morning was clearing wreck off of the reservoir side. He said that the stretch of water where he was working was known as the 'Lagoon' and said that the road separated the reservoir from the Lagoon. He said that from where he was working he could see people passing on the road and said that he was 200 yards from the road. He added that when the vicar called him, he heard and saw him quite well.

He said that when the vicar came for him at 10.15am, he waved at him and so he went over to see him and said that the vicar then said, 'I have some bad news for you, I think your wife has fallen downstairs'. He said that the vicar then drove him home in his car.

He said that when he got to the shop a woman was standing outside who told him that no one could go in until the police arrived. He said that when the police arrived, the Constable said, 'Be prepared for the worst', and that when he went in and saw Margaret Peel lyin on the floor he said, 'Mother', and then came out.

He said that when he went back in he was asked by the police to have a look around and see if anything was missing and said that he looked in the shop till and saw that there was £2 in notes and some silver and said that everything in the shop appeared correct. He said that he then went to the back desk where the black handbag was kept and found the bag and money was missing.

He said that no one else knew of the black handbag except the traveller from Moss's of Otley and the traveller from Gill's of Skipton, and some of their relatives.

However, he noted that travellers didn't call on Wednesdays and nor were goods delivered on Wednesdays.

When the husband was questioned again on 9 March 1938 he was told that blood had been found on the clothes that he had been wearing.  When he went over his movements again, he reaffirmed that he did not touch Margaret Peel when he went in to see her, noting that he only leant over her and said, 'Mother' and then went out. However, with regards to the blood found on his clothing, he said that on the Monday morning before he went off to work, he had had connections with Margaret Peel on the bed edge and said that she had not quite finished her monthly period and that he got the blood on him then on his trousers front. However, he noted that he would not be able to account for any other bloodstains, noting that he didn't think that it would be possible for there to be any.

However, he did add that whilst he had not cut himself for a long time, he had caught his hand whilst shovelling coke a fortnight earlier, saying that he had caught his first finger on his right hand on the firebox and knocked a bit of skin off saying that it bled a bit, and said that he wiped it on his trousers leg near his pocket. He added that he didn't put a bandage on it or anything, but said that it scarcely bled, and reiterated that he had not had any other cuts for a long time, a year at any rate.

The husband was asked a number of questions and said that he had always got along with Margaret Peel, but said that he had taken a few girls out in his car, saying that he took the girl out from the Three Horse Shoes in Otley with whom he had connections, but said that he didn't think that Margaret Peel knew about any of that. He also added that for anything he knew, she might have done the same, noting that she was alone in the house all day.

It was noted that Margaret Peel's 10-year-old daughter was feeble-minded and could not say anything about the family life of her parents.

It was noted that during the police investigation, villagers of Fewston were unable to replenish their stores and had their household supplies rationed on account that Margaret Peel's shop was closed by the police so that they could examine the scene of the murder.

After the murder, the police used a magnet to search the Lagoon and found a tyre iron. In their efforts to trace it, they determined that Margaret Peel's brother, who had run a garage at the Hopper Lane Garage on the Harrogate and Skipton Road in Fewston some years before, had given the husband some tools of his. He said that he had given up his business in May 1932, having put it into liquidation, but before he did so he took a number of his garage tools over to the home garage at Margaret Peel's shop. He said that he was certain that there had been a tyre iron among the tools that he had taken over noting that he would not have left his tyre levers as they would be necessary to carry on a motor mechanics job. He said that the reason for sending the tools over was so that he would not have to buy them again and that they would not be sold with the business. He said that it would be several months later that he collected his tools and said that he didn't collect them all at once. He noted that tools he didn't get back included an oil can, a foot pump, at least three spanners and several other tools. He added that he did not get back any tyre levers.

Margaret Peel's brother noted that when he was at the Hopper Lane Garage, he stamped his tools with a figure 5. He said that he stamped them in an amateur way and might have missed stamping some of them. He said that he stamped them with a particular '5' stamp but didn't know where it was in 1938. He said that sometimes when he stamped a tool it would not show too plain and so he would stamp them again perhaps two or three times.

When Margaret Peel's brother was shown the tyre lever that had been found with the magnet in the Lagoon, he said that it looked very similar to his. He said that when he had been at the Hopper Lane Garage, he had possessed two very similar tyre levers and said that although it was a long time to remember, he felt sure that he would not have left them behind but would have put them in Margaret Peel's garage under the care of her husband.

Margaret Peel's brother said that he lost all his money in the garage and could not afford to buy new tools. He said that after leaving the garage he didn't work for about four months, but then got temporary work in Leeds as a motor mechanic and collected the tools that he needed there from Margaret Peel's garage as he wanted them. However, he said that he had not been in Margaret Peel's garage for 4 1/2 years.

Margaret Peel's brother said that when he went to look in the garage in 1938, he found a hammer that was in very bad condition that he thought was his but could not say whether it had a '5' stamped on it. He also gave the police a pair of pliers, a spanner and a screwdriver of his that had a '5' stamped of them.

When a staff physicist at the Forensic Science Laboratory in Nottingham examined the tyre lever under a microscope, he said that he could quite distinctly see a figure '5' stamped in the metal in three different positions. He also said that when he made a careful comparison of it, he found that it was the same size and shape as the figure 5 that was stamped on the pliers that Margaret Peel's brother had supplied.

A chemist at the Metropolitan Police Laboratory in Hendon said that it was agreed to chemically treat the tyre lever to bring out the figure '5' which was done and showed quite clearly the details which were said to match the figure on the pliers again. However, it was noted that owing to the fact that the surface of the tyre lever was heavily rusted and that the figures were in the rust layer, the figures developed were very fugitive and it was impossible to preserve them for presentation in court.

A newspaper reporter employed by the Yorkshire Evening News in Trinity Street, Leeds, said that on Tuesday 15 March 1938, he went to Fewston in connection with the murder investigation on instructions from his editor to see whether it was possible to throw anything into the water from the road, and if so, how far out.

He said that he first went to Fewston Reservoir where he saw a notice that prohibited the throwing of anything into the water. As such, he said that he decided not to, but noted that the water was quite within throwing distance.

He said that he then went to Swinsty Reservoir on the embankment between the reservoir and the Lagoon and saw similar notices there and again decided not to throw anything, but said that instead he judged the distance with his eye and then made tests in the grass verge of the road between the reservoir and Fewston village with a 2 1/2 lb bricklayers hammer and then roughly strode out the distance. He said that he was satisfied by the test that a missile of 2 1/2 lbs could easily be thrown into the water from the embankment.

He said that he then telephoned his newspaper about the tests and other matters and a column about his findings appeared in that night’s issue of the Yorkshire Evening News. He added that at no time did he throw anything into the water, noting that the hammer that he had used was his own hammer and that in any case, if he had not seen the signs, he would have picked up a stone of about the same weight and thrown that in.

The county pathologist who carried out the post-mortem on Margaret Peel at the public mortuary in Otley said that he found numerous lacerated wounds on her scalp, and fractures of the vault of the skull could be felt through the wound. He said that her skull to the right-hand side was flattened and that there were eleven wounds on her head, almost all of a serious nature. He added that with the exception of a very minute abrasion of her left shin, there were no wounds or bruises on her body, limbs or fingers.  He said that the cause of death was extensive fractures of the vault and base of the skull, laceration of the brain and haemorrhage caused by injury with a heavy blunt instrument.

When the director of the forensic laboratory in Nottingham examined the husbands clothes he said that he found human blood on his hat, jacket, waistcoat, trousers and shirt, but no blood on his raincoat, gloves, boots, braces, collar or tie. He also noted that the piece of white paper with stains on it found in the kitchen drawer was not bloodstained.

It was noted that when Margaret Peel's husband was called from his work he had been told by the vicar that Margaret Peel had met with a slight accident, but noted that when he reached home, he didn't protest about being kept outside and didn’t enquire whether anyone was attending to her or whether a doctor had been sent for.

It was also noted that Margaret Peel's husband could have walked from work to home in about 12 minutes, being exposed to view from houses and road for not more than two minutes.

During their investigation, the police installed a radio station with a 30ft mast in a field behind a local hotel that they made their headquarters.

During the investigation and trial there were a large number of sightseers to Fewston. It was heard that the village was invaded by sightseers, chiefly motoring parties.

On the 7 March 1938, five days after the murder, it was said that at least 800 cars attempted to pass through the village and there were frequent traffic blocks, and a crowd of at least 10,000 people flocked to see Margaret Peel's shop. It was heard that at times there were 50 cars strung out at different parts of the narrow country lanes around the village and the police had to assign a special attachment to clear the jams.

It was reported that women would peer through the windows at the property into the living room where Margaret Peel's body was found, pried into the garage and walked over the rough steps at the rear of the garage mentioned by the prosecution. It was said that at one period during the afternoon there was a line of cars in the narrow lane passing the cottage and that that occupants picnicked on the grass verge. It was also heard that sightseers also went into the churchyard searching for the grave and some, who seemed to be jumping on the tombstones were rebuked by the vicar, who was noted for having been outspoken in his condemnation of the curiosity-mongers. The vicar said that he had forbidden the use of cameras in the churchyard and had given the police orders to see that his wishes were obeyed.

During a sermon by the vicar after the trial, he said, 'During the past ten weeks Fewston has been a fairground, and even this afternoon I had to personally reprove people for their behaviour in the churchyard, jumping over graves. Some of you who don't belong to this district are here tonight. Can't you go stay in your homes instead of coming here hoping to see something sensational? Go home, for you have mocked your God'.

It was noted that the shop that Margaret Peel had run was owned by the Leeds Corporation Waterworks Committee and a recommendation was made to pull the building down following the murder and the acquittal of the husband. The manager of the Leeds Waterworks said that it was a very old building and that there seemed no purpose in the circumstances in continuing to let it. He added that it would be better for all concerned if it was demolished with a view to blotting out the scene of the recent tragedy.

Margaret Peel's husband later died in a cycling accident on 16 August 1943. He was knocked off his bicycle by a motorcar on 14 August 1943 at Buck Hill in Fewston and suffered from a fractured skull, fractured thigh and a fractured collar-bone. He was taken to Harrogate Hospital where he later died.

The shop was demolished in May 1939.

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

see search.proquest.com

see Evening Mail [Birmingham (UK)] 14 Aug 1999: 11.

see Sheffield Independent - Monday 16 May 1938

see Sheffield Independent - Monday 07 March 1938

see Leeds Mercury - Thursday 03 March 1938 (with picture of Margaret Peel)

see Leeds Mercury - Wednesday 07 December 1938

see Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer - Tuesday 17 August 1943

see Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer - Monday 16 August 1943

see Yorkshire Evening Post - Monday 16 August 1943

see The Scotsman - Saturday 28 May 1938

see Aberdeen Press and Journal - Monday 16 May 1938

see Leeds Mercury - Friday 11 March 1938

see Dundee Evening Telegraph - Tuesday 05 April 1938

see Coventry Evening Telegraph - Tuesday 08 March 1938

see Dundee Evening Telegraph - Tuesday 05 April 1938

see Shipley Times and Express - Saturday 13 May 1939

see Ilkley Gazette

see BBC

see Wharfdale Observer

see National Archives - DPP 2/536