A tale of two stranglers
We won’t accept policemen are corrupt because the thought of anarchy is intolerable
This article is taken from the October issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.
In the years 1948-9 a 13-year-old schoolboy, Peter Thorley, was a regular visitor to 10 Rillington Place, a rundown little house (long since demolished) comprising three flats in Notting Hill Gate, west London. Thorley’s sister Beryl was living in the top flat with her van-driver husband Timothy Evans and their baby daughter Geraldine.
Meanwhile, Thorley had made friends with the occupant of the ground-floor flat, a man he knew as “Uncle Reg”. He was John Reginald Halliday Christie, “a kindly gentleman” with a “soft whispery voice” who plied young Thorley with tea and sticky buns. Sometimes Peter would play with Christie’s mongrel Judy in the yard at the back of the house. He was not to know that two women murdered by his kindly Uncle Reg were buried under this little wasteland of a garden.
Peter Thorley’s new book, according to his wife Lea the result of years of research, aims to set the record straight by insisting that it was not Christie but Evans, a heavy drinker prone to acts of violence, who was guilty of strangling Beryl and their baby daughter.
But there is nothing very new about that theory, first proposed by Christie himself when questioned by the police, and subsequently repeated in any number of books. Sci-fi writer John Newton Chance, supported by the well-known Express columnist Robert Pitman, published a book, The Crimes of Rillington Place, insisting on Evans’s guilt. Crime writer Robert Furneaux had previously produced The Two Stranglers of Rillington Place (1961), not to be confused with The Two Killers of Rillington Place (1994), the work of John Eddowes, who insisted that Evans had been a violent psychopath.
There was little if any evidence to support such a view but Eddowes and others could always refer back to Sir Daniel Brabin, the High Court judge who after a two-month investigation in 1966 had ruled that although Evans had not murdered his baby daughter (for which he was sentenced to death and hanged) he probably had murdered Beryl. (Christie was also hanged three years later for six other murders.)
Putting aside all the plentiful evidence for Evans’s innocence, there was always one very obvious anomaly which neither Brabin nor Thorley, nor any of the others who have written books on the subject, are able to explain away. Put simply, it is this: if you believe Evans to be guilty of killing his wife you have to accept the extraordinary reality that in the same little house in Notting Hill there lived at the same time two men both of whom were murderers, both of whom murdered women in the same way (i.e. by strangulation) whilst neither was aware of the other’s activities.
Why are they so ready to believe a story which is plainly incredible? The explanation has to be that many people, including the intelligent and well-educated, would rather believe in the two-stranglers-in-the-same-house theory than accept that an innocent man could be hanged for another man’s crimes with the full support of the police, the press, the legal system (including the Court of Appeal and the Lord Chief Justice) and that his guilt could be further confirmed by two official inquiries and be upheld by a succession of government ministers.
Accepting that frightening reality means also accepting that the police, convinced of Evans’s guilt, had bullied him into making a false confession and then suppressed evidence that might have secured his acquittal. As Ludovic Kennedy, whose book Ten Rillington Place remains the definitive account of the affair, noted: “To admit the widespread corruption of policemen is the first step to admitting the possibility of anarchy and that thought is intolerable.”
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5Subscribe