THE BIRLEY STREET MONSTER (1948)

Emily Holland, 1876; Alice Barnes, 1892 and Helen Chester, 1935. 

Just three children whose lives were cruelly taken from them at young ages, and the one thing they all had in common is the industrial town of Blackburn, in the north west of England.

Emily was aged seven years old.  Alice, slightly older and aged nine.  But then we have Helen, who was only three years old when her badly mutilated body was recovered inside the back garden of a neighbours house.

All three girls had suffered tragic and violent deaths at the hands of their attackers.  William Fish and Cross Duckworth would both be tried and executed by hanging for their roles in the murders of Emily and Alice respectively.  The murder of Helen Chester is somewhat of a mystery and to this day no one quite knows who actually murdered her. James Mills and his wife Edith – both of whom had lived across the road from where Helen had lived with her parents, would be eventually arrested and charged with her murder but neither would admit to such an atrocity which would ultimately see the release of James due to a lack of evidence.  His wife, Edith however would face life in prison after she was saved from the gallows after being reprieved by the then Home Secretary.  Life in prison was short lived though as she died in prison only four months later due to a cerebral hemorrhage.

But this then brings us to our next story and the shocking and brutal murder of June Anne Devaney, whose life was abruptly snatched from her, again, at the tender age of three years and eleven months.

On the 5th May 1948, June had been admitted to the Queens Park Hospital in Blackburn after suffering from a mild attack of pneumonia.  Her parents, Albert and Emily had become concerned over her health and had her admitted so she could receive the care needed to hopefully make her recover.

Admitted to ward CH3, June was just one of six children in the ward and she was also the eldest.  Together, all of the children were under the supervision of nurse, Gwendolyn Humphreys during her night shift, and by the 14th May, June’s health had improved to the point that she was set to be released from hospital on the following morning, 15th May.

However, shortly after midnight and in the early hours of 15th May, nurse Humphreys heard a small boy crying from ward CH3.  At this time, Humphreys was in the kitchen preparing the children’s breakfast.

She stopped what she was doing and went to check the ward and to who was crying – it was a boy called Michael Tattersall – and after reassuring him and returning him to his cot, she noticed another child in the adjacent cot was fast asleep.  This was June Anne Devaney.

Humphreys then returned to the kitchen and carried on preparing the children’s breakfasts.

Just over one hour later and at around 01:20am, Humphreys, whilst checking on the children in ward CH3, noticed that the cot in which June had been sleeping was now empty.  Alerting other nurses and security, every room in that wing of the hospital was searched but no trace of June was found.

Humphreys though had found a large glass bottle underneath June’s cot, something which was out of place and should not have been there.  She also noticed footmarks on the recently polished floor, and these seemed to change in direction the closer they had got to June’s cot.

Police were soon informed and along with detectives and staff members from the hospital, a search of the grounds began.

It would take just over two hours, but at 3.17am, police constable Parkinson would find the lifeless body of June in a field and close to a 8ft sandstone wall that was just 283 feet from the nearest part of the hospital building. 

Still wearing her night-dress, that was wet as though it had been rolled in wet soil, it was instantly apparent that June had suffered from a violent death.  He dress was torn and at waist height, exposing her buttocks.  It also contained extensive bloodstains.  Upon further inspection, blood was exuding from her nostrils and she had suffered severe trauma to her face and head.

Within a few short hours, the ‘murder call’ arrived at Scotland Yard from Blackburn and it wouldn’t take long for Detective Sergeant Ernest Millen, Detective Inspector W. Daws and Chief Inspector Charles Capstick to make the journey north and to the scene of the murder.

During the initial inspection of the hospital ward where June had been placed, on the highly polished floor was a trace of footprints that had apparently been made by someone walking in bare feet.  The police also found a trail of footsteps between the ward porch and a gap in the perimeter wall near a quarry on the other side.

But it was the bottle that Nurse Humphreys had noticed underneath the cot June had been sleeping in that the police would take a keen interest in.

The bottle in question was a Winchester bottle and upon further inspection it had contained 20 finger prints and a palm impression.  Now, some of these prints were recent and these appeared to be made by a very wide spread of fingers which indicated large hands and therefore a tall person.

The police had something to go on, and, after looking into the footsteps left behind on the polished floor, which themselves were approximately 10 1/4 inches long, they had plenty of reason to deduce that the person who had taken June from her cot was indeed someone tall.

Interestingly, the police already had a suspect.

Only a few evenings before June’s abduction and murder, nurses had seen a man peering in the ground-floor windows of the nurses home while they were undressing.  When challenged he ran away.  A “Peeping Tom,” is how the nurses described him, and thought no more of it, that was however, until the murder of poor June.

A detailed description of the man was given to the police and after four days of searching, he was finally traced.

Detective Sergeant Ernest Millen described the man as a disagreeable, dirty looking character and after questioning, he admitted to being in the hospital grounds but denied going anywhere near the children’s ward.

After a physical examination had taken place, it revealed that he had a scar in an intimate place that could have been caused by committing a vicious sexual assault.

The police had their man – or so they thought!

Perhaps a few years earlier, this man would more than likely have been arrested and charged with the murder of June Anne Devaney and possibly hanged for the crime, but with forensic science becoming more and more finely tuned, it would soon transpire that the man the police had in custody was not the same man who had killed June.

None of the fingerprints found on the Winchester bottle matched those of the “Peeping Tom,” so the police released him and he was soon eliminated from further inquiries.

The ‘print experts also did extremely well with the footprints on the ward floor.  The pressure of the feet had made micro-shallow indentations in the thin layer of polish and they showed that the man had evidently walked from cot to cot, stopping at each and possibly staring at the occupant before finally settling on June.

Here, he had lifted her from her cot.  The police would confirm this by providing evidence of the man’s footprints being under the edge of her cot.

It would also later emerge that the man who had abducted June was not bare footed as originally thought and that he was wearing stockings as a tiny fibre of red wool was discovered and would prove vitally important as the investigation gained pace.

The police, along with forensic experts would spend, in total, around 15 hours of patient and scrupulous examination of every possible surface where fingerprints might be found, but for Detective Sergeant Ernest Millen, he could not shake the belief that the large hand on the Winchester bottle was their best chance of catching their man.

But despite every member of the hospital staff – matron, assistant matron, doctors and nurses – who worked in or had access to the ward were fingerprinted, none matched the “big hand” prints.

It quickly became apparent that everyone in the hospital and everyone associated with it, had to be fingerprinted.  This meant not only patients and nurses and of course orderlies, ambulance drivers, but their girlfriends and boyfriends, husbands and wives and EVERY known visitor to the hospital!

In total, over 2,017 prints had been taken.  Unfortunately, none would match those on the Winchester bottle.

Meanwhile, and during the initial fingerprinting of all those connected with the hospital, the police had received communication from a local taxi-driver by the name of Bernard John Regan, who had told them that at around midnight on May 14th, he had picked up a fare in town and later dropped the passenger on a road near to the quarry and watched as the man made his way towards the hospital.

The only description he could make was that the man spoke with a strong local accent.

The police were now slowly building a profile of the man wanted in connection with the abduction and murder of June Anne Devaney and the fingerprints found on the Winchester bottle would also give an indication that he was a young man as the ‘ridges’ of the prints were clear and without cracks or breaks that an older man’s prints would show.

This being the case, and with the war years still being relatively fresh in the minds of most people, the police quickly assumed that he may have served in the armed forces and possibly abroad at some time.

Photographs of the prints were sent to all parts of the world where British troops had served, but unfortunately this drew a complete blank.

The police realised that they were very much under severe scrutiny of the public.  Not just because a violent murder had taken place, but because of the brutal manner in which poor June had lost her life.

Bloodhounds had been used in a country-wide search and again, nothing would come of their use.  And as for Chief Inspector Charles Capstick, he was under even more pressure as he was also investigating the murder of 11 year old, Quentin Smith in nearby Farnworth, Bolton.  And despite initial thoughts that the two murders may be somehow linked, it would later emerge that no evidence was every found to link the two.

On Sunday, 16th May, the Sunday Mirror newspaper, as well as printing an article on the murder of June – they also ran an appeal, begging for the culprit to hand himself into the police before they commit any other crimes of similar nature.

I’m not sure some of the wording in the article would have helped much, as by calling the murderer out as being ‘insane’ and struggling with an ‘illness’, well, this may not have appealed to any inch of remorse the killer may, just may, have been feeling!

On the 20th May, and at a conference, the police decided to do something that had never before been attempted in any murder inquiry – and that was to collect the fingerprints of every male person over the age of 16 who had been in Blackburn on the night of May 14th.

This was the first time that a whole town would be fingerprinted.

An appeal by the Mayor of Blackburn, for the public to co-operate was soon made, and after reassuring the public that all of the fingerprints collected would be destroyed after serving their purpose, the daunting task of going from door-to-door began.

At the time, Blackburn had around 120,000 inhabitants – distributed throughout 35,000 houses.

Operational Fingerprint, as it was officially named, was launched on Sunday, May 23rd, with twenty detectives, armed with inking pads and fingerprint cards, setting out to being the house-to-house calls.

Using the town’s electoral register, every print was recorded against a name on the list and every afternoon, the haul of print cards were sent to Preston so a team of specialist could compare them the prints on the Winchester bottle.

Day after day, week after week and month after month, the detectives and some police officers painstakingly visited every household and by the end of July, when every male had been fingerprinted, the police were still without the murderer’s prints.

Resentment was by now growing within the town as it seemed the police were running out of ideas and people had begun to doubt that the men from Scotland Yard were unable to solve the crime.

Millen and Capstick themselves faced some mild abuse when visiting local pubs for beer and sandwiches during the breaks they managed to find during the day when out collecting fingerprints!

By the end of July, over 46,000 prints had been taken.  The police were no closer to finding June’s murderer and it appeared they had reached a dead end.

But a breakthrough came at the beginning of August when the police discovered that there were still 900 men from Blackburn whom had not yet been fingerprinted.  Out of all the places where this information would come from, it was the Food Office at Blackburn that prepared new ration documents which bore the name, address and date of birth of every person receiving a new ration book.

The 900 men of whose names for some reason were not on the electoral register were soon to be visited.

On the afternoon of August 12th and after a new batch of cards had arrived at Preston, the breakthrough that the police had begun to think would never happen – finally did happen!

Card Number 46253 bore the thumb print that was identical with the prints on the Winchester bottle.

A loud shout came from one of the members of the fingerprint team – “I’ve got him!  It’s here!”

The card bore the name and address of Peter Griffiths, of 31 Birley Street, Blackburn and his registration number, NBA 6917-188 showed that he was an ex-Serviceman – something the police had quite rightly thought at the very beginning of their investigations.

Peter Griffiths prints had been taken by police constable Calvert on August 11th 1948.  Calvert later told press reporters that Griffiths was a 22-year old flour mill packer, and had supplied his prints without any demur.

Knowing they had their man, Millen and Capstick, along with several constables picked up Griffiths at 9pm on Friday 13th August as he left his home to go on the night shift at the flour mill.

He was told he was wanted for questioning in connection with the murder of June Anne Devaney, and he was duly cautioned.

Bizarrely, when arrested, he asked; “Is it because of my fingerprints?”

When cautioned and told, “Yes,” he said, “Well, if they are my fingerprints on the bottle, I will tell you all about it.”

At the Blackburn police station, Millen took down Griffiths statement. 

He described a night of heavy drinking, something like 11 pints of bitter, 2 Guinness’s and 2 double rums.  He then described getting into a taxi and ending up in the grounds of Queen’s Park Hospital where there were some children.

“I picked up a girl out of the cot and took her outside.  She put her arms around my neck.  I walked with her down the hospital field.  I put her down on the grass.  She started crying and I tried to stop her, but she wouldn’t.  I just lost my temper and then you know what happened then …”

“I banged her head against the wall and then went back on the verandah outside the ward and put my shoes on.”

Griffiths then went on to say that he read the papers the following morning and read about the murder.   “It didn’t shock me.” he would tell Millen.

He then finished his statement with the words, “I hope I get what I deserve.”

Detailed analysis of the fingerprints found on the Winchester bottle would show that ten of them where indeed Griffiths.  The photographs taken of the footprints found in the ward also matched precisely those taken of his feet when he was arrested.

As for the tiny red fibres found on the floor close to the cot where June had been sleeping – these matched the wool in socks soon to be found in Griffiths bedroom upon further investigation.

A blue suit worn by Griffiths on the night of the murder and one that he had pawned on the 31st May also contained fibres found at the ward window, and woollen fibres taken from June’s body also matched these.  Not only were fibres found, but also human blood. 

A sample of June’s blood had been taken during her autopsy, and this matched perfectly with samples that had been found on the lining inside and outside of the trousers worn by Griffiths during the attack.

Peter Griffiths was a single man and born into a poor family.  He had served in the Welsh Guards from February 1944 to February 1948 and had been discharged as ‘indifferent’ or the army’s ‘lowest’ character assessment.  He had also deserted on numerous occasions during his service and on every occasion when had had been traced and eventually arrested, he refused to say or could not say anything.

The trial of Peter Griffiths took place the 15th October 1948 and he was tried before Mr. Justice Oliver at the Lancaster Assize.

Testifying on his behalf of the prosecution was Inspector Colin Campbell, who spoke of the prints found on the Winchester bottle and how they were a precise match when compared to the samples provided by Griffiths.  Campbell also proved that the stocking ‘prints’ taken from the hospital were remarkably similar in characteristics with those found of Griffiths feet.

As for Griffiths defence, his team wouldn’t argue with the fact that he had murdered June Anne Devaney.  As he had already committed to the crime, all that remained was a question of his sanity.

His defense counsel would therefore enter a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity and Dr. Alistair Robertson Grant told the jury that Griffiths was displaying early signs of schizophrenia.  They would also bring up Griffiths history, stating that his father had himself been admitted to hospital thirty years before, also with schizophrenia.

Grant would also tell the jury that whilst Griffiths was aware of what he was doing, he did not realise the criminality of his actions.

However, Dr. Brisby, working on behalf of the prosecution refuted such claims, telling the jury that whilst Griffiths was on remand, he had visited him on several occasions and based on his observations, Griffiths was sane when he committed the crime.

During the trial, Griffiths told the court that he had picked up the Winchester bottle to use as a weapon in case he was challenged.  He also described how he had lifted June from her cot and then carried her away, in his right arm and out of the hospital. 

He then confessed to having swung June’s head into the boundary wall approximately four times.

“I left my shoes outside the door which had a brass knob.  I tried the door and it opened to my touch.  I just went in.  I heard a nurse banging things as if she was washing something.  I came out and waited a few minutes.  I then went in again and went straight to the ward.  I think I went into a small room like a kitchen and then back to the ward again.

“I picked up a biggish bottle off a shelf.  I went halfway down the ward and the put in on the floor.  I thought I heard a nurse.  I turned round, overbalanced, and fell against a bed, and I remember a child waking and starting to cry.

“I hushed her.  She opened her eyes and saw me and the child in the next bed started to up.  I picked the girl up out of the cot and took her outside.  I carried her in my right arm and she put her arms round my neck.”

Griffiths then went into detail explaining how he proceeded to kill June Ann.  He told the jury that June Anne had begun to cry and although he tried to ‘hush’ her, she carried on crying.

“I just lost my temper then, and you know what happened then.  I banged her head against the wall.”

We know that from the autopsy report, June had been raped.  When questioned about the sexual aspect of the assault, Griffiths refused to answer.

As for the postmortem, it would reveal that June Anne Devaney had died from shock due to both extensive internal injuries and multiple skull fractures.

It was obvious from a very early stage that she had been raped and the postmortem showed consistent injuries to prove this.

Multiple blunt force trauma to her skull and been inflicted from June being swung into the boundary wall while she was being held by her legs, ankles or feet.  Numerous teeth marks were also found on her left buttock and she also had two bruises on her upper and inner thighs and neck.  There were also puncture wounds made by human fingernails on one of her ankles. 

More disturbingly, every injury upon June Anne’s body had been inflicted before death.

The trial would last for two days, and following on from the closing statements delivered by both counsels, the jury retired for just 23 minutes.  When they returned into court, their verdict of guilty of June Anne Devaney’s murder was read out.

Donning the formal black cap, Mr. Justice Oliver made the following speech :

“Peter Griffiths, this jury has found you guilty of a crime of the most brutal ferocity. I entirely agree with their verdict. The sentence of the Court is that you be taken from this place to a lawful prison and thence to a place of execution, and that you there suffer death by hanging, and that your body be afterwards buried in the precincts of the prison in which you have been confined before your execution.  And may the Lord have mercy on your soul.”

Peter Griffith never lodged any form of appeal and was hanged at HM Prison Liverpool on the 19th November 1948.  His executioner that morning was Albert Pierrepoint.

Two weeks prior to his execution, and on Wednesday 3rd November, practically all of the fingerprint records collected and held in Preston were publicly destroyed in a mass pulping exercise at a local paper mill with many journalist being present to record the destruction of the records.  Fewer than 1,000 of the 46,000 fingerprint cards used by the Blackburn police had been claimed by their owners.

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