A Lost Starting Handle

03Jan19

The murder of my great uncle, Fred Jeffs, in 1957, remains one of the West Midlands’ great unsolved crimes. I first stumbled across the story when I was in my early teens. My Nan – like so many of her generation – did not yield family secrets so easily, but she had been sent a 1971 article in which the known details of her brother-in-law Fred’s murder case were laid bare. It was an account of the story, published by Birmingham City Police in their quarterly journal, “FORWARD”, written by a Chief Supt. W.Worrall, who had worked on the case. For a callow youth with a taste for the macabre it made gripping reading.

fred portrait_oldbury weekly

Fred had been the owner of JEFFS’s sweetshop and tobacconists, at 12 Stanley Rd., Quinton, in West Birmingham. Together with with his wife, Betty, they ran the shop from the end of sweet-rationing in 1953. By the end of 1956, though, the couple had separated, and Fred was living alone above the shop with his dog, Perro, a black poodle. The week’s run-up to Easter would be lucrative time for a Confectioner, but it also left Jeffs a vulnerable man. It was said that he slept with an air pistol beneath his pillow. The exact sequence of events of Maundy Thursday evening, 18thApril 1957, is still open to conjecture, but by the following afternoon of Good Friday, his badly beaten body had been discovered by teenage ‘birds-nesters’ in a place known locally as ‘Wasson’, in Sandwell Valley.

Police already realised something was amiss following the discovery of Fred’s bloodstained Austin A30 van in Witton early on Good Friday morning. Further evidence of disruption followed; the Easter Sweetshop takings were found to be missing from the shop, and the poodle, ‘Perro’ – perhaps the only available ‘witness’ – was discovered without its collar, cowering in a Langley garage, a couple of miles from the shop.

The story contains all the ingredients for a classic 50’s noir thriller; one in which the cosy innocence of post-war suburban bliss is punctured by the realisation that dark forces lurk beneath the surface. Police interviews soon revealed that Fred had been seen drinking with strangers in The Abbey pub, Bearwood, in the days before his death; that a glamorous, mystery brunette was seen whispering to him in the shop prior to the murder, and that a suspicious black sports car had been spotted at Warley Woods whilst Fred was walking the dog nearby.

For many years I had been determined to look into the case, and a Birmingham REP community theatre programme gave me the spur I needed to reach out and connect with those who might have a memory of the Fred Jeffs story; either first-hand descriptions of the shop, or second-hand stories passed down by relatives in the aftermath of the huge police investigation – which had hitherto yielded no conclusive leads or conviction.

I very quickly realised there was a generation of former Warley/ Quinton residents for whom the Jeffs murder still held significance. Infact, it seemed buried in a collective consciousness. The stories I heard were often contradictory, and I found that, over time and in the absence of fact, people had filled the gaps of knowledge with their own interpretations and embellishments. These stories, like scattered jigsaw puzzle pieces in an old, incomplete box, gave a tantalising glimpse of a bigger picture, but what would be missing from that picture, and why?

While digging around, I met someone whose vivid memories of that Easter weekend, 1957, have made it possible to plug one of those holes in that jigsaw.

Alan Warr is well known to many in the Smethwick Local History community, but what may be less known is Alan’s extraordinary childhood connection to the ‘Sweetshop Murder’.

I first met Alan – along with his ‘kid’ brother Len, friend Phil Haycock and Smethwick Heritage Centre director Chris Sutton, in a ‘Heritage Roadshow’ at St. Hilda’s, Warley, in May 2018. I needed to ask Alan about his 62-year old memories of that fateful Good Friday, when he wandered up ‘Wasson’ with his lifelong friend Ray and made a grisly discovery. What the boys encountered there, when just 9 & 8 years old respectively, has remained vividly with them to this day.

The following is based on that conversation;

 

GR       What time do you think it was when you reached Wasson?

Alan:    It was about 9 o’clock-ish …somethin’ like that. In them days kids used to go out at the crack of dawn, and not come back ‘til the tea was on the table. I think it was the Good Friday, or something like that. April ’57.

GR:      And when you saw it – what we now believe to be the murder weapon – what drew your attention to it?

Alan:    It was just there. You can imagine – the grass was long, but this ‘thing’ was probably about this long if I remember right (gestures approx. 18”) …and heavy. And I looked at it, not realising that it was blood and… I presume, bits of his brain, whatever …and I picked it up and I said to Ray, “Oh my God! Wh- what the bloody hell’s that? And then… wwhhoosh!” [gestures as he throws the object over the stone wall] “Gone!”

And that was it. And Ray, looking at me hands, says, “Eurgh, get away!”. I was trying to wipe me hands on the grass, and this bloke, all the time, he’s watching us. I seen him across the other side of the lane. He was actually shadowing us, just behind us, and I thought he was watching us, and he would’ve seen now, thinking back, where I threw it.

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GR:      And, when you saw this man how would you describe him?

Alan:    I know it sounds daft, but like what you’d imagine a typical gangster of the time; the mac and the trilby and the rest of it, you know. How tall he was I don’t know. When you’m nine years of age everybody’s tall to you! And Ray says, “Come on!” And that’s when we cleared off. We scarpered when this bloke was watchin’ us ‘cos we hadn’t got a clue! We dain’t know if we was gonna get into trouble.

It’d be round about lunchtime when we got back. But as word got around, Stephen Oliver’s dad – one of very few in those days to have a telephone – must’ve notified the Police, because, probably about 6, or half-6, the coppers actually carted me down there, but nobody knew anything about it – there’d been nothin’ in the papers, or on the news. He’d mentioned that he thought I’d found somethin’ covered in blood and then, obviously, the body was found later. I’ve got no recollection of the true time, but I know it was late when I went down there.

I remember the black police car comin’ with the bells on the front. I think it was a Wolseley. There was at least three detectives in there. Honestly, I can still remember it like yesterday, sittin’ in the back of this car, surrounded by burly detectives. And them old-fashioned macs they used to wear. I was terrified and shaking. And when we got to where these detectives took me (back to Wasson) – there was coppers all over the place; moochin’ about, pokin’ around, you know. And that’s what really frightened me, the fact there was, I suppose, 30 or 40 policemen? That’s enough to terrify any kid!

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GR:      And you believe they didn’t find that weapon that you’d thrown?

Alan:    They definitely didn’t find it, ‘cos I was with them all the time. I took them to where I knew I’d dropped it. There’s a little road going off toward the TRI-ANG factory, and it was opposite that, on the left-hand side of the road as if you were headin’ towards Newton Rd. I took them straight to it. Next thing they’re all searching about, and I had to go and sit back in the car and wait for them, and after a while they must’ve thought, let’s take him home.

I was terrified. I had a strict father, and any thought of a copper actually comin’ to the house or anything, we’d have had a leathering! When it first came out, I had to explain to me parents, and I can always remember dad saying, “Is he in trouble?” And the Police says, “No, of course not.” And I think dad was quite reassured by that. But we had a local copper, that used to keep an eye on us kids and he’d give us a clip round the ear, and say, “I’ll be round to see your dad. It might not be this week, it might be next week, or the week after”; so, you lived in dread that the local bobby would pop round to see our dad, ‘cos you knew then that you’d get a whacking.

 

 

GR:      It was reported in the Smethwick Telephone that local boys stumbled across Fred Jeffs’s body at about 4.30pm that day. 15-year old Cyril Blakemore, of King St. and his pals at first thought they’d found a tramp sleeping.

Alan:    The four lads that actually found the body, actually passed us comin’ back the other way, but we was more annoyed, especially when it got in the papers, ‘cos my dad said, “What you pair doin’ nickin’ birds eggs?” And I said, “We never done that in our lives”, but ‘cos that’s what the papers said, kids used to have a go at us when we got back to school. “Fancy pinchin’ birds’ eggs!”

It’s something you can’t ever forget. I had nightmares about it for years, especially when I found out what had happened (to Fred Jeffs). I mean, I was only young, but I was just terrified that this murderer was gonna go and murder me!

And we think that this bloke followed us all the way home, down Middlemore Road to where we lived in Sydenham Road. We was terrified. But a couple of weeks later, within the same holiday period, we were up the other little place we used to go… a place called the Pit Mounts, at the top of Dartmouth Road, All the stuff from Sandwell Colliery was dumped there, and we called it our mountains. It was our theme park in them days, and we think that this actual guy followed us. Whether or not he knew where we was and had been waiting, I don’t know. The weighbridge had been destroyed when it got hit in the War and there was literally nothing left, no roof, just the frame of this weighbridge office. It was only about 12 foot square. All the floorboards had gone and we was playing in there when this guy came in and followed us across the room – and then he grabbed hold of Ray round the neck and Ray went back out through the window, I hit the bloke – clouted him with a piece of wood. We both then jumped, being fitter than he was, and ran up the bank, but the bloke couldn’t catch us. Of course, he was trying to scramble up to us, but he couldn’t get to us.

I think your imagination can work tricks on you when you’m that young, but we was convinced there was no other reason; that what we thought was the same bloke, would be, within 10 days? We still think to this day it was the same guy, but we’ll never know. It more or less stopped us going out the following summer, ‘cos we was just terrified.

 

GR:      Today there’d be a great deal of concern for children’s wellbeing after being exposed to that kind of trauma, but, after the Police dropped you back from the Wasson on that Good Friday in 1957, they never ever contacted you again, did they?

Alan:    Well, until 1972 I don’t know whether the coppers ever believed me, because in the papers at the time they said that he’d been hit with ‘a big stone’. So, when I got talking to the coppers in ’72 at Piddock Road, the Policeman says, “well, what yow got to do with it?”. And I says, “I think found the murder weapon, but then we was only kids so I don’t know whether you ever believed me?”  The Police probably thought we was mekkin’ it up.

And then he says, “…Lorry starting handle…?”

And I says, “Well, …that’s what I found!”

And the Policeman says, “Yeah. That was the weapon, by the actual damage to his skull”. They could tell, and that was the days long before DNA or normal forensics, you know?

 

GR:      And later on, an inquest report described the murder weapon as an “irregular object”, like a car-jack. Unspecific. But you know better.

Alan:    Yeah. A starting handle it was. You know the big nut on the end, that has to go on the end of the crank? Whether that’s the bit that caught him or whatever…. As I say, it was all over the thing.

GR:      Fred’s van, (used to dump the body, and as the getaway vehicle) was an Austin A30. The starting handle for that is quite small.

Alan:    Yeah, this is why me mate Ray at the time – even though we was only 8 years old – ‘cos his old man having wagons, we used to climb in and go out with his dad in the wagons – we were used to seeing them. We knew what we were looking at.

 

GR       Do you think there’s anyone around today who will know more?

Alan:    As far as I know, there’s only me and Ray still here – 70 years of age now – that can remember that day. And, to be honest with you, I think it frightened a lot of the local kids. I know parents was keeping their kids in because it was so close to home, you know. Things like that didn’t happen! Even thought it was rough working-class area we was all a community – we looked out for each other, and I think a lot of people was frightened.

It’ll always be there, you know. Especially the fact that the guy, or the people, was never caught. I can’t believe that nobody knew anythin’. I mean, obviously, I’ve always had your own thought that he was perhaps seein’ a woman, and perhaps the family had found out about it…?

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(Attempts to unravel the mystery of the Sweetshop Murder will continue…)

With thanks to Alan Warr, and the many others who have been helping me with the project. Thanks also to the Birmingham Rep, and the Libraries of Thimblemill, Bleakhouse, Smethwick and Quinborne, who have been generous with their time and space. If you would like to contribute to the project with your own memories, please get in touch;

graerose@gmail.com

07854 873277

 

Fred Jeffs: The Sweetshop Murder

will be performed by Graeme Rose

in The Door Theatre, Birmingham Repertory Theatre

15th-18thMay 2018

 

Plus further dates, to be announced.

 

 

 

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