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The 1953 Towpath Murders

Senseless Violence in West London

As Britain was preparing to celebrate the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on June 2, 1953, just two days earlier, on the evening of Sunday, May 31, two teenage girls, who had cycled to meet three friends, were returning home at about 11 PM. Tragically, they did not make it home. They were murdered near Teddington Lock on the River Thames. The young women were 16-year-old Barbara Songhurst and 18-year-old Christine Reed. Barbara's body was discovered in the river the following day, and that of Christine on June 6, after the police had drained part of the river, making use of its locks. Barbara worked at a chemist's shop in Richmond, and, on the towpath at Ham Common, about one mile from where Barbara's body was found, police discovered bloodstains, which led them to find a pair of shoes in a hedge. Both Christine and Barbara had been severely beaten and raped, and had suffered serious head and chest wounds.

Police Investigation

Herbert Hannam was assigned the task of tracking down the man responsible for this terrible crime. With little forensic evidence to help him, Hannam ordered house-to-house inquiries on a vast scale, and nearly four thousand homes were visited. About seven thousand people were interviewed and Hannam looked at police records of suspicious persons seen roaming the streets in the days after the murders. Hannam held two press conferences each day, which not everyone agreed with, but he stated that the press helped to lead the police to the man responsible. Alfred Whiteway was a 21-year-old labourer who had left his wife, Nellie, and was back living with his mother, Ellen. She said that her son had been wired-up all wrong, was mean and cruel, and lacking in empathy. As a child, Alfie "never had a mate and did not mix with the other boys." He took up thieving early, and was sent to a reform school. His headmaster wrote: "His general prognosis is very poor indeed." Still, one of my own school reports stated that my progress "augurs well for the future." I doubt many would agree! His mother told the police that her son had a fascination with knives, and others said they had observed him throwing knives at trees.

Alfred Whiteway admitted to the police that he had attacked and raped a 14-year-old schoolgirl on Oxshott Heath on May, 24, Whitsunday, one week before the killing of Barbara and Christine. His statement was taken at Chertsey Police Station. Alfred said he had been out on his blue bicycle and had just been cycling around when he saw the girl, with her dog, go into the woods. He followed her. "I had a wood chopper in my saddle bag, and I lost her once in the woods and was looking around for her. I had made up my mind to seduce her, and I got the chopper out of my bag. I caught up with her when she was on the footpath and I hit her on the head somewhere with the back edge of the chopper." She survived, thankfully.

Teddington Lock

The attacks on Oxshott Common were similar to those at Teddington and the police found a knife and an axe which they believed to have been the murder weapons. Whiteway went before magistrates in Richmond in August, was held at Brixton Prison, and tried at the Old Bailey in October and November. He admitted the murders, but later claimed his confession was a police fabrication. He was sentenced to death, and lost an appeal. His execution was carried out at Wandsworth Prison on December 22, 1953. Barbara is buried in an unmarked grave. Her parents and those of Christine must have been devastated by the loss of their daughters. Barbara's parents, Daniel and Gertrude Songhurst, lived until 1981 and 1978, dying at the ages of 88 and 67, respectively. Daniel had been married early in his life, long before he met Gertrude. May the souls of Barbara and Christine rest in peace. 

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The 1953 Towpath Murders
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