worthing history
 

© FREDDIE FEEST 2012

 
Murder in mind
 
       
 
 TO THE GALLOWS: Grim-looking Thurloe House, in High Street, Worthing, was the town’s police station during the 1930s and 1940s. Through its windows in 1933, police sergeant Bernard spotted two men “loitering with intent” – an observation that led them to the gallows.

IT was Wednesday, November 15, 1933, and Police Sergeant Bernard was casually peering out of a window at Worthing police station, then situated at Thurloe House in the High Street.

     He had a clear view across the road to Loader’s photographic store where, at that moment, two men were loitering in a manner that fuelled Sergeant Bernard’s finely honed intuition. He regarded what they were doing as “highly suspicious”.
     What the doughty police sergeant could never have predicted was that his subsequent arrest of the two men for “loitering with intent” could provide a valuable discussion point 74 years later, when the government is considering law changes on the right of police to randomly question members of the public.
     For it was Sergeant Bernard’s intuition, combined with the right he had in 1933 to question members of the public about what may have seemed relatively trivial behaviour, which led to a totally unexpected breakthrough in solving one of the most serious crimes of all.
     NEXT day, the two men, Frederick William Parker and Albert Probert, appeared before Worthing magistrates, charged together with “being suspected persons and loitering in the High Street, Worthing, on November 15, 1933, with intent to commit a felony”.
     Both men pleaded “not guilty”, as did Parker when separately charged with stealing “on or about November 14” an overcoat valued at 10 shillings, the property of John Augustus George Vine.
     By one of those quirks with which crimes are littered, a tiny button from this coat would ultimately lead both petty criminals to the gallows for murder.
     Police Constable Lovell told the court that on instructions from Sergeant Bernard, he watched the two defendants walking down Chapel Road, calling into several shops without seemingly buying anything.
     Challenged by PC Lovell about their intentions, both men said they were “just looking around”. Disbelieving their story, the constable took them both to the police station.
     In 1933, the evidence was considered sufficient to remand them in the cells until the following day.
     At this point, the story moves to a dilapidated general store in Clarence Road, Portslade, late in the evening of November 13 and two days before Parker and Probert’s arrest.
     A reclusive 80-year-old former Worthing businessman named Joseph Bedford ran the shop. He normally closed the premises by 8pm but on this evening, two men were seen loitering outside the premises.
     Two hours later, a neighbour noticed some of Mr Bedford’s wares were still on display on the pavement outside the shop and inside the shop a light was still burning. 
     Now suspicious, he hailed a passing police constable, who flashed his lamp inside the locked shop and saw Mr Bedford staggering about, with injuries to the head and face. An ambulance was called but by the time Mr Bedford reached hospital, he was dead.
     As soon as East Sussex police suspected foul play, they contacted Scotland Yard, from which a senior officer journeyed south to inquire into the circumstances of the case.
     At the opening of the inquest, medical evidence revealed that Mr Bedford had not only suffered face and head injuries but also sustained a broken nose and a fractured skull. It had been a callous attack and the injuries inflicted in the pursuit of what was planned as a minor crime had turned out to be murder most foul.
     Police intuition must have played its part in what followed but the fact that Frederick Parker and Albert Probert had been detained in custody at Worthing for the misdemeanour of  “suspected loitering with intent” was to prove invaluable in solving the murder case several miles away in Portslade.    
     Similarity of the suspicious behaviour of two men witnessed locally before each crime justified further investigation – as did the surprising alacrity with which the two men arrested at Worthing volunteered details of the earlier misdemeanour in the face of surprisingly little firm evidence.
     Only later did it become obvious that they hoped to be far away before the Portslade murder investigation got fully under way.
      It took a week for Scotland Yard detectives to carry out an “intensive inquiry” into the Portslade murder while, simultaneously, the two defendants in the overcoat theft and “loitering with intent” cases appeared before Worthing magistrates. On that Thursday, November 23, there were unexpectedly dramatic scenes in Worthing court precincts that would still be recalled many years later.
     Surprisingly for defendants on relatively minor charges, each man arrived in the courtroom guarded by two policemen and handcuffed.
     It also seemed odd when Worthing police superintendent Bristow asked that “in view of an identification parade earlier that morning”, he would ask for permission to withdraw the theft charge faced by defendant Parker.
      The chairman of the magistrates told the prisoner that he was discharged, subject to the approval of the public prosecutor. The clerk then read out the joint charge of loitering, to which Parker pleaded guilty and Probert not guilty.
     Each man was sentenced to one day’s imprisonment. They were then hurried to a room beneath the court, where to their surprise they were promptly re-arrested and told they were to be charged with the capital crime of murder.
     In less than ten days – and largely because the two men spotted by Sgt Bernard had been held in custody – Scotland Yard and Sussex detectives had gathered enough evidence to incontrovertibly link the two “loiterers with intent” at Worthing with the murder in Portslade.
     Both men were taken by car to Portslade police station where the doors were locked and the blinds drawn while they were being charged inside.
     A short time later, the same car was speeding off again, this time to Hove county police court, where the murder case was opened. But the drama was far from over.
     During the first day of the hearing, one of the accused, Frederick Parker, collapsed four times in the dock and had to be revived with brandy.
     Committed to Lewes Assizes, the two accused eventually heard the case against them heard in full on March 17, 1934. From the outset, they desperately tried to save themselves by incriminating the other.
     Parker said he had seen his companion Probert trying to wash bloodstains off his trousers with water in the St Ann’s Tearooms in High Street, Worthing.
     Probert denied ever going to the Portslade shop of the 80-year-old recluse on the day he was murdered and said he did not see Parker all that day.
     Parker then admitted holding up Mr Bedford with an unloaded revolver but insisted it was Probert who had attacked the old man and banged his head on the floor.
     Prosecuting KC, Sir Henry Curtis-Bennett, said somebody had mercilessly battered Mr Bedford and that his skull, cheekbones and upper jaw were all fractured.
     Inspector Lewis, of Worthing, told the jury that in his initial statement Parker admitted: “We knocked an old man about in a shop at Portslade. I held up the old chap and another man knocked him out.
     “We got £6 from the till and have both since bought new clothes from a shop at Worthing.”
     Sir Henry emphasised that in law: “If one person holds a man up, then he is just as much guilty of murder as the man striking the blow.”
     In the final analysis, it was one small missing coat button that probably sent the two murderers to the gallows.
     The Worthing tailor who after the attack, sold the two accused men new suits, told the court he had noticed one of them had a button missing from his old coat. Chief Inspector Askew, of Scotland Yard, then revealed that he had found the missing button on the floor of Mr Bedford's Portslade shop.
     During cross-examination, Parker again collapsed and was taken from the court and revived.    
     But the prisoners’ desperate attempts to escape the gallows were to no avail. The jury retired for just 35 minutes before finding both men guilty of the murder of Joseph Bedford and they were sentenced to death.
     An appeal against the sentence was dismissed on April 18, 1934, and both men were duly hanged at Wandsworth Prison on Friday, May 4.
      The Parker and Probert case(s) had one lasting claim to fame. It was believed to have been the last occasion on which a press reporter – W.G. Finch, chief crime reporter of the Press Association, witnessed a hanging.