- Death of a Rose-Grower: Who killed Hilda Murrell? by Graham Smith
Cecil Woolf, 96 pp, £5.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 900821 76 0
Harlech Television interviewed lately a burglar from Shrewsbury who was just out of jail. The burglar was adamant that if the burgling fraternity at Shrewsbury had found out that one of their number had ‘done that old girl in’, they would have been on the phone to the Police straight away – no messing. Shrewsbury burglars do not do things like assaulting defenceless old women. I believed him.
I also believe those lawyers who, when they hear the details of the Hilda Murrell case, shake their heads and say that never in their professional experience have they heard of burglars behaving as Miss Murrell’s ‘burglar’ is supposed to have done. Your ordinary burglar, if disturbed, ups and runs – he does not hang about, putting a body, alive or dead, into its owner’s motor-car, drive that car past the local Divisional Police Headquarters, and then take it over a field in broad daylight. Miss Murrell disappeared on 21 March 1984 – a Wednesday; her body was discovered in a copse the following Saturday. One would therefore assume that it had been there on the Thursday. But when the local landowner, Mr Ian Scott, went around counting his trees with a view to felling on 22 March, he didn’t come across any bodies. Corpses do not turn up in different locations, after rigor mortis has set in, of their own volition.
The events surrounding the ‘brutal and callous murder’ of Hilda Murrell, to use the words of Chief Detective Superintendent David Cole, are complex. So complex that, I am told, the Police have taken some forty thousand or more records, of which over fourteen thousand have been computerised. The death of the 78-year-old Shrewsbury rose-grower is, I understand, the subject of the largest contemporary police operation, apart from the one set up in the wake of the Brighton bombing. This 96-page book, by Graham Smith, tackles the mystery in an unusual and imaginative way. We have ‘Hilda’s Tale’: the background of her life until she sold her garden to Percy Thrower. There follows the ‘Detective’s Tale’: a factual account of the original police investigations. The ‘Doctor’s Tale’ outlines the findings of the young – by Home Office pathologist standards – Dr Peter Acland, whose expert testimony (subsequently challenged by a more experienced Welsh pathologist) was somewhat undermined by an astonishing letter to the Times, in which he said: ‘I do not know who killed Miss Murrell, but I have the strong suspicion that some twopenny halfpenny thief is gloating over a pint of beer in a pub not many miles from Shrewsbury about all this media interest.’ Acland’s unsubstantiated assertion is thrown into disarray by the ‘Reporter’s Tale’, which chronicles the work done by three investigative reporters, Stuart Prebble of World in Action, and John Osmond and David Williams of Harlech Television. Along with a police reconstruction on the BBC’s Crime-watch, they have ensured that literally millions of people are familiar with the basic circumstances of the crime. There was a moment when every amateur detective in the country seemed to be coming forward with theories.
The chapter on the ‘Sizewell Connection’ deals with Miss Murrell’s nephew, Commander Robert Green, and his suspicion that his aunt was murdered by interests connected with the pro-nuclear lobby. I just do not believe that the Atomic Energy Authority, or Con Allday and British Nuclear Fuels, or the men around Sir Walter Marshall in the CEGB, would have taken time off to authorise private detective agencies to rummage round the house of a 78-year-old former rose-grower who had written an elegant, though unoriginal paper on the arcane problems of nuclear waste disposal and reactor choice. So we come to the ‘Belgrano Connection’, about which I wrote in the London Review of Books last month (Vol. 7, No 6). I am so glad that Graham Smith then proceeded to ‘A Politician’s Tale’, and that the politician was neither myself nor one of my colleagues in the Parliamentary Labour Party, but Paddy Ashdown, Liberal MP for Yeovil. Mr Ashdown can claim the benefit of a rich experience both in the Royal Marines and as an Intelligence Officer. Like Clive Soley, Labour Spokesman on Home Affairs, who took part in the 4 a.m. debate on 19 December last year which rekindled interest in the Murrell affair. Ashdown has a serious interest in the matter. Political concern about the fate of Hilda Murrell, it should be said, is widespread, and by no means confined to a few of us.
The Police point of view is clearly and fairly set out in ‘A Chief Constable’s Tale’. Robert Couzens, the Chief Constable concerned, formerly of the West Mercia Police Force, has now gone on to a senior job in the Home Office, connected with research. ‘A Nephew’s Tale’ gives Commander Green’s own version of events, and his doubts. In ‘End of the Tale’ Smith reflects on why the murder hunt must go on, after which he raises the deep and vexed issue of government surveillance. The reason so many people believe that Hilda Murrell might have been killed by a person or persons connected with British Intelligence is that they know that such an act is all too possible in this day and age. Speaking as a former Home Secretary, Merlyn Rees admitted during the Commons debate on telephone tapping that no Home Secretary could be completely sure that he would know everything he ought to know about the operations of the Security Services. What is clear is that there are sections of the Security Services which report directly, and exclusively, to Number 10.
Hilda Murrell would seem to have been an unlikely candidate for surveillance.
Murrell’s flowers were highly sought, even by the Royal gardeners at Buckingham Palace, Hilda Murrell specialised in old rose species and miniature roses and travelled Europe, building up a vast network of friends. She won scores of prizes at local and national flower shows. Her name will be remembered in the rose called Hilda Murrell. Mr David Austin, a leading rose grower, said: ‘It is of the purest shining pink, and its flowers are very nearly perfect.’
Even if she had views which were not those of the Establishment, why should she be surveilled, as I am convinced she was? For example, Hilda Murrell was invited out to lunch on 21 March, the day she was murdered. The Police have maintained that the friends in question (whose name I know but who shun publicity) invited her in person. Smith records that she was invited by telephone. I know from other sources, including Hilda Murrell’s diary, that the invitation to lunch came by telephone on 17 or 18 March. Understandably, it would be thought by anyone with access to the results of phone-tapping that Hilda Murrell would be out of the way on that fateful Wednesday lunchtime. If Smith’s book were an ordinary detective novel, there would then have been a last chapter in which we would all discover the answer, with the red-herrings eliminated. But this isn’t a novel. It is for real, and involves the possible use of murder on the part of the state.
We know that Hilda Murrell returned unexpectedly to her home and, according to the Police, disturbed an intruder. It seems to many of us more likely that she did not know the intruder was in the house until he attacked her. Why else would the struggle have taken place upstairs? Would Miss Murrell not have noticed that her belongings had been disturbed on entering her home? Yet Detective Chief Superintendent Cole told the inquest that Miss Murrell had gone upstairs to get changed. One possible explanation is that Miss Murrell’s house was not searched until after she had been abducted. This, says Smith, would cover the baffling fact that Hilda Murrell’s gardener and her neighbour, Brian George, noticed the signs of a burglary as soon as they went inside the house on the Saturday morning. I myself saw Brian George, at the House of Commons, over a period of hours, and am as sure as any man can be that he is entirely open and honest. As long as he and his friends are so uncomfortable about their neighbour’s decease there is a reason for going on trying to get at the truth.
All of us must hope that the Northumbria Police, called in to assist by West Mercia and headed by Assistant Chief Constable Peter Smith, will be successful in their investigations. Smith interviewed me in Newcastle for over two and a half hours, and naturally asked if I was prepared to reveal the source from which I learned that British Intelligence was involved. On this, I refused to oblige him, saying that I would go back to source, and ask source if he was prepared to help the Police in any way he could. I do not know whether he has done so, and if he has done so, in what way he has chosen to act. What I cannot do, for my part, is to reveal sources known to me against their most categoric will, and ever expect to receive information again. I can’t, however, pretend that an MP is a satisfactory vehicle for information in such circumstances. With the best will in the world, a mole cannot be certain that information given to the Police in such a sensitive case will be kept from officials and thus from ministers. What is important is that the Government implement the recommendation made by the Parliamentary Liaison Committee of Select Committees – the Great and the Good in the House of Commons – that there be a Select Committee on Intelligence, to which members of the Security Services, the Civil Service and the Armed Forces would give evidence.