Murder of a cinema manager

By Gerald Hinks

The date: July 1941. If the war was beginning to go our way, the glad tidings were hardly reflected in the morose newspaper stories. Chatham’s eloquent MP, Captain Plugge, was remonstrating with the government over feeble broadcasting propaganda compared with Germany.

And the Chatham News thundered in support: “Hitler has achieved considerable success in the way of bloodless conquest by his insidious and far-reaching propaganda machine where we have been terribly laconic, unimaginative and feeble in our counter efforts.” No piddling parish pump problems for local leader writers in those days.

At Chatham Police Court three people were fined for permitting light to show from windows during the blackout. And a sailor in court was said to have been shot at by a sentry at the Naval Hospital and detained by a Home Guard patrol at Shorne. His crime: stealing a bicycle.

But all was not gloom that summer. The Ministry of Agriculture announced that the opening of the grouse shooting season had been advanced from 12 August to 1 August. Chatham’s Royal Hippodrome promised a brilliant cast in the exciting show Legs, Lace and Laughter with Billy Russell and Maudie Edwards topping the bill.

And the Medway Towns’ nine cinemas offered a variety of light relief. Angels Over Broadway with Douglas Fairbanks Jr and a young Rita Hayworth was showing at the Plaza, Gillingham; Magic in Music, with Susana Foster and Allan Jones, was packing them in at the Palace and National cinemas in Chatham while at the Grand in Gillingham was The Philadelphia Story with Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart.

But it was a cinema in Dover – the Plaza – which caught the local imagination. For on the afternoon of 4 July, the cinema’s manager, a Gillingham man, was found savagely murdered.

Richard Roberts, battered with a fireman's axe

Fifty-year-old Richard Roberts, whose home was in Second Avenue, had been killed the previous night by three blows on the forehead with a fireman’s axe which was found nearby. The office safe had been opened and £30 was missing. On the face of it Mr Roberts, who was previously assistant manager of a Chatham cinema, had been killed because he had the key of the safe in his pocket.

But the case did not seem that straightforward. If the motive was merely robbery why was £20 of the cinema’s takings left untouched in the safe? Police considered whether the theft concealed another motive: perhaps one of grievance against the manager.

Scotland Yard detectives, who were called in assist the investigation, also made another intriguing discovery. It appeared that Mr Roberts had been murdered in his own office and then the body carried to the basement of the cinema.

There were two obvious conclusions. The killer must have been a man of great strength. And he must have known his way about the darkened cinema. Mr Roberts was thought to have been killed between 10.30 and midnight. The murderer could have gone into the cinema during the performance and then when the show was over hidden until Mr Roberts was alone.

But it would not have been difficult for anyone to have got into the cinema after the performance. Several doors were kept open during the night for fire-watchers. Sir Bernard Spilsbury, the eminent Home Office pathologist, gave evidence when the inquest opened the next week. But the police were no nearer to finding the killer.

It was more than a fortnight after the murder that some bloodstained £1 and 10 shilling notes were traced to Leslie Hammond, an 18-year-old operator at the cinema who lived in Dover. Hammond first made a statement denying the offence. But in a second statement he admitted killing Mr Roberts in his office and shifting his body to the basement.

At the Old Bailey trial this confession was challenged by Hammond’s barrister, Mr BH Waddy. He claimed it was not admissible as it had been obtained under duress. The jury left the court. And Mr GB McClure, the prosecuting barrister, cross-examined Hammond, who was in the witness box. With just three words, the answer to just three questions, the trial was virtually settled.

“What was written in the second statement was true?” asked Mr McClure. “Yes,” replied Hammond. “And you say you were forced into saying what was true by something that was done?” “Yes,” replied Hammond.

“So you killed Mr Roberts?” “Yes,” replied Hammond again.

Hammond stood convicted by his own words. When the jury came back, Mr Waddy said the defence would not call any further evidence and he asked for an insanity verdict. But Hammond had really demolished his own defence and the jury only needed 40 minutes to find him guilty. Sentencing him to death, Mr Justice Cassels said: “You have been rightly found guilty of a very wicked and cruel crime.”

And certainly there was no doubt of Hammond’s guilt. But was the motive merely robbery? In court Hammond had not shown even the superficial cunning of a thief or an instinct for self-preservation. Could there have been another reason for the killing?

We must only wonder for this question was left unanswered at the trial. Hammond did escape the gallows, however. He was reprieved the day before the date set aside for the hanging. His father, a member of Dover Auxiliary Fire Service, had organised a petition on his behalf.

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