By Diane Nicholls
The atmosphere suddenly became tense as the police car passed the slow-moving funeral cortege on a cold winter afternoon.
One man was on his way to his last resting place and two teenaged boys were going to Maidstone to stand trial for killing him. The dead man was Edward Adams – a 53-year-old warder at Rochester’s Borstal Institution. He was known as a kind man and an efficient officer. In the car under police escort were two of Adams’s charges. One boy was to be acquitted of murder, but the other was to hear the door of the condemned cell slam behind him.
The grim meeting of the killer and the corpse took place on the Rochester-Maidstone Road on a freezing January day in 1920.
It happened five days after Frederick James Cullender had bludgeoned Adams, snatched his keys and escaped, leaving the warder lying in a pool of blood. In a way, Adams was killed because of his own kindness. He must have felt sorry for the boy who had been put in a separate cell at Borstal to await trial by the visiting committee. The lad, who was known by his alias Smith, had a bad record.
He had been convicted of larceny and shopbreaking the previous June and sent to Borstal because of a long list of previous convictions. Institution life had done nothing to improve his conduct and during his time there he had had several punishments, including a birching.
At the time of the murder he was awaiting trial for smashing Institution property. Adams could not have known that the boy had spent three days plotting his escape down to the last detail. When Smith began to create an ear-splitting din in his cell Adams allowed him outside into the corridor to help with the cleaning.
The time was 7pm on Friday, 2 January, and Smith’s plans were going according to schedule. For he knew that he had plenty of time before a more senior warder’s hourly check. And he was also sure that the alarm bell had been tampered with so it would not work if anything went wrong.
He crept up behind Adams as he sat at his desk writing his reports and smashed a hard wooden scrubbing brush down on the back of his head. The warder’s hat failed to cushion the blow and Adams slumped to the floor. Smith went through his pockets for his keys, grabbed a long-handled sweeping brush and ran into the darkness.
He opened the door to the yard, scaled the wall with the help of the broom and fled across country. His escape route took him through Borstal village to Wouldham and then off to Burham, keeping close to the river.
Police throughout the county and London were alerted at 7.30pm, but two Snodland officers, acting on a hunch, finally cornered Smith, huddled in a cart-shed, at midnight. The two men guessed that Smith had crossed the river by the ferry at Snodland and found their quarry at Burham Court Farm near the old church.
Smith’s plea was the cry of the hunted: “For God’s sake, let me go.” But the burly arm of the law stopped his dash for freedom and he went quietly into custody at Malling police station. He appeared in court at Rochester Guildhall the following Tuesday. With him in the dock was his fellow inmate, 17-year-old William Ernest Scutt, who had been arrested at Borstal earlier that morning. The two were remanded in custody and were being taken to Maidstone jail when they met the funeral procession coming towards them on its journey from Borstal to St Margaret’s Cemetery.
Warder Adams – a former sailor – had been a popular and respected man as the crowds at his funeral testified. The coffin, covered in a Union Jack, was borne on a gun carriage. A firing party and sailors from HMS Pembroke headed the procession and 70 prison warders followed.
At the inquest, Adams’s body was identified by his only son Barry, a civil servant, who lived at his parents’ home in Avenue Terrace, Borstal. The governor said that Adams, with 13 years’ experience of being a warder, had acted in a highly injudicious manner in allowing Smith out of his cell.
But he had not broken any rules – he had merely acted with indiscretion. The inquest began at 2.30 in the afternoon in the bitterly cold gymnasium at the institution. Seven hours later the coroner wrote down the last words of evidence by candlelight and the jury retired for 22 minutes. The verdict was wilful murder against Smith and the jury asked for its criticism over the lack of regulations governing Borstal discipline to be passed on to the Home Office.
The trial, before Mr Justice Avory, at Kent Assizes, got off to a bad start. The hearing had already begun when Scutt’s counsel arrived late and asked for a separate trial for his client. After taking advice from prosecuting counsel Mr Justice Avory turned down the request.
Both defendants looked pale as the hearing continued in the crowded courtroom. Smith’s reddish beard had grown – and Scutt badly needed a shave. The prosecution took the line that Scutt, who was first on the scene when Smith escaped, could not be innocent or he would have given the alarm. Two kits of civilian clothing had been stolen from a storeroom at the institution and a bundle of Scutt’s personal belongings had been found in Smith’s cell. Smith had claimed that he planned the escape with Scutt, but the other boy strenuously denied this.
It looked probable that Smith had conspired with someone but the prosecution were unable to prove that Scutt was involved. The jury retired at 5.15pm and returned to the crowded courtroom just nine minutes later. The unanimous verdict was that Smith was guilty of murder. Scutt was acquitted. Mr Justice Avory asked Smith if he had anything to say in mitigation. But the question was wasted for the boy had turned in the dock to watch his companion being released and he remained silent.
According to tradition, Mr Justice Avory put on the black cap.
His lordship said Smith had acted recklessly and had only been concerned about his own escape. The thought that he might have killed the warder had not troubled him. Smith remained impassive as he listened to the words of the death sentence and said nothing as he was led from the court. The execution was fixed for Tuesday, 9 March, but was postponed when Smith appealed against his sentence. The hearing appeal was refused on 8 March.
It seemed as if the only way out of the condemned cell was by the hangman’s noose. But news came the following Saturday, 13 March, that Smith had been granted a reprieve. The Home Secretary notified Smith’s mother, who lived in Bermondsey, that the death sentence was to be commuted to life imprisonment.
Throughout all the hearings Smith had maintained that he had not intended to kill. He either did not fully understand all the proceedings or he was able to remain self-composed.
His only statement was made at Rochester Police Station shortly after his arrest when he claimed that he and Scutt had planned to knock Adams out, get his keys and two sets of civilian clothing and escape over the wall. But the boy was branded as a vicious killer who deliberately murdered the man who had been kind to him.
Conditions at Borstal were fairly harsh in those days and many boys tried to abscond. The institution was built in 1902 by convicts working at Chatham Dockyard and the stone buildings provided little comfort during winter temperatures.
It is easy to guess the thoughts going through the mind of a young inmate in that cold institution who had been birched once and now probably faced a harder punishment.
Only one man will ever know for certain whether the boy intended to kill: Frederick James Cullender alias Smith.