By Diane Nicholls
Edna could be seen almost every night – a frail little woman teetering on high heels as she went the rounds of the pubs in Chatham High Street.
If she was lucky a sailor would buy her a drink and a packet of cigarettes and offer to walk her home. But Edna’s luck was beginning to run out. At the age of 53 the life she had led since a girl had etched its story on her face. And she wasn’t as pretty and popular as she used to be. Then one night Lady Luck finally deserted her. Edna’s half-naked body was found lying among brambles and scrub on wasteland at James Street, Chatham. She had been the victim of a sex fiend who had brutally battered and strangled her.
But the discovery of the murder did not attract a lot of interest. For the date was 30 November, 1951, and in the same week 23 boy cadets had died when a bus ploughed into them at Dock Road, Chatham. It took the town a long time to recover from the tragedy and little attention was paid to the sordid drama of Edna’s death.
Besides, the Medway towns were earning a reputation for violence. The killing of Edna Chesterton was the third murder in the area in 10 months. It followed the stabbing of a Gillingham mayor by his stepson and the Siege of Symons Avenue in which a policeman and his killer were both gunned down.
Police were able to close the files on those two tragedies. They were to find the third case so far impossible to solve.
The discovery of bloodstained clothes began a trail which led to the body of Mrs Chesterton, just 200 yards away from her cottage at The Mount. Immediately, senior detectives went into action in the hunt for the killer. But there were few clues and police were unable to uncover any motive for the crime.
A police dog failed to pick up a scent in the area where the body was found. And a team of plainclothes detectives checking barracks, hostels, lodging houses and pubs could not turn up a lead.
During their investigation, the police sifted through more than 2,000 statements – but were unable to throw light on the mystery. At the inquest, the jury decided Edna had been “murdered by person or persons unknown” and no evidence has since been discovered to change that verdict.
The detectives were handicapped in their search by the fact that most of Mrs Chesterton’s associates were sailors who could have been posted abroad or somewhere else in the country after the murder. All the police had to go on was the state of the body and statements from people who had been in the area around midnight – the time of the murder.
They were able to establish that Edna Chesterton, sometimes known as Edna Faulkner or by her unmarried name of Edna Kingsnorth, had been drinking with a man in the Stag and Hounds earlier that evening. “Edna Kingsnorth was a frequent visitor here,” said landlady Mrs Goddard. “She came in with a man and they seemed quite happy until she left at 10.30.”
Half an hour later “Old Edna”, as she was known to the sailors, was seen alone in the High Street between Clover Street and the White Lion pub. Then at 11.20pm, two sailors were seen standing with a woman in the gateway at the back of Navy House where Edna was later attacked.
Forensic experts calculated the murder had taken place at midnight and police reconstructed the crime from bloodstains and marks on the road and on the body. Blood splashes in the gateway and on the door suggested Edna had been attacked there and then dragged across the road to the wasteland opposite where she was sexually assaulted and strangled.
The next morning 20-year-old Michael Terenzy was on his way to work at Chatham Dockyard from his home in New Road. He spotted a brown felt hat, fox fur stole, and black handbag Iying in the road at James Street and handed them in at the police station as lost property.
A sharp-eyed desk sergeant noticed the clothes were bloodstained and asked Terenzy to show him exactly where he had found them.
The body was naked except for shoes and stockings and a pink slip covering the face. Clothes and a man-sized handkerchief were found nearby and a fragment of tooth, recently broken off, was also found. A dirt impression like the heel of a man’s boot was on the chest and the woman’s face had been brutally beaten.
A Home Office pathologist told the county coroner Mr WJ Harris at the inquest that Edna had been strangled with great force by a right hand from the front.
Edna had fought for her life and had probably clawed at her assailant but the grip on her neck had been too strong. The doctor considered she had been hit in the mouth in the gateway and then either fell or was thrown to the ground hitting the back of her head. She was still alive but probably unconscious when she was dragged to the wasteland and was then sexually assaulted and strangled.
By the time the body was found, the killer had had seven hours to get away. The police questioned sailors who slept at Navy House that night and other naval men who were ashore in Chatham during the evening.
They also spoke to people living in the James Street area, but nobody reported hearing or seeing anything suspicious – except old age pensioner Henry Obee who thought he heard the footsteps of someone running past his home at Best Street at about 1.30am. “The footsteps were light as if the person was wearing rubber soles on their shoes. They certainly sounded as if they were in a hurry,” he said.
Could Mr Obee have heard the footsteps of a murderer? Or was it coincidence? The discrepancy in time made the clue appear to be a red herring and the police were unable to trace the running man. They were obviously hunting for a very strong man who could kill with the grip of one hand. And they believed Edna knew her killer.
During the day after the discovery of Edna’s body, three men went to Chatham police station but were allowed to go after providing satisfactory alibis. One of them was the man who had been drinking with her at the Stag and Hounds. Her estranged husband, James, was one of the first to be put in the clear. He had been in All Saints’ Hospital for 14 months and was still on friendly terms with his wife although the couple had lived apart for the last six years of their 17-year-old marriage.
Edna knew many men, but she seemed to have few friends. She lived alone and her only companion was her ginger cat. Her personal possessions revealed no clue as to why anyone should want to kill her. The contents of her handbag were a torch, half-empty packet of cigarettes, box of matches, mirror, key with ring and a small purse with four half-crowns and some coppers. There were no letters or a diary to help detectives.
Every lodging house and hostel was checked to see if anyone had come home late at night with signs of bloodstains or scratches or in an agitated state. Inquiries were also made at the site of the oil refinery project at Grain, but each line of investigation drew a blank. Over the years the memory of the killing has grown dim and the murder file has been gathering dust in the archives at Rochester police station.
But someone who shielded a killer may have lived in fear for the past half-century and a man with a murder on his conscience just might still be at large.