By Gerald Hinks
Mrs Ellen Symes regularly visited her parents in Dickens Terrace, Wainscott, on Wednesday and Friday.
A habit, it would seem, of little consequence outside the family circle. But it was a habit that had been noted by a potential killer. On the night of Friday, 9 October, 1943, Mrs Symes left Dickens Terrace about 9.15 for the journey back to her home in Brompton Farm Road, Strood.
She was wheeling her three-year-old son Robin in a pushchair. Part of the way she was accompanied by her parents. They left her at Wainscott Working Men’s Club. They were not to see their 34-year-old daughter alive again.
A killer struck in the darkness of Brompton Farm Road, less than a quarter of a mile from Mrs Symes’s home. He stabbed her brutally in the throat. She staggered screaming across the road pushing the child’s chair in front of her and collapsed unconscious in the gateway of a house. Within a few minutes Mrs Symes was dead. The vicious murder, apparently without motive, caused more alarm in the Medway towns than any Nazi air raids.
The Chatham Standard reported that after nightfall windows were securely fastened and doors only opened warily to casual callers. Women did not venture out in the darkness alone. The police had one clue: A yellow-handled table knife found in a front garden about 100 yards from the murder scene.
A picture of the knife was published in the newspapers. And the area was combed for some trace of its owner. A massive police investigation involved questioning hundreds of soldiers in an effort to pinpoint a man in uniform whose clothes might be bloodstained. But all this time the killer was in custody. Early on the morning after the murder police had arrested an Army absentee: 28-year-old Gunner Reginald Sidney Buckfield, who was known as “smiler” because of the perpetual grin he wore on his face like an identification mark.
Buckfield was known to have been near Brompton Farm Road at the time of the murder. And he freely admitted being questioned by police earlier that year about murders in London and Southport. Buckfield was cleared in these investigations. And despite diligent questioning there was no real evidence to link him with the murder of Ellen Symes.
Buckfield was certainly an undesirable character, but he did not seem to be a homicidal maniac. He had a wife and three children in Mansfield, Notts. And he said he had deserted from his unit because he was worried that an affair with an ATS girl would come out in the open.
The police were satisfied any way. Three days later they handed him over to the military authorities. And there is little doubt that the Brompton Farm Road murder would have remained unsolved except for Buckfield’s vanity or sheer stupidity.
While kept in a police cell, Buckfield had written two murder stories. And before leaving he brazenly handed over to a detective his 13 sheets of manuscript. He might just as well have handed over a confession to murder. The stories were called The Mystery of Brompton Road and The Mystery of the Brompton Road Murder. Buckfield’s literary efforts hardly ranked with Hemingway, but they were clearly the work of a man who had the most detailed knowledge of Mrs Symes’s movements.
They showed he knew that Mrs Symes’s husband was a night worker; that she had a child; that she visited her parents and took her child with her; that her parents used to see her to the bottom of the road and she made the rest of the journey home alone; and that she used to reach home between 9.30 and 10.
It was information Buckfield could not have picked up accidentally. By his own admission he had not read any newspaper reports of the murder. And while detained by police he had not been told who the murdered woman was, the time she was murdered, or any of the circumstances surrounding the murder.
Nevertheless, it was nearly a month later, on 7 November, that Buckfield was taken out of military custody and charged with murder. By this time police had evidence that Buckfield once owned a knife similar to the one thought to have been used in the killing.
But generally the evidence against him was circumstantial — apart from the remarkable stories he had written. And those stories were the centrepiece of the five-day trial at the Old Bailey in January, 1943. Leading the prosecution was Mr LA Byrne, then Recorder of Rochester. And in his opening he asked the inevitable question: “If this man did not commit the murder, how is it that he is able, while detained in custody, to write a long narrative showing that he has an intimate knowledge of the habits and details of the murdered woman?”
Copies of the stories were distributed to the jury and were read out by the judge, Mr Justice Hallett, and the clerk of the court. It took one and a half hours to read them.
Among the characters of the first story was an Army absentee named Smiler, and a man named Bert, his wife and daughter. One sentence read: “Smiler was a happy-go-lucky, full of life and laughter, but he turned out to be a true Bluebeard. He was no sort of man a girl would go crazy for.”
The larger part of the story was set in a pub and there were conversations between the characters. The story was divided up into chapters, the second being entitled Beer Talks and the third The Mystery of Miss X. Dillywood Lane was also mentioned — “Dillywood Lane will be your downfall.”
Chapter four was headed: “A Weekend at Strood; chapter five “A message from Miss X down at Cliffe” and the final chapter: “My last week of freedom”.
Gunner X and an ATS girl were the chief characters in the second story which appeared to describe a police investigation of a murdered ATS girl found with a knife in her back. Two chapters were Down at the Morgue and Letter from a Corpse. The concluding words of the story read: “That is all fiction, that is how I thought the murder might have been committed. I have written stories before now.”
Buckfield told his counsel, Mr Hector Hughes, KC, that he wrote the stories because he had little else to do in the police cells except look at four walls. Then came the prosecution’s cross-examination. Mr Byrne asked: “Did you know where the murder had been committed; that it was in Brompton Farm Road?”
Buckfield replied: “No sir.” Mr Byrne: “If that is so, can you tell me why you headed the first narrative Mystery of Brompton Road?” Buckfield: “Well it seemed a mystery to me, being brought in and questioned about something I couldn’t get any light on.”
Mr Byrne persisted: “But why choose the name Brompton Road for the title?” Astonishingly Buckfield replied: “Well, I was thinking of the Brompton Road in London.” Mr Byrne asked: “You mean to imply then that it was mere coincidence that you used the name Brompton?” “I do,” answered Buckfield.
The judge commented: “Well, it was certainly a very disastrous coincidence, was it not, that out of all the hundreds of thousands of roads in London you should have selected one with the name of the road where it happened? It seems rather strange doesn’t it?”
“Well, it does seem that way, my lord,” was all Buckfield could reply. Mr Byrne pointed out that Buckfield had specifically mentioned Strood in the story and that the character Bert was a married man doing night work around Strood or Rochester.
“Now what would a man living in Brompton Road, London, be doing on night work around Strood or Rochester?” asked counsel. Buckfield replied: “Plenty of people come down from town to the factory at Shorts.”
Buckfield was in the witness stand for almost one day. He was the only witness called for the defence. The jury took exactly an hour to find him guilty of murder. Buckfield had nothing to say. Assuming the black cap, the judge told him: “The jury upon most ample evidence have found you guilty of a singularly cruel crime. No doubt, as is usual an investigation will be made by the proper authorities as to whether there is any medical explanation of your act.
“In the meantime, it is my duty to pass on you the only sentence known to the law for such an offence — that you be taken from this place to a lawful prison and then to a place of execution and there be hanged by your neck until you are dead and your body should be buried afterwards within the precincts of the prison. And may the Lord have mercy on your soul.”
Those chilling words that had so often concluded dramatic murder trials at the Old Bailey. But Buckfield looked unperturbed. As he left the dock with three warders, he turned round and smiled. Buckfield duly appealed. But it was dismissed by three judges, headed by the Lord Chief Justice, Viscount Caldecote, who spoke of damning evidence.
Throughout the proceedings Buckfield sat unmoved, his face still retaining a fixed smiling expression. And in March came the news that Smiler was to escape the gallows. A medical inquiry, held on the direction of the Home Secretary, Mr Herbert Morrison, certified him and he was ordered to be detained in Broadmoor criminal lunatic asylum.