By Frank Dunkley
“I’m sorry,” he murmured in a voice that was scarcely audible, “to have to put you to all this trouble.” An hour later the speaker, Alderman George Moreton Pinfold, Mayor of Gillingham, was dead – from stab wounds.
But before he died he told court officials who had hurriedly assembled round his bedside in St Bartholomew’s Hospital, Rochester, of the tragedy that began early that morning when he had called his stepson to get up and get ready for work.
It was February, 1951, and seldom has a court sat in such dramatic circumstances. Seldom, if ever, has evidence been taken in the almost certain knowledge of everyone present that the witness had, perhaps, only minutes to live.
Screens were placed discreetly round the bed. A surgeon held Alderman Pinfold’s arm to check his pulse. And then, after summoning up just about enough strength to hold a copy of the New Testament in his right hand, he took the oath.
Chatham magistrate Cllr Stanley Price leaned forward intently to catch his whispered words. So, too, did solicitor Mr John Williams who had been hastily called to represent the accused man – Kenneth Windibank, the mayor’s stepson, who lived with him at Darland Avenue, Gillingham, and who now stood charged with his attempted murder.
As the 63-year-old dying mayor spoke, a doctor leaned forward to continually moisten his lips. Slowly, agonisingly, he gave his evidence – of how his stepson, who was due to start work in Chatham Dockyard that morning, had refused to get up when called and then burst into his bedroom.
With the last minutes of his life ticking away, Alderman Pinfold gasped: “I was lying in bed … my wife was resting her head on my right arm. He stabbed me in the abdomen. The wounds went deep. I got out of bed and closed with him.. I was handicapped because the wounds he had inflicted were taking their toll on me.
“I managed to get the weapon from him at the top of the stairs. I went to the window and I threw the dagger into the front garden and called out for help…” A detective produced a nine-inch dagger. The mayor nodded when asked if it was the weapon used in the attack, Then, with almost the last of his strength gone, he lay back on the pillows.
Only the formality of remanding Windibank in custody remained. As the court disbanded, Alderman Pinfold murmured his apology to the court officials and police officers and Mrs Pinfold moved to his bedside. She was with him until he died. Thus ended the life of Gillingham’s sailor mayor – a man who was born in the borough and who, after his retirement from the Royal Navy as a chief engine room artificer in 1930, had devoted himself to its service.
At his funeral at St Augustine’s Church, Gillingham, five days later the tributes to him were sincere and abundant. Twelve Kent mayors were there to pay their homage. So, too, were local service chiefs, including the commander-in-chief The Nore, and representatives of all sections of the community. The service was relayed to a large crowd who had assembled outside the church.
“At the end of two years as Gillingham’s first citizen, there was hardly a more loved and respected person in the Medway Towns,” said the Lord Bishop of Rochester, Dr C M Chavasse. “Gillingham mourns its sailor mayor so trusted for his good sense, wisdom and impartiality, the bishop went on: “Do not, I pray you, allow a tragedy which has sent a shock of horror to English homes far beyond the neighbourhood of the Medway towns to obscure the triumphant glory of the passing of one man for whom all the trumpets sounded on the other side.” And he concluded that the mayor died as “one who thought only of others-thanking those who ministered to him, sorry to give them so much trouble”.
Certainly, Alderman Pinfold was a much respected mayor, possibly one of the most popular Gillingham had ever had. His work for the children and the elderly was well-known. A kind man and a wise man; a man with a breezy charm that endeared him to most people he met.
So what terrible chain of events had led to his stepson bursting into his bedroom and plunging a dagger so viciously into his body?
A few people close to his family knew the truth. But not for nearly three weeks, not until Windibank finally appeared before Chatham magistrates to be committed to Kent Assizes for trial, was it possible to reveal publicly that the mayor’s stepson was mentally ill; that he had m fact, been in mental hospitals three times since he was 15. Then, and only then, was it possible to realise the strain under which Alderman Pinfold must have lived. And even then the strain could only be fully realized by those who have had to live with the mentally sick.
And only when a statement made to the. police by Windibank was read in court was the relationship between stepson and stepfather disclosed. “1 have always thought he has been malicious towards me during the six years I have lived with him, Windibank said. “I am entirely dependent upon him for my existence. For the past year his attitude towards me has become worse. I have been out of work for six months and I have been under the doctor for nerves.
“Mr Pinfold intended that I should start work in the dockyard at Chatham today. I have made inquiries and got the job in the dockyard myself, as a labourer in the stores. Mr Pinfold had apparently arranged that I should start at the job this morning, but I did not want to. I wanted to start as I had arranged and that was that I should start with a batch of other men.
“I got the telegram yesterday evening asking that I should start at the dockyard this morning. I knew then that I would be the only one starting this morning as it is not usual for labourers to start on Tuesdays.” And then came the accusation. I knew that Mr. Pinfold had influenced it,” Windibank went on. “He knew I got the telegram. He told me that I would have to start work this morning.
“Mr Pinfold woke me at five this morning and loudly said that if I was not going to work I would have to get out of the house. I told him yesterday that I did not intend going to work this morning as I thought he had influenced my application for tile job. He went back to his own room and shouted remarks such as ‘You worthless –’.”
Thus, according to Windibank, his fit of frenzy was triggered off. “I attacked him because he has been so cruel towards me for such a long time,” his statement concluded. Nobody questioned Windibank’s insanity. At the assizes, after a prison doctor had described him as a chronic schizophrenic, he was found unfit to plead. And the judge ordered that he should be kept in state custody until His Majesty’s pleasure should be known.
Windibank turned smartly from the dock – and to this day disappeared to the outside world. That, for all practical purposes, was the end of the matter. Windibank was shown clearly to be insane and there was little point in asking other questions. Questions like:
- Did Alderman Pinfold use his influence in getting that fatal telegram sent to his stepson?
- Did Alderman Pinfold, who was kind, wise, loved and respected – in the words of the Bishop – find it harder to show those same qualities to his mentally sick stepson within the confines of his own home?
Perhaps, if that telegram had never been sent, the timebomb of resentment that was building up inside Windibank would have exploded on another, later occasion, anyway.
Perhaps, if he was a chronic schizophrenic, as doctors testified, no amount of care and devotion could have staved off Alderman Pinfold’s murder, But perhaps the last words of Alderman Pinfold –“I’m sorry to have put you to all this trouble” – held a greater meaning than was realised at the time; the meaning that the bishop put on them when he said that he was thinking of those who ministered to him.
For perhaps – and it can never be anything more than speculation – perhaps Alderman Pinfold, when he murmured those words, was feeling that possibly he had to shoulder some of the blame for “all this trouble”.