By David Nicholls
Nothing ever happened to disturb the quiet, tranquil air of retirement that hung round the bungalows in Cambridge Road, Wigmore. Nothing, that is, until that day of horror in 1965 when a brutal killer turned into the road. It was a Saturday evening in April, just a week before Easter.
Everything was normal. At her bungalow in Cambridge Road, 77-year-old widow Florence Lewis was getting ready for bed. She had decided to have a warm drink as a nightcap and had just put a saucepan on the stove.
Just at that moment someone knocked at her front door … someone who was to make sure that life in Cambridge Road was never the same again.
Although callers were welcome at her bungalow — Mrs Lewis was known as the “friendly widow’”— she usually asked who was at her door before opening it. Perhaps she knew who was knocking at her door that evening … perhaps not.
But whoever the caller was, Mrs Lewis made a fatal mistake. She opened the door and the caller was invited in or pushed his way past the frail old lady. As the door shut behind him Mrs Lewis did not have long to live.
Exactly what went on in the bungalow that night, as Mrs Lewis faced a man who would stop at nothing to get what he wanted, must remain a mystery. Exactly what the man wanted is also a mystery … but like many elderly women who live alone, Florence Lewis was rumoured to have money.
The last few moments of the widow’s life were horrifying. Thwarted in his mysterious designs, a vicious intruder went berserk. He rained blow after blow on the widow’s head and then, covered in blood and carrying the murder weapon, he let himself out into the still night air of Cambridge Road.
Inside the bungalow helpless and badly injured by 14 vicious blows, Florence Lewis lay dying. Nobody knew she needed he.1p and when she was found on Monday lunchtime she was lying in an armchair in a pool of blood … dead.
During that weekend the brutal killer kept secret the gruesome happenings in Cambridge Road. And during those hours before the crime was discovered he made good his escape. He left no trail and precious few clues.
Detective Chief Superintendent Arthur Hall, who led the murder squad, said after Mrs Lewis’s battered body had been found: “This looks like a sticky one. It could take us weeks, or it could break just like that.” It didn’t break, .or take weeks. It is now more than 30 years since Mrs Lewis met her killer and the killer is still free. The police failed to discover his identity.
But someone may share the killer’s secret. Police probing the crime believed that he must have been noticeably bloodstained from the attack. Someone must have known a person, a friend, lodger or one of the family, who came home with those clothes.
And even if the killer got rid of the clothes detectives believed that someone would have noticed a friend or relative behaving strangely that weekend. Laundries throughout the Medway Towns were checked immediately. Result: a blank. The murder weapon has never been found, either.
Detectives and forensic experts believe it was probably a round-headed hammer or heavy poker. Every garden in Cambridge Road was combed to find the weapon and nearby woods were also searched. Result: a blank. From the moment that the insurance agent Roy Bishop found Mrs Lewis’s body the police investigation has been drawing blanks.
Home Office pathologists who rushed to the scene of the crime spent an afternoon and evening reconstructing the murder. But it did not lead to the killer. Clues which might have exposed the killer were few and far between. More than 7,000 people in Wigmore and Rainham were interviewed and a host of conflicting reports sifted.
During the week after the killing, two people said they had seen a man and a woman separately calling at the house about 8.30pm. A small grey van was seen leaving the area. And pathologists believed Mrs Lewis died at about 8.30, although they were not certain.
But three people added confusing reports to the pile. They told the murder squad: “We saw Mrs Lewis on Sunday.” One of them claimed to have seen Mrs Lewis being driven in a car on the Sunday afternoon. The reports conflicted with medical theories about the time of her death: more mysteries to baffle police.
Mrs Lewis was buried 18 days after her death. The relatives, fearing crowds, brought the funeral forward an hour. One or two policemen were at the graveside. But an hour later, when the funeral should have been taking place, a squad of detectives swooped on Gillingham cemetery and checked everyone entering and leaving. If the murderer intended to pay his last respects to his victim by attending the funeral, the police failed to spot him. They went back to interviewing residents and friends of the widow.
Twenty-six days after Mrs Lewis’s death, and the trail was getting colder. All the 40-man murder squad could do was retrace its footsteps in the hope that it might jog the memories of the scores of neighbours who knew the friendly widow.
Chief Supt Hall was still convinced that someone other than the killer knew what happened on that evening. Chief Inspector Jesse Mitchinson, one of the murder squad, went on Southern Television to appeal for anyone who could help to contact the police at Rainham.
Broadcasts were made on the television programme Police Five. Information flooded in from people all over the country who had been in Rainham that fateful weekend. But none of it led to the killer.
Today the police file on the killing of Mrs Lewis is still open.
Northeast Kent Coroner WJ Harris summed it all up when he suggested to an inquest jury in June 1965, that on the evidence before them the only verdict they could return was one of murder by a person or persons unknown. Who killed Florence Lewis? What motive did he have?
All these years later, only one person can answer those questions: the killer, if he’s still alive.