Murder on a Chatham warship

By Diane Nicholls

Horrific dreams haunted Leonard Brigstock until his life erupted into a bloody nightmare.

For years the 33-year-old ship’s stoker’s mind had fed on the macabre. Finally, overcome by bloodlust he attacked an officer so violently that the dead man’s head was almost hacked from his body.

Then, soaked in blood from head to toe, Brigstock calmly walked away from the mutilated corpse and told a shipmate: “I have cut the CPO’s throat.” When he was searched, a naval message form was found in his pocket. Scribbled on it were three offences against discipline for which Brigstock had been reported by the dead man.

There was also a drawing of a man’s head with a dagger poised above it. The resulting proceedings became known nationally as the Warship Murder Trial and Brigstock left the court to go to the condemned cell.

Chief Petty Officer Hubert Deggan, murdered by Stoker Brigstock

As he waited for the hangman’s summons, Brigstock had time to reflect on the gruesome crime for which he was to pay the supreme penalty. He could also look back on a life scarred by unhappiness, madness and the death of his first wife. The routine incidents leading up to the murder gave few signs that Brigstock was nurturing feelings of hatred and revenge. There was certainly no clue that Chief Petty Officer Hubert Deggan was to be killed as he slept on board the First World War monitor Marshal Soult, berthed at Chatham Dockyard.

Yet, since his boyhood, Brigstock had the warped mind of vicious killer. He was always fascinated by the macabre and was fond of acting the things he read in books. Once he cut his brother’s wrist with a knife and on another occasion his elder brother had been startled out of his sleep early one morning to find Brigstock firing a revolver at a picture on the wall.

Years later Brigstock was terrified by a dream in which he saw his wife cowering from the side of the ship as if she were trying to escape from the huge black figure of the Devil’s mate. He went to help his wife, but the figure nearly choked him. He got in one terrific punch and then hit the side of the ship and came to his senses.

The memory of the dream was so realistic that it continued to haunt his mind. There was a history of mental illness in his family. His grandfather had died in a lunatic asylum and his niece had been admitted to a mental home. His father had been a violent man who brutally beat his children for no apparent reason.

Brigstock joined the Navy at the age of 17. At the time of the Warship Murder he served aboard HMS Arethusa and messed on the Marshal Soult, which was permanently berthed at Chatham.

His character in the Navy was considered good and he was a conscientious worker. His superiors had no trouble with him until the day Deggan reported him for what were considered serious offences against Navy discipline. These were that Brigstock had been absent from his place of duty, the care and maintenance mess-deck, from 6.15 to 6.40; he had negligently performed a duty by allowing ratings to remain in their hammocks at 7.15; and had committed an act to the prejudice of navy discipline by drinking tea on the care and maintenance mess-desk at 7.15am.

Deggan prosecuted at a brief Saturday morning hearing before a senior officer and Brigstock was told the charges were so serious they must be taken before the captain.

After the proceedings, Brigstock changed into his civilian clothes and followed his usual Saturday routine by going for four or five pints and a game of darts at his local, the King William. His friends didn’t think he was drunk as he left the pub at 2.15 and went to his home in Nelson Road, Chatham, for lunch.

But he didn’t feel like eating and set off back to the ship, even though he was on weekend leave. He waited until Deggan was alone in the mess-room and then crept up behind the sleeping man and sliced his razor into the officer’s neck.

Deggan had no chance to struggle. His life ebbed almost instantaneously as blood spurted all over the room.

Brigstock walked away from the gory scene and quietly handed a bloody razor over to a shipmate as he told what he had done.

The date was 19 January, 1935. A month later Brigstock was in the dock before a crowded court at Kent Assizes. He denied malicious and wilful murder, but his plea of insanity was rejected. At the end of a two-day hearing the jury returned after a 15-minute retirement to find Brigstock guilty.

The judge assumed the black cap and pronounced the dreaded phrases of the death sentence. An appeal against conviction was dismissed by Mr Justice Avory, who refused to allow the production of further evidence and there was nothing more for Brigstock to do than wait for a reprieve from the Home Secretary. But the order never came.

Brigstock was executed at Wandsworth on 2 April as a desperate fight to save him went on outside the prison gates. A crowd of demonstrators began to gather about 7am. And an hour later three aeroplanes, two of them trailing banners with the words “Stop the death sentence” began to circle above the jail.

As the execution time of 9 o’clock approached, the crowd began to surge towards the gate. A woman fell to her knees in prayer and the men removed their hats. The prison clock struck the hour and a man shouted: “England is about to commit another murder in cold blood.”

Fifteen minutes later, a warder posted the surgeon’s certificate on the notice board outside the jail. The inquest was a formality. The coroner’s verdict was that Brigstock’s death was instantaneous due to injuries to the brain following judicial hanging.

When he was arrested, Brigstock had told police: “I shall be glad when the rope is round my neck.”

His death wish had come true.

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