The murder of Elizabeth Ridgley: a Hitchin case Scotland Yard’s finest couldn’t crack

PUBLISHED: 16:58 13 April 2018

Members of the public and service personnel wait outside Hitchin police station on March 11, 1919, awaiting the outcome of a remand hearing. The investigation attracted massive interest. Picture: Hampshire Constabulary History Society collection

Members of the public and service personnel wait outside Hitchin police station on March 11, 1919, awaiting the outcome of a remand hearing. The investigation attracted massive interest. Picture: Hampshire Constabulary History Society collection

Archant

Hitchin, 1919. A shopkeeper and her dog are found dead from horrific head injuries, with some evidence she was dragged along by her hair before she died.

John Healy, right, in the dock at Hitchin police court charged with the murder of Elizabeth Ridgley. Seated at the table is DCI Fred Wensley. Picture: Hampshire Constabulary History Society collectionJohn Healy, right, in the dock at Hitchin police court charged with the murder of Elizabeth Ridgley. Seated at the table is DCI Fred Wensley. Picture: Hampshire Constabulary History Society collection

Police concluded that 54-year-old Elizabeth Ridgley and her Irish terrier had died in a tragic accidental fall in her Nightingale Road cornershop kitchen.

But Scotland Yard wasn’t convinced, and sent out one of its top detectives in DCI Fred Wensley – who had taken part in the Jack the Ripper investigation three decades before.

An Irish veteran called John Healy was charged with murder, and interest was such that there was barely room in the court for solicitors and police officers. But the evidence was far from conclusive, and a jury took mere minutes to find Healy not guilty.

The case would remain unsolved – but author and retired detective Paul Stickler believes he has uncovered new information adding a final twist to the tale.

Author and historian Paul Stickler. Picture: 23rd and Pine LtdAuthor and historian Paul Stickler. Picture: 23rd and Pine Ltd

His new book, At Mrs Ridgley’s Corner, is the result of three years of painstaking research into what he says is an “extraordinary story”.

It all started in 2014 when Paul, from Romsey in Hampshire, stumbled across some original photographs related to the case in his county’s records office.

“After a quick trip to The National Archives in London, I discovered the extraordinary story of Elizabeth Ridgley in her corner shop in Hitchin,” he said.

“I then spent the next three years researching the case – including visits to Ireland – and pieced together the untold story of a woman who lays buried in an unmarked grave in Hitchin cemetery.

The only known photograph of Elizabeth Ridgley, which appeared in a newspaper article after her death. Picture: Courtesy of Paul SticklerThe only known photograph of Elizabeth Ridgley, which appeared in a newspaper article after her death. Picture: Courtesy of Paul Stickler

“The circumstances were so unusual and intriguing, I decided the story had to be told – and provides not only a piece of local history, but exposes far wider issues relating to policing just after the First World War.”

Mrs Ridgley was found dead in her cornershop kitchen on Monday, January 27, 1919 – her body in a heap, with blood spattered across the kettles, chamber pots and glass cabinet surrounding her. In the shop, the counter and opened till-drawer were also covered in blood.

The 54-year-old had last been seen on the Saturday evening, closing up. Moaning had been heard from the shop a few hours later, but no-one had done anything about it.

Mrs Ridgley was found with lacerated wounds to the back of her head and face, and bruises on her back and arms. A bloodstained four-pound weight was found next to her body, and her dog had also been killed by a blow to the head.

Superintendent George Reed. Picture: Courtesy of Jane Hanick, family collectionSuperintendent George Reed. Picture: Courtesy of Jane Hanick, family collection

DCI Wensley and pathologist Bernard Spilsbury were called in two weeks later, after police under Supt George Reed had deemed the death an accident – a theory DCI Wensley dismissed as impossible.

John Healy, a 33-year-old labourer from Radcliffe Road, was said to have been “lurking” near the shop. He was arrested and charged, but promptly acquitted.

Mr Spilsbury’s examination of Mrs Ridgley’s exhumed body confirmed she had been murdered – but the case was never solved.

Now Paul says he is able to shed new light on the murder.

The rear living room where Mrs Ridgley was attacked. The bloodstained kettles and chamber pots on the floor were, according to Supt George Reed, the principal cause of Mrs Ridgley’s injuries - which led him to conclude that her death was an unfortunate accident. Picture: Courtesy of the Mayor’s Office of Policing and
Crime and Hampshire Constabulary History SocietyThe rear living room where Mrs Ridgley was attacked. The bloodstained kettles and chamber pots on the floor were, according to Supt George Reed, the principal cause of Mrs Ridgley’s injuries - which led him to conclude that her death was an unfortunate accident. Picture: Courtesy of the Mayor’s Office of Policing and Crime and Hampshire Constabulary History Society

“Even with the book completed, I suddenly found out new information which adds a final twist to the story,” he said.

“The research has been immensely enjoyable, and I have chosen to tell the story from the perspective of the characters involved – allowing the reader to feel that they are there watching the events unfold in front of them.

“Some of the central characters are already well-known people – but emerging from the catalogue of disasters which occurred are ordinary people whose lives are now suddenly brought to life.

“When Mrs Ridgley’s battered body, lying next to her similarly killed dog, were discovered, it could not have been foreseen how embarrassment would be brought to bear upon the Hertfordshire Constabulary, a trip to Ireland at the height of anti-British violence would be necessary, and Scotland Yard expertise would be tested to the limits.”

At Mrs Ridley’s Corner is published by Pen and Sword Books, and comes out on April 30. Paul is set to sign copies in Hitchin’s Waterstones on May 26.

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