Rewind: A mysterious corner shop killing that shaped the future of British policing

hitchin nightingale road historic picture

Nightingale Road, Hitchin in 1919. Mrs Elizabeth Ridgley ran a successful corner shop in the town before she was murdered. - Credit: Simon Walker

Dead.

That's the condition 54-year-old Elizabeth Ridgley was found in by policemen on the morning of Monday, January 27 1919.

Mrs Ridgley had run her corner shop, which had been described as a "gold mine", at 125 Nightingale Road in Hitchin with her husband before his passing a year prior.

She had been in Hitchin for the last nine years, and was known as a woman of strict routine. You were always able to find her opening up her shop at eight o'clock in the morning, and promptly shutting it at 9pm each night.

So, when a dim light was still shining from inside Ridgley's Corner well past 9pm on the Saturday, this should have raised alarm bells.

And even when Gertrude Day walked down Garden Row and saw the back door of the shop ajar on a Sunday, she thought little of it.

But by 8.30am on that Monday morning, Mrs Day and others were panicking. The front door of Ridgley's Corner was still locked, and the blinds shut tight more than 30 minutes after Mrs Ridgley should have opened up.

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The police were summoned, and a local Police Constable, Alfred Kirby, went to investigate.

What PC Kirby found as he scanned the scene would have "shocked him to the core", according to PhD student and former detective Paul Stickler - who has painstakingly detailed the killing of Mrs Ridgley in his book The murder that defeated Whitechapel's Sherlock Holmes.

If you're anything like me, you've wasted countless lockdown hours by being glued to Netflix's excellent selection of true crime, serial killer and other fascinating documentaries.

And when I stumbled across this murder mystery on Hitchin's doorstep I had to find out more. So, I got in touch with Paul who kindly shared his wisdom for this featured series.

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

Paul Stickler has painstakingly detailed the murder of Mrs Ridgley using archived material - Credit: Archant

"It's fascinating to look back at the death of Mrs Ridgley, and I think was one of a series of murders that really shaped the future of British policing," Paul said.

Back inside Ridgley's corner, and PC Kirby and two other neighbours had found the body of Elizabeth Ridgley. From the house's main corridor, you could see she was fully clothed and lying face down, heels facing upwards and toes pointing to the floor.

Mrs Elizabeth Ridgley murder the comet

The only known photograph of Mrs Elizabeth Ridgley, which appeared in a newspaper article following her death - Credit: Paul Stickler

Resting just two feet from the woman's head was a large, bloodied four pound iron weight. And towards the front door lay the body of a motionless Irish terrier, which had been Mrs Ridgley's only companion.

After entering the living room to examine the top half of the body, Kirby described the scene as chaotic. It was a disorganised room and flecks of blood covered china chamber pots, kettles, boxes, crockery - anything that was in the vicinity of Mrs Ridgeley when she was attacked.

The rear living room where Mrs Ridgley was attacked. The bloodstained kettles and chamber pots on th

Bloodstained kettles and chamber pots in the rear living room at 125 Nightingale Road. This was where Mrs Ridgley was attacked - Credit: Archant

Two clues stood out to PC Kirby at this stage. Lying next to the body was an open cigar box, and the four pound weight. Both were drenched in blood, and a red trail could clearly be seen from Mrs Ridgley's body, through the hallway and towards the shop counter.

Entering the main shop, which was part of Ridgley's house, Kirby noticed that the till had been ransacked, with just a single penny farthing and spots of blood left behind on the countertop.

There were more questions than answers, but PC Kirby was starting to suspect foul play. He thought to himself this was a classic murder scene. A chance to finally prove himself to his superiors.

With his sergeant and the police surgeon now in attendance, Kirby quickly informed them of his theory - that Mrs Ridgley had been murdered.

But much to Kirby's shock, Ridgley's body was dragged by the legs from the hallway into the living room, so she could be examined by the surgeon in better light.

Blunt trauma wounds would now have been visible on the back of her head, and the doctor pondered a little longer before finally announcing that he believed Mrs Ridgley had been murdered.

Without any clear or obvious suspects at this stage, Hitchin's police officers were left to wonder who could have committed such a vicious crime. 

One man sprang to mind. A violent man who had lived through the unimaginable horror of World War One. A man who was no stranger when it came to courts, judges and juries.

This is the first part of The Comet's weekly series into the historic murder of Mrs Ridgley.

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