Sunday, 30 March 2014

Murder in Beccles Wartime

In 1944 a murder took place in Ellough, just outside of Beccles. Leading Aircraftman Arthur Heys of Colne, county Lancashire was executed for the murder of Winifred Mary Evans which took place at the Beccles R.A.F Base.

"Built for the USAAF and completed in 1943, Ellough airfield had three concrete runways and a perimeter track, typical of many bomber airfields in East Anglia. Until its closure in 1945, the airfield was used by various RAF and FAA squadrons. One of Ellough’s few claims to fame is that in 1944 it was used by Mosquitoes of 618 Squadron to practice dropping spinning bombs called 'Highball' which were prototypes of the bombs used by 617 ‘Dambuster’ Squadron to breach the dams of the Rheur." (My grandmother Freda often told me stories about the "terrible racket" caused whilst they practised).

R.A.F Control Tower at Ellough
now derelict

L.A.C Arthur Heys, aged 37, was charged with the murder at Ellough between 8 November and 9 November 1944, of Miss Winifred Mary Evans, aged 27. She was a London member of the W.A.A.F employed as a Radio Operator. Heys, who was married with three children, pleaded "not guilty" but the increasing amount of evidence, although circumstantial, was heavily stacked up against him and he was executed in March 1945 at Norwich Prison.

On the night of 8 November 1944 Winifred Evans had attended a dance given at an American aerodrome outside Norwich. She had returned by 11.30pm and changed into her work uniform to report for duty. She was last seen walking down the laneway unescorted to where her duty post was based nearly a mile away. Shortly afterwards a W.A.A.F corporal, who had said goodbye to Evans, saw Arthur Heys in a hut nearby, under the influence of drink, and saw him set out on the same road the girl [Evans] had taken.

On the morning of 9 November 1944 the body of Winifred Evans was found lying face down in a muddy ditch by local man, Wilfred Payne. Evans was found with a black tie (in a sailor's knot) around her neck and there was undenial evidence that she had been subjected to tremendous violence, including strangulation, suffocation and outrage (today, known as rape).

The Beccles police immediately called in Scotland Yard as there were too many groups of men, including Italian Prisoners of War, as well as Royal Air Force men from various countries (American, British and Australian) in the area. The list of suspects was however quickly narrowed down to one after somebody came forward with damning evidence against Arthur Heys (who was also stationed at Beccles R.A.F Base). The witness claimed he saw Heys brushing his clothing and shoes which were dirty. He also claimed Heys was attempting to light a fire against orders, as if he wanted to burn something. Heys and Evans's shoes were both covered in the exact same brick fragments and mud which corresponded to the ditch where the body was found. Also, Hey's clothing bore signs of having been recently sponged and there was a tear in his greatcoat.

At the three days hearing in March 1945 in Bury St. Edmonds, Arthur Heys was brought down further with reports of his "Jekyll and Hyde" behaviour, being a model husband and father when sober but becoming violent when under the influence of alcohol. Mounting evidence against him convinced the court to sentence Heys to execution. Nobody had been hanged at Norwich Prison since 1938. When Heys was asked why sentence of death should not be passed to him, Heys replied: "God knows I am innocent of this foul crime." As he turned to leave the courtroom he looked around the gallery at his wife, who sat in tears.

Winifred Mary Evans (known as Winnie to her friends) was born in 1917 in Willesden, county Middlesex. She was the first-born child of William Henry Evans and Eliza Winifred, nee Chilvers. William and Eliza were married at St Stephens Church in Battersea on 7 April 1912.

Marriage of William Evans & Eliza Chilvers
(click image to enlarge)

Arthur Heys was born on 1 November 1907 in Colne, county Lancashire. He was the son of Edward Heys and Mary, nee Laycock. Edward Heys was a Cotton Weaver by trade. Edward and Mary had four sons, Arthur being the youngest. Tragedy struck the Heys family for the first time in July 1913 when Edward Heys committed suicide after a twelve-month history of being "unwell" and under medical supervision for depression. Arthur would have been five years old at the time.

Arthur Heys was executed on 13 March 1945 and buried in the Norwich Prison Yard on 17 March 1945. A little over thirty years apart, father (Edward Heys) and son (Arthur Heys) both died as a result of hanging. Both were 38 years of age. It is believed that Arthur's surviving wife married twice more in her lifetime. She died in 1990, aged 79.

Further reading: RAF Beccles At War, 1943 - 1945 by Malcolm R. Holmes