Love Will Tear Us Apart

The story of a Christmas comedy that led to murder.

For my book, A Dangerous Place, I spent a lot of time talking to officers from Surrey CID, and through that research also discovered a remarkable website detailing the history of the constabulary. It’s a fascinating, if disturbing, resource, an aural history of the last half-century of policing the county in the words of the officers themselves. Unlike those huge, high-profile cases that earn themselves books and documentaries, the site is a vivid and frightening look at the everyday business of crime, which is still, more often than not, an extraordinary business. Some of the tales recollected are routine, some inexplicable, and some read as black comedy. This is one of many which caught my attention: 

1967: “Mrs Pretty stabbed her husband at their home in Chiddingfold on Christmas Day whilst rowing over who was going to carve the turkey, he was fatally killed…  she had been slaving away in the kitchen preparing the Christmas dinner and her husband was watching Norman Wisdom in a variety show on TV. Norman was in great form and the husband was roaring with laughter. Mrs. Pretty was stressed out with all the work she was doing and kept telling him to stop laughing. He ignored her and she ‘lost it’ and went in to the living room and stuck him with a carving knife. Norman had a lot to answer for that Christmas!”The file on the case of Helen Pretty

 For some reason I was reminded of the bizarre story recently while on the way to visit the National Archives, so while I was there enquired as to whether the file on the case was now open. It is, and reading it revealed that the recollection above was inaccurate (as one would expect after more than fifty years). It took place in Haslemere, not Chiddingfold (though there is a Chiddingfold connection), happened in 1964, not 1967, and the sequence of events was in reality quite different, if almost as ludicrous as I had been led to believe. This bizarre open-and-shut case is typical of the banality, pointlessness and meaninglessness of real crime (as opposed to the elaborate plots and meaty motivations of most crime fiction). Most serious crimes are split-second occurrences which shatter lives, their after-effects  spreading like stains across the years that follow and infecting the lives of even those on the peripheries.

Contained within the file are the usual forensic mixture of statements, exhibits lists, depositions, post-mortem and psychiatric reports and a transcript of the trial, which was held at Kingston Winter Assizes two months after the killing. Mrs Helen Pretty pleaded guilty to murder on the grounds of provocation.

The first piece of the jigsaw is a statement  made by the accused’s sister, Elizabeth. It reveals that both girls came from a very large Irish family, and when Helen was 24, the pair moved to England. Shortly after this, Helen met (Leslie) Michael Pretty. They married in December 1962, and the following June, Helen gave birth to a son.

Although it is not remarked on anywhere in the file, the fact that their child was born only six months after the wedding would have been a much more significant fact in 1962 than it would be today. From what follows, it would suggest that the marriage was instigated by social expectations more than love.

R v Helen Pretty

After the wedding, the couple lodged with Michael’s parents at Prestwick Farm, Chiddingfold. Then comes this line:

Helen often visited me without her husband. She told me on those visits that her husband used to beat her up and give her no money”.

She alleged that on two occasions while she was pregnant, Michael had assaulted her, and had marks on her arms and a lump on the back of her head to prove it. The head wound was apparently meted because she had refused to go out to buy him cigarettes.  Helen was pregnant at the time of both attacks.

A year after the wedding, the couple moved to St Cross Cottage in Weydown Road, Haslemere. Elizabeth witnessed many verbal altercations between the pair, which Helen said were usually because he gave her so little money and because, as she perceived it, his parents disliked her.

St Cross Cottage, Haslemere
St Cross Cottage

A curious incident occurred four days before Christmas. Helen had been wanting to visit her mother in Ireland, having not been back once in the four years since she left. Michael’s family had refused to give her the passage money or look after the baby while she was gone, but her husband then stumped up the money and offered to take a week off work to look after the child. Her sister dropped her at the station, but a little later, Helen appeared back at the house, having decided against going because she was anxious about leaving her son. According to Elizabeth, “when she same in he just said ‘can I have my money back’, no word of greeting. Bizarrely as the evening progressed, the couple appeared to be getting on perfectly well with each other.

Elizabeth saw a good deal of Helen over the next few days, and said she was perfectly normal and reported no trouble at home.

On Christmas Day, “everything was quite happy during dinner”. The three watched television by the fire for a few hours, then Helen brought in a chicken from the oven for supper, a present from Michael’s parents. She asked her husband to carve while she buttered some bread. Mr Pretty was the only one to have drunk any alcohol, and he’d only had “one ale”. The couple stood at opposite ends of the dining table while Elizabeth continued watching television. BBC1 were broadcasting Norman Wisdom’s Christmas pantomime of Robinson Crusoe (which achieved what was, at the time, a record audience of 18.5 million).

Radio Times, 25th December 1964

“Helen appeared to be enjoying it – she likes Norman Wisdom’s films very much –  they make her laugh”. Suddenly her husband told her to stop laughing. She explained she was only laughing at the television. He put down the carving knife and fork, then slapped her hard across the face. She responded with “I’ll hit you one back” and they tussled. The baby started crying and ran to Elizabeth. When she looked up again, Mr Pretty was clutching his chest and saying “I’m dying, Helen”. He fell to his knees, and despite Helen saying “don’t take any notice, he often says that when we clash”, Elizabeth said “he’s looking very pale”.

He went to the door, and Helen asked Elizabeth to telephone for a doctor. Then she noticed blood on the blade of the carving knife. Mr Pretty never regained consciousness. Helen was in “a highly distressed state” and sobbing when the police took charge of her, saying “what have I done?” and “what will happen to me?”

Those are the basic facts.  But there is more significant background in the other statements.

Mr Pretty’s father claimed that while the couple lived with them, Helen “spent most of the time in her room, watching television or listening to the radio”, and never helped his wife with the housework.

There were also a number of reports from local police officers and the family GP, all of whom had been called to the Prettys on a number of occasions because of violent arguments. On one occasion, Helen was drunk and in a ferocious temper, smashing up the living room. In her doctor’s words, she was “fighting mad” because her husband had left her and she had reacted by drinking all the alcohol in the house while in charge of her child.

Police map of the murder scene
Police map of the murder scene

In June 1964, a police officer arriving at the house was told by Helen that an argument had started because “he would not take me to the pictures. I never go out anywhere and he does not give me much money”. After her husband left the room, she continued: “he is always hitting me even when I was pregnant”. When Michael came back in with a dustpan and brush to clear away the broken glass, Helen laughed at him, and he told the police: “she even tore up the kiddy’s birthday card from my mother”.

Judging the situation as a “domestic”, the police advised Mrs Pretty that if she had a genuine complaint to make about her husband, it should be made to a solicitor.

On another occasion, two months before his death, Michael arranged to see a divorce lawyer; Helen again began to vandalise the house and, to stop him keeping the appointment, threw his shoes on the fire. On this occasion, Michael said to the police officer “can’t you do something?” However, by the time the officer left, the couple appeared to be at peace again. Volatile would be a diplomatic way to describe such a relationship.

Pathologist's statement

Three weeks after the crime, Helen was examined by a psychiatrist while on remand at Holloway. He discovered that she had a mental age of eight, was “a subnormal girl who requires some form of guidance and help” and was “emotionally immature with a rather inadequate personality”. She admitted to “crying on the slightest pretext”, but the doctor did note that despite her “mental subnormality… she has been able until recently to cope with the exigencies of life, namely that she has looked after a home and a baby”, and had previously worked as a domestic in a hospital.

A further, more detailed report revealed that Helen had been incapable of managing the house-keeping, which is why her husband controlled all the money in the house, and that her husband “had to do most of the cooking too”. The report also added that she was incapable of comprehending simple facts and was “lacking in forethought, to the extent that she is unable to judge the consequences of her actions”. It concluded that “coupled with her mental subnormality there is considerable emotional immaturity, together with an inadequate personality. She has also a recent history of an aggressive outburst in the course of which he husband was killed. In these respects she is in need of training and guidance in a hospital for the mentally subnormal”.

The final notes, headed “antecedents”, give a scant biography of Helen’s otherwise unremarkable life. Each employer she had before her marriage described her as hard-working; one went as far as to call her “an excellent worker of excellent character”, though another noted she was “very quick-tempered”.

Helen Pretty was detained at a mental hospital; her baby was taken into care.

Medical Report on Helen PrettyAlthough cold, emotionless official paperwork is devoid of judgement, many of the facts listed in this depressingly ordinary, senseless story read differently to us in 2017 to how many people would have perceived them in 1964. As soon as I came across the first reference to Helen complaining that her husband beat her, I immediately began to see this as the story of an abused woman finally fighting back and inadvertently killing her monstrous abuser. In 1964, such matters would have been looked on by many as nothing like as horrific. No less a symbol of decency and integrity than PC George Dixon of the fictional television series Dixon of Dock Green infamously and lightly told viewers in the 1956 episode Pound of Flesh that “if I arrested every bloke in Dock Green who clocked his wife, I’d be working overtime”.

The acknowledgement that Mr Pretty “had to do most of the cooking himself” was clearly something to remark upon in those times, too. And today, a shotgun wedding is not the first reaction to an unmarried woman’s pregnancy. Here it glued together two people who were clearly destined to tear each other apart.

Today, Prestwick Farm, nestled in one of the richest and most picturesque of Surrey parishes, offers four-star self-catering accommodation as well as organic produce. St Cross Cottage, in the early 1900s home to the weaving quarter of the Peasant Arts Movement, has long since been demolished. Most of the players in this sorry story are probably now long dead.

But it did occur to me, as I handed the file back, and thought that perhaps no one will ever again have any cause to seek it out, that perhaps one day, a middle-aged man might walk into the National Archives and order it up. Then, after studying its contents in a quiet corner for an hour, he might return it to the librarian, and then, as he walks back out into the world, think to himself:

“Well, now I know what happened to my parents”.

A Dreadful And Despairing History

A little-known telling of an oft-told tale.

Few, if any, remember a late-night series of half-hour plays under the cumbersome umbrella title TV TimesConceptions of Murder, broadcast at various points throughout 1970 in several ITV regions, with no fanfare and to little reaction. They were the brainchild of that gentlemanly, imaginative but inconsistent writer, the late Clive Exton. Each of the six episodes took a real-life murder case and tried “to recreate the minds and motives of the killers”. The first episode, The Dreams Of Tim Evans, dealt with the infamous Christie/ Evans case, and is significant because not only was it the first piece of screen drama in Britain based on the matter, (in the theatre, Howard Brenton’s distressing Fringe hit Christie In Love had debuted at the Oval House in 1969, the same year that a drama appeared on German television about the case) but because a year later, Exton expanded his script into the screenplay for the revered movie 10, Rillington Place, which starred Richard Attenborough and John Hurt as Christie and Evans respectively.

The Dreams Of Tim Evans has never been repeated, and never before, to my knowledge, has it been written about. I was intrigued to track it down in the light of the BBC’s recent misfire, Rillington Place, an unnecessary and implausible regurgitation of the 1971 film. Sadly, The Dreams Of Tim Evans is equally disappointing, though it is an interesting historical artifact. Fascinatingly, its executive producer was Peter Wildeblood, who, in the same year the Rillington Place case hit the headlines, was involved in the Montagu-Rivers case, suffering shameful indignities at the hands of the British establishment and later becoming a prominent campaigner for law and prison reform.

In truth, we will never know what passed between John Reginald Halliday Christie and Timothy John Evans in June 1949, in the hours following the murder of Mrs Evans. Both men were liars and fantasists. And both men took all that they knew to the gallows.

IMG_8207The dreadful history of the dreadful, despairing last house on the left, 10 Rillington Place, has probably inspired more words than any other piece of historical true crime except the Jack the Ripper murders. Even by the time Ludovic Kennedy’s major book on the case appeared in 1962, two other books had been written on the subject, The Man On Your Conscience, by Truth editor Michael Eddowes (the book that sparked Kennedy’s interest in the case) and Rupert Furneaux’s The Two Stranglers Of Rillington Place, which took the now unfashionable view that both men were killers, and that the fears of a miscarriage of justice in the case of Evans were ill-founded.

The facts that are not disputed are as follows. Christie, a middle-aged under-achiever with

Hugh Burden as Christie
Hugh Burden as Christie

delusions of grandeur, occupied the basement flat at 10 Rillington Place, Notting Hill, with his wife, Ethel. In his early life Christie had a number of convictions for violence and theft, but in the Second World War was able to enroll as a War Reserve Constable. While alone in the house one afternoon in 1943, he murdered a woman for sexual gratification, and buried her in the back garden. He killed another the following year, lured there by  false claims that he had some medical training and could treat her for catarrh.

Six years passed, apparently without incident, until in 1949 Tim and Beryl Evans moved into the top floor flat with their baby daughter, Geraldine. Evans was a van driver, with a low IQ (he was not illiterate, as has been claimed, since he was able to read road signs) and was partial to making up stories about himself. The marriage was turbulent, especially due to Beryl’s poor money management, and a number of violent arguments kept neighbours awake and led to police visits.

Don Hawkins as Timothy Evans
Don Hawkins as Evans

Beryl became pregnant a second time, and sometime after this, Evans left London and stayed with relatives in Merthyr Tydfil. One afternoon he walked into the local police station and said “I want to give myself up. I’ve disposed of my wife”. He went on to tell them he had arrived home one evening to find her dead, having taken something to try and abort her child, and in panic he had put her body down the drain outside the house. The police checked and found the drain was empty. Evans then said “I only said that to protect a man called Christie. Now I’ll tell you the truth”.

He then made a long, detailed statement saying that Christie had offered to perform an abortion on Beryl thanks to his medical knowledge, but when Evans had arrived home, was told she had died, that for their own sakes they should dispose of her body and say nothing, and that the baby could be looked after for the present by a childless couple Christie knew who lived locally. A superficial search of the house revealed some newspaper clippings in Evans’ flat about a murder case, and in the wash-house, the strangled bodies of both Beryl and baby Geraldine.

Evans was brought back to London, and when he was told of the discovery of both bodies, simply replied “yes”. He then signed a short statement saying that he had killed his wife and child.Children playing in Rillington Place

By the time the case reached the Old Bailey, he was denying this last statement, insisting his second statement was true and that Christie was to blame. Despite Christie’s previous criminal record, he made a better impression on the jury than Evans, and Evans was found guilty of the murder of his daughter, and sentenced to death. In the period before his execution he made no attempt to appeal, and reportedly was cheerful and showed no remorse.

What was not known at the trial was that Christie had already strangled two women and would go on to strangle four more, his wife and three prostitutes that he lured back to Rillington Place. The killings took place over a four month period at the start of 1953, after which, penniless and with the ground floor of the house now a tomb, he left. He wandered around London in a daze until he was caught. He confessed to every crime except that of the baby, but gave vague, untrustworthy accounts. He was hanged after a short trial.

Christie and EvansLudovic Kennedy’s crusading book, the 1971 film and the BBC’s Rillington Place have all taken the view that two stranglers both living in the same house is too much of a coincidence. Exton’s script here does the same. But while 10 Rillington Place works brilliantly as a mood piece, horribly evoking a tumbledown London of the post-war era and sustaining a mood of evil and futility in every scene (the film was shot in the actual street, and sparingly used a devil-driven, prickly score by John Dankworth), it was made as a rebuff to calls for a reinstatement of the death penalty, and, like the book it sprang from, is selective in its presentation of the facts.

The Dreams Of Tim Evans, sadly, suffers  when compared to the film into which it grew.  It is essentially a longer version of the central scene in the film in which Evans arrives home to find his wife dead, and Christie manages to persuade him to enter into a conspiracy of silence for both their sakes. That quiet, forgotten actor, Hugh Burden, is, alarmingly, probably the closest to Christie physically of any actor who has played him, and clearly imitates various facial expressions of the killer learned from photographs. Unfortunately, he maintains his native soft Welsh accent for the part rather than attempting Christie’s whispering Yorkshire tones. Like Attenborough’s, his Christie is prissy and puritanical (“there’s no need to use language, lad”), and quietly manipulative.

Christie and EvansDon Hawkins’ performance as Evans, however, seems unable to make up its mind what it is. He appears to barely react to his wife’s death, and is such a low-key presence in the play that one certainly struggles to imagine this Evans being capable of having violent altercations with his wife.

Despite the studio setting and the unsubtle colour of 1970s videotape, which does inevitably prettify the recreation of the house, there are some neat moments. When Christie reappears at the beginning of the second half of the play, he lurks in the back of the frame while Evans, in the foreground, is veiled behind a grimy curtain; at this point, Evans , without knowing it, holds all the power. He could go to the police and Christie would be charged with Beryl’s murder. But his mind is a fog, to himself, to us and to Christie. Later, the roles are reversed, as Evans stands lost and helpless in the background, asking Christie, now the one shrouded by that dark curtain, what he is to do.

Christie and EvansThe play’s title, and its core, come from a sequence in which Evans indulges himself in fantasy, telling Christie that he intends to move to a house in Hampstead, one of those “with gardens you can sit in”. But whereas John Hurt’s Evans was defiant, a hopelessly self-deluded windbag trying and failing to suggest he was better than those around him, and aggressively touchy when challenged, this Evans is almost lifeless. It doesn’t ring true. Nor does the play (or the film’s) off-screen insistence that Christie would go on to murder the baby. Why would he do this rather than simply abandon her? Why do something that he would then have to explain away to Evans, or, if Evans found out, would undoubtedly destroy any loyalty Evans might have for Christie?

One powerful piece of evidence that has recently been revealed is that when Evans was in the cells at Notting Hill police station, having been charged with murder, PC Leonard Trevallion asked him why he had killed his baby. Evans replied: “because without its mother it kept crying all the time and I couldn’t stand it”. (Trevallion gave a final interview detailing his eventful life and career to the Imperial War Museum; his reminiscences can be heard here.)High Burden as Christie

That Christie murdered Mrs Evans seems highly likely. Evans’s detailed description of Christie professing medical knowledge is damning evidence simply because it tallies with what we know were the methods Christie used to attract other victims. However, attributing the murder of Geraldine to Christie too strikes me as something that has been done for no other reason than convenience when trying to argue a miscarriage of justice, since it was actually Geraldine’s murder that Evans was convicted of.

The Dreams Of Tim Evans is a disappointingly mild piece of drama about a devastating situation. It fails to do justice to its subject, and while we will probably never hear the last word on the Christie case, this attempt at the story is unlikely ever to be heard again.

In respectable 1950s Britain, people perhaps were much more prepared to be reassured that a man hanged in their name had indeed been guilty of murder. Today, however, we live in an iconoclastic age, a  time of suspicion, distrust, cynicism and conspiracy theories, and are eager to embrace any suggestion that shadowy, uncaring authorities behave corruptly, callously and at the expense of their subjects. I’ve always believed that the truth lies somewhere in between, in this case and in many others.