Saturday 24 November 2012

The Shop of Secrets

The most famous unsolved Cambridgeshire murder took place on Wednesday 27th July 1921.

In the 1920s King Street, Cambridge was a small busy street and at No. 70 was a general store owned by Alice Maud Lawn. Miss Lawn was aged around 50 and she had run the shop for at least 20 years before this point.

Alice Maud Lawn 
Miss Lawn was unmarried and lived alone with just her cat, but she did have relatives nearby, her brother, a motor mechanic called Horace lived across the street with his wife at No. 79. She also had another brother and Sister – in – law living in the Cambridgeshire area.

Miss Lawns shop sold a variety of items including Bread, Tobacco and a range of dairy products.

The shop it’s self was an end terraced two – storey property, backing onto a green known as Christ’s Piece.
The building  had originally been a private house before it was converted and a narrow alley way called Milton Walk ran alongside the building, with a public house called the Champion of the Thames on the opposite of this passage.

At the back of the shop was a foot path and a tennis court, which is still found there today.

Although Cambridge is known for its market on Market Hill, in the 1920’s a second Wednesday market was being held in King Street. Friends of Miss Lawn said this had become a big concern to her because it would attract a large number of out of town strangers; she was a very nervous person and was noted to even tell customers of her concerns connected to the band performances on Christ’s Piece by saying

‘When the band performs on Christ’s piece there is such a rough crew who worry me. They rush into the shop for all sorts of things, that makes me very nervous indeed’

She had felt the same about the Wednesday markets, which even brought strangers as far from London.

Part of her routine was to keep the back door locked, most of all on Market day.

The shop at the time it was owned by Miss Lawn
She was also known to go out at points throughout the day, so it was not strange if customers found the shop closed during what would be normally opening hours, they would just think she popped out and would be back soon.

When a visitor to the shop at 11:30am on Wednesday the 27th July 1921 found the shop closed, they thought she had popped out, but when the husband of a neighbour still found the shop closed after lunch he notified Miss Lawn’s sister- in – law across the street. On receiving the news she was not aware Miss Lawn had gone out, and if she was going out more than a few minutes Miss Lawn would normally make her or her husband Horace aware. With some concern she contacted her husband, who was working close by.

It was at 3pm when Miss Lawn’s brother and his next- door neighbour Mr. Kirkup went to check the shop. Entering from the back door they immediately noticed a clear sign of a disturbance and within moments found her body.

She was lying at the foot of the stairs in a pool of blood, it was oblivious she had been dead for sometime and suffered a violent attack.

She had wounds to her head and a gag hung loose around her neck.

Once the police were called the first to the scene was Constable Alfred Flint, an officer who had been on duty outside the Post office. When Flint arrived Horace claimed he had heard something move upstairs, Flint carried out a search, but no one was found.

In the days after the murder, the police were satisfied the murderer could not have been that of a local man, and the person they were looking for was one of those market strangers.  If the crime had been planned, then the assailant evidently wanted the market day to perform the attack, when owing to the noise in the street, any cry might have been drowned out.

During these few days two theories also arose, the first was that the killer had gone to the shop posing as a customer and asked for something that would have needed her to go to the back and while she was out of sight the outside door was locked before the killer followed to murder her. The second theory was the killer had gained access though the back of the shop and hidden until he had the opportunity to attack.

On Saturday 30th July 1921 Miss Lawn’s funeral took place at Mill Road cemetery.

The case then went silent, that is until Friday 5th August 1921 when a man calling himself Jack Varden handed himself into Tottenham Court police station claiming to be the Cambridge murderer. He signed a statement and was interviewed by Chief Inspector Mercer who straight away noticed his confession was fake.

It was later revealed Varden had never been to Cambridge and his real name was really Ernest Shaw, he was just looking for food and shelter for the night and thought this to be an easy option as they would know by the morning his story was made up and he would be released.

A name which did come forward as the possible murderer was Thomas Clanwaring, Clanwaring was 23, he claimed to come to Cambridge to look for work as a French polisher.

Clanwaring was known for inventing stories and it soon came to light that some of his story could have been a lie.

He made a range of statements to the police, his first claiming the following.

‘My home address is 66, New Street, Slivertown; I was born in Bethnal Green, then moved to Slivertown and lived there ever since I came from Baldock to Cambridge on Friday night. I have been in the town just over a week. I stayed at the black bull, Baldock, I was there four days. I came from Manchester to there. I had come through Manchester. I Walked from Manchester to Baldock is, I think about 400 miles. I slept at nights under stacks. I had been from Slivertown  over 3 ½ years, during that time I have been working for chaps on the road shovelling up and sweeping. I came to Cambridge trying to get work as a French Polisher. I tried at Leavis and other places I have been with two chaps on two occasions. Since I have been in this town I have been with two, making three persons otherwise I have been by myself.'

The statement went on, but the two chaps he referred to were Albert Briggs and Frank Turner, who were also out of work labourers.

Bits of his statement were reasonable accurate, but parts were wrong because Clanwaring had been in Bedford gaol until the 16th July 1921. He had been imprisoned charged with theft of five bicycles.

Before his imprisonment he had been in Bedford for five days and had no luck finding work and his money soon ran out. He went to Bedford pretending to be deaf and dumb.

Thomas Clanwaring
His trial opened on 17th October 1921 and at the end it was clear even the judge in his summing up felt that Clanwaring should be found not guilty and the jury of eleven men and one woman after an hour and 33 minutes returned announcing him not guilty.

Within the following weeks the press were reporting the case would remain unsolved, either the guilty man had been freed or they had no more leads.

They were correct because no one else was ever charged with Miss Lawn’s murder, the shop today as now had an extension and its home to a fast food company, even the houses across the street where Miss Lawn’s brother Horace and his wife had lived has now gone and new buildings are in their place.

Everyone saw her as a sweet kind lady with no enemies, but with that in mind this did not stop her becoming a part of Cambridge’s most notorious unsolved pre- war murder case.

A life of a sweet kind lady was tragically taken and no one was ever found guilty of her murder, so the shop, once her home to this day remains the shop of secrets.

These article may also be of interest: The Last Execution in Cambridgeshire
                                                               Murder at King's College
                                                               Murder on Midsummer Common