This month’s Crime Chronicles tells the story of a brutal and horrifying murder that took place in St Albans in the 1940s, with crucial pieces of clothing that could have helped solve the case still missing…
On a cold winter day, on Sunday, December 19, 1948, the body of Stephen Varley, an ex-naval stoker and De Havilland aircraft manufacturer, was found near a ruined nunnery in Cotton Mill Lane, St Albans.
He had been beaten and throttled and left with his head and face badly injured. It was thought that more than one individual had been involved in the attack, due to the sheer extent of his injuries.
Upon investigation, it was discovered that Stephen had taken his 10-year-old daughter to a children’s party at the De Havilland aircraft works on Saturday afternoon. He later left the party at 7 pm, leaving his daughter there with a friend.
The police said that they had a complete record of Stephen Varley’s movements up until about 20 minutes before he died. He was seen walking along Cotton Mill Lane with two men and is thought to have gone to meet someone in St Albans, although he had told friends that he was going home to Watford.
His body was discovered the next day, where his trousers and jacket were missing, but the police noted that Stephen had managed to hide a purse with his wife’s wedding and engagement rings, which was found near his body. His wife had passed away nine months earlier.
On January 8, 1949, it was reported that some blood-stained clothing had been found abandoned at Devizes Laundrette, which was thought to have belonged to one of the two men who had murdered Stephen.
The garments included a pair of grey flannel trousers, a pair of grey socks and a blue-striped shirt. The shirt itself had a laundry mark on it, ‘DI 341/PI’ and the socks had the laundry mark ‘TC 8. 138’.
A person at the only laundry in Devizes said, ‘We have not been interviewed by the police. None of the laundry passing through our hands is marked by any letters. We know nothing of the bloodstained shirt’.
The case attracted the attention of Chief Detective Inspector Robert Fabian of Scotland Yard and Dr Keith Simpson an eminent forensic pathologist, but it was never solved.
The police said that they had made exhaustive inquiries at second-hand shops in an endeavour to trace Stephen Varley’s missing trousers and jacket, but they were never found. To this day, it has never been discovered what really happened to Stephen.