People of a certain age in the market town of Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire will occasionally speak of a ‘murder’ which occurred in their town during the last war when a local and popular tailor was brutally attacked and robbed of his earnings at his place of work. Although the victim was left to fend for himself in a battered and unconscious state, the occurrence fortunately did not end up as a murder though it could well have done if different circumstances had prevailed. This is re-telling of that incident which happened during those anxious ‘blackout’ days of World War 2 during which this small market town in the East Midlands of England had remained largely untouched by any aggressive war situations or the usual and expected going-ons common to the the larger cities nearby. Melton was in those dark days, home to an increasingly eclectic mixture of armed forces personnel and civilian 'Dad's Armies' who were currently grouped in great numbers across the country, engaged in a combined show of strength to deter the would-be aggressors who had threatened to invade these ever inviolate shores. American soldiers, including units of black G.I.s who were based in at least two nearby villages, were a novelty for the locals to observe in their comings and goings and at the nearby village of Old Dalby, a depot manned by Canadian personnel was wholeheartedly providing logistical and moral support to the home country’s armed forces. On the whole, it is on the record that Melton Mowbray did manage to pass through the days of conflict pretty well unscathed, apart from the occasional and expected human frailties of the few, most of whom were tolerated whilst surviving for the long five years in a mad world being torn apart in the quest of global control. This little tale looks back to the time of the passing of this watershed moment in world history and provides a small insight into how a small town coped with the general upheaval which resulted.
A ROBBERY OCCURS
On Saturday 6th March 1943, The United Kingdom and its allies were at war with Germany which had continued unabated by now for four years; German U-boats in the Atlantic were creating havoc with Allied shipping both military and civilian, whilst fierce and unremitting fighting was underway in the frozen Steppes of the Russian Republic. British cities, especially those which were sea or airports had been pounded unremittingly and unmercifully by the Luftwaffe from above but the general population had stood firm and maintained a high standard of morale as they continued to persist in the pursuit of their daily chores. One of these hard working civilians doing her bit for the country in her home town was Olive Dinah Littlewood and she probably had other more pressing matters on her mind when she returned to her terraced home in Brook Street, Melton Mowbray after another days war work. As a young, unmarried woman living in a small market town, she had been working long hours at a nearby military base in Old Dalby, but by now it was 7.15pm and darkness had fallen. She had half expected her father to be at home as was usual for this time of day – hopefully with the usual bit of supper on the stove and a welcoming cup of tea waiting for her - but tonight the house was empty and in darkness; no dad and no customary signs of him even having been there recently. After changing from her work clothes and ensuring that the heavy, dark curtains were tightly drawn to comply with the strict blackout regulations then in force, she began to consider as to where her father might be; her decision was that she should first check at his place of business.
About 8.30 that evening Olive arrived at her father’s small lock-up tailor’s shop which was located at the junction of Thorpe End and the entrance to Rosebery Avenue, on the opposite side to the Carnegie Library. She noted that there were no lights on in the shop but was then surprised to discover that the front door was open. The fact that the shop's regulatory blackout blinds had not been put into place began to un-nerve Olive and on entering the shop with some trepidation, she was to suffer a great shock when, as she gingerly shone her torch around the room she illuminated the shape of her father lying apparently motionless on the carpeted floor. Hurrying across to him, it was with great consternation that she saw that his face and head were bloodied and badly cut with serious bruising. In fact, Mark Littlewood was at least half-conscious and apparently did manage to speak briefly to his petrified daughter, who, being horrified by the sight of her poor father’s circumstance, only exacerbated by the nasty presence of his spilled blood and mess all around, she shouted out loudly towards the street for assistance. A passing member of the public responded to her pleas and assisted Olive in getting her father into a chair to await the arrival of the police. Olive then noted that the pockets of her father’s waistcoat had been turned inside out and also, that a large flat pressing iron which he used in his daily work, was lying bloodstained on the floor close by. By now she was distraught at the thought of what might have befallen her beloved daddy as it was fairly obvious that he had been the subject of an extremely violent robbery.
The unfortunate victim of this apparently random and vicious crime was Mark Littlewood, 63 years, a widower and self-employed tailor by trade. Born locally in the nearby village of Kirby Bellars he had learned his trade first in Yorkshire and later in Melton Mowbray he was employed before eventually setting himself up in his own business in the tiny lock-up shop. Mark had an excellent reputation locally and was described in the ‘Melton Times’ as a ’quiet and inoffensive man who was well known and highly respected in the Town.’ In particular, at this time of a world war and the increased presence of many troops billeted in the Town, the newspaper further stated that he was known to be, ‘always very good to soldiers and did little sewing jobs for them.’ His older brother, Richard ‘Dick’ Littlewood, was also a tailor in Melton Mowbray with a much 'grander' reputation who ran a very successful and high-class business from his Sherrard Street shop, specialising in bespoke clothing. Shopping at this iconic establishment was a must, especially to the hunting fraternity - male and female - which included many figures of Royalty from all corners of the world who famously and notoriously frequented the town to indulge their passion in the pursuit of the fox and the consumption of good food and drink. The abdicated King Edward VIII was a frequent customer at ‘Dick's and the locals used to tell of a stream of Rolls-Royces coming and going at all hours.
THE POLICE ENQUIRY
Sergeant Roy Boocock (as was very often the case in those days), was the first police officer on the scene that night having received the phone call at 8.40pm. He found Mr Littlewood sitting in a chair and being supported by his daughter. He called for an ambulance and then accompanied the badly injured man to the War Memorial Hospital in Melton. Whilst there and assisting Mr Littlewood to undress he saw that one of his waistcoat pockets was pulled inside out and this suggested to him that robbery was almost certainly the primary motive of the attack. He also meticulously recorded the fact that from his trouser pockets he had retrieved 25s. 8½d in silver and copper coins. After leaving Mr Littlewood in the care of Dr. G.S.A. Bishop at the hospital, Sgt Boocock returned to examine the crime scene with other officers where a comprehensive examination of the shop was carried out and samples of blood and fibres were collected to be retained for future forensic examination and possibly, evidence in a court of law. He was later to tell Melton Magistrates of his findings;
“There was a pool of blood on the floor in the corner of the shop, furthermost from the door. In the pool of blood was a pair of spectacles and a tobacco pouch. There was a dental plate on a heap of clothing at the side of the pool of blood.” He went on, “There was also a flat iron covered with blood on another heap of clothing – a pair of khaki gloves were lying near the dental plate, which were also wet with blood.”
At St Mary’s hospital, Dr. Bishop attended Mr Littlewood whose condition was described initially as ‘critical’. He was later to outline the extent of these injuries to a Court, affirming that “… he was suffering from severe head injuries. There were nine scalp wounds, four fractures of the skull, three of them depressed. He had a fracture of the right shoulder blade, severe bruising around both eyes, bruising on the backs of his hands, bruising of the left forearm and elbow. Of his head wounds, one was above the right eye, two on the right hand side and one on the back.” He assured the Court that in respect of the assumed application of the flat iron to the victim’s head, the wounds were indeed consistent with it having been used and to some major degree and effect. He further estimated that at least ten blows with the iron would have been required to cause the injuries described, plus any number of other blows to cause the heavy bruising sustained by his hands and arms. He stressed that, “...it would be impossible for any one blow to cause more than one of the injuries, except perhaps in the case of a blow on the head glancing off to cause the injuries to the shoulder.” He further told the court that Mr Littlewood was practically unconscious when he first attended him and that any chances of his survival at the time were extremely slim.
The following day, Detective Sergeant Ernest Lamley and other officers commenced their enquiries. They had learned that Mr. Littlewood had been seen in his shop as late as 6.30pm that evening, some two hours prior to his being attacked when he was described as being “…in good health and in good spirits, talking to a soldier…”. That afternoon, armed with information they had gleaned from their initial enquiries, the police officers went to army barracks which were temporarily located at Craven Lodge on Burton Hill – an historic stately home in the town where they interviewed several of the young Canadian soldiers who were then billeted in the grand old house. Among those questioned during that afternoon was a Private Lawrence William Dixon, a 22 years old American soldier who was serving with the Royal Canadian Ordnance Corps and stationed at the Old Dalby Depot. When asked for an account of his movements at the time of the attack on Mr Littlewood, Dixon spoke freely, telling Sgt. Lamley, “I left Craven Lodge at around 6.50pm and went to the Noels Arms. After talking to an Englishman there named Clare I returned to the barracks at 7.50pm where I saw two sergeants. I stayed in my room and then went down to supper. I remained in the barracks for the rest of the evening.” The officers then learned that a number of the Canadian personnel at the Lodge had finished a course of training on the previous Friday and that during that weekend, much celebrating and drinking had been going on in the various public houses in the town. Dixon’s condition on interview however, was said to be sober and quite normal. Following a search of his personal billet, items of uniform were found in a haversack on his bed and these were taken for closer perusal by the officers. At 5.40pm that day, Sergeant. Boocock and Detective Sergeant Ernest Evans, apparently having spoken to further witnesses, returned to Craven Lodge together with Superintendent W.G. Bunker who was by now the senior officer in charge of the case. Dixon was re-visited and told that following his earlier replies, further questions of him were required to ascertain and verify his movements. Mr Bunker advised him that certain facts had since been checked out in relation to his prior explanation and that these were now found to be untrue. When informed that a bloodstained tunic had been found amongst the items taken from his billet Dixon did not respond, but when asked if he knew a Canadian soldier by the name of Robertson, Dixon is said to have replied, “You have got me fixed, I did it”. (In the true tradition of good fiction!) He was arrested and taken to custody at Melton Mowbray Police Station.
... And a Confession
At the police station, the young American is said to have talked freely and candidly about his involvement in the callous robbery of Mr. Littlewood. After being officially cautioned Dixon apprised the officers, “You will find the money, £14, in the ventilator in the second bathroom on that floor.” and the money was indeed later recovered from this location. On his arrest he was found to have four ten shilling notes (£2) in his possession which he readily accepted was part of the proceeds of the robbery - which was estimated to be some £16 in total. Supt. Bunker and other officers subsequently questioned him about the details of his personal involvement in the crime, but he initially replied that he would not sign any statements without seeking the advice of Counsel. Later that same evening after being officially charged with the offence of ‘Robbery with Violence’, he agreed to make a brief written statement under caution which he declined to sign or otherwise endorse: according to the ‘Melton Times’ the statement read:
‘About two weeks ago, Robertson and I thought we would make some easy money. I had paid many calls to the shop of Mr Littlewood and had got to know him very well. I planned to meet Robertson on the Saturday but he did not turn up. I stayed talking to Mr Littlewood for about 1 ½ to 2 hours, then the opportunity came and I smacked him with a flat iron. Everything then went black in my head’
The relevance of ‘Robertson’ to the events of that night was not initially made clear in this initial statement, though it might have been obvious that he had had some part in proceedings and was more than likely the person who put the police suspicions on to Dixon in the first place. Matters became clearer about a month later when Dixon, who was by now on police remand, submitted a second and more detailed statement to the enquiry team. Sergeant Raymond Bullimore was to later tell the Court that on April 6th whilst exercising Dixon at the police station, he had been approached by the defendant who had expressed a desire to say more about the offence with which he was charged. It was arranged that he could do so formally in the presence of his solicitor with the result that, on Friday 8th April the following personal statement of Private Dixon was recorded under caution:
“I first met Robertson in September of 1942 in Hampshire but I was not friendly with him. In January of this year I met Robertson again, this time at Melton Mowbray. Being American I became acquainted with several American soldiers. Robertson met these soldiers as well and was drinking with them one night when he called out, “Who’s going to buy the drinks?” An American Sergeant gave Robertson £1 to buy them, but the change was not returned to him. The following night that sergeant told me about what Robertson had ‘pulled on him’ in the bar. I later spoke to Robertson about the matter and in response he asked me, ‘What were you doing, stooging for a nigger?’ I told him that I wasn’t, but that I would prefer a coloured person’s friendship before I would consider his. He blew up and told me to mind my own business. The next time I saw Robertson was when he was doing C.B., [military punishment] for overstaying his leave and then later, at a dance. At the dance he walked up to me, well intoxicated and asked me if I was still ‘stooging for a nigger.’ I told him that I wasn’t and not wanting to start anything there, I told him to forget it. We got to talking about a couple of other things and then I said that I would do a guy for a drink just as well as the next guy. Then Robertson asked me if I was interested in making some easy money. I asked him how, so then he told me. He said: ”Do you know the tailor’s shop, down near the library?” I said, “Yes, I know where it is, I’ve been in there once or twice.” He said, “Well, the old man in there carries about 50 quid, all you would need is a guy to stand outside to keep the coast clear while I went in.” On the 2nd March I took a new tunic to Littlewood to be altered and picked it up on the 5th March. On the Saturday Robertson and I started on the beer again, leaving the pubs about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, we were all pretty well feeling good. I came out a little before six. I went up to the corner there to meet Robertson, but he wasn’t there, so I figured I would go down to the tailor’s shop and get my ‘hammer and tongs’ [Insignia badges gained on his recent course] on. When I came out of the shop, Robertson was standing by the door. He asked me how much I got. I hauled off and smacked him one and left him standing there. I then went back to the barracks. I was pretty well disgusted with myself, so I did not go out that night.”
Melton Mowbray Magistrates Court
On Friday April 21st 1943, Private Lawrence William Dixon was brought from Leicester Prison to the Melton Mowbray Magistrates Court for the purpose of committal at the next Leicestershire Assizes. To the original Indictment of Robbery, the more serious charge of Attempted Murder had by now been appended. The Court was notified that Mr Mark Littlewood was ‘still critical – but improving’; it was stressed that he was not yet out of danger. Mr E.G. Robey, Counsel appearing for the Director of Public Prosecutions, presented the evidence for the Crown. Mr H.K. Barker appeared for the defence and at the end of proceedings he informed the Court that Mr. Dixon’s defence would be reserved.
On Thursday 20th May 1943, Private Dixon appeared before Mr Justice Macnaughton at the Leicestershire Assizes, then held in the iconic building known as Leicester Castle, where he was to plead guilty to wounding Mark Littlewood with intent to do Grievous Bodily Harm and further to Robbery of £16 With Violence; he pleaded ‘not guilty’ to the more serious charge of ‘Intent to Murder’. Mr Fitzwalter Butler, appearing for the Crown, outlined the facts of the case to the Court, telling the jury, “By the narrowest possible margin, this prisoner is fortunately not in the dock today, facing the capital charge.” He asserted to the Court that with regards to the involvement of the man Robertson, that he had strongly denied being concerned in the matter and his own account of his movements on the day in question could not be disproved by the police. This observation was accepted by the Crown.
As is the usual procedure in cases which appear before the Assize Courts, an antecedent history of the accused was delineated to the Court. This procedure does of course provide the Honourable Judge with a taste of the background to assist him with his sentencing considerations. In this particular case he was to gain an interesting insight into the background of how this young American citizen, now serving with the Canadian Army in its support of the Allied Forces and Commonwealth in its dispute with Germany, had ended up in a small market town in the middle of England, entrapped with tragic consequences for his future. It was explained that Dixon was a bona-fide US resident and native of New York State where his parents resided. He had one brother who was currently serving in the United States Army and a sister who was nurse, also serving the cause. After leaving high school he had joined the American Army Air Corps with whom he had served for some 18 months, but in September 1939 whilst so serving, he sustained a military conviction for the unlawful taking of his Commanding Officer’s car without his consent for which he was sentenced to 90 days military imprisonment, suspended for one year and combined with one years probation. Believing that he had little to lose, he travelled across the border into Canada where he enlisted in a Canadian Reconnaissance Regiment. His Regiment was said to be one of the very earliest of the many Commonwealth contributions sent to assist Britain in the early days of the war effort when they transferred to England in 1940.
The Honourable Judge would have probably listened up when the Court was further told that whilst serving in England Lawrence Dixon had been badly injured in a road traffic accident, as a result of which he had been detained at a Canadian Military Hospital for four months. After a period of treatment and rehabilitation, the court was told that he was officially declared as being unfit for further reconnaissance duties, as a consequence of which he was transferred to a unit of the Royal Canadian Ordnance Corps at the Old Dalby Depot. On hearing of this hospitalisation of the accused, Judge Macnaughton interceded and asked Counsel for the defence, Mr Guy Dixon, if he had any evidence for the Court to verify the claim which could possibly be grounds for mitigation. When Counsel replied that he was only aware of what his client had told him, the Judge adjourned proceedings so that proper enquiries could be made. The Prosecution’s immediate response to the adjournment was to inform the Court that the police had properly investigated and thoroughly checked the hospitalisation claims but had been unable to verify its authenticity. There were apparently no records to be found at any of the hospitals mentioned, nor at the Canadian Military HQ in London. It seems that that was that.
In his mitigation speech on behalf of the accused, his Counsel told the Court that there was no possible excuse for the offences to which he had pleaded guilty and that nobody realises the fact more than the accused himself. He said that in his own words, he was disgusted with himself for doing it. It all seemed to have been conceived and was almost without question committed as a result of drink. Just prior to committing the crime he had been drinking alcohol almost continuously for nearly two days and when he had known he had passed his course, it was a further excuse for another round of visits to the public houses. The debilitating and disastrous effect of that drinking was that he lacked the willpower to resist the temptation. It was quite true, as he has admitted, that the robbery was premeditated, but the use of excessive violence was not necessarily part of his plan. This was indicated in his own written statement when he said, “everything went black in my head.”’
Five Years Penal Servitude
Mr Justice Macnaughton in passing a sentence of five years penal servitude, commented on the fact that Dixon might well have been standing there on a much more serious charge, adding that he was clearly satisfied that he went into the shop with the obvious intention of robbing the man.
As a footnote to the trial, Dr Bishop was to tell the Court that he had visited and examined Mark Littlewood the previous day, which was by now some three months after the event and could say that he was definitely out of danger. Unfortunately he was however, suffering from a certain type of paralysis which would mean that he would never be able do his work as a tailor again.
ABOUT MARK LITTLEWOOD
The hapless victim of this cruel and vicious crime, Mark Littlewood, was like many of his kin before him, born at the small village of Kirby Bellars near to Melton Mowbray in the North-East of Leicestershire in 1880. He was the youngest son of his namesake father, Mark Littlewood (1834-1879) and his mother, Dinah Jackson who, after their marriage in 1862 were to initially reside in the village, but around 1866 they took up the Licence of the Rutland Arms Beer House in Rutland Street in Melton where they were to bring seven surviving children into the world, two girls and five boys. With the sudden and unexpected death of his father at the age of just 45, Mark’s mother was to retain the pub licence until her own death in 1893. As already explained, both Richard and Mark Littlewood trained as cutters and bespoke tailors in Leeds, Yorkshire, prior to returning to their home town, both to set up flourishing and respected businesses. Mark was to marry Rose Hannah Broadbent of Chesterfield, Derbyshire in October 1909 and their five children all grew up in the town. Daughter, Olive Dinah, who discovered the shocking incident with her father, was born in 1910; Jack 1914; Rose 1916; Charlie 1920 and Anthony in 1927. Mark struggled to make a living in the aftermath of his injuries sustained in the attack in 1943 and following his wife who died in 1956, he was to die in the spring of 1967. Olive did not marry and she died in Melton in 2005.
Having completed this short tale of happenings in my home town, I frequently wonder whatever might have happened to our young American visitor of those dark days of 1943. I am well aware that this blog is seen in many corners of the world and I sometimes think that there might be someone out there who could tell me of what happened to Lawrence William Dixon after he had served his 'five years penal servitude'. If that person does exist, please contact me and in exchange for any useful information I will give you a free Melton Mowbray pork pie!
As a final footnote I have appended a 'today' picture of the scene of that crime which occurred some 50 years ago, to compare with the older one. The general lay out remains and actual the scene of the vicious attack remains pretty well recognisable from the previous picture which was in all fairness taken around the turn of the last century. A few of the buildings (in the centre of the picture) have resisted the evolutionary process and the Carnegie Library with its welcoming spire, eyes the 'Lego' building of McDonalds's next door - likely with disdain! The old building, gifted to the town in 1904 by philanthropist steel baron Andrew Carnegie, now serves as the town's museum. So if you are around this way at any time soon, that is the place to get your bearings and to sample a taste of the the olden days.
John McQuaid - 2005