The 1944 Murder of Gladys Appleton In St Helens, England: A Woman Strangled & A Soldier Hanged

In 1944 Gladys Appleton was attacked and strangled by an intoxicated young Scottish soldier who was stationed at a nearby military camp. The soldier, John Gordon Davidson was 18-years-old at the time of the crime and was hung at Walton prison that same year.

Gladys Appleton murder
The body of Gladys Appleton was discovered on the grounds of The Elms, Cowley Hill Lane, St Helens

It started out as just another day for postwoman Betsy Baines as she began her early round on Monday morning, March 20. At 7.45 am, Betsy turned into Cowley Hill Lane, St Helens, and what she discovered next started off a major murder enquiry. Walking back down the drive after delivering letters at The Elms, a detached house used since the outbreak of the war as the headquarters of the National Fire Service, she spotted the body of a young woman lying in the bushes. It appeared the woman had been the victim of a brutal sex attack. Her clothes had been savagely ripped, exposing the whole of her body, and there was a clear set of teeth marks on and around her breasts. The cause of death though was clearly strangulation; a scarf was knotted tightly around the neck with the two ends forced inside her mouth.

Superintendent James Ball and Detective Inspector John Maddocks took charge of the investigation. From the woman's handbag found nearby, papers revealed her to be 27 year old Gladys May Appleton of Bishop Road, St Helens. Detectives interviewed her distressed parents and Frederick Appleton confirmed that the body was indeed that of his daughter. He told Superintendant Ball that she had failed to return home the night before after visiting her boyfriend, George Barker. Barker had been courting Gladys since soon after the breakout of the war, some four years ago. They usually went for a drink on Sundays but they had spent the previous evening in together, as he was still feeling the effects of a visit to the dentist. He lived on Knowlesly Road, a quarter of an hour's walk from Gladys's home, and would normally have walked her to her door, but on this night she said she would be alright walking home alone and they had parted at his front door at 10.40 pm. It was a decision that would haunt George Barker for the rest of his life.

Gladys Appleton murder St Helens
An extract from the Liverpool Echo newspaper detailing the murder

Several local witnesses mentioned seeing a soldier in the Cowley Hill Lane area at around the time Gladys had left Barker's house. Two things they were all agreed on; that he spoke with a strong Scottish accent and that he was very drunk. Martha Leigh told police that she was walking up Windle Street towards her front door when she heard a woman scream. "It was a terrible cream," she told the officer, "and it seemed to die down to a smothered groan. It was a few minutes after eleven o'clock." Arthur Jenkins was walking home with his wife at 11.15 pm when he heard footsteps and saw the figure of a soldier approaching. He asked to be directed to the Capitol Theatre and they showed him the way. Jenkins said the man seemed agitated and out of breath. Witness Ronald Meyer also told detectives that he had been stopped by a soldier and asked where a certain hotel was. The soldier had told him that he had missed his last bus. Meyer had suggested the YMCA but the soldier told him they were full. He was asked if the Capitol Theatre was open, and Meyer said that there would probably be a fire-watcher on duty. Investigations showed that the soldier had been allowed shelter in the stalls and after a night's sleep he had left at first light. The police were faced with the task of finding one amongst the thousands of servicemen who had been drafted into the area. It would take exhaustive enquiries to check on the whereabouts of them all, but it was a task that had to be done and a team of officers drew up a list of all the camps within an hour of St Helens. Detectives from Scotland Yard were asked to give assistance and the investigation was put into the hands of Detective Inspector Philpott and Detective Sergeant McGinn. Then another witness gave them the help they desperately needed. Mrs Gene Galvin of Gamble Avenue told officers that she was making her way home around 10.30 pm when she was confronted by a young Scottish soldier. He told her that he had just come from the Rifles, a local public house, and although she had quickened her step he kept up with her, chatting until they reached her front gate.

He told her that "he would love to be going home to a nice soft bed", and she suggested that if he found himself a private billet then he would have a nice soft bed. Bidding him goodnight, she opened the gate, closed it directly behind her, and walked up the drive. The soldier opened the gate and followed her up. He told her he would walk her to the front door and kiss her goodnight. She said that he was mistaken and hurried up the drive, but the youth followed her and said that he couldn't understand English girls. She asked him again to leave and he said he wouldn't go until he had kissed her goodnight, even if it meant waiting all night. Becoming worried, she jumped onto the lawn and he ran after her, leaving a trail of footprints in the flower beds. Gene reached the house and pounded on the door shouting for her mother. The noise was enough to frighten him off and he fled down the drive. It was a lucky escape. She was able to give officers a good description of him: fresh-faced, probably around 18 years old, fair-haired, average height, slimly built, and with a Scottish accent. The footprints could still be clearly seen in the earth and on Wednesday morning, Chief Inspector Duncan, in charge of fingerprints and photography at the Lancashire police headquarters, visited the scene and took a number of photographs of the footprints as well as making several plaster casts. It seemed unlikely that there had been two drunken young Scotsmen in the area at the same time, and beyond doubt that half an hour after Gene Galvin's encounter, Gladys Appleton had met her death in similar circumstances. It now became a manhunt. Detectives had several independent witnesses whose testimonies all verified each other. They had a good description of the wanted man and casts of his footprints. The process of elimination had begun almost at once but it was, as expected, a painfully slow one, and it was to be twelve days before the murderer was in custody.

The Elms, Cowley Hill Lane, St Helens
The Elms, Cowley Hill Lane, St Helens, how it looks in more recent years

On Friday, March 31, Detective Inspector Maddocks received a call from a nearby military camp and was told that a young soldier arrested for absence without leave fitted the description of the St Helens murderer. Later that morning officers questioned John Gordon Davidson, who was being held in a detention cell at the camp. John Gordon Davidson was 18 years old, away from his home in Grangemouth, Stirlingshire for the first time and stationed at a camp near St Helens, one of thousands of young servicemen awaiting whatever the war might bring in 1944. On March 19, after an evening of heavy drinking with two fellow soldiers in The Rifles pub in St Helens, he went out alone looking for a woman. Davidson told them that he had been in a public house with two women until 10.30 pm, when he left them to catch a bus back to camp. He had missed the bus and spent the night in the stalls at a nearby cinema. He was questioned about accosting a woman in Gamble Avenue and he denied it at first, but later admitted that he had tried to kiss her. He just "didn't want to get mixed up in the murder". An examination was made of Davidson's kit bag and several items, including a pair of his shoes, were taken away for further examination at the forensic department at Preston. He was taken to St Helens police station, where he steadfastly maintained his innocence until, with midnight approaching, he suddenly put his head in his hands and began to cry. Detective Sergeant Frank McGinn asked him what was the matter? "I did it," he replied. "I did it to that poor girl. What made me do it? How will I die Let me tell you all about it." Superintendent Ball was sent for and in his presence, Davidson dictated a statement. "I was in St Helens on March 19, Sunday. I was with Lance Corporal Green and Private Sanderson in The Rifles with two young girls and an old woman. I left them and met a woman and took her home to her gate. She would not let me kiss her. I ran after her, and she went into the house. I came away, started to walk, and met the girl. I asked her to walk to the Capitol. I took her in the gate. I kissed her. She didn't like it. I choked her with my hands. She struggled, and I put her on the grass, and I killed her there. I just choked her. I tore her clothes off and I tried..." Tears filled his eyes as he continued. "I ran away and went to the Theatre and stayed there until morning. Then I went back to camp. It was about 6.30 am. I have been worrying all this time." When charged with murder he wept freely and replied, "I didn't mean to do it." On the following morning at a hastily convened session of the Borough Police Court, Davidson was remanded for a further week. Standing in his Khaki uniform, he looked a broken man. His eyes were inflamed from the constant crying and he hung his head in shame throughout the proceedings. Sobbing uncontrollably, the young soldier was escorted from the proceedings and taken to Walton prison.

Davidson was committed for trial at Manchester Assizes, and on Monday, May 2, he found himself before Mr Justice Hilberry. His appearance mirrored that of when he was remanded. Sobbing quietly, he replied "Not Guilty" to the charges and his head weighed heavily against his chest as the prosecution put its case. Mr Kenneth Burke, his vastly experienced defense counsel, could do little. The Judge's summing up, which lasted for just under an hour, invited the jury to consider all the evidence they had heard. He pointed out that the prosecution's case was a strong one but it was left to them to decide if it was proved beyond doubt that Davidson was guilty, that those footprints in the flowerbed were also those of Gladys Appleton's murderer. They needed just 34 minutes to find him guilty but added a strong recommendation for mercy on account of his youth. Davidson stood smartly to attention as the sentence of death was pronounced and was then led sobbing bitterly from the dock. An appeal was launched but met with no success. He penned a farewell letter to his foster mother in which he blamed his position on drink, and said that he prayed the war would be over before his young stepbrother was old enough to be called up. On Wednesday, July 12, he was hanged at Walton prison, sobbing gently as the hangman placed the noose around his neck. He paid the ultimate price for his crime, and a blameless young woman lost her life.

Now you have read about the murder of Gladys Appleton make sure you learn about The Harrowing Murder Of Beatrice Rimmer In 1951.


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