The Killing Of James William Percey: A Murdered Sailor, A Robbery & An Execution In Manchester

James William Percey was robbed and murdered in 1944 at Manchester docks, England, resulting in his killer being hung at Strangeways prison.

The murder of James William Percey at Salford Docks in 1944
The murder of James William Percey at Salford Docks in 1944

The journey through the waters of the North Atlantic had been treacherous. The silent enemy below - the German U-Boats - saw to that, but as the merchant's vessel Pacific Shipper edged its way slowly into the mouth of the River Mersey, the crew began to relax, ready for a spot of well-earned shore leave. It was Saturday, April 1, 1944.

Safely in Salford Docks most of the crew headed for town, leaving just a skeleton staff to watch over the ship. Apart from basic security, their only task was to adhere to the strict blackout regulations. At shortly before 11 pm on the following Saturday night, April 8, the third mate was doing a routine security check when he spotted a chink of light coming from the second officer's cabin.

"Hey! Put that bloody light out," he barked, bounding up the stairs. Reaching the bridge he was on the point of repeating his command when he became aware of a strange smell evidently coming from the Chief's cabin, situated inside the second officer's cabin and accessible only by passing through it. He tried the door but it was locked. Switching off the light he returned to his patrol and thought no more about it until an hour or so later when he entered the officers' lavatory directly below the locked cabin. His gaze was attracted to a dark patch on the ceiling that looked uncannily like blood. Realising what was directly above, and remembering the smell, he quickly sought out the first mate who kept keys to all the cabins. The first mate was ashore but the keys were hanging on the wall, and selecting the appropriate bunch he returned to the bridge.

Opening the door he was greeted by a nauseous stench. The porthole was closed, the heating was on, and turning on the light he saw the body of a man on the floor. The head lay in a pool of blood and from where he stood there was no doubt the man was dead. The injuries to the upper body were so severe that the face was almost unrecognisable, the only clue to identity being the uniform, which was that of the chief officer.

Locking the cabin behind him, the sailor headed straight for shore and the local police station, and within minutes officers from the Salford Broughton Force accompanied him back to the ship. Led by Superintendant Sydney Lawrence, the Assistant Chief Constable, they surveyed the scene in the cabin. The victim was identified as James William Percey, the 48-year-old Canadian-born chief radio officer.

Lawrence learned that Percey had been paid on the previous Monday and would have been in possession of nearly £80. Was he the victim of a robbery? This seemed likely. The detective went over the cabin with a methodical eye and instead of the £50 or so he would have expected Percey to have left after a few days in port, all he could find was a handful of copper totalling less than five shillings.

On a table were three empty beer bottles, two full ones, and two half-empty tumblers. It appeared that Percey had been entertaining in his cabin before the murder. Detective Superintendant Cleminson noticed fingerprints on one of the beer glasses and had them taken to the forensic laboratory to see if there was a matching set of prints on file.

Percey had been a strong man but he did not seem to have put up any resistance, which suggested that he had been friendly with his killer and taken by surprise. A young detective, on his first murder case, carefully picked up a bloodstained bottle and suggested, "This looks like it might have been the weapon," but Cleminson reasoned that if a bottle had been used it would certainly have shattered, judging from the extent of the injuries. A search in the adjacent berth found a bloodstained axe concealed beneath a bunk, and this proved to be the murder weapon.

The police surgeon called to examine the body immediately after the discovery was also new to a murder investigation, and a combination of the effects of the heat of the cabin and his relative inexperience caused him to state the likely time of death as about a week ago. The Home Office pathologist who later carried out the post-mortem reported that this initial calculation as to the time of death was wrong. "More likely been dead two days, probably the previous Thursday," he told detectives.

Manchester docks
Manchester docks

As in all murder cases, the first steps were to eliminate the obvious suspects: in this case, they were Percey's shipmates, if only because they had the opportunity to murder. Military police rounded the men up and they were interviewed at the docks. Each was able to prove his innocence and in doing so gave a clearer picture of the dead man.

Percey was the archetypal loner, preferring his own company to that of his colleagues. He was a widower, born in Montreal, with no relatives or real friends in England, although he was known to have spent much of his time on previous visits to Salford in the company of a local prostitute called Maureen. He kept himself to himself on the ship and was fond of a drink, but although he spent a lot of time in the dockside pubs he didn't have many friends amongst those who gathered there. Yet he seemed to have invited someone into his cabin.

It had been the Monday morning after they docked before Percey finally went ashore, making his way to the Marconi Naval Offices in Liverpool, where he collected his wages, a large sum of back pay, and money owed to him by the Board of Trade as compensation for personal goods lost when he was torpedoed on an earlier voyage.

One of the crew told police he had seen Percey drinking with Maureen on the Wednesday when he had asked the chief for the key to the radio room, so that he could listen to the news broadcast.

"Make sure you lock it, I've a lot of notes in there," Percey told him as he handed over the key.

"Did you lock it?" the detective asked.

"Yes, I double-checked as I left."

"Did you see the money?"

"I wasn't looking for it," the sailor replied coldly.

The investigation centred on events that had taken place in the week between the ship docking at Salford and the discovery of the body. Maureen, the prostitute, was able to piece together most of the previous week. Percey had been with her from Tuesday afternoon until lunchtime on Thursday when he told her he needed to return to his ship. They arranged to meet up again later that evening.

"Did he turn up?" asked Cleminson.

"No, he didn't! By the time he set out for his ship he was rolling drunk," she said. "I assumed he must have slept through."

No one had seen the big Canadian after Thursday afternoon, when a dock worker saw him, in the company of another officer, staggering towards the ship at about 3 pm.

"What state was he in?" enquired the detective.

"He appeared to be drunk, and the other officer was holding him up."

Arriving on board the ship with his companion, Percey had called in to see the second mate. He collected his keys and purchased half a dozen bottles of beer, inviting the second mate to join them when he came off duty.

Shortly before 5 pm, the second mate called at the cabin and found it closed. Assuming that the party had finished and the men had gone ashore, he returned to his own cabin. Another officer called at Percey's cabin at five o'clock, and he too found it locked. Cleminson concluded, therefore, that the time of death was between 3 pm and 5 pm, which tied in perfectly with the pathologist's report.

The investigation now concentrated on the mystery seaman who had accompanied Percy on board the ship, Percey must have met his killer after leaving Maureen earlier that afternoon, perhaps in one of the pubs he passed on his way back to the docks. No one had reported seeing the man leave the ship but descriptions given by those who had seen him enter the dockyards suggested that he was a chief steward in the Mercantile Navy.

Cleminson had a photograph of Percy enlarged and posted outside the docks and the dockside pubs, under the banner: "Have You Seen This Man?" Several witnesses responded and one in particular gave detectives the best description so far of the steward who boarded the Shipper with Percey, adding that the mystery officer was wearing a shabby bridge coat.

Fortunately, no merchant ships had left since the discovery of the body, although most had selected their crews, loaded up, and were ready to sail. Detectives interviewed all the chief stewards on vessels that had been in the dock since before the murder but they were all clear.

A listing of all sailors registered with the pool and awaiting a posting was obtained, and on Tuesday morning, April 11, the two detectives returned to the docks. As they strode across the yard they were met by the cargo supervisor from one of the ships.

"Found that chap who killed Jim Percey yet?" he asked them.

"Why, do you know something?" the detective replied.

"Well, I thought of something," he went on.

"I saw Jim drinking before the weekend with a couple of Chief stewards. One of them I know, and his ship is still in Salford."

Detectives visited the chief steward on his boat, where they learned that the man they wanted was named James Galbraith.

James Galbraith was 26 years old and since the break-up of his marriage had been living locally with his mother at Moss Road, Stretford. He had a criminal record, which was one of the reasons why he had been unable to secure a position on one of the ships in the port. He was known to be short of cash - his drawings from the pool were only £3 a week, and he had recently asked for a loan from the pool fund. A check of his records produced a set of prints that matched those on one of the glasses in Percey's cabin. The police now had a prime suspect and set about bringing him in for questioning.

Officers visited his mother who told them he had not been home for several days - since the weekend. She said he had been working at the docks and had given her £2 towards his keep. Fortunately, the old lady still had notes and the numbers matched those issued to Percy by the Marconi offices. They asked to look around her son's room and took away a number of personal effects, one of which was a shabby bridge coat. That evening, shortly before 11 pm, he was seen approaching the house. No sooner had he entered the front door than he was under arrest.

Back at the station Galbraith was interrogated and denied everything, but being left to stew in a cell for a couple of hours seemed to shake him up, and when re-interviewed later the next morning he admitted meeting Percey as he walked back toward his ship, but still denied murder.

"He was drunk and asked me the way to Number Nine Dock. Being in no hurry I offered to show him the way, but left him to board the ship alone."

When told that his prints had been found in the cabin, Galbraith changed the last bit of his statement and admitted going there to share a drink.

"I noticed that when he opened the drawer there was a wad of notes lying in the top corner, nearest the settee. Percy closed the drawer and sat down again. We were talking. Then he went out of the cabin leaving me alone with my beer. While he was out, seeing the money in the drawer there tempted me and I opened the drawer and took a handful of notes. I could not say whether I took the lot, but I don't think so. I didn't count the money till I was back in the port when I found I had stolen around £36."

When asked by Lawrence if he had any objection to being held for further questioning, Galbraith replied, "The only objection I have is that I didn't kill the man, and I know nothing about it."

Investigations revealed that Galbraith had been spending the money in a carefree fashion, which included £8 on a new bridge coat. Much of the dead man's money was used to treat a soldier's wife to a weekend of luxury, while he also paid back an old friend the pound note he had been promising for weeks. Police recovered most of the notes Galbraith spent, all of which were traced to Percey. All told, Galbraith spent over £35 in four days.

The final piece of evidence against the prisoner was supplied by Dr Firth at the Preston forensic laboratory. Traces of blood found on the sleeve of the tattered bridge coat matched the blood group of the dead man, and several witnesses had testified that Galbraith was wearing a similar coat when seen boarding the ship. Also found on clothing in his bedroom at Stretford, were a number of hairs that had come from the victim.

Galbraith's three-day trial at Manchester Assizes at the beginning of May was little more than a formality. The defence counsel admitted the theft but claimed that Percey was very much still alive when Galbraith pocketed the notes and fled. Asked to consider the verdict, the jury were clearly unimpressed with Galbraiths version of events and needed only a short time to find him guilty.

James Percey, drunk and lonely, had invited a stranger in for a drink and lost his life for that gesture of friendship. Mr Justice Hilberry donned the black cap and the court sat in silence as he pronounced the sentence of death.

On a warm Wednesday morning of July 26, 1944, James Galbraith was hanged at Strangeways prison. Cross Dressing Killer Said "I Was In One Of My Funny Moods" After Murdering Nancy Chadwick In 1948.


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