The Culvert Murder

THE CULVERT MURDER, WINSFORD 1946

On 3 January 1946, Bernard Phillips was once more at his desk. He was employed as an investigator and manager for the Refuge Lending Society, in Walker Street, Manchester. On that day, a man came into the office to ask for a loan of £60. He gave his details to the Secretary, Miss May Brownhill. He said his name was George Wood, and that he lived at Moss side Farm, in Tarporley, and that he was a farmer. His wife’s name was Jessie. The man then saw Mr. Phillips, and agreed with him to hand in the deeds of his farm in return for the loan, and it was arranged that Mr. Phillips visited the farm the following Saturday to check all was satisfactory. The Company owned a small car, a black Ford 8 horsepower for its staff to use on such occasions, and he thought it would be a nice day out in the country for his wife and son, who was only 2 years old.

However, within half an hour, Wood was on the phone again, and said that the loan was a matter of some urgency, and could the visit be done that very afternoon, as he and his wife were going away. Mr. Phillips agreed to this, and was overheard by a colleague to say, “very well, I will be there at 2 o’clock”.

Before he left the office, he was handed £60 in cash; £40 in £1 notes and two £5 notes. That was the last time he was positively seen alive.

The Police in Manchester circulated a description of the man he was last seen with, as well as the car they were using on that same day, when Bernard Phillips failed to return. The car was found quickly, in the grounds of Moulton Hall Farm, on the outskirts of Wharton, in Cheshire. Curiously, there were five eggs found in the car and police also appealed for anyone who had sold or given eggs to anyone of that description recently to come forward.

On Saturday 5th January, two brothers, Fred and Donald Threadgold, were returning home after running an errant to Moulton. The barrow they were pushing had become stuck, and so, as it was getting dark, they left if near the Smoke Hall Railway Bridge. One of the brothers looked down an embankment and saw the body sticking out of a culvert. They ran and alerted the occupants of a nearby cottage, and then home to tell the Police.

Sergeant Nixon was first on the scene and he brought with him a Dr Leak, who pronounced “Life Extinct”. The pathologist, Dr Grace, was at the scene by 19:15 and examined the body and had it removed to Winsford Mortuary, where he performed the post-mortem. The body was found less than 400 yards from where the car was found, and the body had been well hidden. Indeed it was fortunate that it had been found at all. Death had been due to hemorrhage and shock, from a single knife wound to the back, which had entered the lung through the third and fourth rib. When the body was moved, they found a “commando” knife underneath. There was no money there, and many personal possessions missing.

THE ARREST AND TRIAL

On the 7th of January, Sergeant Nixon went to a house in Ledward Street and in a lady’s handbag was a wallet containing £22.10 shillings.

Following this, Superintendent Fred Platt of the Cheshire CID went to an address in Seeley Road, Pendleton and asked Harold to accompany him to nearby Pendleton Police Station, where he was questioned about his movements for the previous week. He told them that on the previous Thursday, the day of Bernard Phillips disappearance, he had not left Winsford at all, and that he was at home helping with the housework. When he emptied his pockets, he had £2 in money, and a cigarette lighter and notecase, which turned out to have belonged to the victim of the murder.

Berry was then told that he would be taken to Winsford, pending further enquiries, and he said, “not guilty, but I will come with you.”

Superintendent Platt then went to visit Berry’s house at Ledward Street, at 11:45pm to search the premises. He brought away a knife, a raincoat and an overall. Berry was charged with the murder, and again he replied, “not guilty”. The knife, and clothes were sent to Dr Grace for further examination.

Berry was working as a night watchman, at the CWS Bacon Factory in Winsford, and at the time of the murder was having an affair with a local lady, Irene Wynn, whose husband was serving overseas. This was 1946, just after the end of the war, and it would be difficult to think of anything that could generate more feeling against him than this. He was in the company of Mrs. Wynn when he was arrested. It was soon established that Berry had a knife similar to that found at the murder scene, and that he and recently been spending quite a lot of money, too much for a night watchman with a family to support. He had bought the knife from a man at work, who had bought it for his son, but then thought it to be too dangerous, and he, Charles Bratt, sold it to Berry for 10 shillings, about three weeks before Christmas.

Berry took part in an identification parade, but was not picked out by Annie Germain, who gave the police a description of the man who came into the Refuge offices on January 3rd.

The case came to trial on 11 February 1946, and took 4 days.

Much of the evidence against Berry was circumstantial and great store was given to him having taken Mrs. Wynn away to London for a weekend, although it could be argued that this was showing his expenditure of money. He was seen in a car going towards Roden, in Shropshire, where he knew some people who worked on the CWS farm. When he was at the farm, he asked a man called Dutton if he could have some eggs, and was given six, which were later found in the abandoned car.

Berry came up with a surprise story in court which no one had been expecting and which, if true, explained away his involvement in the murder. He claimed that on the day the murder, he had in fact met up with an old friend from his days in the Merchant Navy. The friend, William Greenwood, was apparently someone he had met in Freemantle in Australia in 1936, and again in London in 1941. In London he had loaned Greenwood some £15, but had not been repaid as he had been in police custody. He claimed that he had met Greenwood on the 2nd of January, and arranged to meet him the following day to get his money. Greenwood did not have the money, but said that he had to go to Whitchurch, and would meet Berry at Bostock Corner, near Smokehall Lane at about 3:00pm. They went to Whitchurch, but did not see the friends that Greenwood was supposed to have, who lived there. He persuaded Greendwood to call into the CWS farm to get some eggs for his children. They returned to Winsford, and stopped at the bottom of Station Road. He said that Greenwood produced two wallets and gave him two £5 notes from one and ten £1 notes from the other, and told him that £5 was for interest. He also gave him one of wallets and a lighter, which later turned out to be the property of the victim. He also claimed that he had sold some pullets recently, had won a bet with an elusive bookmaker called “George” at Middlewich, and withdrawn £11 from a Tontine club, all of which accounted for his having so much money.

His story was elaborate and seemed to cover all the points against him, but where was the evidence to support him? Where was the mysterious Greenwood, and why had he not been mentioned before the trial? Where was “George” the bookmaker who had paid him so much money? Where was the Aunt who he was visiting in Salford when he met Greenwood? Where was the soldier who he claimed had bought his commando knife off of him, in a pub he couldn’t remember?

As the defence lawyer, Mr Davies told the jury: “There is not one witness to say that the accused was ever within five miles of Bernard Phillips” (apart from Miss Jarmaine, who only recognised him when he was flanked by warders). He told the jury that they would not “be doing their duty if they allowed the man’s adulterous weekend to affect their judgment”, but they found him guilty all the same, after 47 minutes.

The evidence that convicted him was the possession of the wallet, cigarette lighter and money belonging to Bernard Phillips. The judge, Mr Justice Stable, remarked in his passing sentence to Berry, “Harold Berry, the jury had found you guilty of murder of Bernard Phillips. That is a right and proper verdict. I think, and you know that, you murdered and robbed him of £50.” He then passed the sentence of death.

He was hanged by Albert Pierrepoint, the son of the man who hanged James Phipps, in 1908, on the 9th April, at Strangeways Prison, Manchester.