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Welcome to the Murder Mile UK True-Crime Podcast and audio guided walk of London's most infamous and often forgotten murder cases, all set within and beyond the West End.
EPISODE ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY-NINE
This is Part One of Three of 'Do Not Disturb', the untold story of the murder of Sarah Gibson.
In the summer of 1972, 21-year-old Sarah Gibson worked as assistant housekeeper at the RAC Club at 89 Pall Mall, London, SW1. She was quiet, pleasant and she kept to herself. Those who knew her had nothing but kind words to say about her, but on across the night of Sunday 2nd to Monday 3rd July 1972, not only would a sadist assail this veritable Fort-Knox of security and navigate its maze of corridors to access her room, but they would subject this young girl to a truly shocking attack over four torturous hours, which ended in her death. But why?
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The location of The RAC Club in Pall Mall where Sarah Gibson was murdered by David Frooms. It is marked with a mustard coloured raindrop near the words Charring Cross. To use the map, click it. If you want to see the other murder maps, access them by clicking here.
SOURCES: As this case was researched using some of the sources below.
UNEDITED TRANSCRIPT OF THE EPISODE:
Welcome to Murder Mile.
Today I’m standing outside of The Royal Automobile Club at 89 Pall Mall, SW1; two streets east of the death of David West by his son, two streets north-east of Ghodratollah Barani banging on Buckingham Palace’s gates, two streets south of the Blackout Ripper’s assault on Greta Hayward and three streets east of the sweet-faced killer who ‘famously’ sold powdered dessert - coming soon to Murder Mile.
Hailed as one of London’s most best private member’s clubs, The RAC Club is an impressive four-storey mansion made of Portland stone and lined with Doric-columns, like a lost relic of the roman empire.
Founded in 1897, it houses eighty luxury bedrooms, seven banquet suites, three restaurants, a marble-lined swimming pool, a billiards room and a Turkish bath. With all the opulence of billionaire’s boudoir, mere hoi-polloi (like you or I) would never be allowed to dirty its décor, as its membership is strict and vapid; to enter, you have to be wealthy, you have to be a ‘name’ and (until 1998) you had to be a man.
To pamper these flexible legends of tax law limbo and lovers of the off-shore loophole, The RAC Club employs two-hundred staff; comprising of chefs, butlers, sommeliers, valets and chambermaids. Most commute in, but a tiny proportion live on-site, in small private rooms on a section exclusively for staff.
In the summer of 1972, Room 519 was home to Sarah Gibson, the club’s live-in assistant housekeeper. Fresh from the country, she was excited undertake such a prestigious job; therefore, she worked hard, she kept out of trouble and she was well-liked by friends, family, club members and colleagues.
But across the night of Sunday 2nd to Monday 3rd July 1972, not only would a sadist assail this veritable Fort-Knox of security and navigate its maze of corridors to access her room, but they would subject this young sweet girl to a truly shocking attack over four torturous hours, which ended in her death.
But why Sarah? Was it personal, revenge, a mistake, or a series of unfortunate coincidences?
My name is Michael, I am your tour-guide, and this is Murder Mile.
Episode 159: ‘Do Not Disturb’ – Part One.
Sarah Mary Gindle Gibson was born in August 1950, as the youngest daughter to John & Mary Gibson, with three older siblings; Angela, Martin and Simon. As someone who worked as an assistant house-keeper, you might expect such a girl to have a more modest upbringing? But you’d be wrong.
Raised in the village of Lambourn in Berkshire, the Lambourn Valley is a breeding-ground for some of the world’s fastest and finest racehorses and Grand National winners, and at the centre of it all was Sarah’s father - the celebrated racehorse trainer, Colonel ‘Jack’ Hugill Gibson.
Like many breeders in this village which comprised of fifty training yards, horse-racing is very much a family business, with their surname being the epitome of pride and their secrets passed down solely through the blood-line. Therefore, it’s no surprise that Jack’s eldest son became a champion jockey.
Horseracing was everything to the Gibson family, they ate and breathed racing, and so dedicated were this family to achieve equine excellence, that Jack was the first British trainer to build a swimming pool in his yard exclusively to aid rehabilitation of injured horses. This was what they did…
…but it wasn’t for Sarah.
Being a diminutive five-foot-two and weighing just over eight stone, physically Sarah was the perfect size to become a jockey, but horse-racing didn’t rev her engine. There was something truly humble about Sarah; as she didn’t crave fame, she didn’t court attention and she didn’t compete for trophies. She supped tea instead of champagne and whereas some may covet their photo on the society pages, she saw her future with a pinny, a mop, a clean room and a strong sense of pride at a job well done.
She would never become a name with a bulging bank balance - but that was the point. She wanted to do her own thing, to learn everything from the ground-up and to make her own mistakes.
With her parents’ blessing, in 1967 she studied hotel management at college, and in October 1969 she got her first job as a chambermaid at the Norfolk Hotel in Paddington; where she made beds, she cleaned bathrooms and she scrubbed floors. All for a minimum wage, but she had earned every penny.
It was a perfect job for someone like Sarah, as she was a private person who kept-to-herself. Described as “a quiet little thing with a pretty face and lovely big blue eyes”, she was popular and liked, but being happy in her own skin, she was good with people, but she preferred the solitude of her own company.
She wasn’t shy, far from it, but she was just a private person who never felt the need to burden others with her woes. She was chatty and happy-go-lucky, but she rarely discussed her love-life and although she didn’t have a lot of friends, she loved her family and would visit them every month without fail.
She loved her job, she never complained, she was always punctual, and living on a minuscule wage, she got by because she had simple tastes; purchasing white bread, instant coffee and powdered milk.
There was nothing fancy about Sarah, she liked a simple life with no fuss, frills nor friction.
In November 1970, Sarah took a step up the career-ladder when she was employed as the assistant housekeeper at the prestigious RAC Club in Pall Mall. Built on a solid reputation as a hard-worker, she would be responsible for a team of chambermaids, working day and night shifts. Owing to the long-hours, she lived on-site in a small but practical room, and she liked her job as the staff were like family.
Three years out of college, had a blossoming career, and she had done all off her own back.
Everything in her life was going well…
…but one year later, she would be murdered in the one place she felt safest – her own bed. But why? Was it for something she did, something she said, something she heard, or something she knew?
Sarah had lived in London for 18 months. As a notoriously expensive city, she may have feared for her safety had she been forced to share a bedsit or flat with several dubious strangers in the cheapest part of town. But luckily, the staff quarters at The RAC Club were perfect for a young small girl. Being a prestige venue, which prided itself on protecting its exclusive clientele; its windows were locked, its doors were solid, undesirables were instantly ousted and security patrolled the premises at all hours.
Being an all-male club, although the rules were archaic, every member had to follow a code of conduct. Breaches were dealt with by cancellation of their membership and police were involved if necessary.
The same went for the staff, as strict house rules enforced a level of professionalism – no drinking on duty, no drugs at any time, no fraternisation between staff and customers, and no friends (especially those of a romantic bent) were permitted in their private quarters. This also assured the staff’s safety.
On the night of her murder, of the 80 bedrooms for club-patrons, only 17 were occupied. All were members, all were accredited and vetted, and all were questioned by detectives and released.
Of the 12 live-in staff, 10 were on duty, 1 was absent (but accounted for) and the twelfth was Sarah.
But then again, how safe is anyone at any time?
As for her work relationships, she didn’t have a colleague who she was close to. She was friendly, but she never got close. As Frederick Hockley, the valet would state “she was always nice, always pleasant. She would laugh with me when a (horse) race was on that she ought to put a bet on. I don’t know anybody who had a bad word about her”. Overseeing the chambermaids, she reported to Monica White the housekeeper, who said “she was a lovely little girl, without any real friends. At Christmas she bought herself a television set so she could watch it in the evenings for a bit of entertainment”.
Following her death, detectives occupied two rooms to question the staff, but the harshest words anyone had to say about Sarah was that “she was a bit immature” and had a tiny rebellious streak. As a few days earlier, one of the chambermaids saw that with her black uniform, she was wearing white stockings. At which, Sarah laughed “they will have to do me, it’s the only pair I have until pay day”.
She was far from a figure of hate, but did someone she knew harbour a grudge?
Little is known about her private life, but certain things were undeniable; everybody agreed “she was cautious”, “she never took risks” and “she didn’t mix with hippies or weirdoes, anyone like that”. She didn’t have a criminal record, her autopsy stated there were no drink or drugs in her system, and she was not pregnant or sick. In fact, her life was so blameless, she didn’t even return a library book late.
Some suggested that perhaps she had a secret life? But then again, that’s entirely unlikely as she rarely went out, often being at her most contented, when she was alone, in her room, watching television.
As for romance; “I never saw her with a boyfriend”, Frederick said, a statement backed-up by Monica: “Sarah didn’t talk about her love life. She kept this to herself”. Now, this could just be gossip, but some said she was seeing a man called Frank who came from Belfast. But if he did exist, there’s no mystery as to why she kept him a secret? As being so private, her silence was just part of who she was.
In the ensuing investigation, police would explore every miniscule aspect of her private life for a clue, or even just a hint as to who had inflicted such violence against Sarah, and why? But it all drew a blank.
Her diary - although well-thumbed - was little more than a to-do-list, and an address book of names that the police would contact, question and rule out. There were no coded entries nor hints at liaisons.
Her social life was as ordinary as any other young girl who savoured the silence of her own space.
She didn’t splash out on extravagances and saved what little she could. She liked simple pleasures like instant coffee and crap telly, she smoked ten-ciggies-a-day lighting her Embassy’s with a gold-coloured Ronson lighter with tortoise shell casing, and she always took a good book to bed. And the highlight of her year was to be a solo weekend break in Paris - her treat to herself - but first she had to save.
She loved going to the theatre, often alone, having recently seen Godspell and Tom Brown’s School Days, as well as popping to the cinema. And although the latest releases – Dirty Harry, A Clockwork Orange and Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy weren’t her cup of tea, she had some interest in the trial of the Teacup Poisoner whose crimes were hitting the headlines. To keep herself entertained, sometimes she went dancing, sometimes she played bingo, and her only hobby was to collect porcelain dolls.
Mentally she was strong, physically she was well, she had no illnesses nor disabilities, and because she kept her life as simple as possible; she slept well, she ate well, she was happy and she had few worries.
In fact, her only concern was that - ever since she was a child - she had suffered with claustrophobia. A colleague would state “she always slept with her door open. She couldn’t bear to be enclosed in such a small room. It would have been easy for someone to get into her bedroom as she slept. We sometimes remarked on this, but she only laughed”, as the club was safe and secure.
At least, that’s what she thought.
In her final days, she received no threats, she saw no strangers, and there were no changes in her mood. So, either her killer had come out of nowhere and attacked for no reason what-so-ever…
…or maybe – being so private – she kept all of this terror to herself?
Sunday 2nd July was Sarah’s day off. She had worked the 7am to 1pm shift the day before, and spoke to Monica at 12:55pm, but she said nothing about her plans for the weekend – which wasn’t unusual.
The weather was hot, as Britain was in the grip of a mini-heatwave, the kind we love for a second but grumble about when it’s too hot and once it’s gone. With highs of 83 Fahrenheit / 28.6 Celsius during the day, and lows of 68 and 20 at night, it was made hotter in a city made of glass, concrete and steel.
As per usual; she woke late, she ate toast, she drank coffee and dressed in casual clothes. There was no urgency to her movements and no schedule to keep, as she was enjoying having nothing to do.
Mid-morning, she left her fifth floor room at the rear of the club, leaving her door slightly ajar (as there was no reason to lock it). She removed the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign from the handle on the outside of her bedroom door and returned it to the inside, as tomorrow morning she would be back on duty. She turned left down the hallway, descended the service stairs and exited the club via ‘staff only’ door.
Being a barmy day, she did as anyone else would and went on a long walk, as although chock-full of traffic, Pall Mall is surrounded by several royal parks, such as Green Park, Hyde Park and St James’.
She took herself shopping, purchasing just her essentials, being that of a copy of the Evening Standard and a pack of 20 Embassy cigarettes, leaving enough money for a simple but harmless night out.
Throughout the day, she was seen several times at the club, and she seemed her usual pleasant self.
At 7pm, she dined in the staff restaurant, eating a meal of stew and dumplings. At 7:30pm, she walked two streets north to her regular haunt – the Fun City Bingo Hall at 3-4 Coventry Street. As she often did, she sat by herself, she purchased two scorecards and a soft drink - leaving her with approximately 60 pence in her purse - she chatted politely with the others ladies and she left at a little before 9:30pm.
As far as we know; she didn’t meet anyone, she wasn’t followed, she wasn’t accosted and she didn’t look harassed. The RAC Club barman served her a drink, and at 9:45pm she returned to her room.
That was the last time that Sarah Gibson was seen alive…
…except by one person who did the unthinkable.
What happened next the detectives could only surmise based on the evidence presented before them. And although, the little things she did and the seemingly ordinary actions she undertook that night, were part of her night-time routine, they would have a massive impact on the few hours she had left.
She entered the long thin windowless hallway, which consisted of five staff quarters (Rooms 516 to 520), with a small shared bathroom, a lavatory and one entrance and exit to the ‘staff only’ staircase. Above her door to Room 519 was a solitary bulb, which was always kept on throughout the night.
At 15 feet square, her room was small, practical and not particularly tidy. Near the door was a dressing table with a large mirror topped with ceramic dolls, a tall wardrobe full of Sarah’s clothes, a solo chair and a small side-table featuring a flower in a small thin vase, an electric heater (which was off), a sash-window (which was closed), a set of floral curtains (left half open), a small black & white television, a handbasin, a second wardrobe (full of her toiletries, books and underwear), a bedside table with a lone lamp and a framed photograph of her family, and behind the door, an armchair and a single bed.
This was her room, where she lived by herself.
Returning at a little after 9:45pm, she popped on her telly, and (if she had tuned it to BBC1) she’d have watched World War Two drama Colditz, the episode where Wing Commander Marsh feigns illness.
She undressed and placed her clothes on the chair, she checked her uniform for the morning (a black skirt, black top and white stockings, as payday was soon but not soon enough) and she changed into her night attire of white knickers, a blue bed-jacket and an orange nylon nightdress - nothing fancy.
On the dressing table was hung a blue bathrobe tied with a long blue woollen cord, but she only wore that when nature called and she had to pop down the hallway to use the bathroom or the lavatory.
At 10:15pm, Colditz made way for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and whilst smoking and stubbing out one of six ciggies in two ashtrays that night, she put two curlers into the sides of her dark brown hair.
Perching her handbag (containing her purse, a diary, a torch and a Churchill Crown) on the chair, she removed her valuables, which were more sentimental than expensive; a silver watch, a heart-shaped locket which her dad had bought for her 21st birthday, around which hung four charms from her mum and three siblings. But she kept in her gold earrings, as being pierced, they were unlikely to fall out.
At 10:45pm, Monty Python became Midweek; a current-affairs show presented by Ludovic Kennedy. She boiled a tartan flash of water, made one cup of Gold Blend coffee, stirred in one spoon’s worth of Coffee Mate (a powdered milk substitute), and supped her nightly drink from a single ceramic cup.
She grabbed her newspaper, she popped off her slippers, and she hopped into her single-sized bed.
At 11:30pm was the Late News, followed by a nature programme called Animal Design, which she may have watched, having snuggled under a brown floral eiderdown and a multicoloured woolen blanket of red, black, orange and cream squares, as her sleepy head nestled softly into a thick white pillow.
Of course, we can never know the exact timings of what she did and when during her last night alive, but we do know that all of these everyday things she did, happened between 9:45pm and midnight.
By the time of the nightly weather report, Sarah was asleep - safe and sound in her own bed. And as the channel closed down for the night and the national anthem played, the soft soothing voice of the announcer stated “the BBC is now closing” and the telly turned to snowy fuzz and white noise. As she often did, she fell asleep with the lights and TV on, her curtains slightly open and her door left ajar.
Nobody saw or heard anything strange coming from her room that night.
At 8am, her alarm clock went off, but she didn’t answer it.
Sarah was supposed to be doing a split-shift with Monica starting at 9am. She had always been such a punctual girl, quiet but efficient. So, by 9:20am, Monica asked the valet “Fred, go wake her, will you?”.
Fred Hockley went up to the fifth floor, “I knocked on the door of Sarah’s room. I got no reply”. Ignoring the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign which hung on the outside handle, as he entered, her room was illuminated just as she had left it the night before; her TV was on, the curtains were open, a half drunk coffee lay beside her bed and her clothes were scattered the floor – it was messy but then this was her room.
“The door was off the latch, I said ‘Sarah, get up it’s gone 9 o’clock’”. She didn’t stir, she didn’t move, and she didn’t make a sound. From the base of the bed, he knocked the wooden foot board and cooed ‘Sarah, come on, you’re late’. But seeing that skin looked an odd colour, “I thought she was maybe ill”.
With her blanket pulled right up to her nose, she looked asleep, only with her half open eyes peeping over the top of the bedsheet - all bloodshot and fixed - he saw that her face was strangely swollen. Gravely worried, Fred called for Monica, who also got no answer to her call, and as she slowly pulled down the blanket to reveal the rest of her face, “instantly I knew that she was dead”. (End)
No-one had seen Sarah for twelve hours and she had been dead for at least five, but it was those crucial four hours between midnight and the time of her death, which posed the most questions.
Who had done this to Sarah? Did she sneak a lover in? Was it a rival who was waiting for her? Or was it a familiar face who knew that she never locked her door and always left it open? On the surface, there was no sign of a break-in, no hint at a struggle and the room looked messy but not ransacked.
It was only when her blanket was pulled down to her ankles that the true horror of what had happened to Sarah was unearthed. Someone had wanted her punished, someone wanted her humiliated, and they had taken a long lingering pleasure in her terrifying torture; as this tiny girl had been stripped, tied-up, raped and strangled, over the four hours she was trapped in her room with her killer.
But who would want her dead, and why? Her quiet little life had left more holes than clues; was this a revenge attack over a deal to do with her wealthy father’s business, was it a rival staff member who wanted her job, did she have a secret boyfriend who had been jilted, or as a nobody in an exclusive club full of rich and powerful men, did she accidentally see or hear something that she shouldn’t have?
The room was a mess, and although several inexpensive items had been stolen, her killer had left behind two items of their own; a brown corduroy jumper and a white shirt with two buttons missing.
Was this a mistake? Or, if it wasn’t, how come they had the foresight to cover-up her body with a blanket before they fled, and – giving themselves enough time to escape – by placing on the outside door handle a simple sign which everybody in a hotel obeys. It simply read ‘Do Not Disturb’.
Part two continues next week. (Out)
*** LEGAL DISCLAIMER
The Murder Mile UK True Crime Podcast has been researched using the original declassified police investigation files, court records, press reports and as many authentic sources as possible, which are freely available in the public domain, including eye-witness testimony, confessions, autopsy reports, first-hand accounts and independent investigation, where possible. But these documents are only as accurate as those recounting them and recording them, and are always incomplete or full of opinion rather than fact, therefore mistakes and misrepresentations can be made. As stated at the beginning of each episode (and as is clear by the way it is presented) Murder Mile UK True Crime Podcast is a 'dramatisation' of the events and not a documentary, therefore a certain amount of dramatic licence, selective characterisation and story-telling (within logical reason and based on extensive research) has been taken to create a fuller picture. It is not a full and complete representation of the case, the people or the investigation, and therefore should not be taken as such. It is also often (for the sake of clarity, speed and the drama) presented from a single person's perspective, usually (but not exclusively) the victim's, and therefore it will contain a certain level of bias and opinion to get across this single perspective, which may not be the overall opinion of those involved or associated. Murder Mile is just one possible retelling of each case. Murder Mile does not set out to cause any harm or distress to those involved, and those who listen to the podcast or read the transcripts provided should be aware that by accessing anything created by Murder Mile (or any source related to any each) that they may discover some details about a person, an incident or the police investigation itself, that they were unaware of.
*** LEGAL DISCLAIMER
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a writer, crime historian, podcaster and tour-guide who runs Murder Mile Walks, a guided tour of Soho’s most notorious murder cases, hailed as “one of the top ten curious, quirky, unusual and different things to do in London” and nominated "one of the best true-crime podcasts at the British Podcast Awards".
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a crime writer, podcaster of Murder Mile UK True Crime and creator of true-crime TV series.
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