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Full Transcript - Episode #18 - Norah Upchurch and her Lonely Death in the Empty Shop
INTRO: Thank you for downloading episode eighteen of the Murder Mile true-crime podcast.
Since the beginning, my mission on Murder Mile has always been to focus on a small area of a city, to show that there truly is murder on every street and to draw attention to those little known murder cases which are often overlooked by newspapers, forgotten by history and lost to the mists of time.
And rather than rehashing tired old cases using woefully unreliable newspapers, I always try to use first-hand accounts, eyewitness testimony and the original declassified police investigation files. As by trawling through the witness statements, fingerprints, autopsy reports, crime scene photos and court transcripts, I hope I’ve introduced you to long-forgotten cases you’ve never heard before, but also reinvigorated the evidence by giving it a fresh spin, and - more importantly – given the victims a voice.
And today’s case is no exception, as she was a young woman with hopes and dreams, whose life was cruelly ended by an unnamed maniac who only had thoughts for his own greed and evil needs. Don’t forget to stay tuned to the end of this episode to hear more about Murder Mile’s podcast of the week, this time it’s the fascinating Occultea Veritas; thank you for listening and enjoy the episode.
SCRIPT: Welcome to Murder Mile; a true-crime podcast and audio guided walk featuring many of London’s untold, unsolved and long-forgotten murders, all set within one square mile of the West End. Today’s episode is about Norah Upchurch; a kind, caring, trustworthy and well-loved West End prostitute whose unsolved murder shocked the city’s streets, and yet – by carefully re-examining the original evidence – it’s clear that, all the while, Norah’s killer was hiding in plain sight. Murder Mile contains graphic descriptions of death which may offend, as well as realistic sounds, so that no matter where you listen to this podcast, you’ll feel like you’re actually there. My name is Michael, I am your tour-guide and this is Murder Mile.
Episode 18: Norah Upchurch and her Lonely Death in the Empty Shop. Today, I’m standing on Shaftesbury Avenue, WC2. Not the nice bit of Shaftesbury Avenue near Piccadilly Circus, by Soho, Chinatown and most of the West End theatres, but by the pug-ugly nasty bit near the arse-end of Covent Garden; an angry inner-city highway known as the A401, which runs thick with the choking fumes of trucks, the snarling engines of buses, the honking horns of cars and belching exhausts of black cabs whose swirling fare-meters move faster than their wheels ever do. And surrounded by bland office space, gloomy gothic buildings, a chef’s shop, a builder’s merchants and an infamous sci-fi toy-shop for fat middle-aged twats who are desperate to look either like they’re massively nerdy, mentally defective or a predatory paedophile. Oh yes, this is the part of Shaftesbury Avenue where you would only end up if you were lost, bored, desperate or depressed.
Having been blasted to smithereens by a Nazi bombing raid on 11th May 1941 at 3.47am, the original buildings in and surrounding 173 to 177 Shaftesbury Avenue were later demolished, rebuilt and oddly renumbered, starting from left with number 151, which then jumps to 177, only to double-back on itself at 175, leaps back to 167 and 169, double-backs on itself again by becoming 184 and finishing on the far right of these buildings with number 179, with 177 and 179 now being over three hundred feet apart, even though, back in 1931, they were side-by-side. It’s almost as if the city planners were desperate to erase this horrifying moment in history.
And yet, in a haunting and ominous parallel to those tragic events, outside of 177 Shaftesbury Avenue, now renamed Mayfield House, which is once again an empty office space, now hangs an estate agent’s sign simply marked with the words “To Let”. It’s almost like a discrete memorial to memory of Norah Upchurch, as it’s right here where she was last seen alive, and where she would die (INTERSTITIAL).
On Friday 2nd October 1931 at 10am, Douglas W L Bartram, the foreman and manager of Hilder & Co, and one of his loyal workmen, Frederick Field (known by his friends as “Fred”) left their workplace at 23 Great Pultney Street in Soho. As handymen who managed vacant properties on behalf of Perry & Ball, a branch of local estate agents, Bartram and Field were assigned to check a leak in the water pipes and remove the “To Let” sign of the empty shop’s exterior at 177 Shaftesbury Avenue.
At 10:50am, with the only set of keys having vanished, and concerned that this dark and empty space may have become a hostel for hobos, a drug-den for deadbeats or a shag-palace for sex-perverts, the ever conscientious Mr Bartram checked every window and door. Assured there was no signs of a break-in, vandalism or theft, armed with a hammer and a chisel, Bartram forced entry by jemmying a wooden door which had been nailed over a broken window at the rear of the property (on New Compton Street) and entered the shop, with his workmate Frederick Field a few paces behind.
Although cold and dark, except for a broken office chair, an abandoned cabinet and a few scattered files, the shop was empty, so Bartram and Field set about seeking out this leaky pipe and awaited the arrival of a locksmith to secure the vacant property.
But as Field passed the thin dark-lit passageway leading to the front door of 177 Shaftesbury Avenue, partially obscured by a white partition wall and lying on the cold and dusty floor, he saw what looked like a pair of legs. “What’s that?” Field nervously asked his foreman, pointing towards the splayed ladies lower-half complete with black stockings and high-heeled shoes, “Ah, it’s just one of them wax models” Bartram reassured him. But neither man was buying this, as with its crumpled clothes and unusual pose, it looked too realistic to be a dummy, and so being unsure and keeping his distance, Bartram poked it with his umbrella. What he expected was the hard hollow thud of a shop mannequin, what heard was nothing, as his umbrella tip sunk into the soft spongey skin of the corpse’s flesh.
Gulping hard, Bartram turned to his petrified colleague and stuttered “Fred? Get to Police”, as they were not alone. As inside this empty locked shop lay the body of Norah Upchurch. (INTERSTITIAL).
Born Annie Louise Norah Upchurch on 15th August 1911 in a working class area of Wembley; to Walter, a railway engineer and Louise, a housewife, Norah’s childhood was typical of those born in and around inner-city London of World War One. As being hungry, broke and malnourished, Norah and her siblings lived in constant fear as (unlike the Second World War when the buzz of German bombers alerted the city as death approached) over Norah’s London loomed a silent terror, as monstrous Zeppelin airships loaded with a barrage of bombs blitzed the city night-after-night.
Being a free-spirited young girl, Norah was always in trouble, often running away from her violent and unloving home and eagerly vying for the attention of boys. Proving too troublesome, aged just 14 years old, Norah was placed in the care of the Salvation Army at St Cuthbert's Hospital (in South Norwood), and having left school with no education, she worked briefly as a domestic servant. But as a young girl in the late 1920’s, the best that Norah could hope for was to get married or to work as a chambermaid, and yet Norah wanted so much more out of life, so aged just 16, Norah left for the bright lights of London’s West End, where she worked as a prostitute.
Although she had a difficult upbringing, according to everyone who knew her, Norah was a good person; fun-loving, sweet, likeable, trust-worthy and loyal, a professional sex-worker who didn’t drink or do drugs, she had very few debts and – as an independent single woman who saw prostitution as a temporary solution – she never had a pimp. She was her own boss, with a rented flat in Pimlico, a rented room in Bear Street (just off Leicester Square) and – having given birth a few years earlier to her beloved baby girl who she’d named Marjorie – Norah would only work from two pm to eight pm, Tuesdays to Saturdays, striving to ensure that her three year old daughter would want for nothing, and got everything that Norah never had; food, warmth, toys, and the love of a devoted mother.
And yet, aged just 20 years old, being so full of hope, dreams and with a baby daughter back home, on the evening of Tuesday 29th September 1931, Norah would meet a mysterious man, who would offer her money for sex, but instead he would end up taking her life (INTERSTITIAL).
Shaking and trembling, 27 year old Frederick Field dashed to Bloomsbury Police Station and promptly returned with Sergeant Arthur Ferridge, Constable Lashmar and ten minutes later, the divisional police surgeon, Dr William Fairlie, who entered through the front door of 177 Shaftesbury Avenue.
Beyond the black wooden door with the frosted glass, the narrow passageway was dark and dusty, running twenty feet long, three feet wide and twelve feet high, with grey plaster brickwork to the left and a wooden partition wall to the right. Immediately beyond the door, on the black stone floor were two matches and a single half-smoked cigarette, which wasn’t Norah’s brand and yet it was stained with a crimson lipstick, suggesting that it was here that Norah and an unknown associate stood, chatted and smoked, as they ironed out the details of this cash-for-sex exchange in a cordial conversation between two strangers.
Close-by was sat a fashionable green felt hat and a paste diamond brooch, which looked out of place on the dusty stone floor of such a drab and gloomy hall, but it was here, just beyond the door, that Norah’s attacker had struck, brutally strangling her, squeezing every breath of air and ounce of life out of her struggling body, and all within earshot of the busy street and visible through the frosted glass.
Although a slim petite and pretty brunette with bobbed hair, a slight frame and an eye for fashion, in her last moments alive, Norah had fought like hell, as by the door, just 18 inches off the floor were multiple scuff marks on the grey plaster wall made with a black shoe as she had kicked and clawed to stay alive, as her attacker tightly throttled her throat, until her last waking breath was expelled.
Having collapsed in a barely conscious heap; unable to see as the whites of her eyes had ruptured and filled with blood, and unable to breathe or even scream as her airway had been squeezed by his vice-like grip, either Norah’s attacker had realised his mistake having eagerly struck too early, or had lashed out in an unprovoked attack which took them both by surprise, as having strangled her too close to the bustling city street beyond the glass-fronted door, he then dragged Norah, ten feet along the dark-lit passageway to where Douglas Bartram and Frederick Field would later find her.
Having dragged her by the feet along the dusty stone floor, her left arm lay outstretched above her head, Norah’s clothes had bunched up under her back and neck, and yet, although her lower-body was partially exposed; her shoes, stockings and even knickers remained in place, suggesting her attacker’s motive was not sexual. This was the awful sight that had shocked both Bartram and Field, but hidden by the partition wall, out of views, was a sight even more disturbing… and confusing.
Once he had torn away her green skirt, entirely splitting the side seam, Norah’s attacker had tightly rolled the material and carefully placed it under her neck, as if to make her more comfortable. Then tearing at the two white vests she was wearing to keep out the cold, he had ripped these thin garments, snapping the thin rubber straps and cruelly exposing her torso from her left breast to her naval, none of which were bruised or mutilated. And yet, having ripped off her white silk jumper, he then tore off a thick strip of the fabric and forcibly stuffed it deep into her mouth, the white gag was thick with a bloodied froth of saliva and mucus, as around her throat, taken from the two-piece outfit she was wearing, he strangled Norah with her own green belt, pulling the two lengths of the felt belt tighter, strangling her for three long, slow and agonising minutes.
Where-as once she was pretty, with a sweet smile, twinkling eyes and a pixie-like nose, now Norah’s face was a contorted mess, all purple and swollen, the pupils of her beautiful brown eyes were fixed and dilated, rigour mortis had set in, and (having been dumped and left undiscovered for three days) her slender body had already began to decompose.
With her attacker having left, Norah Upchurch was left alone in the dark drab passageway of the empty shop, as the silhouettes of strangers on Shaftesbury Avenue passed by the frosted glass before her, as unable to scream or even breathe, her life ebbed away, and she died alone and terrified. Her last thought? Possibly being that of her three year old daughter, fast asleep in her cot, safe and warm as Norah had left her, who – now with no mother, no father and no grandparents to protect her - would be put into a care-home (as Norah had), the once happy childhood of an innocent destroyed by a maniac with an overpowering impulse to kill.
The autopsy of Norah Upchurch was conducted that evening by Dr William Fairlie and the Home Office Pathologist Dr Bernard Spilsbury at Westminster Mortuary in Horseferry Road. The cause of death was asphyxia by strangulation using only a green felt belt, as no finger-marks were found around her throat. Except a few bloodspots on her ripped vest, which were believed to be menstrual discharge, there was no sign of sexual assault. There was also no evidence that the murder was premeditated, no fingerprints found at the scene (as it was too dusty), no witnesses who saw Norah and her assailant enter or exit the shop, and only a slight possibility that the motive was robbery was owing to her handbag being missing. In fact, excluding the cigarette butt, along with a green felt hat, a pair of black gloves, a paste diamond brooch and a heart-shaped pendant, all of which belonged to Norah, the only other item found at the scene was Norah’s white metal wrist watch with a black band, which remained on her left wrist throughout the attack, and was smashed, stopping the time at precisely 8:20pm.
And as much as both doctors disagreed whether Norah Upchurch had been dead for 24 hours, 36 hour or 48 hours, there was no denying the fact that her watch had stopped at 8:20pm, and that after the evening of Tuesday 29th September 1931, Norah was never seen alive again.
But with very little evidence, no fingerprints nor witnesses to the crime, the chance of catching Norah’s killer was at best slim, and at worst impossible. And yet, little did the Police know, but Frederick Fields, the man who (along with Douglas Bartram) discovered the body of Norah Upchurch, would also become the investigation’s most valuable witness and would lead the Police to their chief suspect. As with no sign of a break-in at 177 Shaftesbury Avenue, what they did know for certain was that whoever murdered Norah Upchurch must have had a set of keys?
At approximately 1:40pm, on the afternoon of Tuesday 29th September 1931, the day of Norah’s death, Frederick Field the sign-fixer employed by Hilder & Co at 23 Great Pulteney Street in Soho, left the office, took a brisk five minute walk down Brewer Street, Rupert Street and stopped off at Perry & Ball, the estate agent’s at 40 Shaftesbury Avenue, having been contracted to remove the ‘To Let’ signs from the windows and on the first floor exterior of 177 Shaftesbury Avenue, and received one mortice key and one Yale key from Miss Kennan, both of which he signed for and headed on his way.
At 2pm that afternoon, Field entered via the front door where Norah’s body would later be found, but this time, the passageway was empty, as was the shop, and he went about his duties. But having left the glass-fronted door open so he could load his barrow with the discarded signage, after roughly five minutes of work, he noticed a tall man standing in the doorway. And although their conversation was brief, and they never exchanged names, Field’s description of the man is truly remarkable.
Field stated to the Police, that the man was “aged about 30, 6 feet 1 inches tall, tanned complexion, mousey hair cropped short at the back and sides, with a mousey coloured thin moustache with a gap in the middle, a gold tooth in his right upper jaw, he was of medium build, with square shoulders, was well-spoken and was dressed in a biscuit or beige coloured plus four suit with a two inch square pattern, he wore a gingery brown tweed cap and a gold watch on a leather strap on his left wrist, and he looked like a well-to-do man who was a native of London”.
Asking Field for the keys, the mysterious man dressed in the plus-fours suit reassured him this was all above board and handed Field a handwritten work-order stating “please hand the bearer of this note the keys to 173/177 Shaftesbury Avenue”, which was signed by the secretary of Perry & Ball, the estate agents. With the work order looking official and the Plus-Fours man clearly being senior to him, Field did as he was told.
And although they only spoke briefly, the Plus-Fours man implied he was an established leather goods retailer and the prospective owner of the premises who was looking to revamp the lighting, and with Field being a qualified electrician, they agreed to meet later to discuss the layout, with the Plus Fours man promising to return to key (once he’d finished) to Perry & Ball. But that very evening, by Piccadilly tube station, at roughly 9pm (forty minutes after Norah’s watch had stopped), as Field stood wearing his best suit, desperate to impress his future employer, the Plus Fours man confessed that he had forgotten the keys to 177 Shaftesbury Avenue and with both men being unable to enter the shop, the Plus Fours man left, promising to return, but he was never seen again… and neither were the keys.
Armed with nothing but a stunningly detailed description of the Plus Four man, during the afternoon of Friday 2nd October 1931, Field assisted the Police by laboriously trawling through the Police Crime Index at Scotland Yard, which contained the photos, details and rap-sheets of all known felons in the London area, and although some fitted the description, they didn’t find a match. Desperate to catch this maniac before he struck again, Field volunteered his free-time by patrolling the West End with the Police, having refined his description, but once again, Norah’s killer evaded arrest.
And yet, sometimes coincidence smiles on the desperate, as just four days after the discovery of Norah’s body, Police at Richmond Police Station arrested a known felon on a fraud charge; he was the right height, the right size, the right shape, with a pencil thin moustache, tightly clippered hair and (as was the fashion of the day) he also wore a brown plus fours suit. His name was Peter Webb.
At the station, Field was asked to identify Webb’s brown Plus Fours suit which was neatly laid on a table, and although it matched the description given, Field was certain that this was not the suit worn by the Plus Fours man. It was a shattering blow to the case…
…but believing they had their man, the Police wanted to make sure, so whilst Peter Webb was being interviewed on the unrelated charge of cheque fraud, Frederick Field was ushered into the room, and looking Webb squarely in the face, the following conversation took place. Field said (Cockney) “Hello, you know me”, Webb replied (Richmond) “I don’t know you”, Field “Yes you do, I handed you the keys of the shop at Shaftesbury Avenue last Tuesday”, Webb “Not to me”, Field “Yes I did”, Webb “What had I got on?”, Field “Your plus fours”, Webb “What hat did I have, the colour?”, Field “Brown, I recognise you”, Webb “I’ve never seen you before”, Field “You had a cap”, Webb “I’ve never had a cap”, Field “Do you think I’m daft?”, Webb “You must be”, Field “I spoke to you in Shaftesbury Avenue and next in Piccadilly”, Webb “I have never seen you before or talked to you ever”, Field “You can't prove different. I take my oath I saw you”, and Webb replied “I am positive you're wrong”. After which, Frederick Field confirmed to the Police Sergeant “That’s the man I handed the keys to”.
Peter Webb was arrested for the murder of Norah Upchurch. And as a career criminal and a habitual liar, who was later sentenced to twelve months hard labour for cheque fraud, when Webb was questioned, he staunchly denied any knowledge of Norah, her murder, the shop, meeting Field, or ever being given the set of keys. But after an exhaustive investigation, during which Peter Webb’s movements that night were thoroughly checked and verified, he provided the police with an iron clad alibi, proving he was not the Plus Fours man or Norah’s killer and Webb was released without charge.
On Thursday 19th November 1931, at Westminster Coroner’s Court, the case into the murder of Annie Louisa Norah Upchurch was heard before a jury. And with no suspects on trial, all of the evidence presented, and featuring the witness testimony of both Douglas Bartam and Frederick Field, the coroner Mr Ingleby Oddie concluded that with insufficient evidence to convict anyone for her murder, that Norah Upchurch was “wilfully murdered by a person or persons unknown”.
With very little money, an uncaring family and no husband, Norah was buried in a pauper’s grave, her few remaining possessions were sold to cover the cost of her meagre funeral, and the fate of her three year old daughter Marjorie remains unknown. And like so many West End prostitutes (such as Ginger Rae, Dutch Leah, Margaret Cook, Dora Freedman and Rita Green) who were murdered at the hands of a homicidal maniac, each of their killers evades the police, escaped justice and walked free, maybe to kill again? And yet, a full eighty-seven years later, the murder of Norah Upchurch remains unsolved, and may never be solved.
But then again… much of the evidence given is only as strong as Frederick Field’s witness testimony. And given that after Field picked up the door keys from Miss Kennan at Perry & Ball on Tuesday 29th September 1931 at 1:45pm, right up to the moment when he supposedly discovered the body of Norah Upchurch on Friday 2nd October 1931 at 10:50am having forced a window to gain entry to 177 Shaftesbury Avenue? No-one can actually corroborate any of the details in any of Frederick Field’s statements during this period; no-one knows who the Plus Fours man is, where are the keys, where Norah’s handbag is, or how Norah Upchurch ended up dead inside a locked and empty shop?
It may have remained as the ultimate locked-room mystery? But almost two years after her death, burial and the trail at Westminster Coroner’s Court where it was concluded that Norah Upchurch had been “murdered by a person or persons unknown”, a 27 year old man walked into the West End offices of tabloid newspaper, the Daily Sketch; he was tired, nervous, worried and desperate to get something off his chest, a secret he had held onto for over eighteen months. And it was here that he confessed to the brutal murder of Norah Upchurch. His name… was Frederick Fields.
OUTRO: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for listening to Murder Mile. If you’re looking for a new true-crime podcast, this week’s treat is the amazing Occultae Veritas; hosted by Ood, Sage and Leon, Occultae Veritas delves into the dark heart of some of the world’s most baffling true-crime cases, curiosities and conspiracy theories, with each show packed with in-depth discussions, a high attention to detail and lashing of humour. Check them out. (PLAY PROMO)
Don’t forget, if you want to know more about the murder of Norah Upchurch, or any other cases, please do check out the Murder Mile website at murdermiletours.com, find us on Twitter or Instagram, or join the Murder Mile True-Crime Podcast discussion group on Facebook. Murder Mile was researched, written & performed by myself, with the main musical themes written and performed by Erik Stein & Jon Boux of Cult With No Name. Next week’s episode is… part two of Norah Upchurch and her Lonely Death in the Empty Shop. Thank you and sleep well.
Sources: With additional music used under a Creative Commons License 4.0 (Attribution) via Free Music Archive, with all additional tracks written & performed by Kai Engel.
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 featuring 12 murderers, including 3 serial killers, across 15 locations, totaling 75 deaths, over just a one mile walk
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a crime writer, podcaster & tour guide of Murder Mile Walks, hailed as one of the best "quirky curious & unusual things to do in London".
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