Murder Mile UK True Crime Podcast #18 & #19 - Norah Upchurch and her Lonely Death in the Empty Shop (Parts One & Two)
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Welcome to the Murder Mile true-crime podcast and audio guided walk of London's most infamous and often forgotten murder cases, set within one square mile of the West End.
Episode Eighteen: On Friday 2nd October 1931, West End prostitute Norah Upchurch was found strangled inside a locked empty shop in Shaftesbury Avenue; with no sign of a break-in, no-one knows how she got in or how her killer got out. 87 years since her murder, her killer has never been caught. Or was he?
Ep18 – Norah Upchurch and her Lonely Death in the Empty Shop – Part 1
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.
Ep19 – Norah Upchurch and her Lonely Death in the Empty Shop – Pt2
INTRO: Thank you for downloading episode nineteen of the Murder Mile true-crime podcast.
If you’re a new listener? Hello, thank you, welcome and I hope you enjoy the show. Just to let you know that this episode is the concluding part of the murder of Norah Upchurch, so I would strongly advise downloading episode eighteen first. To my regular listeners, thank you so much for your continued support, for the fabulous feedback, for sharing this podcast with your friends and especially for your lovely five star reviews, which truly do warm my cockles (that’s not a sexual thing). 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 brilliant True-Crime Finland; 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 the concluding part of the murder of Norah Upchurch; a West End prostitute who was found strangled in a locked and empty shop by Frederick Field, a local handy-man whose detailed description of her supposed killer ultimately lead the Police to their chief suspect – himself.
Murder Mile contains grisly details 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 19: Norah Upchurch and her Lonely Death in the Empty Shop Part Two.
On Tuesday 25th July 1933 at 12:30pm, in Shoe Lane; a tightly cobble-stoned road just off Fleet Street, (which is the supposed workplace of the bloody barber Sweeney Todd, but is more famously the home of many of Britain’s worst tabloid hacks who’d happily slit their own mother’s throat, spill their grannie’s guts and package up the entrails into a steamy festering pie, simply to lure their easily-duped readers into swallowing great mouthfuls of unfettered bullshit) a man paced nervously back and forth, his black scuffed boots almost wearing a hole in the pavement, the rough callused fingers of his trembling hand shaking as he chain-smoked another cigarette.
And although he didn’t look like a journalist - being just five-foot seven inches tall, ten stone in weight, with odd little elfin-like ears, hollow brown eyes, a large bulbous nose, ruffled brown hair and dressed in a tatty dark suit, he looked out of place amongst the throng of typists, scribblers and finger-smiths, and more at home on a building site, a factory or renovating an empty shop - the deep dark secret he had held onto for almost two years would be front page news for weeks to come.
With a deep breath and a determined nod, the man stubbed out his cigarette, turned on his heels and – having made a life-changing decision which would lead to his grisly death – he walked into the London offices of right-wing tabloid newspaper, the Daily Sketch, and asked for Mister Leaver, a senior reporter he had met just two years before, when the man was the principle witness in the unresolved murder trial of a 20 year old West End prostitute who died in the dark passage of an empty shop,
Tentatively greeting the nervous man with a vague smile and a distant handshake, senior reporter Mr Leaver enquired “So, tell me, what’s this is all about?” To which the man gulped, his saliva unable to swallow back the words which for so long had been stuck in his throat, and muttered “well… I did it”. Mister Leaver’s eyes widened, an eye-brow raised, with a nervous grin which crinkled the sides of his mouth, and casually asked “you mean… you killed Norah Upchurch?” The man replied “yes”. His name… was Frederick Field, and three years later, he would be dead. (INTERSTITIAL)
Born on the 16th April 1904, in Acton (West London, just three miles from the childhood home of Norah Upchurch), although poor, Frederick Herbert Charles Field was a spoilt brat and a habitual liar who was born to a strict disciplinarian father who ruled his brood with an iron rod, a drunken fist and an ever thrashing leather belt, and a molly-coddling mother whose son (in her eyes) was a blameless angel. With mixed-signals dominating his young life, Field grew-up courting trouble, openly lying and always believing that (no matter how bad he was) he would always be protected.
Being disinterested and distracted, Field left school aged fourteen with few qualifications, he drifted in and out of various menial jobs, until 1926, when aged 22, his father forced his listless son to enlist as an Aircraftsman in the Royal Air Force, which he did, for three whole years. But on 7th April 1929, having married his sweetheart Bessie Matilda, Field was discharged from the Air Force for an “unspecified” offence, and once again drifted between jobs, pubs, pawn-shops, bookies and brothels.
By 1931, the year that Norah Upchurch was murdered, with Field now being the father of new born baby daughter and finally holding down a semi-steady job as a sign-fixer at Hilder & Co in Soho, money was tight, tempers were frayed and their marital-bed was icy cold. Not because of the baby, but because of the very simple reason that at the Inquest into the murder of Norah Upchurch, Frederick Field wasn’t just their star witness, he was also… a suspect. (INTERSTITIAL).
On Friday 20th July 1933, five days prior to his confession, Field had lost his employment with Hilder & Co, and he was hungry, desperate and broke. But it wasn’t the shame, the guilt or even the horror at having strangled Norah to death and deprived her three year old daughter of a mother which drove him to confess, it was money and fame. Before he would talk, Field demanded full payment upfront, his family’s safety assured, a front page spread with his photo, and the Daily Sketch to fully fund his legal defence. When Mr Leaver said no, he wanted to hear the story first, after a whole second of thought, Field cracked and began to spill every sordid detail.
At 10:30pm that evening, at the Marlborough Street Police Station, Frederick Field made a full confession to Superintendent George Cornish. It went roughly like this:
On Tuesday 29th September 1931, at exactly 1:40pm, Field left Hilder & Co at 23 Great Pulteney Street to remove the ‘To Let’ signs from 173/177 Shaftesbury Avenue, having collected the keys off Miss Keenan at Perry & Ball first. We know this as a fact. At 2pm, Field handed the only set of keys to the premises to an unidentified man in a Plus Fours suit, having been duped by a false work-order and lured by the offer of future employment, they agreed to meet later that evening. Only Field can verify if this as fact, as neither the Plus Fours man nor the keys were ever seen again.
At 5pm, that evening, Field headed home to 148 Clensham Lane (in Sutton, South London); his squalid basement flat which he shared with his wife, baby daughter, brother-in-law and mother, arriving at roughly 6:30pm. With little time to spare, Field ate his dinner, washed, and dressed in his best suit.
Leaving home at 7:30pm, Field arrived at Piccadilly Circus tube station by 9pm for his ill-fated meeting with the Plus Fours man who oddly had forgotten his keys to 177 Shaftesbury Avenue and although he promised to return in just “ten minutes”, having handed Field £2 (which is roughly £140 in today’s money) for materials to start the job, Field waited for him in the St James’ Tavern on the corner of Great Windmill Street and Denham Street, but he never returned.
Now, whether we choose to believe Field’s story about the Plus Fours man is irrelevant. And even if every word of his confession, so far, is complete and utter lies, it is all vital to excavating the truth, as it is right here, from this point onwards, that Field takes us closer to what may have actually happened that night, and later, he is undone by his own web of lies. So take a deep breath… and let’s begin.
Dressed in his best suit for a meeting which didn’t happen, and at a loose end, Field dawdled around the West End for an hour, until 10:25pm as he was strolling down Bear Street, a side street off Leicester Square, he was beckoned forth by a petite pretty brunette with bobbed hair who was soliciting for sex, she wore a green two-piece outfit, black gloves, stockings and shoes, a black leather handbag, a green felt hat and a green felt belt. They’d never met before, and he never asked her name, but this was Norah Upchurch. Having procured sex-worker’s services many times prior, Field bartered briefly with Norah outside of 7 Bear Street, and invited her back to “his place” at 177 Shaftesbury Avenue.
Unlocking the glass-fronted dark wooden door with his keys, Field escorted Norah along the dark unlit passageway, passed the partition wall, and turned right into the backroom of the empty shop. Being almost pitch-black and barely illuminated by the street-lights outside; with no bed, sofa, sheets or soft furnishings of any kind, Field asked her to lay down on the cold stone floor.
Rightly, not wishing to ruin her pretty green dress, dirty her hair or scuff her black heeled shoes, Norah said “no”, which left them at a bit of a sexual impasse. Field enquired “well what are you going to do?”, to which Norah, not wanting to pass-up a few pounds and thinking on her feet, placed a few scattered pages of newspaper on the floor, and dropping to her knees, in her best East End slang she said “I’m gonna gam you”, and she proceeded to felate his floppy penis.
According to Field’s own confession, he didn’t ask for a blowjob and he didn’t want a blowjob, in fact he didn’t want sex with Norah at all, but during the sex-act, with the frustrated Field standing upright and Norah on her knees, her green felt hat bobbing back-and-forth like a circus seal performing for fish, Field states that Norah (whether accidentally, sexually or maliciously) bit his penis; sinking her teeth into his wrinkled gnarly knob, scraping his fleshy shaft and drawing blood. Of course, by the time of this confession, a full month later, the teeth-marks on his bloodied manhood had healed.
But that evening, in the pitch-black backroom of 177 Shaftesbury Avenue, as he stood over Norah, Field saw red; not just on her lips, not just on his penis, but in his eyes. And as his rage grew, in his right hand he gripped Norah around the throat, squeezing tightly, trapping her airway, until a few seconds later, never once speaking or screaming, her body went limp and slumped to the floor.
In Field’s own words he would state “I knew that something was seriously wrong when she fell back, I lost control of myself and I cannot remember exactly what happened afterwards”. But then again, the crime-scene evidence tells us exactly what happened next; as lying unconscious on the floor, Field clawed at Norah’s vests, shredding the slight material from her breast to her naval, and ripping apart her white silk jumper he rolled it into a ball and forced the makeshift gag into her mouth, suffocating her as he gripped both ends of her green felt belt, strangling her, until her body had stopped struggling, her legs had stopped twitching, her lungs had stopped breathing, and Norah Upchurch was dead.
Before locking-up and leaving her body lying in the cold empty shop for three days, Field states he took Norah’s black leather handbag, which contained four £1 notes, a set of keys, a small ring and a packet of French letters (which is slang for condoms). At Leicester Square tube station, he boarded the Northern Line train taking it to the end of the line at Morden, hopped on a bus to the Rose Hill Estate and into a dark hedge by the Sutton bypass, he threw Norah’s black handbag and the keys to the shop. Field arrived home at 11:45pm, as witnessed by his wife.
Over the next two days, Field returned to his regular work duties as if nothing had happened, with no mention of the missing keys, the Plus Fours man, or the strangled body of Norah Upchurch.
But on Thursday 1st October, a plumber at Hilder & Co called William Thomas Finlay who was assigned to fix a leaky pipe at 177 Shaftesbury Avenue was struggling to find the keys; they weren’t at Hilder & Co, they hadn’t been returned to Perry & Ball, and just two days before, both keys were signed for by Frederick Field and were currently missing. Which brings us right back where this story began.
As on Friday 2nd October 1931 at roughly 10am, having been chastised by Miss Keenan of Perry & Ball for handing over the only set of keys to a mysterious man in a Plus Four suit who was holding a clearly falsified work-order, Douglas W L Bartram and his shamed workmate Frederick Field, using an iron hammer and a chisel, forced entry at the rear of 177 Shaftesbury Avenue, planning to remove the ‘To Let’ signs, to fix a leaky pipe and to await the arrival of a locksmith to secure the property. And it is, at that moment, that Field (shaking, trembling and frightened) discovers the body of Norah Upchurch.
That was the confession of Frederick Field, as made on Tuesday 25th July 1933 at 12:30pm to Mr Leaver of the Daily Sketch, and later that evening, to Superintendent George Cornish of the Marlborough Street Police Station, where he was promptly cautioned and arrested.
With his wife and baby-daughter safely ensconced at her parent’s home in Cardiff (South Wales), a full page spread and photo of himself in almost every newspaper, the Daily Sketch covering his full legal defence, instructing Mr Henry Flint as his solicitor and having given a full confession detailing his crime, Frederick Herbert Charles Field was tried on the 20th September 1933, at the Old Bailey, for the murder of 20 year old Annie Louise Norah Upchurch.
(Silence / long pause).
But… can Frederick Field’s confession to the Daily Sketch, or even the Police, be trusted?
At the original inquest into the murder of Norah Upchurch on Thursday 19th November 1931, at which Field was both the star witness and a prime suspect, Coroner Mr Ingleby Oddie, upon hearing Field’s baffling statement about the missing keys, the Plus Fours man and his shocking discovery of Norah’s body, Mr Oddie made it clear to the jury that they were entitled to either accept his evidence as fact, or not, stating “You might express your disbelief in his story, but at the same time you might well record a verdict against some person or person unknown”. And presented with no concrete evidence, the jury did what they were told to do, which is why they declared her murder unsolved.
Hidden behind his eye-witness accounts, court testimony, Police statements and even a confession, which was a heady mix of provable facts, half-truths and outright lies, was the arrogance of a man who – since his birth – believed he could do as he pleased and could get away with it; whether spinning an elaborate lie, leading the police across London on a wild goose-chase as he thumbed through the Police Crime Index and pointed the finger of guilt at Peter Webb, an innocent man wrongly arrested at Richmond Police Station, and all the while – at the inquest into Norah’s tragic death – feeling that he was the smartest man in the room, later stating “I was pitting my brains against the Coroner and the Police and I won”. As with arrogant relish, he added “One thing that annoyed me all the time is my realisation that, although I committed the murder and got away with it, the people I wanted to prove this to do not know it… but they will now”. Never once showing an ounce of remorse for the murder, for Norah, or her orphaned child – Marjorie.
The Metropolitan Police first suspected Field on the day that Norah’s body was found, as so rare is this occurrence that anyone who finds a corpse is instantly the prime suspect. But also because (having met this mysterious Plus Fours man for just ten minutes) three days later, after the emotional shock of having discovered a dead body, Field gave the Police a remarkably detailed description of this man, stating he 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”. And yet, just days later, when Field was volunteering his time to patrol the West End with the Police to find this mad-man, his description had been refined to “aged 22, 6ft 3in, medium complexion, greyish blue eyes, light brown hair, rather long face, broad shoulders, and he was dressed dark grey lounge suit with a double breasted waistcoat”. An almost entirely different man, with no reference to his gold tooth, gold watch, gingery cap, and no plus fours suit.
But then again, the inconsistencies in the first two statements made by Frederick Field to the Police pale into insignificance when you unravel the truth and lies hidden within Field’s own confession. If you’re ready? Let’s attack them in chronological order:
On Tuesday 29th September 1931, the day of Norah’s murder, Field was assigned by Hilder & Co to remove the ‘To Let’ signs from the exterior of 177 Shaftesbury Avenue. And yet, why is it that three days later, on the day Norah’s body was discovered, clearly visible on the Police crime-scene photos, on the outside of the empty shop were the ‘To Let’ signs, a simple job he attempted to do… twice?
That day, having met the mysterious Plus Fours man inside 177 Shaftesbury Avenue, in broad daylight, during which they briefly discussed the lighting layout for the shop, why would Field (who was a trained electrician) choose to meet a prospective client, at night, in a dark building, with no lights?
And why, at 9:20pm, having waited twenty minutes for the forgetful Plus Fours man, did Field over the next hour during which he was at a loose end, why did he not go back to 177 Shaftesbury Avenue where he knew the Plus Fours man had gone to get the keys for, and would eventually arrive?
Given that the Plus Fours man was Field’s alibi for the missing keys, and that these keys were the only way that Norah’s killer could have entered and exited the empty shop, why is his alibi so full of holes? Is he merely misremembering these details, or is this a desperate lie he’s making up on the spot? Which brings us onto the night of the murder.
At 10:25pm, Field states he met Norah Upchurch on Bear Street, just off Leicester Square, and having procured her services for sex, he invited her back to (what he referred to as) “his place”. And yet, on the first floor of 7 Bear Street, right where they had met, Norah had rented flat which she used to entertain her customers, so why would she go with him to Shaftesbury Avenue?
Upon entering the empty shop at 177 Shaftesbury Avenue, Field states that he and Norah walked through the passageway and into a dark and dusty backroom, where supposedly the sex-act and her strangulation took place. But if the evidence shows us that they shared a cigarette by the doorway, and having strangled her in front of the glass-fronted door, Field then dragged her unconscious body, by the legs, ten feet up the passageway? Why would he make such as arbitrary change the location of the murder, when there was no evidence of anyone, or any assault, in the backroom, at all?
Field states that his impulse to kill was provoked when she had bitten his penis - a bizarre claim which is impossible to prove or refute as by the time he’d made his confession, these marks had supposedly healed – but more importantly, why would a professional prostitute who has performed oral sex hundreds if not thousands of times, deliberately or accidentally injure his penis and draw blood?
Having lashed out in anger, Fields claims he strangled Norah with his right hand until she passed out. But why would he admit this when the autopsy would clearly confirm that she was brutally garrotted using her own green felt belt, and there were no finger marks found on or around her throat?
And yet, having given a full confession to Mr Leaver of the Daily Sketch - stating that unlike his Police statements before, that this time he was telling the truth - whilst he claims that the murder of Norah Upchurch was a crime-of-passion, Field (in the same confession) would claim his motive was to attempt to pull-off the “perfect murder”; to kill a stranger (like Norah Upchurch), have someone else blamed for the crime (like Peter Webb) and to get away with it?
Ignoring the fact that a “perfect murder” is only committed if you don’t confess to it, even if we accept his assertion that her murder was pre-meditated, why didn’t Field bring a weapon with him (such as a rope, a knife, or a cosh), rather than using Norah’s own belt? And why, rather than relying on the bizarre story of the Plus Fours man as his alibi, a man who was never identified (and probably never existed) why didn’t Field simply return the keys to Perry & Ball, having first made a copy for himself?
Not to mention the fact that neither the Daily Sketch nor the Police could find Norah’s handbag or the keys in the bushes by the Sutton bypass where Field claims he’d thrown them? Why is it that the day after the murder, Bessie Field’s wife had seen Field place on the bedside dressed £2 in notes and a few coins in silvers, even he had told her he was broke and wouldn’t be paid till the Saturday?
Which brings us to the two most important inconsistences in Field’s confession: if Fields gave the Plus Fours man the only set of keys to the empty shop, how did both he and Norah Upchurch unlock the glass-fronted door and enter 177 Shaftesbury Avenue?
And, that evening, at 8pm, with Norah Upchurch having paid the rent to her first floor flat at 7 Bear Street and purchased a four-pack of condoms, leaving her with four £1 notes? How is it that Field knows the exact contents of her black leather handbag, which (just like the keys) were never found?
Armed with Field’s confession, on Wednesday 29th September 1933, Frederick Herbert Charles Field was tried at the Old Bailey on the capital charge of murdering Annie Louisa Norah Upchurch in an empty shop on the 29th September 1931, a crime which (if found guilty of both charges of murder and theft, and having been declared sane by a medical profession) would warrant a death sentence.
Having fully confessed to his crimes, signed this statement, and having sworn on the Bible to tell “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”, with the Judge, the Police prosecution and his own defence funded by the Daily Sketch, all of whom readied themselves for his “guilty” plea, making the trial a mere formality, which would be done and dusted before lunch, when Mister Justice Swift asked how the accused pleaded to the charge of murder, with a wry smile, Field replied…“not guilty”.
As gasps and shocked silences gripped the room, it was clear that had Field admitted his guilt that the evidence would be irrelevant, but having pleaded “not guilty”, the burden of proof was placed upon the Police. Their evidence of which was wholly circumstantial and based almost entirely on the confession of Field himself, in a signed statement which (even he admitted was a fabrication), none of which could either be proved or disproved, and that, having been accused of Norah’s murder at the original inquest, Field said he had falsified his confession in order to establish his innocence.
With Mr Justice Swift readily admitting to Field that this “is a peculiar way of proving your innocence by saying you are guilty”, Field replied “it was the only way”. And after a farcical trial during which very little evidence was given, on the charge of murdering Norah Upchurch, Mr Justice Swift found Frederick Herbert Charles Field “not guilty”. He was acquitted of all charges, and – that same day – he walked free, stating to the assembled press “I am satisfied now that I have cleared my name, my future plans are indefinite but I hope to start my life again without the finger of suspicion pointing at me”.
Field’s wife Bessie remained in Cardiff with her daughter, she divorced Field a few years later. Unable to gain regular work from his old employer HIlder & Co, Field re-enlisted in the Royal Air Force, but after a short stint, Field absconded from Hendon Aerodrome having stolen four cheques.
Two weeks later, on 4th April 1936, at 8 Elmhurst Gardens in Clapham (South London), a 48 year old prostitute named Beatrice Vilna Sutton was robbed and found strangled in her bed. When arrested, although he fully confessed to the crime, in a series of events unnervingly similar to the murder of Norah Upchurch, the culprit later retracted his statement and pleaded “not guilty”. Only this time, having disclosed a little too much information, which only the Police would have known, or her killer, the accused was found guilty of her murder, and on 30th June 1936, he was executed by hanging at Wandsworth Prison. His name… was Frederick Field.
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 fantastic True-Crime Finland, in which our amazing host Minna, takes us on a grisly tour of land of the midnight sun, Finland, a country as strange, dark and sinister as the serial killers and murderers it has produced. Check it out. (PLAY PROMO)
Don’t forget to 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…. The Bungling Assassins of Alexander Litvinenko
Thank you and sleep well.
Credits: The Murder Mile true-crime podcast was researched, written and recorded by Michael J Buchanan-Dunne, with the sounds recorded on location (where possible), and the music written and performed by Erik Stein & Jon Boux of Cult With No Name. Additional music was written and performed by Kai Engel, as used under the Creative Common Agreement 4.0. A list of tracks used and the links are listed on the relevant transcript blog here
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 wal
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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