Murder Mile UK True-Crime Podcast #43 - Marion Lees-Smith: The Rich Mum, the Deaf Son and the Paltry Sum
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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 Forty-Three: On 30th December 1942, in 112 Bryanston Court, Marion Lees-Smith was a single mother who was struggling alone to cope with the daily demands of Derek - her deaf and brain-damaged son. And as frustrated and exasperated as Marion would often be, her death would come about, not by exhaustion, but by the hand of her own son.
As many photos of the case are copyright protected by greedy news organisations (and I don't want to be billed £300 for copyright infringement again), to view them, take a peek at my entirely legal social media accounts - Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
Ep43 - Murder of Marian Scott Key Lees-Smith by her son Derek Thayer Lees-Smith
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 Marion Lees-Smith; a single mother struggling alone to cope with the daily demands of Derek - her deaf and brain-damaged son. And as frustrated and exasperated as Marion would often be, her death would come about, not by exhaustion, but by the hand of her own son.
Murder Mile is researched using the original police investigation files. It contains moments of satire, shock and grisly details, and as a dramatisation of the real events, it may also features loud and 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 43: Marion Lees-Smith: The Rich Mum, The Deaf Son and the Paltry Sum.
Today I’m standing on George Street, W1. And like most places on Murder Mile, it may sound familiar, because we’ve already been here before; as we’re just one road south of first failed assassination of former Iraqi Prime Minister (Abd ar-Razzaq Said al-Naif), one road north of the badly bungled abortion of Helen Mary Pickwoad, one square west of The Blackout Ripper’s first victim (Evelyn Hamilton), and three blocks south of the terrorist tube bombing at Edgware Road – coming soon to Murder Mile.
In front is Bryanston Court at 137 George Street; a seven-storey mansion-house covering half a square block; with brown brick walls, black wrought iron railings, art deco lamps and with four huge Doric columns in chalk stone on either side of a black wooden door, it looks very much like an old bank.
Like much of Marylebone, George Street is rather grand, as being named after the most infamous of Britain’s mentally-unwell monarchs - as it’s here that that (the unfairly dubbed) mad King George III ranted, raved and recuperated from the debilitating blood disorder of porphyria - although this sleepy side-street is chock full of five-star hotels, mansion houses, embassies, galleries and lines of posh cars (like a very literal willy measuring contest), oddly - for a major metropolitan city - there’s no people.
It’s lifeless, joyless and colourless; bland, dull and beige, like a potato waffle coated with caviar, like a Tory MP in a tux, or like that very white kind of 1980’s poodle poop… only sprinkled with lots of pearls.
It’s a place so false, no-one has their original name, nose, voice or spouse; and with so many nips and tucks, anybody you do see is totally unable to sit, smile, stand, talk, walk or jiggle their norks, as they look like they’re staring straight into a force 10 gale. And with many of the flats owned by bankers as a tax dodge; the only life on George Street, are those uptight twats in tweed suits who drive their Bentley’s at half the speed of a bunged-up slug’s bowel movement, and those mummified corpses in mink coats, who stink of moth balls and gin, and walk a £5000 fluffy rat on a very posh piece of string,
And although, in Bryanston Court, the three-bedroomed apartment of Wallace Simpson (the American wife of abdicated King Edward VIII) recently sold for £5.35 million, it was also here, on the night of Wednesday 30th December 1942, in flat 112, that a devoted and well-off mother called Marion Lees-Smith was murdered by her son, over a paltry sum of just £2. (INTERSTITIAL)
Life was idyllic for Marion Lees-Smith. Raised as a well-mannered, educated and a devoutly religious lady from a wealthy and upstanding family, although a native of Chicago, having married Norman (an executive for the Canadian Pacific Railway), together Marion and her husband would travel the world.
By 1920, being berthed in the bustling city of Shanghai (China); as a major international trade port and one of the east’s most important financial centres, Shanghai was in its golden age; and being bathed by bright coloured lights, stunned by the hectic buzz of the city, and knocked-out by the sweet sizzling smell of steamed crab, beggar’s chicken and shredded duck dumplings, Marion was in her element.
She lived in a stunning three-storey house on the prosperous Nanking Road; was served by a butler, a housemaid and a chef; wore tailored dresses, fine jewels and handmade shoes; and as a 40 year old globetrotter from a wealthy family, with no commitments or responsibilities just a very active social life, as money was no object, Marion could literally buy anything… except happiness.
As a hard-working but always exhausted executive, Norman was rarely home, and on the odd occasion he was, the faint cracks in their fractured relationship would show. Often they’d argue, always they’d fight, and so - with fate being so fickle – this was possibly the worst time to have a baby, but on 21st August 1922, Marion gave birth to a boy, and she named him Derek.
Derek was (and would always be) their only child; and as a happy, normal and healthy baby, raised to two loving parents in a wealthy family, although he was an accident, Derek was adored. And with his doting mother smothering her beloved son with endless toys, good food, soft sheets and a nursemaid at his beck-and-call, even as a baby, Derek had a better life than most.
But then, even in a truly idyllic setting, sometimes accidents do happen.
It was a momentary lapse in concentration, as Amah (the family’s diligent nursemaid) was distracted for little more than a few seconds. With Derek being a restless two-year old; being unable to sit still, desperate to stand and struggling to peep out of his pram, as Amah looked away, the adventurous tot crawled over the pram’s canvas side, and with no sense of distance or danger, he slipped, and fell.
The thud was heavy. The cobbles were hard. His head bled. And although motionless, as a pained wail burst from his bloodied lips which cut the chaotic Shanghai streets to silence and reassured Amah that the boy was still breathing, Derek was rushed to hospital, having landed on his head. “He was lucky”, the doctors said, as with no broken bones, only a superficial cut and a few bruises, being given a pill for the pain and a plaster, Marion took her son home and thought nothing more of it.
But Derek had been damaged.
It started with stutter; a simple tripping of the tongue over some troublesome words. Then he became unnaturally clingy, oddly silent and always cried, as if he was in pain. And as he retreated into his own little world, with his hearing slowly fading, by the age of 12, Derek was totally deaf.
With Amah sacked, Marion became Derek’s full-time carer, and with his deafness being manageable, having invested in a hearing aid and lip-reading lessons, Marion was coping. But somewhere, deep inside of Derek’s head, something else had broken. (INTERSTITIAL)
Having relocated to London, limited their social life and put their globetrotting days firmly behind them, having made their life stable for their disabled son, Derek’s demands had placed a great strain on his parent’s relationship, and although they stayed in touch, Marion and Norman had split.
Part-funded by her family, Marion moved with her son into flat 112 on the sixth floor of Bryanston Court; a modern, well-furnished, two-bedroomed apartment. And as a little family stuck together in a tiny West End flat, with no-one for company but each other, although Marion and Derek were mother and son, to those who knew them, they seemed like an odd mix.
With her globetrotting days long gone, 61 year old Marion was a pale, thin and hollow version of her former self, and although she was fastidiously neat and elegantly dressed, lacking any smile or sparkle, it seemed as if, every day, a little piece of her soul had drained away. And as a single woman, struggling alone, with a boy whose injuries she blamed on herself, Marion was the epitome of exasperation.
Where-as Derek, always seemed awkward in his own skin, like a 20 year old man trapped in a 70 year old’s body. As with a messy mop of jet black hair perched above his elongated face, a dark crumpled suit which clung to his thin weedy frame, a set of horn-rimmed glasses with lenses like coke-bottle bottoms, so thick, they magnified his tiny eyes to the size of saucers, and – as his little legs walked with oversized strides – being forced to cart-about a clunking great hearing aid with its bulky battery in a carry-case, although he was deaf, delicate and socially-awkward, he was eager for freedom.
Not a lot, just some… but with Marion always fussing, huffing and tutting, as a woman wracked with the guilt over her broken boy, believing she was being a good mum, she had encased him in a cocoon.
A cocoon that Derek would never escape, even after he had stabbed his mother to death.
In 1942, three weeks before Christmas, Marion was at her wits-end. Not from the strict rationing with the country’s food stocks in short supply, the lack of clean water as water pipes burst (limiting each flat to just two buckets a day), or the barrage of Nazi bombers which – night-after-night – rained down death from the skies, but by loving him so much, she had nothing left to give.
Every night, they’d fight; and although their little spats were never hurtful, spiteful or physical, the thin walls of their tiny flat echoed with the sharp sounds of screaming and sobbing as an exasperated mother and her frustrated son clashed.
When Derek was a little boy, although they’d argue, Marion would always win; as being a strong willed woman and – more importantly - his mother, with just a finger, a look or even a tut, she could easily override the unruly demands of a such small boy, with a slow brain and a stutter, but now, he was a man. And although he resembled a 70 year old man trapped in a 20 year old’s body with a 8 year old’s brain, with Marion being a just little lady; as he grew taller in height, heavier in weight and greater in strength, the more she became older, weaker and more exhausted.
Hence the cocoon, but she wasn’t being cruel.
Like every loving mother, Marion only wanted the very best for her little boy, and so – with a modest allowance, a good education, love, trust and a hand to hold - she gave him freedom; she wanted him to grow, to bloom and - ultimately - to be free. But as a deaf, delicate and socially awkward boy, in a big city, who was a danger to himself, with his best interests at heart, there had to be limits.
Determined that his disability should never hold him back, Derek was educated at some of Britain’s best private schools, but being described by his tutors as distant, erratic, distracted and intellectually deficient, for the third time in the last six months, Derek had dropped out of education.
With an interest in animals, Marion arranged for work experience at a farm in the fresh air (and safety) of Saffron Waldon, but – being unable to keep hold of a single thought - Derek had grown bored before the first egg hit the straw. And so it went on. He couldn’t work, he couldn’t earn, he couldn’t learn.
Being eager to do his bit for the war-effort, having sucked-up her fears (and a few tears) Marion helped her boy to enlist in the Army, but being rejected on medical grounds, with a warm hug, she reassured him he could help defeat Hitler by doing the Army’s admin, and so, he learned to type. In October 1942, Derek enrolled in a Pitman course on nearby Southampton Row, but by Christmas, he had quit.
Marion was exasperated, exhausted and alone. She had tried everything and everything had failed. Even his modest weekly allowance of 12 shillings, which - although not much - was enough to give him some independence. But where-as once, as a boy, he’d spend the lot of sweets, now, as a man, he’d blow the lot on booze, making him deaf, delicate, socially-awkward and also drunk.
To Marion - as a devout teetotaller - that was a step too far, and fearing she had lost control, she did the only thing she could do; she stopped his allowance, and – for the last time - the cocoon was shut.
And that’s how it all began? Not as a bitter battle over an inheritance. Not as a long-standing feud over love. And not owing to a slow descent into drugs and drink. And even though (it is said) that Derek had been brain-damaged; he didn’t suffer with headaches, visions and never heard voices; he was never violent, cruel or committed a crime. He was just… quiet.
It all began as a simple spat over a few pennies, between a loving mother and her slightly unruly son, as she tried to protect him from harm, as he tested the boundaries of his new-found freedom. It was an argument, which every parent, has with their child, every day. And resulted in a very normal murder.
Three days before Christmas, like a marvel to the art of multi-tasking, Marion managed to find the time to establish the St George’s Club at 62 Great Cumberland Place; a small social club for members of the armed forces, which - as a proud and patriotic woman – she did as her bit for the war-effort. And although it kept her busy, it also provided her son with a good job, a regular income and allowed her to keep him busy and close. It seemed like the perfect solution to a small problem… but it wasn’t.
Wednesday 30th December 1942 was Marion’s last day alive. And yet, like most parents, her morning had begun like any other, as being late for work, she impatiently banged on the bathroom door.
It started as a simple squabble over the usual; her son having hogged the hot water, made a mess and failed to flush, that’s all. But somewhere in their war or words, Marion hit a nerve – as having merely mentioned that the club’s nightly takings were a little light – their sparks erupted into a scuffle, and in a truly rare moment of anger (which shocked them both) Derek struck his mother and stormed out.
She wasn’t injured, cut or bruised, if anything, she was just disappointed. An hour later, he apologised.
If she’d been hit by any other employee, they’d have been sacked. If they’d been as disorganised at their duties, they’d never have been hired. But having kept her boy on the pay-roll for ulterior motives, after one week, Marion’s patience was tested, and as she chatted to the club’s barman about this possible financial error, her face said it all, her trust had been lost. Derek saw this, and stormed out.
Between 9pm and 11pm, at the New Inn public house at nearby Marble Arch, Derek sat alone, fuming, as he necked back four pints of mild ale, which was odd, as he hadn’t been paid.
At a few minutes after 11pm, with the club closed for the night, Marion returned home. With the blackout blinds drawn and every light off, the flat was inky black, and although (just hours earlier, it was here that Marion and Derek had fought) its silence was eerie, as there was no sign of her son.
As was her usual routine, Marion readied herself for bed; on the sofa she dumped her gloves, purse and shopping bags; as it was cold, she slipped on a bathrobe, a nightie, a woollen vest, a set of booties and scarf; to distract her mind, she sat at the kitchen table, her spectacles on, doing the crossword; and then, with slumber looming, she popped the kettle on the hob, and beside it, a hot-water bottle.
At 11:20pm, Derek returned. And although their tiny flat was filled with a tense trepidation; no words were said, no tuts were uttered and no looks were exchanged, so seeing that his mother was already dressed and ready for bed, Derek went straight to his bedroom and popped on his pyjamas.
On his bed lay her brown attaché case; in it were the club’s cash boxes, which she’d bring home every night. But it wasn’t what it was, what it contained, or where it had been placed which made Derek smile, but what it meant. As still being trusted to count the club’s takings, this wasn’t just her money, it was a symbol of trust, a reconciliation, and one last chance.
With his pad and a pencil, Derek set about counting the cash. It didn’t take him long, not just because he was eager to please his mum - whose pale drained face beamed with pride from the doorway - but with the club being new, the takings were only small, and amounted to the paltry sum of just £2. And yet, as she slowly sidled up, to thank her son, she smelled the stale stench of booze on his breath.
And that’s all it took; an accusatory sniff, an exasperated sigh and a withering look; the disappointed eye-roll of a frustrated mother whose trust had been lost, but it was enough to make Derek snap.
With a vice-like grip, the loose pale skin of her wrinkled neck folded over his forefingers as both of his hands squeezed her throat tightly; his thumbs embedded into her windpipe, so deep, they cut-off her air and her screams, as standing over her, with wide staring eyes, her baby boy loomed large. And as her swollen tongue protruded from her pulsating purple face, with her blue lips agog, like her last ever words were trapped in the midst of a silent scream, as her whole world slowly went black…
…Derek let go.
Marion gasped for air, gulping down great mouthfuls of oxygen, as her pallid complexion returned.
In court, Derek described this as “a moment of temporary insanity”, he just “wanted to frighten” his mother, and frightened she was, but as he stormed out of the bedroom, he knew he’d done wrong.
Having taken the wailing kettle off the hob, as a small boy dressed in striped pyjamas, Derek stood in the kitchen; his breathing staggered, his eyes flooded with tears, as being both terrified and ashamed of the truly awful act which he’d done to his mum with his own two hands, hearing her sobs echo from the bedroom, to steady his nerves, Derek decided to fix himself a lime juice and ginger ale.
And as he opened the cutlery drawer, his quivering hand hovering near to the bottle-opener, behind him, in the bedroom, he heard the distant crinkle of notes and the faint clink of coins being counted, as his mother checked the cash-box for theft. And in that instant, Derek went from shame to rage.
With her back to the bedroom door, she didn’t hear her son return. With her head facing the bed, she couldn’t see him rush up behind her. And being so focussed on counting the club’s nightly takings, Marion did see that in the hand of her baby-boy had he held a four-inch black-handled kitchen knife.
The first thing she felt was a hard thump like she’d been punched in the back, the force having shoved her forward into the bed, and feeling a warm trickle as blood ran down her spine, as she turned, and saw her own knife (last used to slice spuds) sunk deep in her back, right up to the handle, as her left lung slowly pooled with blood, Derek retracted the blade, and stabbed his mother again.
The second stab wound sliced one inch deep into purple skin of her bruised neck, severing her larynx, and with the pleural cavity of her left lung now collapsed, being unable to breathe as she chocked on her own blood, Marion slipped into shock, frozen in fear, as slowly she began to bleed to death.
And having turned to look into the eyes of her killer, the last sight Marion saw was her own son; as with his hand held high, gripping a bloodied knife, with every ounce of hate, spite and hurt, he stabbed her once, in the face, slicing open her lower lip and chin, right down to the jawbone. And moments later, 61 year old Marion Lees-Smith - mother of Derek - was dead. (END)
At 9:15am, the next morning, Marion’s body was found by their housekeeper. The crime scene wasn’t difficult for Detective Inspector Clare to deduce; as with one dead body, an empty cash box, a locked door, her son missing, his fingerprints on the knife and his blood splattered pyjamas soaking in the sink, having being seen by the night-porter walking out of Bryanston Court barely minutes after her screams had died, with Derek as the Police’s only suspect, his description was issued to all stations.
With £2 in his pocket, Derek finally got the freedom he had dreamed of… but with those few stolen notes adding up to little more than £90 today, by 6:30pm, being broke, sober and totally distraught, he handed himself in, stating in a mumbled stutter “The only thing I can say at my trial is I am guilty”. Except, he didn’t.
On 16th March 1943 in a two-day trial at The Old Bailey; a tearful Derek pleaded not guilty to murder, but guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. And with neither the defence nor the prosecution protesting the findings, with two doctors having confirmed he had a psychopathic personality disorder, an erratic heartrate and abnormal brain-waves consistent with an undiagnosed brain injury, when he fell from a pram aged two, the jury retired for just 1 hours and 40 minutes before they returned with a unanimous verdict of guilty… but insane.
In a statement (spoken by his solicitor) Derek said “I am very sorry I did this awful thing… I have done the greatest of harm by disposing of my best friend in life”.
Derek was sentenced to be detained at His Majesty’s Pleasure which he served at Broadmoor Psychiatric Prison. And although the protective cocoon of loving mother was created to shield her deaf, delicate and socially-awkward son from danger, for the sake a paltry sum, this one night of freedom left Marion dead and Derek trapped inside a very different kind of prison… forever.
OUTRO: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for listening to Murder Mile.
Don’t forget, if you’re a murky miler, to stay tuned for extra goodies after the break, but before that, here’s my recommended podcasts of the week; Outlines and Unseen Podcast. (PLAY PROMO)
A huge thank you goes out to my new Patreon supporters, who are Mark Williams and Alison Lee. As a big thank you, I’m donating to both of you, one of my livers, split in two. And it’s up to you what you do with it; either you can sell it, give it to a donor, grill it, fry it, sauté it, or – given that’s it’s only 10% blood but at least 90% neat Jack Daniels – I’d drink it. Go on, treat yourself.
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.
Thank you for listening 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 various artists, 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”, nominated "one of the best true-crime podcasts at the British podcast Awards 2018", 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 of Murder Mile UK True Crime and creator of true-crime TV series.
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