Murder Mile True-Crime Podcast #55 - The Other Side of 10 Rillington Place - Part Eight (Rita Elizabeth Nelson)
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Episode Fifty-Five: On an unspecified date in January 1953, 25 year old Rita Elizabeth Nelson disappeared from the streets of West London, she was six months pregnant and was due to return home to Belfast to have the baby. She was the sixth victim of British serial killer John Reginald Halliday Christie.
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Ep55 – The Other Side of 10 Rillington Place – Part Eight - Rita Elizabeth Nelson
INTRO: Help. A single word which is simple to spell, easy to say, difficult to ask for and impossible to accept when pride is at stake. We all need help when life gets tough, but the harder life becomes, the less we are willing to accept it for fear of admitting defeat. And yet without help, we cannot succeed.
We’re surrounded by people who can help, all of whom are ready and willing to sacrifice something to save us, but being victims of our own circumstance, help is often the first word we think of when things get bad and the very last word we will ever utter.
By the bleak winter of 1952, barely weeks after the cruel murder of Ethel Christie and shortly before the senseless death of Kathleen Maloney; being ailing and ill, lonely and desperate, with his dark urges festering and being too broke to secure the services of sex-workers, Reg Christie stalked the cafes of West London, preying on vulnerable women and in search of his next victim.
Some of what follows is based on the killer’s own memories and perspective; so what part of this story is true… is up to you. My name is Michael. I am your tour-guide. This is Murder Mile. And I present to you; part eight of the full, true and untold story of The Other Side of 10 Rillington Place.
SCRIPT: Today, I’m standing on the Seven Stars roundabout on Goldhawk Road, W12; one and a half miles south-west from Rillington Place, three miles west of The Great Western pub in Paddington and several tube stops away from any location we’ve visited before, but a place very familiar to Reg.
As a T-junction interconnecting Paddenwick Road and Goldhawk Road, the Seven Stars roundabout is as dull as it sounds; with the only colour in this bland grey landscape being the steamy splattering of puke, piddle and dog-plops; as every car, truck and bus whizzes around this inch-high tarmacked traffic island, passed a handful of pointless shops (most of which are shut) and several road signs there to remind you that the only reason you came here was to go somewhere else.
In 1952, on the ground-floor of 240 Goldhawk Road sat Peter’s Snack Bar; a classic British greasy-spoon serving such delightful culinary delicacies as bacon butties, sausage sarnies, heart-hardening fry-ups, deep-fried diabetes, a stroke in a bun, or any form of food stuff as long as it could be cooked in a single pan of hot salty fat, was made from pig parts too shoddy for dog-food, cunningly disguised by a kilo of ketchup and mashed-up so heavily you couldn’t tell an eyeball from an arsehole.
And yet, it was here, whilst working just a few doors away, that Reg Christie would pop in for a quick cup of tea, a spot of lunch and a chance to lure another vulnerable woman to her death. (Interstitial)
(Old phone ringing) On 6th December 1949 at 2:10pm, four days after the arrest of Timothy John Evans, Police Constable Mount of Harrow Road Police Station was assigned to a routine task in Ladbroke Grove. “PC338, proceed to 133 St Mark’s Road, suspicious object found, over”. “Roger that”.
Situated a few doors down from Rillington Place, once a family home, 133 St Mark’s Road was now a derelict shell; with its walls charred black, windows smashed and doors stolen having been bombed during the blitz a decade earlier. Alerted by two children, PC Mount unearthed from between two floorboards what looked like a milky white ball; only its shape was uneven and broken, its sound was brittle and hollow, its texture was smooth and hard and its colour was like an old stick stripped of bark.
(Old phone ringing) “Harrow Road, this is PC338, object found at 133 St Mark’s Road is an adult human skull, jaw missing, no other body parts found, over”. “Thank you PC338, over”. And that was that.
The Police had discovered the decapitated skull of a female in her early thirties… and they did nothing. There was no press coverage, no autopsy and no investigation. But then again, why would they? With thousands of people listed as missing after the blitz, and millions of bones and body-parts still littering the city, being “just another skull”, it was bagged-up, catalogued and stored in Kensington Mortuary.
Although they didn’t know it, this skull was special; as having been buried in a nearby garden seven years earlier, dug up by a mongrel dog (Judy’s whimper), disposed of by the flat’s tenant (“she believed I could cure her”) who hid it from his wife (“tea’s up Reg”), and with the victim’s family believing she had died in a bombed-out air-raid shelter in Putney, this long-forgotten skull would help put an end to the life of London’s most infamous serial-killer. But before that… three more women would die.
RITA Elizabeth Nelson was born on 16th October 1927 in Belfast’s City Hospital and raised by Protestant parents – James, a labourer and Lilly, a housewife – whose life revolved around the teachings of the Presbyterian Church. As the middle child of three daughters - with Mae the eldest and Sadie the youngest – RITA’s life was led by the Bible, in the hope of making a good woman out of an unruly girl.
But burdened by a high sense of pride and a rebellious streak, Ruth’s stubbornness created a friction in the family who abhorred theft, alcohol and sex out of wedlock.
Like most working class girls who lived in the early twentieth century, very little is known about RITA’s life, as with no census records, school reports or medical history, it’s almost as if she didn’t exist. So what fragments were found were sieved from witness statements, criminal records and her autopsy.
RITA was an enigma, a deliberate mystery who hid her true-self behind a facade. Why? We may never know. What we do know is that she was five foot five inches tall, of slim build, with a thick mop of wiry brown hair like she had been caught in a breeze, small brown eyes like little acorns lost in a blanket of fresh white snow, an eternally furrowed brow like life was digging a grave into her brain, and (missing four teeth) a wide mouth which grimaced, grinded and grinned, but rarely smiled.
With her lips and nails slathered in a thick coat of fiery red, she resembled a ray of joy, but the colour only disguised her sadness. With a posh affectation, she sounded like a real lady from a well-to-do family, but her accent only hid her roots as a poor girl from Belfast. And being fashionably dressed in greens, pinks and blacks, she was always neat and tidy, but she only had two sets of clothes.
RITA’s life would descend into disarray, and yet, she always hid, ran and never asked for help.
January 1940, in Belfast Juvenile Court, RITA Nelson was charged with theft, she was thirteen years old. December 42, again charged with theft. May 46, she was given six months’ probation for theft. September 46, aged 19, she was fined twenty shillings for engaging in prostitution. November 46, one years’ probation and a £5 fine for assaulting a police officer. January 47, one month in Belfast Prison for breaking probation. And April 48, she was fined forty shillings for being drunk and disorderly.
Seven arrests in eight years, all before she was twenty-one, and although on paper she appears to be a career criminal, she may not have been an angel, but she wasn’t bad, cruel or evil, she was just lost.
RITA’s life was short and hard. During her teens, she was strangled so badly her attacker fractured the hyoid bone in her throat, her assailant was never arrested and the bone never healed. In 1950, as an unmarried sex-worker and convicted thief, RITA’s two year old son ‘George’ was taken into care. And then, in 1952, after twenty-nine years of marriage her parents divorced, the fractured family collapsed and RITA ran away to London. Three months later, she would be dead. (Interstitial)
In March 1953, 28 year old mother-of-one Mary Ballinghall made this statement: “A man I now know to be John Christie helped me onto a train at Hammersmith, we’d both been to the National Assistance Board as I was living on one pound, two shillings and six pence a week, which isn’t enough. He spoke about his dead wife and seemed very lonely. In the Seven Stars café (opposite Peter’s Snack Bar on Goldhawk Road) he bought me a tea, toast, cigarettes, offered me some second hand clothes and a pound to help me along. A few evenings later, I went to his home to collect the money, I sat in his deck-chair, he showed me some pictures of his wife and cried. Suddenly, he tried to kiss me, I resisted and threatened to scream. Then he apologised, gave me a pound and I left”.
On 5th October 1952, two weeks before her 25th birthday, RITA caught the overnight ferry from Belfast to Heysham (in Lancashire) accompanied by her 35 year old cousin James Boyd and headed to London.
As a deeply private person, RITA kept herself-to-herself, but when asked why she had left Belfast, to different people she said she was either looking for work or had ran away from home; and yet, her work history would be patchy and every week – without fail - she would post a letter to her mother.
By lunchtime, that day, RITA and James had called in at the home of her older sister – Mae – who lived at 80 Ladbroke Grove, just two roads south of 10 Rillington Place, and although she had reason to visit this area, her trips were infrequent and she rarely stayed.
At 5pm, RITA and James left Ladbroke Grove and headed east to Soho looking for work; with James as a carpenter and Ruth as a waitress. They next day James found work on a construction site in Stratford (East London), but as a young girl with a lengthy criminal record, for RITA, times were tough.
But by all accounts, RITA had turned over a new leaf, and with no further arrests, and not one witness statement suggesting she had slipped back into her old ways of drinking, stealing and prostitution, Ruth would remain sober, honest and celibate for the rest of her short life… and for good reason.
Struggling to hold down a series of part-time jobs, RITA’s work record was chaotic; December 1952, she was an orderly at Great Ormond Street Hospital, it paid badly and gave her a place to sleep, but often feeling tired and sick, she last just three weeks. On 10th December 1952, she worked as a kitchen maid at the Devonshire Arms public house in Notting Hill Gate, where she also lived, but with her back and feet aching, she was deemed unsuitable and lasted just three days, losing her job and lodging.
In need of a bed, a fire, food and being too proud to stay with her sister Mae who lived just half a mile away, on 14th December 1952 RITA moved into a rented flat at 2 Shepherd’s Gardens, W12, where her 68 year old widowed landlady Hannah Rees said she was polite, quiet and kept to herself.
With no friends, no close family links and no social life, RITA’s last few weeks are a mystery. With no set routine, her movements are hard to pin down. And having never visited a doctor for a health check or signed-on at the National Assistance Board to claim any unemployment benefits, it’s clear that no matter how hard times got, Ruth was doing this alone. But was this through pride, or shame?
Three weeks before Christmas 1952, Ruth visited her sister in Ladbroke Grove and sent her a festive card. On 20th December, her cousin James returned to Belfast, but hadn’t spoken to Ruth since 6th October. And on 18th January 1953, two days after she had posted it, her mother Lilly received the last letter that RITA would ever send. In it, she reassured her she was healthy, happy and well, told her she was six months pregnant and she would be returning to Belfast on 28th February to have the baby.
Her family never saw, or heard from her, ever again.
In March 1953, 42 year old housewife Margaret Forrest of St Luke’s Mews made this statement: “three weeks ago I was in the Panda Café on 232 Westbourne Park Road, I was sitting at one of the tables, holding my forehead, when a man asked “excuse me, do you suffer from migraines?”. I said I did and he said he could cure it. He arranged for me to go to his house the following Saturday at 2pm and then left. I thought the matter over and did not keep the appointment. The following Tuesday, I was in the café, he came in, he was in a foul temper and asked why I had not kept the appointment. I made my excuses. He suggested I should see him that afternoon. I did not answer. He said I did not appear interested, and said “well, if you would rather suffer, I can’t help you”. I have not seen him since”.
RITA’s last known employment was as a counter-hand at the Shepherd’s Bush tea-room at 54 Uxbridge Road in Shepherd’s Bush. She started on Tuesday 6th January 1953 for a wage of just three pounds and eleven shillings a week, but by Thursday 8th - feeling sick, weak and sweating profusely – although she denied she was unwell, RITA was moved off the shop-floor and into the kitchen.
She could have been sacked for dishonesty having tried to hide her pregnancy from her employer, but with the tea-room being a branch of J Lyons & Sons; a family business ran by good people who owned such well-regarded establishments as Maison Lyonese in Marble Arch and The Corner House on Oxford Street, they took pity on her and wanted to help her.
On Monday 12th January 1953, RITA was sent to Dorothy Annie Symers, medical officer for J Lyons & Sons at 30 Orchard St in Marylebone, W1. Right there, Dorothy wrote the following letter addressed to Evelyn Richards, Lady Almoner of the Samaritans Hospital for Women, it read: “Dear Lady Almoner. Miss Rita Nelson came to see me today and I find that she is twenty-four weeks pregnant. She has recently come from Belfast, has no relations or friends in London, and does not want to return home in her condition, of which she insists she was unaware until today. I wonder if you could help her to be admitted to a home for unmarried mothers to see her through the late stages of her pregnancy. She has no doctor at present. I shall be very glad if you can do something for her. Yours sincerely. Dorothy Symers. Medical Officer, J Lyons & Company”.
That day, RITA signed for her final wages, an appointment was made to visit the Samaritans Hospital for Women the very next day, and she was handed the letter which ensured the safety and health and her and her baby. But for some reason – whether pride or shame – she never kept the appointment.
On Friday 16th January 1953, the landlady Hannah Rees witnessed RITA leaving her flat at 2 Shepherd’s Gardens to post a letter to her mother – Lilly – in which she said she stated that would return home in six weeks. That was the last confirmed sighting of RITA Elizabeth Nelson…
…and then, there was this.
In March 1953, Margaret Ellen Sergison, proprietor of Peter’s Snack Bar at 240 Goldhawk Road made this statement: “Reg was a regular, he’d come three or four times a week, often with different girls. He was fond of saying he was a struck-off as a doctor for helping a girl out, even if they didn’t ask. This one girl he met mostly in the day and only once in the evening. He said she was company for his wife who was an invalid. One day she stopped coming. He told me that if ever the girl came back, to let her have whatever she wanted and he would settle the bill. I never saw her again”
Eric Henry Webster, a lorry driver and colleague of Reg’s at British Road Services, a few doors down from Peter’s Snack Bar stated “she was about 18, 5 foot 3 inch tall, with brown hair, she was quite well spoken and gave the impression of coming from a good family. She was known to us as Rita”.
On Saturday 17th January 1953; with the rent overdue, no reply to her knocks and growing concerned, her landlady Hannah Rees reported Rita as missing at Hammersmith Police Station. On Tuesday 20th January, having been missing for a full four days, the Police gave Hannah permission to break-in to Rita’s flat. It was exactly as she had left it; her bed was unmade, her clothes were on the floor, her nail-polish bottle was empty and on her bedside table lay an unopened letter addressed to the Lady Almoner of the Samaritan Hospital for Women – eight days after it had been written.
There are very few certainties with this case:
When she died? We will never know. It was sometime after Friday 16th January 1953, when she was last seen alive, but sometime before the death of Kathleen Maloney, whose exact date is unknown.
How they met? We will never know. As with RITA being an intensely private person with no routine or close connections, all we have are the statements Reg would give, which can never be believed.
Why she trusted him? We will never know. And yet, it seems strange that – for whatever reason – she shunned the help of her sister who lived locally, hid the truth from her mother back home in Belfast and dismissed the much-needed medical care offered by the Samaritan’s Hospital, but (according to those who saw them together) she knew, liked and trusted Reg Christie. But why?
(Christie’s whisper): “Sometime in February, I went into a café at Notting Hill Gate for a cup of tea and a sandwich. The café was pretty full, there wasn’t much space. Two girls were sat at a table. One of them asked me for a cigarette. I mentioned I was leaving my flat and that it would be vacant very soon and they suggested coming down to see it together in the evening. Only one came down. She looked over the flat and said it would be suitable. It was then that she made suggestions that she would stay for a few days as a sort of payment in kind. I was rather annoyed and told her that that sort of thing didn’t interest me. I think she started saying I was making accusations against her when she saw there was nothing doing. She said that she would bring some boys down to do me in. I believe it was then she mentioned something about her having Irish blood. She had a violent temper I remember she started fighting. I am very quiet and avoid fighting. I know there was something else, it’s in the back of my mind. She was on the floor. I must have put her in the alcove straight away”.
At least, that’s how Reg remembers it happening, except the date was wrong, the location was wrong and the other girl he mentioned was never identified… and probably never existed.
Evidence suggests that RITA willingly entered 10 Rillington Place, although she was never seen. She happily sat in his deck-chair and chatted to Reg, although no sounds to the contrary were ever heard. And with no cuts, bruises or alcohol in her system, only a few carrots and meat from the last meal she had eaten the day before, as the odourless colourless gas drifted up from under her seat and her limbs twitched and jerked for half an hour, RITA drifted in and out of consciousness.
She wasn’t dead when he strangled her. She may not have been alive when he raped her. With her body wrapped in a blanket, tied around her ankles with a plastic flex and curled in the foetal position, RITA was hidden in the dark and dirty kitchen alcove. As with the other women; RITA was semi-clad, all that was missing was her knickers, between her legs he had placed two cotton vests like a makeshift nappy, and (like Ethel) to disguise her discoloured skin, protruding tongue and ruptured eyes which distended out of their sockets, a knotted white towel had been tied around her head.
And there she lay; rotting in a cold coal-cellar, nibbled at by rats and gnawed at by maggots, as in her womb, the six month old foetus of a boy slowly suffocated – a forgotten victim of Reg Christie.
RITA Elizabeth Nelson had a tough start in life; although a solitary figure, her stubbornness had helped her survive poverty, separation, assault and prostitution, and even being burdened by a lengthy criminal record, she had fled her own country to seek an honest job, a quiet home and better life for her and her unborn baby, hoping to become a good mum with a chance at a bright future.
But being too proud to accept help from those she loved, she found only death, at the hands of a man she believed she trusted. And yet, after RITA Nelson and Kathleen Maloney, somewhere in West London, one more vulnerable women would lured to 10 Rillington Place. (End)
OUTRO: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for listening to Murder Mile.
If you enjoyed parts one to eight of this ten part series, part nine of The Other Side of 10 Rillington Place continues next Thursday, with an omnibus edition once it’s finished. And for any murky milers, stay tuned for the usual pointless twaddle after the break, as well as some very important news about Murder Mile True-Crime Podcast. But before that, here’s my recommended podcasts of the week; which are Whispered True-Stories and Something’s Not Right. (PLAY PROMO)
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Murder Mile was researched, written and 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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