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Welcome to the Murder Mile UK True-Crime Podcast and audio guided walk of London's most infamous and often forgotten murder cases, set within and beyond the West End.
EPISODE ONE HUNDRED AND SEVEN:
On the night of Sunday 31st May 1953, Barbara Songhurst and Christine Reed, two innocent and inseparable best-friends were brutally raped and murdered on a peaceful towpath and their bodies
were dumped in the River Thames. But who would want these two young girls dead, and why?
As many photos of the case are copyright protected by greedy news organisations, to view them, take a peek at my entirely legal social media accounts - Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
Here's two little videos; on the left is the exact location of the Thames towpath where Alfred Whiteway was hiding and where Barbara Songhurst and Christine Reed would be murdered. And on the right is a short extract to show you part of the route both girls would have cycled. This video is a link to youtube, so it won't eat up your data.
I've also posted some photos to aid your "enjoyment" of the episode. These photos were taken by myself (copyright Murder Mile) or granted under Government License 3.0, where applicable.
Left to right: a photo of Barbara Songhurst and Christine Reed, Babrara's home at 75 Prince's Road in Teddington, Christine's home at 15 Roy Grove in Hampton, and then in the smaller photos (top left) Petersham Meadows, (bottom left) Teddington footbridge on the opposite side of the river, (top right) Teddington Lock looking down towards the Lockkeeper's Cottage and the murder location and (bottom right) the first Teddington footbridge, just passed the murder location.
Credits: The Murder Mile UK 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 as used under the Creative Common Agreement 4.0.
This case was researched using the original Police investigation files, as well as many other reliable sources, including first hand accounts, autopsy reports and personal experimentation.
Blackbird (klankbeeld) - https://freesound.org/people/klankbeeld/sounds/273810/
English Bird Song - https://freesound.org/people/kernowrules/sounds/233575/
Fringe Sounds - https://freesound.org/people/Udit%20Duseja/sounds/243708/
River Boats - https://freesound.org/people/echobones/sounds/122262/
UNEDITED TRANSCRIPT OF 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 and beyond the West End.
Today’s episode is about the vicious double-murder of Barbara Songhurst and Christine Reed; two innocent and inseparable best-friends brutally savaged on a peaceful riverside towpath. But who would want these two young girls dead, and why?
Murder Mile is researched using the original police files. It contains moments of satire, shock and grisly details. And as a dramatization of the real events, it may also feature 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 107: The Thames Towpath Murders – Part One: The Girls.
Today I’m standing by Teddington Lock on the south side of the River Thames, far beyond anywhere we’ve been to before, but oddly, every location (from Petersham Meadows, Old Ham Lock, St Helena Pier, Duke’s Hole and Teddington Lock Bridge, right across Twickenham, Kingston and Hampton Hill) can be seen from Richmond Hill where Kate Beagley watched her last sunset with the First Date Killer.
At 215 miles long, the Thames is the second longest river in Britain, stretching from Kemble (west of Oxford), through the city of London, to Foulness Point on the east coast and the North Sea beyond. It’s fast, wide, strong and deadly, rising and falling 23 feet a day and flowing faster than most boats.
For many Londoners, a walk along the Thames can make you feel like you’re in the country whilst still being in the city, as with buildings heavily-restricted, many stretches are full of wild fields, woodlands and deer parks. Of course, at weekends, the uneven towpaths are chock-a-block with Lycra-clad twats on pricey bikes swearing at any dog who disrupts their land speed record, sweaty-faced joggers (one step from a heart-attack) who feel obliged to make ‘that’ sound (hurgh) with every breath, and swarms of over-sugared seeds-of-Satan terrorising the wildlife because their parents would rather see a duck stamped to death than hire a babysitter, or ‘do their bloody job’. Thankfully, at other times of the week - being shielded by trees, shrubs and bushes - it’s actually a very nice place for a quiet walk.
With the Thames being tidal, initially built over 200 years ago, Teddington Lock is a triple-lock between the Middlesex and Surrey sides of this 250 foot wide stretch of the river, allowing the safe passage of boats, as well as pedestrians via two footbridges interconnected over a small island. And where-as the Teddington side has many homes, pubs and shops, the Ham side of the lock is little more than an unlit over-grown towpath shrouded in a dense dark thicket of trees and bushes, where an endless series of dog-walkers, joggers and casual strollers breathe in the fresh sea air. So, it seems unthinkable that such a peaceful little spot could be scene of a brutal double-murder.
But it was.
As it was here, on the night of Sunday 31st May 1953, at the corner of Teddington Lock, that two young girls would be brutally murdered. But the question wasn’t how, or who by, but why? (Interstitial)
As two loving and inseparable best-friends, Barbara and Christine lived as they died, side-by-side.
Barbara Songhurst was born in Teddington on the 29th April 1937, as a middle-child of ten to Gertrude & Daniel; a loving couple, married for 23 years, who had stuck together through good times and bad.
Being a good Anglican family of twelve crammed into a small white council-house on a long tree-lined street in Hampton Hill - although the two eldest boys (Danny and Robert) had moved out, Arthur was on National Service and Doris was hospitalised with spinal tuberculosis – with only three bedrooms for mum, dad, Pamela, Edwin, John and Nina, with 16-year-old Barbara sharing a bed with her eldest sister Rose. this little terraced house at 75 Prince’s Road was a squeeze for a family of eight.
Having moved out of a tiny terrace at 18 Sydney Road just eight years earlier, since birth and for the rest of her life, Barbara would always live in and around Teddington, the place she called home.
Life was busy, noisy and hard, as with their invalid father being confined to a steel jacket having broken his back, with the compensation spent and unable to work for ten years, as Gertrude was the full-time carer for her children and husband, they lived off benefits and what the siblings could earn.
Homelife was difficult but never unkind, chaotic but never cruel, and although a little undisciplined, it was only as dysfunctional as was to be expected from a big family in a small house living (but surviving) in a difficult circumstance. But as with all of their children, Barbara was good, decent and raised well.
Having graduated with a school certificate from the Victoria Girls School, a Church of England school a few doors down on Prince’s Road, aged 15, Barbara got a job as a shop assistant at Harwood & Halls chemist shop in Hampton Hill, earning £1 and 15 shillings-a-week, and – just as all of her work-age siblings did – more than half of what she earned went to feed and clothe the family.
Described by everyone as bubbly, fun and energetic - as a slim petite brunette just shy of five-foot-tall; with a slender figure, a confident stance, a fashionable dress sense and a cheeky smile - Barbara was popular with the boys and she loved their attention, but being blessed with a forceful personality, she had held onto her virginity as (being religious) she was saving herself for ‘Mr Right’.
Barbara wasn’t a silly little giggling girl who stumbled into trouble, as although she had a small child-like body and the excitable brain of a teen savouring her freedom, she also had an adult’s wisdom which belied her tender years. As a local girl, she had some serious street-smarts. She liked watching live music, but didn’t venture any place she didn’t feel safe. She liked thrills, but was never a bother to herself or anyone else. She freely cycled along the river, but rarely strayed far from the towpaths or bridges she trusted to get herself home. She stayed out late, but always kept her parents informed of her whereabouts. And although chatty and confident, she never, ever, talked to strangers.
In fact, being both sensible and inseparable, always by Barbara’s side was her best-friend – Christine.
Born two years and one month earlier on 18th March 1935, Christine Rose Reed was the middle-child of Herbert & Lucy. Living off Herbert’s modest wage as a shop assistant and with her housewife mother Lucy being deaf, they weren’t well-off, but their homelife was always happy, loving and stable.
Having scraped by at school and described as a little bit educationally challenged, 18-year-old Christine had found work as a factory hand in Hampton, earning a wage of £3 18 shillings a week, and (just like her best pal) half of her wage went to support her family.
Like a slightly taller twin, Christine was a slim petite brunette with olive skin, brown eyes, a small nose and a curly bob of hair, and although she also liked the boy’s attention, she often got less than her bubbly buddy being a little more shy, quiet and prim, but no less chatty once she felt comfortable.
Living a few roads apart, Christine and Barbara’s life revolved around their friendship. Every moment of their free-time was spent by each other’s side; they ate, cried, prayed and (during their many sleep-overs) they even slept together, and although both girls often stayed out late, neither of their parents ever worried as the girls were always honest about where they had been, who with, when they would be home, and that – no matter what – these inseparable sisters would never be parted, even in death.
Barbara Songhurst and Christine Reed were two innocent young girls living their ordinary little lives within the safety of the place they had always called home. Nobody wanted them dead. And yet, for no known reason, someone would brutally savage both girls in a truly horrifying way. (Interstitial)
Eight years after the end of the Second World War, with the country smashed and battle-scarred, its charred cities pockmarked with bomb-craters and a weary people struggling under the twin burden of an economic slump and a population boom, 1953 marked a new dawn for Britain. Over the sweet smell of cakes being baked, the excitable squeal of children playing and the drab grey streets flecked with the patriotic red, white and blue of Union Jack bunting, a joyous thrum rippled across the city in anticipation of the impending Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, in just one week’s time.
This wasn’t just a party, this was a fresh beginning, and with the typically unpredictable British weather actually playing ball for once – being a bank holiday – with shorts on, tops off and work done, swarms of Londoners flocked to the banks of the River Thames for picnics, walks and to set up camp.
It was a moment of great celebration…
…so, one weekend prior, on Sunday 24th May, following short spate of sexual assaults on lone females walking in isolated spots, a vicious sadistic attack occurred eight miles south of Teddington on Oxshott Heath, leaving a 14-year-old girl raped, bloodied and traumatised. But with very little evidence, the investigation came to nothing, and for now, such horrors would be put to the back of everyone’s mind.
The seven days before their deaths were unremittingly ordinary for the girls; they saw nothing strange, they heard nothing weird and they met no-one odd; they had no fears, no worries and they felt need to ever be frightened; their families was fine, their friendship was solid and their life was simple.
On Sunday 24th May, as per usual, they went to church, had a roast, cycled and came home.
Monday 25th was a Bank Holiday, so with the shops shut, the day was much the same.
Tuesday to Friday was a regular working week so Barbara assisted at Harwood & Halls chemist shop, Christine as an assembly-line worker at a nearby factory, and each evening, as if by clockwork, the two best-friends met-up to sit, chat and giggle.
On Friday 29th, at the Blue Angel café in Hampton Hill - a local hang-out full of fizzy pop, rock-and-roll and pinball machines - John Wells who was Christine’s neighbour at 8 Roy Grove and her good friend for the last five years invited both girls to a camping party that Sunday at Petersham Meadows. It would a bit of fun with a few chums in a safe local place that they all knew, so both parents approved.
And on Saturday 30th, Barbara, Christine and their pal Joy Woolveridge got dressed in their finest and went dancing at York House, a rather grand stately home in Twickenham. With the band packed-up by midnight, they cycled two miles home, partially down the unlit and overgrown towpath – which may sound dangerous but it was a damn-sight safer than sharing a potholed road with the nightly rumble of trucks and buses that thundered by – and at 12:45am, a little later than promised, both girls returned to 15 Roy Grove, as witnessed by Christine’s father and (as per usual) Barbara stayed over.
The only thing that made the next day strange was that, by nightfall, both girls would be dead.
Sunday 31st May 1953 would be a glorious day; the sun was out, the skies were blue, the breeze was kept the heat cool and it would be a perfect day for a friendly little picnic at a mate’s camping party.
Waking-up at a little after 9am in Christine’s tiny bedroom, the two girls made their plans for the day, and as Christine dressed, Barbara cycled the eight-minutes home to 75 Prince’s Road, and at roughly the same time, they regaled their parents with last night’s fun and news of today’s picnic at Petersham Meadows with John Wells and a few pals. With tomorrow being a work day, they promised to be back in their own beds by 11pm, which both parents knew meant either midnight or just a touch later.
At 10:30am - being fashionably and yet comfortably dressed in blue jeans, a white coat, a yellow tartan blouse, flat-heeled shoes with white socks and accessorised with a double row of imitation pearls and two brooches (one a patriotic pin for the Festival of Britain and a horseshoe for good luck) - being in a bright and perky mood, Barbara Songhurst left her home on her maroon-coloured Phillips sports cycle.
Likewise – being semi-sensibly dressed in dark blue slacks, a yellow woollen cardigan, a white blouse, white ankle socks and a pair of low-heeled black shoes – as Christine cycled away on her cream and blue BSA sports model bicycle, her mood was typically upbeat, happy and carefree.
At 11am, they met somewhere in Teddington, but no-one knows where, and they headed to John’s picnic at Petersham Meadows - which they would return to three times that day - although no-one else can recall seeing them. But then again, why would they? Barbara and Christine were two young girls in a sea of a few thousand people who flocked to the bustling riverbank on a gloriously sunny day.
At 1:30pm, both girls briefly returned to Barbara’s home, although no-one can be unsure why, but with the shops shut, it may have been to find a spare battery or a bulb for her broken bicycle light. At 1:45pm, they left again, they were still happy and laughing, and by 2pm, they returned to 15 Roy Grove for lunch with Christine’s parents. At 4pm they left and at 5pm they returned, but this back-and-forth between each other’s homes was very typical of the two girls, who often flick-flacked across the town travelling as-and-where the mood took them, but – not for a single second – were they ever apart.
At 7:30pm, as Christine cycled away from her home, down a side alley between 14 and 15 Roy Grove, with Barbara beside her, that was the last time that Herbert Reed would ever see his daughter alive.
Roy Grove to Petersham Meadows was a familiar four-mile route that the two girls had already cycled twice that day and hundreds of times – both day and night - over the years they had been best-friends.
Scooting down Uxbridge Road, they snuck across Bushy Park for a peek at the deer, headed through the hubbub of the High Street, down Ferry Road and at the river they crossed the two footbridges over Teddington Lock, turned left passed the lock keeper’s cottage, and followed the Thames north, up an over-grown and uneven towpath, passed Old Ham Lock, Eel Pie Island and – twenty minutes later, just passed Duke’s Hole - they would reach a little place known as Log Farm in Petersham Meadows.
Of course, at 8pm, as they dumped their bikes in the long grass and sauntered up towards the joyous sounds of a tinny transistor radio, the delicious smell of fire-roasted sausages and sidled up to the camp-site to say “hi” to the boys, neither girl would know the significance that Duke’s Hole (or even St Helena Pier just half a mile north) would play in the final days and hours of their lives and deaths, as Barbara and Christine were here to have fun.
Petersham Meadows was a large open field, just off the Thames towpath, with a small farm for felling trees on the south side, water-filled gravel-pits at the front and surrounded by a thick line of tree.
That day, although typically, the bright sunshine had been masked behind a thick grey dollop of cloud, the field was still relatively full of campers, and although the numbers had dwindled a little since dusk had begun to fall, the nearest other camping party was only about one hundred and fifty feet away.
As before, the party was small, just five chums in total; John Wells had erected a canvas tent for the three boys to sleep in, Albert Sparkes was chopping fire-wood with a small slightly blunt axe and Peter Warren was supposed to be the chef, but most of the sausages ended-up raw or burnt to a crisp.
And that was it.
Just like in the days before their deaths, they saw nothing strange, they heard nothing weird and they met no-one odd. This was just a simple little picnic with some old and new friends around a camp-fire by a river. Being teenagers and young men, there was a little drinking, some giggling, some kissing, a few larks, japes and high-jinx, but it was all pretty innocent stuff for such virtuous girls.
Only this moment of fun and hilarity would be the last that the two girls would ever share
With little of what was left of the sun having set almost two hours earlier, with only a hint of a moon, a dense cloud-cover having descended, and being nowhere near a single flickering street-light, head lamp or brightly-coloured bulb in celebration of this coming Tuesday’s Coronation, the five pals were only illuminated by the alluring glow of the crackling campfire. Darkness was upon them, and as the silences between the laughs grew longer, the party wound down and the girls knew it was time to go.
As none of the group wore a watch, having heard a distant clocktower strike its eleventh chime, the girls knew that they would be slightly (but not unreasonably) late if they set-off now, which they did.
With the woods, river and towpath being pitch-black at this time of night, as the batteries to Barbara and Christine’s bicycle lights had run flat and having been unable to find any spares earlier that day, Peter kindly loaned his bike light to Barbara. It wasn’t a great little lamp. In fact, it’s dull yellow glow barely shone further than a few feet ahead of her thin front wheel, but it was better than nothing.
At roughly 11:15pm, having waved the girls goodbye, John, Albert and Peter finished off the sausages, turned off the radio and amidst the soft rustle of their sleeping-bags, all three went to sleep. The night was deathly quiet, except for a light wind, the leaves in the trees and the soothing rush of the river.
The last sighting of Barbara and Christine was roughly fifteen minutes later, just shy of Old Ham Lock.
As two pals - Basil Nixon and Sheila Daines - lay on the grass, from the north they heard the rickety clatter of two bikes riding in tandem, with two young girls loudly chatting back-and-forth, as up-front a single dull yellowy bike-light bobbed along the uneven towpath towards Teddington Lock, and as they were slowly swallowed-up by the dark dense woodland – with that - the two girls had vanished.
Just shy of midnight, needing to head home, Basil & Sheila walked down that same dark overgrown towpath; with the thunder of the black raging river to their right, a dense thicket of shadowy trees to their left, the cloudy sky obscured by a heavy canopy of low-hanging branches and (even with a decent torch) their visibility was just a few feet ahead. So, as the couple dawdled south, along the towpath, passed Teddington Lock, the Lockkeeper’s Cottage and crossed over the double footbridges heading towards the distant lights of Teddington town, amidst the darkness… they saw and heard nothing.
That night, 16-year-old Barbara Songhurst and 18-year-old Christine Reed didn’t return home.
At 8:15am, on Monday 1st June, the next morning, as George Coster, a foreman for the Port of London Authority was working at Radnor Gardens (one mile north of Teddington Lock), just twenty feet from the riverbank, he spotted something floating in the shallow water. It was “probably a log” he thought, or “a bit of rubbish, or debris”, but as he threw a rope to draw it nearer – seeing a white coat, dark hair, a yellow tartan blouse and pale white skin – it was unmistakably the body of a young girl.
Alerting the Police, at 9:05am, Sergeant George Cooper placed the cold damp body in a boat, and under a blanket took it to St Helena Pier - just one mile north of Petersham Meadows where barely twelve hours earlier this little girl had enjoyed a last laugh with her best-friend – and in a discrete wooden boat-shed at the Riverside Buildings, (as the law decrees) Dr Bowtell determined her life as extinct.
Transferred to Richmond Mortuary and having already been declared as missing by her parents, later that morning, Gertrude Songhurst confirmed that the clothes, the brooch pin and the stone-cold body which lay before her, as that of her daughter – Barbara. She was dead, and had been in the water for nearly nine hours. But she didn’t drown. And seeing only her baby’s beautiful face, under a black rubber sheet, the worst of the young girl’s injuries were deliberately hidden from view.
At 12:10pm, in the presence of Detective Superintendent Herbert Hannan and conducted by Dr Arthur Mant, the autopsy of 16-year-old Barbara Songhurst took place.
Her face and head had two obvious wounds; under a one-inch gash to top of her skull, a crushing blow had cratered the bone and haemorrhaged her brain, and under a curved two-inch wound between her left eye and ear, a second swift strike had split her left cheekbone, as if – without warning - she had been forcibly struck by something heavy and hard but dull, perhaps the blunt end of an axe.
On her torso, her tartan blouse and white coat (now sodden with the silty filth of the river) was only fastened by the top button, but through its once-white cloth, three deep stab-wounds could be clearly seen across her back; each one having punctured her left lung, her right lung and right into her heart, with several blades of severed grass poking out of the lowest of the wounds.
With her socks still on but her shoes missing, the raging water had rearranged parts of her clothing, but with her top exposing her midriff, her blue jeans unbuttoned and the crotch of her thin cotton knickers ripped open, there was no denying that this innocent little girl had been raped, as she lay dying. And with a series of rough cuts to her hyman, bruises up her inner thighs and her vagina full of semen - with her very last breath - she had tried to put up a fight, as her attacker took her virginity.
And once he was done - with her dead and raped - a series of long lacerations down her legs, buttocks, back and heels suggested she had been dragged along the towpath, down the side of the riverbank, into the tidal waters below, and – like an unwanted piece of rubbish – she was dumped in the river.
Her shoes were gone, her other brooch had vanished, her bike was missing and so was Christine. (End)
The murder of Barbara Songhurst was a perplexing mystery; no-one saw her attack, no-one heard her rape, no-one witnessed her murder or disposal, and no-one wanted her (or her best-friend) dead. They were two innocent young girls living their ordinary little lives in the place they felt safe, who would be brutally attacked in an isolated spot, on a public towpath, by a person or persons unknown.
This should have been a fresh start for everyone, a time of celebration, but a violent killer was in their midst, and just one day from the Queen’s Coronation, the newspapers were all about a dead little girl.
But the rape and murder of Barbara Songhurst didn’t make any sense.
If it was pre-meditated, the murder location would have been somewhere dark, dense and isolated, perhaps a spot on the towpath up near the Lock. But if her rape was his motive, why did he attack two girls, on bicycles, at the same time, rather than just one? What if the other screamed, or got away?
If the murder was personal, and a brazen double-murder of two little girls was his aim, why did the attacker strike Barbara twice across the head and face with a blunt end of an axe to render her semi-conscious, only to violently stab her to death with a knife? Why keep her alive, only to make her dead?
Nothing made sense, and with no footmarks, no fingerprints, no witnesses, no sounds heard, no sights seen and no weapons found, Barbara’s murder would remain a mystery.
And yet, as a second little girl would wash up on the river bank and the murder location was uncovered, it became very clear, that - as two loving and inseparable best-friends - Barbara and Christine had lived as they died, side-by-side.
OUTRO: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for listening to Murder Mile.
That was part one of three of the Thames Towpath Murders, with the next part next week. But if you fancy learning some more details about the case and enjoy half an hour of utter waffle, stay tuned for Extra Mile.
Before that, a big thank you to my new Patreon supporters who are Bridget O'Keeffe, Jacqueline Rutland, Samantha Woodhouse and Grace Ashby-Walker, I thank you all for your support, it’s much appreciated. A thank you to Kay Fillmore for your very kind donation, and Stevo and Patsy who donated via the Supporter link in the show-notes, I thank you too. And with a huge thank you to all supporters of the show, in whatever way you choose, whether by Patreon, donations, reviews, or simply by listening to it and saying “yeah, I like that, it was okay”.
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.
*** LEGAL DISCLAIMER ***
The Murder Mile UK True Crime Podcast has been researched using the original declassified police investigation files, court records, press reports and as many authentic sources as possible including eye-witness testimony, confessions, autopsy reports, first-hand accounts and independent investigation, where possible. But these documents are only as accurate as those recounting them and recording them, therefore mistakes will be made. As stated at the beginning of each episode (and as is clear by the way it is presented) Murder Mile is a 'dramatisation' of the events and not a documentary, therefore a certain amount of dramatic licence, selective characterisation and story-telling (within logical reason and based on extensive research) has been taken. It is not a full representation of the case, the people or the investigation in its entirety, and therefore should not be taken as such. It is also often (for the sake of clarity and drama) presented from a single person's perspective, usually (but not exclusively) the victim's, therefore it will contain a certain level of bias to get across this single perspective, which may not be the overall opinion of those involved or associated.
*** LEGAL DISCLAIMER ***
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a writer, crime historian, podcaster and tour-guide who runs Murder Mile Walks, a guided tour of Soho’s most notorious murder cases, hailed as “one of the top ten curious, quirky, unusual and different things to do in London”, nominated "one of the best true-crime podcasts at the British Podcast Awards", one of The Telegraph's top five true-crime podcasts and featuring 12 murderers, including 3 serial killers, across 15 locations, totaling 50 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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