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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, all set within and beyond the West End.
EPISODE TWO HUNDRED AND TWENTY-ONE:
On Saturday 8th of October 1949, 27-year-old Denis Wilfred Barrett invited 19-year-old Kathleen Mary Rosam back to his lodging at 2 Shirland Road, W9. As a homeless girl who had resorted to prostitution to survive, he was desperate to save her from a fate worse than death...
…only, having witnessed unspeakable horrors, what he needed was saving from life.
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SOURCES: This case was researched using some of the sources below.
UNEDITED TRANSCRIPT OF THE EPISODE
Welcome to Murder Mile.
Today I’m standing on Shirland Road, off Little Venice, W9; three streets south-west of Timothy Cotter, the 16-year-old killer convicted by his own mother, two streets west of the scattered remains of Hannah Brown, one street north of the suitcase stuffed with Marta Ligman’s body, and a few miles downstream of the torso and the legs that no-one could identify - coming soon to Murder Mile.
At the back of the Grand Union Canal sits Charfield Court, a seven-story housing estate from the 1970s. Constructed of 105 unimaginatively identical flats made of glass and concrete, it’s possible it was built as a police initiative to cut crime by making it impossible for any burglar to recall which flat was theirs.
Demolished during the 1960s slum clearances, on this spot, at the corner of Formosa Road once stood 2 Shirland Road, a three-storey Victorian lodging house into which a quiet inoffensive man called Denis moved in. Missing some much-needed love in his life, he had fallen for Kathleen; a girl with no home, no life and (what he saw as) no future. But desperate to save her from a fate worse than death…
…what she needed saving from was him.
My name is Michael, I am your tour guide, and this is Murder Mile.
Episode 221: The Saviour.
Few who knew him ever thought that Denis was the type of man to commit a murder.
Born in the Irish city of Cork on the 12th of October 1922, Denis Wilfred Barrett was one of six siblings to two hard-working parents from a respectable family. Raised as a Roman Catholic, although a little quiet and a little shy, he was a good boy who got on well with everyone, whether sinners or saints.
Aged 8, his father died leaving his mother a widow. And although this heartbroken family struggled on in the grip of the Great Depression, together they got through it. So, it’s no surprise that there was nothing in his childhood which forewarned anyone of the crime he would commit. Or maybe it did?
As an ordinary boy who was scruffy, a little uncouth but undeniably loving and thoughtful, he would blossom into a ‘tall, powerfully built Irishman’; with hands like shovels, legs like ham-hocks, and a heart as big as an ox, whose pale face and red-cheeks were decorated with a natty little moustache.
And keen to see the world and to do his mother proud, aged just 16, he enlisted in the Royal Navy.
The date was May 1939, and the world was at war. (sirens)
Trained at the Naval School in Sheerness, he suited being a sailor, as whether he was chatting with a captain or a cleaner, “he always made friends with the flotsam and jetsam of the streets”. Beginning his career as a ‘boy’, on the 21st of November 1939, he set sail on the Royal Navy cruisier - HMS Drake.
For this boy from Cork, his new life was exciting and dangerous, and qualifying as an electrician, across his career he rose from a lowly boy to an ordinary seaman, all the way up to Leading Torpedo Operator.
Only, like so many young boys who had signed up to fight, his teenage years would take a tragic turn.
In February 1940, he was transferred onto HMS Hermes, a 600-foot aircraft carrier with 566 crew. Fitted with 20 fighter aircraft, three-inch armour and six 5 and a 1/2-inch guns, it hunted down German blockade runners off the coast of France before progressing to the Persian and East African campaigns.
But in April 1942, while preparing for Operation Ironclad, the British invasion of Madagascar, as HMS Hermes berthed in Trincomalee in west Sri Lanka – with repairs underway, the stores being resupplied, and their fighter aircraft assigned elsewhere to another mission – they received a warning. Spotted by an enemy scout plane, a sortie of Japanese warships were steaming their way, to destroy them.
Caught off guard, HMS Hermes was a sitting duck - but with no time to rearm its guns, its 11000-tonne bulk limited to a maximum speed of 25 knots, and its air-cover of an RAF squadron of just six Farley Fulmar fighters being too far away, of which they would be outmanned by the impending swarm of 85 Aichi D3A dive bombers and 9 Mitsubishi Zero fighters – only at sea, would they stand a chance.
Being left open and exposed, as this wave of firepower later headed north, destroying the Athelstone, the Hollyhock, the SS British Sergeant oil tanker, the SS Norviken and their escorts, by the time that British fighters were seen overhead, the HMS Hermes was sunk. Of its 566 crew, 307 men were lost.
Inside its steel hull, some men were ripped-apart by the blast, some burned to death as fuel ignited, some drowned as the ship quickly sunk, and on that day – 9th April 1942 – many died a terrible death.
Somehow, Denis survived the explosion, and as he swam as hard as he could as the sinking ship pulled many survivors under, as it sunk taking his friends to their watery graves, this 20-year-old was left clutching to an upturned raft – burned and bleeding - in a vast expanse of oil slicks and dead bodies.
Many died a horrible death that day, but it would be worse for those who survived, as across the next five hours - as he swam through a sea of steam, corpses and fiery waves - Denis watched in terror as his pals’ dissected limbs were picked-at by fish, swirling sharks sought a free feast of human flesh, and – unwilling to take any prisoners – those who hadn’t drowned were machine-gunned from the air.
Along with the other survivors, Denis was picked up by the hospital ship Vita…
…only his nightmare had just begun.
With this being war, he was given no time to grieve or get over his trauma, as being told ‘to buck up or get out’, the very next day, he was assigned to the crew of HMS Drake, a heavily armoured monitor ship. But that experience had changed Denis; gone was the quiet burly man, replaced by a terrified boy whose nights were spent gripped with sweats, terrors and horrifying dreams of a swirling red sea.
No longer the seaman he once was, he was bounced from HMS Drake to HMS Defiance to HMS Drake IV, but by August 1943 - owing to what they described as his “peculiar behaviour” – he was put ashore.
Posted to the Mediterranean island of Sicily, Denis wasn’t there for rest and recuperation, as assigned to LST 425 (a landing ship tank), with a rifle in hand, his superiors sent him from one horror to another, as part of the invasion of Sicily. Codenamed Operation Husky, it was one of the most brutal land battles of World War II, into which Denis fought a series of street-fights, as the walls ran red with blood.
After six weeks, the Allies had stolen this strategically vital island from Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, but the day that Sicily was won, being physically exhausted and mentally spent, Denis broke down.
With an officer spotting his ‘strange behaviour’, Denis was sent to B Base Psychiatric Centre at the 54th General hospital. Described as “self-absorbed and emotionally dull”, when they examined him, they found two scars, where – twice in the last few weeks – he had attempted to stab himself in the heart.
“Recommended for return to the UK for further observation”, Denis was shipped back to England and admitted to Barrow Gurney Naval Hospital in Bristol, where he said he heard voices, saw visions, and his movements and thought processes were so slow, that at times, doctors stated “he was like statue”.
Believing that he was suffering from “possible schizophrenia” rather than the trauma of war, deemed unfit for naval service, on the 9th February 1944, he was discharged and given half his military pension.
As he was no longer the Navy’s concern, he tried to live as normal life as possible…
Released from hospital on the 10th of March 1944, he returned to Cork and to his family, far away from the cacophony of blitz bombs and V1 rockets which riddled most Allied cities. As a quailed electrician, he got his union papers and coped with his trauma by working regular hours and making a good living.
Given his history, it’s remarkable that Denis didn’t go off the rails, but then again, he was never bad or mad, he was just shy and a quiet. Sometimes described as “a little distant”, he was never violent, he didn’t have a criminal record, and apart from frequent bouts of depression, he was doing well.
One of the reasons, it is said, was that he had found love.
How they met he never divulged, but being as the daughter of a fellow electrician, it’s likely that Denis met Elizabeth Millard known as ‘Bette’ at one of the businesses in Cork he either worked for, or at. As a small-featured petite blonde with a sweet smile and quirky mannerisms, being smitten from day one he quickly married her and both moving to Gillingham in Kent, they married on the 2nd January 1946.
Life was good; he was married, employed, and they soon had two children; Ingrid age 3 and Noel age 2, and kept busy as an electrician at Royal Victoria Docks, soon the horrors of his past were fading.
Only, the good times were coming to an end, as Denis’ trauma crept back in.
In February 1946, he was sacked from the dockyard as his workmanship wasn’t up to standard. A few short-term jobs followed, but he was discharged for bad timekeeping. And in January 1949, with their marriage in tatters as he sunk deeper in despair, his beloved Bette moved back to Cork taking the kids.
Separating amicably in June 1949, although he struggled to retain his job as a kitchen porter in London, he tried to pay her £3 per week as agreed, but only able to give her £1, their relationship soon soured.
On the 18th September 1949, 27-year-old Denis moved into a small bed-sitting room on the first floor of 2 Shirland Road in Maida Vale. Working nights as a kitchen porter at J Lyons & Co in Marble Arch, the landlady Mrs Herta Pusztai said he was “quiet and kept to himself”, he never made a mess, and as a devoted father who spoke lovingly of his wife, he sent what he could to his family back in Ireland.
Only, his shy ways and statue-like stillness hid not only his trauma, but a deep pain in his heart. Often sat alone, as he stared at the bare walls, he began to drink. At night, when the terror returned and the sight of burning bodies haunted his dreams, he had no-one to cuddle him to sleep. And as those dark thoughts loomed, once he told his brother Edward “I often think of falling in front of tube trains”.
Denis was done, as in his diary he would scrawl “our anniversary Bette. This was all for you”. In another entry he would leave his worldly goods to his loved ones. And in a third “My love as always to Bette”.
With nothing left, no-one would come to Denis’ rescue…
… but it was then that he found Kathleen.
Born on the 28th September 1930 in the Hertfordshire town of Bushey, Kathleen Mary Rosam had lived with her mother Kathleen and her stepfather John, since her father’s death when she was only three.
Raised with her brother at 5 Bushey Hall Farm Cottages, she was described as “a healthy girl, who was never in trouble”. Since leaving school, she’d worked at a printing factory, she’d done her bit for King & Country having joined the Land Army, she had just started work at a biscuit factory in Watford, and although “a steady girl who liked her home life but didn’t go out much”, suddenly, she went missing.
Dressed in a black coat, a flower-pattered dress and wedge-shaped shoes, on the morning of the 17th of September 1949 - for no known reason what-so-ever - this 19-year-old vanished from her home…
…three weeks later, she would be dead.
On Tuesday 4th October, Denis met Kathleen, we know this as he wrote it in his diary – “met Kathleen”.
At roughly midnight, on Randolph Avenue, two streets from his lodging, the two got chatting. Whether he was looking for a prostitute is unknown, but she said she was ‘on the game’ and her price was £1.
Instantly, he liked her, as although just 19-years-old, it was who she reminded him off which attracted him most. As being a small-featured petite blonde with a sweet smile and quirky mannerisms, he’d later tell the prison psychiatrist “the resemblance between my wife and Kathleen was remarkable”.
And although Bette was out of his life, she never out of his thoughts.
That night, having had a delightful walk in Paddington Park, Denis would admit “I told her I didn’t have much money. She asked me if I could take her to my lodgings. I said I could, and at about 1am we got to 2 Shirland Road… she stayed the night with me in my room and she did not ask me to pay her”.
Maybe she forget, maybe she pitied him, or maybe (being homeless) she needed a place to stay?
Either way, although brief, their relationship was caring and friendly, as Kathleen saw a softness within this burly man, and within her, he saw the woman he had always loved, but could no longer be with.
Denis would state “we left my room at about 2pm on the Wednesday, we went and had a drink, and then I took her to a chemist in Kilburn High Road to have her eye seen to”. Sporting a sore but fading black eye - possibly at the hands of a punter who wasn’t as gentle and caring as Denis – “I bought her an eye shade. I then took her up Edgware Road and we had a good feed and then went to the pictures”.
As far as we know, a nice time was had by both – “after that we went to a couple of pubs. She told me she had to go and see a pal, and I promised to meet her about midnight in a pub on the Clifton Road”.
There was no denying that he liked her, he maybe loved her, or at least the woman she reminded him of, “but I waited in there, and around the streets till about two in the morning, but she did not return”.
In his diary, he would write for that night: “she went to see her friend and never returned. Stayed out until 2am, to try and find her. Impossible!”. And being desperate to see her, over the next two days – Thursday 6th and Friday 7th – he wrote three words in his diary “searching for her”, nothing more.
Knowing her for just four days, it wasn’t until the fifth day that Denis tried to save her…
…ironically, from a ‘fate worse than death’.
It’s uncertain how many hours he waited and how many streets he searched, but on Saturday 8th, he found her. We know that, as he wrote it in his diary: “found her Sat’ night 9pm”. Being on Clifton Road, her usual patch, although “she was getting off and fixing up business… she agreed to go out with me”.
It was like it was before, as they strolled hand-in-hand through Hyde Park and went to a café for a cup of tea; her a petite little thing in a bright yellow dress like a canary, him in a dark blue suit like a cat. Their time together was only brief, but as Denis would state “during this time I had known Kathleen, I had become somewhat attached to her and had suggested to her that she should come off the game”.
She was only young, she was only little, and she had her whole life ahead of her: “I urged her to give up the game”, he told the prison psychiatrist, “I thought of her future, her life as a prostitute” - disease, alcoholism, degradation and danger - “but she refused to”. So it’s kind of ironic that, having wanted to save her from a life lived so shamefully, at roughly 1am, they returned to his lodging… and had sex.
The house was quiet, and with the rules being ‘no guests allowed’, they did the dirty silently.
A short while afterwards, as they lay in his bed, the drab chintz curtains closed and the door locked, curled-up together in each other’s arms, “I kissed her, and she then went off to sleep. I lay thinking of different things. I felt pity for the girl, and I realised what she would become if she continued in her way of life. I knew I couldn’t have her living with me… and I thought of my wife. Then I went to sleep”.
Whether this is true, only he would know, but suddenly his mood would change.
In one retelling, they were both awake: “She didn’t want to come off the game so I thought it would be better if she was out of it altogether, so I suddenly took hold of her throat with my hand and we struggled. We fell off the bed together and I had hold of her throat all the time until she was dead”.
In another, he awoke and found himself in a fit of anger: “The next thing I recall I was on the floor. I asked the girl what we were doing, she did not answer. I cannot say for certain, but I believe my hands were at her throat. I shook her. I felt her heart and her pulse, but her face was blue… she was dead”.
Asked in court “did you intend to harm this girl?”, Denis replied “no, I only intended to help her”.
In a fit of panic, “I tried to put her in the cupboard, but couldn’t”, as although he was only small, the girl didn’t fit, “so I put her back on the bed and covered her up with the bedclothes”, as if by making her corpse more comfortable, that maybe God would forgive him. But would he? For many hours there she lay. “Several times I knelt down and prayed. And when the morning came, I left the house”.
In his diary, Denis wrote “Sunday 9th October, 2:30am. Kathleen died”.
Far from being a crazed killer, it was what happened next which best sums up Denis, as feeling terrible (not just having taken a young girl’s life but) having broken the house rules: “I went downstairs and spoke to the landlady and told her I was sorry, I had broken her rules by bringing a girl into my room”.
It’s unlikely he had a plan of what to do, as for the next few hours he would wander the streets in a daze, and keen not to be discovered “I told her, I’m going out for ten minutes to get a taxi and we’re leaving. Don’t go into the room. Don’t disturb the lady she is undressing”, which she agreed to do.
But as minutes turned into hours, the landlady became concerned. Herta would state “at 12:25pm, I knocked, went in, and saw a woman with long fair hair lying in the bed, fully covered by the bedclothes. I thought she was asleep, so I decided not to wake her”. And there the corpse remained, cold and still.
By 4pm, although usually placid, Denis was fit to burst with emotion. Visiting his brother Edward, he knew he had no choice but to admit the truth, stating “I want to tell you something… I’ve done a girl in”. His brother didn’t believe him, who would, and so giving him his diary, Denis told him everything.
At 11:30pm, Denis telephoned Scotland Yard, and as directed, he returned to 2 Shirland Road…
…but by then, it was too late, as Kathleen had already been found.
At 11:45pm, as Denis approached his lodgings, Inspector Sercombe & Chief Inspector Berkell exited, asking “are you Denis Barrett?”, he replied “yes, I shan’t run away…”, and stating “I did it. Oh yes, I admit it”, having been cautioned, he’d state “I’ve got a long story to tell you. It starts off with my wife”.
Found at 4pm by the landlady, the scene was remarkably ordinary; her clothes on the armchair suggested that she had undressed herself, her handbag undisturbed implied she hadn’t been robbed, and a small black suitcase full of her possessions gave the impression of a lost girl with nowhere to go.
Her injuries were equally as unremarkable; an old bruise to her left eye (which Denis insisted “I had nothing to do with”), and abrasions to her neck matching his fingers as he had strangled her to death.
Giving a full and frank statement to the detectives at Harrow Road police station, knowing he had hurt so many, the last thing Denis wrote in his diary was this: “Dear mum. Please forgive me. Denis”. (End)
Received at Brixton Prison, Denis was assessed by the prison psychiatrist, and told a story of the life of an ordinary boy; a little shy and a little quiet, who had done his bit to serve his country and to make his mother proud, but – amidst a sea of blood and fire - had witnessed some unspeakable horrors. But mostly, he spoke of the wife he had loved, he had lost, and hoped - one day - to rekindle his love with.
Admitting to bouts of depression, but nothing more, Denis was declared fit to stand trial.
Tried at the Old Bailey on the 24th and 25th November 1949, against their advice, he refused to allow his solicitors to use the defence of insanity, as he felt he was sane, even though if the unmistakable evidence were to find him guilty, that would have guaranteed that he would be sentenced to death.
With Dr Rowland Hill of the West End Hospital for Nervous Diseases stating that “he was suffering a form of schizophrenia”, the decision was no longer his, and pleading ‘not guilty’, it was ruled that at the time of the murder, “by reason of a defect of reason, he was not responsible for what he did”.
Retiring for 30mins, the jury returned with a verdict and Mr Justice Cassels declared that Denis Barrett was guilty of murder by insanity. Later detained at Broadmoor Psychiatric Prison, his fate is unknown.
Denis Barrett was a troubled man who sought to save girl from a fate worse than death…
…only, having witnessed unspeakable horrors, what he needed was saving from life.
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, which are freely available in the public domain, 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, and are always incomplete or full of opinion rather than fact, therefore mistakes and misrepresentations can be made. As stated at the beginning of each episode (and as is clear by the way it is presented) Murder Mile UK True Crime Podcast 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 to create a fuller picture. It is not a full and complete representation of the case, the people or the investigation, and therefore should not be taken as such. It is also often (for the sake of clarity, speed and the drama) presented from a single person's perspective, usually (but not exclusively) the victim's, and therefore it will contain a certain level of bias and opinion to get across this single perspective, which may not be the overall opinion of those involved or associated. Murder Mile is just one possible retelling of each case. Murder Mile does not set out to cause any harm or distress to those involved, and those who listen to the podcast or read the transcripts provided should be aware that by accessing anything created by Murder Mile (or any source related to any each) that they may discover some details about a person, an incident or the police investigation itself, that they were unaware of.
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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