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On Saturday 18th September 1948, the body Vera Crawford, an unwell woman was found dead in her hotel bed. It seemed as if she had died of natural causes but being required to inform the victim’s next-of-kin, the Police uncovered a murder which was both sinister and tragic.
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.
I've added the location of The Grenville Hotel at 1 Grenville Street, WC1, marked with a yellow !. It's at the bottom by 'Coram's Fields'. To use the map, simply click it. If you want to see the other murder maps, such as Soho and Paddington, you access them by clicking here.
And for your enjoyment, here's two short videos. The first shows you Grenville Street today and the second shows you The Round Table public house where they drank before the murder. These videos are only one minute long and 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.
Ep72 – Vera Crawford: A Very Ordinary Murder
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 London’s West End.
Today’s episode is about Vera Crawford, an unwell woman who was found dead in her hotel bed. It seemed as if she had died of natural causes but being required to inform the victim’s next-of-kin, the Police uncovered a murder which was both sinister and tragic.
Murder Mile is researched using the original police files. It contains moments of satire, shock and grisly details, and as a dramatisation 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 72: Very Crawford: A Very Ordinary Murder.
Today I’m standing on Grenville Street, WC1; three streets south of the square where the body-parts of Emilienne Gerard were dumped, one streets east of the hotel where The Unfortunate Mr Johnson’s killer took a quick snooze, two blocks east of the University where (nursing a sore neck) Carl Stotter realised he had narrowly missed being the next victim of serial killer Dennis Nilsen, and a short walk from the Tavistock and Russell Square bombings – coming soon to Murder Mile.
Grenville Street is an unsightly side-street surrounded by hotels, hospitals and hostels, snuck between Soho and King’s Cross, in what is dubbed the “fashionable district” of Bloomsbury… if you’re a former Victorian slaver master who wears a monocle, a cane and a top-hat; laments the good old days when you could own a pet Geordie, eat a Rhino, execute anyone who didn’t school at Eton, be acquitted of all “historical sex crimes” with a wink and could make-a-mint saving relics from jolly foreigner having flogged them off to the British Museum. Ah happy days, eh Boris?
With a long terrace of three-storey Georgian townhouses on the left, an odd greasy-spoon café smack bang in the middle, a hospital at both ends, and on the right is a disgusting seven-storey 1960’s halls of residence called International Hall. An architectural eye-sore full of student doctors, all using their medical training to nurse a three-year hangover, with the hope of coming away with more than just a huge debt, a lack of sleep and a buggered liver. And yet, on the site of these student halls, at 1 Grenville Street, in a hotel imaginatively titled Grenville Hotel, once lay a woman even they couldn’t save.
As it was here, on Saturday 18th September 1948, in Room 1 of the Grenville Hotel, that the seemingly ordinary death of a customer would lead to the arrest of an unusual murderer. (Interstitial)
The Grenville Hotel was a sparsely-furnished four-storey house providing a simple bed-and-breakfast for just thirty shillings a night. Like many buildings which had survived The Blitz – with windows broken, roof tiles missing and the side wall buckled having suffered subsidence after a German bomb left a ten foot hole in the road – deemed structurally sound, although it was a mess, it was business as usual.
At 7:30am, Paul Jenkins, the manager unlocked the front door, picked-up the post and began making breakfast for the hotel’s guests – seven customers in four of the sixteen rooms; with a new couple Mr & Mrs Savill in Room 1, Rooms 4, 5 and 6 occupied by three elderly residents, the hotel’s owner Mary Rock in Room 2, and (when they turned-up) a cuppa for the builders renovating the top floor.
At 9am, as requested, Paul took a tray of tea to Mrs Savill in Room 1. He knocked, but got no reply. He knocked again (“here’s your tea ma’am”) but again, he got no reply, so he unlocked the door.
Situated on the ground-floor annex at the hotel’s rear, Room 1 was 10 feet long by 13 feet wide, with no windows, just a skylight above, and everything you would expect of a budget B&B; a gas fire, an electric lamp and a wash-basin, with the occupiers shoes by the door, her handbag on the side table, her clothes folded on the armchair and in the double bed, the silent and motionless shape of a woman. Having heard no snoring nor breathing and seeing her peaceful face peeping over the covers, with her eyes shut and her skin pale blue, Paul knew she had passed away, but there was no shock, just sadness.
He knocked on the door of Room 2. (Paul) “Mary, a guest’s passed away”, (Mary) “Right, well, you’re up, you deal with it”, (Paul) “Great! Thanks Mary”. And with that, having seen enough dead bodies during the war and one-or-two in the hotel-trade, he called the Police and carried on with his duties.
At 9:30am, PC Arthur Green attended The Grenville Hotel and reported (radio) “one deceased mid-thirties female, no signs of break-in, no injuries or assault, no disturbance or robbery”. No-one had heard a disturbance, the door had been locked from the inside and the key was on the bedside table.
At 10am, Dr Gerrard Malone-Lee, the Police surgeon examined the body in-situ; (radio) “female, early thirties, five foot six, skinny, no obvious bruises, blood or cuts, deceased for six hours putting time of death at 4am, died by natural causes… or possible poisoning”. Although with her toxicology report coming back clean, no noxious substances found in the room, her cheeks mottled with red blotches, her breath smelling of alcohol, and in her handbag - a bottle of Milk of Magnesia, it was clear she had been unwell for a long time, suffering from high blood pressure, gastric ulcers and an inflamed liver.
At 11am, the body of Mrs Savill was removed and the room was cleaned ready for the next guest. As standard procedure, she was taken to Holborn Mortuary so a full autopsy could establish her exact cause of death and the Police could inform Mrs Savill’s next-of-kin of her demise. That was it. Mrs Savill, an unwell lady who liked to drink had passed away peacefully in her sleep.
But had she? (Interstitial).
Mrs Savill was born Vera Cunnington on 28th August 1914 in the humble mining town of Saltburn in Yorkshire, as one of nine children to George and Mary, an iron miner and a housewife.
Plagued by asthma, a bad heart and stomach problems; being sick for her most formative years, Vera spent much of her childhood in bed. Drowsy with drugs, denied any love, and poked and prodded by dubious doctors, the only time she saw her pals in the playground was from the hospital window.
Lacking a decent education, Vera left school aged twelve with no qualifications or skills.
Vera always looked sickly. As a skinny brunette with scrunched-up eyes like all lights made her squint, small teeth which never showed even when she smiled and a very pale translucent skin like she was haunted by her own ghost, although always ill, she never cried, pitied or complained about her many ailments. Her life was limited, she knew that, so what little she had left, she was going to enjoy.
Diagnosed with gastric ulcers, an arrhythmic heart and high blood pressure, so bad that she was unable to walk a few feet without getting out of breath, doing only what she loved most, she shunned the doctor’s advice by drinking and smoking whenever she liked, as ill-health ravaged her life.
In December 1935, aged 20, with her first-born son William born out of wedlock, Vera married William Crawford, a boiler repair man from Scotland who was imaginatively nicknamed “Jock”, and three years later, their second son Leslie followed. Jock was a good husband, a solid dad and - by all accounts, including Vera’s - they had a happy marriage.
But living each day like it was her last, being a wife and mother just wasn’t part of Vera’s plan, so with her drinking getting out-of-hand, her liver swelling and her debts stacking-up, as she moved from job-to-job and flat-to-flat, it came as a real shock to Jock when she suggested that they separate. With the family split, to give them some stability, the boys stayed in Kingston-on-Thames with their father.
In 1941, for the sake of his kids, Jock tried to patch things up with Vera, but having made plans to meet her, she failed to turn up. In August 1942, with her life spiralling out-of-control, after her second arrest for theft, the judge pleaded with Vera to return to her family. She agreed, as did Jock, and the boys were excited to finally get their mum back, but Vera never showed-up and they never saw her again.
Vera’s world had become chaotic, as unwilling to accept any form of responsibility, she still craved the love and attention of others, but lived her life as if he had a death wish.
As a chronic alcoholic, Vera was a regular in the West End pubs, where sometimes she got part-time work as a cook, barmaid or cleaner, only to be sacked for drunkenness. Racking-up debts, with her money squandered on booze and with nowhere to live - having already served one month in Brixton Prison for prostitution - simply so she had somewhere to sleep she picked-up men in pubs and stayed in a series of cheap hotels in Bloomsbury, like The Bradford, The Endsleigh and The Grenville Hotel.
Known by the hotel staff only by face and to the other sex-workers only as “Vicky”, although she was pleasant, polite and (if she could afford it) she often tipped, Vera took very little care of herself; instead choosing to booze, smoke and accept unprotected vaginal and anal sex with her many male clients. Her life was coming to an end, and without love, she had no reason to care.
On 7th August 1948, just eleven days before her death, Vera was sacked from The Blue Posts pub at 6 Tottenham Court Road, having slapped a customer. In a single night, she had lost her job, her place to stay and an honest income. And excluding the night she died, she was never seen again.
So, it made perfect sense to assume that she had died peacefully in her sleep.
Only she hadn’t… she had been murdered.
Examined in-situ at The Grenville Hotel, the Police Surgeon’s preliminary assessment stated she had died by “natural causes”, a logical conclusion (which the pathologist initially agreed with) given that she had no obvious cuts, bruises or blood stains. But having conducted a full autopsy, Dr Teare found two small crescent-shaped abrasions on either side of her spine hidden by her hair at top of the neck, as well as a patch of burst blood vessel on her forehead, under her eyelids, across her cheeks (marks hidden by her red flushing caused by high blood pressure, gastric ulcers and heavy drinking) and burst blood vessels on the surface of her lungs and heart… meaning she had died of asphyxiation. And with no natural conclusion as to how she had suffocated, Dr Teare determined that she had been strangled.
Only with no ligature marks or hand-sized bruises around her neck, how was this possible?
What began as a very ordinary death had turned into a very unusual murder as the crime scene itself had thrown-up several confusing questions: With the hotel’s entrance door locked by the manager, no windows open and no signs of a break-in, if she was murdered, how did her killer enter the hotel and escape? With the windowless Room 1 being locked from the inside and the door key on the bedside table, if she was murdered, why did her killer lock himself in, and then how did he escape? Why did no-one hear anything, given that seven people were in the hotel at the time, with Mary Rock next door in Room 2 (separated by a thin partition wall) and Paul Jenkins in a basement room below? When her handbag was examined, no money or jewellery had been stolen, and everything which could identify her – her bank books, ration cards and letters – had been removed.
And – stranger still – at 10:30am, when the builders returned to the hotel’s top-floor, on the annex roof above Room 1, they found a handmade knife which wasn’t there the night before. It had a 9 inch blade cut from a French military-issue bayonet, a u-shaped metal handle tied with white wax string and was wrapped in a white bandage. And yet, it had no blood on it. So why was it there?
Recalling the previous night of Friday 17th September, Paul Jenkins (manager of The Grenville Hotel) stated to the Police “the doorbell rang, it was just after midnight, I know it was as I heard Big Ben chime on the wireless and Mary (who was in bed) always has me lock the entrance door about then. I let in a man and a woman, they was looking for a room. I guessed they missed the last train as they’d no luggage about them. She was thirties, thin, had mousy hair, a pale face with red cheeks, small teeth and wore a browny-yellow costume. He was about the same age, bit taller, bit thinner, in a dark brown suit frayed at the cuffs and a light rain-mac. I’ve seen him before I think but I dunno; he’d got greased back hair, greying at sides, dark bushy eyebrows, long-face, long nose, large ears and his two front-teeth were yellowing. Seemed like a nice enough chap, they both did”.
For Paul, he had sorted out a last-minute room for couples with no luggage many of times before and this time was equally as unremarkable and forgettable. They were just an ordinary pair of sweethearts who kissed, held hands and called each other “darling”, and although there was a faint smell of alcohol as if they’d just come from the pub; they seemed in good spirits and in need of a good night’s sleep.
As was his moral obligation, Paul asked if they were married, the man confirmed they were; he paid thirty shillings in cash for a double room, wrote the name ‘Mr & Mrs Savill’ in the registration book (as single couples often risked being denied a shared room on the grounds of immortality) and having informed the manager that he would need to leave early for work, he politely asked if his wife could be bought a pot of tea at 9am – which Paul did.
In fact, the only detail which was strange (but not suspicious) was that although the slightly meek man did all of the talking, it was the woman who made all of the decisions, stating them in a loud clear voice into her husband’s left ear, having informed Paul “you’ll need to speak up, he’s a bit deaf”.
That aside; the couple were handed the key to Room 1, they wished Paul a “good night”, locked the door, and – making no sounds all night - that was the last time the woman was seen alive.
So if Vera was “Mrs Savill”, who was “Mr Savill”, and – if they were so in love - why did he kill her?
As a very distinctive man, having circulated his description in the newspapers Mr Savill wasn’t difficult to track down. Two weeks later, the Police were given a name… and it was Herbert Alfred Savill.
The early life of Herbert Alfred Savill was remarkably similar to Vera’s.
Born just two years apart, raised in Walthamstow, Herbert was one of seven children to Frederick and Elizabeth, a plumber and a housewife. But as a small frail boy, plagued with hearing loss and headaches having been hit on the head with a brick aged three, his most formative years were spent in a hospital bed. Missing his mum, the love he craved so much would be denied him, as with his depressed mother and alcoholic father crushed by the death of two infants, a thick cloud of grief hung over the family.
Herbert always looked sickly; being thin, weak and pale-skinned, with a perpetual frown etched across his gaunt face as a world of sound slowly escaped his failing ears and moving lips became but a muffle, and although a softly spoken boy with good morals and manners, being so meek, he remained a loner.
As a quiet shy lad, what he wanted most was to be loved… but like sounds, love would evade him.
Unwilling to let his disability dictate his life, having trained as an apprentice engineer, he served in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, proudly fighting for his country in World War Two, but with a volley of bomb blasts having aggravated his deafness in both ears, on 24th October 1941, Herbert was declared “medically unfit”, discharged from the Army and sunk into a depression.
Living at home with his sister, although he earned a good living as a skilled engineer making precision instruments; with no friends or close family, both parents dead, being almost entirely deaf and having never had a girlfriend, by 1948, 32 year old Herbert Savill was fed-up with his lonely little life. He had so much love to give, but no-one there for him to love…
…and then he met Vera.
“I first met her on 13th July in a turning off Shaftesbury Avenue, she asked me for a light”. Popping into a pub for a pint, the two pale and skinny loners sat side-by-side, being amazed at the similarity of their life-stories, it seemed as if Herbert had found his soul-mate. And over the coming weeks, as he treated his special lady to drinks and dinners, poems and perfume, loans and love-letters, as a sickly lady living on borrowed time, he wanted to give her the life she deserved with a husband, a family and a home.
Herbert had finally found love…
…only her life was all a lie.
As a veteran sex-worker who he only knew by the street-name of “Vicky”, having shunned any hint of family life, Vera’s job is was to make the lonely men she met feel loved. She wasn’t bad, evil or cruel, she was just a homeless, broke, chronic alcoholic doing what she had to… to survive.
Being so besotted with her, Herbert got her to a hospital, but so acute was her inflamed liver that the doctors ordered her to quit drinking immediately. Only being a woman with a death-wish, she didn’t.
Five days before her death, as an intoxicated Vera spat hurtful insults at Herbert, refusing to quit drink, shunning her belated birthday present and threatening to go to Piccadilly Circus to pick-up a man who “understood” her, as Herbert sat on the train home, tearful and heartbroken, as his one-true-love cast him aside, “I brooded on her drinking and prostitution, and thought she would be better off dead”.
He had known her for just eight weeks.
Using his engineering skills, sat in a solitary room at his sister’s home, Herbert fashioned a handmade knife from a nine-inch French bayonet with a u-shaped metal handle bound with white wax string.
“I had every intention to kill her” and so, with his mind made up, he made plans to meet her.
On Friday 17th September 1948 at 8:20pm, Vera & Herbert met in The Round Table at 26 St Martin’s Court, just off Leicester Square; they drank, chatted, kissed and left at 10:45pm (‘last orders’), as witnessed by the barmaid Bridgett O’Reilly. Feeling peckish, at 11pm, they bought two portions of fish and chips at 1 Newport Place, as served by Fay Strom. Forty minutes later, having briefly chatted to Vera’s old flat-mate Edna DeCampo. Vera & Herbert took a taxi one mile north to Grenville Street, and a few moments after the bell of Big Ben had struck, they entered The Grenville Hotel.
It was just a very ordinary evening.
Once inside Room 1, Herbert locked the door behind them. Like most shabby lodgings, the windowless room smelt a little stale, but having slept in much worse, Vera made herself comfortable; she popped her shoes by the door, her handbag on the side table, her clothes folded on the armchair and she sat by the blue flickering flame of the gas fire, warming her toes.
Loving her more than she ever loved herself and desperate to give a hopeless woman one last chance at a better life, Herbert later stated “when we got in the room, I asked her to give up the spirits, as it would be fatal for her, she knew it, and said she didn’t care”. About the sex-work, she said the same. She had given up a husband, a home and a family, and no matter what she said, Herbert knew that Vera was a woman with a death-wish… and loving her so much… he would be the man to fulfil it.
From inside his fawn raincoat, with a trembling hand, Herbert pulled out the foot long knife, the full length of its thin nine-inch blade glinting in his misted eyes, as gulping aloud, he stammered “Look! I intend to kill you tonight”. But instead of being afraid, she just laughed and said “give me that thing”. They didn’t fight or argue, instead having confiscated the knife, she popped open the skylight, tossed it onto the roof and feeling the crushing weight of his mistake, Herbert politely said “perhaps it would be better if I go now”. But Vera cooed “ssshhh, get your clothes off and come to bed”, which he did.
And there the two lovers lay, side-by-side, wrapped in each other’s arms. Vera fast sleep, knowing her death-wish would be coming, but not here and not now. And yet, as she slept soundly, over the next three hours, as his hands caressed her soft face, Herbert brooded his deadly dilemma.
“I got out of bed, I switched on the bedside lamp and sat there looking at her. She woke. I don’t know why, I sprang on top of her, my legs pinning her arms to the side”, and with the woollen bedsheets up to her neck, being so soft that even a tight pressure couldn’t bruise her skin, “I strangled her with both hands”. Hidden by her hair, the only marks visible were two small crescents embedded on either side of her spine, made by his fingernails, which had slipped beyond the bedsheet.
“I suppose it lasted about three minutes… the strangling”. And as Herbert’s hands tightly squeezed her thin pale neck, as her flushed skin matched the mottled redness of her booze-raddled cheeks, and as her legs twitched for the last time, the life of Herbert’s one and only love slowly drained away… and once again, he was alone.
“I sat on the bed just looking at her for some time. At first I intended to stay there until someone came and give myself up. I changed my idea; picked up her handbag, took out the letters from me and all traces of her identity, rearranged the bedclothes and smoothed out the pillow”. With the hotel door locked, as the only other exit, “I jumped out through the skylight about 6:30am, got the Russell Square tube to Liverpool Street, and near Bethnal Green I tore up the letters and threw them out of the window. Later, at home, I read that a report in the paper that a woman had died of natural causes in the Grenville Hotel, so I thought I might have evaded detection”.
Only he hadn’t. (End)
On 10th October 1948, at Grey’s Inn Road Police Station, 32 year old Herbert Savill was arrested and charged with the murder of Vera Crawford. As an easily identifiable man who was witnessed entering a locked room just hours before her death, whose fingerprints and hair were found at the scene and having made a full confession, he was tried at the Old Bailey, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to death. But having been commuted to life in prison, he died twenty-one years later, aged fifty-three.
It began as the unremarkable passing of an unwell woman discovered in a hotel bed, whose death had initially been reported as by “natural causes”, but by following strict protocols which require the Police to identify the deceased, to inform their next-of-kin, and for a pathologist to determine their exact cause-of-death, having examined every piece of evidence, the Police had uncovered a murder.
But what they found wasn’t an intricate plan by a criminal mastermind made to make a very cunning murder look like an ordinary death, it wasn’t a genius stroke of luck for a hapless convict whose escape from justice was aided by two distracted detectives and it wasn’t the expert execution of a crazed killer who knew how to cover his tracks. It wasn’t premeditated or even pre-planned. And although a coincidental chain of events lead to the discovery of a dead body in a locked room, it may feel like the contrived opening chapter of a tawdry murder mystery, but in truth, it isn’t.
Herbert Savill killed Vera Crawford because he loved her and he couldn’t have her. That’s it. There’s no myths, no mystery and no alternate theories, as it’s just a very ordinary murder.
OUTRO: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for listening to Murder Mile.
For all of Mickey’s milky-smelling murky milers, there’s more floppy dangle fruits after the break, but before that, here’s my recommended podcasts of the week. (PROMO)
A huge thank you goes out to my new Patreon supporters, who are Saranne, Laura Bell, Michael Mullen and Maureen Gallagher, I thank you. All of you should have received a very exclusive thank you card from me, plus some exclusive goodies in the post and online. If you fancy supporting Murder Mile on Patreon, you can for as little as $3 a month, where you’ll get exclusive crime scene photos, location videos, a weekly ebook of the unedited script, plus loads more. And $10+ patrons get their weekly episode of Murder Mile, on Mondays, ad-free. Ooh.
As always, if you want to see what the murder locations look like, every Thursday I upload a blog for each episode, with a map, location videos, photos etc. There is a link to this in the show-notes.
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 as used under the Creative Common Agreement 4.0.
The music featured in this episode include:
Sources: This case was researched using the original declassified police investigation files from the National Archives.
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a writer, crime historian, podcaster and tour-guide who runs Murder Mile Walks, a guided tor 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 50 deaths, over just a one mile walk
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a crime writer, podcaster & tour guide of Murder Mile Walks, hailed as one of the best "quirky curious & unusual things to do in London".
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