The Murder Mystery Of Agnes Kesson
Image Source: The Daily Mirror, 17 Sep 1930
Agnes Kesson, from Falkirk in Scotland, was 20 years old in 1930. At the age of about 16 she had turned up in Surrey and obtained a job as a barmaid in Sutton, where she remained until nearly the end of 1929. Then, at Christmas of that year, she became a waitress at a café/tearooms called 'The Nook' in Brighton Road, Burgh Heath, owned by Fred William Deats and his wife, Ellen Elizabeth. The business was also a shop, garage and taxi service. Robert Duncan Harper, known as 'Scotch Bob', worked there as a mechanic and he and Agnes were engaged.
At the beginning of June 1930 Agnes handed in her notice, saying that she had a new position as a barmaid at 'The King's Arms' hotel in Carshalton, where her friend, Mrs Catherine Young, was a cook; she intended to leave on 3 June. Deats arranged for Harper to drive her to Carshalton, but on that day, which was a Tuesday, a Carter Paterson carrier's van came to fetch her box. Deats was a little put out that Agnes had made her own arrangements, but she shrugged it off and went upstairs to change her clothes. She returned in a black dress and black hat, took her insurance cards and said, 'Tell Bob to tell Mrs Young to get my box and send it on to the address. She knows.' Deats did not understand, but Agnes said no more about it and went out. The time was about 2.30 pm. What did this comment mean, assuming that it was made as stated? If the box was to be sent on elsewhere, why not have it delivered to the real destination in the first place? Was the story about the job at 'The King's Arms' some sort of subterfuge?
Meanwhile Harper had driven Mrs Deats to Tooting on a shopping expedition. Agnes had promised to await their return, but when they got back in late afternoon she had already gone, leaving behind several items of clothing and equipment for doing her hair. Harper then went over to Carshalton to see Mrs Young and he waited around for Agnes: she did not turn up.
Wednesday was Derby Day in Epsom. Deats later said that he saw Agnes pass his café, riding pillion on a motor cycle, which was travelling very fast. He was sure it was her, as she had turned and looked back.
Image Source: The Daily Mirror, 17 Sep 1930
Mrs Ellen Deats
Daily Mirror, 4 Jul 1930
Horton Lane, Epsom
Horton Lane, roughly as it would have looked in 1930
Image source: Bourne Hall Museum
In the early morning of Thursday, 5 June, an attendant at the Horton Asylum was walking along Horton Lane and came upon the dead body of a girl lying in a ditch. He fetched the doctor from the Asylum, who examined the body and then summoned the local police who, in turn, immediately called in Scotland Yard. Superintendent Brown and several assistants arrived very quickly in a fast car.
Superintendent Brown, who was in charge of the investigation
Image source: Daily Mirror, 6 Jun 1930
The body was lying beneath a tall tree, dressed only in underwear and stockings. There were recent tyre tracks at the spot and the police surmised that she had been flung from a car. One of the tracks showed evidence of a much worn tyre. After photographs had been taken she was removed to Epsom Mortuary and her description was circulated. It soon emerged that she was Agnes Kesson.
Detectives searching the ditch for clues
Image source: Daily Mirror, 6 Jun 1930
The famous Home Office pathologist, Sir Bernard Spilsbury, carried out the post mortem and concluded that Agnes had been hit on the head with a heavy, blunt instrument and then strangled with a cord. She had eaten a meal within two hours of her death. Judging by the bruises on her, she had put up a tremendous struggle for her life. The body had apparently been placed in a car, driven to Horton Lane, and flung into the ditch. There was no evidence of sexual assault. The time of death was estimated at between about 10 pm on the Wednesday night and 2 am on Thursday morning.
Sir Bernard Spilsbury c.1952
Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Agnes's father said, "I have lost a bonny girl, one who never gave me a moment's trouble, and one who worked hard from her earliest years. I knew she had been keeping company with a young man for some time, but I learned when she was home on holiday last August, that she had broken off the engagement." (It is not clear if this was the engagement to Harper - and, if so, she must have known him before Burgh Heath - or a previous engagement.)
The police investigation
Plenty of information was given to the police. Over the course of the enquiry they took 400 statements and even visited the Isle of Man in pursuit of a lead. A labourer who lived near to where the body was found reported hearing a woman scream between midnight and 2 am on the Wednesday night/Thursday morning. He got up and saw a man with a car and a crying girl; the man spoke to her and she got in the car.
Someone in Purley thought he had seen Agnes with a man on the Wednesday evening and an identity parade was held, but he could not pick anyone out. Deats said that Agnes had quite a number of admirers who would hang around the café and he thought she might have gone off with one of them; he added that she had seemed agitated on the Tuesday morning and it seemed to him that she did not want Harper to take her to Carshalton. When she left the house she was not walking towards the bus stop, which is what he would have expected.
Local enquiries about cars with worn tyres led nowhere and generally the police seemed baffled.
The inquest opened at Epsom police station before Mr G Willis Taylor, the East Surrey Coroner. As was customary, the first session took only formal evidence of identification etc and proceedings were adjourned until 25 June. On the 25th they were again adjourned, until 4 July.
4 July 1930
Mrs Deats was called to the stand and the issue of Agnes's box arose. She said that her husband had not known the intended destination of the box and found out only when the Carter Paterson driver had come home on the Tuesday evening. On being asked why Mr Deats was so concerned about this box, his wife said she did not really know. The Coroner then asked why Deats had gone to Wallington Police Station on Tuesday night. Again, his wife knew nothing - he had gone out with Harper and she was told they were going to Carshalton. It transpired in due course that Deats alleged that an account book and some money were missing and he had gone to the police to try to have them find and open the box: the police declined.
Agnes's friend, Mrs Catherine Young, then gave evidence and said that Mr and Mrs Deats and Harper did not like her. Agnes had told her that she was going to 'The Duke's Head' at Tadworth. Mrs Young added that Agnes and Harper quarrelled occasionally and that both had violent tempers. In her view Agnes was honest and would not have stolen anything.
5 July 1930
A piece of string, found near Horton Lane, was introduced into evidence as being the probable ligature used to strangle Agnes. It was stated that she was friendly with other young men, but they were not identified. Someone said that they had seen Deats's son and Harper go out in a car on the Wednesday night, which was verified by a police constable who had seen them driving towards the main road to Brighton at about 10 pm. Harper had also written to Agnes's sister in Scotland, enquiring as to her whereabouts and saying that he did not want her working with Mrs Young.
None of this moved the mystery any nearer to a solution, although it did place Deats Junior and Harper out in a car late on the Wednesday night.
8 July 1930
Fred Deats entered the witness box and was there for two hours, being questioned by a very persistent Coroner. He said that on the Wednesday night an unknown man tapped on his window and asked him to drive to Sutton to fetch a Mrs Smith, whom he knew. He went, but could not find Mrs Smith: however, he did pick up another fare and returned home at about 1.45 am. (So, we now had another member of the cast out on the road at the crucial period.)
The Coroner stated that a witness would be produced to deal with the 'Mrs Smith' matter in due course, and said, 'It is quite clear that somebody knows something. Somebody is keeping something back - something that has not been produced in evidence so far. You have not heard any direct evidence at all as to where Agnes Kesson was on Tuesday afternoon and evening. I say someone is keeping something back, and the whole truth has not been told you here.'
The inquest was adjourned until August and, before it resumed, the police removed a stair from the cellar steps at the Deats café, to be examined for stains. Superintendent Brown then returned it, saying that it had not helped. Deats replied, 'I never expected it would'.
Enter Mr Gorringe, who had attended the Derby meeting and stayed in Agnes's former room at 'The Nook' for two nights. He said that he had seen Agnes twice at the racecourse on the Wednesday afternoon: she was with a young man who walked in a jaunty and swaggering manner and he was dressed in a grey suit, cap and brown boots.
Mr C E Gorringe
Image Source: Daily Mirror, 14 Aug 1930
There were other alleged sightings of Agnes with a young man and someone else thought there had been two men in a car in Horton Lane, handling a sack, on the Wednesday night. None of these 'leads' came to anything.
14 August 1930
The inquest resumed. Mr Gorringe was called and confirmed that he had previously been served by Agnes in the café, so that he could be sure she was the woman he saw twice at the racecourse on the Wednesday afternoon. He thought he had seen and spoken to her companion before, but did not know who he was.
The Coroner recalled Deats and gave him a warning which implied that he was under suspicion and might not be telling the entire truth. Mr Willis Taylor then dealt with the subject of the 'Mrs Smith', who had not been at Sutton waiting for the taxi. Deats responded that Mrs Smith was actually Mrs Greenhalgh and he hadn't realised that the latter was the passenger. He went on to 'explain' that he knew the Greenhalgh family as the Smiths. (The Coroner was probably as confused as I already am and you now will be.) Next Mr Willis Taylor tried to find out more about the man who had tapped on the window with the message to fetch Mrs Smith. He reminded Deats of what he had said previously - that he had just seen a face wearing a cap and had not seen him clearly. Deats agreed that this was correct. After a further exchange he half-admitted that he did know who it was but didn't want to name him. The Coroner asked him to pick up the oath card and read it again, which Deats did, saying 'I have sworn. I have told the truth and the whole truth, but on this particular occasion ....' Mr Willis Taylor tried again and eventually Deats explained that he had not wanted the name becoming public so that the man could cover his tracks. After a while the Coroner gave up, probably believing that he was dealing with a man of impaired faculties.
Mr Deats sitting in his garden after giving evidence
Image Source: Daily Mirror, 14 Aug 1930
The next witness was Miss Woodhouse, who had kept the account books for Deats. She said that he had told her he found the allegedly missing account book burned in the grate on Sunday, 1 June, (albeit that he had subsequently gone to ask for a search warrant to see if it was in Agnes's box). Mr Willis Taylor was clearly exasperated and asked Deats to come forward and face Miss Woodhouse. Deats then claimed that he had not said what Miss Woodhouse claimed, but that he must have said 'something similar'. He never did give any plausible explanation about why he was so interested in Agnes's box.
Mrs Greenhalgh took the stand and explained that her maiden name had been Smith. There followed a convoluted tale about what Deats had done and said. I will not bore you with the details (because I do not understand them), but she said, in effect, that he had asked her to tell a lie to help him explain what he was doing out in the car on the night of Agnes's death. She refused and said that she became afraid of him and had been threatened by his wife. The Coroner then had part of the evidence repeated to Deats and he denied asking her to lie. Mrs Deats was recalled and a shouting match developed between her and Mrs Greenhalgh.
Proceedings were adjourned. The Coroner may have needed a lie-down and, if he possessed any hair in the first place, he had probably torn it out in despair.
Image Source: Daily Mirror, 14 Aug 1930
15 September 1930
Resumption of the inquest produced a promising witness - a Mr Hodson who claimed to have spent most of the Wednesday afternoon in Epsom and on the Downs, until about 7.15 pm, with a Scottish girl whom he thought was Agnes (who was wearing a tam-o'-shanter). Then, while they were walking along the London Road, two men stopped in a car, one pulled her in and the car drove off. This man (described as being dark and dirty-looking, with rather piercing eyes) apparently said, 'I have had just enough of you' and the girl replied that she was fed up with him. Mr Hodson then pointed out Deats as the man. However, further questioning made the story seem unreliable, especially as Mr Hodson's description of the girl in no way matched Agnes, as to physical appearance or clothing.
Finally, the Coroner asked Superintendent Brown if he felt that further information would be forthcoming, to which the latter replied, 'no, not within a reasonable time'. The jury retired for six minutes and delivered an open verdict, finding that Agnes had been murdered by strangulation but that there was insufficient evidence to show who the murderer was.
Image Source: Daily Mirror, 6 Jun 1930
The Funeral Of Agnes Kesson At Battersea Cemetery In Morden
Daily Mirror, 12 Jun 1930
The murder remains unsolved to this day. Fred and Ellen Deats died in Surrey in 1960 and 1963 respectively. They continued to run 'The Nook' in Burgh Heath as a general store and the phone book still listed the business in his name until at least 1977, although F W Deats & Co Ltd was struck off the Companies Register in 1963, presumably just after his wife's death. I thought that I would give you a few details about their history or where they came from, but they proved virtually untraceable under the name Deats as far as the normal English family history sources were concerned. Deats (generally an anglicised version of the German 'Dietz') is a very unusual name indeed here in the UK and, apart from his death record, Fred did not appear anywhere; no marriage to Ellen was recorded and there was no birth record for the son. I suspected, therefore, that he had changed his name somewhere along the line, and he did. The clue was that there was a female Deats, born in Epsom district in 1918, whose mother's maiden surname was Alders: this gives us a marriage for Ellen Elizabeth Alders and Fritz William Henry Dietz in 1910 in Islington district. In the 1911 census they were living in two rooms in Islington and Fritz was a stoker/mechanic. He was born in Somers Town, London of German parents. Suspicious? I doubt it. Even the Mountbattens changed their name from Battenberg during World War I.
The murderer (or murderers, if there was more than one, as was mooted at the time) is almost certainly long dead and never likely to be identified. Although Fred Deats put up a contradictory, unhelpful and possibly devious performance in the witness box, it does not mean that he was guilty of anything, but there were many unanswered questions. As for Harper and Deats Junior being out and about that night, heading towards the Brighton Road, I am not completely sure that they were. The report that I have read seems confused about who it was that the police constable saw and, later, the account appears to say that this was Fred Deats himself and that he was not going towards Sutton as he claimed - he turned in the other direction.
My personal opinion is that Agnes may have been somewhat impressionable and 'flighty', met someone who has not featured in this tale and arranged to run off with him. There was a maximum period of three days between handing in her notice and disappearing, so it could have been a spur-of-the-moment thing - and she was only 20 years old. As she was engaged to Harper, a sudden and unexplained departure would not have gone down well at 'The Nook' and so she created a subterfuge. Her friend, Mrs Young, obviously had some knowledge, as she knew that the famous 'box' was supposed to be transferred from Carshalton to Tadworth. So, what happened? Did Agnes go off with a new beau? Did they argue? Was there a fight? Did he panic? None of that explains the strange evidence of Fred Deats. We will never know the truth now, but it is an intriguing case.
The only certain thing about all this was that Mr Willis Taylor, the Coroner, was correct when he said, 'I say someone is keeping something back, and the whole truth has not been told you here.'
The Times, 12 Jan 1933
The Times, 18 Jan 1933
The Times, 25 Jan 1933
Linda Jackson - © December 2011
With thanks to Peter Reed for his assistance with pictures and for finding the material in the postscript.