The Quality of Mercy
THE QUALITY OF MERCY?
nless you happen to have been born in that year, for most people 1949 holds no special significance. 1949 was however the dawning of a short but potentially lethal dark age for all mankind.
It was the year when the Russian bear showed its teeth to its erstwhile allies and enemies alike with the Berlin blockade and the exploding of its first atom bomb.
It was the year when NATO was formed to hold back the ever expanding ‘iron curtain’.
The year when the ‘yellow peril’ appeared to become a reality as Mao seized power in China and drove the Nationalists to Formosa, or as its now known, Taiwan.
Culturally it was the year in which Henry Miller wrote death of a Salesman. Marylyn Monroe became nearly every man’s fantasy woman. George Orwell published 1984, a novel that predicted another type of fantasy, that of a future in which individual freedom became subjugated to that of the omnipresent State.
A fantasy which, depending on who you are and where you stand in relation to tracking and surveillance satellites, speed cameras and C.C.T.V. cameras, might not be that fantastic after all.
It was also the year in which the murder, or rather the murders we are going to look at, took place.
In terms of human suffering, they affected the lives, not only the murders and their victims, but those of the forgotten ones, their families and friends. On a global scale, they were of no great moment.
However, as each of us has but their own individual and tenuous hold on life, perhaps in that respect, global suffering is also, of no great moment.
Two days apart, on the nights of the 4th and the 6th of June 1949, two young South Wales men committed two separate, and apart from the act itself, two unrelated crimes of murder.
Within two months they were themselves both dead; dying together when society’s retribution for having transgressed both temporal and spiritual law, was as swift as it was final.
As the clock struck 9 on the morning of August the 4th 1949, whilst the other inmates of Swansea Prison went about their normal daily routine, Rex Harvey Jones and Robert Thomas Mackintosh stood side by side as the last of Great Britain’s public hangmen, Albert Pierrepoint placed the white hoods over their heads.
When Pierrepoint, who when he wasn’t being an executioner, was the landlord of a pub opened the trap, alone and afraid they fell to, in those dread words, ‘hang by the neck until dead’, in atonement for their foul crime.
The coincidence of them being executed at the same moment was not the only uncanny coincidence relating to their individual cases.
Both murderers committed their crime within the very small area in South Wales that encompassed Aberavon and Abergregan.
Both murders took place within two days of each other. Both men had during their two years national service, been posted to the Middle East.
Both of them were 21 years old and both had known their victims quite a considerable time.
Both men had sex with their victims before they strangled them to death and both, independent of each, claimed to have experienced a total mental black out and were not aware of, nor could recall either their actions or what had caused them.
There were also a minor coincidence on the side of the victims. Beatrice May Watts who was murdered by Rex Harvey Jones, and Beryl Beechy, murdered by Robert Thomas Mackintosh, were both employed in tinplate works. Beatrice at Briton Ferry and Beryl at the Mansel Works in Port Talbot.
Here the similarities end, for when on the 12th of July, the Jury brought in a verdict of guilty on Rex Harvey Jones, they made a strong recommendation for clemency. One day later, when the same jury brought in an identical verdict on Robert Thomas Mackintosh, they made no such appeal.
The events of the night of the 5/6th of June were, for Peggy Watts, as Beatrice was commonly called, and Rex Harvey Jones a joint tragedy and their unhappy story is relatively simple to relate.
Twenty year old Peggy lived with her parents at Greenfield Cottages in Abergregan. Rex, a miner, also lived with his parents in Heol-y-Tyla, Duffryn Rhondda.
He and Peggy had met each other some months earlier and were considered as going out together in a casual, if sexually intimate, sort of way. During this period, Rex was supposedly in love and officially engaged to a young woman living in London.
On the evening of June the 5th, Rex, in the company of his two brothers Fred and Aubrey travelled down into Neath for an evenings drinking at the Central Club. During the course of the evening Rex is said to have drunk about seven pints of beer and although undoubtedly under the influence of alcohol, his tolerance was such that he was not considered to be in any way drunk.
At the same time as Rex and his brothers were enjoying themselves, Peggy Watts had gone to a dance being held in her employer’s works canteen in Briton Ferry. As no arrangement had been previously made to meet that night, it came as a pleasant surprise to both of them when, making their respective ways home they bumped into each other at the Victoria Gardens bus station in Neath.
For the two apparently easy going lovers, their respective evenings, which had up to that moment appeared to be at a close, suddenly offered the promise of a pleasurable revival.
The bus which they boarded together was full, the humour of the passengers light hearted and friendly. To free a seat for another lady passenger, Peggy sat on Rex’s lap. When, at about 10.15 p.m., the bus stopped at Abergregan, Rex told his brothers that he was going to get off with Peggy in order to walk her home.
Undoubtedly this announcement was greeted with a certain amount of ribald good natured comment as the couple’s intentions, before Rex was to deliver her home to her parents, were fairly obvious.
Arm in arm they walked up the lonely dark road through the forestry plantation on Nantybar mountain towards Peggy’s home. During this walk the couple were seen by a Mrs Corwyn, who returned Peggy’s friendly wave.
On reaching the edge of the plantation, they slipped behind a large standing stone, Peggy carefully removing her glasses and putting them in a pocket before sinking willingly into Rex’s waiting arms.
Nobody, not even, if he is to be believed Rex Harvey Jones, knows what happened then. The next thing Rex claims remembering is finding himself kneeling over Peggy’s body and being faintly aware that his thumbs felt sore.
Panicked, Rex felt for Peggy’s pulse and not finding one slowly came to the dreadful realisation that at some point after or during their lovemaking, he had taken the girl’s throat in his hands and strangled her to death.
Leaving his dead sweetheart lying behind the rock Rex walked up the dark lonely road to Abergregan, continuing alone the journey that not that long before they had begun happily together.
At 1.15 a.m. on the morning of June the 6th, the telephone at Cymmer police station was answered by Police Constable Michael and to Michael’s surprise a mans voice said ‘Send a motor car down to the telephone call box in Abergregan. I have killed a girl’.
Ringing off the caller gave his name as Rex Jones.
After first notifying Police headquarters in Neath, P.C. Michael set off on his bicycle for Abergregan and soon met a man walking towards him.
Stopping him P.C. Michael asked “Are you the man that telephoned?”. Rex replied that he was, and added ‘I have strangled Peggy Watts with my hands. I felt her pulse and it had stopped”. At that point or very shortly afterwards a police car pulled up and disgorged Inspector Davies from Neath.
Rex told Davies ‘I smothered the girl in the woods; We had intimacy first; I have had it before. I don’t know what made me do it.’ He then took the policemen to where he had left Peggy’s body. When charged one hour later with the murder of Beatrice May Watts, Rex Jones replied ‘I am guilty’.
From the very moment that he committed his crime Rex Harvey Jones never displayed anything but remorse and repugnance for what he had done. He had never been in trouble with the law before, his National Service army record was impeccable and he did everything in his power to help the police.
Whilst on remand awaiting trial he wrote to Pamela Cole, his fiancée living in London. The letter’s contents were highly poignant and prove that despite the enormity of his deed, Rex Jones was not an insensitive brute of a man.
He told the girl who was to have been his future wife, that he expected to be hung and that she had been the best thing that had happened in his life, that they could have been happy together if he hadn’t gone insane and murdered someone.
His letter to Pamela ended with he words
‘Find someone decent and marry him. Forgive me and live a happy life. Goodbye darling, in life and death I love you.
Ironically, it was this streak of decency and inherent honesty that probably cost Rex Harvey Jones his life. If he had lied, told the court that Peggy had provoked him into an argument, that he had lost his temper and had never intended to seriously harm her the charge could well have been changed to one of manslaughter.
As it was, he stuck resolutely to the truth as he saw it, offering no excuses other than saying that he had blacked out and had no recollection of why or how it had happened.
It was this total lack of any mitigating circumstances that might have enabled the murder charge to be reduced, that drove the Judge, Mr. Justice Croom-Johnson, in his summing up to tell the jury that there was no evidence which, on a matter of law, they could reduce the charge to one of manslaughter.
There was no suggestion that Peggy had said anything to cause Rex to lose his temper. The Judge told the jury:
‘The first direction I have to give is that it was a case of murder or nothing.’ He continued, ‘You will have to steel your hearts against the strain of circumstances, of good character, steel your hearts to see justice done’.
In the name of justice the good people of the jury steeled their hearts. In the name of humanity they appealed for clemency.
The appeal went unheard. When on August the 1st, the then Home Secretary stated he saw no reason to ask the King to intervene and grant a reprieve for either Rex Harvey Jones or Robert Thomas Mackintosh, his was a true heart of steel.
Sadly this politician, acting as both a judge and jury, was unable to understand the difference, not between the fact of the two crimes, but between the men he condemned to death!
Rex Harvey Jones and Peggy Watts were however still in blissful ignorance of the dual tragedy that would, on the evening of June the 5th destroy both their futures, when at Aberavon, at about 6.00 a.m. on the morning of June the 4th 1949, John Dennis Williams, a railway line checker discovered the half naked body of a young woman lying across an ash heap on the embankment of the Main Swansea to Cardiff line.
The railwayman’s cries soon brought another line worker at a run and also attracted a bicyclist, Bert Gravelle on his way to his job as a crane driver.
Leaving the two railway workers to stay with the body, Gravelle pedalled (the days of the mobile phone were 50 years in the future) as he could to Aberavon police station to raise the alarm. The first officers to arrive on the seen took one look and knew that they were at the start of an investigation into a particularly brutal and horrific murder.
The dead girl’s body had been thrown, or more possibly lifted, over the wall that separated the road from the railway track and had either landed or been placed on the ash heap.
The actual cause of death was strangulation, a length of window sash cord had been wound round her throat and knotted at the front and back.
The clothes on the upper part of her body were torn and from the waist down she was naked and a careful search of the area failed to produce her underclothes or her shoes.
Her body also showed signs of a violent struggle with scratch marks on her thighs and stomach and it was obviously that she had bled copiously from her vagina.
Prior to being brutally raped, the dead girl, quickly identified as sixteen and a half year old Beryl Beechy, had been a virgin.
A few short hours after the discovery of Beryl’s body, a chance remark made to the girl’s distraught father John Beechy, by his friend Maldwyn Mackintosh, who had known Beryl all her life, sent the police racing to interview Mackintosh’s son, Robert.
Beryl’s last hours are easy to trace.
Just before 7 p.m. on the evening if June the 3rd, Beryl, all dressed up for a night out, left her home in Green Park Street Aberavon to visit her friend June Mackintosh in Vivian Square.
Beryl’s original plan for that evening had been to go the cinema with another friend, Catherine Corrish, who also lived in Green Park, but Catherine had arranged something else for that evening and in doing so, in all innocence, sealed Beryl’s fate.
As her daughter left home, Beryl’s mother gave her ten shillings to give to Mrs Mackintosh. This money was in part payment for a suit Mrs Beechy had bought from Mrs Mackintosh. The Beechy and Mackintosh families had been close friends for years and had, for a period just prior to Beryl’s birth in 1933, shared a house.
The last person known to have seen the girl alive with the exception of her killer was another family friend, Mrs Richards, who spoke to Beryl just as she was getting off a bus at the Aberavon Municipal Building’s bus stop.
When Beryl said goodbye to Mrs Richards and walked off in the direction of Vivian Square, her short life had little time left to run.
On reaching the Mackintosh house, Beryl discovered that the only person home was her friend’s brother, Robert who was engaged in cleaning up the house. Robert, who had also known Beryl all her life, they had grown up together, told her that his sister June had already left for the pictures and took the ten shillings from Beryl that her mother had sent to his.
The time at this point was around 7.30 in the evening.
When one short hour later Mrs Mackintosh came home, Beryl Beechy was already dead, her strangled, raped and bloody body cooling on the pile of discarded ashes, where it had been thrown.
Robert Mackintosh claimed, just as Rex Harvey Jones did two days later, to have no recollection of what had happened until he came to, lying on his bed, to find Beryl’s dead body jammed halfway under it.
Unlike Rex, Mackintosh did not give himself up to the police. Possibly he panicked, when the enormity of what he had done hit him. If he had, as he claimed, really suffered a total black out, then the discovery of the girl’s body might possibly have further unhinged him enough to make an attempt at concealment.
However, had he been fully aware of his actions when, on the spur of the moment, he forcibly raped Beryl, then strangled her with a cord to stop her telling anyone, then that act, along with everything that followed was a premeditated, if inept, attempt to escape justice.
Robert Mackintosh claimed that his first reaction when waking up to find Beryl’s body under his bed was to conceal the body so as not to worry his mother when she came home and found her.
Accordingly, after a quick visit to the toilet, in order to avoid this lamentable discovery, he wrapped Beryl’s body in a her coat. He then carried her downstairs, 40 or so yards along the road to the railway boundary wall and threw her over.
Still carrying the coat, he returned home to hide it under a pile of his own dirty washing. After concealing the coat, he then bundled up Beryl’s skirt, knickers, scarf and shoes intending to take them to work with him the next day so that he could burn them in one of Steel Work’s furnaces.
These items of clothing were later found hidden in a disused building in Port Talbot Steelworks.
It could be said that all these actions were made by a young man
thrown into a panic by the enormity of what he had done. It is possible of course that this supposition does contain an element of truth; however panicked or not, before hiding the murdered girl’s coat under his own soiled garments, he found time to go through the pockets, find Beryl’s wage packet, open it and steal the £3.12s 6d that it contained.
When Mackintosh’s mother returned home at 8.30 p.m. he made no secret of the girl having been there. He even gave her the ten shillings she had brought from her mother.
The police investigation was fairly straight forward, they found bloodstains on, in and under Mackintosh’s bed, on the walls and the front door. With the exception of the stains in the bed, which were type B, Mackintosh’s, from a cut toe he had sustained earlier and which he initially used to try and explain away the presence of the blood, the rest were type A, Beryl’s blood type.
He told the police that he felt he had been acting strangely ever since his return from the Middle East. He told them that that a few months earlier whilst experiencing a similar blackout, he had tried to kiss his sister June. In one statement he made he described his action as ‘trying to get across her’ which implies that the attempt was a little more serious that he was prepared to admit.
On that occasion he was caught by his father who threatened to thrash him if he ever tried anything like it again.
When charged with Beryl Beechy’s murder, Robert Mackintosh made a full confession in which he expressed the most terrible remorse. Who knows, maybe he was truly repentant. Perhaps the only thing we can be totally sure of came from his own mouth when he told the police, ‘I have been a pig’.
There is little left to discover out of what, are in truth no more than two simple, if tragic tales. It’s easy to have sympathy for the victims, for the families on both sides; all of the honest, respectable hardworking people who never would have expected their lives to be marred in such a dreadful way.
For the two villains, sympathy, as ever can only be subjective. Almost certainly, when Rex Harvey Jones and Robert Thomas Mackintosh woke up on the morning that they both took another human life, they never once thought that a few months later they would standing together on the scaffold to pay, in the words of that overworked phrase, their debt to society.
Both killings were coincidental, unpremeditated, born out of circumstances that were, if they indeed were both telling the truth about being unaware of their actions, beyond their control.
Of course, an assumption that they were both telling the truth leaves us with a question. Had something happened during the respective military careers of these two ex national Servicemen in Egypt and Palestine, that triggered a subconscious disregard for human life, an awful equation between sex and death?
Obviously not all soldiers, in fact very few, who have seen the horror of war, commit murder in their later civilian life, but only a fool would argue that war does not go some way towards brutalising both men and women.
Now, 1949 was along time ago and we have moved forward into third millennium. We have e-mail, facebook, personal and industrial blogs, environmental concerns, etc, all the trappings of our modern society, but what really has changed, apart from increasing numbers of faceless bureaucrats.
Ordinary people as well a career criminals still commit murder. Localised territorial or religion based wars, ethnic cleansing and International terrorism are growth industries, albeit wholeheartedly condemned as barbarism by all civilised societies.
Societies whose most profitable industrial export products are in the main the life blood of death and destruction, small arms, tanks , aircraft, weapons of war.
True we have evolved. Today, Robert Mackintosh and Rex Harvey Jones would not have died for we, the civilised Western democracies that is, do not execute murderers any more.
We give them rent free, warm accommodation and a licence free TV for shorter and shorter terms of imprisonment whilst we throw an honest hardworking family into the streets because through no fault of their own they are out of work and can’t pay their bills or taxes.
That of course is another subject. As every writer is guilty of taking the opportunity to jump on their own personal soapbox from time to time perhaps we should ask ourselves, what has really changed and where, then as now, does the burden of guilt truly rest?
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