The Middle Class Murderer
By Dr Piotr Stolarski
This is the title of a new historical crime story which happens to be true and will be on sale from November 2016. Dr Jonathan Oates, Borough Archivist for Ealing, is giving a talk about it on the evening of 22 November at Ealing Library and would invite anyone interested to attend. Chesney committed two murders in Ealing in 1954 as well as many other crimes in Edinburgh, England and overseas from 1926.
This blog post is, however, not a retelling of the book nor the talk, but rather an account of how he went about researching and writing the topic. However, a brief synopsis might be useful for the reader who is not acquainted with the story.
Ronald Chesney was born John Donald Merrett in New Zealand in 1908. In 1926 he lived with his mother in Edinburgh, where he defrauded her. This led to her being shot dead and Merrett was tried for murder and fraud, but was found not proven on the capital charge. He married and settled a large sum of money on his wife as income for life. After World War Two the couple separated. Merrett had now changed his name to Chesney and wanted to divorce her to regain the money he had settled on her and perhaps to remarry. She refused and eventually Chesney, who was a career criminal resident in Europe, planned to murder her in her Ealing home. He did so, in 1954, but had to kill his mother in law as well. He then returned to Germany but finding the police suspected him of the double murder, committed suicide.
When did it all begin? How did you find out about the case? It’s not very well known, is it?
In 2005 I was asked to give a talk about historical crime in Ealing, a topic I knew very little about. Up to that date my main research interests and published work concerned local history and the Jacobite rebellions of the eighteenth century. There had been almost nothing written about Ealing’s criminal history and as far as I knew, no infamous criminals such as Notting Hill’s John Christie or Whitechapel’s Jack the Ripper. So I began from scratch and consulted the local history centre’s card index file under Murders. Chesney’s name appeared and so I read some newspaper articles about him and also a book in the library titled Portrait of a Bad Man, written in 1956 by crime reporter Tom Tullett. I gave the talk, with some information about Chesney included.
I was then contacted by a publisher wanting to know of anyone who could write a book in their Foul Deeds and Suspicious Deaths series about Ealing crimes and so this became my first published crime book. The final chapter was a six page account of the Chesney murders, based on local newspaper reports and the book by Tullett. I was aware of a bulky file about the case at the National Archives at Kew but only read through it cursorily as I did not need all the details therein for a fairly short chapter.
Above: Dr Oates’ first ‘foray’ into crime, 2006
But what about the present book?
Over the intervening decade I wrote another eight books about crimes, each covering a dozen or more cases, mainly from the nineteenth century to the mid twentieth. I also wrote two full length studies of serial killers John Christie and John George Haigh, both of whom had some Ealing connections and both operated during World War Two and its immediate aftermath. There were at least two other multiple murderers of this era; Neville Heath and Ronald Chesney, both of whom are generally less well known than Christie and Haigh (they killed fewer people). A very good book was recently published about the former (Handsome Brute by Sean O’Connor), but I decided to have another look at the latter, perhaps in part because of the Ealing connection but also because he inhabited the same time frame as the others. I began the research in early 2014, just as the Haigh book was going to the publishers. As with most books requiring detailed research I found that many of the oft repeated ‘facts’ about the case and its characters were untrue.
Above: Author with a previous book
Is there something about the 1940s/50s which interests you then?
Well, I think that any historical period has its own fascination in that it is different to our own yet often sheds light on ours. In 1945 Britain was one of the victorious powers after a major war, yet the social, economic and political impact was not wholly positive. There was more severe rationing, heavy taxation, restrictions and shortages of consumer goods which led to a widespread black market (which Chesney exploited as a smuggler). Then there was the impact of the loss of life and the fact that people, especially servicemen, were accustomed to a greater degree of violence and death than had been the case in the peaceful years of the 1920s and 1930s. Crime soared in the 1940s though subsided temporarily in the 1950s and it is this turbulent background that helps explain (but not excuse) some of the terrible crimes of the era. It is also worth noting that most of the evidence created about these crimes is open for public inspection, but by no means all. At least I have no such blocked documents for the Chesney book.
Why did you choose the title?
Well, most murderers and their victims in real life tend to be people who are not well off – quite the antithesis of the popular Agatha Christie mysteries or Midsommer Murders or Morse/Lewis. Yet Chesney could have been a character in an Agatha Christie novel. His parents and even more so, his maternal grandfather were wealthy. He attended public schools and a top university, later serving as a lieutenant commander in the Navy in war time. He came into a sizeable financial legacy when he came of age. The problem was that he threw away most of his money and so resorted to crime to fund his lifestyle where he could gamble at Monte Carlo and buy jewellery for his girlfriends. He was distinctively middle class in a way that some contemporary murderers were not.
In another way, his final murder did resemble an Agatha Christie style plot because it was well planned in order to give the killer an alibi so as to profit from his crime but not to pay the penalty. It did not go to plan, however. There were clues left behind and witnesses and the police managed to locate all this to build up a case against him.
So how long did it take you to do the work?
Well, as said, I began in early 2014 and finished in the summer of 2016; although I was working on two books about the Jacobite rebellion of 1715, a book about tracing ancestors and a book about Ealing’s history (as well as a full time job, bell ringing and family responsibilities) at the same time. Multitasking, you might say. Impossible to know how many hours was spent on one topic alone.
Where did you do the research?
Firstly, at the National Archives. The Metropolitan Police, in the course of their investigation into Chesney, created a mass of documentation. This included a report by Superintendent Daws, in charge of the case, witness statements, details of Chesney’s previous crimes, plans of the house where he killed, correspondence, the inquest papers and much more. I had to go through this several times before I had found everything of importance. Some of it was written in German (Chesney died near Cologne).
His first murder, though, happened in Scotland in 1926 and so I visited the National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh. There were the formal court records but more interestingly the statements made by witnesses to the police. I had already bought a copy of the trial transcript which was published in 1929 as part of the Notable British Trials series, but many witnesses are not called to give evidence and of those who do, not all of what they say appears in evidence in court. There was additional evidence about his character and interests which helped build up a picture of the man he was.
I also read relevant books and newspapers at the British Library, some of which gave insights into his other crimes, and checked stories in the British Newspaper Archive website. I bought the first book written about the case and that led to additional research elsewhere. This was to visit the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich to read two magazine articles by his wife detailing voyages she made with her husband in the 1930s. Since he later killed her, it was a poignant document, though with no foreboding of later doom.
Other sources included obtaining a copy of Chesney’s war record when he served in the Royal Navy in World War Two. There were fascinating comments about his character made by his superior officers; some critical, some admiring. Official documents at the National Archives detailed the loss of his ship at Tobruk in 1942 and these completely contradicted the version which featured in the two books about him. Ealing Library had a file about the house where his last murders occurred, for it had been requisitioned by the council and leased to his wife and mother in law for use as an old people’s home. Chesney’s meagre will was also obtained and he commented about his wife and his girlfriend. There were lengthy interviews in newspapers with his two girlfriends which I read; one I was given a copy of by a fellow crime historian.
Above: Chesney’s civil defence card from Ealing Local History Centre’s
World War Two civil defence personnel archive
Finally, and perhaps most bizarrely, as a speaker at a talk at Scotland Yard I was privileged to be given a guided tour of the Crime Museum that was there in 2015. There was the revolver Chesney used to commit suicide and the coffee pot he used to hit his mother in law over the head with. Most bizarre of all were his forearms, cut off and preserved because of their evidence value at the inquest. I also visited many of the places he was associated with in England and Scotland, though the Ealing murder house (in Montpelier Road) no longer exists.
Oh, and ancestry as very useful, especially in tracking down biographical material about his father. Some places kindly supplied information remotely; the school in New Zealand where he attended and the Edinburgh City Archives with information about the police officers who mishandled his crimes there.
Did you find any dead ends?
I contacted some of the surviving relatives but they either did not want to talk about it or had nothing to add. This was disappointing, but nothing ventured, nothing gained. The vast amount of correspondence kept by his wife and often referred to has also ceased to exist. The historian usually finds that the evidence wished for is incomplete.
Did you write the book after all the research?
No. I tend to write as I go along, and add material when it is found, rather than to wait until everything is researched. Having to write forces you to think about the case and additional questions come to mind which need answering or at least considering. I mostly write in the evenings once my son’s in bed.
How did you structure the book? Chronologically or otherwise?
My previous two full length crime biographies began with the family backgrounds of the killer in question. This one began, as did the two earlier books about Chesney, with a chapter about his last and deadliest crime, then I worked back to his family origins, with the final chapter covering a reconstruction of his final crimes and their aftermath, including Chesney’s death. I thought that to open with a cliffhanger, as corpses are found and a suspect wanted, was a good way to begin, to hook the attention, before rewinding the clock as it were.
How is your book different to other books on the same topic?
There’s a lot more detailed research, as noted above; previous authors do not state where their material comes from but presumably it is from people who knew Chesney. My book gives more emphasis to Chesney’s pre World War Two career than these books do, and rejects information from these books which cannot be verified elsewhere. That said, the letters between Chesney and his wife which are reproduced in previous books are very useful and I’ve used them.
Did you use the internet in your research?
Not much. There is very little on the Chesney murders online, except for a number of fairly short accounts, which are often in error and have nothing new to add. However, I did manage to see a drama documentary made by Scottish TV in 2014 about Chesney’s life and crimes, which was an hour long and in Gaelic, with English subtitles. Odd, because none of the characters in the Chesney story are known to have spoken the language. There were two other television programmes about his Scottish crimes, though both decades ago.
What is your opinion of the man you have spent nearly three years researching? How does he compare to Haigh and Christie?
Well, in some ways he’s more enigmatic because unlike them he did not stand trial for his final crimes and left no written testament (part fictional or not) about his life and crimes. His childhood is very difficult to know anything about and there’s many questions which are impossible to answer, such as his relationship with his father who was later separated from his mother. He seems hard to find much empathy with; a foolhardy sailor, a triple murderer, a fraudster, smuggler and thief. He stole from those whom he claimed to love, such as his mother (who he also killed) and his last girlfriend, whom he also cheated on with another woman. He may have been a rapist, too. His wartime career was creditable but no more than that; there were no medals for especial gallantry. He was also greedy and a religious hypocrite. He also seems quite bizarre with his party trick of eating glasses, preferably with ketchup. Yet he was attractive to many women throughout his life. I ended up finding more about him, but unlike the case with Christie or Haigh found little to empathise with. As I write in the book, ‘His death was a tragedy for himself; his life a tragedy for others’.
What pictures have you used in the book?
I took many pictures of the buildings in Edinburgh, Ealing and elsewhere that he was associated with, such as the house were his mother was shot dead, and also her gravestone. Unfortunately, that of his other victims in Hastings cemetery no longer exists. I hoped to visit the murder house in Edinburgh as it was up for rent when I was in Edinburgh earlier this year, but alas although the estate agents’ sign was still there the flat had been taken! I bought some photographs from sellers on ebay. The most difficult one to find was a picture of the long-demolished murder house in Ealing; which appears in none of the books or articles on the case. Fortunately, a local historian friend found one when searching for Ealing pictures on ebay – it was titled ‘House in Ealing where two women were murdered’ – no reference to the names of the victim or killer nor the address. A crime historian friend also located some pictures for me, too, ones never seen in book form before, as well.
Above: 22 Montpelier Road, Ealing, 1954
You said the house in Ealing was demolished, was that because of the murders there?
No, that’s a common fallacy stemming from the fact that some recent murder houses have been pulled down; Fred West’s house in Cromwell Street, Gloucester, for example. No, the house was pulled down along with its neighbour in about 1989 (35 years after the murders). This was so that a number of smaller houses, Magnolia Close, could be built on the site of these detached houses. After the murders, the house was lived in for many years by various people. This is usual for houses where tragedies have occurred (see Dr Bondeson’s books on Murder Houses of London for more information on this topic).
Above: Magnolia Close, Ealing, 2015
Was it haunted? There was an alleged haunted house elsewhere in the same road.
There was a newspaper article in the 1970s which referred to a ghostly woman screaming, but neither of the murder victims screamed, so I think it is unlikely.
How did you find a publisher?
With difficulty but with a little help from a friend. A publisher I had previously used for other books, including those on Christie and Haigh did not consider Chesney to be well known enough to risk publishing. I used the Writers’ Year Book to contact other publishers of non-fiction crime but either had negative replies or none. Then, when I was considering self-publishing, as a colleague of mine has, a friend made a recommendation. The publisher in question had read my previous works, and asked for a sample chapter and a synopsis, which I sent him. We agreed a deadline for submission and publication and went ahead.
Is there anything else to say?
Well, two things. An author is never satisfied with his previous work unless he dies or completely changes his research interests. On looking back on the six page account of the case in my Ealing crime book of 2006 'Foul Deeds and Suspicious Deaths in Ealing' I can now find several embarrassing factual errors. Secondly, after having sent the corrected proofs of the present book to the publisher, I now think that I should have spent a few sentences in discussing his split from his wife after years of marriage as this helped to pave the way for her murder.
Do you make a lot out of writing books?
I couldn’t give up the day job! I think that unless you’re one of the few best selling authors of fiction you will need an additional source of income. Authors need to write for the pleasure it gives them and the interest in finding new evidence about the past. Well, that’s for the historians among us, anyway.
What will you write next?
I am currently working on a biography of another contemporary of Chesney’s; Donald Hume. As with Chesney he got away with one murder only to commit another. He was the first killer to throw the chopped up remains of his victim out of an aeroplane and into the sea (this in 1949). Gruesome stuff.
Above: Double murderer, Donald Hume (1919-1998), in 1958.
Has all this writing and research about crime given you any insights into crime and criminals?
Yes. In the past I would have condemned killers such as Christie or Haigh as being evil. Now I am not so sure. True, the deeds that they did were evil but I am not certain about the individuals themselves who commit them. Most people have good as well as bad in them and to condemn someone as being evil seems too harsh. Certainly, those I have researched fit into this category but others I only know about from reading books or newspapers, and so only have a limited understanding of, I feel more severe towards. To know more about another is not necessarily to like them more but it should give us more understanding about them. I suppose the other point is that we should never forget the victim. Too often victims are given little attention or receive uncritical praise. And usually there’s less information about them unless they were very important in life (such as Spencer Perceval, Ealing resident and prime minister; assassinated in 1812). We need to understand their lives too and how it was that they met their end.
Above: Spencer Perceval (1762-1812)
Do you have nightmares about these crimes you investigate?
Occasionally they might feature in a dream, but no, the past is not deadly to us; it’s the present and future we need to worry about.
Thanks for your time. I think that’s all for now.
No problem, pleasure talking to you.