The murdered baby had been discovered in a small suitcase. Dr Keith Simpson, Home Office pathologist doing the post-mortem on the child, wanted it photographed in the suitcase exactly as it had been found. So he asked the Southwark mortuary keeper, West, and his secretary, myself, to take the case, complete with baby, round to Guy’s Hospital to be photographed.
The case with its pathetic contents was quite heavy, so West carried it while I tripped along beside him. The journey from Southwark mortuary to Guy’s was a short one across a desolate bomb-site. As we were walking across here West suddenly began to grin and chortle, as if at a marvellous joke. I asked him what it was and he replied he’d like to see a copper stop us and ask to see what we had in the case.
The notion appalled me. We should certainly look a very desperate couple; a suitcase with a murdered baby in it! Luckily, however, nobody stopped us. (It would have been interesting, of course, to have seen the expression on the face of an eager warreserve constable, say, had he asked to inspect our bag. P.C. 49 would have been dull entertainment in comparison.) West and I often joke about this adventure now when we talk over old times; those years when I worked with Keith Simpson in London’s public mortuaries on a non-stop round of post-mortems, investigatingmurders, suicides,manslaughters,infanticides, accidents, criminal abortions, and those multitudinous cases that West calls ‘straight ’uns’.
Besides the non-stop post-mortems were the coroners’ courts, the police courts, magistrates’ courts, assize courts, the Old Bailey. Frequent visits to Scotland Yard. The work in prisons, hospitals, asylums. The never-ending exploration of London; the alleys and filthy courtyards and tenements of Limehouse, Rotherhithe, Poplar, Shoreditch, Bethnal Green, Whitechapel, Stratford-by-Bow, the amazing no man’s land of the suburbs, the ever fascinating backwaters of Kensington, Fulham, Walham Green, Streatham, Battersea, Wandsworth, East Ham, Walthamstow. The West End, a complete and intriguing contrast, plushy, well-washed, but with its sordid secrets in Chelsea, Westminster, Marylebone.
The journeys into the country on murder cases with the bodies in ditches, the bodies in spinneys and copses, the bodies among the cab – bages and in squalid cottages, the bodies in pubs and on country cricket pitches, the bodies in select little villas and in old tin barns. Those endless bodies, anything from ten to twenty-eight in a day, five and sometimes six days a week. All the public mortuaries from Portsmouth to Paddington. Five years of mortuaries, prying into the secrets of thousands, literally thousands, of bodies, each with a tale to tell.
There are people who say corpses don’t talk, but indeed they do. They talk of easy lives in pleasant homes, of hard dirty lives in rooms where lice crawl up and down the walls and the ceiling drips, like a decaying skin, in clammy stinking drops to the floor. They talk of hopes that were not fulfilled, joys that ended in sorrow, of tragedy, broken hearts, stupidity, cruelty, depravity, perversion, crime of every kind, and of goodness, devotion, motherhood, sacrifice, every kind of love, everything you have ever thought or heard of and a great many things you would never have imagined in your wildest moments.
There they all are on the p.m. table: the coster’s wife who killed herself because her husband sold his pony, the one creature in the world she had ever really loved and been loved by. There is the baby whose mother left it to starve while she had a good time hitting the hay with American soldiers. The little girl whose new party dress caught fire. The old gentleman who lived in Leytonstone sixty years and never departed once from his wife, his job as a railway clerk, his bowls club and the interminable straight and narrow. The soldier who came home on leave to find his wife in bed with another man and gassed himself. The sailor who came home from sea to find his wife in bed with another man and shot her. The old lady who put her head in the gas-oven because she was certain the wireless had given her cancer. The airman who baled out and his parachute didn’t open. The bright young thing who didn’t want a baby. The tart who picked up a killer for a client. The pansy who couldn’t face life any more. The treasurer who embezzled the funds, the typist who discovered she was married to a bigamist. Yes, there they all are.
And my goodness, how they talk! Everything about them talks. The way they look, the way they died, where they died, why they died. In the mortuary, under the skilled hands of Dr Simpson, they yielded up their secrets, talking of everything from natural death to murder.
While sitting beside him at her little table, typing away for dear life, was Miss Lefebure, typing the post-mortem reports which the pathologist dictated as he worked. And in the courts there she was too, taking shorthand notes. There she was in the hospitals, the prisons, at the scenes of crimes. Carrying her notebook and the little buff envelopes into which she popped the hairs and the fibres, the buttons and the cigarette-butts, and all the other small but vital things that are found on or near the bodies and on which a five-day trial at the Old Bailey may ultimately hinge.
‘A horrible job. I’d never allow a daughter of mine to do it,’ declared one of my father’s friends. ‘A fas-cin-ating job, darling. How I’d adore it!’ gasped a girl who worked at the Board of Trade. ‘You’ve a nasty, morbid, unfeminine streak in you, I’m afraid,’ wrote a boy friend. ‘You’ll never regret going to work in the mortuaries, Miss Molly,’ said a coroner’s officer of my acquaintance. ‘You’ll find there’s never a dull moment with the bodies around. It’s a real good job for corpses, seeing as how you’re interested in corpses.’
But whoever they were, and however they reacted to the job, they all asked me the same question, ‘How did you get the job?’ I was working as a reporter on a chain of East London suburban weeklies and it was the first year of World War Two. I had earlier taken a secretarial course, to attain good shorthand, and I had studied journalism at London University. Now I was a junior reporter, struggling in the throes of an existence only to be advocated to those training for the Olympic Marathon, or doing penance for some appalling crime. I walked on an average twelve miles a day, at a conservative estimate, worked from eight-thirty in the morning till ten-thirty at night, seven days a week, starting at a pound a week. In my case I was ambitious to be a writer and any person nursing such a lunatic and unwholesome aim in life should be subjected to every chastisement possible, to drive the devil out, as it were.
So for nearly two years I toiled and sweated round the eastern suburbs, covering everything from Boy Scout meetings to the blitz. The assignments I most enjoyed were the court ones: Coroner’s Court and Stratford Police Court. The fascination of these places was for me never-ending.
The Coroner’s Court was Walthamstow, where Dr P. B. Skeels, then Coroner for Metropolitan Essex, sat twice weekly. He quite often lingered in court after the morning’s hearing to chat with the reporters – a courteous gesture which we all appreciated, for too many people treat reporters like bits of something the cat has brought in. On one of these occasions he began talking about Dr Keith Simpson, the young Home Office pathologist who often gave medical evidence at the court. Dr Skeels told us that Dr Simpson had a brilliant career ahead of him, that he was already spoken of as Sir Bernard Spilsbury’s successor, and was worth watching, ‘For you should, as pressmen, know who are the up and coming men and he is certainly one of them.’
Now I had already for some time been eyeing Dr Simpson with great interest.He certainly looked remarkable; there was a something of genius about him, a hint of lightning flashes and thunder bolts. I frequently mused upon his unique but intriguing occupation, wondering whether cutting up bodies all day long had any effects upon the cutter-upper, so to speak, and I also wondered what it was like in a mortuary and wished I could go in one and view a postmortem, for I felt I should like to know what I looked like inside. It was at this point that Dr Simpson came up to me, tapped me on the shoulder and asked me for my secretarial services.
This little scene took place in Walthamstow cemetery – a suitable spot – and quite flabbergasted me, for I had never until then exchanged a word with Dr Simpson, indeed never dreamt he had noted my existence. Yet now he came up to me, said he wanted a word with me, and asked me if I had ever thought of doing secretarial work. I gooped at him.
He went on to assure me he thought I had the qualifications necessary for a medical secretary. I looked him coldly in the eye and turned the offer politely, but firmly, down. I remembered only too well the horror of secretarial work and secretarial young ladies I had developed at secretarial college. Dr Simpson gave me a phone number to ring in case I changed my mind, but I don’t think he really expected to hear from me again.
By three that afternoon I had changed my mind. I had, for one thing, mentioned the offer of this job to a fellow reporter and she had been astounded I had refused it. ‘You must be crazy. You’re interested in crime, you’re always saying you’d like to be a crime reporter. Dr Simpson is one of the big crime experts. With him you’d learn masses about crime. It sounds a wonderful job to me.’
‘But would I ever be any good as a secretary?’ ‘Oh, you could hold down a secretarial job if you tried.’ The other thing that tempted me of course was curiosity. To discover what goes on in mortuaries.
So at twelve p.m. I was offered the job, by three p.m. that same day I had accepted it. Next morning I gave my editor a fortnight’s notice and Dr Simpson lent me a book on forensic medicine, with many illustrations of cut-throats, drowners, hangings, shootings, poisonings and the like. Each night, for the next fortnight, after I had finished writing copy for the newspaper I settled down with forensic medicine before I went to bed.
Copyright © Molly Lefebure 1954, 1955, extracted from Murder on the Home Front published by Sphere @ £7.99 Murder on the Home Front is available for £6.99 (RRP £7.99) inc p&p. Call 01603 648176 or visit radiotimes.com/bookshop
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