LIFE IMITATES ART?
The link between Neville Heath, Margery Gardner and Blackpool is weak. But it is such a tale that I am cheating. It also has similarities with Gordon Cummins… the Blackout Ripper and Evelyn Oatley late of Anchorsholme.
When we read about Neville Heath we are in an Agatha Christie mystery… all the props are there: retired Majors, Eastbourne hotels, and Neville Heath himself who actually sounds like Biggles or Bulldog Drummond. When Oscar said that life imitates art he was not as daft as he sounds.
I believe that Neville Heath modelled himself on the heroes of popular fiction. He was athletic, tall, good-looking, a fighter pilot, a war hero, the kind of man that women adore… There was just that thing about stealing money, and claiming rank and decorations that he was not entitled to, and whipping women and killing them… Biggles didn’t do that. Not in the books anyway. Heath sounds like Biggles or one of those straight-jawed dim characters: this is Neville Heath writing to his brother Mick who is about to join the Air Force: the date is Tuesday October 15th 1946:
“You’ll shortly be going into a damned good service….”
“Use King’s Regulations and Air Council instructions as your bible and stick to it.”
Or writing to his father:
” This I regard as just another journey…. To my very limited intelligence it is nothing more than another “op”- and like all “ops” it may prove to be quite exciting.”
The following day Neville Heath was hanged.
You grow fond of people you write about. Margery Gardner… brave, artistic, good-looking, stylish, bohemian but… poor, anxious, often ill, bad judge of character, enjoying an unconventional love life, friend of eccentrics such as Quentin Crisp (he recalled discussing with her the attractions of men in uniform and her leopard skin coat) and criminals… She loved London… she lived in Chelsea… In spite of the difficulties Margery Gardner would chose no other life.
Margery came from a wealthy Sheffield family. The family home is grand… it is now a hall of residence of the University of Sheffield. Her father worked in the family solicitors firm that went back to the 18th Century. During her early education she stayed with an aunt and shared a governess with her cousin. At school she was a gifted artist and won national prizes for her drawing. Her head-teacher said that she was “more than half a genius.” Her mother was alarmed by an unsuitable boyfriend and sent her to Chelsea School of Art
Spanish saying: “How do you make God laugh? Tell him your plans.”
Her tutors at Chelsea included famous artists such as Henry More. In 1936 she met Peter Gardner and they married in 1939. He was the son of a brigadier and born in Egypt. He did not do well and had a series of jobs. Although he went to Sandhurst he did not complete. Margery’s family disapproved. When war came he joined the RAF.
Peter was stationed near Blackpool. Margery lived in Blackpool and worked in a hairdresser and beauty parlour. Sadly she had a still born child in 1941. When not accompanying Peter Margery stayed in Chelsea which was heavily bombed. Peter had a nervous condition that needed treatment… and was hospitalised in Grantham. He took to escaping from hospital to go on drinking binges and to finance them he stole from pubs. He was caught and jailed for two years.
Margery remained loyal to Peter. Her family disapproved. Margery was determined to make a home when Peter finished his sentence. She found a flat in Chelsea. When Peter Gardner was released things didn’t go according to plan. Peter was a heavy drinker, highly strung and unstable. Peter and Margery separated although they continued to see one another.
Margery was pregnant again. In 1944 she had a daughter Melody Ann. Melody spend her early years in a nursery for training nurses, Margery’s mother paid the fees, Peter contributed nothing. Her marriage was over when the Nazis launched their doodle bug assault on London.
Margery had difficulty finding regular work. Her health was bad. She was an arresting figure with an ocelot fur coat and good looks. Although her odious husband said after her death that she drank too much nobody else ever saw her drunk except once. Peter Gardner died of cirrhosis within a year of Margery’s death.
She wrote to her mother saying she had a boyfriend. This was (probably) Peter Tilley Bailey. He was a gentleman thief. He had served time for stealing a car and Margery had been with him at the time although she was not charged. According to her friends Peter Tilley was Margery’s only boyfriend at the time although Peter Tilley had other girlfriends.
Margery reminds us of the beatniks and the hippies. They had matters in common: art and creativity, little regard for convention, respect for eccentricity and bohemianism, tolerance for criminality and an experimental attitude to sexual matters.
It is just possible that you have seen Margery Gardner… she sometimes worked as a film extra.
On the evening of 20 March 1946, Margery was short of money. She would be dead within six hours. At 7.15pm she met her friend Trevethan Frampton an art student and they spent an hour in the Trevor Arms. They were joined by a number of men, some of whom Margery knew. Amongst the men was Neville Heath. Neville Heath asked Margery if she would join him for dinner. Margery said she already had an arrangement for dinner with an Army Captain. Trevethan left at 8.30 saying he might meet Margery later at a club they both visited. The Army Captain met an old friend unexpectedly and was unable to dine with Margery. At this point Margery had about eightpence… she could not afford a drink. Heath introduced Margery to his air force friends: “A great little scout.” Heath took Margery to the Normandie Hotel for dinner and at 9.30 pm they went to the nearby Torch Club and then on to the Panama club. At the Panama Club Neville Heath and Margery unexpectedly met Peter Tilley with a young nurse, this did not go down well. Witnesses at the club say that Margery, unusually , drank heavily and threw herself at Neville.
Shortly after midnight on Friday 21st June 1946 Neville and Margery took a taxi to the Pembridge Court Hotel. The following afternoon her body was found. I haven’t the heart to describe her injuries in detail but she was tied up, the victim of a violent sexual attack, she had been whipped and the whip had left distinctive marks.
That afternoon the investigation was led Divisional Detective Inspector Reginald Spooner. Chain-smoker, heavy drinker, workaholic. Another character from crime fiction, . The hotel room at Pembridge Court had been booked in the name of Lieutenant Colonel Heath. Lieutenant Colonel Heath had been staying with a lady but not Margery Gardner. Heath had stayed at the hotel before using different names, dressed in different uniforms and accompanied by different wives. A description of Neville Heath (but not a photograph) was circulated. The case was a classic English murder… the kind of crime that people loved to read about in the News of the World. A smart hotel, a good looking charming war hero, an attractive woman who was a film extra who had shady friends and who had posed for life drawings.
Neville Heath was the most wanted man in the world.
Neville Heath in the meantime had taken off to the Tollard Royal Hotel Bournemouth where he divided his time between flirting, drinking heavily, charming everybody, and sending letters to police asking to communicate through the Personal Column of the Daily Telegraph. He registered as a South African: Group Captain Rupert Robert Brook. Rupert Brooke the poet had often visited Bournemouth and was described by Yeats as: “The handsomest young man in England.”
Group Captain Brook settled his attentions on tall slim attractive 21 year old Doreen Marshall.
When she disappeared witnesses recalled her closeness to the dashing Group Captain. Group Captain Brook presented himself at the Police Station to help. The officer in charge of the investigation, Detective Constable Suter, had an uneasy feeling and without arresting the Group Captain kept making excuses to keep the Group Captain at the station… asking questions, checking details…
To grasp the audacity of the Group Captains’s behaviour imagine the scene: Neville Heath as Group Captain Robert Brook is at the Police Station. He meets Doreen Marshall’s father and sister who are also at the Station. They have a conversation.
Suter is under pressure to release Group Captain Brook. Brook had came to the Station voluntarily to help. Suter points out that Brook bears a close resemblance to a description of Neville Heath. Brook laughs and says that other people have pointed that out.
Now all this time Neville knows that he has murdered Doreen Marshall and that her body is still undiscovered. Leaving aside moral criticism the audacity of Neville Heath is eye-popping. During his stay at the Pembridge Court Group Captain Brooks, as he was claiming to be, got into a conversation with Peter Rylatt, a former Army Captain. The subject Neville Heath came up. Of course everybody was talking about Neville Heath on the run and sought for the murder of Margery Gardner. “I knew him, he was a fairly decent kind of chap.” This is Group Captain Brook talking about Neville Heath who is… himself.
WTF as the young folks say.
Long story short. Suter rings Spooner. A search of Neville’s room reveals a whip. Spooner goes to Bournemouth. Heath is taken to London. Doreen Marshall’s body is found. The body had been hidden in undergrowth. Writing about crime you might become a bit thick skinned but I cannot describe the details. The attack was savage and sexually sadistic. Neville would have been covered in blood, it is suggested that after the attack he bathed naked in the sea and then had a cigarette then hid the body. The following morning at the hotel he showed no sign of agitation. One can feel for all victims but Doreen Marshall aged 21, an ex-Wren… what words?
Neville Heath came from a loving repectable middle class family. His school was modelled on a public school… houses, prefects, games etc. It is simply true to say that the public school was a religion in British culture. Take popular fiction… children who went to Mill Hill Ragged School (there really was one in Preston) read books about Billy Bunter and in their comics they read about public schoolboys. Lord Snooty… remember him? These tales had an extraordinary hold. The public school was a template for all kinds of institutions: borstals, the Air Force. The pre-war military had a reliance on public schools through Officer Training Courses. Wealthier young people might have access to flying clubs. In the armed forces a public school ethos prevailed. I have gone on about this probably far too long in order to place Neville Heath in that ethos. About to be hanged and in the face of facts he insisted he had been to private school. What was it all about this public school thing that seized a nation’s imagination? Courage, loyalty, determination, good humour, team spirit, athleticism, contempt for anything intellectual or complicated… a culture of dimness, youth, good looks, charm… It is easy to see why these qualities were desirable in other settings and why the heroes of the popular fiction of the 30’s were grown up public schoolboys. There was something else… an attachment to violence… a contempt for outsiders. Bulldog Drummond is an anti-semitic xenophobe with Fascist tendencies… But lets not get carried away.
What is startling is how closely Neville Heath fits this template and how it informs he behaviour. It is not unusual for people to model themselves on a literary hero. Lenin modelled his early self on the hero of What is to be Done? And who are Christians supposed to take as a role model? I will give a very brief biography of Neville Heath simply because the intensity of his activities would require a lot of space: for example in his address book there are four hundred names… most of them women.
After school Neville got a job and then joined the RAF. He was trained as a fighter pilot. Then he got in trouble over money. It was a trivial thing involving a bounced cheque which could easily have been a misunderstanding. But Neville decided to run off stealing his commanding officer’s car and communicating with his commanding officer suggesting correspondence in the Personal Column of the Daily Telegraph. Dismissed from the RAF he met a bank manager at a seaside hotel and rushed back to the bank manager’s house and robbed it. He got sent to a borstal with an enlightened director who modelled the borstal on a public school. Neville adjusted well and was looked on as a role model. Interestingly he was in Borstal with Brendan Behan who had been sent there because of his attempt to support an IRA group which was carrying out a bombing campaign. I don’t know the details of this group, it may have been based in Liverpool and may have been the group that planted a bomb at Blackpool Town Hall in 1939.
Neville often thrived in disciplined organisations and all the evidence is that he was happy in Borstal. He remained friends with the staff and even went back to lecture the boys.
Neville Heath joins the Army when war comes and is in Egypt. Money is the problem and he solves it by having two pay books. When he is found out he is sent back to England by ship stopping at Durban in South Africa.
In Durban he pulls off his most audacious stunt. Arriving in South Africa he is a prisoner. He walks off the boat, assumes a new identity hinting that he is linked to a famous banking family, he joins the South African Air Force, qualifies as a pilot and becomes a pilot instructor. He marries a beautiful heiress from one of South Africa’s leading families. Elizabeth… a debutante. They have a child. He has been staying at hotels without paying and so on and his new family pays off his debts to keep him out of trouble.
In South Africa he is a popular character… he and his wife Elizabeth are a golden couple and a great deal is drunk. Some of Neville’s past his revealed but he is a valuable asset to the SAAF. Meantime Neville wants to be transferred to Europe where the action is. When appraising Neville Heath an indigestible fact is that he left a safe and respected role in South Africa, and his beautiful wife, to return to England where bomber crews had a 66 percent chance of being killed.
He is transferred to England and again commissioned as a pilot under another name. This time he is a bomber pilot… A bomber pilot is different from a fighter pilot. A bomber is big and heavy and cumbersome. And it is filled with bombs and a crew. Say you are a bomb aimer… it is over in minutes, a pilot is under strain for many hours.
THE BOMBING OF VENLO
Neville was part of a raid on the bridge at Venlo in the Netherlands. The aim was to prevent supplies and troops reaching the Germans. Finally the bridge was blown up by the retreating Germans.
The aircraft, a Mitchell Bomber, reliable, noisy, was struck by flak after the bombing and fire began to spread. Neville ordered the crew to bale out. The navigator, Freddie Silvester previously a teacher, struggled with his parachute. Neville helped him and Freddie Silvester and Neville baled out. Seconds later the aircraft exploded in a ball of flame. Neville and the crew had two weeks “survivor’s leave.” Freddie told his wife that Neville had saved his life.
Neville was under observation by his Squadron Leader. A member of his crew had refused to fly with him. This had caused his Squadron Leader to take that member’s place on the Venlo Raid, with the idea of keeping an eye on Neville Heath. Although Neville’s conduct was exemplary his Squadron Leader felt he might be having a breakdown… Neville was drinking heavily and there was an embarassing incident. We do not know more about this incident which was witnessed by his Squadron Leader but we do know that Neville had previously flown into an uncontrollable rage. He met an MP in South Africa who delighted in telling unlikely stories about his false leg… it was bitten off by a crocodile and so on. This was not intended to be believed but Neville, beside himself, called him a liar and threatened the MP. Neville had to be held back from attacking the MP. Strange that a serial liar should be incensed by a lie. Was it because Neville regarded himself as the supreme liar and the MP was threatening Neville’s territory?
Regarding the later incident his Squadron Leader, Fielding-Johnson: “He seemed to become an entirely different person. ”
Neville would not fly for the RAF again. Neville also got a genuine if informal medal … the Caterpillar Club… for crew who parachuted from aircraft. Neville returned to South Africa but not to the welcome he might expect… In South Africa his wife told him she wanted a divorce. According to Neville Heath’s later account he intended to shoot Elizabeth and himself but had a “blackout.” After the trial Elizabeth did not harbour ill feelings towards Neville but she did say that drink made him a different person.
The divorce unsettle Neville Heath. He went on a spree, absent without leave from the SAAF, and his fallback behaviour, staying at hotels without paying. The divorce settlement involved Elizabeth’s family paying of debts, in return Neville gave up rights to his child.
During his bomber pilot days in England, apparently happily married, Neville had become engaged. The church was booked, the reception organised, Heath told his fiancee that the wedding would have to be postponed as he had to go back to South Africa. From South Africa he wrote that his wife refused to divorce him…
In South Africa he was arrested for fraud but, sympathetic to a damaged ex-officer, his sentence was suspended. The SAAF tried him for among other things, awarding himself a DFC and an OBE. While awaiting court martial he took the opportunity to steal from another officer. In addition his former fiance’s father in England had written to the South African authorities with details of Neville’s breach of promise and other misdemeanours. He was dismissed from the SAAF and deported from South Africa. It was later said by Neville that he changed following his separation from Elizabeth. We have no idea if this is true.
In England he worked seriously to obtain a pilot’s licence. Because of his conduct the RAF made it clear that he would not be allowed to fly. He had worked hard and in a disciplined way for his pilot’s licence. He had borrowed money from his father and he told his mother that he had actually qualified. After his hanging his mother said that she thought Neville had told her this to save her from disappointment. Neville went off rails which he had never been entirely on… fraud, heavy drinking, high spending, falsely claiming rank and honours. It was a consequence of fraud the Neville was flush with money when he met Margery Gardner.
TRIAL AND EXECUTION
It is possible to argue that the death of Margery Gardner was manslaughter. Suppose a sexual encounter had got out of hand? It turned out Neville had previously been turned out of a hotel for whipping a woman. One of Margery’s acquaintances claimed that she had an interest in such things but Spooner in his politically incorrect way said that the witness was: “a mental case. ”
A witness said that Neville had twenty five pints of beer before the left with Jane. And he drank more with the meal and at the nightclubs. And Jane Gardner was drunk.
But the murder of Elizabeth Marshall? 21 years old, an ex-Wren, inexperienced?
Neville Heath was sentenced to death. He was indifferent to his fate… he told his legal representative: “Put me down as not guilty old boy.”
He did not make any effort to appeal and told his mother and father that he would rather die that live in prison. A woman juror wrote to the Home Secretary saying that she had concerns about Neville Heath’s mental state.
Awaiting hanging Neville Heath was unconcerned. Interestingly he re-read the Thirteen Steps in which an innocent man evades the authorities. A bit like Neville Heath except for the innocent bit. Neville Heath was hanged by Albert Pierrepoint. The governor asked him if he would like a whiskey. Neville said (his last words?): “Make it a double will you?”
Pierrepoint’s account of the hanging is (is it just me?) disconcerting. We have to remember that Pierrepoint was shaping a lucrative career as a celebrity hangman. First of all Pierrepoint used a special strap to pinion Neville’s hands: “I had a more than formal interest in this execution.”
And after the hanging:
“As he hung I stripped him. Piece by piece I removed his clothes… A dead man, being taken down from execution is a uniquely broken body whether he is a criminal or Christ…”
Neville Heath , good looking, brave, bold, tall, athletic, clever, cool … but indifferent to cruelty and killing. There have been many works around Neville Heath. The most wonderful piece of work is the Gorst Trilogy by Patrick Hamilton. For my money Patrick Hamilton is the most underrated author. I don’t believe that the trilogy comes close to explaining Neville or the nature of evil… but it captures the strange labyrinthine rituals of middle class life in the thirties and this was the milieu in which Neville operated. The Gorst Trilogy was made into a television series: The Charmer by the writer Allan Prior from Blackpool. Allan Prior said that he based his character on the Gorst Trilogy but also on Neville Heath. Since Hamilton based Gorst on Neville Heath… but I’m sure Allan Prior knew that. In the trilogy there is an incident in which the young Gorst ties up a girl in a shed. There was an actual incident when Neville was young when he and his friend attacked a young girl at a party. Characteristically he apologised to her father who was an MP and nothing came of the incident.
A theme in Neville’s life is the literary quality of his behaviour. When he was originally sentenced to borstal the prison chaplain said he was a “Raffles.”
The connection with Blackpool is through Margery Gardner who worked in Blackpool while her husband Peter was in the RAF. After the trial of Neville, Margery’s husband Peter used her paintings and drawings for an exhibition on the Golden Mile. Morbid interest in the works of the murdered, an unfairly notorious, Margery Gardner probably attracted seaside visitors more than artistic considerations. Neville’s beloved brother Mick did follow his footsteps at least in as far as joining the RAF was concerned. He was stationed near Blackpool. He visited Tussauds waxworks and there he saw his brother staring back at him. He lived in fear that he might have some of Neville’s tendencies. Eventually he found his feet in civilian life. Margery’s daughter, Melody, on a visit with a schoolfriend read a sensational book which described her mother’s death. On the same journey in Tussauds in London she saw the model of her mother’s killer wearing the actual jacket he wore at the trial. Melody took years to recover.
What to make of Neville Heath? Let me try this out: we think he is more calculating than other people… that there is more going on in Neville’s brain. But actually there is less. And it is this absence that enables him to act as he does. When you think about Neville Heath is it possible that he was a robot… a handsome void? Just a guess.
An incident comes to mind. Neville Heath is living at home and studying hard for his pilot’s licence. A woman comes to the door. Neville’s mother answers. The woman is the wife of Freddie Sylvester. Freddie Sylvester said that Neville Heath saved his life and the wife wanted to thank him. Freddie Sylvester had subsequently been killed on another operation.
But consider Margery Gardner and Elizabeth Marshall… the loss to their friends and parents.