Crime of the Century: The Case of Timothy Evans

Criminal Justice, Criminal Justice & Criminology, History of Capital Punishment, Law Journal Library, World Trials
Stephanie Ruesch

Thomasina was fed up with her son, Timothy.

It has been weeks since Thomasina had heard from her daughter-in-law, Beryl, who was normally in regular contact with her in-laws. Originally Timothy had said Beryl and their infant daughter had left London to visit Beryl’s father in Brighton. Now Thomasina had learned that Timothy too had left London, returning to his hometown of Merthyr Tydfil in Wales, where he was staying with his aunt and uncle. Before he had left London, Timothy had quit his job and sold off all the couple’s furniture. When Thomasina heard what her son was up to, she was furious.

On November 29, 1949, she postmarked a letter to her sister-in-law in Merthyr Tydfil. “I don’t know what lies Tim have told you down there,” she wrote, for her son had been an incurable liar since childhood. “I have not seen Beryl or the Baby for a month,” her letter continued. “[T]here is some mirstry [sic] about him…I never want to see him as long as I live… everywhere I go people asking for him for money he owes them I am ashamed to say he is my Son.” When Thomasina’s letter arrived the next day, Timothy’s aunt read it to him at breakfast.

That afternoon, Timothy left his aunt and uncle’s house and walked to the Merthyr Tydfil police station. Walking up to the detective on duty, Timothy blurted out, “I have disposed of my wife.” When the detective incredulously asked what he meant, Timothy replied, “I have put her down the drain.”


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A Catalogue of Confessions

When Timothy Evans walked into the Merthyr Tydfil police station, he and Beryl had only been married for two years. But their nascent union was fraught. Beryl was young, barely eighteen when she married Timothy in 1947. A year later, she gave birth to the couple’s first child, Geraldine. Timothy was illiterate; a chronic foot infection meant he had seen more of hospitals than classrooms as a child. Now a young man of twenty-four, Timothy walked with a limp and had no real education, but he held a job delivering produce around London to provide for his wife and infant daughter. The young family lived in a tiny flat at 10 Rillington Place in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood, but Notting Hill in 1949 was not the stuff of Julia Roberts-Hugh Grant romcoms. The Evanses’ Notting Hill had been heavily bombed during the Blitz and still bore its battle wounds four years after the war. Their street was populated by rows of brick buildings that, in a previous century, had been nice, single-family residences, now cut up into cheap multiple-unit dwellings. 10 Rillington Place was divided into three flats: Timothy, Beryl, and Geraldine lived in the top unit; an elderly man, currently hospitalized, lived below them; and a middle-aged married couple had been long-term tenants in the ground floor flat. Each unit consisted of only two rooms, and shared interior stairways and hallways. There was no indoor plumbing. All residents shared a washhouse in the small, unruly back yard, which contained a sink and copper for heating water, with an outdoor toilet beside it. The flats were illuminated by coal gas, fed into the units by jets in the wall.

In their sparse lodgings, Timothy and Beryl fought often about money, of which they had very little. They were behind on rent and on payments for their rent-to-own furniture. Timothy was known to drink and their fights sometimes turned physical. As he sat in the Merthyr Tydfil police station, Timothy explained to police how sometime around October 1949, Beryl learned she was pregnant again. Aware of their dire financial situation, she wanted an abortion, which was illegal in Britain at the time.

Confession #1

On November 7, Timothy met a man in a café who gave him pills that he claimed were abortifacients. When Timothy returned home from work the next day, he discovered Beryl had taken the mysterious pills and died. Afraid, he dropped her body in a drain outside his front door, sold their furniture for £40, left baby Geraldine in the care of some unnamed good samaritans, and lit out for Wales.

London police were contacted to retrieve the body of Beryl Evans. But after searching the drain where Timothy claimed to have hidden her body, they found nothing. What was more, the manhole cover was so heavy it required three men to lift it, making it highly improbable that Timothy Evans had been able to lift it on his own.

Confession #2

Welsh police confronted Timothy with their lack of findings to corroborate his story. Timothy then gave a second statement. He now claimed there was never a man in a café. But Beryl had been pregnant and had been desperate to have an abortion. Their ground floor neighbor, a man named John Reginald Christie, became aware of Beryl’s plight. He said he had trained as a doctor before World War II and showed Timothy a medical textbook as proof of his credentials, a book which Timothy, of course, could not read. Christie offered to perform an abortion on Beryl. Timothy declined Christie’s offered help, but Beryl was adamant to proceed. She and Christie scheduled the procedure for the next day.

When Timothy returned home from work on November 8th, John Christie was waiting for him at the bottom of the communal staircase. “It’s bad news,” Christie said. “It didn’t work.” Upstairs, Timothy found Beryl lying on their bed, dead, according to Christie, from septic poisoning. Baby Geraldine was alive and unhurt in her cot. Christie said he would get rid of Beryl’s body while Timothy was at work the next day; having died during an illegal abortion, the police could not know what had happened to Beryl. Christie would then send Geraldine to an unnamed couple in East Acton who would look after her. He advised Timothy to sell off his furniture to raise what money he could and then leave London. In shock, Timothy did as instructed.

Confession #3

On December 2nd, Timothy was transported to London as police searched 10 Rillington Place. In the outdoor washhouse, behind a stack of timber boards, they found the bodies of Beryl and Geraldine Evans, wrapped in a green table cloth. There was no evidence an abortion had been attempted on Beryl. She and Geraldine had been strangled to death.

In the Notting Hill Police Station, Timothy was confronted with the table cloth and the tie that had been used to strangle his daughter. He then made a third statement to police in which he now claimed he and Beryl had gotten into a fight over money and in a fit of rage he had strangled her with a piece of rope. He hid her body in the unoccupied middle flat, strangled Geraldine the following night, then put both bodies in the washhouse.

The Blindness of Justice

After his arrest, Timothy Evans immediately retracted his confessions, claiming that “Christie done it.” Police did not believe him and his trial began at the Old Bailey on January 11, 1950. Under British law at the time, Timothy was only charged with the murder of Geraldine. The star witness for the prosecution was his neighbor, John Christie. Christie was a World War I veteran whose eyesight and vocal chords had been permanently affected in a gas attack. He served as a War Reserve Policeman during World War II despite having been arrested several times in the 1920s and 30s for theft and assault. He and his wife Ethel had been married since 1919 but had separated for a period of ten years. Shortly after reconciling, in 1938 the Christies moved into Rillington Place. In his testimony at Timothy’s trial, Christie denied all of Timothy’s accusations. He and his wife Ethel both testified to the couple’s frequent fights, and to hearing a loud thud coming from the Evanses flat the night of November 8th—the last day Beryl and Geraldine were seen alive.

Timothy took the stand in his own defense, the only witness called by his defense. Again he denied killing Beryl and Geraldine, sticking to the version of events in his second confession. Timothy further testified that he only became aware of his daughter’s death when told about it by the police. Asked why he had confessed to killing his family, Timothy said, “when I found out about my daughter being dead I was upset and I did not care what happened to me then.”

The jury deliberated Timothy’s fate for thirty-five minutes before finding him guilty. Under the law at the time, he was given the mandatory sentence of death and on March 9, 1950, still maintaining his innocence, Timothy Evans was hanged at Pentonville Prison. The Christies returned to 10 Rillington Place. Just before Christmas 1952, Ethel’s sister was surprised to receive a letter from her brother-in-law but, as John explained, his wife was suffering from rheumatism and was unable to write. She would be taking a vacation soon in hopes it would help her feel better. In March 1953, John Christie left 10 Rillington Place. New tenants moved into the ground floor flat.

That’s when the bodies were discovered.

The Monster of Rillington Place

In a hollowed alcove in the Christies’ kitchen wall were the bodies of three women. A fourth woman was found under the floorboards in the sitting room. The three women in the kitchen all had been sexually assaulted and showed signs of carbon monoxide poisoning, and all four victims had been strangled to death. They were identified as Hectorina MacLennan, 26, who disappeared in March 1953; Kathleen Maloney, 25, who disappeared in January 1953; Rita Nelson, who disappeared in January 1953, and Ethel Christie, 54, who disappeared in December 1952. In the back garden, police found the skeletal remains of Ruth Fuerst, 21, who disappeared in 1943, and Muriel Eady, 34, who disappeared in 1944; it was later determined that both women’s remains had been in the garden when police searched it in 1949 looking for Beryl and Geraldine. More details of ineptitude came to light: in 1949, children playing in a bombed out site near Rillington Place discovered a human skull, later identified as Muriel Eady’s, and a human leg bone was propping up the garden fence.

John Christie was arrested and confessed to killing the six women found in his former home—and also to killing Beryl Evans. He claimed Beryl was suicidal over her pregnancy. Using a rubber tube connected to the coal jet in the flat, he gassed her with carbon monoxide until she lost consciousness and then strangled her, but he denied killing baby Geraldine. Christie was charged with the murder of his wife, Ethel, and went on trial in June 1953, having pled “guilty but insane.” At his trial, he again testified to being the murderer of Beryl Evans.

Christie’s crimes and confessions naturally led the press and public to wonder if Timothy Evans was an innocent man. An official inquiry by the Home Office was launched on July 6, 1953, but with a grim deadline: Christie had been found guilty and was scheduled to be executed on July 15th, the last surviving resident who could talk about what went on in 10 Rillington Place.

Title page of official inquiry report

As part of the inquiry, Christie was re-interviewed in prison. While he pled he had a hard time recalling the details of anything, much less the murder of six people (“I do not give it another thought, and that is how it has been right the way through”) or whether there were additional, undiscovered victims, he maintained he did not kill baby Geraldine. Whether he was the murderer of Beryl Evans was a point Christie left to investigators’ interpretations, saying he could not recall having killed her—but not denying that he could have done it. Within a week, the inquiry finished its work, concluding there was “no doubt” Timothy Evans was responsible for the deaths of Beryl and Geraldine Evans. John Reginald Christie was hanged at Pentonville Prison on July 15, 1953 by Albert Pierrepoint, the same executioner for Timothy Evans.

But the public was skeptical of the inquiry’s conclusions. What were the odds? How many monsters could have been living at 10 Rillington Place?

Excerpt on the Evans case from the 1957 book Criminal Man, found in HeinOnline’s Criminal Justice & Criminology collection.

Miscarriages of Justice

In 1961, Ludovic Kennedy published Ten Rillington Place, considered to be the definitive account of the Evans-Christie affair. An instant hit upon publication, the book would later be adapted into a 1971 film starring Richard Attenborough and John Hurt. Kennedy’s book eviscerated both Evans’ trial and the 1953 inquiry, arguing that Timothy Evans had told the truth in his second confession. As an uneducated man of below-average intelligence, Timothy had easily been manipulated by John Christie. Timothy’s pathological penchant for lying and the prosecution’s reliance on the testimony of the real murderer formed a fatal combination that had hanged an innocent man, and the inquiry ordained to discover the truth had in reality carried out its work with the purpose of proving no miscarriage of justice had taken place.

As the public devoured Kennedy’s book, attitudes about capital punishment were shifting in Britain, owing, in part, to the execution of Timothy Evans, who many now believed to have been innocent. In 1953, the same year John Christie was executed, 19-year-old Derek Bentley was hanged at Wandsworth Prison for murder. Like Timothy Evans, Derek Bentley was illiterate. In 1952, Bentley and his accomplice, 16-year-old Christopher Craig, attempted to rob a confectionery warehouse when a police officer interrupted the crime. As the officer was arresting Bentley, Bentley is alleged to have shouted to Craig, “Let him have it, Craig.” Craig then shot and killed the police officer. Both men were charged and found guilty of murder, but Craig, being underage, was not eligible for the death penalty, and would only serve ten years in prison. Bentley was hanged. In 1955, 28-year-old Ruth Ellis shot and killed her boyfriend, David Blakely, outside a pub in Hampstead; she was hanged for the crime later that same year. Ellis and Blakely’s relationship was allegedly a “tempestuous affair,” and Ellis testified at her trial that Blakely was physically abusive. Although there was no doubt that Ellis had killed her boyfriend, there were questions about her mental state at the time of the shooting, as well as a general public aversion to executing a woman. It is considered to be the final injustice which caused the British public’s opinion of the death penalty to turn, primed for the shift by the gross unfairness of the Timothy Evans and Derek Bentley cases.

In 1965, Parliament passed the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965, which abolished the death penalty for murder in Great Britain. Originally, the law was to remain in effect on an experimental basis for five years, but it was made permanent in 1969. In 1998, the death penalty was fully abolished in the United Kingdom.

In 1966, Timothy Evans was pardoned after a second inquiry determined that while he had probably killed Beryl, John Christie had murdered Geraldine Evans; since Timothy was never officially tried for the murder of his wife, he received absolution on a technicality. In 2003, after an independent assessment of the case by Lord Brennan QC, the Evans family was granted compensation payments. Lord Brennan’s findings refuted those of the 1966 inquiry and concluded that “the conviction and execution of Timothy Evans for the murder of his child was wrongful and a miscarriage of justice” and “there is no evidence to implicate Timothy Evans in the murder of his wife. She was most probably murdered by Christie.” Further attempts by the family to have Timothy’s murder conviction quashed, however, were unsuccessful.

Excerpt from “Criminal Cases Review Commission: Discretion to Refer Cases” in relation to the Evans case. 69 J. Crim. L. 197, 200. Found in HeinOnline’s Criminal Justice & Criminology Collection


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