The Unsolved Murder of Ernest Melville

MY HAPPINESS- 1949

Post war Swansea provided plenty of exciting opportunities for the children at play. There were ruins and bomb sites to explore.  But on Saturday 22 January 1949 two girls playing hide and seek on Croft Street at the top of High Street made a gruesome discovery – the body of a man who had been so brutally assaulted that initially it proved almost impossible to identify him.

The body was found on a bomb site next to Dyfatty Park on Croft Street. It was next to a disused Air raid Shelter. It was the body of  Ernest Clifford Melville. He was 38 years old and worked as a chainman in the Borough Surveyors Department of the Swansea Corporation. He was identified by his smashed wrist watch. He had died, perhaps, around midnight.

He had been battered with bricks. There were severe injuries to the head, involving fractures of the skull, nose and jaw. His scalp had been split. His face was unrecognisable. His trousers had been ripped down the inside seams and the fly buttons were undone. He had been gripped by the scrotum which had been crushed and then gripped by the throat.

No weapon was found but in truth the building site was littered with them. There was hair from his head stuck to one stone but it had rained heavily in the night after he was killed and that washed away some of the evidence.

There was still blood splattered on the walls of the adjoining school about 2 feet off the ground which suggested to the police that he had been hit whilst stooped over. His upper denture was lying by the side of the wall where it had landed.

Robbery was not the motive, for money was found in his pockets.

A neighbour, Mary Lane of Croft Street, heard noises coming from the bomb site just after midnight. She heard thuds she said, as if stones were being thrown. She thought it best not to investigate.

A horrific attack and a vicious murder. And yet throughout the whole investigation there was a sense that Ernest couldn’t really have expected anything different. Because Ernest was a homosexual, and for some at that time, his fate was really a consequence of what they regarded as a sleazy lifestyle choice. He was, as they say,  asking for it

He was described as a weak girlish individual who performed menial duties at home. He was of slight build – about 5ft 5ins tall and the youngest of 6 children. He still lived with his parents in Watkin Street. The family doctor regarded him as effeminate and neurotic. He was cheerful enough though, and happy in the company of others. However, Ernest was known to the police. On 15 December 1945 he was arrested in an act of gross indecency with another male in a shop doorway. He seemed to approach strange men indiscriminately and was frequently seen in doorways and around public lavatories. He had previously been beaten up by two sailors he approached in Castle Street. As far as the police were concerned, he didn’t seem to have learned from any of these experiences.

Ernest had been seen originally in the Palace Bar opposite the theatre on High Street. The barmaid, Elizabeth Brooks, remembered him deep in conversation with a tall man in a trench coat. He might have left in the company of two men in sailors’ uniforms.  He himself was not particularly well dressed. The police file says that this was to preserve his better clothing from the consequences of unpleasant associations. His trousers had upon them a number of old semen stains.

He had certainly ended up drinking in the Full Moon, as he often did. At one point he seemed to be in deep conversation with a man in a raincoat. As the evening wore on Ernest played the piano for a sing-song – his last tune was My Happiness. He left, perhaps with others, though no one was sure, at about 10.00pm. Everyone agreed that he was drunk. No one else ever admitted to seeing him alive after that.

Lewis Melville his father said he left at about 7.00 pm on Friday night as was his custom. He usually returned at 11.00 pm. Lewis was anxious when he didn’t come home and eventually went to the police station at 5.30 am to make sure he wasn’t there. Given his life style it wouldn’t have been a surprise if he was once more helping the police with their enquiries. Lewis wondered if he had been to a party and then gone straight to work. Still anxious, went back to the police at midday.

The police found themselves entering a fog. Nothing was clear. They were convinced about what had caused his death – his lifestyle. The Metropolitan Police file in the National Archive is quite clear about this – and takes a lofty moral tone about the circumstances surrounding the murder. They describe a friend of Ernest as a pervert associate named Robert Trick.

Spooner and Harrow came down from Scotland Yard. They asked people to come forward  but of course they were reluctant to do so. It wasn’t just the murder, but the fact that he followed a forbidden and dangerous lifestyle. The police wanted information about his movements and companions. The press were convinced that he had a “Little Black Book” of names and addresses, that would offer thrilling insights into a sordid secret world and quite possibly implicate someone well known.   But he hadn’t. There were no leads, no evidence.

The police tried painstakingly to piece together his last movements. They managed to track down most of the people who had been in the Full Moon that evening, which was an achievement in itself but entirely unproductive.  It was hard to filter out any significant events or encounters in a busy pub. There was a suggestion that he had offended the landlord, Jack Botto, by making an improper suggestion to the landlord’s son. Spooner and Harrow anticipated that Botto would be a helpful witness but were sadly disappointed.

He remembered nothing, is obviously not rational and it was generally found impossible to hold a coherent conversation with him.

They wanted to believe that the murderer was being protected. But perhaps it was worse than that. Perhaps he had merely slipped away and perhaps he had done it before and would do it again. Perhaps it wasn’t one angry man acting alone. Perhaps it was two.

Stories kept emerging  but there were no real leads. It was a painstaking investigation but one which never really seemed to be going anywhere.

A lot of police time was taken up with trying to trace all the sailors who could possibly have been in Swansea that night. The Scotland Yard file is full telegrams and subsequent interviews across the country as ships docked during the following weeks.

But nothing came of any of it. A succession of denials alibis and impossibilities. There was a Displaced Persons Camp of some 400 men in Morriston and they spent some time there but there was no progress. Anonymous letters were sent to the police, as they always were. One indeed came from Motherwell. And there were rumours. But no developments. The murderer seemed to slip away.
Ernest had been seen in the company of two seamen in High Street on Thursday night at 10.40 pm. Had an assignation been planned? Two seamen were also seen opposite the railway station in the early hours. Were they the same ones?

No one could say and slowly the investigation ground to a halt. The file in the Archive is very large and very detailed. But there is no conclusion, and perhaps now there never will be.

I always regretted that the story of poor Ernest never made it into my book Swansea Murders. The publishers shifted the cut-off date for the book to 1946 and the story of his unsolved murder was removed, so you won’t find it there. However there are 25 other cases in the book – surprising , unexpected and baffling.
In response to demand, I received newly printed copies of Swansea Murders and there are still some available.
If you would like to find out more about the book, then chose Swansea Murders in the menu or click on this link and you will be taken there where you can find more details,
Or if you would like to buy one from the website (and at £11.50 it is currently cheaper than it is on Amazon) then you need to find the How to Buy page in the menu, or click here and the page will open in a new window.

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2 Comments

  1. Ide really recommend buying this book ‘Swansea murders’to anyone.. I really enjoyed reading it,, my husband had a week of peace,, love reading all these extra stories on here too—keep it up please ❤️ x

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