Meeting with an Axe Murderer

This is a tragic tale however you look at it. In 1966 I moved to Burnham in Buckinghamshire to work as a software engineer for Wyeth Pharmaceuticals. I lodged with a couple whose names I forget, so I’ll call them Edith and Bill.

They treated me as their son. My immediate predecessor, a PhD graduate, suffered a nervous breakdown. I like to think my more stable personality was a pleasant change for them. However, another predecessor is the subject of this tale. I’ll call him Alan.

Alan was a merchant seaman, based in Southampton on the English south coast. His wife developed leukemia, and after initial treatment in Southampton was transferred to Stoke Mandeville Hospital, about 160km away. Alan took a land-based job so that he could travel to see her each weekend. His mode of transport was a bicycle. Even allowing for an early start, that was a long journey to cover in a day, so he split it into two, staying with Bill and Edith overnight Friday. On the Saturday morning he cycled to the hospital.

After a few months, his wife died. There was no longer a need for him to stay with Edith and Bill, but they remained in touch.

He went back to sea and on one of his shore leaves met a vivacious woman, whom I’ll call Vivien. She was what we might today call a party girl and helped Alan overcome his grieving. They married and she moved in with him, taking over responsibility for Alan’s young daughter from his mother.

On a subsequent shore leave, he was tipped off by a friend that Vivien was seen at various parties and dances sharing her affections with different men. Alan confronted her, but instead of showing any remorse, she defiantly stated she needed to have some fun during the many weeks he was away. He also found that their bank balance was far lower than expected, and on inspecting her wardrobe he found masses of clothes, shoes, and handbags. He was livid.

That night, unable to sleep, he rose from their bed, went out into the backyard and grabbed an axe. He took it upstairs and hacked Vivien to death.

In the morning, he got his daughter ready for school, dropped her off at his mother’s house, and drove to the police station to hand himself in.

On his fortieth birthday he was given a life sentence for murder. “Life begins at 40,” he cheerfully told us when we visited him in Maidstone Prison.

I twice drove Edith and Bill to see him. He was always cheerful and well turned out. I had the impression he was fastidious in his habits. He would point out other prisoners who we might have read about, the most famous being John Vassals, the homosexual Admiralty spy who gave the Russians invaluable naval secrets. He was surrounded by a dozen male visitors and other prisoners.

I’m happy to say that’s the closest I’ve been to being in a working prison.