The Automobile Murder
Alfred Rouse was a respectable looking chap, with his smart suit and tie, neat, brilliantined hair and short moustache, and that Irish gleam in his eye that the women found strangely alluring. The circumstances which led to his conviction of the murder of an unknown man are curious, and chilling.
In the early hours of November 6th 1930, two young men returning from Northampton town to their home in the nearby village of Hardingstone saw a fire in the distance. A man approaching them from the direction of the fire observed that ‘somebody must be lighting a bonfire’. As it had just been Bonfire Night this was not unusual in itself, but the hour was. Curious, the two men went to investigate and discovered the fire was coming from a motor vehicle that was ablaze – and it looked like there was somebody inside.
In the morning, when the fire had burnt itself out, they returned to discover, amid the blackened shell of the automobile, a body charred beyond recognition.
The authorities were notified, and soon Police Constables were on the scene, taking statements from the witnesses, and holding back the gathering crowd of onlookers. In the days that followed there was endless local speculation about what the disturbing incident had involved. The local newspaper reported on the event, stating that the licence plate identified the car as belonging to an Alfred Arthur Rouse, a travelling salesman from North London.
Yet, an astonishing turn of events followed.
Rouse had appeared in London a day later, a slight limp in his left knee. He had not come back from the grave, but from Wales, where he had fled the scene of the crime to one of his girlfriends (more details of which were to be revealed). He handed himself in.
He was arrested and confessed to the murder.
Sitting on a hard chair in a cold room, looking unshaven and dishevelled in a crumpled suit, Rouse made his statement.
A First World War veteran, convalescing from serious injuries to his head and leg, Rouse received a war pension, until an examiner cut his hard-won entitlement significantly. By this time, in the early Twenties, he had already found work. He became a salesman, and would prove to be an amazingly good one up until the last few months before his crime. At a time when the jobless queued for soup and went on hunger marches, Rouse managed to make enough money for a house with his legal wife, (whom he had married just before going off to training, in 1915), as well as owning a car – his pride and joy it was: a 1929 Morris Minor. He had done exceptionally well for himself – tootling along the lanes of England, singing in his baritone voice, checking his hair and tie in the rear-view mirror, practising his winning smile. An observant person might notice a tell-tale scar on his left temple. He never could wear a hat – it irritated him, and, when annoyed, his hand reached up involuntarily to the old war wound, which sometimes gave him headaches, sometimes even bad dreams.
Because of his war injury, he explained, he suffered from poor memory … but slowly, the ‘facts’ emerged.
Calmly, Rouse explained that the man in the car was responsible for the explosion that killed him. ‘He was to blame – a bloody nobody he was. While look at me, a successful salesman with my harem.’ He laughed loudly.
The person writing the statement, raised an eyebrow at this, briefly pausing. The investigators cast each other a wry smile, and encouraged him to explain.
‘Well, between you and me then…’ Rouse carried on, unaware that everything he said would be reported in the Press. Because he was on the road so much Rouse had plenty of time to go out and meet and entertain various women – ‘his harem?’ Yes. At least two would get pregnant from the experience of knowing him. Rouse had already had a child support order imposed on him (‘I don’t fire blanks!’). He also knew of a second coming up. Also there was another woman expecting him to marry her (they were “engaged”, he laughed, as though the investigators would get the joke). They didn’t smile back.
Rouse ran a finger along the inside of his collar, gulping. He asked for some water.
A glass was placed in front of him. With a shaking hand, he took a sip.
‘Buns in the oven, left right and centre. Harridans baying for my blood. Things were getting a bit too hot for my liking. Don’t you see? I had to disappear.’
Rouse mumbled something about a spy novel he’d read, The “W” Plan or something – a clever little plot involving substituting a corpse in a burning car. Guy Fawkes’ Night seemed like the ideal time. ‘Ingenius, hey? Bloody mastermind, me. One more pyre wouldn’t be noticed. The plan couldn’t go wrong.’ He laughed hard. ‘All a needed was my Guy…’
Rouse had picked up the victim during a ride to Leicester. ‘Some bum, thumbing a lift. A scrounger, expecting handouts from life. Look at me, I said to him. I’m no skiver. I’ve earnt every penny. This car. This suit. A man women like to know. A self-made man, I am. While, you – I thought to myself – you are just somebody who nobody would miss.’
The journey passed amicably enough, Rouse explained. The man was absurdly grateful for a lift. He’d heard about some work. A cousin or some such. But some people are born unlucky, aren’t they? You could see ‘loser’ written all over him.
‘I pulled up in a backlane of Hardingstone. Checked the oil. Said I needed to go for a shit, ‘scuse my French. The cheeky git asked for a ciggie. Sure, I said. Help yourself. I tossed him the packet. And here’s some matches. And off I went. I walked away from the car. Suddenly, there was a flash of light – lit the whole bloody sky up like a night-flare. I turned to see my beloved Morris Minor burst into flame.’
Rouse stood trial in Northampton in January 1931, and was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death.
An expert on automobiles who studied the remains of the Morris Minor, and found somebody had forcefully turned a nut and screw to allow petrol to flow into the motor.
On Tuesday, March 10th 1931, Rouse was hanged in Bedford Gaol. He confessed to the crime shortly before the execution, the first automobile murder in Great Britain.
Notes: Hardingstone was the village at the edge of my world, when growing up in Far Cotton. It was over the other side of the ‘spinney’ – the woods that lined the southern edge of the Delapré estate. I recall them carving out the Nene Valley Way, the dual carriageway, between Delapré and Hardingstone – the landscape was severed, and joined – for the pedestrian by only a narrow footbridge. Hardingstone itself is charming, picturesque village – set back from the noisy traffic which streams by it, night and day. In May 2012, it was reported that the family of a long-lost Williams Briggs were seeking to determine if he was Rouse’s victim. Briggs disappeared without a trace in 1930 after leaving his home in London for a doctor’s appointment
Copyright Kevan Manwaring 2013
***Northamptonshire Folk Tales by Kevan Manwaring, The History Press, published October 2013***
Take a walk through this county in the heart of England in the entertaining company of a local storyteller. Kevan Manwaring, born and raised in Northampton, regales you with tales ancient and modern. Learn how the farmer outwitted the bogle; how a Queen who lost her head; the Great Fire of Northampton; and the last execution of witches in England. Along the way you will meet incredible characters from history and myth: Boudicca, St Patrick, Robin Hood and Hereward the Wake, Captain Slash, Dionysia the female knight, beasts and angels, cobblers and kings. From fairies to wolves, these illustrated tales are ideal to be read out loud or used as a source book for your own performances.
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