Murder at the Nunnery 1948

One of the more exciting stories, gleaned from interviewing Sopwell residents about their early memories, came from Bill Mackenzie of Watling View.

Bill remembers waking up early one December morning in 1948 and looking out of  the landing window – he lived in Cottonmill Crescent then - and seeing police vans over at the stables. The stables were where Nunnery Stables is now. Being a young inquisitive lad he went to have a look. A body was found just outside on the allotment side of the fence.

On checking the microfilm copies of the Herts Advertiser in the library, more was revealed. The body was of Stephen Varley an ex-naval stokerfrom Watford who worked as a shop steward at de Havilland’s in Hatfield.

Varley had dropped his children off at a Xmas party at de Havilland’s before coming to St Albans.

“It was about 8o’clock on Sunday morning (December 19th 1948) that his partly-clothed body was found ….The man who made the tragic discovery was Mr Frederick Howe of 43 Bernard Street (who) has an allotment close to where he found Varley. There were several other gardeners at work when Mr Howe arrived to collect some greens for Sunday dinner."

"Varley, a widower aged 52, who lived at 85 Westfield Avenue, Watford was battered about the face and head. His body had been carried about 100 yds along the footpath from the road and dumped by a wicket fence and in the shadow of the wall of the ruins of the Sopwell Nunnery. There were no signs of a struggle".

The police said that somewhere in St Albans there were two men who could help the police to solve the murder. His partly clothed body was found early on Sunday morning on a footpath which leads from Cottonmill Lane along the fringe of the Nunnery allotments. Chief Inspector Robert Fabian of Scotland Yard’s murder squad made the appeal for the two men who were seen in Varley’s company in Cottonmill Crescent late on Saturday night, to come forward.

The Chief Constable of Hertfordshire ordered a systematic search to be made of the allotments and a dump adjacent to the ruined Sopwell Nunnery. One important discovery was that of Varley’s mud stained shoes on an allotment some distance from where his body lay. But the dead man’s trousers and jacket could not be found.

"For one or two reasons the Chief Constable decided to call in the highest pathological authority available. He sent an urgent request for the services of Dr Keith Simpson, the brilliant Home Office pathologist.”

“There were several reports from people living in the vicinity of Cottonmill Lane, including one from a youth who said they saw late on Saturday night a group of men talking near the River Ver bridge and not far from the main entrance gates to the allotments….Inspector Fabian had definitely established that Varley had been in the company of two men in Cottonmill lane late on Saturday night. They seemed to be assisting him.”

Four hundred gardeners who have allotments in the vicinity were questioned and troops searched the Verulam golf course.

“Inspector “Bob” Fabian of the yard is one of Scotland Yard’s Big 5, the small body of experts who constitute the backbone of the Yard’s murder squad.”

His clothes were never found and the case was never solved.