John Straffen

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John Straffen
John Thomas Straffen

(1930-02-27)27 February 1930
Died19 November 2007(2007-11-19) (aged 77)
Criminal penaltyDeath (commuted to life imprisonment)
Span of crimes
15 July 1951–29 April 1952
CountryUnited Kingdom
Date apprehended
9 August 1951

John Thomas Straffen (27 February 1930 – 19 November 2007) was an English serial killer who was the longest-serving prisoner in British legal history. Straffen killed two young girls in the summer of 1951. He was found to be unfit to plead and committed to Broadmoor Hospital; during a brief escape in 1952, he killed again. This time, Straffen was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Reprieved because of his mental state, Straffen had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment, and he remained in prison until his death more than 55 years later.

Early life[edit]

John Straffen's father, John Straffen Sr, was a soldier in the British Army. The younger Straffen was the third child in the family; his older sister was regarded as a "high grade mental defective" who died in 1952.[1] Straffen was born at Bordon Camp in Hampshire where his father was then based. When Straffen was two years old, his father was posted abroad, and the family spent six years in India. Returning to Britain in March 1938, Straffen's father took a discharge from the Army, and the family settled in Bath.[1]

In October 1938, Straffen was referred to a child guidance clinic for stealing and truancy. In June 1939, he first came before a juvenile court for stealing a purse from a girl and was given two years probation. His probation officer found that Straffen did not understand the difference between right and wrong, or the meaning of probation.[1] The family was living in crowded lodgings at the time, and Straffen's mother had no time to help, so the probation officer took the boy to a psychiatrist. As a result, Straffen was certified as a mental defective under the Mental Deficiency Act 1927.[2] A report was compiled on him in 1940 which gave his I.Q. as 58 and placed his mental age at six. From June 1940, the local council sent him to a residential school for mentally defective children, St Joseph's School in Sambourne.[3]

Two years later, Straffen moved to Besford Court, a senior school. He was noted as a solitary boy who took correction very badly. At 14 he was suspected of strangling two geese.[3] At the age of 16, the school authorities undertook a review which found his I.Q. was 64 and his mental age was nine years six months, recommending his discharge.[4]

Criminal career[edit]

Straffen returned home to Bath in March 1946, where the Medical Officer of Health examined him and found he still warranted certification under the Mental Deficiency Act. After several short-term jobs, he found a place as a machinist in a clothing factory. Early in 1947, Straffen began to go into unoccupied homes and steal small items to hide them; he never took them home or gave the items to others. Straffen had no friends and began stealing without being enticed by others.[4]

On 27 July 1947, a 13-year-old girl reported to police that a boy called John had assaulted her by putting his hand over her mouth and saying, "What would you do if I killed you? I have done it before." This incident was not connected to Straffen until later. Six weeks later, Straffen was found to have strangled five chickens belonging to the father of a girl with whom he had quarrelled. When arrested, Straffen was also under suspicion for burglary and, in his police interview, cheerfully confessed to it and many other incidents to which he had not been connected. He was remanded in custody and the Medical Officer of Horfield prison examined him, certifying that he was mentally retarded. On 10 October, Straffen was committed to Hortham Colony in Bristol under the Mental Deficiency Act 1913.[5][6]

Hortham was an "open" colony which specialised in training mentally disabled offenders for resettlement in the community. As he had been under investigation for burglary, Straffen's certificate stated that he was "not of violent or dangerous propensities." He was well-behaved at Hortham and kept away from other inmates. As a result, in July 1949, he was transferred to a lower-security agricultural hostel in Winchester. There he did well initially, but fell back into old ways when he stole a bag of walnuts and was sent back to Hortham in February 1950. In August 1950, Straffen got in trouble with Hortham authorities when he went home without leave and resisted the police when they went to recapture him.[7]

Mental health[edit]

In 1951, Straffen was examined at a Bristol hospital, where electroencephalograph readings showed that he had suffered "wide and severe damage to the cerebral cortex, probably from an attack of encephalitis in India before the age of six." By now, however, Straffen was considered sufficiently rehabilitated to be allowed a period of unescorted home leave. He used the time to get a job at a market garden, which he was allowed to keep. Hortham licensed him to the care of his mother, as the family home was less overcrowded. When Straffen's 21st birthday came, under the Mental Deficiency Act, he had to be reassessed by Hortham, which continued his certificate for a further five years; the family disputed the assessment and appealed.[8] As a result, the Medical Officer of Health for Bath examined Straffen again on 10 July 1951 and found improvement in mental age to 10; he recommended that Straffen's certificate be renewed only for six months with a view to discharge at the end.[9]

Child killings[edit]

According to Letitia Fairfield in the introduction to the Notable British Trials series volume about Straffen, he had a "smouldering hatred" and an "intense resentment" of the police and blamed them for all his troubles from the age of eight. On the morning of Straffen's assessment, a young girl named Christine Butcher was murdered. Fairfield speculates that Straffen saw the press coverage that followed and made the connection that strangling young girls gave the maximum amount of trouble to the police.[10]

On 15 July 1951, Straffen went to the cinema, on his own. His route took him past 1 Camden Crescent in Bath, where 5-year-old Brenda Goddard lived with her foster parents. According to Straffen's later statement to the police, he saw Brenda gathering flowers and offered to show her a better place. He lifted Brenda over a fence into a copse, after which she fell and hit her head on a stone. She was unconscious, and he strangled her. Straffen did not make any attempt to hide the body and simply went on to the cinema, viewed the film Shockproof, and returned home.[11]

Although Bath police had not previously suspected Straffen was violent, he was considered a suspect in the murder and interviewed by police on 3 August.[12] Meanwhile, the police had visited his employer to check on his movements; this resulted in Straffen being dismissed on 31 July.[13] In a later interview with a prison psychiatrist, Straffen said that he knew he was under suspicion and wanted to annoy the police, because he hated them for shadowing him.[14]

On 8 August, Straffen was again at the cinema when he met 9-year-old Cicely Batstone. He first took Cicely to a different cinema to see another film and then went on the bus to a meadow known as "Tumps" on the outskirts of Bath. There he strangled her to death.[15] The circumstances of the murder left many witnesses who had seen Straffen with the girl. The bus conductor recognised Straffen as a former workmate, a courting couple in the meadow had seen Straffen very closely, and a policeman's wife had also seen the two together. She mentioned it to her husband; when the alarm was raised the next morning, she guided police to where she had seen the two, and Cicely's body was discovered. Her description of the man was enough to identify Straffen immediately as the suspect.[16]

Arrest and conviction[edit]

Accordingly, the police drove to Straffen's home and arrested him for the murder of Cicely on the morning of 9 August. Straffen made a statement admitting he had killed Cicely and also confessed to the murder of Brenda: "The other girl, I did her the same."[17] He was charged with murder and remanded in custody.[18] On 31 August, after a two-day hearing at Bath Magistrates' Court, a date was set for Straffen's trial for the murder of Brenda.[19]

At Taunton Assize Court, on 17 October 1951, Straffen stood trial for murder before Mr Justice Oliver. However, the only witness to be heard was Dr Peter Parkes, medical officer at Horfield Prison, who testified to Straffen's medical history and stated his conclusion that Straffen was unfit to plead. Oliver commented, "In this country we do not try people who are insane. You might as well try a baby in arms. If a man cannot understand what is going on, he cannot be tried." The jury formally returned a verdict that Straffen was insane and unfit to plead.[20]

Straffen was transferred to Broadmoor hospital in Berkshire. Broadmoor had originally been termed a criminal lunatic asylum, but by the Criminal Justice Act 1948, responsibility for it had been transferred to the Ministry of Health, and those committed to it had been renamed patients.[21] In Broadmoor, Straffen was given a job as a cleaner.

Escape from Broadmoor and murder of Linda Bowyer[edit]

On 29 April 1952, Straffen went with an attendant and another patient to clean some outbuildings that were close to the 10-foot-tall external wall. In a small yard immediately adjacent to the wall was a low shed with a sloping roof that was 8½ feet high at its highest point. In the yard were empty disinfectant tins. Straffen asked his supervisor if he could shake his duster and, on receiving permission, went into the yard. Once the other patient had gone back in, Straffen climbed onto the roof and jumped over the wall. He had already made sure he had his civilian clothes under his work clothes.[22]

Only 20 minutes after escaping, Straffen came up a private drive in Crowthorne and approached Mrs. Doris Spencer, who was in her garden. He asked her for a drink of water, which she gave him and then discussed the proximity of Broadmoor and the likelihood of escapes. He left after 10 minutes.[23] An hour and a half later, he reached Farley Hill, and at about five o'clock, Straffen came to the point where 5-year-old Linda Bowyer was riding her bicycle around the village. Half an hour later, Bowyer was dead.[24]

Straffen then begged a cup of tea from another householder, Mrs Kenyon, who agreed to drive him to a bus stop. As they were drawing up to the stop, Straffen saw some men in uniform and asked whether they were police; on learning that they were, he quickly got out of the car and ran. Kenyon told the men (who were actually Broadmoor nurses) of the suspicious behaviour of her passenger, and Straffen was caught a few minutes later. Driven in the car on the journey back to Broadmoor, Straffen said, "I have finished with crime." Linda's body was found the next morning.[25]

The police went to Broadmoor to interview Straffen at 8am, arriving before news of the disappearance and murder of a local child had reached the hospital. The police went to Straffen's room and woke him up, then asking him what he had done when he was free and whether he had got into mischief. Straffen replied, "I did not kill her." The inspector told Straffen that no-one had suggested anyone had been killed, and Straffen said: "I know what you policemen are, I know I killed two little children but I did not kill the little girl." The inspector then confirmed that a girl had been killed near where Straffen was recaptured. Straffen said, "I did not kill the little girl on the bicycle."[26]

Straffen then made a long statement, which the police checked. On 1 May, Straffen was charged with the murder of Linda, and he appeared at Reading Magistrates' Court the following day. He was remanded in custody, and despite the fact of the order committing him to Broadmoor, the magistrates decided that, since they had failed to hold him, he should be sent to HMP Brixton.[27] Meanwhile, the Ministry of Health called for a full inquiry into how Straffen had escaped.[28] A group of local residents held a meeting on the same evening as Straffen's court appearance to call for some system of public warning of an escape.[29] The Ministry of Health inquiry was extended to a full independent inquiry.[30] A system of warning sirens was set up later in 1952 as a result of the inquiry recommendations.[31]

Bowyer murder trial[edit]

When Straffen's murder trial opened on 21 July, he pleaded not guilty, and the defence opted to leave the question of his sanity as an issue to be determined by the jury. After the prosecution case (led by the Solicitor-General, Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller) had opened and called the first witnesses to establish the facts about the murder of Linda, they applied to call additional evidence about the two murders in Bath. This application was resisted by Straffen's defence as prejudicial, but the judge ruled the evidence admissible.[32]

On the second day, the judge was late into court and explained that "owing to the alleged conduct of one of your members," he was compelled to discharge them and start again with a new jury. It turned out that one of the first set of jurors had gone to a political club in Southsea in the evening and told those present that he was on the jury for the Straffen case, that Straffen was not guilty, and that one of the prosecution witnesses had murdered Linda.[33] The judge required the errant juror, William Gladwin, to remain in court throughout the trial, before calling him to apologise for his "wicked discharge of your duties as a citizen".[34]

The first day's proceedings were repeated before the second jury, followed, as permitted, by evidence of what had happened in Bath. Straffen's defence called several of those who had seen Straffen in earlier years to give evidence of his mental condition. The prosecution then called prison medical officers and psychiatrists to give evidence in rebuttal. Dr. Thomas Munro, who was a specialist in mental deficiency and had seen Straffen, testified that he had said that to murder was wrong because it was breaking the law and because "it is one of the commandments". When Munro asked Straffen to name the other commandments, Straffen could remember only four.[35]

After retiring for just under an hour, the jury returned with a verdict of guilty, which implicitly declared Straffen sane. Mr Justice Cassels sentenced Straffen to death.[36] Straffen appealed, on the grounds that the evidence about the Bath murders was wrongly admitted, and that his statements on the morning after the murder of Linda Bowyer were wrongly admitted because they had been made before he was cautioned. Both grounds of the appeal were dismissed,[37] and Straffen was refused leave to appeal to the House of Lords.[38] 4 September was fixed as the date for execution of judgment of death.[39] However, on 29 August, it was announced that Home Secretary David Maxwell Fyfe had recommended to the Queen that Straffen be reprieved.[40]

Reprieve and prison[edit]

After his reprieve, Straffen was moved to Wandsworth Prison. In November 1952, the Home Office denied a rumour that he was about to be moved to the Rampton mental institution.[41] In 1956, Straffen was moved to Horfield Prison after officers discovered an escape attempt by Wandsworth prisoners who intended to take Straffen with them as a diversion.[42] The news caused extreme concern in Bristol, and a petition demanding his removal was organised by a local councillor and signed by 12,000 people within weeks.[43]

While in Horfield, Straffen was described by former politician Peter Baker, briefly a fellow prisoner, as always being conspicuous when he was exercising, being much taller than anyone else and wearing distinctive clothing for a special watch prisoner. Baker thought the "long, emaciated, miserable figure" looked "like a dying butterfly or a caged animal" and reported rumours that Straffen made application to the governor every month to see if a date had been set for his release.[44] In August 1958, Straffen was moved to Cardiff Prison when the regime at Horfield was changed to a more liberal one.[45] However, he was reported to have been transferred back in June 1960.[46]

A new 28-cell high-security wing at Parkhurst Prison was built and ready for opening early in 1966. The Home Office pointedly did not deny rumours that Straffen had been secretly transferred there on 31 January 1966.[47] He was the first to arrive, and was followed by six of the Great Train robbers.[48]

In May 1968, Straffen was moved to Durham Prison.[49] Placed in the top security E wing, Straffen was joined by fellow child killer Ian Brady. Crime author Jonathan Goodman wrote that "the shambling lunatic [Straffen] .. is in prison only because no mental institution is secure enough to guarantee his confinement".[50] Many years later, a prison officer recalled seeing Straffen "circling, banging the fence every couple of minutes", and that one fellow officer described him as aloof and hostile: "Never talks unless he has to ask for something. Always on his own".[51] Straffen was still at Durham Prison in January 1984 when Kenneth Barlow was released after serving 26 years for murder, at which point he became the longest serving British prisoner.[52]

Sentencing terms[edit]

For most of the time that Straffen was in prison, the Home Secretary had to agree to the release of any life sentence prisoner; no occupant of the office was ever willing to let Straffen out. In 1994, Michael Howard decided to compile a select list of about 20 prisoners serving life sentences who must never be released, and Straffen's name was said to be on it.[53] The whole list was published by the News of the World in December 1997; this report confirmed that Straffen would indeed spend the rest of his life in prison.

In 2001, with the 50th anniversary of Straffen's imprisonment approaching, his solicitors called for his case to be reopened on the grounds that he had not been fit to stand trial.[54] Investigative journalist Bob Woffinden, who examined previously confidential records, uncovered that Straffen had been reprieved after a majority of doctors who examined him found that he was insane.[55] Woffinden also doubted Straffen's guilt in the murder of Linda, because Straffen had no fingernails with which to cause injuries seen on her body and because some local witnesses placed the time of the murder after his recapture.[56] However, Straffen's application to the Criminal Cases Review Commission was turned down in December 2002.[57]

In May 2002, the European Court of Human Rights decided a case brought by a life sentence prisoner which challenged the authority of the Home Secretary to refuse to release him after the Parole Board recommended he be freed. The court decided that politicians should not interfere in life sentences and therefore current practice was unlawful. It was immediately noted that this meant an opportunity for release for Straffen,[58] who had been in Long Lartin Prison since 2000.


Straffen died at Frankland Prison in County Durham on 19 November 2007 at the age of 77. He had been in prison for a British record of 55 years.[59] Ian Brady, who had been in prison since October 1965 and was then in Ashworth Hospital, became Britain's longest-serving prisoner until his own death ten years later.[60]


  1. ^ a b c Fairfield & Fullbrook 1954, p. 2
  2. ^ Fairfield & Fullbrook 1954, pp. 2–3
  3. ^ a b Fairfield & Fullbrook 1954, p. 4
  4. ^ a b Fairfield & Fullbrook 1954, p. 5
  5. ^ Fairfield & Fullbrook 1954, p. 6
  6. ^
  7. ^ Fairfield & Fullbrook 1954, pp. 6–7
  8. ^ Fairfield & Fullbrook 1954, p. 7
  9. ^ Fairfield & Fullbrook 1954, pp. 7–8
  10. ^ Fairfield & Fullbrook 1954, pp. 8–9
  11. ^ Fairfield & Fullbrook 1954, p. 9
  12. ^ "The Trial of John Thomas Straffen", edited by Letitia Fairfield, C.B.E., M.D., and Eric P. Fullbrook (William Hodge, 1954), p. 124 (Evidence of Thomas James Coles).
  13. ^ "The Trial of John Thomas Straffen", edited by Letitia Fairfield, C.B.E., M.D., and Eric P. Fullbrook (William Hodge, 1954), p. 10.
  14. ^ "The Trial of John Thomas Straffen", edited by Letitia Fairfield, C.B.E., M.D., and Eric P. Fullbrook (William Hodge, 1954), p. 168-169 (Evidence of Dr Alexander Leitch).
  15. ^ Fairfield & Fullbrook 1954, p. 10
  16. ^ Fairfield & Fullbrook 1954, pp. 10–11
  17. ^ "The Trial of John Thomas Straffen", edited by Letitia Fairfield, C.B.E., M.D., and Eric P. Fullbrook (William Hodge, 1954), p. 132-133 (Evidence of Albert Foster; statement of John Thomas Straffen).
  18. ^ "Man Charged With Girl's Murder", The Times, 11 August 1951, p. 3.
  19. ^ "Alleged Murder Of Two Girls", The Times, 1 September 1951, p. 3. English law at the time did not permit an indictment for more than a single charge of murder.
  20. ^ "Labourer Found Unfit To Plead", The Times, 18 October 1951, p. 3.
  21. ^ "Report of the Broadmoor Enquiry Committee" (Cmd 8594), paragraph 4.
  22. ^ Fairfield & Fullbrook 1954, pp. 12–13
  23. ^ "The Trial of John Thomas Straffen", edited by Letitia Fairfield, CBE, MD and Eric P. Fullbrook (William Hodge, 1954), p. 90 (Evidence of Mrs Doris Evelyn Spencer).
  24. ^ "The Trial of John Thomas Straffen", edited by Letitia Fairfield, CBE, MD and Eric P. Fullbrook (William Hodge, 1954), p. 13-14.
  25. ^ "The Trial of John Thomas Straffen", edited by Letitia Fairfield, CBE, MD and Eric P. Fullbrook (William Hodge, 1954), pp. 14–15.
  26. ^ Fairfield & Fullbrook 1954, p. 15
  27. ^ Fairfield & Fullbrook 1954, pp. 16–17
  28. ^ "Inquiry Into Escape From Broadmoor", The Times, 1 May 1952, p. 6.
  29. ^ "Protest Meeting Near Broadmoor", The Times, 3 May 1952, p. 6.
  30. ^ "Further Inquiry On Broadmoor", The Times, 7 May 1952, p. 6.
  31. ^ "Security Measures At Broadmoor", The Times, 17 October 1952, p. 6.
  32. ^ Fairfield & Fullbrook 1954, pp. 19–20
  33. ^ Fairfield & Fullbrook 1954, p. 21
  34. ^ "Straffen Guilty Of Murder", The Times, 26 July 1952.
  35. ^ "The Trial of John Thomas Straffen", edited by Letitia Fairfield, CBE, MD and Eric P. Fullbrook (William Hodge, 1954), p. 204-205 (Evidence of Dr Thomas Arthur Howard Munro).
  36. ^ "The Trial of John Thomas Straffen", edited by Letitia Fairfield, CBE, MD and Eric P. Fullbrook (William Hodge, 1954), p. 263.
  37. ^ "The Trial of John Thomas Straffen", edited by Letitia Fairfield, CBE, MD, and Eric P. Fullbrook (William Hodge, 1954), p. 264-273.
  38. ^ "Straffen Refused House of Lords Appeal", The Times, 27 August 1952, p. 4.
  39. ^ The Times, 28 August 1952, p. 2.
  40. ^ "Reprieve Recommended for Straffen", The Times, 30 August 1952, p. 4.
  41. ^ "Straffen 'Unlikely to be Moved'", The Times, 3 November 1952, p. 4.
  42. ^ "Parliament", The Times, 20 April 1956, p. 4.
  43. ^ "Film Protests On Straffen Denied", The Times, 25 May 1956, p. 10.
  44. ^ Peter Baker, "Time Out of Life", Heinemann, 1961, p. 188.
  45. ^ "Straffen Transferred", The Times, 25 August 1958, p. 3.
  46. ^ "Straffen Transferred Report", The Times, 7 June 1960, p. 10.
  47. ^ "Straffen Transferred?", The Times, 2 February 1966, p. 12.
  48. ^ "Train Robbers Have A Car Each In Transfer", The Times, 5 February 1966, p. 8.
  49. ^ "Straffen moved", The Times, 23 May 1968, p. 1.
  50. ^ "The Trial of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley", ed. by Jonathan Goodman (Celebrated Trials Series, David & Charles, 1973), p. 40.
  51. ^ Mitya Underwood, "Lifting the lid on my prison life", Evening Chronicle, 6 August 2007, p. 22.
  52. ^ "Man to be freed after 26 years", The Times, 31 December 1983, p. 2.
  53. ^ Sunday Telegraph, 3 April 1994.
  54. ^ "Killer jail review", Birmingham Mail, 26 May 2001, p. 9.
  55. ^ Bob Woffinden, "Historic murder case may reopen: Uncovered records could liberate UK's longest serving prisoner", The Guardian, 26 May 2001, p. 14.
  56. ^ Bob Woffinden, "Insane, guilty or neither?", The Guardian Weekend Section, 26 May 2001, p. 34.
  57. ^ "Child-Killer To Die In Prison", Western Daily Press, 3 December 2002.
  58. ^ Dan McDougall, Arthur MacMillan, "Human Rights court rules government must not interfere in life sentences", Scotsman, 29 May 2002, p. 5.
  59. ^ Stratton, Allegra (19 November 2007), "Longest-serving UK prisoner dies, aged 77", The Guardian, London, retrieved 19 November 2007
  60. ^ Yakub Qureshi, "Final farewell for Moors murder victim Keith Bennett", Manchester Evening News, 4 March 2010.


  • Fairfield, Letitia; Fullbrook, Eric P., eds. (1954), The Trial of John Thomas Straffen, London: William Hodge, OCLC 222592555.

External links[edit]

  • Case details - Examines the possibility that Straffen was not guilty of the third murder