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John Straffen

Crime Files
John Straffen

“John Straffen will always be remembered as one of the country's most notorious child murderers” Straffen’s Obituary, The Guardian, 22 November 2007 John Thomas Straffen is born in Borden, Hampshire on 27 February 1930, but as his father is in the armed forces Straffen spends his early years in India. The family return to England in 1938, and decide to settle in Bath. Although at school Straffen is described as being quite affectionate and not aggressive towards other children, it is noted that he is a bit of a loner and resents authority. He is in virtually constant trouble from the age of eight, committing minor thefts and truanting from school. At age 10, his IQ is just 58, way below the average of 100. As a result he is sent to various residential schools called “colonies” which educate juvenile delinquents and children with what we would now call learning difficulties. Straffen is released back into the general population aged 16. A year later Straffen is certified as “feeble-minded” by authorities after he kills five chickens. He is sent to another colony which is located in Almondsbury, north of Bristol. After four years in Almondsbury, Straffen is released on licence. An electro-encephalograph examination carried out by a Bristol hospital reveals that he has "wide and severe damage to the cerebral cortex”. This is the outer area of neural tissue which covers the cerebrum and cerebellum of the brain. It is likely that an attack of encephalitis in India as a child caused this damage. Just days after this diagnosis he would kill for the first time. At his trial, medical witnesses will testify that it is this brain injury that has impaired Straffen’s moral understanding, which contributed to his crimes.

The Aftermath

"It is not the sanity of John Straffen that is in question, but the sanity of the law." Doctor at Straffen’s trial, 1952Although the public are horrified and shocked after Straffen’s escape and the murder of Linda Bowyer, they are equally disgusted at his treatment at court. The widespread reporting of Straffen’s mental age and ability causes many people to question the verdict and the way in which the mentally challenged are treated by the legal system. The government is forced to intervene.Straffen is reprieved by the Home Secretary on the grounds of insanity one month after his trial, on 29 August 1952. This reprieve means that in just one year Straffen has been declared insane, sane and then insane again.When the Criminal Cases Review Commission begins its work in 1997, Straffen submits his own case to them. He was still claiming his innocence for the murder of Linda Bowyer.In 2001, solicitors acting for Straffen call for his case to be reopened, saying that he should never have stood trial, as he has a mental age of nine and a half. Hadgkiss, Hughes & Beale, a Birmingham-based firm, say an eminent forensic psychiatrist has re-examined the original pre-trial reports on Straffen and says he was not fit to have been tried. They claim that because he was declared a "mental defective" in 1947 and committed to a "colony for mental defectives" and as he was found unfit to plead in 1951, he could not have effectively taken part in a trial nine months later. But the case was never reopened.After Straffen's escape from Broadmoor in 1952, a siren system is installed to alert local residents if an inmate was on the loose. The alarm is still tested every Monday morning.When he dies on 19 November 2007, in the healthcare unit at Frankland Prison in County Durham, Straffen is Britain's longest-serving prisoner. He was incarcerated for 56 years.

The Arrest

“She was dead under the hedge when I left her.” John Straffen, when questioned about the murder of Cicely BatstoneStraffen is questioned by the police about the murder of Brenda Goddard, but because of lack of evidence they don’t arrest him. However, there is an eyewitness to the second murder: a policeman’s wife sees Straffen walking with Cicely Batstone and tells her husband, as she thinks it is odd. When the little girl is reported missing the couple go in search of her and discover her body under a hedge, near where the woman saw Straffen with Cicely.On 9 August the police come for Straffen, arresting him for the murder of Cicely. When questioned his statements are muddled and childish, he doesn’t appear to understand that he has killed the child, but says that he had left her dead.“I don’t think that Straffen has a concept of guilt. I think he’s so educationally challenged that he has no concept of right or wrong. He doesn’t have the moral development that would allow one to say he was conscious of guilt or, indeed, innocence. He has no way of marrying up his behaviour to the consequences of his behaviour.” Professor David Wilson, Fred Dinenage: Murder CasebookAfter he is charged with Cicely’s murder he also confesses to killing Brenda, even though there is no evidence to tie him to the case.When Straffen is questioned about the murder of 5-year-old Linda Bowyer a year later he denies killing the little girl on the bicycle, before the police even have a chance to mention why they have come to interview him.Two days later Straffen is charged with murder.

The Crimes

“What would you do if I killed you? I have done it before.” (John Straffen talking to 13-year-old girl who reported to police that a boy called John had assaulted her) The Trial of John Thomas Straffen, Letitia Fairfield and Eric FullbrookOn 15 July 1951, Straffen is walking near Bath, on his usual Sunday outing to the pictures. He comes across 6-year-old Brenda Goddard who is happily collecting flowers not far from her home. Straffen engages her in conversation. Although he is a grown man Straffen has the mental age of a child and so probably doesn't seem threatening to the little girl. They walk together for a while before Straffen takes her into nearby woods and strangles her.A few weeks later, on 8 August 1951, Straffen meets 9-year-old Cicely Batstone at the cinema. As a treat, she has been allowed to see a film called “Tarzan and The Jungle Queen”. Straffen befriends her and persuades her to go with him by bus to another cinema across town. He promises they will see “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon”. But instead he takes her to a field and strangles her.By 1952 Straffen has been locked up in high security psychiatric hospital, Broadmoor, after being found unfit to plead in the case of the murder of the two little girls from Bath. It is assumed that he is no longer a threat to the general public. But at 2.40pm on 29 April 1952, he jumps over the wall and with the alarm ringing all around him he evades the guards and escapes. Two members of staff pursue him on bicycles and he is eventually recaptured four hours later, seven miles away in Arborfield.The timings of Straffen’s escape are crucial because at 10.30pm that evening 5-year-old Linda Bowyer is reported missing in Arborfield. Her body is found the following morning – she has been strangled. The finger of blame is immediately pointed at Straffen and he is charged with his third and final murder.


27 February 1930 John Thomas Straffen is born in Borden, Hampshire1938 The Straffen family return to England from India and settle in Bath1938 Straffen becomes known to authorities and is sent to a special school because of his poor behaviour1947 Straffen is committed to a ‘colony for mental defectives’ at Almondsbury, Somerset1951 Straffen is released on licence15 July 1951 Straffen strangles 6-year-old Brenda Goddard8 August 1951 Straffen murders 9-year-old Cicely BatsoneOctober 1951 Straffen is sent to Broadmoor high security mental hospital

29 April 1952 Straffen escapes from Broadmoor. 5-year-old Linda Bowyer is found strangled25 July 1952 Straffen is found guilty of murder and sentenced to be hanged29 August 1952 Straffen has his death sentence reprieved on the grounds of insanity19 November 2007 Straffen dies as Britain's longest-serving prisoner

The Trial

A "feeble-minded person" Home Secretary Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, on commuting Straffen’s death sentence to life in 1952Straffen is committed for trial for the murders of Brenda and Cicely at Taunton in October 1951 but is considered unfit to plead. The judge, Mr Justice Cassells tells the jury, "In this country we do not try people who are insane. You might as well try a baby in arms."Instead Straffen is found mentally unfit to plead and is sent to Broadmoor. After his escape from Broadmoor and the subsequent murder of 5-year-old Linda Bowyer, Straffen does stand trial. At Winchester Assizes, the prosecution wins the first battle, as it successfully argues that despite the findings of the previous court, he is fit to plead.It is still not a straightforward case. The first jury is discharged when the judge feels their opinion may have been unduly influenced by media coverage of Straffen’s first two murders. Then during the summing up the judge makes an odd comment about witness statements and their accuracy.The jury take less than half an hour to find Straffen guilty and he is sentenced to hang.