Ash Vale   A sad murder story of 1952

 Transport undertakings must always face this risk and those who handle money as well as goods offer a double temptation to desperate criminals. It is not surprising, therefore, that from time to time, although happily not so frequently as might be supposed, somebody will make an attempt to rob a railway booking office instead of a bank in the hope, and perhaps in the knowledge, that a considerable sum of ready money will be available. 

There is always a risk in exchanging stolen goods for money, but money itself can be circulated, at any rate in small amounts, without much difficulty. In England and Scotland (but not in Wales so far as the writer is aware) booking clerks have been murdered while resisting an attempt to rob their office.

The Original 1870 Ash Vale Station 

The most recent case occurred at Ash Vale in the Southern region and it was one of the worst of its kind. The booking clerk trusted the murderer because he was a fellow railwayman and lost his life as the result of a savage and unexpected attack.

The British Transport Commission Police played its part in the successful investigation and the writer is happy to introduce the following account of the case by Superintendent John E. Shearing. Mr Shearing, now in charge of the Reading Division of the South Western Area, was formerly an officer of the Great Western Railway Police and has a wide experience of police work, serving in London, Liverpool, Wales and the West Country. He holds the MBE for meritorious service. Below is his own account of the murder at Ash Vale:

In the early part of August 1952, Geoffrey Charles Dean, a young man of 28 years, lived quietly with his wife and small child in the neighbourhood of Ash Vale near Aldershot in the county of Hampshire. He was employed as a booking clerk at Ash Vale railway station, and had been so employed by the Railway for about 15 months. Life for the Deans passed quietly and without undue incident; but on the night of Friday, 22 August 1952, tragedy overwhelmed their little world, for Geoffrey was brutally murdered in the booking office whilst on duty at his station. Dean was stabbed by his assailant 20 times for the sum of £160, which was stolen by the murderer from the office.

The background to the crime was commonplace enough. It appears that the murderer, one John James Alcott, a 23 year old railway fireman from Hither Green Depot, near London, commenced his annual holiday on Monday 18 August 1952, and before leaving home that day, discussed with his wife their proposed holiday in France to start on the following day. When he left home on that Monday morning he told his wife he was going to the depot to collect his holiday pay. He did not, however, return to his home and that was the last his wife saw of him prior to his arrest.

Alcott traveled to the Aldershot/Farnborough area and stayed the night of Monday 18 August, 1952, in a hotel there. One of the first things he did that day was to purchase in Aldershot a dagger type of sheath knife. It can be safely assumed, in the light of subsequent events that he was already planning the murder he committed four days later.

The first time he was seen at Ash Vale station was around 11am on Wednesday 20 August, 1952, when he went to the booking office to enquire the time of the boat trains to Dover from Victoria. According to his own statement later, he spent the night of Wednesday 20 August, 1952, in a shelter at Clapham. However, he arrived at Ash Vale station by train at about 6.30am on Thursday 21 August, when he made some enquiries from the porter on duty concerning a railway lineman. This, no doubt, was merely an excuse to visit the station. At about 7am he was seen in the porter’s room at the station, and was then cleaning his finger nails with the dagger type knife, the sheath of which was lying on the table. This was the knife he had purchased two days before and he told the porter that he had bought it for his young nephew.

On the afternoon of Thursday 21 August, Alcott was again at Ash Vale station, at about 5pm, when he went to the booking office and asked to use the service telephone. He showed the booking clerk (not Geoffrey Dean on this occasion) a railway pass and was given permission to enter the booking office to use the telephone. It appears he rang his depot at Hither Green to enquire after a fireman who had been injured a few days before. He could get no information and told the booking clerk that they were going to ring back. He left the office but returned there at about 7.10pm when he was told that there was no message. He remained talking to the booking clerk until the office closed at 8pm. It was learned afterwards that he had been at the station during the whole afternoon from 5pm onwards, and during a conversation with a porter, had shown him a passport. It would appear that he was watching the movements of the staff, and later remained in the booking office in conversation with the clerk in order to see just how the cash was dealt with. He was first seen at the station on the day of the murder 

(Friday 22 August 1952) at about 6.30pm, when he was again seen in the booking office using the telephone, and later at 7.30pm when booking clerk Dean was on duty.

It was the usual practice at Ash Vale station to close the booking office at 7.45pm and any tickets required after that time were issued from the waiting room on the platform. The office in the normal way was closed at 8pm, but on this day it had been arranged for Dean to work late in order to clear up some outstanding business.

On that fateful Friday, conforming to usual practice, booking clerk Dean handed over the tickets and date stamps to the senior porter at about 7.45pm and he told the porter that although he was closing the office he would be working late on his accounts. Alcott was then in the office and was seen by this porter. The porter was the last person to see Dean alive, except, of course, the murderer.

It seems that Alcott remained in the booking office talking to Dean from that time until the crime was committed at approximately 8.45pm. It was established that about that time a soldier went to the booking office, but found it closed. As he stood there, he heard some shuffling of feet inside the office which he described as like two men larking about in a barrack room, and what he thought was two voices. The soldier rapped on the ticket window (the shutter was closed down) and then saw the notice on the window informing passengers that tickets were issued by the porter on the platform after 8pm. He left and went in search of the porter. He thought no more of this matter until told about the murder early the next morning and after seeing one of his officers reported what he had heard at the station to the police.

The murder was actually discovered at about 8.55pm by a young junior porter employed at the station. He noticed a light was still on in the booking office, and thinking this unusual, he mentioned the fact to another porter. He then climbed on to the outside sill of the booking office window and on peering through, saw the legs of a man lying on the floor in a pool of blood. He also saw that the safe was open. The station master was called and upon his arrival at about 9.20pm he ordered the door of the booking office to be forced open. Upon entering, he saw the body of young Dean lying on the floor, face upwards, covered with blood, and large pools of blood on the floor. The office safe was wide open and on the floor near to the safe was a bunch of keys, some paper bags containing coppers and other articles. The local police at Ash were at once informed, and officers arrived at the station about 9.45pm. In a short time Divisional Superintendent Roberts and other officers, including BTC Police of the South Western Area were on the scene.

Intensive and widespread enquiries were at once set afoot. A waiting room at Ash station was commandeered and a police incident room was set up there. Early the next morning (Saturday, 23 August 1952), GPO engineers connected a special telephone line to the room. One of the lines of enquiry initiated was a systematic check of all hotels, lodging houses etc. in the neighbourhood, including the town of Aldershot. During the Saturday morning two officers visited a house in Victoria Road, Aldershot, the occupier of which was known to occasionally take in lodgers. As a result of this visit, the officers went to a first floor bedroom of the house. On the bed they found a blood-stained jacket, in the pocket of this jacket they discovered, inter alia, a blood-stained wallet containing a British passport and two 10/- treasury notes badly stained with blood. The superintendent in charge of the incident HQ at Ash Vale station was immediately informed and the officers were instructed to remain at the premises and question the owner of the jacket, should he return. At 11.15pm that night, Alcott returned to the room and was arrested. In his pocket was found a roll of treasury notes (£109 l0s.0d.) secured with an elastic band. Alcott said: “That's some of the money,” and made a statement implicating himself in the crime. While awaiting transport to take him to the police station he told the officers that the knife with which he had committed the crime was hidden in the chimney of the room he had occupied. The chimney was searched, and the knife in a leather sheath and a number of railway documents were found there. Alcott had been in Aldershot all the time between the murder and his arrest and during that day had purchased a new sports jacket, a pair of grey flannel trousers and a pair of shoes. These articles had replaced those worn when the crime was committed. The jacket was found at his lodging, the trousers had been hidden in some gorse bushes in the neighbourhood and the shoes had been left at a local shop for repairs. Persistent search and enquiry traced them all.

Apart from his admission, a long chain of evidence was built up and twenty four witnesses, including the soldier, bus conductors, tradesmen etc. were called to give evidence at the trial. Dr Arthur Keith Mant, of the Department of Forensic Medicine, Guy's Hospital, giving evidence on his autopsy of the body, said he found a stab wound behind the right ear which had severed the jugular vein and the lingual artery, nine stab wounds in the back of the chest and seven in the front of the chest, one of which had been done with great violence and had passed through the breast bone and the heart. There were also wounds on the face, in the abdomen, arms and legs.

The director of the Metropolitan Police Laboratory gave evidence that the blood stains on the jacket, trousers and shoes of the accused, on the sheath knife and towel in the booking office were all of the same group ‘O’ as that of the deceased. Also that maroon-coloured fibres found on the knife were similar to the fibres of the pullover which Dean was wearing when he was murdered.

Investigations into the murder were carried out under the direction of Detective Superintendent Roberts of the Surrey Constabulary, with the co-operation of the Hampshire Constabulary, and the BTC Police. Superintendent Roberts, in his report to the Director of Public Prosecutions, stated: “Many of the Hants officers, as well as our own men worked from the early hours of the morning of the 23 August until after midnight on the 24th with very little respite and they all did it willingly, readily doing anything asked of them.”

The same remarks as those made about Hampshire apply also to the British Transport Police. Chief of Police Walter E. Wood and Detective Superintendent John Shearing, Reading Division, attended the scene of the crime and put themselves and other officers at our disposal for any enquiry we wished them to carry out. They also helped us in many ways by getting us proper facilities for office accommodation at the station, etc. Again on the morning of the 23rd, they made themselves available and have since carried out many useful enquiries for us among the railway staff. With their help, and the assistance of the GPO a large waiting room on the station platform was turned into an office and was ready for our use by 8am on the morning of the 23rd and by 10am the GPO had the telephone installed. Although only required for forty eight hours, this proved to be a most useful arrangement, as we were able to make many contacts and interview people right on the spot, which, without the above facilities, would have been very difficult.

The Director of Public Prosecutions also paid a similar tribute in a letter to W. B. Richards, Chief Officer (Police), Railway Executive.

Alcott was duly committed from the Farnborough Magistrates’ Court and stood his trial at the Surrey Assizes held at Kingston on the 18 November 1952. He was tried before Justice Finnemore, found guilty and sentenced to death. His appeal on the grounds of insanity was dismissed, and he met his due on 2 January, 1953. If he had been hanged for a murder he had committed while serving with the Army in Germany, Geoffrey Dean would have been alive today.