The Crumbles beach

The Crumbles beach

‘Mum, can I go on holiday to Eastbourne, please. Only for a week’.

‘But Irene, you’re only 17’.

‘Yes, but you let me go to Brighton on my own last year. I’ll find some digs with a nice landlady, I’ll be fine, honest.’

‘Irene, it’s 1920, there are some bad people about’.

‘Mother, there were no bad people last year, please, let me go.’

Irene Munro

Irene Munro

The next time Irene’s mother saw her, she was on a mortuary slab, having to identify her. Irene caught the train from London’s Victoria to Eastbourne, then carried her case to the waiting bus stop. It was August, lodgings were not easy to find, but she hit lucky when knocking on the door at 393 Seaside.

Mrs Wynniatt ‘you can have the room for thirty shillings for the week, no gentlemen visitors, no smoking in the room, only in the lounge, dinner is at six sharp, breakfast eight o’clock. Bathroom is on the top floor.’

The first day Irene went for a half hour walk on her own to the beach at the Crumbles, where she sat and watched fascinated as a seaplane landed, collected some passengers, then took off again. Maybe it was here that she met two men. Possibly still alone, she walked to nearby Pevensey Bay, a small hamlet of some fishing cottages off the main road. She walked a mile so she could catch the train back into Eastbourne, where she wandered around the town.

The Crumbles railway lines

The Crumbles railway lines

The next day Irene walked in the opposite direction, to the 600ft cliffs of Beachy Head. She would have walked on the seafront promenade, past the Victorian pier and bandstand, a fit teenage young lady thinking little of the steady climb to the top, with superb views towards France, some thirty miles away. There would still be traces of the troops stationed there during the recent world war, also interesting to an impressionable young lady.

After breakfast on Thursday, Irene was seen in the company of two men walking towards the Crumbles again, maybe in the hopes of seeing the aeroplane again. The area was mainly uninhabited, just a few cottages, some holiday rented, but there were five men employed at ballast workings. That night, Irene failed to return to her lodgings.

‘I’m ever so worried about young Irene’, said Mrs. Wynniatt to her husband that night.

‘Oh, she’ll be allright, maybe she’s visiting some relatives in Brighton.’

Eastbournes old police station

Eastbournes old police station

Friday two things occurred. First, 13 year old William Weller and his mum were on the Crumbles beach, he was looking for interesting buried items, when he uncovered the foot of a woman’s body. There was no-one around, so they quickly returned to their lodgings, the landlady’s husband returned to the beach with them, then William was despatched to the police station, at least a mile away.

Second, Mrs. Wynniatt reported Irene missing. She and her husband were informed that a body had been found, would they formally identify, despite severe head injuries. That was something they would remember for the rest of their lives. Irene’s mother and aunt were notified, they came to the mortuary.

The five ballast workers were also requested to identify Irene as they had seen her in the company of two men at the beach. Nine people over two days trooped into the mortuary, there could not possibly be any doubt. Scotland Yard were notified, Chief Inspector Mercer was in charge, ruling out the workers but suspicion immediately on the two men who had been on the beach with her. By Tuesday they had been identified as local men 28 year old William Thomas Gray, and 20 year old Jack Alfred Field, who was known to the police, and already discharged from the navy.

They always had money for beer and cinema, as well as casual flirtations, despite no employment. Both Field and Gray told police the same story. ‘It wasn’t me. We was together the whole day with our friend Maud.’ Maud could not corroborate, as she was a servant in a large house, her colleagues on interview saying that she had been at work all day. Maud was vehement in her denial as well, she could not have been present during that fateful Thursday.

Wandsworth prison

Wandsworth prison

Chief Inspector Mercer had to release Field and Gray, but then further witnesses attested that they had seen the three together on the Crumbles beach. Both men attempted to enlist in the army, were rejected, then arrested and held at Maidstone jail. The younger Gray while on remand tried to persuade a cellmate to provide him with an alibi, which came out at the subsequent five day trial that commenced at County Hall, Lewes, in December. The proceedings gained much publicity, aided by the defence being funded by the popular magazine John Bull. The verdict was guilty.

At the subsequent appeal, each blamed the other, each claiming they were not present when the murder occurred. Each appeal was rejected. 4th February 1921 each man was hung at Wandsworth prison.

The truth was never known. Who murdered young Irene? Very likely both, as they were equally culpable. Three lives lost due to the loneliness of a young, vulnerable lady enjoying her attempt at discovering life.