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Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Rape
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: February 10, 1918
Date of birth: 1897
Victim profile: Nellie Trew (female, 16)
Method of murder: Strangulation
Location: Eltham, London, England, United Kingdom
Status: Sentenced to death, 1918. Commuted to life in prison. Released in 1933

On 9 February 16 year old Nellie Trew was reported missing by her father. Nellie was a junior clerk and had left home that evening to go to Plumstead Library but had not come back. The next morning her body was found on Eltham Common. She had been raped and then strangled. The area was cordoned off and a search was carried out. They found a badge of the Leicestershire Regiment (a tiger) and a bone overcoat button. The two had been threaded together through two holes with a piece of wire.

The newspapers the following day all carried pictures of the badge and button in the hope that someone would recognise them. At Hewson Manufacturing Company, one of the workers, Ted Farrell drew the attention of the badge to his workmate, he thought it looked just like the one he had seen David Greenwood wearing in his lapel of his overcoat. Farrell knew 21 year old Greenwood did not have it any more. David Greenwood told Farrell that he had sold the badge for two shillings to a man he had met on a tram. Farrell suggested to Greenwood that he ought to go to the police to clear up the matter.

At lunchtime Greenwood went to Tottenham Court Road police station and gave them a statement. The police soon discovered during their investigations that Greenwood had once been a neighbour of Nellie at Well Hall, where she lived.

The next day detectives visited Greenwood at his work and showed him the badge which he admitted was his. They then asked him to accompany them back to Scotland Yard. On the way Inspector Carlin noticed that Greenwood's coat had no buttons on it. When he took a closer look he noticed that there was a tear where one of the buttons had come out.

Even though by this time the police were quite certain that they had already got their man they still lacked any hard evidence linking Greenwood to the murder. It was later found that the wire that had been found fixed to the button came from part of a spring of a type used at Hewson's. Even this was not all that surprising as he did work there and had not denied owning the badge. One area on which there did seem to be some confusion was that Greenwood maintained that he had got rid of the button and badge a long time ago but his workmates disagreed with this.

Greenwood's trial opened at the Old Bailey on 24 April 1918. The jury took three hours to find him guilty but they added a recommendation for mercy. He was, however, sentenced to death. He appealed and was reprieved on the eve of his execution, 31 May, with his sentence being altered to penal servitude for life. He was released in 1933 at the age of thirty-six.



The Eltham Common Murder

By Francis Carlin (late Superintendent at Scotland Yard)

To vary a modern proverb, an ounce of fact is worth a ton of generalisation ; and so to illustrate the inner workings of that grim and practical building, New Scotland Yard, which lies between Whitehall and the Thames Embankment, let me give you, in a manner never previously made public, the means by which I brought into the dock at the Old Bailey, David Greenwood, who was sentenced to death for the wilful murder of Nellie Trew, a sixteen-year-old girl employed at Woolwich Arsenal, on Eltham Common in February, 1918.

The facts of the Eltham murder as they confronted the police were briefly these.

Nellie Trew was a rather attractive, well-built young girl who lived with her parents at Eltham near Woolwich, and she was employed on clerical work at the Arsenal.

On the night of February 9th, 1918, she had gone to walk across Eltham Common and she was never seen alive again. The discovery of her dead body was made next morning, and the medical evidence showed that she had been outraged and strangled. No person had seen anyone with her and there was a total absence of any clues which would lead to the identification of the likely murderer.

Investigations as to the girl's habits, and any companions she had, brought the police no nearer a solution to the mystery. But there had been two things found on the ground beside the body and it was on the use to which I put those two things that David Greenwood, a twenty-one year old discharged soldier, who was then employed as a turner, was sentenced to death for the crime.

The two articles were a badge of the Leicestershire Regiment, and an ordinary coat button, to which was attached a small piece of wire.

Assistance from Scotland Yard had been applied for, and I went down to Woolwich to take over the reins of the case, on which Inspector Brown, who has now succeeded me on the Big Four on my retirement, worked with me.

I came on the scene of the crime four or five days after it had been committed, and the first thing I did was to have photographs made of the badge and the button. From this point onwards you are coming in nry company, as it were, to follow every step I took in finding the unknown murderer of the girl Trew.

I sent those photos immediately to the Press, with the request that every paper in Britain would publish them and ask their readers to come forward should they identify either button or badge as belonging to anyone they knew.

Within a short time a telephone message came to me at the Yard from Tottenham Court Road Police Station, saying that a man had called that morning and had said that he had seen the photo in a newspaper.

He stated further that the badge had belonged to him, but that he had sold it to a man on board a tram travelling between Wellhall and Eltham. His statement had been taken down with his name and address but he had not been detained.

I immediately asked Inspector Brown to go to the factory where this man worked and to bring him to my room at Scotland Yard, and within a couple of hours or so Inspector Brown arrived and with him a tall, thin youth.

I was seated at my desk and the door having been closed, the young man, who was David Greenwood, came forward and stood in front of me. On my desk lying quite openly were the badge and the button.

I examined Greenwood's face closely and then my eyes ran over his clothing. And I saw that his overcoat hung open and that there was not a single button on it. Where buttons should have been threads were sticking out except in one place ! That place was where the top button should have been and instead of the tags of thread there was a large hole as if the button which had been there had been very forcibly torn off.

I rose from my desk, picked up the button which had been found beside the body of Nellie Trew, and walking over to Greenwood, I took his coat and applied the button to the large hole at the top. It fitted, if one can use the expression here, exactly I

I said nothing and asked him no questions, but I told him to wait in another room and I gave instructions that he should be closely guarded, although of course he was not technically in custody.

Now I must digress for a moment here to impress one thing on my readers. I can hear some of you say that I had already got clear and ample proof that I had found the murderer.

From the C.I.D. point of view, I had nothing of the kind. To have charged Greenwood and put him up for the murder with no more evidence than that would have meant for a certainty that he would have been discharged.

For you must remember that the burden of proof always lies on the Crown, and that, especially where a man's life is at stake, there must not be a single weak link in the chain of evidence, or it will inevitably break when it comes to be submitted to a jury.

I shall have occasion to show the difference between knowing a man to be guilty and proving a man to be guilty very often in the course of these records of my work.

To return then to Greenwood, I left him at the Yard, and I went off with Inspector Brown to the factory in Newman Street where Greenwood was employed. My first action was to interview five or six of his fellow-workmen, and needless to say, I saw each of them separately.

The works manager, let me say, was one of the most helpful and intelligent men with whom I have ever had to deal in the course of investigating a case, and I noticed that he appreciated the gravity and importance of every detail of my questioning of his employees.

He put his own room at my disposal, and the workmen came in one by one to be examined by me.

Each of the half-dozen corroborated the statements of the others, and the burden or gist of my examination was this I secured statements from the men which proved beyond a shadow of doubt that on the day of the murder on Eltham Common, David Greenwood had left the works to go home wearing the Leicester Regiment badge in the button hole of the lapel of his coat, that he had every button on his coat at that time, including the top one which, however, differed from the others, inasmuch as it was fixed with a small piece of wire instead of being sewn on like the others.

You will appreciate the importance of my establishing this, I am sure. Had I not been able to show that Greenwood had the buttons on his coat just immediately before the murder, a clever defending counsel could have shown or tried to show that Greenwood might have been without those buttons for some considerable time before the outrage on Eltham Common, and the suggestion to a jury would have been that the badge and button might have fallen into the hands of some other person, that person being the probable murderer.

And now perhaps you are asking a question which I certainly put to myself at the time. Why did David Greenwood go to Tottenham Court Road Police Station and report to the police himself that he had been the owner of that badge ?

I got the answer to that question at the works. It appeared that when the photographs came out in the Press, one of his fellow-workmen, who had seen them, said to Greenwood :

" I say, that badge in the photograph in the paper is the same as the one you've been wearing.' '

Greenwood said that it was nothing of the kind, and there was a heated argument between the two. At length, however, the other man said to Greenwood firmly :

" You've got to go to the police station and tell them that it is your badge that's in the photo. If you don't go, I'll take you there myself."

Greenwood saw then that it was useless for him to avoid going to the police, and apparently determined to make the best of the damning circumstances in which he was placed, he worked up the story of having sold the badge to a man on a tram while on his way home to Woolwich from work.

That was the tale he had told at Tottenham Court Road. He had done something else, however. On his way to the police station he had torn off all the other buttons from his overcoat, with the idea, I suppose, that, if they were all off, the absence of the top button would not be so easily remarked.

I was able to prove this last resort of Greenwood by the fact that more than one of the workmen could swear that on the morning of the day he had gone to Tottenham Court Road Police Station, he had arrived at work with all the buttons on his coat except the tell-tale one, and that it was only after he returned to the factory that the threads were sticking out from where the other buttons had been.

After I had carried out my close examination of the various workmen, I found myself alone in the room with Inspector Brown and the works manager. I turned to him and said :

" You use wire in your works here, I have noticed in passing through. Where do you get it from ? Any special place ? "

" It's all specially made for us," he replied. " You see, we are engaged on aeroplane fitting work here, and the wire we use is of a particular kind."

" Could it be possible for you to identify your own wire ? " I asked him.

" Certainly," he answered.

" Do you really mean to say that if I put down a number of pieces of wire that you could tell exactly which was yours ? " I further put to him.

His reply was again equally emphatic.

" Will you kindly go out of the room for a moment/* I requested him, and he did so. I took the small piece of wire which was attached to the button which had been found lying on the ground of Eltham Common beside the body of Nellie Trew, and which was now in my possession, and I laid it on the table in front of me.

I got several other pieces of wire of approximately the same size, picked up haphazard in the works when I had come in quite unknown to anyone there. And I laid about half a dozen pieces of wire on the table beside the first piece. Then I called in the works manager.

" Now, first of all, before I go any further, I must warn you of the gravity of what I am going to ask, and impress on you what depends on the answer you may make. You quite understand ? "

He was deadly pale with emotion, but he replied quite firmly that he was fully aware of the import of the matter, and I was convinced that he fully realised that to a great extent the question of whether a man would stand on the gallows to hang for murder depended upon him.

" Well, then, will you tell me, please, which of those pieces of wire are yours ? "

He looked carefully at each piece of wire in turn, took them up and examined them closely. Then he said decidedly :

"All of them."

" Every piece ? Are you sure ? "

" I am perfectly sure."

Still, I wanted further confirmation of the identification of the wire, and telling the works manager to go into another room which adjoined the one I sat in, I sent for the works foreman. To him I put the same questions, and I put him through the same test as to the pieces of wire.

I got exactly the same unequivocal answers from him as from the manager, and at last I felt satisfied that beyond any possible doubt the wire which was attached to the button beside Nellie Trew's body had come from the aeroplane works in Newman Street where David Greenwood worked.

Then I left the works, and when Inspector Brown and I got outside he asked me whither I was bound now.

" To Greenwood's home," I replied, as I hailed a taxi and told the man to drive with all possible speed to Wellhall, where Greenwood's parents lived. For I saw now that there was only one possible loophole by which Greenwood might possibly escape his just conviction. That was an attempt to establish an alibi. And I was determined to secure my evidence on that point before there could be any chance of the fabric of an alibi being woven.

I saw each one of Greenwood's relatives in turn. By one I was informed that he had gone for a long time without any buttons on his coat, as he had observed that being a thin youth he had thought he looked better with his coat left open to make him look more squarely built.

This same person told me that he had gone out very late on the night of the crime ; after supper, in fact, and at an hour which was obviously later than the tune at which the medical evidence proved the death of Nellie Trew to have taken place.

I was also informed that Greenwood had gone out without his coat, in spite of the fact that this member of his family had told him to put it on, as it was cold.

From another of his relatives I gleaned that it was by no means clear that Greenwood had gone out without his coat, and the hour of his leaving the house did not tally with the time given me by the other member of the family.

Finally I left the house after making a careful search among Greenwood's own things for bloodstains, and I went off to interview still another one of his family who was at his place of work.

Again there was a disagreement about the time of David Greenwood's leaving home on the night of the murder, and the net result of my inquiries went to show that it would be practically impossible for Greenwood to establish that strongest of all possible defences, an alibi.

Now let me be absolutely frank with you on the score of evidence from the relatives of any man charged with a crime, particularly that of murder where his life is at stake. We detectives are none the less human because we are detectives, and at all times in cases of this nature we realise that it is only natural that the mother, sisters, and other relatives of the accused man, should do all that they possibly can to try to establish his innocence.

It is not a case of their telling falsehoods. It is similar to what the police find in simple cases of street accidents. Six different eye-witnesses' statements are taken, and you have six different stories, all of them equally truthful in the real sense of the word, but all showing that no two people see a thing or an occurrence alike.

So with the movements of a man who had committed a crime. And the really strange thing would be if those to whom he is nearest and dearest should not see the case in the manner which is most likely to prove that he is innocent.

In the instance of David Greenwood, however, I, as the representative of the law, was concerned with one thing only. If Greenwood were the guilty man, then I had to bring him to justice and show by irrefutable evidence that he certainly was the guilty man. On the strength of the case which I had built up out of that badge and button, I knew that he had indeed murdered Nellie Trew, and I saw that there was no possible alibi which could be put up to show that he was wrongly accused.

I returned to the Yard, and I sent for Greenwood to come in to my room again. I said to him :

"It is open to you to give an account of your movements on Saturday (the day of the crime). You can do so if you like, but it will be taken down by Inspector Brown and may be used in evidence against you."

He replied : "I should like it taken down."

" Very well," I said, " you can say whatever you like and Mr. Brown will write it down."

Greenwood then made a statement. I shall not reproduce it word for word, but it was to the effect that he was never near the scene of the murder, and that although he had gone out that evening he had not worn his overcoat. He said that he spent the most of the evening at home, and then about ten o'clock he had gone out to an eating house to get his supper. And that in effect was as far as the statement went.

After making the statement, during the recording of which I sat at my desk without saying a word, Greenwood signed each page of it, and then, as he straightened himself up after bending over to sign his name, he looked hard at my desk, on which lay the badge and the button. His hand went out hesitatingly, and he picked up the button and held it for a moment and regarded it in a fixed manner. Then he spoke.

" If I say it is my button, what will it mean ? "

" I cannot tell you," I replied. He stared at the button for some time again, and then, almost for the first time during my interview with him, he looked me directly in the eyes. At last he muttered, " Well, I won't say it then/'

No more was said at that moment except that I told him that I should detain him pending further inquiries, and I gave instructions that he should be taken to Cannon Row Police Station and put in a cell there Cannon Row is just adj acent to Scotland Yard. Later I went over to the station, and I had Greenwood brought out of the cell he was in. I said to him :

" David Greenwood, I shall charge you with the wilful murder of Nellie Trew on the gth February on Eltham Common."

His naturally thin, wan face went a shade paler. His mouth opened in a helpless manner, and he breathed out rather than said, " Yes." Then I got him into a motor car and took him to Woolwich Police Station, where he was formally charged. This time he did not even say " Yes."

The trial took place at the Old Bailey before Mr. Justice Atkin. Mr. (now Sir) Travers Humphreys was the Crown counsel in the case, while Mr. Slesser defended Greenwoods The evidence for the prosecution was built up entirely on the various points I had unfolded one by one, and it was what is called by the C.I.D. and lawyers circumstantial.

As I anticipated, the chief line of defence was an alibi, coupled with the allegation that Greenwood had sold the badge to another man and that it was not in his possession at the actual time of the murder.

But the evidence I supplied showed clearly that at the very least Greenwood had worn the badge on the evening of the murder, and that for the first time to the knowledge of his fellow-workmen, the top button of his overcoat was missing on the Monday after the crime, and that in its place there was a rent which must have been made by the button being torn off.

I had reconstructed the murder in my own mind. I could see Greenwood seize hold of Nellie Trew and throw her to the ground. I could visualise the struggle which the 1 6-year-old girl had made to defend herself on the lonely, bleak common, not a soul in sight nor hearing to whom she could appeal for help.

Then as she lay on the ground, Greenwood, to quieten her and prevent her from struggling, had seized her by the throat and had strangled her. And in her death struggles, the girl had groped out frantically with her hands, and in doing so she had caught at the top of Greenwood's overcoat, and had pulled the badge out of his button hole, and had torn off the top button of his coat.

One other plea in defence was put forward. The defending counsel, cross-examining Dr. Spilsbury (now Sir Bernard Spilsbury) the celebrated pathologist and Home Office medical expert, tried to bring in the theory that a man who had been discharged from the army suffering from disordered action of the heart and fainting fits, as Greenwood had done, could not have caused the injuries that Nellie Trew had suffered. Sir Bernard Spilsbury replied that he could not say that such a man would not be able to do so.

The jury retired, and they were absent for nearly three hours. At the end of that time they came into the box again, and the foreman announced a verdict of " Guilty." But the foreman added that " in view of the youth of the prisoner, his service to his country, and his previous good character, they desired to recommend him to mercy."

Greenwood stood up in the dock, with every vestige of colour gone from his face, to receive sentence. But his voice was firm enough as he spoke in answer to the Judge's usual question as to whether he had anything to say before sentence was passed upon him.

" I wish your Lordship to take no notice of the recommendation (of the jury) as rather than face the disgrace I would pay the full penalty of this crime." And he declared his innocence again.

Justice Atkin addressed him : " You have been found guilty of a most heinous crime. You have taken your unfortunate victim's life, and for that crime there is only one penalty. At the same time, I shall forward the recommendation of the jury to the proper authorities where, I have no doubt, it will receive every consideration. It is not right, however, that you should anticipate that the course of the law will necessarily be interfered with on account of that recommendation . ' '

Then the black cap was produced, and the Judge passed the dreaded sentence.

Greenwood did not hang, After long deliberation on the part of the Home Secretary his sentence was commuted to one of penal servitude for life.

Reminiscences of an Ex-Detective - Francis Carlin



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