Hoolhouse lived as a tenant on a farm. After a dispute with the
owners the Hoolhouse family were evicted. Shortly after this the owners
wife Margaret Jane Dobson was found dead.
On 26th May 1938,
Robert William Hoolhouse was hanged at Durham Prison for the sex murder
of Margaret Dobson.
The Dobsons had owned High Grange Farm at Wolviston,
County Durham, for over thirty years. As the result of a dispute they
evicted the Hoolhouse family from a tenanted cottage on their land and
the Hoolhouse's moved to a nearby village.
Five years later, on the 18th January 1938, the body of
67-year-old Mrs Margaret Jane Dobson was found on a farm track. She had
been sexually assaulted and stabbed.
When the police questioned
21-year-old Robert Hoolhouse they found that his face was scratched, he
had blood on his clothes and he fitted the general description of a man
seen close to the Dobson's farm at the time of the killing. He also had
Hoolhouse was arrested and tried at Leeds Assizes in
March 1938. Even though the evidence linking Hoolhouse to the killing
was tenuous - a footprint found near the body was admitted to have not
been made by him - he was found guilty.
He was hanged at Durham Gaol on
26th May 1938.
Date of Execution:
Thursday, 26th May, 1938
Location of Execution:
28th - 30th March, 1938
Mister Justice Wrottesley
Margaret Jane Dobson
Location of Murder:
High Grange Farm, Wolviston
Date of Murder:
Tuesday, 18th January, 1938
Method of Murder:
Relationship to Killer:
The story of Robert William
Hoolhouse is one of the darkest tragedies of Englisj justice and
possibly one of the strongest arguments against capital punishment.
On Tuesday, January 18th, 1938, Margaret
Dobson left her home at High Grange Farm, at four thirty in the
afternoon. Her husband, Henry, expected Margaret to return at about six
o'clock but when she failed to appear, thought she might have stayed
overnight at their daughter's home, in Newcastle.
The following day saw Henry up at dawn
and by eight o'clock, a number of his workers had arrived and the farm
was a hive of activity. Having checked that everyone had enough work to
do, Henry decided to walk into the village of Wolviston. It was by then
quarter to ten.
As Henry passed down the trackway that
led to the main road, he saw something in one of his fields. Going to
investigate, he was horrified to discover the body of his wife. Hardly
believing his eyes, Henry walked around the body before setting off to
the nearest police station.
Margaret Dobson had been brutally raped
and then stabbed, and police believed they had a likely suspect in
Robert Hoolhouse. The Hoolhouse family had worked for Mr Dobson five
years before. An argument had cost Mr Hoolhouse and his son their jobs
and the family their tied cottage. This perhaps was reason enough to
kill and when it came to the attention of the authorities that Robert
Hoolhouse was sporting some new scratches on his face, they decided to
have a word with him.
At quarter past one on the morning of
January 20th, Robert Hoolhouse was taken into custody and eventually
charged with murder. In addition to the scratches on his face,
bloodstains had been found on his clothing and his alibi did not check
Robert had claimed that on the day of
the murder, January 18th, he had been at home at 6, Pickering Street,
Haverton Hill, until about twelve thirty. He had then cycled to
Wolviston where he visited the home of a friend, William Husband, where
he stayed until three thirty. Cycling home via Cowpen, he arrived home
at about four. That evening, at six thirty, he caught the bus to
Wolviston where he again visited William Husband and where he also saw
John Lax and his sister, Dolly. He and Dolly caught a bus for Billingham
where they went to the pictures. At eleven o'clock, Hoolhouse saw Dolly
onto the bus for Wolviston after which he caught his own bus, for
Haverton, arriving home at around eleven thirty.
On January 19th, Hoolhouse was again at
home until quarter to eleven when he visited the Labour Exchange and
signed on. From there he took a walk before returning home for lunch,
after which he cycled to Wolviston again, falling off his bicycle on the
way and sustaining scratches to his face. He stayed at William Husband's
house until quarter past two when he cycled home.
When police checked this extensive
timetable, they found a discrepancy, when the Husbands and the Laxs said
he had arrived later on January 18th. Hoolhouse made a second, brief
statement in which he admitted that he must have got the times wrong and
had left an hour later, arriving at Wolviston at three forty five
instead of two forty five. For the police this was highly significant.
Pathological examination of Margaret Dobson's stomach contents had put
her time of death before four o'clock and they now held that Hoolhouse
had lied deliberately to hide the fact that he was killing Mrs Dobson at
that time. Robert Hoolhouse was charged with murder.
Had Robert Hoolhouse had a half-decent
barrister, he might well have escaped with his life. The evidence
against him was flimsy to say the least. To begin with, Percy Swales had
seen a man standing in the field, very close to where Margaret Dobson
was finally discovered, at five thirty. This man was not Robert
Hoolhouse and seemed to indicate that the true time of death was
probably closer to five thirty, by which time Robert Hoolhouse was at
home in Haverton Hill.
Next there was the evidence of the
scratches on Robert's face. When Margaret Dobson was found, she still
wore her heavy woollen gloves. The police had actually experimented with
these gloves, trying to cause scratches on a volunteer's face. They did
Hoolhouse had explained away the
bloodstains on his clothing by saying that he had suffered from a boil
which had burst. The forensic tests were made on a few spots of blood
and no further tests were made which might have proved Hoolhouse's story.
Even more conclusive was the footprint
evidence. Henry Dobson had walked around his wife's body and his
footprints were plainly visible. However, beneath one of Mr Dobson's
boot prints, was a different print. Plaster casts were taken of this and
it was shown not to belong to Robert Hoolhouse. The defence barrister
completely missed the significance of this vital clue. Since the print
was beneath Henry Dobson's, it must have been there first and almost
certainly belonged to the killer.
Finally there was the evidence of the
semen stains, or more accurately the lack of them. Hoolhouse went to the
police station in the same clothing he had worn on the day of the murder.
This clothing was extensively tested and no trace of semen staining was
found, yet Mrs Dobson had been raped and there was extensive semen
stains on her body.
The jury were out for over four hours
before returning their guilty verdict. Hoolhouse's parents were deeply
shocked by the verdict. They were convinced that Robert was innocent and
even had a taxi cab waiting outside the courthouse to take their son
Hoolhouse's appeal was lost on May 9th
and despite a petition of 14,000 signatures, he was executed at Durham
on May 26th, 1938, despite the fact that medical reports had shown that
he had a mental age of less than fourteen.
Two important witnesses were never
called at Robert's trial. Margaret Barker knew Robert well and had
travelled by bus to Wolviston on January 18th. Robert was on the same
bus, going to meet Dolly Lax so that he could take her to the cinema.
Margaret spoke to Robert for part of the journey and gave a statement to
the police that Robert had no scratches on his face at that time, when
Margaret Dobson already lay dead.
Finally, Doris Teale, who lived next
door to the Hoolhouses, said that she had seen Robert outside his house
at about the time he was supposed to be murdering Margaret Dobson.
Robert Hoolhouse was just twenty one
years old when he died on the scaffold at Durham. Whatever else he may
have been, it is highly unlikely that he was also a murderer.