Miss Hilda Murrell (Murder)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:51 am on 19th December 1984.

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Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , Linlithgow 3:51 am, 19th December 1984

There are several subjects that I care about, such as the financing of the BBC, teachers' pay, service and conditions, Scotland and Ethiopia. So, I shall be rapid and succinct on this subject.

I did not know the late Miss Hilda Murrell personally—though as a gardener, and sometime beekeeper, I am, of course, familiar with the beautiful rose to which she gave her name. On 24 March of this year, her body was found in a wood just outside Shrewsbury. She was in her 79th year, and had been dead for some time. On 5 December, 1984, the inquest was held in Shrewsbury. A verdict of unlawful killing was brought in, and the coroner thanked all those involved. End of the matter? Just another statistic among unsolved murders? Well, no, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The police are quoted as saying that the facts are still being held back, on the grounds that it is necessary to keep them out of the press, as the murderer has not been caught. The police version of some wandering "nutter"-type burglar breaking in, and then attacking the lady when she came home unexpectedly, does not tally in any way with what was obviously a sophisticated break-in, with a purpose that was not conventional burglary.

My interest in the case of the late Miss Murrell was aroused in mid-November when I was told, anonymously, that I ought to read carefully an article in the New Statesman, of 9 November, 1984, entitled the "Death of Miss Murrell", by Judith Cook. Knowing that Hugh Stephenson, editor of the New Statesman, would not have given the article such prominence without reason—I am a New Statesman subscriber — and knowing that anything under the by-line of Judith Cook is worth my attention, I did so. I do not doubt that those who brief the Minister have shown him Judith Cook's article.

Approaching one of my now numerous sources on the Belgrano, who has proved careful, accurate and serious, I learnt that Miss Murrell's nephew, Rob Green, mentioned in the article by name, had indeed occupied a key position in naval intelligence during the Falklands campaign. I was informed that Commander Green was in a position to know about the receipt and despatch of signals to and from HMS Conqueror, and intercepted signals from the Belgrano to the Argentine mainland and back, from both British and American sources.

However, at the outset I say candidly to the Minister that Rob Green has not approached me, that through an intermediary I have let him know that, if he wanted to talk to me, he would be welcome, and that to the best of my rather extensive knowledge, he has behaved absolutely properly as a naval officer loyal to the Navy in not talking about information gleaned when in the Navy.

The following questions flow from Judith Cook's article of 9 November and from other discussions that I have had.

Why did the police tell the press that Hilda Murrell's house had been ransacked when it later became clear that it had not been ransacked?

Whoever had been in the house had clearly been looking for something in a methodical manner. Some drawers and cupboards were open but not dissaranged.

In an odd way, it is like the Belgrano affair—small inconsistencies seem to be part of larger inconsistencies and small lies part of larger lies.

Miss Murrell's house had been carefully searched and her papers gone through, but in an orderly manner. Her telephone had been cut off in such a way that, although it was dead from inside the house, anyone calling would seem to hear it ringing out. The police agree that that is a sophisticated way of doing things—not exactly the actions of a common burglar looking for loose money and taking a chance. Moreover, not only had the telephone at Miss Murrell's home at Ravenscroft, Shrewsbury, been tampered with — the phone at her cottage over the border in Wales had been disconnected.

Later the police said that the 78-year-old lady had been sexually assaulted. Why did they say thay when it turned out on their own evidence to be untrue? What is the purpose of that kind of inaccuracy other than to sweep uncomfortable suspicions under the carpet?

The farmer who discovered Miss Murrell's car slewed on to a verge reported it to the police and I understand that the local policeman reported it to the Shrewsbury police. Two days later the self-same car was still there. The farmer again reported it to the policeman, who reported it to the Shrewsbury police.

What did the Shrewsbury police do about the second report? If they were short-staffed because too many were away dealing with miners' picket lines, the House ought to be told. I understand that, even on Friday 23 March, the Shrewsbury police failed to follow up the report. They then said that the wrong registration number had been fed into the Swansea computer. Is that true?

Does a police force which, I am told, has a good reputation for efficiency normally act like that or was it told on high authority to act in such an uncharacteristically incompetent and slapdash way? Why did the police behave out of character? Ministers should tell us. I am told by more than one of the people interviewed by the police that they instinctively felt that the police officers knew jolly well that their time was being wasted and that they were having to go through the motions of a large-scale investigation for cosmetic reasons.

On Saturday 24 March, having at last identified the car as Miss Murrell's, police began to search the field and the copse near the car with a gamekeeper's wife. It was this lady who found Miss Murrell's body, noting that the time put down for its discovery was correctly 10.30 am. Yet I understand that the police told Rob Green, Miss Murrell's nephew, that his aunt's body was found much later and that they then changed their story and said that it was found at 7 am. Did the police give those two stories and, if so, why? Members of Miss Murrell's family see a series of police errors and the contradictory information that the police had given them was not cleared up at the inquest on 5 December.

The West Mercia police say that they forced an entry into Miss Murrell's house at 6 am on Saturday 24 March. Yet several credible witnesses say that they saw men in police uniform at the house on Friday night. How could that be? Were two police forces involved? At what time were the West Mercia police joined, if at all, by the Suffolk police responsible for Sizewell security? More particularly, why was the special branch involved at that stage? Why was it necessary to force an entry into Miss Murrell's house or to claim to have done so when I am told that the back door was unlocked? The curtains had been drawn and the light left on since the Wednesday of Miss Murrell's death.

I am told that members of the public who have come forward with different bits of information have been made to feel excessively foolish. Equally, I am told that this is quite uncharacteristic of the West Mercia police, who are usually models of courtesy, welcoming information from the public. Why should the police act out of character? Is it because not one but two sets of police were involved, neither of which appeared to know what the other was doing?

I can easily understand the work of the local police under Chief Detective Superintendent David Cole, brought in from Worcester, whose manners appear to have been exemplary and whose kindness and good sense were a credit to the police of this country. However the local police have, I gather, now agreed that the special branch was involved, and I understand that my praise for the local police does not in all cases apply to the special branch.

Will the Minister explain what special branch was doing so early in the case of the murder of a 78-year-old ex-rose-grower, if it really was a simple burglary?

Why have the family not been given a copy of the postmortem report? A man who was capable, two years before, of organising crucial aspects of the British battle fleet in the south Atlantic, and who earned a special citation from the Commander-in-Chief of the fleet, is capable of reading a post-mortem report.

Rob Green says: They had said that they would answer questions about it, but you can imagine our difficulties as, since we had no idea what was on it, we did not know what to ask. When he identified the body, Commander Green saw a mark of a blow under Miss Murrell's eye. There also appear to have been stab wounds, but insufficient to kill her. Did she, as the police say, die of hypothermia? Or was she killed by a person or persons? What does the Minister now say?

Why was a second autopsy carried out, and her family refused this too? Why was the body returned in a zinc-lined coffin in August? I can understand the police advice not to look inside, by that time, but why had so much time passed? Naturally, the body was then cremated.

Why was the Gower autopsy not published? The coroner, Colonel Crawford Clarke, has said that a second autopsy had to be held because the body was deteriorating, and that there had to be a second autopsy in case an assailant was charged. However, a body can be kept on ice.

The late Helen Smith, flown back from sweltering Jeddah, was kept for much longer. Is it normal practice to keep a body, and suddenly demand an autopsy at short notice in case an unnamed assailant is charged?

When it came, I am told that the cremation was carried out in a heck of an indecent hurry. What is the explanation? Is it not the case that the proper forensic procedures seem to have been blocked? Why? And why were the family not told that they could have an independent autopsy? Suspicions can only be laid to rest by answers.

The owner of the land on which the body was found, Mr. Scott, has stated emphatically both to the police and to the family of Miss Murrell that he was walking in the copse on the Thursday afternoon after the murder. He had been carefully examining his property, as it was used as a game reserve. As a countryman, he said that he would have noticed the body of a rabbit, let alone a person. Did Mr. Scott lie? People who know him doubt it very much. He has no motive, and his neighbours say that he is not that kind of man. If he is correct, Miss Murrell's body must have been moved after her death. Why cannot the family and others have the accurate details of the autopsy, to let them know? I am told that a local poacher has now come forward to corroborate Mr. Scott's statement that there was no body in that copse on the Thursday afternoon.

There is also the evidence of my friend, Mr. Gerard Morgan Grenville, whom I have known for nearly 40 years. Mrs. Morgan Grenville tells me how Hilda Murrell rang them up in a great state at the end of February, and how she fetched her husband. Mr. Morgan Grenville, with whom I have had a good deal to do and who is a deeply serious man, says that her parting words on the telephone were: If they don't get me first, I want the world to know that one old woman has seen through their lies". One is reminded of Scudder, the diarist in John Buchan's "The Thirty-Nine Steps'. Mr. Morgan Grenville had never heard Miss Murrell speak in that way before. Why should an old lady be prompted to say that? There has been speculation that her death was connected with a paper that she had written on the problems of nuclear waste and reactor choice, which she hoped would be read at the Sizewell B inquiry. Arthur Osman, writing in The Observer on 2 December, began his article: Silkwood parallels in English woman's death … Was anti-nuclear power campaigner Hilda Murrell murdered because she was becoming too much of a nuisance to the industry? Since, more than 22 years ago, as a new Member of Parliament who was technologically minded and on the Public Accounts Committee, I was befriended by the late Sir Christopher Hinton, who later became Lord Hinton of Bankside OM—he was a great man and a great engineer and chairman of the Central Electricity Generating Board—I have had dealings with many in the top echelons of the CEGB and and the Scottish generating boards. I cannot believe for one mini-second that Sir Walter Marshall, any of his colleagues, my friend Con Allday and others from the nuclear industry, would dream of authorising minions to search the house of a 78-year-old rose grower who had elegantly expressed, but unoriginal, views on reactor choice and nuclear waste disposal.

Besides. I have been to the great Peter Pears Benjamin Britten hall where the Sizewell inquiry is being held. I listened to evidence on day 178 and talked afterwards to Sir Frank Layfield. Those people will not fuss about Hilda Murrell and her evidence, for heaven's sake.

However, Commander Green says publicly: I am led to one solution only—that the break-in was to look for information, rather than valuables. He said: I have a series of questions I want to ask about the police handling of the case, particularly their view of the proposition that the intruder—because he has no authority to kill her—had no alternative but to abduct her. Later that night he may have returned, put on the lights and drew curtains to make it look like an attempted burglary. He also left evidence to suggest a sex angle. The inquest raised more real questions than it answered.

All of these inconsistencies point away from a random murder, and therefore away from the official explanation.

This background leads me to give credence to another version of events which has come my way as a receptacle of information about the circumstances surrounding the sinking of the Belgrano.

First, I must candidly tell the Minister that in my previous 22 years in the House, I should have gone privately to the Home Secretary, regardless of party. I should have gone to "Rab" Butler, Henry Brooke, Frank Soskice, the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Jenkins), my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Callaghan), Reggie Maudling, Robert Carr, my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) or Willie Whitelaw. I have known them all and had dealings with them all. However, to some Ministers in the present Government, to whom I have been the subject of ridicule and deception, I am not prepared to go. I say in the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) that least of all am I prepared to go to the present Home Secretary, who makes the types of speech about the miners that bring disgrace to the great office that he holds. I am not simply prepared to go to the present Home Secretary.

The story that I am told is as follows. In the early spring, the Prime Minister and Ministers close to her were getting very nervy about incessant questioning on the Belgrano in general and about signals, intercepted signals, and GCHQ at Cheltenham, which would call into question their truthfulness to the House, in particular. This was pre-Ponting. There were a number of suspicions about people dating from 19 and 20 December 1983, when I tabled questions to the Prime Minister about GCHQ Cheltenham, which are recorded in the Order Paper and Hansard.

Because Commander Robert Green was known to be unhappy about certain aspects of the Falklands war and was known to have wanted to leave the Navy, he came under a cloud of suspicion, wrongly, to the best of my knowledge, but certainly under a cloud of suspicion. It was thought that he might have copies of documents and raw signals that incriminated the Prime Minister, some of the originals of which had been destroyed on instructions from a very high level by the intelligence services.

Just as those of us who have had certain documents have taken the precaution of keeping them in friends' or relatives' houses while we have them, so it was thought that some of Rob Green's supposed records might be in the home of the aunt to whom he was close.

I suppose—I say this in the presence of the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), who I hope will have the opportunity of contributing to the debate—that one cannot complain that the suspicion fell on Rob Green, as he was one of the officers at the very heart of the Falklands operation. He was one of the very few to have left the service, although I understand that he had decided to go before the Falklands crisis blew up.

I am also given to understand—and I am happy to accept it—that there was no premeditated intention of doing away with Miss Murrell—only a search of her house when she was out. Alas, on Wednesday 21 March she returned unexpectedly to change. The intruders either arrived while she was dressing or were disturbed by her. Being a lady of courage and spunk, often found in that generation of women, Miss Murrell fought them. They too had to fight. They injured her and panicked.

I am informed that the intruders were not after money or nuclear information but were checking the house to see if there were any Belgrano-related documents of Commander Green in the home of his aunt. Things went disastrously wrong. They had no intention of injuring, let alone killing, a 78-year-old ex-rose grower. Yet, being the lady she was and in her home, Hilda Murrell fought and was severely injured. She was then killed or left to die from hypothermia, and the cover-up had to begin, because I am informed that the searchers were men of the British intelligence.

If Ministers cannot solemnly deny my belief about the participation of intelligence, on whose ministerial authority, if any, did the search of Miss Murrell's home take place? Was there clearance, or was this the intelligence services "doing their own thing"? Did they do it on political orders, and if so, on whose orders? Some of us have had increasing misgivings about the role of the intelligence services in this country—again I say this in the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover—in connection with the miners' strike.

It is high time that there was a Select Committee of Privy Councillors to keep an eye on our intelligence services. Such a Select Committee would be a more appropriate forum than a Consolidated Fund debate, but until that happens, and given my opinion of present senior Ministers—un-British in their behaviour compared with Ministers of previous Governments — I have no alternative but to ask these questions under the cloak of parliamentary privilege, none of the situations for which the privileges of the House of Commons exist.

I ought to add that Commander Rob Green was, I am told, the person who physically sent the signal to Conqueror that sank the Belgrano. I understand from his friends that he was also responsible for passing signals from Endurance which had shown beyond any reasonable doubt that an invasion of the Falklands was likely to happen.

Rob Green considered the Falklands to be an unnecessary war, and the Belgrano sinking appalled him—albeit he judged it to be an unfortunate necessity—as it did some other senior officers of the senior service. He took early retirement after 20 years in the Navy and left. From this Prime Minister and her colleagues he would come under suspicion. It is from the head of our security services that Parliament should be demanding an explanation, because of one thing I am certain—that there are persons in Westminster and Whitehall who know a great deal more about the violent death of Miss Hilda Murrell than they have so far been prepared to divulge.