1923 The Brislington Villa murder mystery – Montrose Avenue
1923 The Brislington Villa murder mystery – Montrose Avenue
In 1984 a surveyor from the city’s Environmental Health office made a call on an elderly gentleman living in Mendip Road, Bedminster to assess the property. The old chap seemed lonely and anxious to chat in common with many pensioners living alone but the story this man had to tell was a remarkable one.
During the time the officer was carrying out his survey he was to hear of startling events that had taken place 60 years before. The old man was called George Cooper and in January 1924 he was a leading figure in what the papers dubbed The Brislington Villa Mystery.
George’s father was also called George and together with his wife Louisa (aged 57) had lived in Montrose Avenue, Brislington for about 20 years at that time. Previously they had lived in Bedminster. They were, apparently, a quiet couple who ‘kept themselves to themselves’; an unremarkable pair, the wife invariably cheerful and often to be heard singing as she worked around the house.
There seems to have been a particular bond between mother and son. In fact they were described as being ‘wonderfully devoted’, their relationship more like brother and sister. George tended to call her ‘Gin’ rather than ‘Mother’. When George married a girl from Cheddar in 1921 the couple did what many newlyweds did in those days – they shared the parents’ house.
Within a year their first child, a little boy, was born. In 1923 another child was expected and George’s wife went to stay with her parents in the June, planning to return for her confinement in September but, in the event, she remained in Cheddar and her second boy was born there. She and the new baby remained there until 3 weeks before Christmas.
Meanwhile, George’s mother was looking after the older boy, whom she adored, at Montrose Avenue. Also resident in the house was a lodger, Aubrey Baker, who had lived there since October 1922 and was an engineer employed by the Bristol Tramways Company.
Both 37-year-old George and his father, who was 59, followed the same trade – that of pattern makers initially at Bartletts of Brislington who were scale makers but when these works closed down they both found similar employment at Sampson’s iron foundry at Malago Road, Bedminster.
So, on the surface, a respectable, hard-working family living in a pleasant suburban villa called Croydon House with French windows leading out to the garden, the windows hung with spotless curtains. A kitchen and scullery jutted out on to the garden where a chicken run had been constructed. Not all was as it seemed, though.
George Cooper senior was an inveterate womaniser. He seems to have had a taste for office cleaners. One liaison back in 1918 was with a woman engaged in such work at the tramways office where he was employed at the time. In 1923 he was enjoying a dalliance with a Mrs Goodman, charlady at Sampson’s who lived in South Street, Bedminster.
His wife was only too well aware of his philandering and had even confronted Mrs Goodman in her own home at one stage as well as making a complaint about her to Ernest Sampson her employer.
This seemed to arise out of a discovery that Mr Cooper had paid for his lady friend to go on a firm’s outing. Nor were his extra-marital affairs Louisa Cooper’s only problem. George was later to say that his father had always been an aggressive man who was not averse to subduing Louisa by means of violence and had been known to knock her to the ground and drag her to her feet by her hair. He had also been abusive to George himself when he tried to defend her.
Then, in September 1923, the situation changed. Mr Cooper was no longer seen setting off for work each day and returning when the mood took him. At first Mrs Cooper told neighbours that he had gone away to work but then she had to confess he had run off with a woman. Enquiries at Sampson’s as to the situation resulted in George saying he was certain his father would not be returning and it was agreed he could take over the older man’s job.
Autumn faded to winter and Christmas approached, one to anticipate with pleasure this year as there would be no arguments to disrupt the peaceful atmosphere. Friends and neighbours were invited round and George played tunes on the piano while everyone gathered round for a sing-song. It was probably the happiest Yuletide the family had ever experienced. Something was bothering George though, something gnawing at his conscience.
By the end of January 1924 he felt he had to confide in someone. The man he chose as his confessor was George Blackburn, his uncle on his mother’s side. The brother and sister were close and she came to visit him at least every other week.
George Cooper arrived at his uncle’s house in Sandown Road at about 8.30 on the evening of 29 January accompanied by his cousin, George Blackburn junior.
He said to his relatives that there had been one or two upsets and his father had gone then he added ‘I have put him in a position that he won’t come back again’. His auntie asked him to clarify this statement and was told ‘We had a row with father, and it had to be him or me’. Again she said ‘What do you mean to say, George?’ and he finally said ‘I killed my father’.
The Blackburns, burdened by this terrible knowledge had been placed in an untenable position. The following day the son decided to ask the advice of a friend of his, another George, George Paul who ran a fried fish shop in Redcliffe Hill. He was an ex-policeman.
He knew immediately that his only option was to inform the authorities and the following day, when George Cooper arrived home from work, he was cautioned and placed under arrest. His mother had already been charged with being an accessory after the fact in the murder of her husband.
Mother and son appeared the following morning in Keynsham Petty Sessional Court. The case for the prosecution was led by Mr A Sefton Cohen and Mr E J Watson defended both prisoners. A brief resume of their circumstances was given. In the press coverage of the day George Cooper is described as slimly built with light hair and dressed in a grey suit with a waistcoat, although he was not wearing a collar.
His mother was crying incessantly. In the event the pair were charged with murder because she denied the accessory charge immediately, saying ‘No, sir, I knew it. I knew what it was for’.
After the hearing Louisa was taken to Cardiff Gaol. As she was taken away she called to her son: ‘Have I got to leave you? Let me share it. It is my fault. It is my fault.’
Meanwhile, the police were searching the house and soon began paying particular interest to the middle downstairs room where George had been doing some repairs to the flooring after his mother had complained to Henry Poole, the landlord who lived in Chatsworth Road, that some joists needed replacing but ‘George would see to it himself. Mr Poole assumed it was her husband to whom she referred but a few days later the son called at his house with a similar story and was told to purchase some timber and put the trouble right and he would be recompensed. In the end he claimed the 17 shillings spent on wood but refused labour costs and money he had spent on the tar used to seal the ends of the joists.
On 10 January 1924 he officially took over the tenancy, saying he had heard nothing from his father.
At last the body of George William Cooper was discovered beneath the boards of the very room where his wife and son had celebrated Christmas with friends and neighbours to the accompaniment of many a well-loved tune on the piano, positioned over his ‘grave’. Those present at the soiree dined out on the tale for many years afterwards. An autopsy was ordered and marks on the skull carefully examined. The celebrated Sir Bernard Spilsbury was called in to give his esteemed opinion and the case prepared to go to trial.
The trial itself took place in Wells with a special charabanc hired to take police and witnesses there. The accused said in a clear voice ‘I am not guilty’. His mother, who had been bailed, looked strained, nervous and tearful. Mr Emmanuel, for the Crown, opened the proceedings by giving a brief background picture of the family ending with the information that the victim had been last seen by his friend, a man called Simms, on 6 September 1923 after they had spent some time on their allotments, paused for a glass of beer and then bidden each other ‘good night’ at about 8.00pm. Cooper was seen walking off in the direction of his home at that time.
The accused then took the stand, describing in detail the quarrel that had taken place that night over ‘a woman from Goodhind Street’ whom his father had threatened to move into the house after turning out his son. To calm himself he went into the other room and began to pick out a tune on the piano, then suddenly became aware his father had crept into the room armed with a hatchet. A fierce struggle then ensued of which the accused claimed to have little memory except that a black and red mist came down over his eyes. He then came to and found himself lying at right angles to his father who appeared to be dead.
When his mother returned later that evening he told her what had happened and the following day buried the body beneath the floorboards in the middle room. It was then the moment for Mr Emmanuel to discuss the head wounds, of which there were nine. If the jury were satisfied that these blows were rained on the victim by the man in the dock then, in law, that was murder. To reduce it to manslaughter he said ‘the onus of proof of justification lay with the prisoner’. There was also some dispute as to whether some of the marks had been made when actually removing the body from its temporary grave but this seemed unlikely in view of the forensic evidence. The skull was produced in court and Mrs Cooper held her handkerchief over her eyes.
None of the witnesses called seemed to have anything good to say about the deceased, describing him as surly, hasty-tempered and averse to any sort of criticism. He openly boasted about his conquests over women, even discussing a particular situation with the lodger, Aubrey Baker, when they were having a pint together one night in the Holly Bush.
He said ‘I am in a ***** fix. I have been getting about with another woman and I think my missus has found out’. Baker was shocked because he liked and admired Louisa Cooper whom he considered to be a good housewife and ‘one who attended to her home’. He thought too, that ‘young Cooper was a nice, quiet young fellow.’
George Blackburn, Louisa’s brother, recalled many times he had seen her sporting a black eye and had threatened Cooper with a good hiding. He said Cooper was a man who preferred throwing things rather than fighting and had been convicted in the past of throwing a brick at a man. He was frequently known to smash up crockery, musical instruments and ornaments in the house and was quite blatant about his extra-marital affairs, even once bringing a woman round to stay the night in the family home and insisted his wife wait on her. At length the jury retired on the Friday afternoon and it was announced that sentencing would take place on the Saturday.
The night must have been a tense one for both George and his mother, so it must have come as a welcome relief when to expiate his crime he was told he was sentenced to 7 years’ penal servitude. It was almost as if everyone had felt he had done a favour by ridding society of such an obnoxious man.
The house in Montrose Avenue still stands although the road has been renamed Montrose Park and the case is still spoken of by older residents who remember the family and the shock of hearing the tale of the degradation and misery suffered by the well-liked Mrs Cooper which finally tipped her son over the edge on the night of 6 September 1923, culminating in one of the most shocking suburban killings that Bristol had ever known.