The Cab at the Cemetery Gates
by Neil R Storey
An extract from The Blackout Murders
Over the decades since the end of the Second World War, the experience of the British people on the home front during that conflict has become swathed in a comfortable popular history, clouded by nostalgia, where everybody pulled together, maintained stiff upper lips and chirpy cockneys sang Roll Out the Barrel as they sheltered in London Underground stations while Nazi bombs rained down night after night.
There was a ‘blitz spirit’ where people really did help each other pull through, and there were wartime home front organisations that went to extraordinary lengths to help people and relieve suffering; many folks simply would not have come through had it not been for those efforts. There were also remarkable and selfless acts of bravery by individuals and groups working in extraordinary situations fighting fires, conducting rescues and transporting casualties throughout the blitz on London and cities and towns across Britain.
In his wartime speeches, Prime Minister Winston Churchill spoke of defiance, and the official message from the plucky British people to the world, propagated by the Ministry of Information, was ‘We can take it.’ The problem was that not everybody could ‘take it’, and some people snapped. Nostalgia often conveniently forgets that wartime conditions, with the streets, shrouded in the inky darkness of the blackout, provided superb cover for criminal activities. Strings of robberies were soon being carried out under the cloak of the enforced darkness while many of those who had been mulling over committing a crime saw it as their golden opportunity to finally ‘have a go’.
Harrison Graham, known to most as Harry, was born at Cross Gate Moor near Durham in 1886 and spent his youth in Durham and the Newcastle suburb of Byker. Just like thousands of other lads in the north of England, after a few years of schooling, he had worked ‘down the pits’ as a miner.
In the First World War, Harry had served in one of the sturdy northern line infantry regiments, The King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. While fighting in France, he was badly wounded and given an honourable discharge. The psychological injuries from the war had left him with a speech impediment.
Times were hard for many in the North in the 1920s and ’30s. Pits closed, and many unemployed men moved around the country seeking work. Harry moved to Bradford in 1930. In 1939 he was living in North Wing and had been employed as a coal yard foreman, but his old war injuries and the labour-intensive work were beginning to take their toll. He decided it was time for a change, so as he and his wife Harriet already had some income from the North Wing Cafe they owned at the front of their house, Harry decided he try his hand at taxi driving. He found employment as a driver for Claude Newton of Clayton.
“His wife expected him home at around 3 am the following morning. Instead the police came to their home at 8.30 am to relay some terrible news.
In July 1944, Harry took the plunge and decided to buy his own taxi and go into business as a self-employed driver. He secured the transfer of his licence on 1 September and obtained the written permissions to ply for hire on the rank in the London Midland and Scottish (LMS) Railway Station at Forster Square.
On the evening of Wednesday, 6 September, Harry set out at 7.15 pm for his night shift. His wife expected him home at around 3 am the following morning. Instead, the police came to their home at 8.30 am to relay some terrible news, and Mrs Graham had to go to the mortuary to identify her husband’s body. The grim discovery had been made when PC Joseph Pell looked in on a taxi parked on Rooley Lane, opposite Bowling Cemetery gates, at about 5.30 am on Thursday, 7 September. Harry Graham’s body was on the floor in the back of his taxi cab. Blood spattered around the interior, and he could see Harry had suffered a severe blow to his head. After carrying out a detailed post-mortem examination, Bradford’s Chief Police Surgeon, Dr Ralph Rimmer, stated that the fatal blow had been so severe it had fractured Harry’s skull, and it had been delivered using a blunt instrument such as a piece of iron, a spanner or a hammer.9
Despite a thorough search of the area and men and equipment from the Corporation Cleansing Department being brought in to examine the contents of several drains in Rooley Lane, the weapon or object used to murder Harry Graham could not be found and has never come to light. The police were also aware that, as in the case of the Colchester Taxi Murder, just because Harry was found in Rooley Lane, it did not preclude the possibility that the murder had been committed elsewhere and the perpetrator had driven the cab to the site. Finding a murder weapon in such circumstances was like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.
When Harry’s clothes and taxi were searched, all his takings were found to be gone, and a blue case with silver lettering containing Harry’s identity card, driving licence, insurance certificate and a permit from the LMS Railway company for him to ply for hire in the station was also missing. Perhaps his killer thought this was his wallet. The common misconception that taxi drivers carried large sums of money with them after a good night of fares was also raised, but Bradford taxi drivers who spoke to reporters in the aftermath of Harry’s murder said it would have been unusual for a taxi driver to have more than one pound in his possession. One said: ‘We don’t carry much about with us. We don’t get the fabulous sums people imagine.’10
Local taxi driver Albert Speight, who worked on the rank at Forster Square, spoke of having a number of uncomfortable experiences during recent nightshifts:
Last Friday night, I drew up in the station at 1 am when two soldiers and a woman got into the taxi, and one of the soldiers said, ‘Get us to Halifax’ and shut the doors. When they were inside one said get that light out and put his hand up to switch it off. I told him I would see to that, and he then became abusive and told me to get going.11
Speight asked him for his fare in advance because he had previously had trouble with soldiers dodging their fare and running out on him after long journeys. He refused and became abusive, and Speight told him to leave the cab. This he refused to do until a sergeant hauled him out. On another
occasion, Speight was paid 3s 6d by a soldier for a job which cost 6s. A week later, Speight had the same man ask him to take him on another journey,
Speight refused, and the man slammed the cab door against his leg. Another Forster Square driver, George V. Earley, said the most trouble came from soldiers, and he had received a punch or two in the stomach at a destination instead of the fare. Another driver had been given a black eye.
Read more about the Cab at the Cemetery Gates and other wartime murders in The Blackout Murders by Neil R Storey. Published by Pen & Sword.
NorthernLife Nov/Dec 23