50 years ago this month, on August 28th, 1969, my Great Uncle James Hansell found the body of a man washed ashore to the north of Staithes harbour. Further to my published research into the incident, The Office of the Police, Fire & Crime Commissioner for North Yorkshire has advised me that:
‘the Cold Case Review Manager based at the Major Investigation Team at Harrogate, is going to review the Staithes case and make contact with the HM Coroner.’
In conjunction with the Rt Hon Michael Gove recently forwarding my letter suggesting DNA profiling to Edward Argar MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice, and my request that details of the unidentified body be added to the National Crime Agency‘s online database of missing persons and unclaimed bodies, there is hope of a renewed effort to establish the man’s identity, and the circumstances surrounding his unesxplained death.
The Police Investigation
More rightly, this might be headlined The Coroner’s Investigation, since it is ultimately the Coroner’s responsibility to establish who the deceased is, and how, where and when they died. Coroner Mr. Bernard Wilkinson had been in the role since at least 1940, and, according to a former Coroner for York, had a reputation for thoroughness.
Guisborough Police, then part of the York and North Yorks Constabulary, was alerted, certainly dispatching uniformed officers and a van. It is not known if any CID officers or Forensic Pathologist attended. They should have notified the Coroner of the find immediately. And, if Coroner Wilkinson did not personally attend the scene, the first Police constable on the scene would have been appointed the Coroner’s officer (unless Guisborough police already had a Coroner’s officer that they dispatched to the scene on after receiving the first report of the body).
One newspaper report says ‘Police cordoned off a stretch of beach at Cowbar’. And one local, Anthony Thomas, recalls:
‘Dad remembers taking our Paul and me, when we were little, round the rocks and someone stopping him and saying, “You can’t go round there, there’s a body been found.”‘
It is not known the precise time that Guisborough police officers arrived, nor if they sanctioned moving the body from where it was discovered on the foreshore at Sandy Wyke.
Recovering the Body
Matt Verrill Jnr, 34 at the time, was working in the fisherman’s warehouse closest to the lifeboat house (now a holiday cottage) and remembers Michael Stephenson (aged 10) telling them what had happened as he rushed to the police-house at the end of Staithes lane to report the find – as Jim Hansell had asked him to. Verrill’s father (also named Matt) rushed back home to Cliff Crest cottage, on the opposite side of the beck, to get a blanket from his wife Florrie to cover the body. Verrill Jnr ran to the main staithe to fetch the white canvas stretcher stored at Clem James‘ fishery building. He thinks that by the time he got the stretcher back across the beck, there may have already been two policemen there with a van. Verrill thought the body was badly decomposed.
With low tide due by 10.37 a.m., Police had a narrow time window to search for any clues to the man’s identity. Paramount would have been any other clothing items or personal effects such as a wallet. It is not known if a SOCO (scene of crime officer) photographed the body whilst it was at Staithes.
The first Police details of the body were published that day in Middlesborough’s Evening Gazette, which could only report ‘The man, aged about 40, was wearing nothing but one black boot and one black sock. A police spokesman said: “There has been no person in the area reported missing recently. We are making inquiries to try to find the man’s identity.”‘ Interestingly there were no reports of any jewelry such as a ring.
One imagines, in the apparent absence of any police file on the investigation, that at least some door-to-door inquiries would have been conducted at properties on the Cowbar side of Staithes, at the cliff tops, and possibly at Boulby cliff to the north (the tallest cliff in England).
Next day’s Whitby Gazette added that the body ‘appeared to have been in the sea for some days’, and the boot size 8, and black sock, was worn on his left foot:
‘Guisborough Police are anxious for information which will help to identify the man, aged between 40 and 50, 5ft. 11in. tall, heavily built (possibly about 15 stones), with round face, bald, with brown hair at the back of his head and clean-shaven. Anyone who might have a clue to his identity should contact Guisborough Police (Telephone 028732222)’
Why No Sketch or Identikit Image?
Subsequently, a post-mortem was performed by pathologist Dr. Richard E. Petts. This was probably conducted at Middlesborough general hospital. It seems inconceivable that photographs would not have been taken of the body during this procedure. However, none of the contemporary press reports feature a police-issued artist’s sketch or identikit image in any of the cited newspaper reports, and exhaustive research of newspaper libraries has not uncovered one in national newspapers of the era.
A week later, on Friday 5th September, as the unidentified man was buried in Loftus cemetery, a spokesman for the York and North East Yorkshire Police said they were ‘in touch with other forces throughout the country to try to establish his identity,’ and a Police spokesman at Guisborough said that any clues to the man’s identity would be welcome, and they would be ‘particularly interested to examine any clothing washed ashore on beaches in the area’, adding:
“There has been a fairly widespread search to discover the man’s identity, but we have had no success so far.”
The spokesman also noted that Staithes fishermen believe the tide may have brought the body down from somewhere to the North. This tallies with meteorology and tide archives which suggest the wind throughout the night prior to discovery was a North-westerly one, with gusts up to 55 knots recorded at Whitby.
The inquest on the body was opened at Northallerton on Wednesday 4th September and then adjourned until 24th September.
No Clues, No Progress
A month after the investigation had started, Police had reportedly made no progress in identifying the man and it was reported that the Coroner’s inquest, had been postponed from Sept 24th to Oct 22nd. Additionally:
‘A nationwide check on missing persons and fingerprints has yielded no clues. Police have even carried out a check on shipping in the area to see if any crew members were reported lost at the relevant times, again without success.’
Since most reports suggest witnesses and police believe the body had been in the sea for several days, presumably they would have been looking for someone that had gone missing during the week commencing Monday 18th August?
A ‘senior’ police spokesman at Guisborough said:
“We have checked from one end of the country to the other, but despite all our inquiries we are really no nearer now to identifying him than we were a month ago.”
One new piece of information had come to light – police believed the man ‘may have been English’ because he was wearing a type of boot which is not very widely exported.
The boot brand was not revealed but clearly this was one avenue for police to check with the boot manufacturer who may have been able to offer some information about the production batch of the size 8 boot.
And as it stands, we know no more about the police investigation save for comments made at the Coroners inquest, held on Wednesday, October 22nd, 1969, some seven and a half weeks since the body had been discovered.
The Open Verdict?
‘Cleveland’ coroner Mr. Bernard Wilkinson was told by police that ‘all efforts to identify [the] body…have failed.’
In evidence, Chief Inspector Peter Wilfrid Earnshaw told the Court that a ‘thorough search’ had been made for missing persons, and through ‘local and national newspapers, radio and television, and widespread publicity had been given to the circumstances in which the body was found.’
Fingerprints from the body had been compared with all fingerprint records throughout the country without being able to establish and link with the dead man. And ‘hair from the body had been compared with the hair of a man who had been missing from Rochdale for some time, but again with negative results.’
Pathologist Dr. Richard E. Petts said the man’s injuries were consistent with having fallen from a height:
“It is my opinion that he fell from a cliff and sustained these injuries [unspecified] when hitting rocks, either on the surface or under the water.”
Theories that gained the most currency in Staithes were that the man had met his end on board a trawler or ship, and had fallen or been thrown overboard. There were many foreign fishing vessels off the coast at that time, including Russian. One of the more colourful theories had it that the body was that of A Soviet commissar who had been murdered and dumped at sea.
Certainly, none of the newspapers reported an ugly wound on the man’s forehead, above the bridge of the nose, which witness Michael Stephenson described as ‘a diamond-shaped hole at least one inch across.’
The Coroner’s reported verdict was:
‘it was an unidentified male body found at Cowbar, having died from a fracture of the neck with terminal drowning, and that there was not sufficient evidence to say how the body came to be in the sea.’
As reported in my previous blogs, research into the incident has been stymied by an apparent lack of any official records of the incident, save for the man’s burial details. The investigative force, the York and North Yorkshire Police had been established in 1968, incorporating the existing North Ridings Police and City of York police, and was operational until 1974, when it became the three separate forces, North Yorks, Cleveland, and Humberside.
What happened to the police files for this incident? Since the Coroner could not give anything other than an open verdict, files for an unidentified body should have been retained. Realistically they could have been retained by either Cleveland or North Yorks Police. Recent correspondence with both forces, and the Police and Crime Commissioner’s offices for both Cleveland and North Yorks, suggest that when the force was re-organised in 1974, it was more likely that North Yorks Police would have held the files.
He was given a ‘paupers funeral’. And forgotten for half a century. A DNA forensic examination of the man’s remains is likely the only hope of restoring his identity. Surely he is owed that?
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With thanks to Tony Morris, Cathryn Pink, Averil Verrill, Matt Verrill, Michael Stephenson & Naomi Corrigan.