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The Murder Of Elsie Frost

“It struck me as being cold, isolated, desolate, everything about a nasty place. She shouldn’t have died there; nobody should.”- Colin Frost (Elsie’s brother)

Shortly after lunchtime on the afternoon of Saturday 9th October 1965, 14-year-old schoolgirl Elsie Frost left her home in Manor Haigh Road, Lupset, Wakefield, to go sailing at a nearby lake, the Horbury Sand Quarry or the Millfield Lagoon, as it was known locally. By all accounts, Elsie Frost was a happy, fun-loving teenager, the middle child of railway worker Arthur and Edith Frost, and was growing up in a close-knit, loving family who did a lot together. Pretty and dark-haired, Elsie was a prefect at Snapethorpe High School in Wakefield, a hard-working pupil who  had dreams of becoming a teacher and had just been chosen to be the next head girl at her school.

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Elsie Frost

She was respectable and well-liked, and had no known boyfriends. Along with some of her other friends, Elsie was a keen and regular sailor and that Saturday, Elsie had been asked to help supervise a group of younger children who were learning how to sail. It was a cold October afternoon, and Elsie dressed in a white blouse and yellow sweater, a printed cotton skirt and red quilted anorak – her favourite outfit. Putting her sailing clothes in a duffel bag and saying goodbye to her family, she put on her brand new pair of shoes and set off down to the lake.

It was the last time her family were ever to see her alive.

At 4:15pm that afternoon, local father Thomas Brown was out for an afternoon walk with his young children and dog. The family were heading on a path that skirted the River Calder and a passed by a canal, with a tunnel leading underneath some railway lines. The area was known locally as “The ABC Tunnel”, due to the 26 stone steps that led down to it from the embankment.

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The ABC Tunnel and ABC Steps in 1965

Upon approaching the tunnel, the family made a horrifying discovery. Thomas Brown was later to tell the inquest:

“When we got to within five or 10 yards of the bottom of the steps, I saw a girl lain there, whom I now know to be Elsie Frost. She was lying with her left arm on the second step and her head was lying on her left arm and her right arm was above her head on the next step. She was crouched up in an awkward position with her legs underneath her body in a kneeling type of position but more on her left hand side. I went up to her and asked her what was wrong and got my hands under her armpits and picked her up. When I spoke to her I did not get any reply. I did not realise she was as badly injured as she was. At this time, my son was at the top of the banking. I tried to persuade the children to go home but they wouldn’t.”

Within minutes, others had appeared on the scene, and whilst they waited with Elsie’s body Mr Brown ran to call for an ambulance and the police. They included lock-keeper Ralph Brewster and John Blackburn, Elsie’s sailing instructor from the lagoon, and as would be established at the inquest, the last person to see her alive. Also present was a 19-year-old amateur photographer who had been taking photographs of the river Calder. Upon arriving, police cordoned off the scene for examination, and removed Elsie’s body to Wakefield Public Mortuary where a post-mortem examination was undertaken. A search of the area for a possible murder weapon got underway, and the standard police house to house enquiries began.

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Police searching the scene of the crime

The post-mortem examination found that Elsie had been stabbed five times — twice in the back, twice in the head, and once through the hand as she tried to shield herself from her killer— with the fatal blow piercing her heart. She had not been sexually assaulted, and the pathologist concluded that she was still a virgin at the time of her death. Her cause of death was given as ‘shock and haemorrhage due to multiple stab wounds’. Seven hours after she had left home that afternoon, her father had to visit Wakefield Public Mortuary to identify her body. The Frost family was left shocked and stunned, and reeling from what had happened – so much so that Elsie’s parents both needed sedation. Whilst the family tried to come to terms with what had happened, the massive manhunt for Elsie’s killer continued. Even Scotland Yard was to lend support and officers.

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Police divers search a nearby river

Piecing together Elsie’s final known movements, it was established that Elsie had chosen to walk home a different way to the rest of her friends, and had taken the route that led along the towpath and through the 30ft ABC Tunnel, to avoid scuffing and dirtying her new shoes. It appeared that the attack had happened as Elsie walked through the ABC Tunnel, where she was savagely attacked from behind. Despite her grave injuries, Elsie had managed to stumble through the tunnel to the bottom of the steps, where she collapsed and died just minutes before being found by Thomas Brown and his children. A trail of blood leading from the place where Elsie was stabbed to the bottom of the ABC Steps confirmed this.

The hunt for Elsie’s killer was heavily publicised in the national press in the weeks following the murder, with fear and suspicion cast especially across the community of Lupset, uneasy with the thought of having a brutal killer in their midst. Children who could once play free now found themselves kept an eye on and curfewed, and such activities as Scouts or Brownies extra supervised. Police had gone door to door questioning every man who lived in the area, with some 12,000 in all spoken to, and a reconstruction of Elsie’s last known movements had been made.

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Local press at the time of the murder

Aside from the thousands of people in the locality who were interviewed, and thousands of witness statements taken during the manhunt, police did have other clues to go on. Many people seen near the ABC Steps that day were traced and spoken to, but were ultimately eliminated from the enquiry. A tan coloured 12in leather knife-sheath with a stag’s head motif had been found tossed over a wall near to the murder scene, but a knife that matched it was either missed or never found, despite a large number of knives being taken and tested as a potential murder weapon. The murder weapon has never been found. Several people also reported seeing a bearded hitchhiker in a nearby road, and a well dressed driver of an Austin Cambridge car that was parked near the scene. Neither of these men were ever traced. The film from the young amateur photographer’s camera had also been examined in case the pictures provided any clues – but this again drew a blank.

The former MP for Wakefield from 1987-2005, David Hinchcliffe, was a 16-year-old youth in the area at the time, and was one of those interviewed. Years later, he described local feeling at the time:

‘The police came to my house, and they came to my friends’ houses. We were asked where we were on the day in question. I was watching Wakefield Trinity Rugby League team play at their Belle Vue Ground. There were six or seven thousand people there and I was with friends so I had an alibi. I had to produce a sheath knife. It sounds strange now, but most boys at that time would carry a sheath knife. You carved wood with it. You used it for making spears and as part of play. They did a lot of questioning of people in our area. A lot of work was put into talking to people about where they were when this murder occurred.’

Ultimately, all who were spoken to were eliminated from the enquiry. As is standard, even members of Elsie’s family were repeatedly spoken to and asked to provide their movements on the day of the murder. Elsie’s former brother-in-law was one of those questioned, and was to describe it years later:

“We were put under a lot of pressure, where were we at what times, when we had last seen Elsie. It wasn’t just that they asked you once. They would come back a week later and ask you all over again but with a slightly different phraseology to try to catch you out. They interviewed everyone. Before the questioning, everyone was pointing fingers at each other. My wife trusted me. I think she accepted the fact that I was going to be questioned because everyone was. The police had a job to do.”

The inquest into Elsie’s death was held in January 1966 and many people gave evidence. One of these was John Blackburn, the teacher who was in charge of the school sailing club, and the last person to see Elsie. He told the inquest:

“I beckoned to Elsie and took her out in a boat to give her some instruction, as she had previously got into difficulties when navigating one of the boats. I was out with Elsie Frost in the boat until about five minutes to four. She then helped me to pack away the boats before leaving”

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Horbury Lagoon in 1965

By the time the inquest was held, there was still no definitive motive for the killing, although many motives had been suggested and examined. The evidence pointed to an opportunistic crime, a random attack. Yet the savagery of the wounds Elsie received suggested an attack that was deeply personal and committed by someone filled with anger and hatred. A possible secret boyfriend who killed her after a row was suggested, and perhaps more intriguingly and credibly, it was suggested that Elsie could have been murdered to silence her after stumbling upon two men indulging in homosexual activity whist she was walking home (homosexuality was unlawful in the UK until 1967). Whilst a clear motive could never be established, the coroner’s jury did believe that it could name the culprit. The role of the inquest at that time could actually accuse a named person of murder, rather than just the role it plays nowadays which is to establish certain facts and a cause of death. Newspapers the following day reported: “Elsie: Man accused of murder”

The accused was 33-year-old Ian Spencer, a former railway fireman and labourer who had actually given evidence and appeared at the inquest as a witness. Spencer had been in the area of the murder on that Saturday afternoon, but had insisted that he had been home at least 45 minutes before the murder occurred. Simpson’s wife, mother-in-law, and a family friend could all confirm this – but were never called by the coroner to speak at the inquest. The finger of suspicion was pointed at Simpson when subsequent inquest witnesses contradicted his story, and claimed that they thought they had seen him close to the area where Elsie’s body was found at around the crucial time. The jury decided unanimously that the cause of death was murder and “that there is a prima facie case against Ian Bernard Spencer”. Basically, Spencer was being accused of the crime, and was committed to face trial. Ian Spencer spent more than two months in custody before being cleared at a magistrates court. It was here that it was concluded there was no case to answer, and the jury were instructed to find Spencer, “not guilty”. He was released, but his wrongful arrest and the subsequent case of mud sticking was to forever blight him. Police were to visit Spencer in the following years whenever another murder occurred to ascertain his movements, leading him to feel the need to document his exact movements at all times for alibi in a series of notebooks. Simpson documented dates, times, places he had been – and even the exact mileage of his car. This practice continued for many years, long into his retirement, only stopping when a series of strokes led Simpson to be taken into a residential care home. He remains there to this day. When interviewed about his accusation by a local newspaper many years after the murder, Spencer’s family said:

This has followed him all his life and we want him to be left alone. I understand that Elsie’s family want closure but we do not want his name dragged up every time. He is not a murderer. He was never convicted of anything. He is one of the softest, kindest people I know but he has had to live with this most of his life. It is not fair. He is an old man and deserves to have his last years in peace. Our family deserves to put it behind us as he never did anything and was cleared.’

But back in 1966, when Simpson was cleared, police were forced to admit that they were back at square one with their investigation.

It is not just Ian Simpson who has suffered painfully as a result of Elsie’s murder. Her family never really recovered from her death – her father couldn’t even ever bring himself to discuss the murder, or to even view photographs of Elsie. Both of her parents are now dead – her mother Edith in 1988, and her father Arthur in 2003 – but her brother and sister are still alive, and have pushed for the investigation into Elsie’s murder to be re-opened in an effort to gain some closure for the family and justice for Elsie. They have of course never forgotten their sister, nor has the local community. On the 50th anniversary of Elsie’s death, St George’s church in Lupset was packed with more than 100 mourners, and the touching tribute of 14 doves were released in Elsie’s memory – a dove for each year of her life.

Finally, her murder was the subject of an investigative BBC Radio 4 programme in 2015, which resulted in an encouraging amount of new information being received. This helped re-open the investigation that year, and the possible theories concerning Elsie’s murder were reviewed in context with the new information. The programme makes for interesting listening, and links to the full programme covering the case can be found here: Who Killed Elsie Frost?

A line of appeal focused upon in the 2015 re-investigation is the identity of a man who was seen cycling near to the murder scene around the time Elsie was killed. This man was described as:

A white male, 25 to 30 years old and riding a black bike with a basket on the front and wearing a white lab type coat possibly of the style then worn by someone who could have been a delivery boy, butcher or abattoir worker.

There was also a line of enquiry to try to establish the identity of a man seen near the murder scene at around the crucial time that day. He was described by Detective Chief Inspector Elizabeth Belton:

“A common description of a person of interest which has come from some of the calls has been of a man wearing a brown, potentially duffel, type coat with dark hair who was seen on the canal towpath.He was of medium to thin build and in his early 20’s. He was described as carrying a bag by some witnesses, and was possibly of what was described as a scruffy or ‘student type’ appearance.”

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Who was the man in the duffel coat?

Similar theories that were examined 50 years previously were also re-examined, including the “mystery boyfriend” theory. But there is still no evidence to support this.
And a further blow to the investigation comes with the reports that police have never retained Elsie’s bloodstained clothing – they were either destroyed or returned to her grieving family, and so there is nothing that a possible workable DNA sample of her killer can be obtained from, even though technology now exists that would make this possible. Most of the original files from the 1965 investigation have now also been destroyed. And perhaps most frustratingly, the file on Elsie’s murder has been closed at the National Archives until 2060 – for reasons that are at best, unclear. The latest hurdle in a crime in which so many details remain unexplained.

What can be the motive for Elsie’s killing? I believe that this was a crime committed in either a rage, or out of fear – that explains the savagery of the killing. It is likely, or would at least be expected, that a boyfriend would have been known by someone, if not by Elsie’s family then at least by one of her friends – and I consequently do not believe this is a serious line of enquiry, although understand the need to investigate it as an avenue. It is more likely that Elsie was chosen at random by a sex offender in the area at the time. The absence of rape or attempted sexual assault should not discount a sexual motive to this murder – it is more likely that the killer had to flee. Several reports were commonplace of men “flashing”, exposing themselves to women and girls for sexual kicks – did someone expose themselves to Elsie and then pursue the frightened girl, killing her to save themselves being caught and identified? Was this possibly the man in the duffel coat? The theory of Elsie having disturbed two men indulging in homosexual behaviour is also of course possible.

Several theories abound, and there is much more in-depth research concerning the case than is recapped here. During my own research for the TTCE post I came across several theories presented – from responsibility for the crime being laid at the feet of notorious names from the annals of British crime, such as Peter Sutcliffe, Ian Brady, and even Jimmy Saville; to reported cover-ups concerning the investigation by the West Yorkshire Police. There is much information available for the reader to delve into and form their own conclusion, and the crime is still examined today by many the armchair detective. A recommended site can be found at : http://www.whokilledelsiefrost.com/

Frustratingly, it is also unclear as to why so much emphasis was given to Ian Spencer as being a suspect in the murder. One could be led to strongly suspect that Spencer was the unfortunate victim of a case of having a suspect in the frame, with police choosing to fit evidence around the suspect in mind? Indeed, it is fortunate that a higher authority decided to see sense and that there was no case to answer concerning Spencer’s guilt – otherwise the annals of victims of miscarriages of justice would have had another name added to their lists, along with the Stephen Downing’s and the Stefan Kiszko’s of this world.

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The ABC Steps as they appear today

In 2016, a 78-year-old man was arrested in Berkshire in connection with Elsie’s murder and released on police bail, however was subsequently re-arrested in March 2017. It is reported that a file was sent to the Crown Prosecution Service for consideration in charging him with Elsie’s murder. However, there is no further report available as to the status of this. Reports also account that this man is being looked at by South Yorkshire Police as a possible suspect in the unsolved murder of Anne Dunwell in May 1964, which was previously recounted on TTCE, and a link to which can be found here: The man arrested is an already convicted murderer and sex offender, and on 25 August 2017 he was charged with a rape and abduction in Deepcar in 1972. Next week on TTCE his crimes will be focused upon, and an examination as to his possible culpability in the murders of both Anne and Elsie will be discussed.

 

Is it possible, that the killer of Elsie Frost may still face justice for her murder…?

 

The True Crime Enthusiast

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