North Wales Police have a number of unsolved murders on their books, and one of the most baffling is the brutal murder in 1975 of pensioner Huw Watson. A near crippled old man, he was found butchered in a burning cowshed that he called home. A police investigation into the murder raised more questions than it provided answers. The case is frustratingly hard to find information about, and almost seems to be forgotten due to the passage of time. TTCE has decided to highlight this just to show that it, and other cases like this, is not forgotten. Others will be recounted in the coming weeks.
Huw Watson had spent his working life around farms and farming. He had spent the best part of 50 years working as a threshing machine engineer before the onset of combine harvesting. In later years he had driven a road roller and tractors before ill health had caused him to stop working. Reclusive and long since retired, the 77 year old pensioner had now settled to live in the small town of Llanrwst, where his home was a squalid cowshed near a hay barn just off Station Road. Huw was not originally a native of Llanrwst, he hailed from Llanfihangel Glyn Myfyr near Cerrigydrudion, but after leaving there as a young man he had never gone back to the area, instead settling in the Llanrwst area where he had spent so much time working. He had no family, and had never married.
Perhaps as a result of a hard working life involving hard physical labour, and due to his age, Huw was left a near cripple by the time he was 77 years old. He could not walk without the aid of two walking sticks, and one of his legs was near useless. Due to this, Huw was a well- known and recognisable figure in the Llanrwst area. His infirmness made any journey for him cumbersome and challenging, but one journey Huw made regularly was to bask in the hostelry of the Pen Y Bryn Hotel in Llanrwst’s Ancaster Square, where he was a familiar figure who would visit each evening. Drawn by the warmth and company, Huw nevertheless kept to himself, normally drinking alone and enjoying his pipe. However, he was not aloof and along with his habitual love of a game of dominoes, Huw could often regale the clientele of the hotel by holding court with tales of yesteryear that would appeal to a generation gone by.
The night of Tuesday, December 9th 1975 was no exception. Llanrwst was preparing for Christmas celebrations, and festive cheer was beginning to settle over the town. Huw had spent the evening drinking in the Pen Y Bryn Hotel, had played his customary game of Fives and Three’s, and was happily watching other people playing. It was remembered later that the constant pain Huw felt due to his crippled leg seemed to be worse that night, as in order to watch the dominoes being played he had cause to lean on the shoulder of another regular who was stood at the bar. Huw said goodbye to his friends just after 21:30 that evening, and set off on his journey home. This journey would have taken a considerable amount of time.
Huw was never seen alive again after leaving the Pen Y Bryn Hotel that evening.
At about 23:15 the same evening, two police officers on patrol were driving along Station Road, when they spotted a building on fire. Realising it was the hay barn adjacent to where Huw lived, they quickly raised the alarm, and fire crews from Llanrwst and nearby Betws y Coed were soon at the scene. Where the barn stood was located behind houses on a quiet, residential part of Station Road. As is human nature, locals came out of their houses to offer assistance and to watch the emergency services activity, and lingered on their doorsteps throughout the night watching the scene unfold.
Huw’s body was discovered in the hay loft in the early hours of the morning by firefighters who were attempting to bring the blaze under control. It initially appeared that Huw perhaps may have fallen, and tragically his pipe had started a fire that had soon raged out of control and claimed his life. A post-mortem was carried out at the scene soon afterwards by Home Office pathologist Dr Donald Wayte, with the cause of death being determined as asphyxia. But a full scale murder investigation was launched by North Wales Police the very next morning – because Huw also bore signs of being stabbed more than 20 times, possibly with a weapon similar to a pitchfork….
Police very quickly realised that they had little to go on. After Huw’s body was found among the hay bales, detectives undertook a painstaking search of the site using floodlights. But they were hindered by the effects of the fire on the scene, the passage of firemen through the crime scene, and the lifestyle Huw had had. He had lived in a state of near squalor. The officer leading the hunt for Huw’s killer highlighted the difficulties police faced from the off:
“Many clues were destroyed by firemen tackling the blaze. The clothing was burnt so we could not get any fibres for forensics. Mr Watson lived in a cowshed that was in a terrible state. If he had been living in a house, we could have looked for fingerprints.”
– Detective Chief Superintendent Eric Evans
The murder hunt was launched and an incident room was set up at Llanrwst Police Station. About 40 detectives were drafted in from all parts of North Wales to assist in the hunt, including members of the regional crime squad. After establishing a timeframe between Huw last being seen alive, and the fire being discovered, detectives realised they had a timeframe of about an hour to account for, in which time Huw met his killer. It would have taken Huw at least 25 minutes to get home at the speed he could manage, which would get him home at about 22:00. The fire was discovered at 23:15, so it was surmised that Huw was attacked shortly after he had arrived home and that the killer had spent a considerable amount of time with his victim. This was determined due to the wounds on Huw’s body.
“Some of the wounds inflicted on Huw were very serious, but others were superficial. We think that whoever committed the crime spent some time in the barn with the victim.”
– Detective Chief Superintendent Eric Evans
Detectives were left baffled by the motive for Huw’s death. However, it was feeling in the local area that gossip and local rumour had led to Huw being targeted for robbery. As is so often the case, a reclusive elderly man with no family is rumoured – perhaps rightly or wrongly – to be wealthy and miserly. Perhaps the killer had overheard local gossip that Huw had a considerable sum of hard cash lying around the cowshed he called home. Indeed, investigation uncovered rumours amongst the villagers that this sum could be as much as £300, although this claim was never confirmed. What helped fuel these rumours was the fact that Huw was often seen to be paying for rounds of drinks with £20 notes – although this may have been a genuine attempt to change his weekly pension down into smaller, more manageable sums.
As Christmas of 1975 approached, the investigation continued and uniformed officers visited every house in the Llanrwst area as part of the inquiry, which was later extended to all properties in the neighbouring village of Trefriw. In total, police interviewed more than 6,000 people, took many statements and made a number of public appeals, which ultimately proved fruitless. Police however, did have one person they wished to trace.
As Llanrwst is a small town, any stranger is noticed sooner rather than later. The initial appeal for information leading to the capture of Huw’s killer brought reports of a stranger sighted in the area that detectives wished to interview to eliminate from their enquiries. This man was sighted at Llandudno Junction, a mere 10 miles or so from Llanrwst, at 9:50pm on the night of the murder. The same man was also spotted in Station Road in Llanrwst mere minutes before the fire was noticed. There is only a distance of 12 miles between these two points on a very direct route. Was this the same man? The timeframe between sightings makes it certainly possible for it to be. He was described as being 20 to 30 years old, bearded, of medium build and with dark hair, and wearing a dark overcoat and trousers. A similar man was seen early the next morning boarding a train for Llandudno Junction, but appeals for him to come forward and eliminate himself were unsuccessful, and he has never been traced.
The case file remains open, but the passage of time and lack of forensic evidence makes the possibility of the killer being brought to justice very remote indeed. Indeed, it seems to be a case that there is incredibly few places to start investigating from. It remains police feeling, indeed has always been, that a stranger to the area killed Huw. When interviewed by North Wales Daily Post newspaper 13 years after the murder in a feature concerning cold cases, Detective Chief Superintendent Eric Evans reinforced this view.
“If the offender was a local person, we still feel sure that there must be someone who would have seen him with his clothing disarrayed or would have noticed a change in his manner, such as nervousness.”
-Detective Chief Superintendent Eric Evans speaking in 1988
The only suspect ever to have seriously been in the frame is the bearded stranger spotted in the vicinity of Station Road that evening. But there has only ever been a vague description of this man (which is recounted above) and he has never been traced. Huw was found to have no known enemies, and more than 6000 people in the local area were questioned and ruled out. If then it wasn’t a local person responsible, how then was Huw targeted, and was robbery the motive? It is known that local rumours abounded about Huw being financially well off, perhaps as a result of receiving a lump sum of pension back pay, or having an insurance policy mature. He was also very infirm, unable to walk without the aid of walking sticks, and would have been easy to overpower. It is known that Huw lived alone in a state of squalor, so it stands to reason that a person who calls a cowshed a home and has such a simplistic lifestyle is unlikely to have anything of particular value, except cash. However much cash Huw had to his name is unknown, so it is impossible to say how much, if any cash was stolen. Indeed, it is not known exactly what, if anything was taken from the scene. Yet Huw’s wallet was found in the ashes, containing £18 in notes. This equates to £170 today, so in 1975 this was a substantial amount of money, far too much to ignore if robbery was a motive. It stands to reason that a wallet would be a primary target of any thief, so why was this not taken? If it was dropped, why did it not burn?
What was the need for such violence towards a defenceless, crippled old man, 20 plus stab wounds with what could have been a pitchfork or sharpened screwdriver? And why these particular weapons? For a pitchfork to have been the weapon, it would seem that this was an opportunistic crime as it is a cumbersome weapon to wield. It more than likely suggests a disorganised offender, one who used what was to hand rather than having come to the scene prepared to kill. If however, the weapon was a sharpened screwdriver, there is the possibility that this could have been brought to the scene and taken away by the killer. An organised offender brings a weapon with them. No determinable weapon was ever found, but there could be an explanation for this.
Huw had already been stabbed several times before the fire started, but the cause of death was attributed ultimately to asphyxia. The stab wounds, although serious, were not ultimately fatal, although due to the number of them, it’s very likely they would have proven fatal if Huw had not asphyxiated first. Police opinion was that Huw had been tortured horribly in an attempt for the killer to gain the whereabouts of any hidden cash sums he may have had. This was reinforced by the discovery that whilst some of the stab wounds were superficial, others were deeper and more severe. As though a killer was experimenting with torture. An even more chilling theory is that after being stabbed, Huw was then tortured in a most chilling way possible, with him left helplessly watching a fire deliberately set in an attempt to gain information as to the whereabouts of his hidden riches? Supporting this theory is the fact that Huw’s body was found in the hay loft itself, and not in the adjacent cowshed where he lived, although the cowshed was consumed in the fire also. He could not have climbed up to the position he was found in by himself, so why was he placed there? Was he placed there because it was a position he could not move from, and he was left to die horrifically? What kind of callous killer would do that to a defenceless old man?
It is of course possible that the fire was started accidentally, although fire service investigators who examined the scene were inclined to believe it to be arson. What other purpose then could the fire serve? Setting a fire would bring emergency response, because it would be rapidly noticed. This would accelerate any discovery of a crime, therefore reducing the likelihood of an offender escaping. No, it is more than likely that the fire was started deliberately to remove any trace evidence of the killer from the scene, perhaps to destroy fingerprints or any other forensic evidence. This may also be why no determinable weapon was ever found, because it had been destroyed by the fire.
More than 40 years later, there are still more questions than answers concerning the murder of Huw Watson. The case is still officially open, but the trail has long gone cold. The absence of any forensic traces from the scene has hampered detectives, along with the absence of a clear suspect and absence of motive. Barring a deathbed confession, or someone who has been harbouring guilt or knowledge for four decades finally breaking the silence and coming forward, it is difficult to see how this savage crime will ever be solved. The killer might now be dead himself, or may be serving a prison sentence for an unconnected crime. Or he may still be walking free carrying his guilty secret with him. Hopefully though, one day Huw’s killer will be brought to justice and the picturesque town of Llanrwst can close the chapter on one of the darkest days in its history.
The True Crime Enthusiast