Killer hanged for brutal murder in Southampton's Grove Street
LATE on January 10, 1929, the chief constable of Southampton sent an urgent telegram to Scotland Yard.
It simply read: “A case of murder has occurred here. A man has been found shot in a room the door of which was padlocked. The body was found today and has probably been in the room for eight or nine weeks. Will you please send an officer down to investigate the matter.”
It was not a bizarre request. Such was the time several police forces called upon their expertise – and this was no ordinary murder.
The inoffensive victim, Vivian Messiter, 57, an agent for the Wolf’s Head Oil Company, had been missing for almost three months before his body was discovered behind a pile of wooden crates stacked against a wall in its locked garage. He was lying face down on the floor by his touring car, a hammer having inflicted grotesque head injuries.
Curiously the car’s ignition was still on and the petrol tank was empty, suggesting the engine had been kept running, muffling the sound of the murder, until the fuel had been exhausted.
After his landlord had reported him missing, there appears to have been an extraordinary lack of interest in his whereabouts and Messiter was certainly not the sort of employee who would suddenly leave his directors in the lurch.
A quiet, uncommunicative man with few friends, he had however led a colourful career, being commissioned into the Northumberland Fusiliers in the Great War, finishing as a captain with an impressive record and a legacy of a wound that left him with a limp.
The West Countryman then worked extensively in America and Mexico before moving to Southampton to take up the agency role.
Chief Inspector John Prothero, one of Scotland Yard’s finest detectives, led the investigation, chiefly assisted by Detective Sgt Hugh Young, later to become a distinguished police commander.
Time passed, with a jury returning a verdict of murder by person or persons unknown, The town’s chief constable reassured the public through the Echo that the killer would be brought to justice. What he did not disclose was that detectives had discovered a man called W P Thomas had answered Messiter’s advert for a canvasser to approach local farmers to sell their oil.
The scar-faced individual worked for the oil company for three months, living with his mistress, ‘Golden-haired’ Lil Hambleton in rented rooms in Cranbury Avenue.
Inquiries revealed Thomas was in reality William Henry Podmore, 29, who came from Stoke and had dumped his wife and child.
Intriguingly, the couple had left Southampton almost contemporaneously as Messiter had been reported missing.
Podmore then obtained employment with a contracting firm at Downton, Salisbury, fleeing with £130, the firm’s wages for the week.
He was also wanted by Manchester police for dishonesty.
Soon arrested, he was jailed for six months. Stepping out of prison at its completion, he was immediately arrested for the Downton theft and earned another six months inside.
It was during then that Inspector Prothero made the major breakthrough.
Holding up oil receipts to the light, Podmore’s heavy-handed scrawl clearly revealed he had been craftily defrauding the company.
The supposition was that Messiter fatally discovered his dishonesty and confronted Podmore, who panicked and slaughtered him with the hammer. Again, Podmore walked from Wandsworth prison, believing he was a free man, only to be again rearrested – this time for murder.
Grove Street today.
Early in March, 1930, Podmore stood in the dock at Hampshire Assizes on trial for his life in front of the formidable Sir Gordon Hewart, the Lord Chief Justice of England.
The prosecution’s case was principally circumstantial and relied much on the evidence of two cellmates, to whom Podmore had confessed.
The defence smeared their testimony as tainted, stressing there was no link between the defendant and the hammer and he had not been seen near the garage on the day of the murder. He also claimed he had left the oil company on good terms, telling Messiter the job had not suited him.
In fact, he admitted nothing could have been further from the truth – he readily admitted his fraud, knowing that if he was caught, he would serve a lengthy spell behind bars because of his prodigious record.
Jurors took just 89 minutes to convict and he was sentenced to death.
An appeal was also rejected but as he sat in the condemned cell at Winchester jail, a story went on the rounds that the Home Secretary had received a visitation from a ghostly figure, claiming ‘he knew something about the case’.
Podmore was however hanged on April 22, and said to have walked the mere six steps from the cell to the scaffold without a trace of emotion.