ONE case above all will be forever locked in the forefront of my mind from my 50 years of covering trials, major and minor.

And that is the barbaric Burgate House massacre in 1978.

It was early September.

It had been a quiet news day and the deadline for the city edition was approaching when we received a tip-off there was police activity at the Country Lifestyle outside Fordingbridge.

Police confirmed they were dealing with an incident but were reluctant to to say more.

However, a telephone to the local post office yielded more information before the horrific details began to emerge – how the elderly gardener had gone to work that morning and had seen smoke pouring out of a bedroom.

He had been met at the front door of the house that belonged to Joseph Cleaver, 80, and his 70-year-old invalid wife, Hilda, by the couple’s whimpering pet.

Going inside he found the evening meal had been disrupted and the downstairs had been ransacked.

Police discovered the body of the couple’s daughter-in-law semi-naked on a bed.

She had been raped and strangled.

On the landing lay her husband, Tom, who had crawled out of the master bedroom and tried to reach the bathroom.

Joseph Cleaver, 80, and his 70-year-old invalid wife, Hilda, who were found bound and gagged.

In the bedroom, they discovered the bound and gagged bodies of the elderly couple and her nurse who burnt to death after it had been set alight.

Correspondence revealed they had hired a live-in handyman, George Stephenson, but he had been recently fired for being repeatedly late and being drunk.

Seeing his name in papers and on TV as being the person police wanted to question, he surrendered himself to police in Hampshire after spending the night camping in the New Forest.

Stephenson and two henchmen, brothers George and John Daly, were charged with multiple counts of murder and I covered the opening of their trial the following year.

There would have more space in a sardine tin than in the press box on the first morning, with many of the local and national reporters having to be accommodated in the public gallery.

The case had been due to open at 10.30am, with the news editor demanding 350 words for the New Forest edition by 11.30am.

No problem I thought with David Elfer QC – who was popular with the press – leading for the Crown Prosecution Service.

But 10.30 became 10.40 before the judge came into court and the jury had to be selected and sworn in.

Thankfully, there was no hold up and Mr Elfer was about to open his case when one of the defence barristers raised a legal matter.

The jury had to momentarily leave the court.

The barrister applied for the three defendants not to be named in press reports because they also faced rape charges – which at that time guaranteed anonymity.

The judge thankfully gave short shrift to that argument and at 10.57am, Elfer finally got to his feet.

He turned left towards the jury to introduce his fellow barristers and then deliver a succinct overview of the case before going into its minutiae.

I sprinted downstairs while a colleague took over, and then read his opening out of my notebook to a waiting copytaker.

It was 11.29am when I finished dictating – though I wasn’t sure how many words I had delivered.

“I wanted 350,” the news editor reminded me.

Then with a chuckle, he added: “You have sent 351.”

I had never felt more relieved and drained at the same time!

Stephenson and the Daly brothers were found guilty by the jury and duly received life sentences with a recommendation they served at least 20 years imprisonment.

So gruesome was the evidence that we were told afterwards that some of the pictures that had been prepared for the jury album were withdrawn at the last minute amid fears they would be sick in court.

At the conclusion of the evidence, the Echo began putting together a major background supplement.

I was sent to Cambridge to interview a nurse who had had a camp meal with Stephenson the night before he was arrested.

We had learnt she read fortunes through tea leaves and amazingly no-one else had interviewed her to what she had read that night.

I couldn’t have called at a better time.

She had just finished her day duty and when I knocked on the door, I introduced myself and explained why I was there.

“I’m no going to say it,” she insisted, albeit with a smile.

“Say what?” I replied.

“You know perfectly well – what I saw in the tea leaves – or in this case what I didn’t see.”

Leaving the door open, she invited me in and she talked how she came to be camping in the New Forest and how she met Stephenson, unaware he was wanted.

When she offered me a cup of tea, I hoped it would be the springboard for revealing something sensational.

Not a word of it.

She saw nothing unusual and thought that Stephenson was just a normal guy.

NEVER judge a book by its cover, so they say – and that’s how indictments perhaps should be viewed.

The first case I ever covered at the Quarter Sessions was at the Guildhall in Winchester.
There was only case in the list and it was to be a trial.

All I could glean from a quick word from the court clerk was that the defendant lived locally and the charge was that he had stolen a fish!

Naturally, the thought crossed my mind that it was a straight forward case of shoplifting, with the culprit being detained outside the supermarket having made no attempt to pay for the item.

Oh, no. Far from it.

The fish turned out by a salmon which had been caught by a fisherman – and not just any fisherman.

Among the prosecution’s leading witnesses was a world champion fly fisherman who testified how he knew he had landed the fish because he used a unique hook which was the tell tale sign on the fish.

He was adamant he had caught it and the defence barrister could make little or no inroads into his evidence.

The defendant was equally adamant he had bought the salmon legitimately.

Jurors retired for some time before giving him the benefit of the doubt and acquitted him.

Two others fall into the same category.

It was a Friday morning in February, 1978, and Southampton Crown Court had transferred five sentences to Winchester.

Again they all looked much of a muchness and I again was the only reporter in court seven, with the local news agency and national press covering a major trial elsewhere in the building.

The first four cases passed without incident.

So there was only one left which involved a 33-year- old jobless man who lived in a tower block and had been committed for sentence for stealing a £30 raincoat from a city centre store when drunk.

The case facts of the case were duly opened and his antecedents given.

It was at this point that the judge – who best remain nameless – called the officer in the case into the witness box and asked how great a problem was there in Southampton with unemployed people frittering their dole money on drink.

The officer replied that he thought it was no better, no worse than other places.
The judge then delivered the most astonishing remark I ever heard in court coverage, saying people who did this should have their ears cut off.

I could hardly believe mine and my shorthand went into overdrive as he continued.
The judge then adjourned sentence for an addendum to the probation report as his suitability to live in a hostel.

After the case, I checked my notes with the court shorthand writer to make sure that I had not misheard him.

No, my notes were perfect.

The quote ran: “I think it is time that we must cut off their ears to make them realise when they get their benefit, it is for the family and not to go down their throats.”

He then added: “You had money in your pocket for drink and you left your wife and son destitute.”
The story naturally appeared on the front page of the Echo the following day and, after its publication, I filed the story to the nationals.

"The only call back came from a sub-editor on the Guardian, who as to whether he said beards and not ears!"

The case was splashed over the front page of the three tabloids and led to the matter being raised in the Commons!

However the public was very much on the judge’s side.

He duly received a sackful of mail from people from all round the country who wrote of their anger and frustration at having to work long hours to make ends meet, only for drunks like the defendant to abuse their income tax.

I was to cover another case with the same judge in Southampton less than a week later when a gang of youths tied up another youngster and, having pelted him with pebbles and the like, were charged with assault.

He saw me sitting at the press table that was adjacent to the dock and during a lull in the proceedings asked whether I had written the story.

I confirmed I had and feared he might then deliver a few strong words but he merely nodded and smiled.

By chance, I met him shortly afterwards outside court and held no grudges in a pleasant chat.
The third bizarre case was ironically another which had been transferred to Winchester, with the defendant, a Southampton artist, who had been charged with a drink-driving offence.

Very little of the prosecution’s account went unchallenged by the defence, but then the case took an extraordinary twist when the defendant gave evidence.

He told jurors how he had been unwell at the time and had been suffering from a severe sore throat.

He resorted to take cough medicine but with little or no affect.

Then he said he swallowed the entire contents of the bottle of Gees Linctus and that, he maintained, had put him over the limit.

Jurors found him not guilty, leading to an Echo headline of ‘Gee Whizz’.

Murdered schoolgirl Marion Crofts.

DNA profiling, the greatest breakthrough in crime fighting since fingerprinting, is undoubtedly the greatest change I have witnessed.

Through the advance in forensic science gathering, more criminals than ever after criminal are now being caught, and scarcely a day goes by when the Courts of Justice do not hear how someone has been caught as a result of molecular biology.

There's never been a better example of it being used in Hampshire when it solved the murder of tragic teenager Marion Croft, pictured, who was on her way to band practice in 1981 when she was ruthlessly dragged off her bicycle, raped and strangled.

Despite a massive police investigation, it was not until 2010 when a former soldier, who had been stationed at an army camp adjacent to where her body was found, was arrested for allegedly assaulting his wife.

His DNA was found to matched that stored on the national database.

But for that revolutionary technique, the case would never have been satisfactorily closed.

Another change has been the introduction of taped interviews. Previously it had all been taken down on paper.

So many trials were interrupted and the jury sent away after the defence said they wanted to raise a legal issue in their absence.

That meant a trial within a trial with the judge having to determine whether this or that disputed fact had or had not been said.

Progress has also seen the abolition of short hand writers, with the evidence now being tape recorded.

They had been supplied by legendary Lloyd Woodland, a former reporter for the Hampshire Chronicle, who set up an agency.

Occasionally courts understandably were forced to stop to give the writer a break from trying to keep up with fast talking barristers and witnesses.

It posed no problem for Woodland - his shorthand was a breathtaking 240 words a minute!
On the flip side, a charming man called Professor Phillips occasionally sat as a part-time judge.

He however was so slow in summing up cases and passing sentences that his remarks could have recorded on copper plating with time to spare!

Another significant change has been the introduction of statements, facts agreed by the prosecution and defence without the need to bring the witness to court.

I remember one case in the council chamber at Winchester which featured more than 30 witnesses, many of whose evidence went unchallenged.

The abursidy of it all was encapsulated by a bobby having to be taken off his beat to sit outside the court for much of the morning simply to produce a map!

As far as reporting went, the idea of having a computer that could instantly sent messages was the stuff of science fiction when I began.

Stories would either be phoned over to a copytaker or they would be handwritten at court for a copy boy or girl to turn up and take them back to the office for possible use that day.

Otherwise we belonged to a world ruled by Olivetti typewriters with the top paper destined for the sub-editors and the carbon copy retained for your own safekeeping.

And how did it reach the Echo?

For district offices, the story was simply put into an envelope marked ‘New copy - urgent’ and taken to the post office for collection!

Hon Ewen Montagu QC.

HAVE often been asked which judge was the toughest I had ever witnessed in court.

Without doubt, the imposing 6ft 2in tall Hon Ewen Montagu QC who did not suffer fools gladly and tore apart barristers who had come to court ill-prepared and had not taken proper instructions.

Though born with a privileged background, he detested snobbery and despised humbug.

Almost hawk like, he trained a beady eye on everything and everyone in court.

I fully remember one occasion in the twilight of his career how he gave a dressing down to a woman police officer sat behind counsel’s row who was trying to hide laughter as a gypsy, with not the greatest intellect, gave evidence.

He stopped the case immediately and demanded to know what the joke was.

Perhaps it was, perhaps it wasn’t and she was thinking on her feet but the object of his wrath insisted she had not been laughing at the witness but thinking of a remark from an erstwhile colleague.

“If I had thought for one moment, you were laughing at her, I would have reported you straight to your superior.”

Admonished and chastened, she sat down in silence as the case continued.

But when he retired, no judge could have received greater admiration and gratitude voiced from lawyers, police, probation and court officials.

Many years later, well into his retirement, I wrote a letter to him at his London home in mere hope than expectation that the former Judge Advocate of the Fleet, Recorder of his native Southampton, chairman of Hampshire Quarter Sessions, yachtsman and Royal Intelligence wizard would grant me an interview.

Not only did he write back within days but invited me to his flat.

Smoking his traditional Sherlock Holmes style pipe, he thrust out an arm and greeted me warmly, apologising that he could at best only offer me 45 minutes as his wife Iris had unexpectedly made arrangements for them to go out and see friends.

Keeping her at bay, 45 minutes stretched into 90 of the most enthralling interview I had ever conducted - and ever will - as we discussed his war time career, his writing and the legal system.
At the end, he said he was truly sorry it had to end.

It had begun on safe ground, discussing how he had invented the ingenious ‘Operation Mincemeat’ that undoubtedly saved the lives of thousands of allied servicemen over the real location of the Mediterranean landings in the Second World War.

It was the famous ‘Man Who Never Was’ plan that witnessed a man who never achieved much in life but in death a lot.

Loaded with fake top secret messages, unpaid bills and a love letter from a sweetheart, the uniformed corpse of Major Martin was released from a submarine to float ashore, knowing the papers would be intercepted by a German agent, so hoodwinking the German high command
Post war, he wrote the best seller about the plot in five days, and had a bit part in the subsequent film where he was played by Hollywood star Clifton Webb, who he found cold and aloof.

He acted the role of an air-vice marshal at a chiefs of staff meeting who had to tell Webb: “I don’t think your plan will work, Montagu.”

It was the only time, he said, that he saw Webb laugh.

The judge also exclusively revealed how he had hatched another plan called ‘Operation Iago’ which would discredit a German sea captain over his morality, piling up information about the captain that he had sold information about u-boat sailings and strategy for money.

He was sure it would strike a major blow on the morale of u-boat crews but it was rejected by top brass because “we don’t assassinate people”.

But much of the interview was centred on his sadness of idle young men drifting into petty crime and how they need help to turn their life around.

Mr Probationer QC as he was nicknamed, invented the slogan at what has become a court cliche - “Prisons are the universities of crime”.

He suggested a novel idea that today would never be acceptable.

“A boy crook should have his trousers taken down, spanked with something like a hair brush by a police woman and a photograph ought to be taken for it to be exhibited in every coffee bar and cafe in a mile radius.”