So many suspects, but none convicted

A tailor, Robert Venner, was seen staggering around his store with blood pouring from his head one evening in 1934. But no sign was seen of his attacker and he died five days later without regaining consciousness. Six suspects were in the frame for the murder over the next seven years, as JAN BONDESON explains.

In 1934, Mr Robert James Venner had been the manager of Henry Cohen’s Tailor Shop at No 187-9 New Cross Road for not less than 26 years.

A tall, pipe-smoking, 55-year-old man, he kept long hours tending the shop, but was paid a less-than-impressive salary.

Although he had money enough for his daily needs, he was unable to save money, or to afford buying anything interesting or valuable.

On the evening of July 6, 1934, Robert James Venner was working at the tailor’s shop as usual.

At 6.20 pm, when the shop was still open, a passer-by saw him staggering about in the shop, his head covered with blood.

He had been hit repeatedly over the head, presumably with an iron bar.

Five days later, he died from his injuries at the Miller General Hospital, Greenwich, without regaining consciousness, and a murder investigation began.

The motive was supposed to have been robbery, since around £7 had been stolen from the shop till.

There was newspaper speculation that the mark of ‘X’ in blood inside the shop had some sinister significance, or that the last thing Venner had done before the assault had been to measure his killer for a suit, meaning that his measurements were entered into the shop ledger.

The murder shop was (and still is) just by busy New Cross Gate, where there were several tram and omnibus stands, and plenty of people about.

One witness had seen a man leave Venner’s shop, hiding something underneath his coat; another had observed three men, one exceptionally pale, exiting the shop.

A light-blue saloon car observed nearby might well have been the murderers’ getaway car.

Numerous other witnesses had seen mysterious men lurking about, but their descriptions varied wildly.

The police believed the murder of Robert James Venner was a robbery gone wrong.

One or two men had entered the shop to steal the contents of the till, and when Venner tried to intervene, they had ‘coshed’ him hard enough to kill and brought the murder weapon with them.

Another man had been the lookout outside the shop, and yet another accomplice might well have been driving the getaway car.

The local detectives tried to put pressure on their police informants, but these mischievous individuals had little worthwhile to contribute, except to ‘squeal’ on various old enemies to ‘frame’ them for the ‘New Cross Job’.

The police soon found their main suspect. A ‘spiv’ and racing tipster named Joseph Neale had turned up with an amazing story of seeing three men leaving the murder shop, and blood seeping under its door.

He had tried to sell this story to the newspapers before contacting the police.

Neale was soon a suspect himself, since he was a known thief and violent criminal, who associated with all kinds of unsavoury types.

He had spoken to his estranged wife about being ‘the outside man’ in the New Cross Gate ‘job’ and threatened her with violence if she went to the police – as she later did, nevertheless.

The police informant Frederick Evans was not surprised that Neale had been involved in the Venner case.

He named Neale’s two accomplices as ‘Flash Joe’ and ‘Charlie the Navvy’, also known as Joseph Gibbons and Charles Nougher.

All these three were hardened criminals, certainly capable of planning and carrying out an armed robbery.

Neither of them had an alibi, although Lougher had tried to persuade a fellow lodger to give him one.

Neale’s account of seeing blood running underneath the shop door was impossible, since the doorway was lower than the pavement.

The measurements in the shop order book fitted Neale, but they also fitted thousands of other Londoners, and if Neale had been inside the shop, then his ex-wife’s story of him admitting to being the ‘outside man’ was a fabrication.

All three suspects were taken into police custody, and a series of identity parades were carried out, but none of the 10 crime scene witnesses could pick them out.

No bloodstains were found on their clothes, or in Neale’s car, and there was no other worthwhile technical evidence against the three suspects.

They all stoutly denied any involvement in the murder of Robert James Venner, and the ‘squealer’ Evans refused to make an official statement against them, perhaps indicating that his original account had been less than truthful.

After all, Evans was himself a thief with nine convictions against him. And if Neale had been the mastermind behind the robbery turned murder, then why would he have gone blabbering about it to his estranged wife, and to some complete strangers?

In the end, although the police detectives remained convinced that Joseph Neale and his two associates were involved in the murder, they lacked sufficient evidence to prosecute them.

The police file on the New Cross Gate murder was kept open for several years.

A prisoner named Pearson implicated a thief named Alfred Arthur Bailey, who had made various allusions to the ‘New Cross Job’ while serving a sentence at Pentonville Prison.

Since Bailey was a serious villain, another set of identity parades was arranged, again with a negative result.

In 1935, a police informant pointed the finger at the Welsh labourer Sammy James, a native of Treforest.

He had a long list of convictions for assault and petty crime, but was able to clear himself over the murder of Robert James Venner.

As late as 1941, a Watford police informant claimed that an old charwoman had implicated that the young labouring man Rodney Pharoah had been involved in the New Cross shop murder, but this tip proved entirely unreliable, and the police file on the case was finally closed, for good.

A murder that should have been solved had become an impenetrable mystery.

The former tailor’s shop at No 187-9 New Cross Road, the only memorial to this unsolved murder mystery from 1934, is today a branch of Londis.

This is an edited extract from Jan Bondeson’s Murder Houses of South London (Troubador Publishing, Leicester 2015).

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