John Avery Heritage
Member Southampton Heritage Federation
 Sharing local history with the community
In 1967 the Queen Mary set off on her final voyage to Longbeach, California. This watercolour by Eric Crompton records the farewell.A stone carving on the RSH Hospital Chapel.An afternoon stroll on Plymouth Breakwater
John Avery is a Fellow of the Huguenot Society of Britain and Ireland, a member of Southampton
Heritage Federation, City of Southampton Society [Honorary Life Member], Friends of Southampton Old Cemetery [Honorary Life Member],  Friends of  Town Quay Park, National Federation of Cemetery Friends, The Southampton Fryatt Plaque, Devon Family History Society, West Country Historic Omnibus & Transport Trust , Landmark Trust, National Trust
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   Home      The Murder of Vivian Messiter

Sign Wolf's Head Oil Co

It seems rather strange on reflection that when the Southampton Agent for the Wolf’s Head Oil Company disappeared in October 1928 leaving records and correspondence on his office desk that nobody took much action. His landlord at his digs reported him to be missing but his employer, relatives and the police just assumed he had found other interests and moved on. The Company eventually appointed a new Agent in January 1929 and it was he who persuaded the police to break into a lockup garage rented by his predecessor. They had the horrific discovery of a rotting corpse which had lain for 9 months, later identified as that of Messiter.

The Chief Constable sought the help of very experienced murder enquiry officers from Scotland Yard. A nationwide search began for a former commission agent Frank Thomas who with his girlfriend had absconded from their lodgings in the previous October about the time Messiter had disappeared. Thomas was found in London and was returned to Southampton for questioning.

A newspaper report on 20th January 1929 read “SOUTHAMPTON MURDER Long Interrogation.”

Jan. 20. — The interrogation by the Southampton Police of Frank Thomas, who was detained in connection with the murder of Vivian Messiter, an American, in a Southampton garage, was one of the longest in the history of crime. It began on Friday afternoon and ended on Sunday, when two detectives arrived to take Thomas to Manchester in connection with a missing motor car. It is understood that witnesses failed to identify Thomas as the man seen talking to Messiter. Miss Hambledon, the golden-haired woman who was living with Thomas, was questioned and allowed to return to her home.

With insufficient evidence to charge Thomas with the murder Thomas [alias William Henry Podmore], was charged with absconding with wage packets belonging to his employer, a Wiltshire based motor mechanic and the theft of a motor car. He was sentenced and served 6 months in jail.

Painstaking and thorough research by the police and in particular by Sir Bernard Spilsbury the famous pathologist employed by the Home Office, uncovered further evidence. Podmore had worked as an assistant to Messiter the local agent of the Wolf’s Head Oil Company and the close examination of commission receipt books proved that Podmore had inserted ghost sales. Probably Messiter confronted him about the fraud and was viciously attacked by a hammer.

Podmore was brought to Winchester Assizes in March 1930, some 14 months after the murder. He was found guilty. He made an appeal but the Court of Appeal maintained the sentence and he was hanged on the 22nd April 1930. There was much controversy about the sentence as there were many gaps and inconsistencies in the prosecution evidence. A petition signed by 12,000 people including 79 MP’s called the conviction into question due to the circumstantial evidence.

Strangely a few days before he was to be hanged the Home Secretary had a mystery caller cloaked in a black long coat at his private residence. He explained to the footman that he had evidence to prove Podmore to be innocent. The Home Secretary Joseph Clynes told his man servant to send the caller away but he should return to the Home Office the next day when lawyers and advisers would be present. The mystery caller went off into the night and no further contact was received.  A crank or an eccentric of some description?  A genuine attempt to bring some new evidence? We will never know for sure. The hanging continued as planned. Moved by the strength of public opinion Clynes announced that had studied the Appeal judgement very carefully but there were no grounds for clemency.

snowfall Southampton Old Cemetery courtesy FoSOCSeamen's strike at Southampton 1966Royal Blues at Bournemouth c 1949 photo by Derek Amey local historians Jim Brown and John Avery deep in thought. Image Ann MacGillivray Veronica Tippetts addressing Court Leet Oct 2nd 2012. Image Will TempleJohn Melody Southampton Town Crier at Court Leet 2012. Image Will Temple