This Write up is dedicated to the memory of Derek William Bentley, who was hanged on 28th January 1953 for a murder which many people believe he was not responsible for. Anybody who has seen the film 'Let him have it' will be familiar with Bentley's story and the worldwide interest in the key words of the crime, trial and the case, "Let him have it, Chris". Clearly susceptible to two interpretations, many people would take it to mean 'give him the gun' rather than 'shoot him', but the confusion that this simple sentence caused in the courtroom was to seal Bentley's fate, and make him hang for a crime that, technically, he did not commit...
Derek William Bentley was born on the 30th June 1933 and was raised in the East End of London. When he was 4 years old, an accident resulted in Bentley falling from a lorry, causing a severe blow to the head, and a future of suffering from epilepsy and brain damage. The damage caused by the accident was sufficient to reduce Bentley's mental age to well below his physical one, and the young Bentley was illiterate and had severe learning difficulties.
On Sunday the 2nd November 1952, Derek Bentley went with his friend, 16 year old Christopher Craig, to see if they could carry out a burglary. Bentley had a knife, which he used for forcing locks, and a knuckle-duster that Craig had recently given to him as a 'gift'. Craig possessed a similar knife, and a sawn-off .455 Eley revolver - also known as a .45 Colt - which he had been carrying with him every day for many years, later declaring that 'it was just something that he always had with him'. The evening's break-ins were not going well, as the youths had already failed on two attempts; the first due to a butcher working late in his shop, and the second due a courting couple obstructing the doorway of an electrical shop. The evening's activities were seemingly fruitless, until the pair were successful in entering the warehouse of confectioners Parker & Barlow. Climbing onto the roof of the warehouse, the lads thought they had been successful - but had already been spotted by a young girl who lived opposite to the warehouse. The police were already on their way.
Officer DC Fairfax reached the roof first and, although the youths tried to run away, detained Bentley and verbally cautioned Craig that 'other officers were on their way and that he should release the weapon that he was waving threateningly at the officer'. It was at about this time that Bentley is supposed to have said "Let him have it, Chris"; a phrase that even today is interpreted in many ways. Craig shot Fairfax in the shoulder, probably due to a ricochet from the roof they were standing on - his gun was so inaccurate that he was unlikely to have hit the police officer directly. The entire incident lasted for 45 minutes, in which time a second police officer, PC Sidney Miles, was shot - the bullet entering just above his left eyebrow. After killing one officer and wounding another, Craig ran out of bullets and in a desperate attempt to flee the scene, hurled himself from the roof, breaking his pelvis upon landing. It is recorded that 'Bentley was contrastingly quiet and shocked after the death of (PC) Miles'.
The morning after the shooting, The Daily Mail produced the following sensational and highly inaccurate report;
Chicago Gun Battle in London: gangsters with machine guns on a roof kill detective, wound another: "Sidney Street" rages an hour, then hand-to-hand fight. Armed police shoot back'
The London crime wave reached a new peak last night. A detective was shot dead and another seriously wounded in a second 'Battle of Sidney Street'. They had seen the flash of a torchlight in the warehouse of Barlow and Parker, wholesale confectioners, Tamworth Road, Croydon, just after ten o'clock, and entered the building. They cautiously edged their way in. Inside, the raiders were so far undisturbed. Ambulances and fire brigades had been summoned. Then as the bandits realized a police cordon had trapped them, shooting began. The gangsters armed with Sten guns hit one of the officers as he climbed the fire escape towards the bandits. He was Detective Constable Miles, in plain clothes of Z division, a married man, two children with 22 years service. He was killed instantly. His colleague PC Frederick Fairfax, who was in a police patrol car dashed into an alleyway leading to another fire escape up which the gunman had climbed. As he went to help Miles there was another shot and people coming out of the Sunday cinemas heard one of the gunmen cry 'You won't get me'. PC Fairfax fell, wounded in the shoulder. By this time, over 200 police officers were there, thirty of them armed with revolvers. Shots were exchanged.... Then the end came. As three officers, crouching low, sprung onto the rooftop, the Sten gun was flung in their faces. The ammunition had run out. Then a chase began over the roofs after the gunmen. They dodged behind chimney pots. One of them attempted to lower himself by a stack pipe at the rear of the premises. By this time more police were on the roofs, and there were hand-to-hand battles before the two gunmen were finally overpowered, handcuffed and brought to street level. Here one of the gunmen was found to be injured, and was taken to Croydon General Hospital. When the shooting began Scotland Yard mobilized all police officers and C.I.D. men from Kent and the Metropolitan area. "Get them at all costs", was the order to the 200 police officers in the battle.
Following this report, both the media and members of the public were baying for blood when the case came to trial, a mere six weeks after the shooting. One policeman had been wounded - another had been murdered - and the London 'cosh boys' involved in the horrific crime 'simply had to hang'.
The published police statement given by Bentley disclosed many facts that are still under question today. When reading the document, bearing in mind that this 'sworn statement' was made by a man with the mental age of a 10 year old boy, many questions arise as to whether the investigating officers 'helped' Bentley with his statement;
"I have known Craig since I went to school. We were stopped by our parents going out together, but we still continued going out with each other - I mean we have not gone out together until tonight. I was watching television tonight (2 November 1952) and between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. Craig called for me. My mother answered the door and I heard her say that I was out. I had been out earlier to the pictures and got home just after 7 p.m. A little later Norman Parsley and Frank Fazey called. I did not answer the door or speak to them. My mother told me that they had called and I then ran out after them. I walked up the road with them to the paper shop where I saw Craig standing. We all talked together and then Norman Parsley and Frank Fazey left. Chris Craig and I then caught a bus to Croydon. We got off at West Croydon and then walked down the road where the toilets are - I think it is Tamworth Road.
When we came to the place where you found me, Chris looked in the window. There was a little iron gate at the side. Chris then jumped over and I followed. Chris then climbed up the drainpipe to the roof and I followed. Up to then Chris had not said anything. We both got out on to the flat roof at the top. Then someone in a garden on the opposite side shone a torch up towards us. Chris said: 'It's a copper, hide behind here.' We hid behind a shelter arrangement on the roof. We were there waiting for about ten minutes. I did not know he was going to use the gun. A plain-clothes man climbed up the drainpipe and on to the roof. The man said: 'I am a police officer - the place is surrounded.' He caught hold of me and as we walked away Chris fired.
There was nobody else there at the time. The policeman and I then went round a corner by a door. A little later the door opened and a policeman in uniform came out. Chris fired again then and this policeman fell down. I could see that he was hurt as a lot of blood came from his forehead just above his nose. The policeman dragged him round the corner behind the brickwork entrance to the door. I remember I shouted something but I forgot what it was. I could not see Chris when I shouted to him - he was behind a wall. I heard some more policemen behind the door and the policeman with me said: 'I don't think he has many more bullets left.' Chris shouted 'Oh yes I have' and he fired again. I think I heard him fire three times altogether.
The policeman then pushed me down the stairs and I did not see any more. I knew we were going to break into the place. I did not know what we were going to get - just anything that was going I think. I did not have a gun and I did not know Chris had one until he shot. I now know that the policeman in uniform that was shot is dead. I should have mentioned that after the plain-clothes policeman got up the drainpipe and arrested me, another policeman in uniform followed and I heard someone call him 'Mac'. He was with us when the other policeman was killed. "
London's apparent fear of 'cosh boys' seemed in some way to demand an execution in this outrageous instance of murder. The desire for a conviction proceeded right the way through the English Establishment - a report on the case was requested on behalf of the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill; even though he had shown no such interest in other recent police killings. The judge, Lord Chief Justice Goddard, apparently conducted an extremely biased trial. He destroyed any arguments being constructed by the defence and helped the prosecution whenever he could, and his summing up was said to be selective and damaging. Justice Goddard blatantly failed to urge the Home Secretary to support the jury's recommendation to mercy, and the Home Secretary, David Maxwell Fife, was deaf to all appeals for clemency, even though it was morally and legally justified.
The prosecution felt that the whole case hinged on one particular point of law, from the conclusion of Rex v. Appleby, 1940:
"Where two persons engage in the commission of a crime with a common design of resisting by violence arrest by an officer of justice, they have a common design to do that which will amount to murder if the officer should be killed in consequence of resistance. If, therefore, an officer of justice is killed in such circumstances, both persons are guilty of murder."
It was argued that not only had the 'common purpose' ceased when Bentley was arrested, but that there was in fact no murder - the fatal bullet could quite possibly have come from a police marksman or from an unlucky ricochet from Craig's gun, and the aspect of 'design of resisting arrest by violence' was never satisfactorily proved, as character references for the defence stated that Bentley avoided violence whenever possible, and one even declared that 'two weeks before the warehouse shoot-out, he had refused to go with Craig when he intended to hold up a grocer's shop'.
Bentley's defence counsel, who, even before the trial begun, had expressed the desire to see his client hang, failed to introduce several arguments which could have saved the boys life. For example, Bentley's continuing epilepsy and his extremely low intellect were strong reasons to argue that he was unfit to stand trial. The one crucial aspect of the case was the questioning of whether Bentley was actually under arrest when Miles was killed. The police knew that they had placed Bentley under arrest, and Craig was aware that Bentley had been placed under arrest - but when repeatedly asked, Bentley sealed his own fate by claiming that he was not under arrest - in his mind, a reasonable assumption, as he was not actually being physically restrained at the time. The prosecution counsel, Christmas Humphries, was happy to dwell on this point, using the 'foolish and naive claims of a simpleton as fact, when the contradictory views of stronger and more experienced minds are ignored'.
Lord Goddard's summing up was a masterpiece of flawed and biased logic. He spent 45 minutes summing up, expanding upon the prosecution's case in dramatic and lurid detail. As he completed his presentation, the official court transcript records him saying '... and if you find good ground for convicting them, it is your duty to do it' - edited and corrected by Goddard himself, even though several members of the court distinctly heard the comment '... and unless you find good ground for not convicting them, it is your duty to do it'. Lord Goddard subsequently claimed that he never believed that Bentley would actually hang for the crime; even though he had pressured the jury to ensure a Guilty verdict, and failed to pass to the Home Secretary the jury's plea for mercy.
The jury retired for 75 minutes to consider the case, and upon returning, summoned a verdict of guilty for both youths, with a recommendation for mercy in Bentley's case. The recommendation was ignored, and Bentley was sentenced to death. Craig, who the judge described as 'one of the most dangerous young criminals who has ever stood in that dock' was sentenced to be detained at Her Majesty's pleasure, and in total served 10 years for his part of the crime. After the trial, many attempts were made to secure a reprieve for Bentley, but the Home Secretary blocked all attempts by fellow MP's, and refused to even discuss the matter.
Derek Bentley, at only nineteen years of age, was hanged in HM Wandsworth Prison at 9am on 28th January 1953 by Albert Pierrepoint. Chris Craig was released from prison in May 1963 and he settled in Buckinghamshire.
Iris Bentley, Derek's sister, had campaigned for a full pardon for her brother ever since the guilty verdict was called. Few victories were achieved over the years, but Iris Bentley managed to organise the exhumation of Bentley's remains from their unmarked grave in Wandsworth Prison, and had them reburied in Croydon Cemetery on 4th March 1968, his headstone simply reading 'Derek William Bentley, A victim of British justice'. Sadly, Iris Bentley died on 23 January, 1997, just a few weeks before Derek's case was due to be reviewed, and having a good chance of a full pardon being granted. Considering the course of events, the Home Office passed the case over to the newly created 'Criminal Case Review Commission', and the date for the hearing was only disclosed as being 'at some time in the future'. Despite this, Iris Bentley's daughter, Maria, continued with the battle, and finally the case was heard on 30th July 1988. After 36 years of 'bullying and cajoling the Home Office', Derek Bentley was granted a pardon on the grounds that his 'original judgement and conviction was unsafe'.
The story of Derek Bentley has been made into a film, 'Let him have it', and provides an accurate and un-biased account of the events that took place on 2nd November 1952.
The Macmillan Encyclopedia
The Book of Executions by James Bland