The tragic and brutal unsolved murder of Stephen Varley

Stephen Varley

Stephen Varley's body was found near Sopwell Ruins in Cotton Mill Lane in December, 1948. - Credit: Google Maps

Just a week before Christmas 1948, a widowed father was brutally killed and dumped among the vegetable patches of an allotment. His murder remains unsolved to this day.

On Saturday, December 18, Stephen Varley took his 10-year-old daughter to a children's party at the de Havilland aircraft factory in Hatfield, which is also where he worked as a shop steward.

The 52-year-old was a widowed, single father having suffered the tragic loss of his wife nine months prior, and he still carried her wedding and engagement rings with him.

Police were able to piece together the final few hours of Stephen’s life but even then, what happened to him remained a mystery.

He was seen exiting the party at de Havilland around 7pm that evening, leaving his daughter with a friend.

Stephen Varley murder

Stephen Varley was killed in St Albans just before Christmas 1948. - Credit: Herts Ad

At around 9pm, he was seen again, this time catching a bus to nearby St Albans, arriving at 10.30pm.

Stephen was then spotted by witnesses walking with two men along Cotton Mill Lane between 10.30pm and 11.10pm, near to the Sopwell Ruins and allotments, with some reporting him to be drunk.

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At around 11.15pm, he was seen struggling with the two men on a footpath next to the allotments, and this was the last sighting of the 52-year-old.

At around 8am on Sunday, December 19, his body was found lying amongst the vegetables.

“It was about eight o’clock on Sunday morning that his partly-clothed body was found lying on the main footpath leading from Cotton Mill Lane to the Nunnery Allotments,” read a Herts Ad report covering the murder.

“The exact spot is about 100 yards from the main gate of the allotments.

“The man who made the tragic discovery was Mr Frederick Howe, of 43 Bernard Street, St Albans. Mr Howe, who is married and has two small daughters, is employed by Messers Simmonds, the St Albans nursery men.

“He has an allotment close to where he found Varley. There were several other gardeners at work when Mr Howe arrived.”

Stephen had been beaten, strangled and left with his head and face badly battered.

He was wearing only his shirt, tie, waistcoat, underpants and socks. His shoes were found away from the body and his trousers and jacket were missing. He was covered by a dark blue overcoat.

Stephen Varley murder

Stephen's body was found by Frederick Howe on the morning of December 19. - Credit: Herts Ad

Police believed whoever had killed Stephen had taken money from his wallet, but he had managed to hide the purse containing the wedding and engagement rings of his late wife.

The mysterious murder drew the attention of chief detective inspector Robert Fabian of Scotland Yard, and Dr Keith Simpson, an eminent forensic pathologist, but they had little to go off.

His injuries were consistent with being attacked by more than one person, and while his work with the trade unions could have made him a target, it seemed as if his murder was unprovoked and not premeditated.

But, the 20 minutes before Stephen’s death were unaccounted for, while police still had crucial questions that needed to be answered.

Why had he gone to St Albans, was there any physical evidence, and more importantly, who had killed him?

Detectives believed he might have gone to St Albans to meet someone, but it was not known who, although friends revealed he had told them he was going home to Watford.

They also thought that he had missed his last bus home from St Albans, and that the two men he had been seen with offered to show him a short cut through to Abbey Station, where he could catch the last train at 11.25pm.

As for the physical evidence, a report on January 8, 1949, claimed blood-stained clothing had been found abandoned in Devizes, Wiltshire, which were thought to have belonged to one of the two men who had murdered Stephen.

The clothes included a pair of grey flannel trousers, while a pair of grey socks and a blue striped shirt came with the laundry marks ‘DI 341/PI' and 'TC 8. 138’.

But, a member of staff at the only laundry in Devizes revealed: “We have not been interviewed by the police.

Stephen Varley murder

Chief detective inspector Robert Fabian of Scotland Yard took a keen interest in the case. - Credit: Herts Ad

“None of the laundry passing through our hands is marked by any letters. We know nothing of the bloodstained shirt.”

Police claimed they had also made exhaustive inquiries at second-hand shops in an endeavour to trace Stephen Varley's missing trousers and jacket, but they were never found, much like his killers.

True crime fanatics speculate Stephen was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and that he was the victim of an attempted robbery gone horribly wrong.

With his murder still unsolved almost 75 years on, we may never know who killed Stephen Varley.