Updated: May 23
On a baking hot day in July 1948, Joan Woodhouse, a young librarian, set off from a London in the grip of Olympic Game fever to visit relations in Barnsley. However, she never made it home to her native Yorkshire. Justice for Joan is an account of this brutal, unsolved killing.
While book introductions can sometimes ‘spoil’ the book itself, book forewords are a different kettle of fish altogether. It is always interesting to understand how and why an author came to write a given book and in his foreword, Martin Knight reveals how, as a librarian himself, he had become engrossed in this tragic event.
On a whim Mr Knight traced the victim’s best friend and telephoned her. Now in her 90s, the lady in question presented him with the family’s own dossier which included contemporaneous crime reports, photographs and press clippings of the crime. Fellow authors can only dream of such serendipity. And so Justice for Joan was conceived.
Despite not having access to the original police reports, this is a well-researched book. Knight is thus able to present a pretty thorough picture of the victim and her modest background. Described as ‘demure’ and ‘deeply religious’ Joan worked at the British Museum library in Bloomsbury and lived in a local YWCA hostel.
As London found itself besieged by crowds flocking to the Olympics that bank holiday week-end, it appears Joan wished to escape the brouhaha and had arranged to visit her family up north. However, for reasons unknown rather than Yorkshire she ended up in the small town of Arundel in Sussex, a town her aunts had once lived near but from where both had subsequently moved up to Bridlington.
It has been speculated that the young librarian may have wanted to visit what had once been a favourite haunt prior to journeying home later that day, thereby avoiding London's chaotic transport system. It would prove to be a fateful decision. Joan’s body was discovered several days after she had left the YWCA in a park on the grounds of Arundel castle. She had been strangled and raped.
Knight is unequivocal in his criticism of the police enquiry which followed. Lead by Fred Narborough of New Scotland Yard it seems that police decided that Joan was a lady of easy virtue and had probably met a lover for a secret tryst in the castle grounds. Yet of the many witnesses who had seen Joan in Arundel that balmy July day, not one reported seeing her with a man.
It was a theory without substance. Joan’s family and friends were horrified at insinuations which inevitably made their way into the media. The 27-year-old in fact held deeply religious convictions. Knight describes a family not only torn apart by the loss of a loved one, but their fight to correct a warped and false media portrayal of a loved daughter and niece.
Eventually suspicion fell on the man who had reported finding the decomposed body of the young girl, labourer Thomas Stillwell. Eventually is the right word, for it is incredible to think that in his initial police statements Stillwell had confessed to being in the park at the time of the murder with the purpose of stalking young women . . .
Knight then charts a botched police investigation, rightly chastising those involved for an astounding dereliction of duty. Well-known in Arundel as a ‘flasher’ and sexual deviant, for reasons best known to themselves police all but ignored Stillwell as they pursued a phantom lover whom nobody had actually seen.
Reading of how the family was forced to pursue a private prosecution in the light of official negligence and even apathy is enough to raise the blood temperature of even the mildest of readers. Joan’s father and aunts did everything they could to bring Stillwell to justice, but were ultimately thwarted by a corrupt establishment anxious to cover its tracks.
The book’s epilogue provides an unexpected twist to this sorry saga. Knight raises the possibility that Stillwell might well have avoided the hangman’s noose because of his parentage – an intriguing and highly plausible theory. In other words, justice may have been denied poor Joan because of a cover-up.
Justice for Joan is a compact read which might just leave one with a bitter taste in the mouth. I couldn’t help browsing the black and white image plates where one picture stands out above all the others: it depicts a smiling Joan sun-bathing on a beach in 1935, a fresh teenage face squinting into the sunshine, a picture of innocence.
However hard I try, I know I shall never get that picture out of my mind.