On Saturday afternoon on the 9th October 1965 fourteen-year-old Elsie Frost, a bright and happy schoolgirl, was brutally murdered in broad daylight, the time was around 4.15pm. Elsie was stabbed to death in a frenzied attack in a railway tunnel next to what is still known as the ABC Steps (there are 26 steps) close to the Calder and Hebble Canal towpath in Wakefield, Yorkshire.
There appeared to have been no motive, she had not been sexually attacked or robbed and had no known enemies. The motive remains a mystery.
Wakefield at the time was a pretty quiet city, they had never experienced such a massive police enquiry. The crime dominated the media headlines. Forty thousand people were interviewed, twelve thousand statements were taken and four hundred people living within a quarter of a mile of the murder scene had their movements investigated.
Detectives from Scotland Yard were called in to assist the local police forces. Tracker dogs were used in the area and divers searched the canal looking for the murder weapon but it was never found.
The following Saturday the police staged a reconstruction of events involving seventy people who were in the vicinity of the crime at the time.
Elsie’s parents were devastated by what had happened, her father in particular always found it difficult to talk about it or even look at a photograph of Elsie. Elsie had an older sister Anne and a younger brother Colin. They have been haunted by Elsie’s loss for fifty years and more recently have taken steps to try and discover exactly what happened on that futile day.
Those steps have been hampered by the fact that the police files and those of the Crown Prosecution Service have been sealed for 92 years.
To this day nobody has been found guilty of the murder.
In 1949 I had moved with my parents from Goole to live in Wakefield, my father was a railway man and we moved to suit his job. We got a council house on Lupset estate and I attended a month or so at Snapethorpe Infant School then moved in the September up to the Junior School. Wakefield was a very quiet, sleepy and relaxed place, it was only when I arrived there that I realised that Goole, in comparison, had been asleep. When I was older one of my haunts was Horbury Sand Quarry where I would go swimming and spend time playing around the canal and the ABC Steps. One of my best friends lived on Thornes Lane. My sister lived on Balne Lane when first married. I have a niece who lives on Thornes Moor Road today. The whole area surrounding this gruesome story is known to me. All the places were my stomping ground as a young boy growing up in Wakefield. Clarence Park was also a favourite playground and if I had sixpence in my pocket the nearby Bon Bon was a big attraction.
When I first researched Elsie’s story I felt an immediate closeness. Every one of the places mentioned in the case were so clear in my mind. I found it hard to believe that such a distressing event had happened in an area where I had enjoyed my youth, Elsie had hers taken away from her.
Elsie lived on the Lupset estate; she went to the same school as I had, on that fatal day she had been sailing on Horbury Sand Quarry. Elsie was a member of Balne Lane Youth Club; the man later accused of her murder lived on Thornes Lane, Thornes Moor Road and the Bon Bon shop were also to feature later.
An inquest was opened on January 4th 1966. Over a period of five and a half days more than 40 witnesses were called. It concluded on Tuesday 11th January.
One witness was Ian Bernard Spencer a 33 year old former railway fireman who was well known, certainly by sight, in the area. The Deputy Coroner, Mr Phillip S Gill took some unusual steps in the proceedings that would not be allowed today. Following his two and a half hour summing up he had Mr Spencer bought back into the inquest room at the Town Hall and told him, “The jury have, by the verdict they have recorded, agreed that there is against you a prima facie case of murder. It is my duty, therefore, to commit you for trial at the next Assizes in Leeds, which I understand, will be held in April. In the meantime it is my duty to commit you to prison to await your trial.”
The main case against Mr Spencer was that he claimed to be at home from about 3.30 or 3.40pm and never left his house again that day while several witnesses said they had seen him in the area as late as gone 4.00pm.
On Wednesday Mr Spencer was taken to the City Court and charged by Mr R Duffin JP with the murder.
Prior to the case arriving at the Assizes (now the Crown Court), in those days the serious cases went to a Committal Hearing before Magistrates (this was abolished in 2012), to establish if there was sufficient credible evidence to warrant committing a defendant to trial. Counsel for Mr Spencer, Mr H Colin Muscroft, made a strong appeal to the bench suggesting there was no substantial evidence against his client. At the end of the hearing on 15th February 1966 the bench retired to consider their response. It took the three magistrates just 45 minutes for them to return. Mrs. E J P Beaumont Chairman of the bench announced, “So far as this court is concerned, the accused is discharged.”
Consequently when the case did arrive at Leeds Assizes on 10th March 1966 Mr Spencer was cleared and the matter was all over in five minutes. He had been in prison for two months.
West Yorkshire Police reviewed the case in 2013 and decided there was no new evidence to warrant re-opening the case.
So why has this case caused so much public interest?
Elsie’s sister and brother have co-operated with the BBC in the broadcasting of several programmes investigating the crime on BBB Radio 4. This has heightened the public interest and appears to have exerted pressure on the police as they have now re-opened the file.
I believe there are many points in the case that simply do not add up and no proper answers given.
This has caused a lot of speculation with regard to suspects, some of it with no evidence whatsoever. Two mentioned have been the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe and Jimmy Savile.
The File was closed very quickly in 1966, in effect the police stopped looking for the killer! These are the files that remain closed until 2060.
The alibi of Mr Spencer’s, claiming that he was at home at the time of the murder, does not appear to have been challenged!
Some of the people seen in the area at the time have never been traced!
I have many more questions that I am working on, already one or two answers have emerged.
If YOU can help in any way, no matter how small or insignificant you may think it is please make contact.
One important task is to build up a picture of the character of those closely involved.