In February 1921, eight-year-old Freda Burnell was abducted from her home at Abertillery, Wales, found raped and strangled next morning, in the outhouse behind a local shop.
Suspicion focused on 15-year-old Harold Jones, an employee at the shop, and he was finally charged with the murder, acquitted by jurors on June 23 after a long and controversial trial. Many locals still believed Jones was guilty, and their suspicions were born out in early July.
On July 8, 11-year-old Florence Little disappeared from her home, and searchers launched a house-to-house sweep through Abertillery two days later, when no trace of the girl could be found in the surrounding mountains. At the Jones residence, officers found a trapdoor leading from Harold’s bedroom into the attic, and there they discovered his latest victim, her throat slashed from ear to ear.
A measure of confusion was added to the case on July 14, with the arrival of a semi-literate note, allegedly penned by the killer. Signing himself “Duffy,” the author described himself as a 46-year-old Irishman active in the militant Sinn Fein movement. “I think it very right,” he wrote, “to kill all I can of England lad and girls.” Dismissing the letter as a hoax, authorities indicted Harold Jones for murder on July 22.
In November, based upon Jones’s confession to both murders, a magistrate imposed the maximum possible sentence for killers under sixteen, ordering that Jones be “detained during his Majesty’s pleasure.”
For much of 1921, Abertillery was gripped in horror by the murders of two young girls in the town. Had they occurred in the present day, then undoubtedly the story would have attracted the kind of media frenzy associated with the Soham murders. Indeed, the extremely sad episode is perhaps made worse by the fact that the killer was a 15-year old boy who was acquitted in a sensational trial after the first murder only to commit another within days.
By 1921, Abertillery was the second biggest town in Monmouthshire, second only to Newport. Nearly 40,000 inhabitants were packed into its narrow streets, attracted by work in the thriving coal mines in the area. As in most south Wales valley towns, the dangers of working underground forged a strong sense of community. That community spirit was rocked in 1921 as the town reeled from the realisation that one of its own youngsters was responsible for two heinous crimes and that perhaps some of the townspeople themselves had unwittingly played a part in allowing the second to occur.
On the morning of Saturday February 5th, eight-year old Freda Burnell of Earl Street went on an errand for her father to buy poultry grit and spice at Mortimer’s Corn Stores in Somerset Street (just across the road from where the Police Station is situated today). Young Freda was sadly never to return home. Worried by the length of her absence, her father Fred went to the shop to see if she had visited. The young assistant, 15-year old Harold Jones confirmed that the youngster had indeed visited the store as its first customer around five past nine and left about ten minutes later.
Fred became increasingly vexed and after six hours of searching and scouring the streets for Freda, he alerted the police. Local officers started speaking to locals to see if they could shed light on Freda’s whereabouts and questioned Harold Jones to see if he could give any clues, but to no avail. Meanwhile, as the winter light faded, scores of local people were out helping to search the streets and adjoining mountainsides for the girl. By midnight, hampered by tiredness and cold weather conditions, the search was called off and resumed at first light next morning.
At about 7.30 that next morning, a collier found what first appeared to be a collection of rags on the ground in the lane running behind Duke Street. Instead, he realised as he approached that it was the body of a girl. It was clear that young Freda had been subjected to a vicious, brutal attack. Subsequent examinations by police and doctors revealed that she had died sometime in the morning of the previous day.
Scotland Yard officers were dispatched from London to assist local police. By the following Thursday, Harold Jones had been arrested and charged with murder. A witness claimed to have heard screams coming from a shed used by Mortimer’s Corn Stores for which Jones had the only key. More damningly, a handkerchief used by Freda was found there together with an axe which it was claimed may have been used in the attack.
Jones refuted all the claims and denied murder. Despite the weight of circumstantial evidence against him, he was acquitted at his trial on June 21st 1921 at Monmouth Assizes and remarkably he made a victorious homecoming to the streets of Abertillery where many locals themselves joined in the celebrations, unwilling it seems to believe that one of their own was responsible for such a barbaric crime.
Just seventeen days later, the acquittal of Jones was to have dreadful consequences. Late on the evening of Friday July 8th, he somehow lured 11-year old Florrie Little, who lived just three doors down, into his home. Jones attacked the girl with almost unimaginable brutality and concealed her body in the attic. This time though escape from justice was impossible. With the body in the attic and his parents having returned home, he was effectively trapped. Still, he held his nerve as he himself assisted police in the search for the girl on the streets. However, the police started to conduct house to house searches and when Jones’s father Phillip invited them into his home, the game was up. Jones himself left the house as the searches progressed but when young Florrie’s body was discovered, his father went after him and apprehended him in the streets of Abertillery
There was now pandemonium in the town as the news spread. Jones was sent for trial, again at Monmouth, and this time he confessed. Remarkably he also gave a second statement, although not read in court, in which he also admitted the murder of Freda Burnell.
Jones was still under 16 by a mere two months and so escaped the hangman’s noose by virtue only of his age. He gave the reasons for the murders as a ‘desire to kill’. His incarceration removed him from the streets of Abertillery though it is claimed by some that he was to return on several occasions in later years.
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