‘He asked around for a tub that could hold acid’

Haigh being led from Horsham town hall in 1949
Haigh being led from Horsham town hall in 1949

John George Haigh and the acid bath murders have been a stain on Sussex history for 70 years.

Between 1944 and 1949, Haigh killed six people, dissolving their bodies in acid at his homes in London and Crawley.

Market Square, Horsham, was packed when Haigh arrived

Market Square, Horsham, was packed when Haigh arrived

The people of Horsham were given a glimpse of the murderer when he was held at the old town hall, in Market Square, which was then home to the sittings of the magistrates court. Crowds gathered and people queued for seats in the seats in the public gallery.

He had been held in cell 2 of Horsham Police Station, in Barttelot Road. That door is now in the possession of Horsham Museum, along with a comb he used while in the prison hospital at Lewes.

Looking back on the spectacle in 1997, County Times columnist Old Mick wrote: “I will never forget the crowds that gathered in Market Square for a glimpse of John George Haigh, when he first appeared charged with what became infamously known as the acid bath murders.”

Despite Haigh’s attempt to convince the court he was insane – claiming he was a vampire who killed his victims to drink their blood – he was found guilty and hanged on August 10 1949.

The queue for the public gallery in Market Square, Horsham

The queue for the public gallery in Market Square, Horsham

It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like for people to find out they had been living with a killer in their midst.

Take Ron Shaw, for example. Mr Shaw owned the now demolished Shaw’s Garage, on Orchard Street, which was founded in the 19th century by his grandfather Ambrose.

In 1997, he told the Crawley Observer Haigh’s wealthy lifestyle, complete with pricey cars, had often baffled him.

Mr Shaw said: “I remember seeing Haigh in his Alvis or Lagonda sports cars and I used to wonder how he could afford the petrol because it was still rationed.”

He added: “Haigh asked around the town for a tub that could hold acid for some work. It was quite common then as acid baths were used for anodising aluminium – a sort of treatment for the metal. Anyway, he got the tub and the next thing I knew was when I went to visit a business acquaintance in West Green. A light was burning bright from Haigh’s workshop. Looking back, that was probably the night he disposed of Olive Durand-Deacon.” Mrs Durand-Deacon was Haigh’s final victim. He lured the 69-year-old wealthy widow to his workshop in Leopold Road, West Green, on pretence of discussing a business venture. He then shot her and dissolved her body in the vat of acid. It was the discovery of her dentures in the remaining sludge and a dry cleaner’s receipt for her coat that led to Haigh’s arrest.

Following the arrest, many Crawley people who had had the misfortune to meet Haigh were questioned by police.

They included Thomas Cripps and his staff at Bateman’s Opticians, in the High Street. Mr Cripps, of Horsham Road, Southgate, ran the opticians until 1980. He found a letter from Haigh in the shop’s files. The letter was dated March 1 1948 – a year before the full details of Haigh’s crimes were exposed. Speaking to the Observer in 1997, Mr Cripps said: “The letter asks the shop to fix his glasses for him. He was staying at the Gatwick Hall Hotel, Lowfield Heath, at the time.” Haigh called into the shop to pick up his specs and later, when he was arrested, police came to speak to the staff. Mr Cripps said: “Everybody was naturally very shocked when the news came out.” After holding on to the letter for 40 years, Mr Cripps had been hoping to sell it to someone with an interest in Crawley history. Does anyone know where the letter ended up?

One Crawley man had a close encounter with Haigh while the killer was with one of his victims.

Jack Cook, met Haigh and the ill-fated Dr Archibald Henderson when they knocked on the door of Broadfield House in 1948. Formerly the Broadfield Country Club and Hotel, it had closed down and was due to be used as the main office for the new town planners and architects. Mr Cook’s daughter, children’s author Shirley A Elmokadem, described the encounter in her blog. She wrote: “Late one night in January 1948 there was a knock on the door. When my dad opened it there were two smartly dressed men standing there. ‘ Hello’, said the younger of the two, ‘My name is Haigh and this is my friend, Doctor Henderson, we have booked a meal in the restaurant.’

“‘You can’t have done’, said my dad, ‘We have been closed now for a while.’ Haigh took a small diary from his jacket pocket. ‘I have’, he insisted.

“Doctor Henderson looked at him. ‘Haigh, you are mad, I always said you were,’ he said. ‘Well then, may I use your phone?’ Haigh asked my dad.

“‘Yes, of course,’ dad replied. Dad heard Haigh phoning someone in Brighton. Henderson pulled a gold cigarette case from his pocket and took out a cigarette.

“When Haigh had finished his phone call he told my dad that if anyone came looking for him he was at The Punch Bowl Restaurant in Crawley. Haigh thanked my dad for the use of the phone and paid him two shillings for the call.

“Dad thought Haigh seemed a polite well-mannered man, with the good looks of a matinee idol. Dad was later interviewed by the police when they were investigating the Haigh murders as he was probably the last one to see Henderson alive.

“It seems Haigh murdered Doctor Henderson that night, and the next day his wife was also lured to her death.”