Catherine Dunlop curls up with a good book to review the latest best seller
The Cottontown Killer
James Watts and Thomas Watts
1948 and the country was finding its feet following the horrors of World War 2. Sadly, home grown horrors still existed in post-war Britain and Blackburn was brutally reminded of this in May 1948 when the body of local 3-year-old June Anne Devaney was found in the grounds of Blackburn Hospital. She had been taken from her cot on the Children’s Ward, assaulted and brutally beaten by an unknown terror.
John Capstick, a celebrated and respected Scotland Yard detective, known for his forceful and fanatical approach to policing, took the lead in finding the person responsible. For the first time ever, the community were asked to assist the Police in a mass finger printing study ever conducted. Fingerprints were taken from over 44,000 males, aged between 14 and 90 years and details were sent to every European police force. One can only imagine the mammoth task of door to door printing, comparing and contrasting. The realities of the war were felt again when detectives realised men would not necessarily be on the electoral roll if they had been fighting overseas at the time it was drafted, but they would be recorded on the rationing system and this would lead them to their man. The hard work, commitment and dedication of the officers involved in seeking justice for a family and to take a killer off the streets is astounding.
The authors cover a huge amount of local ground, recounting the formation and growth of Blackburn into a Northern Industrial town and other local crimes which blighted the area. They frame the story of a tragic child murder with a commentary on the infrastructure of society. The NHS was in its fledgling years and hospitals were not the well staffed, funded or secure places they are today, a fact which provided June Anne’s killer with an opportunity. Developments within the justice system, particularly in the political debates surrounding the abolition of the death penalty feature heavily in the book, with a Lancashire MP being a vocal objectioner, and the book also delves into other national crimes which impacted on law and politics. The chapters retelling the Court case are highly detailed and raise questions on the use of the insanity plea, the concepts of mental health, particularly the argument of nature vs nurture and whether someone is mad or just very, very bad.
It’s a fascinating, highly researched book, which would appeal to any true crime or local history fans. The authors tell me they probably have enough material and inspiration to write a number of other books and after reading this well written and absorbing account, I rather hope they do.