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MURDER FILES: THE MARY BELL CRIMES

THE MARY BELL CRIMES

This blog post is about not just Mary Bell and the deaths of two small children, it is an overview of the circumstances surrounding her young life and their influence on her behaviour.

In 1968, an 11 year old girl named Mary Bell (known as May to her family) from Scotswood, Newcastle, was convicted of the manslaughter of two little boys.  Her name became synonymous with child crime and she was described as ‘evil’.  Mary’s crimes were evil, but she was desperately failed during her childhood – not just by her parents and those around her, but by the very system in which she found herself incarcerated.


PEOPLE INVOLVED [1]

  • Norma Bell – friend, tried and acquitted alongside Mary
  • William A Bell (Billy Bell) – father
  • Elizabeth McCrickett (Betty Bell) – mother.
  • Larry Laggan – Inspector on case
  • Harvey Burrows – Dep Ch Supt
  • Justice Cusack – Trial Judge
  • Eric Foster – Mary’s school teacher
  • David Savill – Barrister
  • Monica Rowbotham – Child Psychologist
  • David Bryson – Mary Bell’s solicitor
  • David Martin – Senior Psychiatrist, Red Bank 1969-1971

MARY BELL

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Mary Flora Bell was born on 26 May 1957 to Betty Bell (nee McCrickett), described as ‘a 17 year old ‘prostitute”.  The family lived on one of the roughest roads – Whitehouse Road – in Scotswood, which was referred to as an area of extreme deprivation that housed a larger than average amount of criminality.

‘Family’ Life

Mary’s mother, Elizabeth McCrickett (Betty), was born in Gateshead in 1939 and described as a depressive and very erratic.  She tried to have Mary adopted, but when family offered to look after Mary, this was rejected.[5]  Instead, Mary had a neglected childhood with Betty having a notorious reputation for disappearing for weeks at a time when she’d travel to Glasgow (where her family lived) to ply her trade.  During this time, Mary would often be left by herself.[6]

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Betty Bell in 1972

Although Mary referred to William A Bell (Billy Bell) as her biological father, there are questions around whether Betty met him after Mary’s birth.  Whatever the circumstances, Billy and Betty married after Mary’s birth in 1958.[8]  He was a petty criminal and drunkard who was well known to police and who was later arrested for armed robbery.[5]

Family members have suggested that Betty attempted to kill Mary on more than one occasion and make it look accidental when Betty was just a small child.  The first was when Mary apparently fell from a window, and the second was when Mary accidentally took some sleeping pills.  On one occasion someone claimed to have witnessed Betty feeding Mary pills like they were sweets. [5]

Mary displayed a lot of dysfunctional and worrying behaviour at school and peers recall how she would become extremely aggressive if upset by another child and how her head would shake before she’d immediately grab someone by their throat.  One small girl complained to a teacher about how Mary had stubbed a cigarette out on her cheek.  Mary’s aggressive behaviour caused children to stay away from her through fear, which must have isolated Mary further.  When confronted about her actions, she’d be honest and seemed to show little emotion.  Despite knowing about her violence, the school failed to address the issue.[1]

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Billy Bell (left)

Abuse

Mary was conditioned by her dysfunctional surroundings from an early age.  Her mother would allow men to abuse Mary from the age of just four [5], and due to the lack of space at home, Mary was exposed to what went on between Betty and her clients which, it was claimed, also involved sadomasochism.  She was also exposed to her father’s drunken behaviour and violence.  All that alongside the sexual violence she witnessed between others became the norm in her young mind.[1]

Norma Bell (1955-1989)

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Norma Joyce Bell (no relation to Mary) lived next door.  She was two years older but less intelligent.  Norma followed Mary and was easily led by her, and together they became a pair that other children would avoid through fear.[1]


CRIMES AND KILLINGS

The slums of Scotswood were gradually being demolished in an attempt to regenerate the area.  One partially demolished street full of derelict houses – known as Rat’s Alley – became a play area for the local children.[1]

Child one

On Saturday 11th May 1968, Mary and Norma took a three year old boy to buy some sweets.  Later that day he was found wandering in the street, dazed and bleeding.  Although the police became involved, no further action was taken.[1]

Pauline

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On Sunday 12th May 1968, a local mother complained to police that Mary had attempted to strangle her daughter, Pauline, in a sandpit.  Pauline told how Norma had pinned her down and Mary had grabbed her around her throat.  She then proceeded to fill Pauline’s mouth with sand until Norma let go and moved away (seemingly in fear of what Mary was doing).  Pauline was able to get free and run home.  Again, police took no further action.[1]

Martin Brown

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On Saturday 25th May, four year old Martin had been playing with his friends in the local derelict houses.  At 5pm a neighbour alerted Martin’s mother to the fact Martin had seemingly had an accident.  When she reached the derelict house, there was a group of people stood outside and a crying man was holding Martin in his arms. Martin was pronounced dead on arrival at Newcastle hospital.[1]

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Martin had been found dead in an upstairs room of the house and police were called in to investigate.  The pathologist was unable to reach a conclusion on his death.

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Nursery Break-in

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On Monday 27th May, police attended a call to a break-in at a local nursery, where they found four pieces of paper.  The words scrawled on one said: ‘I murder so that I may come back‘, and on another: ‘We murder.  Watch out‘, and on a third: ‘We did murder Martin Brown.’  The notes were initially dismissed by police as a sick game.  That day, Mary attended school and wrote in her school ‘news’ book:

There were a crowd of people at an old house.  I asked what was the matter.  There has been a boy who just lay down and died.

At the bottom of her writing she drew a picture of the boy, next to him a bottle with the word ‘tablet’ alongside.  She also drew a workman finding the body.   Nobody picked up on the significance of this.

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Following his death, both Mary and Norma would ask Martin’s mother questions about whether she was missing her son and how was she feeling.  Just prior to Martin’s funeral, both girls visited the house and asked to see Martin in his coffin, causing his mother to collapse in distress.[1]

Brian Howe

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On Wednesday 31st July, three year old Brian joined other children watching the demolition of houses in Rat Alley.  At some point Mary picked him up and, along with Norma, took him to play at a nearby patch of wasteland.  That was the last time Brian was seen alive.

That night, police descended upon the wasteland where little Brian had been found murdered.  His body was spread-eagled and half naked.  Snippets of his hair had been cut, there were unusual puncture wounds to his legs which had been caused after death and the perpetrator had attempted to mutilate his penis.[4]  The police quickly ascertained from the evidence presented to them that the perpetrator was young.  A postmortem concluded that Brian had been strangled and the wounds of his legs were an attempt to leave initials on his body.[5]


 INVESTIGATION

Due to similarities to the death of Martin, the police linked both deaths and announced they were looking for a child murderer.

As police spoke to the community, they noticed that Mary would always appear and listen intently to what was being said.  She had also boasted in the school playground that she had strangled a boy.  Many of the children at the school felt Mary had some connection to the cases and the school had noticed the girls acting strangely.

Following a meeting, police decided to talk with Mary.  On the first visit to Mary’s home, Billy refused to allow the police to see her and threatened officers with an Alsation dog.[1]

The police had a breakthrough when it transpired there had been a witness on the wasteland who had seen everything.  He was a nine year old boy with the mental age of four but managed to explain to officers how Mary had massaged Brian’s neck, telling him he had a sore throat and that she’d make it better.  She’d eventually tighten her grip until Brian died.

Mary and Norma were questioned by police alongside Dr Monica Rowbotham, a child psychologist, due to their young ages.  Dr Rowbotham explained how Mary was seemingly unable to relax but also came across as quite tough.

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David Bryson, Mary’s solicitor, explained how Mary consistently denied any involvement.  She was also very distracted – probably just as a young child would be – asking where her mother was, how her dog was etc.  Both Mary and Norma were taken in to care that evening.

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Mary was an intelligent child and police pitied her due to her tender age and her obvious inability to understand the enormity of her situation.  She showed extreme intuition during police interviews and despite her consistent denials, evidence stacked up against her.

The scissors used to mark Brian were found near the scene.  The police then linked up the notes found in the nursery break-in with the two girls and more evidence was gained from the school when a teacher decided to look back over their school books.  It was then that he found the piece Mary had written on Martin’s body being found.  When police noticed the drawing, they stated that the bottle of tablets Mary had drawn next to the body was a piece of information that had never been disclosed to the public, thus proving she had been there.  On 8th August 1968 both girls were charged with the murder of Brian Howe.[1] 

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Lord Street, Allerton, where Mary was arrested

Initially, following their arrest, both girls here kept at a police station in Newcastle before both being sent to separate remand homes where they were both supervised around the clock by female police officers. Mary was sent to Monkton Hall Hospital near Newcastle, in order to undergo a pre-trial mental health assessment.[7]


TRIAL

On 5th December 1968, the trial of Mary and Norma began at Newcastle Assizes.  Due to the ages of the defendants, both the BBC and ITV banned the reporting on their news bulletins and in order to make the girls more comfortable, the judge asked the solicitors to sit alongside the girls.[6]

During the trial both girls claimed they were innocent and both blamed each other. Mary showed no emotion until she was cross-examined and became very upset when asked if she had attempted to strangle a pigeon.[1]

Throughout the nine-day trial, Mary was astute and sharp at answering questions, whereas it seemed Norma was very unsure and seemed to have been coerced into her actions.

At the end of the trial, the jury’s findings were dependent upon the findings of psychologists, who stated that Mary had shown no remorse nor anxiety during the whole process and concluded that Mary demonstrated psychopathic tendencies and was dangerous.

Given the medical diagnosis, on 17th December 1968, Mary was found guilty of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility and sentenced to life imprisonment.  Norma was acquitted on the grounds of being coerced and simple-minded and returned to her family in Scotswood.

Due to her young age it was felt that the system had a responsibility not just to incarcerate Mary, but also rehabilitate her.  Unfortunately, given how unusual and unique it was to see such a young girl convicted of such a heinous crime, no due thought had been given as to where Mary would serve her sentence or even held on her first night.[6]

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It was reported that Mary was placed in an adult prison until the system found somewhere more suitable.[3]


IMPRISONMENT

Mary was initially placed in Lambeth Council’s Cumberlow Lodge remand home in Norwood, Croydon.  Local Labour MP, John Fraser, visited whilst she was there to allay any fears about security.[6]

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In 1969 she was sent to Red Bank secure school in Newton-Le-Willows, Lancashire where she apparently flourished under the care of all the professionals during the six years she spent there.  However, she was the only girl among 22 boys and so plans were made by the Home Office to set up a girls unit on site.  MP for Newton and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Mr Frank Lee, wrote a letter to James Callaghan complaining about Mary’s move to the area.  Callaghan responded by inviting Lee to visit Red Bank, which he duly did.[6]

In 1972, it was decided to send Mary to a new unit for ‘maladjusted children’ in Brentwood, Essex.  However, it was decided this would not be in her best interest as family and friends would not be able to visit her and, despite former claims that girls would be housed alongside Mary at Red Bank, this seemingly never happened, so she should remain where she was.[6]

Betty began to visit Mary regularly but it was an anguished and resentful relationship.  Mary would write letters to her mother begging her mother to take responsibility and tell a judge that she was the guilty party and not Mary.[1]

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By 1972, Betty was reliant on drink and drugs and gave a television interview in which she blamed arguments between herself and Billy as a possible cause of Mary’s behaviour.  Mary had no proper attachment to humans around her, and it was felt that the breakdown in maternal attachment particularly was a main cause of her problems.  It was also claimed that Betty was selling stories to the press and offered them pieces of writing Mary had done.[5]

Mary was incarcerated for 12 years.  She was assessed by psychologists throughout her imprisonment and never acknowledged her own guilt nor deny them – she was found to be dismissive of her crimes.  Despite that, she was eventually found to be no further threat towards children and in 1978 she was moved to Askham Grange Open Prison and released two years later on 13th May 1980.  She was just 23.[1]

Mary Bell, Observer, 11 May 1980

She is afforded lifelong anonymity under a new name, as is her daughter whom she gave birth to just a few years after leaving Askham.  She is now a grandmother.[5]


THE TRUTH ABOUT HER ‘CARE’

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Documentary programmes portray Mary’s imprisonment as a long, supported and successful rehabilitation process.  However, newspaper reports seem to paint a much more worrying picture.

In 1972, the BBC programme Midweek reported on Mary’s imprisonment.  A reporter on the programme claimed to have seen photographs of a ‘scantily clad’ Mary posing.  The programme also claimed that Mary had ‘taken part in and viewed sexual incidents at the school’ and had also been given a pornographic book.[6]

The photographs were apparently taken by Betty – two showed Mary in her underwear and others showed Mary dressed in her mother’s hotpants and high boots.  It was unknown if a member of staff had been present when Betty took the photographs. The Department of Health and Social Security refused to instigate any investigation until an inquiry had taken place!  The programme also claimed that Mary hadn’t been receiving adequate psychiatric treatment, which the DHSS denied, stating that there was a psychologist on site.[6]

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Sir Keith Joseph, Secretary of State for Social Services, announced in parliament that he had two senior officials assess the pictures in question and any allegations that they were inappropriate photographs were completely untrue.[6]

It was reported that some staff had taken Mary home to play with their children due to concerns about her having no contact with girls.[6]

In 1977, it was reported that Mary, 20, had absconded from Moor Court – an open prison in Staffordshire, where she was learning secretarial skills – alongside another girl, Annette Priest.  The police appealed for help in tracing a motorist who was seen picking up the two girls.  Mary was found in Derby two days later in the company of two men – Clive Shirtcliffe, 29, from Derby, and Keith Hibbert, 32, of no fixed address.  They believed the reason she headed to Derby was in order to meet up with friends she had made whilst serving time at Styal Prison, Cheshire.[2]  The court heard how the girls had hitched a lift to Blackpool and the four spent a day in pubs.  Annette then headed to Leeds whilst Mary spent the night in a hotel with Shirtcliffe before the three then headed to Derby.  She was sent to Risley Remand Centre whilst Shirtcliffe and Hibbert were fined for assisting an offender.[6]

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THE EVERLASTING LEGACY

The killing of two small boys by one young child raised questions about why this had happened and made society look at the way children were treated.  Environmental causes were blamed, such as her dysfunctional and neglected home life.

The initial reaction to Martin Brown’s death was to blame the conditions of the area and the slums.  Locals marched to bring attention to what they felt was a poorly executed demolition of the area.  Holding a banner at the front of the march was Mary.

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The trial raised questions about the suitability of children appearing in an open crown court and their inability to understand what was happening in such surroundings, thus causing an unjust environment.

On a more local level, the neighbourhood changed in so much as parents were far more conscious of their children’s safety.  Rather than walking to school alone, children were taken by parents.

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REFERENCES

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