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TALES FROM THE PAST: The Garden Secret, Lewisham

TALES FROM THE PAST

THE GARDEN SECRET

LEWISHAM

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It was a spring Sunday morning in 1957 and Lewisham housewife, Agnes Hutchinson, was hanging out the washing in her back garden when she happened upon a little note which triggered a chain of events and led to the solving of a disappearance.

I stumbled across this story via the British Pathe News archive on YouTube, and found it intriguingly bizarre!


SUNDAY 21st APRIL 1957

In the ordinary and unassuming road of Lancaster Park in Lewisham, Agnes Hutchinson was hanging out the washing in her back garden when she chanced upon a scrap of paper.  Initially thinking it was rubbish, she picked it up before noticing it was a note.  It read:

I am Miss M Jordan from Elmer’s End, Beckenham.  Will you please call the police as I am in a large shed in a room under the ground.  He is keeping me prisoner.  Will you help me and call the police as this is very urgent.

Agnes took the note indoors and showed it to a neighbour, Alan Marshall, who took it to the police.

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Agnes Hutchinson by the shed where she found the note

When a police inspector visited the property at 29 Lancaster Park, he was met by John Bridal who invited Insp John Bodycom inside and showed him to the underground room where he discovered Marjorie Jordan.  Bridal put his arm around Marjorie’s shoulders, and said: “You are to say you are a friend of mine.”  Marjorie, dazed and confused but showing no emotion at all, said: “I’ve been a prisoner here for a long time.”  It transpired that Marjorie had been missing for nearly four months and hadn’t seen another living soul or daylight in all that time.

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MARJORIE JORDAN

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Marjorie Sylvia Jordan was a 28-year old greengrocer’s assistant, who, having lost both her parents, lived in lodgings in Wimborne Way, Beckenham, Kent.  Marjorie was last seen at 11pm on the night of 7th January 1957 by her landlady, Lily Spashett. By 5am the following morning, Mrs Spashett discovered the front door open and Marjorie had disappeared and so reported her disappearance to police.


JOHN BRIDAL

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John Raymond Bridal was the eldest of three children born to Insurance Inspector, Percy John Bridal (b.22/8/98) and Clarice Hannah Skillicorn (b.6/9/02).  John’s parents had divorced in 1950, with Clarice claiming that Percy was cruel and had a violent temper.  It seems that Percy had demanded his wife’s attention at bedtimes, and she had refused.  The judge declared Clarice guilty of desertion and granted Percy a divorce. (The Daily Mirror)

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Their son, John, claimed to be an ‘inventor’, but was a 26-year old labourer who lived alone on the ground floor at 29 Lancaster Park.  He had two previous convictions for larceny, and in 1952 had spent nine months as a certified patient in a mental hospital.  He claimed he first noticed Marjorie whilst she was working in the shop and that they had spoken on a few occasions about his inventions.  Marjorie denied knowing Bridal until he appeared in the early hours of 8th January.


KIDNAPPING OF MARJORIE – 8 JANUARY 1957

Marjorie had awoken at around 3am on 8th January to find Bridal standing by her bed.  Bridal demanded that Marjorie go with him and threatened to knock her unconscious if she refused to cooperate.  Allowing her to partially dress, Bridal covered her mouth with a sticking plaster and ordered her to leave the property.  A terrified Marjorie was completely compliant to his orders.

Once outside, Bridal walked Marjorie through the garden into Clock House Road where he had his motorbike waiting, and ordered Marjorie to mount the pillion.  He then tied wire to her wrists, before tying her arms around his waist and connecting the wires on her wrists together.  They headed to his home in Lancaster Park, where they drove down the side of the house and into the back garden.

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Police examine the motorbike owned by Bridal

THE SECRET DUG-OUT

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Marjorie was taken to a shed at the bottom of the back garden, where she was made to climb 14ft down a ladder in a small shaft fashioned out of pipes.  At the bottom Marjorie found herself in a tiny cave with a concrete floor and the walls and ceiling lined with corrugated iron that were dripping with damp.  The room contained a bed with no sheets or blankets, but there was an electric light and electricity for heating.  Bridal threw some magazines down the hole, removed the ladder and fastened a cover over the hole.  Two hours later, he returned and took Marjorie to the house for a cup of tea, but as she tried to make an escape, he dragged her back and forced her to return underground, where she was beaten with a stick.  Thereafter, Marjorie was threatened with the same if she dared to try to escape.

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Bridal gave Marjorie an electric fire as well as tea, milk, sugar and a cup and also lowered a bucket, which he would pull up later to empty it.  Despite the offers of food, Marjorie decided to stop eating for about a week and Bridal took Marjorie’s clothes away and stated that she could only have them back if she would eat and work.  Marjorie was petrified and cold so agreed to anything he said.  For the following six weeks she was forced to excavate her own dungeon from around midday to 11pm, filling buckets he lowered down to her with sand and clay she had scraped from the walls with a small pick axe.  By the time she had finished, the room eventually measured around 8ft x 10ft and was 6ft high at the highest point.  The walls were then lined with newspaper and Bridal gave Marjorie a radio.  Some nights, Bridal allowed Marjorie into the house to bathe or clean.  Whilst incarcerated underneath his shed, Marjorie was also made to paint, clean Bridal’s bedroom, as well as knit him a jumper.

Marjorie revealed in court that Bridal would sometimes leave her inside the shed whilst he disposed of the bucket of dirt that had been excavated from the underground room, and she had used those brief opportunities to push notes through the shed wall in the hope someone would find them.  In total she had, in fact, pushed six notes through a gap in the shed wall, with the sixth finally being found by Agnes Hutchinson.

Upon her release, Marjorie moved in with her sister and brother-in-law, Leonard and Joyce Purssord, in Ancaster Road, Elmer’s End.


NEWSPAPER INTERVIEW

On 23rd May 1957, Bridal gave an interview to The Daily Mirror newspaper, and offered a very different version of events:

I am an inventor.  I wanted someone to help me with my experiments – and I thought of Miss Jordan.  I had seen Miss Jordan in the grocer’s shop where she worked.  We had spoken briefly on several occasions about my inventions and I knew where she lived.  So I got out my motor-bicycle and went to her house.

I attracted her attention by calling her name and throwing a handful of gravel at her bedroom window.  She came to the window, saw me, came downstairs, and opened the door.  She was surprised when I suggested she should come back with me to help in my experiments and it needed a good deal of persuasion before she finally agreed to do so.

We travelled back together to Lewisham Park on my motor-cycle, so you see I was not “kidnapping” her.  You cannot kidnap anyone on a motor-cycle.

Because we are both single we could not very well live together, so I gave her a room in the shed.  She only slept in the room.  I did not keep her against her will, except for the first few days.  She was locked in the shed for the first few days – I didn’t want anyone to see her – but after that she got to know the work and seemed to like it.  She had every comfort.  There was a bed, an electric cooker and electric light, as well as a table and two chairs.

Miss Jordan did all the cooking for both of us, and when she had nothing else to do she read.  She would give me a list of her favourite authors and I would go to the public library and get books for her.  In addition to novels, she had about a dozen magazines.

When the police arrived on Sunday night, she seemed rather bewildered and appeared to be quite indifferent as to whether she stayed or went.

For ten years now I have been experimenting – I have patented several inventions in connection with coal pulverisation plant and mechanical handling appliances, but none of them has been commercially successful.  I have to work now and then, but only long enough to get money to continue my experiments.

Bridal’s mother, who is visiting her son, said: “I have been staying here for a few days and not even I knew that my son had a girl in the shed, or that the girl was using this house.”

However, during his police interview he admitted that he had kept Marjorie against her will, saying: “Yes, in a way I had to be firm with her at first, but she was beginning to like it.



TRIAL AND SENTENCING

Bridal initially went on trial in May 1957 for the theft of an electric fire and a radio from a workshop, which was found in the underground room where Marjorie was held and was sentenced to three months imprisonment. (The Times)

He then appeared at Bow Street in June 1957 on the charges of kidnapping Marjorie.  Bridal maintained his innocence, claiming that he had not threatened Marjorie, and she had gone willingly to his home in order to assist in some experiments he was conducting into mechanical handling equipment.  Having been considered sane during a recent medical report, he was committed for trial at the Old Bailey and released on bail with orders to stay away from Marjorie.

In July 1957 Bridal appeared at the Old Bailey where he pleaded guilty to detaining Marjorie against her will as well as actual bodily harm and was sentenced to three-years  imprisonment.

His mother, who had been staying at the property just days before Marjorie was found, had absolutely no idea her son was holding a girl underneath the shed, and despite other people living on upper floors at the property, nobody suspected a thing.


REFERENCES USED

  • The Times Archive
  • The Daily Mirror
  • Daily Herald
  • Illustrated London News
  • Pathe News
  • Coventry Evening Telegraph

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