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'I still say it's fishy' - Hit-and-run mystery lives on six decades later

PUBLISHED: 11:58 06 November 2019 | UPDATED: 12:39 06 November 2019

Ernest Whistlecraft was killed in a suspected hit-and-run on his way from from the pub in 1958  Picture: FAMILY PHOTO/SUPPLIED BY PIP WRIGHT

Ernest Whistlecraft was killed in a suspected hit-and-run on his way from from the pub in 1958 Picture: FAMILY PHOTO/SUPPLIED BY PIP WRIGHT

Family photo supplied by Pip Wright

A six decade old hit-and-run mystery has been revealed to be Suffolk's oldest unsolved homicide case - but just who killed Ernest Whistlecraft on a rural village road in 1958?

Scenes of the village of Rickinghall  Picture: PHIL MORLEYScenes of the village of Rickinghall Picture: PHIL MORLEY

Details resurfaced following a Freedom of Information request for the number of 'undetected homicides' currently on record.

The constabulary's disclosure team found 16 cases as a result of the request by a forensic science master's degree student.

Files include the widely reported murders of Ipswich mum Karen Hales, Felixstowe teenager Victoria Hall and Martlesham pensioner Doris Shelley.

Scenes of the village of Rickinghall  Picture: PHIL MORLEYScenes of the village of Rickinghall Picture: PHIL MORLEY

The oldest was previously thought to be the murder of 12-year-old Linda Smith in 1961. But follow-up enquiries uncovered the lesser-known case of Ernest Whistlecraft to be the oldest held by the major crime review team.

Who was Ernest Whistlecraft and how did he die?

Mr Whistlecraft, an unmarried farm labourer, was one of nine children and drew an army pension for an injured left arm.

A press cutting from August 18, 1958, reporting the death of Ernest WhistlecraftA press cutting from August 18, 1958, reporting the death of Ernest Whistlecraft

He was killed in a suspected hit-and-run on his way home from the pub on August 16, 1958 - struck by a dark car, similar to a 1949 Standard Vanguard, on a narrow village road at about 10.45pm.

After an evening at the Cock Inn, Botesdale, having bid good night to sister Sophia and brother-in-law Leonard, the 59-year-old began the mile walk home to Water Lane, Rickinghall, pushing his bike along The Street, with friends Stan and Hilda Huggins.

The crash happened in a known accident 'black spot' between two street lamps in a 30mph zone.

Ernie Whistlecraft walked home from the Cock Inn, Botesdale, since closed and converted into a home  Picture: GOOGLEErnie Whistlecraft walked home from the Cock Inn, Botesdale, since closed and converted into a home Picture: GOOGLE

The investigation

Mr Whistlecraft was knocked 36 feet from the point of impact by a car driving in the same direction.

A pathologist found he had suffered a fractured skull and cerebral lacerations, while an inquest at Botesdale Church Hall returned an open verdict on the cause a month later.

A press cutting from August 19, 1958, reporting the opening of an inquest into the death of Ernest WhistlecraftA press cutting from August 19, 1958, reporting the opening of an inquest into the death of Ernest Whistlecraft

Mr Huggins told the inquest the car had been travelling at about 45mph, with its headlights on.

Several thousand cars were checked for signs of damage as part of the investigation.

At the time, Superintendent HC Rush, of Eye Division Police, said: "In the circumstances, I do not think anyone could believe that the driver of the car did not know he had met with an accident."

Ernie Whistlecraft was on his way home to Water Lane, Rickinghall, from the neighbouring village of Botesdale  Picture: GOOGLEErnie Whistlecraft was on his way home to Water Lane, Rickinghall, from the neighbouring village of Botesdale Picture: GOOGLE

When asked if the driver could be unaware of efforts to trace him, Pc DJ Wilson said: "I should say that he is aware of it."

'It's almost as if Ernie had been targeted'

Local historian and author, Pip Wright wrote Whistlecraft: The True Story of the Poachers of Rickinghall on the colourful life of Joe Whistlecraft, who served several stints in prison, mainly for poaching, and was acquitted of murdering a gamekeeper while trespassing in Botesdale in 1929.

Mr Wright said: "By all accounts, Ernie's death was very suspicious. There were suggestions it could have been an American airman from the base up the road (RAF Shepherds Grove), but they tended to drink in the same pub and wouldn't have been able to get that speed up.

"It's almost like he was targeted by a car which should have been on the other side of the road.

"It was said that almost every bone in his body was broken."

A press cutting from September 16, 1958, reporting that police had been unable to trace the car linked to his deathA press cutting from September 16, 1958, reporting that police had been unable to trace the car linked to his death

In Mr Wright's book, Joe Whistlecraft said: "Whoever drove at Ernie that night did it at speed. They'd already got a good run-up.

"It could just have been an unfortunate accident. But surely, even if it had been a youngster with a drink inside him going faster than he ought, he must have known he'd hit something, or someone. And if that was the case, surely he'd have slowed down a bit while he thought what to do next.

"According to Stan [Huggins], the car kept on going without a second thought, almost as if Ernie had been targeted by someone who wanted him out of the way.

A photo of Joe Whistlecraft taken before one of his stints in jail  Picture: PIP WRIGHTA photo of Joe Whistlecraft taken before one of his stints in jail Picture: PIP WRIGHT

"Someone had managed to do what the whole German army had failed to, and I still say it's fishy."

Joe Whistlecraft, who died in 1960, declined to name names, but said "folks need to examine their consciences".

'I think I know who was responsible'

A press cutting from August 22, 1958, reporting the investigation into the death of Ernest WhistlecraftA press cutting from August 22, 1958, reporting the investigation into the death of Ernest Whistlecraft

It is thought his brother was due to be summonsed for 'wilful and malicious damage' to the Four Horseshoes pub in Eye.

He claimed Ernie had been plied with alcohol and encouraged to "smash up" the pub by "those with an axe to grind".

He added: "Now I can't believe that any brother of mine would turn grass in court, but other folks didn't know Ernie like I did.

The car involved was described as being similar to a Standard Vanguard  Picture: MICK HOWESThe car involved was described as being similar to a Standard Vanguard Picture: MICK HOWES

"There are folk who might have wondered what he would have said to that court - those who stood to benefit from Ernie never testifying.

"But I'll not name names. Because I'm not certain; not really - and folks have stood up and testified against me often enough on the basis of what they thought rather than what they knew.

"So I think I know who was responsible, but I'll not name names."

A press cutting from August 28, 1958, reporting the description of a car police wanted to trace in connection with the death of Ernest WhistlecraftA press cutting from August 28, 1958, reporting the description of a car police wanted to trace in connection with the death of Ernest Whistlecraft

The joint Suffolk and Norfolk Unsolved Case Team was set up in 2008 to investigate murders, missing people and serious sexual offences which have not be resolved. Its dedicated web page can be found here.

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