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Murdered – on her way to work
The shooting of Janet Oven at Bricketwood: 18th May, 1917
At 5 a.m. on Friday, 18th May, 1917, as John Knight Oven was preparing to leave home for work at Leavesden Asylum, Watford, he noticed that his daughter, Janet, lay asleep in her bed. He could see her head and shoulders as he passed her open bedroom door. The next time he saw her was that afternoon, in St Albans mortuary. She had been shot twice at close range on a country lane, murdered by an unknown person, as she walked to Bricket Wood railway station, to catch the train to Watford.
Janet Oven was 26. Young, intelligent and hard working, she had been seen walking along the lane, reading a book as she walked, and carrying a cardboard case which contained a dress, her work clothes. She worked for Mr James Cawdell, at his draper’s shop in Watford High Street, and had lived with her parents at Waterdell Farm Cottages, Garston, since March. She wood have left the house about 8.30 a.m., soon after her two sisters had departed, to walk to the station, a regular occurrence.
Her route would have taken her along a road today occupied by Junction 6 of the M1. Beyond, she would have continued along Mount Pleasant Lane, in those days a quiet byroad, heading towards the railway station. It so happened that another resident, Norman Thain Davidson, a London solicitor, and his wife, Joyce, had just left their residence, The White House, he to catch the train into London. Mrs Davidson heard a shot, but Mrs Susan Powell, who also lived nearby, heard two.
There was nothing unusual in this. Poachers roamed the nearby woods, shooting rabbits mainly. But when Mr and Mrs Davidson walked along Mount Pleasant Lane they saw a man cross the road and run into the woods. Further along, they came across a milliner’s cardboard dress-box, containing a dress, and a book – and a pool of blood, all on the roadway. Then, nearby, Mr Davidson found the body of Janet Oven.
It was lying in a shallow ditch, having been dragged there from the road. She was obviously dead, and Mr Davidson went home and telephoned the police. The acting chief constable attended the scene within a quarter of an hour, but not before a reporter of the West Herts Advertiser who, having made enquiries, went directly to the workplace of Janet’s sister, Florence, at St Albans, where he broke the news of her sister’s untimely death.
The acting chief constable was Mr W. Wood, who attended with Superintendent Peck, of St Albans. At the scene they found no sign of any struggle, and Miss Oven’s umbrella was still over her wrist. Ironically, the book she had been reading, ‘The Purloined Prince’, which was also recovered, had a picture on the front cover of a man pointing a gun. Her handbag containing ninepence was missing. Police considered that second shot might have been Miss Oven’s killer shooting himself in the woods, but this was incorrect. She had been shot twice. The motive looked likely to be robbery, although it seems the police doubted this, preferring instead to focus on a domestic quarrel between Miss Oven and some unknown man, a secret lover perhaps. Over 100 police searched the extensive woodland, finding no-one and no trace of the handbag.
The description of the man seen by Mrs Davidson was ‘rough-looking, wearing a brown cap’. However, a Mrs Jordan, who lived in a nearby cottage, who had been out early weeding her garden, came forward to say she had noticed a stranger heading towards Mount Pleasant Lane about 8 o’clock, and that she had noticed the same man several times over the past week, ‘dawdling along’. The postman, too, had noticed him. He was described as about 30, 5’ 8”, dressed in dark brown top coat and light grey trousers, wearing a cloth cap, ‘respectable looking’.
Another resident, Susan Powell, a farmer’s wife, saw Janet’s two sisters pass along the lane, followed by Janet about a quarter of an hour later. She was reading her book as she walked, and she was alone. Five minutes later Mrs Powell heard a shot, but thought little of it, presuming it was someone shooting rabbits. Albert Timson was working in Black Boy wood when he heard two shots ‘at two or three minute intervals’.
A secret lover, perhaps. But Miss Oven had only lived in the area for two months (her family had lived in their rented cottage for about a year), having moved to the area from Hull. Janet was described as a ‘young looking, jolly girl’, who had no friends, locally at least, nor even any acquaintances, save work colleagues. The police reasonably considered she may have had a lover, in Hull, perhaps, where she had lived in rented accommodation, her family having moved to Hertfordshire. But none was discovered.
Janet’s mother suggested she might have been accidentally shot by a poacher, but this was proved not to be the case by the post mortem examination. Janet had been shot at close range, one bullet wound in her temple, another in her neck. The former had fractured her skull and entered her brain, the second passed close to her spinal cord. The first bullet caused her death. It had left traces of gunpowder on her skin, proof that it had been fired from close range. Death would be instantaneous.
The scene was set. The police had a murder on their hands, an apparent male suspect and a dubious motive. They searched the area, they cast their net to Hull and explored the theory that Janet’s killer was known to her. Their endeavours led them nowhere. They hadn’t a clue, literally, about his identity. Meanwhile, motorists came from far and wide to look at the scene of the murder.
Until, that is, it was made known to them six weeks later by a young man named Albert Edward Lorford. Recently sentenced to borstal training, Lorford, of his own volition, confessed to the crime. He said he had been staying in Watford from January to May, 1917, in lodgings, and had worked at two printing firms in Callowland area. On 13th May he stole some jewellery belonging to his landlady, and disappeared. He went to Brighton and broke into military rifle range and stole a revolver and cartridges, then returned to Watford without money or food.
He had thus been broke and hungry when, around 8.30 on that fateful Friday morning, he was in Bricket Wood when he chanced upon Janet Oven on her way to work. Lorford gave an account of events that followed, which must have been mainly true, due to his knowledge of the circumstances but in one regard, in my view, he was probably lying.
‘I saw Miss Oven,’ he said in a statement (presumably having been told her name), and I asked her for some money. I held the pistol up as she tried to snatch it and the trigger went off.’ He was able to show police the handbag, which he had hidden. He said that two days later he returned the revolver to the rifle range at Brighton. He was committed for trial, for murder, when, giving evidence, he elaborated on events.
On the night before the murder he had slept rough in Cassiobury Park, and early next morning he had started walking. He carried the revolver, which was loaded and cocked. He ended up on the lane at Bricket Wood, near the railway station. ‘I passed her by Mount Pleasant Cottages. I was about 100 yards in front of her. I stopped and thought I would stop her for some money. I waited until she was about three feet away. I pulled the revolver out of my pocket and presented it to her head and said, “have you got any money?” She snatched the revolver and got hold of it. She tried to pull it out of my hand. I tried to pull it back and it fired as my finger caught on the trigger. She fell flat on her face. I opened the revolver to take out the empty cartridge. I was dazed. As I opened it half way I shut it and was holding it towards the ground when it went off.’ He added that he dropped the gun, dragged Janet into he ditch, ran back and recovered it and ran off.
How strange: to return the gun to the place where he had stolen it – Brighton, in 1917, a long way to travel from Watford; and to walk around with the gun cocked. He could have shot himself. Lorford was saying he shot Janet Oven by accident. She snatched the cocked revolver, and it went off. Then, when he was opening it, it went off again. He shot her twice but, he said, neither shot was deliberate. He had not intended to kill her, or even cause injury. The truth? The jury must have thought so, for they acquitted him of murder and found him guilty of manslaughter instead.
‘It is as near murder as may be,’ said the Judge, adding, ‘it is a very, very grave offence. You are not a lad of good character but I take into consideration your youth.’ He sentenced Lorford to 7 years penal servitude. Why did Albert Lorford confess? We will never know. But he got away with murder – that we do know. Janet Oven was buried in an unmarked grave at All Saints Church, Leavesden. 200 people, all strangers, attended.