Framed by the police for a serial killer’s crimes, Timothy Evans was one of the last men in Britain to be hanged. Although authorities now accept that he did not carry out those crimes, they still refuse to quash his conviction. His story is dramatised in the BBC’s excellent ‘Rillington Place’.
Featuring Tim Roth as John Christie and Nico Mirallegro as Timothy Evans, with Samantha Morton and Jodie Comer as their unfortunate respective wives Elsie and Beryl, ‘Rillington Place’ is a three-hour, three-part series that you can bingewatch right now on iPlayer.
Here be spoilers!
Although the events depicted span the decade from 1943-1953, the story of Christie and Evans is perhaps not as well known as some true crime cases. If you’d rather watch without knowing what happens, skip forward past the grey text to the next heading!
John Christie was a former soldier and petty criminal when he and his wife Elsie moved in 10 Rillington Place, Notting Hill, after a period of estrangement during which Christie served a number of short prison sentences. When WWII started Christie began working as a reserve policeman. It was whilst working at Harrow Road police station that he met a woman, the wife of a soldier who was away at war, and they began a long-standing affair. When the husband returned from war and learned about the affair, he assaulted Christie. This was 1943.
1943 was the year of Christie’s first murder, or at least the first that we know of. Ruth Fuerst was a prostitute (Christie had been visiting sex workers for most of his adult life and there were suggestions that he could not achieve erection unless he was with one), and Christie strangled her during sex at Rillington Place. Her remains were buried in the back garden, having previously been stored underneath the floorboards in the living room. It was over a year before his second recorded victim, Muriel Eady, was murdered, again at Rillington Place. She was buried alongside Fuerst.
In 1948 23 year old Timothy Evans, his wife Beryl and their daughter Geraldine moved into the flat above the Christies. The couples were friendly, with Ethel looking after Geraldine on many occasions. The Evans did not enjoy a good marriage and there were many problems with money and drinking, sometimes resulting in violence by Timothy towards Beryl.
In late 1949 Beryl told her husband that she was expecting another baby. She wanted to have an abortion as they were struggling financially and she didn’t want another baby. Timothy was against an abortion initially, but seems to have been convinced (by Christie) that an abortion was in everyone’s best interests for now. Christie was in the habit of telling people that he had previously been a doctor, and convinced the Evans that he could perform the abortion (which were illegal at that time).
When Timothy came home, he found his wife dead. Christie told him that Beryl did not survive the procedure. He convinced Timothy that the best thing would be for him to go stay with family; he would take care of Beryl’s body, and he knew a couple who were desperate for a child who would take Geraldine in.
Some weeks later, realising something was wrong, Evans visited police and eventually confessed that he had given Beryl something that ‘a man in a pub’ gave him which he sad would abort the baby. Eventually he changed his story to tell them what had really happened and about Christie’s involvement.
Police searched Rillington Place but found nothing – even managing to miss the human thigh bone that was helping to prop up a fence. Eventually, they did find the bodies of both Beryl and Geraldine, wrapped in a sheet in the wash house. Police did eventually search the garden but failed to find any of the skeletal remains, even though they they were not buried particularly deeply – Christie’s dog managed to dig up one of the skulls after the police visit.
Evans was charged with Geraldine’s murder (it was normal at the time to only proceed with one charge. The ‘confession’ and charge of murdering his wife were left on file) with the evidence being another ‘confession’ amongst other contradictory evidence. In his 1961 book ’10 Rillington Place’ Ludovic Kennedy was able to show how the confession had been fabricated, and how poor the police’s performance had been throughout the matter. Nevertheless, with Christie appearing as the star witness for the prosecution, the jury took 40 minutes to find Evans guilty and he was hanged on 9th March 1950, aged just 25.
Three years later, the bodies at 10 Rillington Place were discovered.
Christie had been forced to move out after illegally subletting his flat. The landlord let the tenants upstairs use Christie’s former kitchen. When the tenant attempted to drill into what he thought was the wall, he discovered an alcove covered with a wooden door. Behind the door were the bodies of Christie’s three most recent victims.
Christie was apprehended without a struggle and charged only with the murder of his wife Ethel, although he confessed to seven murders. The jury took less than 90 minutes to find him guilty. He was hanged on 15th July 1953, a month shy of ten years after his first victim died. He maintained his innocence over the murder of Geraldine Evans until he died.
The evidence of Christie’s crimes caused a public outcry and the government commissioned a further investigation into Evans’ innocence. This review lasted only a week and concluded that Evans was still guilty and Christie only confessed to Beryl Evans murder to further his own defence claim of insanity.
Further attempts to procure a second inquiry proved fruitless until in 1965 the Home Secretary commissioned a High Court judge to review the evidence. Again, he found it “more probable than not” that Evans killed his wife, but not his daughter. This second inquiry used mostly only police evidence and ignored other facts, refusing to address any questions of police incompetence. Evans received a royal pardon for the murder of his daughter and his remains were re-interred.
In 2004 the Criminal Cases Review Commission refused to refer Evans’ case to the Court of Appeal for the purposes of having his conviction formally quashed, stating that the cost could not be justified.
Film and TV adaptations
In 1971 the story was made into a film called ’10 Rillington Place’ with Richard Attenborough taking the role of Christie and John Hurt playing Evans. The 2016 adaptation was produced by Bandit Television for the BBC, with parts of Glasgow standing in for the long ago demolished Rillington Place.
Although there were some comments about both poor sound quality (Roth speaks very quietly, as Christie claimed a war injury left him unable to speak loudly, leaving some viewers complaining about mumbling) and Evans’ changing accent (Welsh-born Evans adopted a London accent as part of trying to fit in, but lapsed back into his native accent back home), reaction from both critics and viewers were very positive:
— John William Hopkins (@JohnnyBigface) December 17, 2016
— philmscribe™ (@philmscribe) December 28, 2016
#RillingtonPlace was absolutely spine-chilling. A compelling and eerie performance from Tim Roth.
— Ian Walsh (@walsh_i) December 17, 2016
For my part, I thought it was terrific. Each episode came from the point of view of a different character – Ethel, Timothy and Christie – which made for a good, rounded exploration of the different motives and drives for each character. With such a complex case there is inevitably material that has to be left out, not only to make it fir the three-part format but also to maintain a strong narrative flow. In the end a good compromise is struck between the facts and the story – it’s not a documentary, after all – and the four main cast members all deliver stunning performances. Between this and ‘Witness for the Prosecution’, the BBC is delivering some top-notch drama at the moment and I’m almost inclined to forgive them the inanity of BBC Breakfast.
Miscarriages of justice
Although Evans was not the last man to be hanged in Britain, he and Christie were amongst the last, and his case was directly involved the decision to ultimately abolish the death penalty and is known as one of the worst miscarriages of justice in UK history. However, the problem of miscarriages of justices occurring in our legal system continues to this day. As police numbers and funding continue to drop, as legal aid and court fees continues to be cut, the situation is only going to get worse rather than better. There are groups who exist to raise the profile of the problem and help those who find themselves to be a victim of miscarriages of justice: