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Mystery still remains over green scarf murder of Phyllis Spiers from Folkestone in 1938

She lay flat on the floor within a thicket, on her back covered by a blue coat, as the winter rain whipped around the coppice.

The woman was slight, little over five foot with bleached hair, wearing a dark green dress and matching scarf, a pair of flat blue shoes on her feet.

Phyllis Spiers
Phyllis Spiers

The hill sloped gently downwards towards the lively port town of Folkestone.

A young man had been bird-nesting not far away, just where the rolling hills of Sugar Loaf and Caesar’s Camp meet.

Kenneth Andrews was crawling through bushes, when he crossed a tiny stream and saw a small bundle, what he believed to be a girl asleep.

Trying to rouse her, the 16-year-old shouted and nudged the woman with a stick but she remained motionless so he ran to fetch his dad.

Officers soon found the woman with clothes tattered and face bloodied, deep scratches down her thighs and body bruised - the green scarf tight around her throat.

Path leading to Caeser's Camp
Path leading to Caeser's Camp

Deep indentations rippled her skin from the pressure of twigs and briar against her back - the only part of her body still not saturated by the spring rain.

This fact, the police would later find, would form an essential part of their investigation.

But for now officers would comb fields and door knock Folkestone homes as the Metropolitan Police were drafted to lead the inquiry.

The victim was Phyllis May Spiers. A well-known 22-year-old drifter in Folkestone.

Six years before the discovery of her body, a 16 year-old Phyllis had met Arthur Spiers who was a soldier stationed at Shorncliffe Camp in the town.

Path between Caesar's Camp and Sugar Loaf Hill
Path between Caesar's Camp and Sugar Loaf Hill

They married in 1932 and had a child together a year later.

But the relationship soon soured when the family moved to Bexhill-on-Sea.

Phyllis deserted her milkman husband and little girl and came back to Folkestone with its ships, soldiers and drinking dens.

Mr Spiers filed for a Poor Person’s divorce and would not see his wife again until positively identifying her body at Folkestone Mortuary in 1938.

The coroner had asked Mr Spiers to state her occupation for the death certificate but he was unable to do so.

"Phyllis had no problem picking up men around the town’s rich smattering of seaside haunts..."

In part because Phyllis had been topping up low wages from transient jobs with occasional sex work.

Occasionally she would try her hand at less dubious jobs, the Lido for instance, and as a hotel day cleaner where she impressed her boss so much that he described her as a “good type”.

Yet Phyllis also had a nefarious streak lawyers would describe as a “woman of immoral habits who had affairs with many men”.

Folkestone Lido: Where Phyllis once worked Copyright: Alan Taylor
Folkestone Lido: Where Phyllis once worked Copyright: Alan Taylor

Indeed, they said, a young lady who tragically would go with many men to the kind of remote treacherous place where her body was found.

And so after interviewing about a hundred potential witnesses, the Met and Folkestone police decided one Dover widower named William Whiting was the man she took that fateful walk with in May 1938.

Whiting, a well-known fiery tempered labourer, was a frequent face around the town’s close-knit clutch of pubs.

The 38-year-old was himself a widower after his wife, Ellen Margaret Mary Whiting, 36, had been strangled two years before.

After making a full and frank confession George Arthur Bryant was convicted for her murder at Maidstone Assizes and executed.

'My beloved wife murdered by another man. My second romance ruined by gossip. If that isn't a raw deal, what is?'

Whiting lived a chaotic lifestyle, moving around bunkhouses, lodgings, sofa surfing around various towns, inevitably becoming acquainted with Phyllis.

They had been together the day Phyllis died. They had visited the Globe Hotel for a glass of ale, then carved through the town centre and down its small arteries of roads, New Street, Bradstone Avenue and up to the rolling fields of Folkestone Golf Links.

Throngs of witnesses came forward to vouch the couple made the journey on Monday, May 23; Phyllis's landlady Nora Laws who wanted her rent among them.

But it is after their last sighting at the golf course off Radnor Road where testimonies became tangled in a clamour of indecision.

Whiting long maintained he had never owned a green scarf however, with various witnesses arguing to the contrary he admitted he had.

Folkestone High Street 1931: One of the last places Phyllis was seen: Picture provided by Alan Taylor
Folkestone High Street 1931: One of the last places Phyllis was seen: Picture provided by Alan Taylor

He told police he murdered her, then didn't murder her, how she intended to strangle herself with a scarf and likely made many foes floating in the flotsam and jetsam of life.

Yet police built a compelling case claiming in a revenge attack Whiting rendered her unconscious by blows in the face, then strangled her by hand.

They claimed he tied the scarf around her neck in a twin approach; to make her death look like suicide and to make sure the job was done.

The murder, prosecutors said, took place in a clearing invisible from the hill-top, her body dragged by the feet some 10 meters down the steep hill and dumped in the shrubs.

And that Monday was a fine day.

Folkestone Golf Links - Courtesy Alan Taylor
Folkestone Golf Links - Courtesy Alan Taylor

But by Tuesday evening the rain began to fall.

Prosecutors then would argue Phyllis' dry back was itself evidence that she had been killed on the Monday after last being seen with enraged Whiting.

However impressive this flash of brilliance, their evidence would be swiftly thrown out by a jury at London's Old Bailey.

The judge Mr Justice Wrottesley, told the jury they must indeed be sure Phyllis died on the Monday otherwise one could not possibly be sure Whiting was her killer.

Whiting's lawyers would then summon no more than 11 witnesses, swearing under oath, that they saw Phyllis alive on the Tuesday and Wednesday frequenting shops, riding a motorcycle and bickering with a solider.

Cheriton Road, showing the Harvey Grammar School, Sports Grounds and Golf Course
Cheriton Road, showing the Harvey Grammar School, Sports Grounds and Golf Course

Those sightings, the prosecution argued, could easily have been the Monday - four months had passed and time can muddy the mind.

They argued there was also a tear in Whiting's jacket caused by barbed wire at the murder scene, a hair similar to his was also discovered there and his lying about owning the green scarf was overwhelming circumstantial evidence.

However the the judge said if the jury accepted the evidence of even one of those witnesses there would he a doubt which should lead them to find the man not guilty.

It was, after all, tantamount to destroying the whole fabric of the case.

The jury returned the verdict of “not guilty."

The Guildhall - formerly The Globe Hotel, the Bayle, Folkestone
The Guildhall - formerly The Globe Hotel, the Bayle, Folkestone

As whoever killed Phyllis remained free and police and prosecutors coalesced, Whiting would launch his own appeal in the national press: "Unlucky Bill Whiting, Jonah, Jinx and Outcast of Fate!

"That's how I've come to think of myself now. How otherwise could I regard myself after all that's happened to me? My two homes broken up. My children stolen from me.

"My beloved wife murdered by another man. My second romance ruined by gossip. If that isn't a raw deal, what is? Then add to that arrest, months of detention, and trial for a crime I did not commit.

"Does my face look seamed and anxious?

"Does it bear a grudge against the world? Well, maybe it does. Maybe it shows some of the gall and bitterness that is in me.

"For I've been through enough."

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