Chess, prank calls and murder: who really killed Julia Wallace?
Trying to solve the case Raymond Chandler called ‘the impossible murder’
By Leo Hardwick
Someone once said: “If I were stranded on a desert island, with no sense of time or place, I would know when it was Sunday, and I would feel the worse for it.” It’s Sunday, like every leaden Sabbath before it, but with one key difference: I’m on a walk. I’m taking a journey back to 1930s Liverpool, and to one of the greatest mysteries of all time – the murder of Julia Wallace.
29 Wolverton Street, in Anfield: This is where the “impossible murder” happened. It is indistinguishable from the sea of red terraced houses that surround it. Like all of the buildings of this mystery, it is miraculously still standing, having survived both the intervention of the Luftwaffe, and the terror of the post-war city planner.
On a dark January evening in 1931, Julia Wallace, an amateur musician approximately 52 years old, was found bludgeoned to death in the front parlour of this house. Her husband, Mr William Herbert Wallace, a collections agent with Prudential Assurance, was arrested shortly after, and was sentenced to death for her murder. If only it was that simple.
Let me take you back to the evening before the murder, Monday 19th January, 1931. William Wallace headed to his chess club at the City Café, in the business end of town, and arrived around 19:45. He was scheduled to play a tournament match that evening. Before he could settle, the captain of the club approached. Twenty minutes before his arrival, there was a phone call for him: a Mr R. M. Qualtrough asking to see him the following evening, at 19:30, at 25 Menlove Gardens East, to discuss an insurance policy.
Wallace had never heard the name Qualtrough before. When he wrote the address in his notebook, Wallace put down 25 Menlove Gardens West, before correcting it, and writing East. I pull up a photo on my phone. Wallace was lanky, with rounded spectacles, and a drooping moustache.
When he was a young man, he rose to the rank of election agent for the Liberals, before giving it up for health reasons. (Wallace had a kidney removed before the First World War and suffered from periodic bouts of illness for the remainder of his life.) Being a proto–Lib Dem is the only tarnish anyone has ever found on his otherwise pristine reputation. He enjoyed chess, although he wasn’t particularly good at it. He had taken up the violin so he could have musical evenings with Julia. He taught chemistry in his free time. He immersed himself in the works of the philosopher emperor, Marcus Aurelius. He was an autodidact through and through.
The day of the murder, January 20th, Wallace did his rounds as usual. When later quizzed about it, his clients claimed that he was his normal calm and pleasant self. He got home just after 6pm, having been delayed slightly by drinking tea with a client. According to Wallace, he left the house, via the back door, for his appointment with Qualtrough, at around 18:45.
Curtains begin to twitch morse code on Wolverton Street. I sense people here don’t approve of macabre tourists. I make my way to Richmond Park bus stop, on Lower Breck Road, and board the 68, which takes me straight to the bottom of Menlove Avenue.
Wallace made a similar trip to the one I am making. The main difference being that he travelled by tram; and didn’t have to wait 20 minutes for an Arriva bus. He talked to the tram conductor about his trip, saying: “I am a complete stranger to these parts.”
(That was not quite true. His manager at Prudential lived close to Menlove Gardens, on Green Lane, a house Wallace had visited before, for violin tuition, and a house he would knock on that evening.)
I get off the bus. The sky is a suffocating grey. Menlove Gardens is a residential estate in the shape of an isosceles triangular, with a green field and trees in the middle. For the life of me, I can’t find the right address.
Although there is a Menlove Gardens North, South, and West, there is no East. Wallace, presumably thinking that some sort of mistake had been made, knocked on 25 Menlove Gardens West. The woman who answered the door said that there was no Qualtrough at the address. He then asked a bobby on the beat, who stated that he was certain no such address existed. It started to dawn on him, suspiciously slowly, that the whole appointment had been a prank. He made his way back to Anfield.
When Wallace got back to Wolverton Street, he was unable to open the front door. The house was doused in complete darkness. He tried the back door and was equally unsuccessful. His neighbours, the Johnsons, who were going out for their evening walk, saw Wallace struggling. Wallace asked them if they had heard anything that evening. They said they hadn't. Wallace then opened the back door, seemingly without much difficulty. The Johnsons offered to wait for him, as he made sure everything was okay inside. After at least a minute he reappeared, saying to them: “Come and see! They’ve killed her.”
All three of them stood over the limp, lifeless body of Julia, struggling to come to terms with the scene before their eyes. Mr Johnson went to get a police officer, and Mrs Johnson, in a deliciously English act of kindness, made Wallace a much-needed cup of tea. Wallace then broke down and wept.
The first officer on the scene noticed that Julia’s body was still slightly warm. He also spotted a blood-drenched mackintosh stuck underneath Julia’s body. It had been badly burnt. Wallace had already told Mrs Johnson that it belonged to him. In the bathroom upstairs, only a nail brush showed signs of recent use. The toilet and the taps hadn’t been used that evening. The towels were also dry. If the murderer cleaned themselves inside the house, they did it in an ingenious way.
I wait an eternity for an 86 bus on Allerton Road, which will take me to my final destination – St Georges Hall — and think how much better the trams must have been.
Back on Wolverton Street, there was some indication that it had been a robbery gone wrong. Wallace confirmed that four pounds were missing from his cashbox, which had, mysteriously, been put back neatly in the cabinet in the kitchen. However, there was a wad of pound notes – one of which had a blood stain on it — in a glass jar upstairs, and money and silver in Julia’s bag remained untouched. The house was undamaged, apart from the smashed door of the cabinet in the kitchen. In the bedroom various items of clothing had been thrown across the room, for no discernible reason. There was no sign of forced entry.
The first police pathologist to arrive at the scene, John MacFall, checked the body for the progress of rigor mortis; one of two options for checking the time of death in 1931. The other would have been to check the temperature of the body. Both are flawed, but rigor mortis is generally considered the inferior option. Macfall predicted the time of death to have been around 20:00. However, this was changed when the official police surgeon arrived to around 18:00. He too only checked for rigor mortis.
Wallace was immediately treated as a suspect and was questioned multiple times that evening. He was taken to the police headquarters on Dale Street to make a formal statement and his clothes were checked for any sign of blood. They didn’t find a single drop. There was also very little blood found outside of the parlour, except a small clot on the rim of the lavatory pan.
After his statement, Wallace was keen to return home, something the police refused, instead, sending him to his sister-in-law on Ullet Road. It was soon discovered that the Qualtrough call of January 19th was made from a phone box only 400 yards from Wallace’s home. The police concluded that Wallace and Qualtrough were one and the same.
And there ends the tale.
Well, not quite. There was a problem with the police’s theory. A key witness came forward the day after the murder — the local milk boy, Alan Close. This is where it gets complicated. Close claimed to have seen Julia alive after 18:30, no later than 18:45. This was corroborated by witnesses. If Julia had been alive at 18:45, and Wallace got on the first tram at 19:06, that would have left Wallace with twenty-one minutes to commit the crime, sort the house out, and make his way to the first tram stop, a third of a mile away. Wallace would have likely only have had around a 4-minute window to kill Julia and leave the house. He was described as a “slow mover” by colleagues, due to his kidney condition.
(I read somewhere that the police thought Close was either lying – which seems to me impossible considering witnesses saw him on Wolverton Street – or they thought he had spoken to William, who had donned a dress, and disguised his voice to trick Close into thinking he was his murdered wife. Could they really have been that dumb?)
So not Wallace, then? It’s tight, but not impossible. We can’t be sure exactly when Close spoke to Julia. 18:30 and 18:45 are worlds apart from each other. And if it was premeditated, it wouldn’t have taken long to commit the murder. However, and this is a case where every sentence can end with “however”, the forensic examiners concluded that the killer of Julia would have been covered in blood. And Wallace was found without a drop…
The police thought Wallace did the murder in the nude, wearing the mackintosh. No murder weapon was ever found; although, a maid who helped Julia with the cleaning occasionally, stated a fire poker was missing. Wallace denied this. He was arrested on the 2nd of February 1931.
Losing faith in the 86 bus, I take a 75 instead and get off at the bombed out church. I finally reach St George’s Hall, where the trial began on the 22nd of April. I stand in the dock Wallace would have stood in and feel the ripples from nearly a century ago.
The Prudential Staff Union held their own mock trial in Holborn, London. They unanimously found Wallace innocent and agreed to pay for his defence. The evidence against Wallace was entirely circumstantial, and the feeling amongst his defence was generally optimistic. However, the jury had been picked from towns just outside Liverpool, and the local newspapers had been against Wallace from the start, having been briefed by the police. The Judge summing up the case, clearly favoured an acquittal. He described the killing as: “Almost unexampled in the annals of crime.”
The jury deliberated for an hour, before finding Wallace guilty. He was sentenced to death. Taken to Walton Gaol, he was given his violin and chess set. In the awesome, but yet unfinished, Anglican Cathedral, there was a special service, praying for Divine Judgement to be performed, and for Wallace to be saved. The case was taken to the Court of Criminal Appeal in London. God listened. The conviction was quashed.
Wallace returned to Liverpool a free man but found life back on Wolverton Street impossible. His former clients turned on him, and children taunted him on the street. He took an office job with Prudential and bought a bungalow in Wirral. He wrote in his diary: “I have been depressed thinking of my dear Julia. I’m afraid this will be a very lonely winter for me. I seem to miss her more and more and cannot drive the thought of her cruel end out of my mind.” On the 26th February 1933 Wallace died of the kidney complaint which had tormented him since his youth. He is buried next to Julia, in Anfield cemetery.
Maybe, after all, it wasn’t Wallace. There is another possibility. According to Roger Wilkes, who wrote an excellent book on the mystery, Wallace “died a broken man. And an innocent one.” Wilkes wasn’t alone in suspecting a former colleague of Wallace’s: Richard Gordon Parry.
Parry, only 22 at the time, was often at the City Café, for his amateur dramatic society, and would have been able to see the schedule for Wallace’s chess club. Wallace said in his statement to the police that: “If he [Parry] had called, my wife would have had no hesitation in admitting him.” Parry also had a motive: Wallace had caught him stealing money from Prudential clients and may have had a hand in Parry’s departure. Furthermore, Parry was well acquainted with the layout of Wolverton Street, having done collections for Wallace when he was bed bound in the winter of 1928. He knew where Wallace kept his cash box, and he also knew the pay-in day for Prudential was Wednesday, meaning that the cash box should have contained the most money the night of the murder (Tuesday).
The writers Jonathan Goodman and Richard Whittington-Egan confronted Parry in the ‘60s. Parry stated that he often went round to Wallace’s house, where he would sing for Julia. It seems Wallace was unaware of this. Parry also gave a false alibi to the police the night of the Qualtrough call, claiming to have been with his girlfriend, Lilly Lloyd. Lloyd told Wallace’s solicitor years after the murder that she had lied.
Most damning of all, an employee at a garage in the Anfield area, John Parkes, claimed that Parry turned up the night of the murder and asked for his car to be cleaned, inside and out. Parkes claimed to have found a bloody glove in one of the compartments. Caught red handed. Furthermore, Mrs Johnson also reported that she heard two thuds, possibly coming from the Wallaces’ home at 20:30. (However, neighbours on the other side claimed to have heard thuds at around 18:30.)
But don’t get too excited. Parry’s alibi for the time of the murder, between 18:30 to 20:45 was provided by Olivia Brine, whose house Parry was visiting. Parry said he was at the house between 17:30 until 20:30, and this was supported by witnesses (although we have no file of the witnesses’ statements).
I suppose it’s possible Parry’s alibi around the time of the murder was also false. But the police did investigate him at the time, and seemed confident that he was not involved. Some cry conspiracy at this point, as Parry was the son of an official within the Liverpool Corporation.
Is it Parry? Unlikely. Is it Wallace? Possibly. I think the reason why this case is impossible to solve is not because it was the work of a criminal mastermind, but because it was committed by an absolute idiot. We can’t apply logic where logic doesn’t exist. The detective novelist Raymond Chandler made notes on the case, in which he wrote “I call it the impossible murder because Wallace couldn’t have done it, and neither could anyone else…The Wallace case is unbeatable; it will always be unbeatable.”
It may all be circumstantial, but Wallace seems to me as guilty as sin. Parry could have murdered Julia on the night of the chess game; why create an elaborate ruse? Why would Parry choose a house that didn’t exist? And if it was all for money, why did Parry ignore the jar of notes upstairs, and Julia’s handbag? And why was Wallace so determined to tell every Tom, Dick, and Harry what he was up to during his fruitless search for 25 Menlove Gardens East? This was him creating an alibi. Why did he want to go home after being questioned by the police? Because he had washed his bloody hands in the toilet basin and wanted to pull the chain. (Although, the pathologist claimed the murderer would have been covered in blood, head to toe, more than just the hands.) As for motive, Wallace was a miser, and wanted Julia’s life insurance. He put the four pounds missing from the cash box in the jar upstairs, which explains the blood stain. He couldn’t even bring himself to get rid of the cash.
But what about the timings? He was as slow as a sloth. What about his diary, that he kept for years before the murder, and after, which was always loving towards Julia? A dog can have both fleas and lice, I tell myself. Wallace could have murdered Julia and missed her terribly. And what about the financial reward? £20 life-insurance, which went straight into his defence fund, is not much of a motive. His colleagues, his family, Julia’s sister, all stuck by him; all believed him innocent. He was sick, he was dying. All this lonely intellectual had in the world was Julia. It makes no sense. I suddenly have doubts.
It is a truism of the case that every piece of evidence that points to Wallace’s guilt, can also be used to point to his innocence. It’s a stalemate. Obsession with this leads you down only one path — madness.
And have you noticed the way Julia, a person who lived and breathed, who had plans and dreams and hummed little snatches of songs on the way to the bus stop, who had her life snatched away, is just a detail? Her head becomes an eggshell, her blood, her brains on the fireplace, simply a source of morbid curiosity. A mystery to be solved like a chess puzzle.
Standing, just opposite Lime Street, it begins, inevitably, to rain. I sit on the cold steps of St George’s plateau. Bloody Sunday, I think. Wallace the innocent or Wallace the murderer – each is as tragic as the other. The end result remained the same – Julia lying alone in that parlour, in Anfield. A cruel end, in a cruel world.
God, I hate Sundays.