The 1953 Pendine murders

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The tiny Carmarthenshire village of Pendine is usually remembered for attempts on the world land speed record by people like Sir Malcolm Campbell and John Parry-Thomas back in the early 20th century. But in the autumn of 1953 the seaside village was in the news again, this time as the scene of a grisly and dramatic murder.

Pendine is usually remembered for attempts on the world land speed record

People in the village first suspected that something was wrong when they noticed the cows from Derlwyn Farm had been left unmilked in the fields. The farmer, John Harries, was a careful and diligent farmer, they said, who would never have left his cows unattended in such condition.

Further investigations quickly revealed that Harries and his wife Phoebe had not been seen since returning from a chapel thanksgiving service the previous night, on Friday 15 October.

When questioned, Ronald Lewis Harries, a distant relative of the missing couple - he referred to them as uncle and aunt even though the relationship was never that close - revealed that he had driven them to Carmarthen railway station on the morning of Saturday 16 October. They were off, he said, on holiday.

John and Phoebe Harries had not been on holiday for 20 years and people in the area would have known if the couple had planned anything like a break in London. When Ronald Harries became evasive in his answers to police questions, the investigating team - led by Superintendent Capstick of Scotland Yard - became confident that they had their man.

Harries' Land Rover had been seen several times since the disappearance, driving to and from Derlwyn Farm and, it was said, he had soon removed all the livestock and brought it to his parents' farm, Cadno, where he lived. He had also taken away some of the farm implements.

Further evidence of apparent wrongdoing came in the form of a 'doctored' cheque. This was signed by John Harries and was made payable to Ronald Harries. Originally for just £9, it had been altered to read £909. It was certainly fraud but there were no bodies and without them the police were powerless to arrest Harries for murder.

It is said that the police now planned a trap. They had cotton tapes laid across gateways and gaps in the hedges of Cadno Farm and then proceeded to make such a commotion that Harries was frightened into acting. By following the broken tapes as he blundered towards the location of the bodies, they were soon able to unearth the corpses of John and Phoebe Harries.

It is a great story but its accuracy remains unclear. Other reports talk about an intensive three week search of the area, by police and volunteers. That is certainly more likely but would have involved searching a huge area without any clear leads. It would have been like looking for a needle in a haystack.

What is clear is that on 16 November 1953 the bodies of the missing farmer and his wife were discovered in a shallow grave at Cadno Farm. They had been battered to death by repeated blows from a circular blunt instrument - in fact, a hammer just like the one owned by Ronald Harries - and the bodies buried in a field of kale.

Harries was arrested, despite protesting his innocence, and charged with just the one murder. That was the practice of the time, even though there were clearly two bodies and two killings.

Harries continued to claim he was innocent throughout his trial, which began on 16 March 1954. Such was the interest, right across west Wales, that a crowd of several hundred gathered outside Shire Hall in Carmarthen, some of them having been there since 3.30am. Many of the crowd came from the Pendine area. Crowd control was provided by barriers made of trestle tables and rope.

Ronald Harries sat, immobile, in the dock, his arms folded and barely a gleam of emotion on his face as the story was told by the prosecution. A guilty verdict was inevitable and he was sentenced to hang at Swansea Prison. As he left the court, Harries - handcuffed to a prison warder - managed to raise his hand to friends and acquaintances in the crowd.

Many previous executions in Swansea had been carried out in public, on the dunes outside the prison, but this one took place inside the prison on 28 April 1954. Ronald Harries was the last but one prisoner to be executed at Swansea; the final death sentence was carried out on one Vivian Teed four years later.

Harries had been blasé ever since his conviction but when the public executioners Albert Pierrpoint and Robert Stewart came to his cell on that final morning he is said to have collapsed and had to be assisted to the gallows.

His motive behind killing his distant relatives was never totally clear and he went to his death still protesting his innocence. In all probability the deed had been carried out with a view to financial gain but the murders had been poorly conceived and badly thought through.

Harries had, people felt, met a deserved end and soon the sleepy little Carmarthenshire village of Pendine had all but forgotten its brief moment of notoriety.

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