The murder of Dripping Lewis

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Everybody loves a good mystery and sometimes, if there is no solution or answer to that mystery, it is all the more appealing to the imagination. One such mystery is the murder of William Alfred Lewis from Pontypool in May 1939.

The murdered man was known throughout the town as Dripping Lewis. The origins of the nickname are unclear – perhaps it was because he was, almost literally, dripping in wealth.

An alternative explanation, put forward by Monty Dart in her 2012 book Who Killed Dripping Lewis?, offers the simple but heartrending possibility that "During the Depression of the 1920s many of the Pontypool citizens were able to feed their families because of the generosity of the Lewis family. Using their butcher's shops and slaughter-houses they distributed 'dripping' (the fat and solids rendered from cooking meat) to the poor."

However he acquired the name, Lewis's body was discovered by builder Thomas Brimble on the morning of Wednesday 24 May 1939. Brimble had been carrying out building work for Lewis and found the body, battered and blood soaked, sprawled across the bed in his house, Plasmont.

Dripping Lewis was a rich bachelor, recently retired as a draper and owning somewhere in the region of 200 houses in the Pontypool area. He regularly collected the rent from these properties and the immediate suspicion was that he had been killed during an attempted robbery.

Lewis, small of stature and well past his prime, had suffered repeated blows about the head and, according to the post mortem, had died from shock and a severe haemorrhage.

Initial investigations led nowhere and the chief constable of Monmouthshire had no alternative but to ask for assistance from Scotland Yard. Four detectives, led by Detective Inspector Rees - all specially chosen because they spoke Welsh - were despatched to Pontypool. Considering that Pontypool then, as now, was largely English speaking, this does seem a rather strange decision but it seemed to pass without undue notice at the time.

Ransacked house

The house of the murdered man had clearly been ransacked, drawers turned out and the place searched. Originally, it was believed that a sum of about £300 had been stolen but when Scotland Yard officers made a thorough search of Plasmont, it was clear that the various safes in the building had not been disturbed.

And despite interviewing hundreds of people – some of them suspects like David Henry Williams who had been implicated by two men with whom he had been in jail – the police got nowhere. Dozens of cards and letters from local people, all claiming to know the identity of the murderer, were received but the police found themselves facing a dead end.

Police call in clairvoyants

At one stage, the police officers were approached by two clairvoyants, both offering their services in the solving of the crime but it seems unlikely that Inspector Rees took them up on their offer. One of his assistants was the renowned Frederick Cherrill, the so-called "Fingerprint Man".

As Monty Dart writes: "His evidence sent a number of men to the gallows and many others to long terms of imprisonment. It was said that he was responsible for solving more murders than any other policeman of the time."

Even Cherrill was unable to find a solution to the murder. Part of the trouble was that, with war looming, an ammunition factory had recently been opened at nearby Glascoed and, consequently, there were hundreds of new faces around the town – many of them men of rather undesirable character and behaviour.

Thomas Brimble, the man who had found Lewis' body, was an obvious suspect. He was interviewed but his persona was that of an innocent man, a man with nothing to hide or be worried about. Many people in Pontypool believed him to have been arrested and then released because of lack of evidence, but this was not so. He was eliminated from suspicion at an early stage of the police investigation.

For several weeks the hunt went on, police gathering more and more information and collecting statements from anyone who had any knowledge of Dripping Lewis and the case. It all led nowhere.

The slow build-up to the declaration of war in September 1939 must have had some effect on the investigation and on peoples responses. Quite simply, there were more pressing concerns – although whether or not this affected the police investigation will never really be known.

Finally, in the summer of 1939 the Scotland Yard men returned to London and the crime remained unsolved. It would seem that the murderer – or murderers – of Dripping Lewis managed to escape justice and retribution.

There are still people in Pontypool who claim to know the identity of the killer but, for the time being at least, nobody can really give a clear and accurate answer to what happened that May morning in 1939. The case remains one of those fascinating and intriguing stories about which we can all speculate.

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