The mother, the medium and the murder that changed the law

By Greig Watson
BBC News

image copyrightChris Hobbs
image captionMona Tinsley's face smiled out of countless newspaper articles and police leaflets

It is 80 years since the murder of 10-year-old Mona Tinsley, a case which was by turns grisly, seedy and bizarre. It enthralled a nation and helped change the age-old principle that a murder could not be proved without a body.

"Oh it couldn't possibly be him," said Lilian Tinsley to the assembled police.

Officers had a lead in the disappearance of Mona, her slight but sprightly 10-year-old daughter, but needed help.

Just hours after she vanished after leaving her Newark-on-Trent school on 5 January 1937, a witness identified a man seen nearby as a former lodger from the Tinsleys' home.

Local historian Chris Hobbs said: "The reaction of Lilian and her husband Wilfred, when questioned, was odd. They seemed evasive.

image copyrightChris Hobbs/BBC
image captionThe house at the centre of the case has changed little on the outside

"When pressed by officers, Mrs Tinsley admitted they briefly had a lodger, known to the children as 'Uncle Fred'.

"Eventually she gave a name, Frederick Hudson, and, seemingly with great reluctance, the fact he was a friend of her sister Edith Grimes in Sheffield.

"Why would the parents be like this with the safety of their daughter at stake?" Mr Hobbs queried.

A possible, and murky, answer would emerge.

Mrs Grimes gave them a slightly different name - Frederick Nodder - but insisted she had not seen him for months. This turned out to be a blatant lie.

Officers quickly found a neighbour who had seen Nodder in Sheffield just after Christmas, driving a lorry marked 'Retford', a market town in Nottinghamshire.

This led them to a haulage firm which provided an address in the nearby hamlet of Hayton. It was only a day since Mona had disappeared.

'No body, No murder'

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionBritish justice was haunted by the wrongful execution of three people in 1660

Legal historian Benjamin Darlow says: "This principle dates back to the case of William Harrison in 1660, known as the Campden Wonder. Mr Harrison disappeared from near Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire, in 1660 and two men and a woman were found guilty and hanged for the crime.

"In 1662, Mr Harrison turned up with a story about being kidnapped. This had a dramatic impact on English criminal law and the 'no body, no murder' principle survived for the next 294 years.

"The Mona Tinsley case was part of an important narrative in the 20th Century which built up to the abolition of the principle in English Law in 1954.

"It was perhaps the most high-profile and widely reported case in this timeline.

"There is no longer a 'no body, no murder' principle in English criminal law.

"A murder conviction can be based on circumstantial evidence if it is compelling and convincing enough.

"While the principle is gone, it is still very difficult to prove murder without a body, unless there is alternative strong evidence pointing to the murderer."

Confronted outside his rented house, Nodder, 50, denied any involvement but a girl was seen at the house at about noon that day, just a few hours before.

A search found a child's drawings as well as fingerprints on crockery. Nodder was arrested.

Witnesses placed him on a bus from Newark to Retford on Tuesday afternoon. He was accompanied by a girl.

Faced by this evidence, Nodder asked to see Mrs Grimes, insisting this would lead to Mona being found "alive and well".

image captionNodder's house (centre, between trees) was a short distance from the Chesterfield canal

Mr Hobbs said: "It came out that Mrs Grimes had in fact seen Nodder on a weekly basis since he left Sheffield. She knew full well where Nodder lived but did not tell police.

"Newspaper reports describe them as being "friendly" but it is striking how both she and Mrs Tinsley tried to deflect attention away from Nodder.

"It seems likely Mrs Grimes was having an affair with him but it is surprising both she and Mona's own mother were prepared to obstruct the police investigation.

"Had it delayed the search by vital hours?"

image copyrightBritish Newspaper Archive
image captionHundreds of people turned out to search fields and help police drag local rivers

But when they met, Nodder offered only a statement insisting he had sent Mona to Sheffield to see Mrs Grimes.

Nobody believed a word of Nodder's new statement - but the lack of a corpse hampered the investigation.

After searches of the house, garden, nearby countryside and the ominously close Chesterfield canal, and just beyond it the River Idle, fat with winter rain, no new trace of the girl was uncovered.

On 10 January 1937 Nodder was charged, but only with abduction.

Supernatural sleuths

image captionDivining, or dowsing, claims the twitching of sticks can locate lost objects or water sources

The desperate search for Mona used many conventional methods - but also some more bizarre efforts.

Diviners - who search for an item with the aid of sticks or rods and mysterious intuition - featured prominently in the hunt for the girl, often seeming to direct the efforts of police.

Most prominent was James Clarke of Melton Mowbray, who, carrying one of Mona's shoes and guided by whalebone sticks, focused on a gravel pit. On 14 January he told the Nottingham Post, "Never was I more confident of success. I am so confident that if I was younger I would dig myself."

The pit was cleared. Nothing was found.

Several mediums featured in the case. The Daily Mirror tested three - gaining access to both the Tinsley family and Nodder's house - but was given vague or conflicting answers.

Estelle Roberts, one of the most famous psychics of the 1930s, later claimed to have been chauffeured to the the crime scene by police and told them Mona was in the river.

Whatever she revealed to officers at the time, it was not enough to find the little girl.

The case made national headlines. The Daily Express offered a £250 reward to find Mona, a different editor was threatened with jail for contempt for publishing a photo of Nodder.

Press and public queued to get into hearings. It was reported some were "laughing and joking as they pushed and struggled to their places" and were told off by court officials.

Nodder stood trial in Birmingham just two months later.

image copyrightBritish Newspaper Archive
image captionEfforts to solve the mystery even featured in upmarket picture magazine The Sphere

His defence argued hard Mona might still be found alive and well and no-one should speculate on her fate. Nodder did not give evidence.

The jury took 16 minutes to convict him. He was jailed for seven years.

Clearly frustrated by what he felt was a killer getting away lightly, Judge Mr Justice Rigby Swift said: "You have been, most properly in my opinion, convicted by the jury of a dreadful crime.

"What you did with that little girl, what became of her, only you know. It may be that time will reveal the dreadful secret which you carry in your breast."

The searches had been exhaustive. Hundreds of volunteers had combed the countryside, leaflets had been handed out, an appeal broadcast on radio. The canal had been drained for five miles, the river dredged.

As it stood, Nodder just had to bide his time.

image copyrightBritish Newspaper Archive
image captionNodder was described as unkempt but seemed to have been trusted by the Tinsley children

But his luck ran out on 6 June. A family boating on the River Idle, a few miles downstream of Hayton, spotted a suspicious object under the water.

When police arrived they found it was a body snagged in a drain.

It was taken to a nearby pub where Wilfred Tinsley identified his daughter by her clothes.

Injuries to her neck showed Mona had been strangled with a cord. Nodder was charged with murder.

image copyrightcowrin
image captionNodder was hanged at Lincoln Prison still maintaining his innocence

The law moved with vengeful speed. In November, the second time in a year, he stood trial. This time he gave evidence - still insisting he had put Mona on a bus for Sheffield.

A two-day trial saw his defence, which claimed nothing directly proved he had killed Mona and no motive was established, briskly dismissed.

Sentencing Nodder to death, Mr Justice Mcnaughton remarked: "Justice has slowly but surely overtaken you".

On 30 December 1937, Frederick Nodder was hanged in Lincoln Prison.

After the noose had done its work and the Tinsleys were left to grieve, the echo of the murder carried on. Its twists and revelations helped usher in a new way of seeking justice for the dead.

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