The short story ‘ The Black Panther’ was published in ACES ‘The Terrier’ Magazine in the Autumn 2017 edition. It tells the true story of how the notorious murderer interrupted the work of a north-west estates office.
The Black Panther
(This is a true story but ‘Harry’ has been renamed to avoid any possible embarrassment)
Harry barged through the door into the estates office, threw his briefcase on the floor and slumped into the seat of the empty desk opposite me. The surveyors seated at the other two desks turned to look at it us.
“Bad day?” I asked.
“Bad day? Bad day? You don’t know the half of it”
“You were just doing a simple inspection for a rent review. What went wrong?”
“I’ve been interrogated by the Police”
Harry was coming up to 20 years old and had been given a temporary training contract to assist on estates management matters in the County Estates Department. He had a little estates experience and had started on the RICS qualification route with his father’s practice but had not made much progress along it. He had other priorities before work and exams – girls, beer and rugby in any order that they came. Someone had decided that the surveyors in the management section should mentor him and I had given him a simple rent review to start him off. My first instruction to him was to go out and inspect the property, measure it up, note its features and form an opinion of its rental value. He had taken the file and telephoned to book an appointment to inspect with the landlord for the morning of Friday 6 September 1974.
The property comprised the general store and post office in Higher Baxenden, a small village on the south side of Accrington in Lancashire. The village did not warrant a branch library of its own. Instead the County Library Service rented shelves in the post office and a mobile unit came each week to update the stock of books whilst Derek Astin, the shopkeeper and postmaster, acted as librarian. The County Council saved on the cost of providing and staffing a separate Library building and Mr Astin enjoyed a rent for the use of a small part of his premises. The existing rent was inclusive of heating, lighting, power, repairs and decorations, cleaning, rates, insurance and payment for the librarian’s time and had not been reviewed for some years. Mr Astin had requested a review to reflect rising values and running costs over time.
All Harry had to do was to measure the shelf space of the entire sales area of the shop, identify and measure the shelf area occupied by the library units and obtain evidence of actual running costs from the landlord. From the measurements a proportion for the library shelves could be determined and then applied to the costs for the whole shop. Thereafter he needed to assess the rise in value of the rental for the retail floor space occupied by the library shelf units by research against comparable properties elsewhere since the last review. That would then allow him to contrast the new total with the previous total for the rent and running costs and thus give him a feel for the likely value. This would provide a starting point for negotiation of the review. It should have been straightforward.
Harry never got to meet Mr Astin. When he arrived he was immediately detained by a burly policeman and taken off to meet the detectives for a grilling. They wanted to know what he was doing there.
Eventually a policeman had telephoned the estates office and spoken to our manager to check Harry’s story, but without explaining why they were asking. The manager didn’t think to tell us about the call. In those days photo-identity cards had not been invented. When invited to describe Harry he’d simply said ‘He’s a big, dopey-looking b(e?)gger’ which seemed to satisfy them. Harry was then released to return to work.
At 4 am on the morning of the 6 September 1974 Derek Astin had heard a noise in his shop and got out of bed to investigate. On the way downstairs he’d come face to face with a masked intruder. Fearing for the safety of his family, he had put up a struggle and was shot in the shoulder and the leg and died from his wounds. Mrs Astin described the man as dressed all in black and ‘so quick, he was like a panther’. The press nick-named him ‘the Black Panther’.
Donald Neilson was a former soldier who had failed to make a success of civilian life. He planned his crimes meticulously. He had already committed 400 domestic burglaries before he turned to robbing small Post Offices because he thought that the returns would be better. In 1972, at night, he entered the Rochdale Road Post Office in Heywood, Lancashire and after a struggle in the bedroom with Leslie Richardson, the Postmaster, when Neilson’s shotgun was discharged, he escaped empty-handed. Mr Richardson was left injured on the floor but survived.
In February 1974 Neilson killed Donald Skepper in Harrogate New Park Sub-Post Office. In September 1974 he killed Derek Astin at Higher Baxenden Sub-Post Office. In November 1974 he killed Sidney Grayland in Langley Sub-Post office, West Midlands and also brutally battered his wife, Margaret Grayland, leaving her for dead.
Lesley Whittle, at 17 years old, was his youngest victim. Neilson read that Miss Whittle was a significant beneficiary of her father’s will and on the night of 14 January 1975 he broke into the Whittle home in Highley, Shropshire and kidnapped her from her bedroom, leaving a ransom note for £50,000. The ransom delivery went wrong and Miss Whittle’s body was found on 7 March 1975 hanging from a wire around her neck at the bottom of the drainage shaft where he had tethered her in Bathpool Park, Kidsgrove, Staffordshire. Her heart had stopped from the shock of the fall from the ledge where Neilson had imprisoned her, alone and in the dark. It was never established if he she had fallen or if he had pushed her.
In December 1975 two police officers were in a panda car in a side road off the A60 outside Mansfield in Nottinghamshire. They noticed a man hurrying past carrying a holdall and, their suspicions aroused, they called him over to question him. The man pulled out a sawn-off shotgun, ordered one of the policeman into the back of the car and got into the front passenger seat holding the shotgun aimed at the driver. He told them to drive to Rainworth about six miles away. At a junction along the way the driver swerved the car from side to side, pretending not to know the way, giving his colleague a chance to grab the gun and point it away from him whilst he slammed on the brakes. They had stopped outside a fish and chip shop and people in the queue rushed to help with the struggle. Neilson was overpowered and severely beaten. His criminal career was ended.
Harry had recovered by the weekend. The rugby season was starting the following day and he had a game to play in the afternoon with a dance in the clubhouse in the evening. His experience would become a fine tale to relate to his teammates and to impress the girls in the bar at night after the game.
We still had the problem of what to do about the outstanding rent review that had been triggered by Mr Astin.
Simply to ignore it and hope that it would be forgotten about in the terrible circumstances would make the County Council appear to be taking financial advantage of the situation. To make Mrs Astin start the process by asking her to suggest an increased rent would look like we were placing a further burden on a grieving woman already suffering under the worst of circumstances. Also, we could hardly return to measure up at a crime scene.
In the event, after waiting for a couple of weeks and working from the historic sketches and notes on the file from the original hiring of the library space, we calculated what we thought to be a reasonable and fair increase for the inclusive rent. Then, we instructed the County Council’s Solicitor to compose an appropriate letter to Mrs Astin expressing our condolences, referring to the matter of the rent review raised by Mr Astin and informing her that we had assessed what we considered to be a fair rent and setting out the suggested amount per annum. We added that we had instructed the County Treasurer to pay that new amount to Mrs Astin from the upcoming review date. However we also confirmed, in accepting the increased payment, that the County Council did not consider her to be bound by the amount and that, if she felt it was not fair and reasonable, then she could still challenge it and negotiate accordingly at some future time when she felt ready to do so as if that review had not taken place at all.
Harry never did make it as a surveyor. When his temporary contract ended he got a job as a grave-digger, then as an ice-cream salesman and later entered Sandhurst. The last I heard was that on leaving the army he was offered a business opportunity and ‘made a killing’ in the newly-emerging mobile phone market.
It’s strange how some people manage to make the right decisions in life despite early set-backs whilst others just keep on making all the wrong ones.
In 1976 Neilson received 5 life sentences for the kidnapping and murder of Leslie Whittle and the murder of two sub-postmasters and the husband of a sub-postmistress and for causing grievous bodily harm to the sub-postmistress. He was also found guilty of other associated charges and the trial judge recommended that Neilson should receive a whole life tariff, which was upheld on appeal in 2008, meaning in Neilson’s case that life really would mean life.
He never left prison, except to visit Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital in the early hours of 17 December 2011 where he died the next day from breathing difficulties at the age of 75 years.
©David Lewis Pogson 2017
Acknowledgement of Factual Sources:
Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_Neilson
The Lancashire Telegraph – http://lancashiretelegraph.co.uk/news/9427668