This was no erotic romance – it was murder…
Suave, charming Neville Heath may have had a liking for sadomasochistic sex, as does the handsome, brilliant, and wealthy Christian Grey in E L James’ erotic romance, but what happened in real life was a far cry from the glamourised fiction. For in reality, the sex led to a brutal, degrading and agonising death for Heath’s victims.
Not only charming, but unusually good-looking, with blond hair and piercing blue eyes, Neville Heath was like two sides of a coin – on one, a dashing, courageous RAF pilot, full of fun and zest for life. And, on the flip side, a violent sexual predator who killed two young women.
Yet it seems this strange combination of charm and brutal violence proved intriguing to a public who avidly followed his arrest and sensational trial.
In March 1946, in a hotel on London’s Strand, staff were shocked to hear screams coming from one of the rooms. Inside, they found a young woman, naked and tied up. And, while she could identify her assailant, she refused to press charges. But she was absolutely clear that the man who had assaulted her was Neville Heath…
Heath was born in 1917 in Ilford, Essex. His parents said he was a caring, kind and affectionate boy. In 1936, aged 16, he joined the RAF. Desperate to fit in with his well-heeled, well-connected peers he began to assume aliases – A J Banham, James Bulman, Captain Blyth, Bruce Lockhart, Squadron Leader Walker, Lieutenant Colonel Graham, and Lord Dudley – and stealing to maintain a playboy lifestyle.
But he was court-marshalled and dismissed for being absent without leave and car theft in September 1937. In civilian life, he still couldn’t keep out of trouble – and, in July 1938, got three years in Borstal for theft, as well as having 10 other offences taken into consideration.
On his release, when war broke out he joined the Royal Army Service Corps and was posted to the Middle East. He lasted less than a year. He was shipped home but, on his way, he escaped and headed for Johannesburg where he joined the South African Air Force, rising to become Captain. He married, and the couple had a son but, at the end of the war, his wife divorced him on grounds of desertion. He was also again court martialled for wearing medals to which he was not entitled.
He returned to England in 1946 to live with his parents in Wimbledon. Now 29 and calling himself Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Heath, he was never short of women’s company. Always immaculately turned out, rarely sober, and never seen without a woman on his arm, he soon became a familiar figure in the Gentlemen’s Clubs of the West End.
He had, it was said, an easy-going charm that people found difficult to resist, particularly women.
On 16 June 1946, Heath took a room at a hotel in Notting Hill Gate, calling himself Lieutenant-Colonel Heath. He was with a young woman, Yvonne Symonds, who he said was his wife – but, in reality, they had only just met. The couple spent the night together and she returned to her home the next day. Heath had promised Yvonne he’d marry her.
Then, just days later, on 20 June, Heath spent the evening with part-time actress Margery Gardner, 32-years-old and who had a liking for bondage. The couple had been dancing at the Panama Club, Kensington. The next day, unable to get into Heath’s room, the chambermaid called the assistant manager. When they went in, they made a terrible discovery.
Margery Gardner’s body was naked on the bed, her wrists and ankles tied. A Home Office pathologist determined the cause of death as suffocation – but only after she had been subjected to a horrific attack while alive.
Margery had 17 slash marks on her body, her nipples had been savagely bitten, and she had been viciously assaulted with what the pathologist said was a short poker found in the fireplace, causing internal injuries.
The slash marks on her body showed the distinctive diamond pattern of a riding crop and the pathologist told police, ‘Find that whip and you’ve found your man.’
As the hunt for Margery’s killer began, Heath made for the South Coast. The police had told the newspapers not to print his photograph, fearing it might prejudice witnesses at a trial. But his name had appeared in relation to Margery’s murder. So, calling himself Group Captain Rupert Brook, Heath took a room at a hotel. There, he met pretty former Wren Doreen Marshall, who was staying at another hotel. They spent the day together, and had dinner at Heath’s hotel. Doreen was not seen alive again.
The police were informed of Doreen’s disappearance, and the manager at the hotel remembered she may have been the woman with Group Captain Brook. Now Heath went to the police station, and identified Doreen’s picture as the girl he had been with, but said he’d left her, alive and well, at her hotel.
The detective recognised Heath as the man wanted by Scotland Yard in the killing of Margery Gardner. Police searched Heath’s belongings and found a railway cloakroom ticket, which led them to a case containing a riding whip with a distinctive diamond-pattern weave. It was identified as that used on Margery Gardner. The next day, Heath was transferred to London and charged with the murder of Margery Gardner.
While Heath was denying the murder of Margery Gardner, Doreen Marshall’s body was discovered in woodland near the beach. Her clothes had been removed, she had wounds on her hands, suggesting she’d grasped defensively at a knife. She had blows to her head, her wrists and ankles had been tied, one nipple had been bitten off and her throat was slashed. As with Margery Gardner, an instrument had been violently inserted into her vagina.
Neville Heath’s trial for the murder began on 24 September 1946 at the Old Bailey. The three-day trial brought huge crowds, mainly female, with some queuing for 14 hours for a glimpse of the handsome ladykiller. The team representing him chose not to call Heath to give evidence, relying on the defence of insanity, and called a criminal psychiatrist to testify as an expert witness.
The psychiatist testified that Heath knew what he was doing – but not that it was wrong.
However, the prosecution refuted this. Two prison doctors said that, although Heath was a violent sexual deviant and a psychopath, he was not insane. The jury took less than an hour to find him guilty and he was sentenced to death. Heath showed little emotion, but instead smiled and shook hands with those standing nearby.
The police believed it was likely that Neville Heath had killed many more women. There had been a number of cases in London’s West End in the previous months that had a striking resemblance to the murders of Margery Gardner and Doreen Marshall.
On 16 October, Heath walked calmly to his execution in Pentonville Prison. In his cell beforehand, he announced, ‘I’ve nothing to say, except cheerio.’ Asked if he had any last requests, he asked if there was any chance of a whisky, saying, ‘While you’re about it, you might make that a double.’
And so Neville Heath, 29, went to his appointment with the hangman. The man dubbed by the tabloid newspapers of the day as ‘the most dangerous criminal modern Britain has ever known’ met his end.