The murder of Lily Volpert in 1952 took place in the docks district of Cardiff, known as Tiger Bay, which was home to a unique multiracial community. Cardiff was one of the world’s great ports, and many foreign-born merchant seamen had settled there, marrying local women and raising families.
Lily’s father had arrived in Cardiff from Russia in 1904. He was Jewish, and had probably wanted to escape the anti-semitic violence that had broken out in his homeland. In Tiger Bay, he’d built up a successful general outfitter’s business at 203-204 Bute Street, in the main thoroughfare that connected the town centre with the docks. His shop supplied local people and seamen with all kinds of daily necessities. After his death in 1948, Lily carried on running the business. In 1952 her widowed sister, Doris Miara, and Doris’s ten-year-old daughter Ruth were living with her. Lily’s mother, Fanny, also used to visit every day to help with housework and in the shop.
The shop closed at 8 o’clock in the evening. A few minutes after that time on Thursday 6 March, after serving some late customers, Lily closed the shop and joined her family in the back room to have supper. But as soon as she sat down, she was interrupted by the doorbell. Doris and Fanny saw a man standing outside the shop door, and Lily went out to deal with him. A few minutes later Ruth looked out into the shop, and saw her aunt talking to a man at the door.
Some 20 minutes afterwards the family were surprised when a police officer walked into the back room. Another late customer had made a shocking discovery. Lily’s body was lying on the shop floor, her throat cut with a razor or sharp knife.
It was later discovered that probably more than £100 – a large sum of money in 1952 – was missing from a drawer in the shop. The police swiftly launched a large-scale investigation, led by Chief Inspector Harry Power, who was assisted by Inspector Lowdon Roberts. On the night of the murder, they circulated the description of a Somali in dark clothing who had been seen near the shop. Evidently that was the man seen by Doris and Fanny. But apparently Ruth had seen a different man, because she described him as wearing a light-coloured mackintosh.
Other witnesses came forward too. A twelve-year-old girl, Joyce Blackmore, had called at the shop on an errand soon before 8 o’clock, and she told the police she’d seen a dark-skinned man she thought might have been a Somali, on the street corner nearby. But another witness had seen a man fitting the same description boarding a bus there soon afterwards, so he had probably only been waiting for the bus.
Two other customers, Mary Tolley and Margaret Bush, had been in the shop between about 8 and 8.05, but they didn’t mention having seen anyone else there.
A Jamaican-born former merchant seaman, Harold Cover, told the police he had passed the shop at around 8 o’clock and had seen two Somalis. One was coming out of the porch, and the other was standing by the shop window, near the door. The second man’s height was about six feet, which was unusually tall for the time. According to notes made by Inspector Roberts, which didn’t come to light until 1998, Cover identified the first man as a Somali merchant seaman named Tahir Gass. Gass was questioned by Roberts on the Monday after the murder and gave an account of what he had done that evening. The account must have raised some questions in Roberts’s mind, and didn’t explain why Gass would have been coming out of the porch at that time. But he intended to serve on a merchant ship that was about to leave for the Mediterranean, and the police let him sail on the following day.
The conviction and execution of Mahmood Hussein Mattan
Among a number of local men questioned by the police on the night of the murder was another Somali, Mahmood Hussein Mattan. He had been born in the early 1920s in Hargeisa, then in British Somaliland, and had come to Britain in 1946 and joined the merchant navy. Later he settled in Cardiff and married a local girl, Laura Williams. They had three children, but later separated. However, they remained on friendly terms and in 1952 were both living in the same road – Davis Street in Adamsdown, to the north-east of Tiger Bay.
Mattan had left the merchant navy in 1949, and had done various jobs on shore since then. But he was a keen gambler and was often short of money. He was accused of theft on several occasions, and had recently been convicted of breaking into the offertory box in the local mosque and stealing the money in it. He had also been accused of threatening people with knives and razors. One man said Mattan had cut his finger with a razor.
About two hours after the murder, two detectives questioned Mattan at his lodgings. He told them he had been at the cinema until 7.30 and had then gone straight home and stayed there. His room was searched, but nothing suspicious was discovered. The police found no blood stains on his clothing and he had very little money. A razor was found in his jacket pocket, but the detectives were satisfied it wasn’t the murder weapon. He seemed to have been eliminated.
The investigation continued with extensive house-to-house enquiries. Men of all races were questioned, particularly those known or suspected to have been involved in criminal activities. The police began an ambitious operation, with the help of other forces across the country, to trace the movements of nearly 140 merchant seamen who had been Lily Volpert’s customers.
But a few days later their attention returned to Mattan. They discovered that the cinema programme wasn’t consistent with what he’d told them, and his landlord and another lodger said he’d got home much later than 7.30. There was a long interrogation at the police station and an identification parade, but Lily’s mother, sister and niece didn’t identify him.
The police continued to investigate Mattan’s movements. They showed his photograph to Mary Tolley and Margaret Bush, who had been among Lily’s last customers. But they said that although they knew him by sight, they hadn’t seen him for about a month. The police weren’t willing to accept this, and both women underwent lengthy questioning at the police station. Eventually Mary Tolley changed her story and said that Mattan had come into the shop while they were there, and had then left. But Margaret Bush still said she hadn’t seen anyone in the shop.
It was enough for the police to arrest Mattan, and he was charged with murder the next day. But he refused to attend another identification parade. He said the witnesses could identify him in court.
The police tried to find more evidence against Mattan, but with limited success. A shopkeeper in central Cardiff, May Gray, said he had been in her shop that night with a wad of banknotes. But there were serious problems with her story. Microscopic specks of blood were found on a pair of Mattan’s shoes. But they couldn’t be scientifically linked to the murder, and the shoes had previously been reclaimed from a salvage dump. And the police had evidence that Mattan was lying about his movements. But there was little more than suspicion against him.
The police prepared a case against Mattan based mainly on Mary Tolley’s evidence. Of the two statements she had made previously, neither of which had mentioned her seeing anyone in the shop, they suppressed the second, which was very detailed. (In the 1950s witness statements weren’t normally available to the defence, but this one wouldn’t even be supplied to the prosecution.) And they got her to make a fourth statement, in which she changed the story again and said she had seen Mattan enter the shop, but hadn’t seen him leave. So the police suggested Mattan had hidden somewhere inside, and had attacked Lily Volpert immediately after Mary Tolley and Margaret Bush had left.
But there was still a problem with the timing. Mary and Margaret said they had left at 8.05. But the original statements made by Lily’s family said she had gone into the back room, and had then returned to answer the shop door when a man rang the doorbell. Two of the statements said that was after 8.05. But the police also suppressed the family’s original statements and got them to make new ones. Then they reversed the sequence of events, suggesting that Mary and Margaret had been served after the man who rang the doorbell, not before.
But all this effort came to nothing. When the prosecution presented its case before the trial, at the committal proceedings in the magistrates’ court, Mary Tolley was asked whether the man she’d seen was in court, and she said he wasn’t. She had changed her story yet again, and was saying Mattan hadn’t been there after all. Before the hearing, the police had arranged a confrontation between the twelve-year-old Joyce Blackmore and Mattan, to see whether she could identify him. But she also said he wasn’t the man she’d seen.
Perhaps the case might have collapsed then, but there was another surprise. The prosecution hadn’t been sure whether it would even be worth calling Harold Cover as a witness. But in court he identified Mattan as the man he’d seen coming out of the porch. That was despite having earlier identified Tahir Gass as that man. But no one except Cover himself and the police knew about that.
At the trial, at Swansea in July, the prosecution depended almost entirely on Cover’s identification. It was backed up by the story of the shopkeeper, May Gray, and a mass of evidence suggesting that Mattan had lied about various things. Evidently May Gray was a very unconvincing witness. But, ironically, everyone in court seems to have been convinced of Harold Cover’s honesty and integrity.
Mattan’s counsel, Thomas Rhys-Roberts, conducted a spirited defence and succeeded in having a large part of the prosecution evidence ruled inadmissible. But he blundered badly in describing his client as “half child of nature, half semi-civilised savage”. No doubt he had in mind the concept of the “noble savage” and was trying to portray Mattan as a simple, innocent man, unable to cope with the complications of modern civilisation. But describing a man accused of murder as a “savage” conveyed something very different to many people. And Mattan himself had made a very bad impression in the witness box, by simply trying to deny everything the prosecution witnesses said, even when it was in his favour.
The jury found Mattan guilty after only about an hour and a half’s deliberation and he was sentenced to death. After a hearing before three judges, he was refused leave to appeal, and the Home Secretary found no reason to reprieve him. Mattan continued to protest his innocence. But he was executed at 9 a.m. on 3 September 1952 at Cardiff Prison.
The murder of Granville George Jenkins by Tahir Gass
Over the following two years, Tahir Gass, the Somali merchant seaman who had originally been identified by Harold Cover, displayed serious mental problems. He became increasingly irrational and violent, and developed an obsession with knives. By the Summer of 1954 he was living rough in a little wood to the west of Newport, Monmouthshire. On 12 June, disaster struck. He encountered a man named Granville George Jenkins, who was leading a horse down a country lane. In a frenzied attack, Gass stabbed him to death. He made no attempt to cover his tracks – when the police examined the scene of the crime, they found his jacket, and in the pocket there were official forms bearing his name.
Later that day, Gass was captured by the police after a chase across the fields. He denied killing anyone, but there could be no doubt about the facts. At his trial in November, the medical evidence was that he was suffering from schizophrenia and experiencing delusions, to the extent that he didn’t understand what he was doing, or that it was wrong. He was found guilty but insane (as the verdict then was) and committed to Broadmoor. But less than a year later he was discharged and repatriated to British Somaliland. It’s not known what happened to him after that.
No one but the police and Harold Cover knew that Gass had been at the scene of Lily Volpert’s murder in 1952. We don’t know whether this later killing caused any concern to those who did know.
The attempted murder of his daughter by Harold Cover
The next development, fifteen years later, was another tragedy. This time it happened in Tiger Bay, and involved Harold Cover himself.
By this time he had a family, but he was a man with a violent temper, and now it resulted in a horrifying attack on his 18-year-old daughter. During an argument, Cover told her he would have to kill her, and then cut her throat with an open razor. At the hospital they managed to save her life, but Cover pleaded guilty to attempted murder and was sentenced to life imprisonment.
No one knew Gass had been at the scene of Lily Volpert’s murder, but many people in Tiger Bay remembered Cover’s involvement, and some of them started asking questions. They wondered not only about his reliability as a witness, but also whether he could have committed the murder himself. One woman now said she remembered seeing Cover standing by the entrance to Lily’s shop on the night of the murder. Two journalists from the People newspaper decided to investigate. They went to Cardiff and interviewed witnesses. Margaret Campbell (formerly Bush) now claimed she had seen Mattan in the town centre at about the time of the murder. According to Laura Mattan, her brother-in-law had said in 1952 that Cover had told him the police had the wrong man and he knew who had really done it. Cover’s partner told the journalists about his history of violence.
The People published an article about the case, and the Home Office looked into the allegations. Reluctantly, the police had to investigate the new claims, not once, but twice. But eventually it was decided there were no grounds to reopen the case.
The quashing of Mattan’s conviction
When the case was finally reopened, it was as a result of the efforts of Mattan’s family – particularly of Laura Mattan’s son Philip, the half-brother of Mahmood’s sons. The campaign began in earnest in 1994. Local solicitors Bernard and Lynne de Maid offered to help, and were given access to the records of the case, including some of those held by the police. A lengthy petition to the Home Secretary was prepared, arguing that the conviction had been unsafe and laying out the evidence. This was later passed to the newly formed Criminal Cases Review Commission, which investigated further and finally in 1997 referred the case to the Court of Appeal.
The arguments prepared by the Commission centred on the facts that the police hadn’t disclosed important witness statements to the defence, and that some of them differed materially from what had been said in court. But the decisive evidence was discovered only a few weeks before the appeal hearing, in the form of notes made in 1952 by Inspector Roberts. These showed that Cover had originally identified Tahir Gass – not Mattan – as the first Somali he had seen. That destroyed Cover’s testimony, the only significant evidence against Mattan that had still been considered credible by the Crown. At the hearing, Mahmood Hussein Mattan’s conviction was finally quashed after 45 years.
The police extended their sympathy to the family, but there was no formal apology for what had happened. However, three years later the family did receive financial compensation, which was assessed at £725,000. Privately the police reassessed the case, but they weren’t able to identify any new lines of enquiry that could be followed.
Remarkably, some new information did emerge in 2004, with the publication of a book of reminiscences by Somali elders, many of them former merchant seamen who had lived in Cardiff. One of the men remembered that he had been in Cardiff with a shipmate named Dahir Awalhi in 1952 on the night of the murder. Awalhi had visited Lily Volpert’s shop, and while he was there another man had come in, causing Lily to react with alarm. Awalhi had then left the shop, and he thought that man was the murderer. But later Awalhi heard the police were looking for a six-foot-tall Somali. That description fitted him, and he fled to Manchester.
Merchant navy records confirm many of the details of this story. But a witness statement from 1952 seems to place Awalhi’s visit earlier in the evening, when there were other people in the shop. If that’s correct, it’s not clear why Awalhi should have fled from the police. And the other people who were in the shop hadn’t mentioned another man coming in. But Harold Cover had seen a six-foot-tall man outside the shop later, at around the time of the murder, and Awalhi was six feet tall. Perhaps there was more to the story than he had told his friend.
[Note: All the people named in the account above are known to be deceased or to have been born before 1900, with four exceptions – the two witnesses who were children at the time, the solicitor Bernard de Maid, and Tahir Gass. It’s not known what happened to Gass after he was repatriated to British Somaliland in 1955, but he was born in 1920, so he would be 100 if he were still alive today.]