Echo Memories delves into the history of a murder – and could be on the verge of solving the mystery.

THE death of a onelegged cobbler was officially recorded as “wilful murder against some person or persons unknown”.

The Northern Echo concluded its short report of the inquest in 1924 with the enigmatic sentence: “The circumstances surrounding the death of Philip Nash Gee still remain a complete mystery.”

The murder of the 47-yearold boot repairer in his shop at 9 Whitworth Terrace is one of only three in County Durham in eight decades that are unsolved.

But today, Echo Memories is on the verge of cracking the case.

Mr Gee was discovered at 2.45am on Sunday, January 13, 1924 when a patrolling policeman noticed that his shop door was open.

“On an examination of the shop being made, the dead body was found on the floor behind the counter,” says the police log. “His skull was fractured in several places both back and front.”

He had been struck four times by a three-cornered implement – believed to be a bar from the fire.

Mr Gee was single and lived with his sister, Mrs Ramshaw, and her husband in Durham Road, Spennymoor.

The Ramshaws were not unduly worried when he didn’t return home on the Saturday evening as he regularly stayed open late “to oblige customers calling for repairs”, or he toured town making his deliveries.

“He was well know throughout Spennymoor as an amiable, inoffensive and religious man who paid great attention to his business,”

said the Echo.

Mr Gee also stood out from the crowd because he had a wooden limb. Apparently, there was a little hole in the floor behind the counter in which he rested his peg leg while he did his cobbling.

“It is considered remarkable that such a tragedy should have been enacted in a shop in the main thoroughfare when in all probability numbers of pedestrians would be passing by,” said the Echo.

Apart from the dead body behind the counter, the shop was said to be in “perfect order”.

The only missing item was a metal watch with a distinctive chain in which the links were alternately large and small.

Police initially hunted a deaf and dumb man who was found in Sunderland. When he was eliminated from inquiries, attention turned on Thomas McGowan, “a tramping labourer”.

According to the Echo, he was “a well-known character in the town. He had not fixed abode and frequented some disused houses in the vicinity of Tudhoe Grange”.

After a week in custody, McGowan too was released without charge.

“When first interrogated regarding his movements on the night of the murder, McGowan made two conflicting statements,” said the Echo, “but subsequent inquires have failed to produce any evidence of an incriminating nature against him.”

Mr Gee’s funeral was at St Charles Roman Catholic Church, Tudhoe, and he was buried at York Hill cemetery.

“There were many beautiful floral tributes, and the large concourse of people at the graveside testified to the general respect in which Gee was held,” said the Echo.

And that was that.

FOUR years later, just two miles down the road, William Byland Abbey was murdered behind his counter in the Ferryhill branch of Lloyds bank. As Echo Memories told a fortnight ago, he was struck about the head by heavy, blunt instrument on February 16, 1928.

“Then, to complete the deed,” said the Echo, the murderer “plunged a cobbler’s knife into Abbey’s throat, inflicting another terrible wound.”

The cobbler’s knife was found in the blood beside the bank clerk’s body. It was most unusual. On its black handle were stamped the words: “Made in U.S.A., South Bridge, Mass.”

Norman Elliott, 22, was charged with the bank clerk’s murder. He was a male nurse, living and working at Winterton asylum at Sedgefield, who was setting up home with his new bride in Kelloe, five miles from Ferryhill.

Elliott, who liked to gamble on the horses, had not had the easiest of childhoods as he was orphaned at 12. His mother had died, which plunged his police constable father into such deep depression that he took his own life on the railway line at Easington Lane.

Elliott and his sister had been taken in by his grandparents who lived in Beaumont Terrace, Spennymoor. His grandpa, Joseph, had been Spennymoor’s respected police inspector.

After school, Elliott had become an apprentice cabinet-maker at Kenmir Bros in the town, before leaving Beaumont Terrace and moving to Winterton when he was about 20.

At his trial, his defence barrister made much of the fact that police had failed to connect Elliott with the distinctive murder weapon – the cobbler’s knife.

And in his defence, Elliott himself made much of the fact that the dying bank clerk had failed to identify him, even though they knew each other. Mr Abbey’s last words had been: “It was a tall man that did it.” Why, asked Elliott, given their acquaintanceship, hadn’t he been more precise?

Nevertheless, Elliott was found guilty and he was hanged on August 10, 1928, at Durham Gaol.

Now comes a Midsomer Murders moment. After a bloody preamble, with the advert break approaching fast, we jump to conclusions and reveal the murderer… Several readers have drawn attention in the past fortnight to Mr Abbey’s last words. They caused everyone to expect the murderer to be of above average height and hinted that there might be two assailants – one shorter than the other.

Yet Mr Abbey had been stabbed in the neck with a cobbler’s knife. He was in no position to enunciate clearly.

Perhaps his last words weren’t about “a tall man”. Perhaps he really gurgled: “It was Norman that did it.”

And what if Norman Elliott murdered Mr Abbey with the distinctive cobbler’s knife that he had stolen as he murdered Mr Gee the cobbler four years earlier?

The two crimes were very similar. Both Mr Abbey and Mr Gee were assailed on the head with a blunt instrument. Both Mr Abbey and Mr Gee had been alone in their premises, behind their counters.

And both Mr Abbey and Mr Gee and their premises were known to Elliott. He used his acquaintanceship with Mr Abbey in his defence and, as Detective Inspector Tom Barnaby would quickly realise, he lived close enough to Mr Gee to be on nodding terms with him, too: the cobbler’s shop was in Whitworth Terrace; the grandparents’ house was in Beaumont Terrace.

In this part of Spennymoor, differently-named terraces lined the same road, causing postmen great confusion. So since the murder, the names have been simplified.

Beaumont Terrace, for example, has taken on the name of its neighbour. It is now part of Whitworth Terrace – and although modern Whitworth Terrace is a good quarter-of-a-mile long, it surely is close enough for the cobbler’s shop to have been known intimately to the 18-year-old Elliott.

And that’s the story that has been passed down the branches of the Gee family.

They’ve been told that Elliott was always in and out of the one-legged cobbler’s shop on the look-out for money.

When the opportunity arose, as it did four years later in Ferryhill, he seized it quite brutally.

This is not just shoehorning the facts to fit the crime. Echo Memories can reveal – apparently for the first time – the addendum at the foot of the police record of the murder of Philip Nash Gee – Crime No 7/24.

In beautiful copperplate script, it says: “NOTE.

Norman Elliott, who was executed at Durham Jail on the 10/8/28 for the murder of Byland Abbey, a bank clerk at Ferryhill, was thought might have been connected with the murder of Gee. The Home Office was communicated with on the matter. For correspondence in connection herewith, see Assize File for August 1928.”

The “Assize File” appears not to have survived. But surely, after 80 years, we have enough evidence to close both these cases?

OF course, there’s another side to the story. In January 1928, a month before William Abbey’s murder, Norman Elliott had married Elizabeth, the daughter of the landlord of the Turk’s Head pub in Kelloe. While Elliott was on trial in June 1928, she gave birth to his child, who she took to show him in his cell on Death Row.

“I was told that she went to visit Norman once because he wanted to see the baby,”

says a relative. “When she got home, she burned all the clothes the child had on.”

That child grew up in central Durham. He emigrated to Australia shortly after he married a lass from Stockton.

“He couldn’t go out on a Saturday night without being told: ‘Thy father was a murderer’,” explains the relative.

We are pleased to report that, now 80 and a grandfather, he has had a successful life Down Under, running his own business.

Only last year, he returned to County Durham to visit relatives.

His mother, Elizabeth, widowed by the hangman, remarried and had other children, some of whom still survive in the Sedgefield constituency. The Northern Echo reported that she was “prostrate with grief” when her husband of just five weeks was arrested and charged with murder. Her father collapsed on the floor of the Turk’s Head when he heard the news and required medical assistance. He later had to move out of the pub and find work down the pit.

“I remember when I first went to Kelloe nearly 60 years ago,” says the relative who married into the family. “At the bus stand, this man just said ‘it’s so many years to the day that they hanged Norman Elliott’, and he knew who I was, that’s why he said it. This murder affected all their lives. It made things so difficult for all of them.”