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An unsolved true-life mystery

16 September 2016

Stephen Fay discovers the story of a librarian murdered in 1948

Christian librarian: a portrait of Joan Woodhouse taken shortly before her murder in July 1948

Christian librarian: a portrait of Joan Woodhouse taken shortly before her murder in July 1948

Justice for Joan: The Arundel Murder
Martin Knight
London Books £11.95
Church Times Bookshop £10.75



THIS is a compelling true crime mystery about the rape and murder of a devout Christian, Joan Woodhouse. She had arrived in London after the Second World War to work as a librarian, and the only apparent shadow on her life was a relationship that had ended unhappily. On 10 August 1948, Woodhouse told friends that she was taking the train to Barnsley to see her family. Later that day she was found murdered in Arundel Park. The train she took had gone to Worthing, not Barnsley.

Her body was found in her underwear, with her outer garments piled near by. The Metropolitan Police Inspector who investigated the case assumed that the motive for her killing was to be found in her London life. It made for a dramatic murder story, and left her family appalled, not just by her death, but by damaging press insinuations about her character.

Martin Knight tells the frustrating story of the Woodhouse family’s brave and ultimately unsuccessful campaign to identify Joan’s killer, and to eradicate any suggestion that she might have been partly culpable. They believed that they knew who the murderer was, and accused a local man, Thomas Stillwell, who had reported the death to the police on 10 August.

Stillwell, who had exposed himself to an 11-year-old girl only days before the murder, simply denied that he was guilty; and no one, not the police, nor a private investigator hired by the family, nor the barrister they also hired, was able to unpick Stillwell’s denial. The judge in the private prosecution brought by the family admitted that he was 99 per cent sure that Stillwell was guilty, but legal technicalities prevented a conviction.

Martin’s carefully researched account leads him to believe in Stillwell’s guilt, but the case ends with a verdict of “not proven”. The story will remain a mystery, because of what Martin and everyone else who has studied the case does not, and cannot, know: why did Joan Woodhouse change her mind on that fatal day, and take the train south instead of north?


Stephen Fay is a former member of the editorial staff of The Sunday Times.

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