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The Bristol police chief embroiled in corruption who died with a razor in his hand

John Henderson Watson had a long and distinguished police career and was Bristol’s chief constable for 14 years – before his career ended in scandal and his disappearance.

Image of former Bristol police chief John Henderson Watson surrounded by his constables

Former Bristol police chief John Henderson Watson (bottom row, centre) surrounded by his constables

People's History

When, in early 1931, a dead body was found in a park in Eastbourne, a seaside town in South East England, the discovery attracted more than usual interest.

The body was that of John Henderson Watson, a man approaching 60, who had lately been staying in the resort. Before that, however, and for more than 14 years, Watson had been the chief constable of Bristol.

He had gone missing the previous autumn, and in the weeks that followed an exhaustive search had been mounted for him. Policemen and coastguards scoured clifftops and beaches. 

A description was circulated and an appeal broadcast on the BBC. And a Bristol newspaper offered a large reward for news of his whereabouts. But all of that would be in vain.

The body had been fully clothed when it was found, but it was badly decomposed – “almost a skeleton”, one witness said – and no immediate cause of death was evident.

Watson was, however, identified by a signet ring, a gold watch and a monogrammed handkerchief he had on him. And while rumours that he had killed himself received little official credence, no one denied that he’d had an open razor in his hand.

‘Privileges of the post’

He had left Bristol the previous spring, after resigning his post in controversial circumstances. This was at the end of a near-40-year career, in which he had served in six police forces and had at one point been England’s youngest chief constable. 

He had grappled with the challenges created by the Great War, formed a police brass band, and appointed some of the very first policewomen. And he had been amply rewarded in return, with the OBE, the CBE and the King’s Police Medal.

The controversy began with a house, ‘Elmside’ in Stoke Bishop, which the council had rented for Watson without the knowledge of most councillors. A team of firemen – which in those days were like the police employed by the local council – had then spent several months getting the place ready for him, not least by building a garage in the grounds. 

Watson leading a Peace Day parade in Bristol, 1919.

Watson said this had all been done with the consent of Bristol’s former lord mayor, Sir John Swaish, but further enquiries opened a can of worms. It turned out that firemen had also spent time refurbishing Watson’s current residence – ‘Southmead House’ in Westbury-on-Trym – and that the man employed as a gardener there had been on the police payroll all along. 

A large radio had been installed, again by firemen. Sheds and chicken houses had been erected. And there had been some funny business with the official cars.

The chief constable had a Wolseley and later a Buick at his disposal. But councillors discovered that these cars had also been used for his own private purposes, and used by his wife, daughter and friends as well. 

The Buick had even taken them all on holidays around Scotland and Cornwall, chauffeured by yet another constable, with the petrol again being paid for by the police. There had been so many people in the car on the second trip that their luggage had had to be sent on separately, in a lorry belonging to the fire brigade.

In his defence, Watson claimed these things were nothing more than the privileges of his post, but the council disagreed. And it found that Swaish had never given his consent. He was ill now and had little recollection of what had been said.

Once these conclusions were made public, the chief constable had little option left to him. He was asked to repay the council a sum equivalent to £80,000 today. But when a Labour councillor proposed that Mr Watson be prosecuted for theft, he was voted down by his opponents.

Open verdict

His funeral took place on 24 January 1931 – two days after Swaish had himself been laid to rest in Bristol. 

The day of Watson’s funeral was also the day of the inquest into his death. The first witness was the police surgeon, who conceded that the razor might not have been in his hand before he died. And he added that no bloodstains had been found of the kind usually seen when a man has cut his own throat.

Watson’s widow, Annie, also gave evidence. Her husband had been cheerful on the day he disappeared, she said, and suicide would have been against his religious beliefs. 

And while he had been shaken by the circumstances of his departure from Bristol, he certainly hadn’t been depressed. He was paying back the money the council had demanded, and the pension he had been granted was sufficient to meet his needs.

He had, however, experienced fainting fits, Mrs Watson went on, together with problems with his heart, for which he had been prescribed medication. And he also had corns on his feet, which he was in the habit of removing with a razor.

The jury returned an open verdict, a firm summing-up having been delivered from the bench. While the presence of the razor might suggest suicide, the coroner said, murder couldn’t be ruled out. 

Watson might have died of natural causes. Or – in a far-fetched explanation, maybe to spare Watson’s widow the indignity of a ‘suicide’ verdict – he might have gone into the park to remove his corns, suddenly become faint, and cut himself accidentally.

Standing on the court steps afterwards, the family’s lawyer took the opportunity to lambast the press. It was outrageous, he said, to suggest that there was a link between the unfortunate business in Bristol and the chief constable’s demise. Watson had had “a most distinguished police career”, and had died with “not a stain on his character”.

Some people no doubt found the inquest verdict unsatisfactory, and even ludicrous. But from that day to this, no other evidence has emerged that would shed fresh light on the circumstances of Chief Constable Watson’s sad, puzzling death.

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