Cardboard and paper for a bed.

Rolled cardboard formed a makeshift headrest and his body was draped in newspaper.

Rolled cardboard formed a makeshift headrest and his body was draped in newspaper.

Nicholls and Canning were already at Glanyrafon Villas when Mr Matthews, the photographer, arrived to capture the final images of Thomas Thomas’ dead body.

The corpse had remained in the property the deceased had shared with his landlord Thomas Hooper Mountstephen, Mrs Mountstephen and their sons Arthur, aged 11 and William, nine, along with the second lodger, Arthur Impey, after being transported there on Deputy Chief Constable Evans’ instructions following its discovery on Sunday morning.

It was in the Mountstephen home that Dr George Evan Jones, assisted by Dr Trefor Rhys of Glanaman, had the previous day completed the grisly task of carrying out a post-mortem to ascertain the full extent of the dead man’s injuries.

The examination had taken more than three hours.

When Matthews, led by the two police officers from London, made his way into the bedroom where the shopkeeper had slept in life and now lay in death he was met by the grim outline of a corpse draped beneath paper shroud.

From head to foot, the body had been covered in the pages of Saturday, February 12, edition of the Herald of Wales, a flimsy weekly newspaper given away without charge in the Swansea area.

While Matthews set up his equipment, Nicholls lifted off the sheet which had covered the head of the dead man and then removed a second which blanketed the chest and stomach.

The photographer, who had previously only ever taken the portraits of the living or captured the images of daily life around the Amman and Towy Valleys, fought the urge to vomit.

The dead man, so frail and thin, was marble white. A piece of rolled up cardboard and one of his old white work shirts had been fashioned into a makeshift headrest.

Beneath his thick brown moustache, Thomas Thomas’ mouth hung open as if caught forever in the early stages of a morning yawn. His eyes stared emptily at the ceiling above his head.

A thick band of flesh ran like a knotted cord from a rope-maker’s workshop from his groin all the way up his stomach and chest and over his right shoulder in evidence of the two doctors’ internal examination. Thick black thread had been used to close the body in ungainly pragmatic stitches without art or consideration held the remains of the dead man together.

A second band of sewn flesh ran from the centre of the shopkeeper’s throat up to and around the rear of his right ear. A third weaved its way from above the top of his left ear along the hairline of his scalp.

The right ear and surrounding area was swollen, bruised and showed numerous small cuts and gouges.

Further up the right-side of the head, close to the hairline and beneath the dead man’s brown hair the skull was misshaped and deformed and again showed a number of cuts and bruises.

The discolouration of the injuries stood out all the more against the pale cold flesh.

Matthews was astounded by the thinness of the man who lay before him, the stomach was sucked in under the ribcage; the arms lacked all meat and muscle. Thomas Thomas was mere skin and bone.

The photograper was in no doubt as to just how easily this specimen could have been overpowered and bullied by anyone of even the most average strength or menace.

The two policemen, well versed in the spectacle of death and with more than 40 years experience between them, also blanched at the brutality of what lay before them.

It was clear that the wounds were not limited to those which might debilitate or intimidate Thomas Thomas. The perpetrator would have been in no doubt of the result of his actions.

Once those gathered in the room had regained their clarity of thought, Nicholls, with the workmanlike authority he had mastered in his 21 years a detective, directed the photographer.

As instructed, Mr Matthews carefully photographed the left side of the dead man’s body.

He then moved his equipment to the other side of the room and set up once again, this time forever capturing the image of the right side of Thomas Thomas and the wounds which had brought him to his end.

With the photographer’s work complete, the two Scotland Yard men carried out their own minute inspection of the injuries.

Nicholls, at times, pulled a magnifying glass from his pocket and leaned in closely over the body, pointing out numerous points of interest to Canning who duly noted each in the small black notebook which he kept poised and ready.

Their examination over, they removed from their bags what seemed to Mr Matthews a bottle of black India ink.

Canning first lifted the dead man’s left hand as Nicholls removed the lid from the bottle and soaked a clean white cloth in the liquid, ensuring the material was given time to soak up the substance.

He then gently and with a tenderness far greater than that shown by the doctors who had last worked on the corpse, dabbed it in turn on the fingertips of Thomas Thomas.

He then smoothed a sheet of white paper beneath the hand and Canning gently pressed each digit against it, leaving a small oval black smudge.

The two men then carried out the same procedure on the right hand.

“Now we have his fingerprints for comparison,” Nicholls said to the silent photographer.


South Wales Guardian: Reporter set to solve 1921 murder.

South Wales Guardian: Reporter set to solve 1921 murder. April 23, 2014.

South Wales Guardian - Wednesday, April 23, 2014.

South Wales Guardian – Wednesday, April 23, 2014.

No ordinary policeman

No ordinary policeman: George Nicholls rose from lowly constsble to become one of Scotland Yard's 'Big Five'.

No ordinary policeman: George Nicholls rose from lowly constsble to become one of Scotland Yard’s ‘Big Five’.

Even by the standards of Scotland Yard’s elite Criminal Investigation Department, George Robert Nicholls was not your average policeman.

By the time he had left school, Nicholls was fluent in both French and German, and at the age of 14 was employed as a barrister’s clerk with the New Securities Corporation at Finsbury House, Blomfield Street, on the edge of the City of London’s Square Mile – the financial centre of the empire on which the sun never set.

The position was merely a means to an end for Nicholls however and a career in high finance held no interest.

On the turning of his 21st birthday – the minimum age acceptable for applications to the Metropolitan Police – the Islington boy followed in the footsteps of his maternal grandfather William Haines and applied to join the Force.

After a long, frustrating recruitment process, Nicholls finally fulfilled his life-long ambition and on November 28, 1898, he became a constable of the Metropolitan Police. He was aged 21 years and 255 days and received Warrant Card number 84634.

However, his sharp intellect and linguistic abilities were quickly noticed by his senior officers and his days amongst the uniformed ranks of beat constables of D Division – based at Marylebone – would be short-lived.

On April 24, 1900, Nicholls was transferred to the legendary plain-clothes Criminal Investigation Department, based at the Commissioner’s Office in Scotland Yard.

After less than 18 months in uniform, Nicholls became a detective.

But even amongst the ranks of the finest officers the country could boast, his meteoric rise continued.

The warehouse nightwatchman’s son made Detective Sergeant in December 1903 and was promoted through the Force grades from third to second to Sergeant First Class by 1909.

From the moment he joined CID, his language skills were put to good use.

He became the Met’s expert on the foreign criminals and crime gangs that flocked across the Channel in the late Victorian era, particularly those who made for London where he was a familiar face at the various haunts populated by the numerous overseas communities.

His abilities also ensured he became one of the first truly international policemen and he was well known to the Police Chiefs of Paris, Berlin and beyond as crime became a cross-border problem.

It was Detective Sergeant Nicholls that accompanied Detective Inspector Roux of the French Police to oversee the arrest and extradition of the gambler and fraudster Charles Wells, the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo.

Wells – known variously as Lucien Rivier, James Burns, Charles de Ville and a host of other aliases – defrauded thousands of French citizens of millions of francs with an elaborate pyramid investment scam, but was best known for “breaking the bank” at the casinos of Monte Carlo again and again thanks to an ingenious means of rigging the roulette table.

Wells method would never be understood and despite being the constant attentions of numerous private investigators in the employ of the casinos, he was able – time and again – to beat the table and empty the safe.

In one audacious evening’s gambling, Wells bet his entire stake on the small white ivory ball coming to rest on the Number Five. He followed up on the next spin of the wheel with exactly the same bet. Then he did it again, and again.

Wells bet on Number Five no less than five times in succession. To the fury of the casino owners and the horrified croupiers, but the delight of the growing crowd, he won each time – beating the bank and unfathomable odds of billions to one.

His triumphs at the table were clearly down to far more than simple luck, but more than one hundred years later the mechanics of his scam would still remain a mystery.

News of Wells’ exploits at the roulette wheel spread across the continent and he achieved immortality as The Man Who Broke the Bank of Monte Carlo, courtesy of Fred Gilbert’s music hall hit.

However, he could not escape the law forever and after being traced to the luxury yacht Excelsior off the coast of Falmouth in January 1912, Nicholls and Roux swooped.

Wells and his French lover – a woman half his age, were transported back to London and on across the Channel to face justice in a Parisian courtroom. He would ultimately die penniless in Paris in 1922 after his release from prison.

Charles Wells: The man who broke the bank at Mote Carlo.

Charles Wells: The man who broke the bank at Mote Carlo.

The successful apprehension of Wells made Nicholls a celebrity in his own right and he was as much the darling of the Commissioner’s Office as he was newspaper headline writers.

Within a month of Wells’ arrest, Nicholls was promoted to the rank of Detective Inspector (Second Class). A year later he was upgraded to First Class.

With the outbreak of the Great War, the Metropolitan Police was forced to broaden its horizons and direct its attention beyond the normal limitations of domestic criminality as the ex-pat communities from the continent in the capital began to simmer with discontent.

Nicholls, with his mastery of German and French and his intimate knowledge of the overseas enclaves of London, was tailor-made for the times.

He was seconded to Scotland Yard’s Special Branch, the specialist intelligence unit developed to counter threats of terrorism, subversion and overseas propaganda on the UK mainland.

He joined the unit with an espionage and counter-espionage remit, and from 1914 until the German surrender in 1918, the nightwatchman’s son took on the role of spy-catcher.

As the war came to a close, his role ensuring the security of the nation was rewarded with another step up the promotional ladder and he was appointed to the rank of Divisional Inspector.

Nicholls experience and intelligence ensured his name remained a regular feature in the newspapers as he became the face of Scotland Yard during high-profile case after high-profile case.

His regular appearances at the Old Bailey as the key prosecution witness only served to further his renown.

Prior to the murder of Thomas Thomas in Garnant, Nicholls had appear on the front pages of newspapers from Cornwall to Dundee during the prosecution of the infamous Bamberger case, where Thelma Dorothy Bamberger, the wife of a well-known London stockbroker was eventually jailed for perjury.

The scandal was the talk of post War Britain, as Bamberger – born Lily Amelia Taylor, the daughter of an evangelist preacher – was proved a multiple adulteress, a liar, a Madam, a fraudster and a thief, who had told her lovers that it was not she, but her non-existent twin sister who had committed the litany of offences she left in her wake.

Nicholls was also Scotland Yard’s chief hunter of fakes and fraudsters, and he boasted a long list of successful prosecutions of fortune-tellers, astrologists and palmistrists.

But it was when investigating murder that Nicholls felt most useful to the common good.

Although the killer of Thomas Thomas would ultimately elude him, Nicholls career would suffer no setback. A year after his return to London he would be made Chief Inspector and on May 21, 1926, Superintendent, a move that would see him labelled in the national press as one of Scotland Yard’s “big five” – the quintet of Britain’s most important and influential police officers.

He was made an MBE in the 1932 New Year honours list and on August 8 that year, 32 years after he had been made detective and in the department in which he had spent almost his entire career, he was appointed Chief Constable of the Criminal Investigation Department.

George Nicholls retired from the Metropolitan Police in 1934 after 35 years service.

From blog to bookshop.

Murder at the Star will be published as a book.

Murder at the Star will be published as a book.

For those who may have I missed my over-excited social media triumphalism earlier today, I would like to announce that I have today received formal confirmation that Murder at the Star is to be published in book form.

Bridgend-based Seren Books will be publishing Murder at the Star as part of their Spring 2015 catalogue.

I am absolutely delighted to have struck a deal with Seren as it has always been my hope that I would be able to keep Murder at the Star an entirely Welsh project and they have always been my first choice publishers.

In fact, Seren is the one and only publisher I approached, so to have received such positive feedback and indeed confirmation that they wished to be part of the project has been nothing short of brilliant.

To my mind, Seren is the most prestigious non-academic publishing company in Wales and boast authors such as Edward Thomas, RS Thomas and Dannie Abse in their catalogue along with the likes of Whitbread nominee Richard Collins and Welsh Book of the Year winner Lloyd Jones.

I am therefore delighted that Seren has agreed to publish for Murder at the Star and I look forward to joining their prestigious roster of writing talent.

I would, once again, like to thank everyone who had followed this blog and @murderatthestar on Twitter for your support and interest.


The ace face up.

William Matthews of Ammanford was engaged by the police to take photographs of the crime scene.

William Matthews of Ammanford was engaged by the police to take photographs of the crime scene.

Nicholls was furious.

Specific details of the crime had not been leaked to the press, but thanks to Dr Jones had gushed out in a torrent.

Minute aspects of the case which should by right have only been known to the police and the killer would be available for every Tom, Dick and Harry to read when the Amman Valley Chronicle went on sale in less than 48 hours time.

Nicholls’ experience told him that it was often an intimate knowledge of the details of a crime which could catch a killer.

With the right encouragement, a suspect might be encouraged to entrap himself with details to which only the killer or those present at the scene would have been privy. Thanks to the good doctor, those details would now be the central topic of conversation and gossip up and down the valley.

Crucial information such as the unbuttoning of the clothing would, it seemed to the detective, have been a trump card in the questioning of a suspect as they closed in on the culprit. Their ace however was now lying face up on the table for all to see.

He was further disturbed that the doctor had decided to inform the press of his assessment of the order of events based on the injuries before detailing his theory to the police.

Both Nicholls and Canning were aware that the calculating of the correct timing of the injuries and the order in which they were inflicted often proved crucial in attaining a conviction for murder and yet the good doctor had already broadcast his professional medical opinion to the world at large.

The mood of the man from Scotland Yard was further darkened when he realised that the only photographs of the scene had been taken by the Chronicle’s photographer and they too would be appearing in Thursday’s edition of the newspaper.

In a bid to reclaim some form of control of the investigation – however minor, Nicholls asked Sergeant Richards who he considered the best photographer in the region.

PC Thomas was then despatched to Ammanford to secure the services of Mr William Matthews, Photographer, of The Arcade, Ammanford.

Matthews returned with Thomas and took pictures of the interior and exterior of the crime scene before joining Nicholls and Canning at 2 Glanyrafon Villas where he set about photographing the mutilated body of Thomas Thomas.