LOOKING BACK: The killing of an heiress that scandalised a town

SHE was reputedly one of the richest women in the country. He was a humble stable lad but their worlds collided in a quiet cul-de-sac in Newmarket with tragic results and 53 years ago this week he was committed for trial charged with her murder.

The death of Rachel Parsons scandalised Newmarket society and shocked town residents who could hardly believe that such a brutal attack could happen in their town.

Less that 24 hours after the discovery of Miss Parsons's body, 26-year-old Dennis Pratt, a local stable lad appeared before town magistrates charged with her murder.

The body of Miss Parsons, reputed to have been one of the five richest people in the country, had been found at her home at Lansdowne House in Falmouth Avenue on July 2, 1956.

She had severe head injuries and had been beaten to death.

It was a violent end for a woman who had become known locally for being something of an eccentric.

The daughter of Sir Charles Parsons, inventor of the steam turbine, she had inherited 840,000 when he died in 1931.

In the years between the wars, Miss Parsons had been known as a society hostess giving lavish parties at her London apartment in Grosvenor Square.

But the woman who moved to Suffolk, first to Branches Park in Cowlinge in the 1940s, was very different from the sparking hostess entertaining guests at functions in Mayfair.

Living in just a few rooms of the large mansion, her eccentricities soon became parlour room gossip in Newmarket.

From the few guests who visited Branches Park came stories of rooms being used to store animal feed and potatoes. Expensive cars had been left to rot and Miss Parsons's inability to keep her staff meant the mansion had fallen into disrepair while its owner could be compared with Charles Dickens's Great Expectations character Miss Haversham looking after her needs in just two rooms.

She tended to wear the same clothes – a Victorian-style hat, shabby coat and down-at-heel shoes often caked with mud and she was always alone.

But Miss Parsons loved horses and spent large amounts of her fortune on thoroughbreds. She had her own very definite ideas about how she wanted them trained and, as a consequence, the relationship she had with the trainers she employed was often turbulent.

One of her trainers, Charles Bell of Woodlands in Newmarket, was to tell the court at Dennis Pratt's trial that she was very difficult.

"Most people were either a rat or guttersnipe to her," he said. "She called me everything, but I think she knew every word in the dictionary. I lost three stone while I was in her employ."

And Leo Grimes, a stable lad who worked for her said he had seen her raise her handbag to the head lad.

She bought Lansdowne House, which was later to become a private nursing home to be close to where her horses were stabled but once again she had problems with the domestic staff she employed who would not put up with her eccentric demands.

Dennis Pratt worked for Miss Parsons but had walked out of his job following a dispute over two weeks' holiday pay that he said was owed to him but had not been paid.

He was later warned by police to stay away from the Lansdowne House stable after Miss Parsons reported him for pestering her for the money.

It was to be a trail of events that eventually led police to Miss Parsons’ battered body in the pantry of her house.

Cambridge officers were alerted by a jeweller who became suspicious when Pratt tried to sell him a pair of bincoulars. When Pratt was arrested two cameras and two small clocks were found in his attache case.

Then Pratt broke down in front of the startled officers and started sobbing uncontrollably. “This will shock you. I have done her in,” he blurted out. He told police how when he had turned up at Lansdowne House again asking for his money, Miss Parsons had attacked him hitting him with her handbag. Pratt, after asking her to stop, lost his temper and picked up an iron bar. “She carried on going at me with her handbag and I hit her on the head with the bar,” he said. Panicking Pratt then dragged the old woman’s body inside the house where she stopped beathing and he realised there was nothing he could do to help her.

He went upstairs with the keys he had taken from her bag, took money and the binoculars and some ornaments from the bedroom.

Back downstairs he dragged Miss Parsons’s body into the pantry, and calmly left the house locking the door behind him. “It was getting light I think it was 3am. I went home and had a cup of tea,” said Pratt. “I went to bed then got up again at 6am and cycled to Lansdowne House.”

Miss Parsons’s lifeless body was still in the pantry where he had left it and he kicked the shingle to get rid of the blood.

He then returned home to Portland Road where he calmly told his wife he had been to get a paper.

“I cannot realise all this happened,” he was to tell police. “It is all like a bad dream.”

When officers had gone to Lansdowne House they had found it in a neglected state.

There were hundreds of egg shells in the bedooms and the bath was blocked with tea leaves. Food was lying all over the place and the carpets were filthy.

On July 24 Pratt appeared before magistrates at Newmarket. Among the 23 exhibits on display in the court the blood stained iron bar used to murder Miss Parson.

Pratt was charged with her ‘wilful’ murder and committed for trial at the Suffolk Assizes.

His case was evetually heard at the Essex Assizes in Chelmsford on November 13 where he was found not guilty of murder but guilty of the manslaughter of Miss Parsons.

Defending counsel Michael Havers, the future Lord Justice Havers who years later was to successfully prosecute Peter Sutcliffe - the Yorkshire Ripper, said Miss Parsons was a “bitter and vindictive woman” who had called Pratt a guttersnipe.

Summing up, Mr Justice Diplock said the jury had been given a picture of a “strange unpleasant, quarrelsome and perhaps lonely and uncontrollable woman who was quick to abuse.”

Jailing Pratt for 10 years he told him: “You killed an old woman in a most brutal fashion. The jury has taken a merciful view of your case but that cannot disguise the fact that this was a very brutal crime.”

Rachel Parsons died intestate leaving around 600,000, property and 63 racehorses which were later sold at Tattersalls for more than 53,000.