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An Interview With David Green

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  • An Interview With David Green

    AN INTERVIEW WITH DAVID GREEN

    Hi David! Congratulations on the imminent release of your book on the murder of Percy Searle, The Havant Boy Ripper. For the benefit of readers not familiar with it, can you provide a brief outline of the case?
    On the evening of 26 November 1888, an 8-year-old boy called Percy Searle was murdered in the centre of Havant while on an errand for his mother. He died from a stab wound to the neck. Another young boy, 11-year-old Robert Husband, was arrested for the crime and sent for trial at Winchester, but he was subsequently acquitted. In my book I re-examine the evidence and try to assess what really happened. It’s one of only a handful of cases in England and Wales in the nineteenth century where a child as young as eleven was charged with wilful murder.

    How long have you been interested in the case? At what point did you decide to write a book?
    I first came across the case in 1972 in Daniel Farson’s Jack the Ripper. He devotes two or three pages to the Percy Searle murder. His account is riddled with errors, but for some reason the case lodged in my mind. My interest was rekindled when I moved to Hampshire in the 1990s. A retired police inspector, Gavin Maidment, was already researching the case at that time, but sadly he died before he could complete a book on the subject. In 2013 I approached Gavin’s widow, gained access to his research papers, and began my own investigation.

    The case is well known to Ripperologists for the initial scare in the press that the Whitechapel murderer might have left London's East End for the south coast; if the murder had taken place at a different time, say 1887, would it have gained the same nationwide coverage?
    Murders committed by children were always sensational, newsworthy events in the nineteenth century. Death tourists flocked into Havant by the train-load to visit the crime scene and to buy mementoes from the draper’s shop where Percy was last seen alive. Undoubtedly, the murder of Percy Searle gained piquancy and an extra frisson of horror through its Jack the Ripper associations, but I feel it would have been a big story in any event. However, without the Ripper associations the Havant case probably wouldn’t be remembered at all today. Think of James Fleeson, George Burgess, Everett Parker, and four-year-old William Delafield ‒ these are some of the other little boys who were murdered by children in the second half of the nineteenth century. Who remembers them today? In a sense, the Jack the Ripper mystery has ensured that we have not forgotten about Percy Searle and Johnny Gill.

    The murder of a child, in the Victorian era as well as now, provokes a deep emotional response. But there seems to be a sort of fascination with killers who are mere children themselves, as well as revulsion; what are your thoughts on this phenomenon?
    While researching my book I came across some truly monstrous little fellows. I discuss one case where a toddler deliberately ripped open the stomach of his playmate with a piece of tin before violently throwing his victim to the ground and mortally fracturing his skull. He then casually wandered away, his pinafore drenched in fresh blood…. Of course, the child was far too young to be legally accountable for his actions, so there was nothing the courts could do. But even though you are appalled, you can still be fascinated ‒ at least I was.

    You've produced all of the wonderful indexes for all of Mango's book since Kate Clarke's In the Interests of Science; does it now feel strange to work on an index for your own book? Does your training as an indexer have an effect on your writing style?
    Yes, it feels a bit odd indexing my own book. Authors are often encouraged not to index their own books because it’s difficult to stand back from your own work and approach it neutrally. I think my natural writing style is rather florid and rococo. In Blake Morrison’s book on the James Bulger murder, there are passages where he talks about “the whorled Danish pastry of a child’s ear” and the “beautiful soft fudge and caramel smell of an infant’s shit”, etc. I recognised the danger, and I’ve tried to tell my story plainly.

    Having an interest in a book's subject would obviously help when you approach an index. With that in mind, which of Mango's books is your favourite to date, purely as a reader?
    That’s difficult. I haven’t yet read a Mango book I didn’t enjoy. I think my favourite is always going to be the one I have indexed most recently, so right now I would say it’s a dead heat between Clive Emsley’s biography of Albert Wilcox (for Blue Lamp Books) and Neil Watson’s Denham Massacre (for Mango books). My favourite cover is Krayology, followed by The Master Ghost Hunter, but I also like what you have done with The Havant Boy Ripper.

    The original Notable British Trials volumes had no index. When Mango revived the series, we felt it important to include indexes. How difficult was it to devise this, given the structure of the NBTs?
    Here’s a coincidence. I grew up in Blackburn, and for a couple of years I worked at Queen’s Park Hospital, which readers may know as the place where Peter Griffiths abducted, raped, and then murdered a three-year-old girl in 1948. George Godwin’s account of the case is volume 75 in the original NBT series. There are six or seven blank pages at the back of Godwin’s book, and I filled them up with my own personal hand-written index. This was back in the early 1980s. It’s something I still do today whenever I find myself reading a book without an index. Incredibly, more than thirty years later I am still indexing NBT volumes! Anyway, once we settled on a style for the index, the Israel Lipski and Louise Masset books proved fairly straightforward to index. There are some great cases coming up in future volumes.

    We recently attended a half-day event in London to mark National Indexing Day on 29 March 2018. One of the questions from the floor was “Is it true that indexers always surreptitiously insert a comical or light-hearted entry into their indexes?” Have you ever done that in a Mango index?
    I’ve been tempted from time to time, but I’ve always chickened out because it’s unprofessional to be frivolous in an index. However, I’m thinking there might be room for one joke index entry in The Havant Boy Ripper… I’m sure the author won’t mind.

    Now The Havant Boy Ripper is here, do you have another project up your sleeve? If so, can you share some details?
    I’m not sure I have another book in me. If I ever attempted a second true crime work, I imagine it might be the Margaret Allen case, which has always fascinated me. When I lived in Lancashire I used to take the dog on long hikes across the Rossendale Valley, and we often ended up in Rawtenstall where Margaret Allen lived. She was a bus conductor who murdered a neighbour just after the war. Apart from that, I’ve always thought there needs to be a book on the social history of mole catching. Perhaps I could write that. At one time I used to go out catching moles; I loved the early morning strolls across the meadows and peat fields with my flags and metal traps and burlap sack a quarter-filled with dead vermin.
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