William Herbert Wallace (29 August 1878 – 26 February 1933) was convicted in 1931 of the murder of his wife Julia in their home in Wolverton Street in Liverpool's Anfield district. His conviction was later overturned by the Court Of Criminal Appeal, the first instance in British legal history where an appeal had been allowed after re-examination of evidence.
The case, with its strange background, has long been the subject of speculation and has generated many books, being regarded internationally as a classic murder mystery.
William Herbert Wallace was born in Millom, Cumberland, in 1878. He had a younger brother and sister. On leaving school at fourteen he began training as a draper's assistant in Barrow-in-Furness. On finishing his apprenticeship he obtained a position in Manchester with Messrs Whiteway Laidlaw and Company, outfitters to Her Majesty's Armed Forces and the Colonial, Indian and Foreign Services. In 1903, after five years' service, Wallace obtained a transfer to the company's branch in Calcutta, India, where he remained for two years. On the suggestion of his brother, Joseph, who lived in Shanghai, in 1905 Wallace sought another transfer to Whiteway Laidlaw's branch in that city.
A recurrent kidney complaint resulted in Wallace resigning his position and returning from China to England in 1907, where his left kidney was removed at Guy's Hospital. Little is recorded of Wallace's life after this time, until he obtained a position working for the Liberal party in Harrogate, rising to the post of election agent in 1911. During his time in Harrogate he met Julia Dennis (28 April 1861 - 20 January 1931), and they were married there in March 1914. All early sources suggested that Julia was approximately the same age as Wallace, but in 2001 James Murphy demonstrated from her original birth certificate that she was actually seventeen years older than he was. Her father was a ruined alcoholic farmer from near Northallerton.
At the outbreak of the First World War, the position of Liberal election agent in Harrogate was discontinued, owing to the suspension of elections and a parliamentary truce, and Wallace once again found himself looking for a job. Through the help of his father, he obtained a position as collections agent with the Prudential Assurance Company in Liverpool. The Wallaces moved to Liverpool in 1915, settling in the district of Anfield. During the 1920s, Wallace supplemented his comfortable but mundane existence as collections agent by lecturing part-time in Chemistry at Liverpool Technical College. His hobbies revolved around botany, chemistry and chess, and he also obtained lessons in the violin to enable him to accompany Julia, who was an accomplished pianist, in "musical evenings" at their home at 29 Wolverton Street, Anfield.
Wallace, aged 52, attended a meeting of the Liverpool Central Chess Club on the evening of Monday 19 January 1931, to play a scheduled chess game. While there he was handed a message, which had been received by telephone about 25 minutes before he arrived. It requested that he call at an address at 25 Menlove Gardens East, Liverpool, at 7.30pm the following evening to discuss insurance with a man who had given his name as "R.M. Qualtrough".
The next night Wallace duly made his way by tramcar to the south of the city at the time requested, only to discover that while there were Menlove Gardens North, South and West, there was no East. Wallace made inquiries in a nearby newsagent’s and also spoke to a policeman on his beat, but nobody he asked was able to help him in his search for the address or the mysterious Qualtrough. He also called at 25 Menlove Gardens West, and asked several other passers-by in the neighbourhood for directions, but to no avail.
After searching the district for about 45 minutes he returned home. His next-door neighbours, the Johnstons, who were going out for the evening, encountered Wallace in the alley, complaining that he could not gain entry to his home at either the front or the back. While they watched, Wallace tried the back door again, which now opened. Inside he found his wife Julia had been brutally beaten to death in their sitting room.
Up to his arrest two weeks later, Wallace made two voluntary statements but was never intensively questioned by the police although he was required to attend CID headquarters every day and was asked specific questions about whether the Wallaces had had a maid, why he had asked the man who had taken the telephone message at the Chess Club to be specific about the time he took it, and whether he had spoken to anyone in the street on his way back to his house from his abortive attempt to find Mr Qualtrough. The police had evidence that the telephone box used by "Qualtrough" to make his call to the chess club was situated just 400 yards from Wallace's home, although the person in the cafe who took the call was quite certain it was not Wallace on the other end of the line. Nevertheless, the police began to suspect that "Qualtrough" was William Herbert Wallace. Yet, even when they arrested and charged him, they did not ask him any further questions.
The police were also convinced that it would have been possible for Wallace to murder his wife and still have time to arrive at the spot where he boarded his tram. This they attempted to prove by having a fit young detective go through the motions of the murder and then sprint all the way to the tram stop, something an ailing 52-year-old Wallace probably could not have accomplished. The original assessment of the time of death, around 8 pm, was also later changed to just after 6.30 pm, although there was no additional evidence on which to base the earlier timing.
Forensic examination of the crime scene had revealed that Julia Wallace's attacker was likely to have been heavily contaminated with her blood, given the brutal and frenzied nature of the assault. Wallace's suit, which he had been wearing on the night of the murder, was examined closely but no trace of bloodstaining was found. The police formed the theory that a mackintosh, which was inexplicably found under Julia's corpse, had been used by a naked Wallace to shield himself from blood spatter while committing the crime. Examination of the bath and drains revealed that they had not been recently used, and there was no trace of blood there either, apart from a single tiny clot in the toilet pan, the origin of which could not be established.
Trial and appeal
Wallace consistently denied having anything to do with the crime, but was charged with murder and stood trial at Liverpool Assizes. Despite the evidence against him being purely circumstantial, and the statement of a local milk delivery boy — who was certain he had spoken to Julia Wallace only minutes before her husband would have had to leave to catch his tram — Wallace was found guilty after an hour's deliberation, and sentenced to death.
In an unprecedented move, the Court of Criminal Appeal quashed the verdict on the grounds that it was "not supported by the weight of the evidence", and Wallace walked free. The decision meant that the jury was wrong — appeals are usually brought on the basis of bad decisions by the presiding judge at the original trial, or by the emergence of new evidence.
After his successful appeal, Wallace returned to his job in insurance but public opinion in the areas where he lived and worked was strongly of the view that he had been guilty and had 'got away with it'. Many of his previous customers shunned him; he was subjected to hate mail and physical threats and had to take a clerical job at his employer's head office. At the same time, he moved to a bungalow in Bromborough. Still employed by 'The Pru', he died aged 54 from uraemia and pyelonephritis in 1933 at the Clatterbridge Hospital.
No other person was charged with the murder and it remains officially unsolved.
In popular culture
Since the murder various people have investigated the case, a few convinced of Wallace's guilt, most of his innocence. Several features of the case have captured the imaginations of a host of crime-writers: Wallace's stoic demeanour throughout, the chess-like quality of the puzzle, and the fact that almost every piece of evidence could be interpreted in two ways, pointing equally to Wallace's guilt or innocence.
- 'This murder, I should imagine, must be almost unexampled in the annals of crime . . . murder so devised and arranged that nothing remains which will point to anyone as the murderer.' (Mr. Justice Wright, summing-up in R v Wallace)
- 'The Wallace murder had no key-move and ended, in fact, in stalemate.’ (Dorothy L. Sayers in The Anatomy of Murder)
- 'It was planned with extreme care and extraordinary imagination. Either the murderer was Wallace or it wasn’t. If it wasn’t, then here at last is the perfect murder.' (James Agate in Ego 6)
- ‘Almost every fact in the evidence was accepted by both prosecution and defence; but every fact could be interpreted in two ways.’ (John Rowland in The Wallace Case)
- ‘Whoever killed Mrs Wallace attained a distinction accorded to few murderers. His was the perfect crime, undetected, unexplained, motiveless, unavenged.’ (Winifred Duke in Six Trials)
- ‘The case began to assume the unique character for which it is famous; it was not so much that the weight of the evidence swung evenly from one side to the other, it was that the entire evidence pointed equally convincingly in both directions.’ (F. Tennyson Jesse in Checkmate)
- '[The Wallace case] is more than a classic, it is the classic of criminology.' (John Brophy in The Meaning of Murder)
- ‘... as a mental exercise, as a challenge to one’s powers of deduction and analysis, the Wallace murder is in a class by itself. It has all the maddening, frustrating fascination of a chess problem that ends in perpetual check. ... Any set of circumstances that is extracted from it will readily support two incompatible hypotheses; they will be equally consistent with innocence and guilt. It is pre-eminently the case where everything is cancelled out by something else.’ (Edgar Lustgarten in Verdict in Dispute)
- ‘The Wallace case is the nonpareil of all murder mysteries ... I call it the impossible murder because Wallace couldn’t have done it, and neither could anyone else. ... The Wallace case is unbeatable; it will always be unbeatable.’ (Raymond Chandler, in Raymond Chandler Speaking)
- `Still unsolved, fascinating in its permutations, absolutely typical of the 1930s. Couldn't have happened at any other time, not in precisely the way it did happen... What is interesting is that the evidence, such as it was, could support either the prosecution or the defence depending on how you chose to look at it.′ (P. D. James in The Murder Room, through character Conrad Ackroyd).
- ‘The Wallace case of 1931 is regarded as the classic English whodunnit, a labyrinth of clues and false trails leading everywhere except, it seems, to the identity of the murderer... The setting is wintrily provincial, the milieu lower middle-class, the style threadbare domestic. J.B. Priestley's fog-filled Liverpool remembrance of "trams going whining down long sad roads" is the quintessence of it. Events turn tantalisingly on finical questions of time and distance; knuckle-headed police jostle with whistling street urchins for star billing, while at the centre of the drama stands the scrawny, inscrutable figure of the accused man, William Herbert Wallace, the Man from The Pru...' (Roger Wilkes, editor, The Mammoth Book of Unsolved Crimes, 2005)
The real murderer?
In the 1960s, crime writer Jonathan Goodman made inquiries that led him to a man who had worked with Wallace at the Prudential. This man had done some of Wallace's collection work for him when the older man had been ill in 1928. Wallace had then had first-hand evidence that the younger man did not pay in all the premiums he had collected. Wallace does not seem to have passed this information on to The Prudential but about a year later the young man left the company to join another insurance firm. Wallace was later told that while this man had not been sacked he had left under something of a cloud, his father making up some of his son's shortfall. He knew Julia Wallace well. Goodman mentioned him, but not by name, in his book The Killing of Julia Wallace.
In 1980, Roger Wilkes, a news editor, investigated the case for a radio programme to be broadcast on the 50th anniversary of the crime in early 1981. He learned that Goodman's suspect had given the police an alibi for the time of Julia's murder. The alibi had been a woman to whom he was engaged, but, after Wallace's death and after being jilted, she offered to swear to Wallace's solicitor that the alibi had been false. Wilkes also discovered that, on the night of the murder, the man had visited a local garage. He'd used a high-pressure hose to wash down his car and a mechanic at the garage had noticed that one of his gloves was soaked in blood. Wilkes attempted to track down the suspect, only to learn he had died but a few months previously. His name was Richard Gordon Parry, a junior employee at Wallace's insurance firm.
In 1931 Parry was a spoilt young man of 22, with access to a car, and whose lifestyle meant he was always short of money. Wilkes's case is that Parry knew that Wallace's insurance takings for the day would have been in a cash box at Wallace's home. Since he also knew Mrs Wallace personally it would have been no trouble to visit her on some pretext once Wallace had been lured out of the house by means of the phone call sending him to a non-existent address. The murder of Julia Wallace for the insurance takings was somewhat in vain as there was very little in the cash-box that day. Parry was seen by the police as part of their investigations but was given a false alibi by his girlfriend. Wilkes went ahead and named Parry in his radio show, and later developed his case in a book.
The case against Parry is much stronger than that against Wallace, and ascribes a more convincing motive (although recent speculation has centred around the possibility that Parry had an unknown accomplice who entered the house and murdered Julia). There was witness evidence of a blood-stained glove found in Parry's car on the night of the murder, when he took his car to a local garage for cleaning. The evidence from the man who cleaned the car was deliberately suppressed by the police at the time. Wilkes argues that there was, moreover, no motive or reason for Wallace to kill his own wife, and that he was charged because the immense publicity surrounding the case impelled the police to get a conviction at any cost. Parry died in 1980 without admitting any involvement in the crime. However, when Jonathan Goodman and his friend Richard Whittington-Egan confronted him on his London doorstep in 1966, Parry displayed an astonishingly detailed knowledge of the case, and was aware of the deaths of several obscure witnesses connected with the case. Parry may have been suspected long before Goodman or Wilkes began their investigations. In 1934 author Winifred Duke made oblique reference to the name of the killer as 'Harris', a common Welsh surname which just happens to be a cognate of Parry.
Writing in the Sunday Times Magazine in October 2013, P.D. James refers to the conclusions of Goodman and Wilkes, but speculates that Parry made the "Qualtrough" call to the chess club as a practical joke in retaliation for Wallace's having reported Parry to their employers for dishonesty. She concludes that Wallace did in fact murder his wife and speculates that the murder weapon was an iron poker with which Wallace struck his victim, having first stripped and covered himself with the mackintosh which was found at the scene of the murder, spattered with Julia Wallace's blood, and that it was entirely possible for him to have done so within a reconstructed timeline of the events of that evening. She believes that "in the end justice was done, if only the fallible justice of men". This reading of the evidence must, however, be set against the fact that Wallace probably never reported his experience of Parry's dishonesty to their mutual employer and that Parry was not sacked either at the time, or later. There is no evidence that Wallace attempted to use this information to coerce or blackmail Parry.
P.D. James's 1982 crime novel The Skull Beneath the Skin parallels the fictional murder of Lady Ralston with the real-life Wallace case. In the novel Lady Ralston dies a similar death to Julia Wallace, being battered in the face, and this leads the police to suspect her husband, Sir George Ralston. The presiding officer refers to the Wallace case to suggest that we should learn from Herbert's appeal that it is not always wise to initially place guilt upon the husband. James also directly refers to the Wallace case in The Murder Room, a book in her Adam Dalgliesh series.
The premise of Charlaine Harris's first Aurora Teagarden mystery, Real Murders, is that of a serial killer imitating old murders. The first victim is killed and staged to resemble the Julia Wallace murder scene down to the raincoat beneath the body.
A television play based on the case, Killer in Close-Up: The Wallace Case, written by George F. Kerr, was produced by Melbourne television station ABV-2, airing on 20 November 1957.
A highly regarded drama-documentary, Who Killed Julia Wallace?, was made by Yorkshire TV in 1975, with Eric Longworth playing William Herbert Wallace.
Another TV drama based on the case, The Man from the Pru, was made in 1990, starring Jonathan Pryce, Anna Massey, Susannah York and Tom Georgeson. It strongly hints at Parry's guilt.
In October 2013, the Wallace case featured in the BBC Four series A Very British Murder, hosted by Lucy Worsley.