Manchester Consistory Court refuses excavation of grave to seek evidence left by Ian Brady
Almost four and a half years ago, the Sunday People carried the headline “Cops Investigate Dramatic New Moors Murders Evidence”, with a subtitle that claimed “A DRAMATIC breakthrough in the Moors Murders case has given the mum of missing victim Keith Bennett fresh hope his body will be found”. This was backed by the testimony of former pub landlady, Marilyn Timberlake, then 61, which stated that in 1964 she witnessed two people, one of whom she identified as Ian Brady, carrying a heavy hessian sack though St James churchyard and burying it in one of the graves. The newspaper report suggested that the sack was large enough to hold a body. The Greater Manchester Police were informed and a spokesperson is reported to have said: “[w]e have had a report about possible new information regarding the graveyard and officers will be looking at this before deciding what further action should be taken”.
Consistory Court petition
On 2 December 2014, the Rector and churchwardens of St James petitioned for a faculty to:
“excavate the top soil (to a maximum depth of 12 inches) in an area of St James Gorton churchyard measuring eight foot square which surrounds and includes the grave of the late Martha Bowring (private grave number 550 in the said churchyard) without disturbance to any of the remains interred in the said grave”, Re St. James Gorton  Manchester Const Ct, Tattershall Ch.
The possibility of investigating the grave was initiated following an email on 25 June 2014 to the Chancellor from Mrs Erica Gregory, who was “part of a group undertaking investigations into the murder of children in the 1960s by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley”; this indicated that Mrs Gregory had contacted some or all of the Petitioners because she believed that a hessian sack may have been buried by Ian Brady in 1963 or 1964 in the grave of Martha Bowring at St James, Gorton, .
The proposed works were to be undertaken “without cost and will be supervised by an archaeologist, [identified by Mrs Gregory].” However, the Chancellor commented ,
“The application for a faculty was made … in the name of the Petitioners rather than Mrs Gregory. I do not know why this procedure was adopted rather than Mrs Gregory making the application herself, particular because it exposes the Petitioners to any liability for costs ordered by the court. However, since it is Mrs Gregory who is in effect making this application I have regarded her as the true applicant and all communications to the Petitioners have been copied to her”, [emphasis added]
Only after the Petitioners had submitted the petition did an Extraordinary General Meeting of the PCC on 7 December 2014 agree, unanimously, to support the faculty “to carry out minor excavation works … in response to the request of a group investigating the disappearance of one of the Moors Murders victims, Keith Bennett” on which “the police will be informed of any significant finds” . In view of the nature of the application, it was not necessary for the Diocesan Advisory Committee to consider the proposed works , and the Public Notice of the proposed works, displayed between 23 November 2014 and 21 December 2014, gave rise to no objections . Again, this appears to have been initiated prior to approval being obtained at the EGM.
The correspondence between the parties involved – the Chancellor, the Diocesan Registry, the DAC, the Greater Manchester Police and Mrs Gregory – leading up to the submission of the petition is detailed in paragraphs 6 to 24. The information supplied by Mrs Gregory includes:
- the reasoning behind her interest in the Bowring grave, possible links between the Bowring family and Brady, which she believed were not mere coincidence, as in her letter dated 23 July 2014, ;
- her observation that the deaths of Brady’s victims – Pauline Read, John Kilbride, Keith Bennett, Lesley Ann Downey and Edward Evans – took place on the same dates as the French revolution, the hanging of the `Manchester Martyrs` at Manchester, the battle of Waterloo, a Russian revolt and the death of Charles Parnell, as in a further letter dated 31 December 2014 .
- This letter also made references to the group’s discovery of items, including a shovel, that had been found on Saddleworth Moor, “not far” from the bodies of Brady’s other victims.
Readers seeking further background will readily find accounts of the investigations of Mrs Gregory and her group, her book The Secret Key to the Moors Murders, and the discovery of shovel/spade. We not in a position to assess these; and the judgment gives no indication of the extent of any background research to the circumstances associated with the deposit of the hessian bag in the grave by Brady and another, that might have been undertaken by the Petitioners [i.e. the Rector and churchwardens] or the PCC. An issue important to the court was the involvement of the Greater Manchester Police; on this, Mrs Gregory’s letter of 12 August stated :
“… I did send an email to DCI Clare Carr [Greater Manchester Police]. I have not heard anything back. I do know as a cold case. The search is being done by ourselves. The police cannot get involved until we find body or DNA of human source. Objects, photographs and any finds I send her to file. So they keep a file on us and what we are doing in the 3 years of our search.”
The Chancellor noted that his directions prompted a further letter from Mrs Gregory dated 2 March 2015, in which she enclosed a letter from the Greater Manchester Police dated 19 February 2015 acknowledging receipt of her letter dated 11 February 2015, saying that it had been forwarded to the relevant department and that she would be contacted in due course . In addition, the Diocesan Registrar indicated that the Greater Manchester Police had been informed that a substantive reply was required from them before 31 May 2015 and such would be taken into account by the Chancellor in making his determination . However, no such response was received .
Since it is now more than 50 years since the murders were committed, the Chancellor had no doubt that it is highly desirable that the body of Keith Bennett should, if possible, be found . Although he accepted that the proposed works would be unlikely to interfere with the interred remains of Martha Bowring, the granting a faculty required that he had to be satisfied that there was some legitimate purpose justifying the proposed works because it involved the disturbance of a grave .
Despite the suggestion of Marilyn Timberlake that Keith Bennett or someone else buried by Brady and Hindley are in that grave , the court noted that Mrs Gregory only suggested that Brady may have buried a hessian sack in the grave . Whilst this precluded a requirement for the court to consider the more rigorous criteria in relation to exhumation, it made the justification for the petition more difficult, viz.
“In her [communication] dated 12 August 2014 Mrs Gregory sought to establish the purpose to be served by the proposed works on the basis that ‘Ian Brady was seen burying a hessian sack in 63/64. … We hope to find the hessian bag as an item of this kind was found by us on Greenfield Moor/Farm area containing objects. These objects are a link to Brady and Hindley,’ She conceded that ‘the hessian bag in question may no longer be there and we need to confirm this, as what we are finding is leading onto another clue’” .
She also relied upon:
- a letter from Mr Tommy Rattigan who had seen at the home of Brady and Hindley “what was either rolled up hessian sacks or a folded up sheet of hessian” in the house, that a motorbike had been covered over with the same hessian material and that he had seen Brady pushing a wheelbarrow with what appeared to be a couple of hessian potato sacks ; and
- the statement of Mrs Timberlake  and “the account she seemingly gave to the Mirror online” .
The response of the Greater Manchester Police was critical to the court’s assessment.
“After the report in the Mirror online Mrs Timberlake stated that the police told her that they were taking the matter seriously and referred to the fact that they would use some sort of x-ray machine to see what was buried there. We do not know whether they did so or not. However [the Chancellor was] satisfied that the police have had notice of this application and [had] declined to respond to it” .
The Chancellor “could not but be influenced by the fact that the Greater Manchester Police had declined to comment on Mrs Gregory`s application, let alone support it” . In his first email to Mrs Gregory he observed that the position might be different if he were to receive a request from the police, and in the Diocesan Registry`s letter dated 6 August 2014 he had indicated that “it might be easier if I had received a request for a faculty from the Greater Manchester Police”. He therefore concluded that on the facts of the case :
“the matters raised by Mrs Gregory do not justify the excavation of the topsoil, albeit only to a maximum depth of 12 inches in the area surrounding and including the grave of the late Martha Bowring ”.
In accordance with the practice of the court, the Chancellor ordered that the Petitioners pay the costs of, and occasioned by, the application . In the recent “Shakespeare’s skull” case, Re St Leonard Beoley  Worcester Const Ct, Mynors Ch ordered that the court costs were to be paid be the Petitioners, on the assumption that these would be met on behalf of the other interested parties in accordance with a clause in the draft agreement between them . No such agreement, draft or otherwise, appears to have been drawn up between the Petitioners and Mrs Gregory or her group, although the petition indicated that the proposed works were to be undertaken “without cost”, . The Chancellor suggested that the petition “exposes the Petitioners [i.e. the Rector and churchwardens] to any liability for costs ordered by the court”, although the comment from Mrs Gregory, below, indicates that her group has a bill of £700 .
Whatever the outcome of the costs issue, in common with Re St Leonard Beoley this raises issues relating to the charitable objects of a PCC: because a PCC is a charitable trust and its members are the trustees, it has a fiduciary duty to protect the charity’s assets. In the circumstances, perhaps the PCC might consider whether the submission of petition such as these (and the expected successful outcome) are entirely consistent with its charitable objects.
The PCC of St James, Gorton, might also ponder on the EGM’s post facto approval of the submission of the petition, its assessment of the evidence in making this decision, and the benefits that were expected to result. There are, however, the pastoral issues of the families of the victims to be considered. Since this is now a “cold case” and no public funds are available for investigations of this nature, explorations of this nature must necessarily be taken by voluntary groups.
 Whereas the consistory court judgment refers throughout to the news item as “an article in the Mirror online”, the story was originally carried by the Sunday People on 8 May 2011, as indicated by the hyperlink. Nevertheless, for consistency with the judgment, we have used “the Mirror online”.
 These sentiments echo those on Searching for Keith – “The Official Web Site for Keith Bennett”, now managed by Alan Bennett, Keith’s brother, and his partner Carol Ann Lee, author of two books on the case.