John Reginald Halliday Christie was Halifax’s most notorious murderer – a killer who strangled at least eight women, including his wife, Ethel, at their flat in Rillington Place, London. His crimes sent an innocent man to the gallows before he, Christie, was found out and also executed.
But his childhood in Halifax was, in many ways, so ordinary that it is hard to see how this churchgoing lad, who did well enough at school, became a mass murderer in the immediate postwar years.
Christie – whose crimes were famously re-enacted by Richard Attenborough in the 1971 film 10 Rillington Place – took his victims’ lives by strangling them at his flat in Notting Hill, London, during the 1940s and early 1950s.
He moved out of the flat in March 1953 and soon afterwards the bodies of three of his victims were discovered hidden in an alcove in the kitchen. His wife’s body was found beneath the floorboards of the front room.
Two of Christie’s victims were Beryl Evans and her daughter, Geraldine, who, with Beryl’s husband, Timothy, were tenants at 10 Rillington Place during 1948 and 1949. Evans was charged with both murders, found guilty of the murder of his daughter, and hanged in 1950.
After the bodies of Christie’s victims were found in 1953 he confessed to seven of the murders and was hanged at Pentonville Prison by Albert Pierrepoint, who had also hanged Evans.
The scandal surrounding the case contributed to the abolition of capital punishment for murder in 1965 but it was not until 1966 that Timothy Evans received a posthumous pardon over the murder of his daughter.
A fascinating insight into Christie’s early life in Halifax is given by historian Dr Jonathan Oates in this year’s Halifax Antiquarian Society’s papers.
Dr Oates, currently archivist for Ealing, London, has written 21 books on historical subjects, including a full-length biography of Christie, John Christie of Rillington Place: Biography of a Serial Killer.
The Christie family came originally from Scotland and came to Halifax via Kidderminster, Worcestershire, where his grandfather was sent as an apprentice in the carpet trade.
In 1877 Christie’s father, Ernest, brought the family to Halifax, where he became a designer at the renowned carpet making firm John Crossley and Sons at Dean Clough. The family lived in Chester Road, Akroydon.
Ernest married Mary Hannah Halliday, the daughter of a local businessman and Liberal councillor. They had seven children, Percy, Florence, known as Cissie, Effie, Elsie, Winifred, John and Phyllis, known as Dolly. All had their mother’s maiden name as a second or third name and so John, born on April 8, 1899, was John Reginald Halliday Christie.
He was born at Black Boy House, Turner Lane, which still stands. The family, though, moved a great deal, from Salisbury Place, Akroydon, and Queensbury, Iona House, Boothtown, and eventually back to Chester Road.
Christie’s father was heavily involved in local affairs; for example he was the first superintendent of the Halifax branch of the St John Ambulance Brigade, was involved in the boy scout movement, was chairman of the local old folk’s treat committee and a founding member of the local Conservative Association.
Christie admired his father as a “brilliant man at work and at first aid”, but he was also stern and strict, stating that “I always lived in dread of him”, as did his siblings. He, writes Dr Oates, “had a terrible temper and his children were afraid to speak to him... and his wife often had to protect the children”.
Christie was once beaten by his father for stealing tomatoes but his mother later persuaded him that John was innocent and his father gave him a shilling (5p) in recompense.
John was his mother’s favourite and he had fond memories of her, “a wonderful woman who lived for the happiness of others”, who would be sought out by neighbours when in trouble.
But he was a nervous child who hid under the sheets at night, a habit that continued in later life. And a pivotal moment in his early life came when, at the age of 11, he was taken to see the body of his grandfather, David Halliday, who had died at the Christie home after a long illness.
The corpse was laid out on a trestle table in the parlour and the sight made a profound impression on the young John.
He later recalled: “ All my life I never experienced fear or horror at the sight of a corpse. On the contrary I have seen many and they hold an interest and fascination over me.”
Another significant experience was an early attempt at sex around 1915. There was in Halifax a lover’s lane or “monkey run”, where youths would gather to try to pick up girls. Oates reports: “The young Christie was unfortunate in not finding a mate and was thus taunted by his fellows.”
“Such remarks,” Christie later recalled, “made me feel I was not like other boys.” When eventually he did pick up a girl, in Savile Park, although they kissed and cuddled, she told friends that he was “slow”. They laughed at him and called him “rude nicknames” which, even after 40 years, he could not bring himself to repeat in public.
But he appears to have enjoyed life at church, at school and at the cinema. He went to All Souls’ Church, where he was a member of the drama group and the scouts and where he was made King’s Scout. He learned the 10 commandments and later recalled: “The sixth commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill’, always fascinated me.”
Christie attended Boothtown Junior School and Halifax Secondary at Clare Hall, where he was top of the form in maths and good at history and woodwork. He enjoyed sport and played in the school football team. He left school at 14 with a “reasonable good record”.
At the cinema he preferred westerns and comedies. Among his favourite stars were Gregory Peck and Halifax actor Eric Portman, who, like John Christie, had grown up in Chester Road, Akroydon.
Christie stated that he was fond of photography and reading – preferring books on technical subjects like medicine and gardening to fiction – and enjoyed repairing mechanical objects like radios and clocks.
All in all, as Dr Oates essay shows, Christie’s youth was unexceptional. According to a neighbour, a Mr Brooks, the lad who went on to murder eight women at 10 Rillington Place, was “an ordinary, quiet boy. There was nothing extraordinary about him at all”.
nDr Jonathan Oates’s paper, J R H Christie (1899-1953): The Life of a Halifax Murderer Reassessed: Childhood and Youth, 1899-1921, is one of around a dozen papers and reports published in the Transactions of the Halifax Antiquarian Society.
They range from the history of the temperance movement in Halifax to the closure of public houses; from the story of the Halifax mathematician Henry Briggs to a walk in the footsteps of the famous woollen merchant, Samuel Hill, of Making Place, Soyland; from a study of the cloth halls at Hall End, Halifax, to the work of Henry Ling Roth as keeper of Bankfield Museum from 1900 to 1925.
The transactions are available from the society’s publications officer, David Glover, at 6 Baker Fold, Halifax (tel: 01422 342 054).