A Suspended Suspended Sentence.

Edmonton Military Hospital. Starting life as a workhouse, what is now the North Middlesex spent the WWI years as one of London's military hospitals before becoming a civilian hospital and eventually part of the NHS.
The Highgate Hill entrance before the name change.
London Transport Museum
Donald George Thomas under arrest.
PC Nathaniel Edgar, with his daughter.

Around January 1948 there were a spate of break-ins and burglaries in the Highgate and Southgate areas of north London. This resulted in a large number of complaints from the public to the police.

In answer to these genuine complaints a team of plain-clothes officers were set up. They were patrolling the area in pairs hoping to catch the persons responsible.

By pairing up these officers it was thought that would be the best way to catch the villains.

1949 Pc. Nathaniel Edgar

On the evening of the 13th February 1949 Pc. Nathaniel Edgar and his partner spotted a man behaving suspiously and they kept watch on him. The man spotted the two officers and made off giving the officers the slip. The officers decided to split up and that way hoped to catch sight of him again. They were then in the area of the Oaklands estate in Wynchgate.

The about 8.15pm several people telephoned the police telling them they had just heard a sound, which seemed like gunfire. Uniformed police were sent to the area and then found PC. Edgar laying on the pavement seriously wounded, he had been shot three times. He was rushed to the North Middlesex Hospital where he died 2 hours later.

The final entry in his pocket book was found to be the name and address of Donald George Thomas, a known criminal who had previous for housebreaking. It seems that Pc. Edgar had recognised Thomas.

Donald George Thomas

On later investigation, it showed that Thomas was a deserter, having deserted from the Army towards the end of the war and had been on the run from the Military Police for the past two years. He was eventually caught, but once again he went missing on his release from his 160 days probabtion.

Police quickly formed the opinion that 23 years old Thomas was possibly responsible for killing Pc. Edgar. He was traced to lodgings in Mayflower Road in Clapham. It transpired that he was living there with a Mrs. Wingless, a mother of three.

Four policemen decided to pay Thomas a visit one early morning. They asked the landlady, a Mrs. Smeed if she would help them. They intended to make a covert ambush to capture him. The idea was for Mrs. Smeed to take the couple’s breakfast up to their room as she always did and leave it just outside their door. She then had to knock on their door and then leave. This was quite a simple task but Mrs. Smeed was very keen to help the police and wanted to get rid of something like Thomas; she performed he task to perfection. With the policemen close by their door, it was eventually opened by Thomas, dressed only in his under pants. He was then greeted by the officers. Thomas rushed back into his room and went to reach for his Luger pistol which was hidden under his pillow. Once he was in custody he said to them,

” You lot were lucky, I might as well be hung for a sheep than as a lamb.”

Meanwhile, all this time Mrs Wingless remained in bed. They made a quick search of their room and found a total of 17 rounds of ammunition, a jemmy and quite a large rubber cosh.

Before the policemen left the premises Mrs Winkless told the police that Thomas had confessed to her that he had shot a policeman but Thomas denied this vehemently.

The Old Bailey

Thomas appeared at the Old Bailey in April 1948, a police murderer who had happily admitted to further intent, and an army deserter to boot. His cause was as grim as any could possibly be. To nobody’s surprise he was duly found guilty and sentenced to death for the murder of Pc Edgar.

It is true to say that to everyone’s surprise, the death sentence was rescinded and a life sentence was imposed instead. He served 14 years in prison, being released in April 1962.

Thomas had unwittingly selected the only window of opportunity in which to commit his capital crime and still remain alive into the bargain. At the time of his conviction, the future of capital punishment was being debated in the House of Commons and a temporary suspension of hanging had been enacted during these discussions.

The luckiest murderer of the 20th Century

Donald George Thomas’s claim to be the luckiest murderer of the 20th Century would seem a very valid one, and such was the publicity surrounding the case that it inspired the plot of the 1949 film, ‘The Blue Lamp.’ The lead being played by the famous actor, Jack Warner. He then starred in the famous ‘Dixon of Dock Green,’ in the film it was Jack Warner who was shot by Dirk Bogarde, who played the villain.

During the ‘Dixon’ series on TV, a much lampooned phrase was used, ‘Evening all.’ This phrase has dogged the Police Force ever since.

The memory of Pc. Edgar lives on too as in 1998 a commemorative fiftieth-anniversary Plaque was placed in his honour at Muswell Hill Police Station.

No such affectionate tributes have been given to Donald George Thomas, the only police murderer for whom suspension meant life instead of death.

Written and researched by David Rowland, author and researcher.

Special thanks.  The Law’s strangest cases by Peter Seddon.
Published in 2001 by Robson Books, London.

Comments about this page

  • Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

    By Paul Beaken (06/04/2018)
  • “…a commemorative fiftieth-anniversary Plague….” should be “plaque”

    By Leslie (06/04/2018)

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