and wickedness lent authority to a miscarriage of justice
THE Oscar Slater case is probably the most disgraceful miscarriage of
justice in recent British history. It is certainly the very stuff of
Marion Gilchrist, an 82-year-old Glasgow spinster with a mysterious
past, is battered to death in her flat in December, 1908. The following
May, Oscar Slater, a shady German Jew, is convicted of her murder and
sentenced to death, although he obviously had nothing to do with the
crime. Slater is reprieved at the last moment and sent to Peterhead
Prison for the rest of his life.
John Thomson Trench, a Glasgow police officer, comes forward claiming
that Miss Gilchrist was murdered by a relative and that Slater was
framed. A farcical secret inquiry rejects these allegations and Trench
is dismissed from the force and then arrested on a trumped up charge.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, takes up the
fallen sword and campaigns vigorously for Slater's release. In the
summer of 1927 William Park, a Glasgow journalist, publishes a book
which tears the official case against Slater to ribbons.
A public campaign is whipped up by the press which culminates in
admissions by the two most important witnesses at Slater's trial, Helen
Lambie and Mary Barrowman, that the police forced them to identify
Slater as the man they saw leaving the scene of the crime. Slater is
finally released from prison on 14th November 1927.
In my recent book, Oscar Slater, The Mystery Solved, I was able to
make use of official documents in the Scottish Record Office to show
that Trench was essentially right. These documents, most notably an
anonymous letter to the Scottish Secretary and the full text of the
secret inquiry, coupled with the rest of my research, show beyond
reasonable doubt that Miss Gilchrist was murdered by her nephew and that
her establishment family used its influence to protect the guilty
parties, even to the extent of having an innocent man framed.
Strong as this evidence is, the full story could not be told because
three of the files on the Slater case were then closed to the public.
That handicap has now been removed with the early release of these files
under the government's more open policy.
The most important of these files, HH 16/111, contains material which
can only be described as dynamite. The body of the file contains many
interesting points. For example, the government tried unsuccessfully to
''get rid'' (sic) of Slater by deporting him to Germany and an English
lawyer sought in vain to show the government evidence that Miss
Gilchrist was murdered by a relative.
However, the truly important material is to be found in an envelope in
the pouch on the rear cover of sub-file 20577/108.
This envelope, which is marked ''Confidential, Correspondence with
Ramsay MacDonald'', contains private letters which were exchanged
between Sir John Gilmour, the then Scottish Secretary and Ramsay
MacDonald, the Leader of the Opposition (and former Labour Prime
Minister) on the subject of Slater's release.
As will be shown below, these letters, which are all marked private
and were clearly never meant to see the light of day, prove that Ramsay
MacDonald, who succeeded to the premiership less than two years later,
knew the truth about the Slater case and that he imparted this knowledge
to the government via a document which had been passed to him by Conan
The file shows that Conan Doyle alluded to a ''police document of a
secret nature'' in his own correspondence with the Scottish Secretary
who asked for sight of it. Conan Doyle declined to send this document to
the Scottish Office for fear that it would be returned to the Glasgow
However Conan Doyle agreed to forward it unofficially via a
''gentleman'', whom he did not name, but whom the confidential envelope
reveals to be Ramsay MacDonald.
This envelope shows that MacDonald first wrote to Gilmour about
Slater's release on 15th September 1927, by which time the press
campaign to free Slater was gathering pace. Describing himself as ''very
much disturbed'' by what he had learned about the case, MacDonald urged
Gilmour to act quickly. On 24th October, he wrote again, this time at
greater length (all italic emphasis is by the present author):
''Since I have taken up (the Slater case) I have had placed in my
possession some most unpleasant evidence which involves the police and
the man who apparently committed the crime...
The Scottish legal authorities strove for (Slater's) conviction by
influencing witnesses and with-holding evidence, and that is the point
which you will now have to meet and which, I venture with respect to
submit to you, must influence your decision as to how you are to wind up
Two days later, Gilmour asked MacDonald for any new evidence he may
have and referred to a document which was in the possession of a
''correspondent'', who is identified by another enclosure as Conan
Doyle. In his reply on 27th October, MacDonald wrote:
''I think I understand what the document is to which you refer. A copy
of it has been communicated to me under seal of confidence... My own
view is that you certainly ought to have it... and, as the document in
question involves other parties it would be very advisable, I think, to
keep it out of your dossier. Certainly, so far as I am concerned, I do
not wish to widen your trouble and would therefore be glad if you could
act without it.''
MacDonald appears to have consulted Conan Doyle, for on 31st October
''With further reference to my last letter, I am empowered to show you
a copy of the page which was torn from the Police Archives by Trench
when he was smarting under the injustice of his treatment and when,
faced by what he considered to be a lying conspiracy against him, he
felt justified in possessing himself of material which would protect his
Gilmour indicated that he wished sight of this evidence and also the
opportunity to speak to MacDonald, who on 4th November, forwarded two
documents to the Scottish Secretary:
'' 'A' (with the deletion at the head) is a copy of the page which
Trench tore out of the police archives. Compare it with the evidence
that the police were giving contrary to Trench at the time.
''B'' is a copy of a letter which Shaughnessy (author's note: Slater's
law agents) wrote to Conan Doyle and which Doyle has sent to me.''
The second document, which deals with information about the case
supplied to Slater's law agents by Trench as early as 1912, is certainly
important. However it pales into insignificance compared to the first
document which, as MacDonald pointed out, shows that the Glasgow police
officers lied at the secret inquiry, which by extension means that they
framed Slater in order to protect the real killer and his accomplices.
The vital part of this document is reproduced below:
''There were three families of deceased all of which suspected each
other of the murder, viz:
1. The Birrell Family of five members residing in Glasgow and
Woolwich. One of the members of this family was of bad character and had
not been heard of for some years. He was traced to Woolwich where he has
2. The Lee Family of seven members residing in Glasgow, Ayr, Liverpool
and Maidstone. One of this family had not been heard of by his relatives
for 14 years, was traced to Sydney, where he has since died, viz on
3. The Charteris Family, three members residing in Glasgow,
Bournemouth and India.
All of these people had to be located and information obtained as to
what they were doing at the time of the murder.
Amongst them were Doctors, Lawyers, Army officers, etc. Several of
them against whom accusations were actually made were brought to the
Police office and shewn to the Witnesses unknown to themselves. The
greatest care had to be exercised to prevent them from knowing that they
*NOTE. The clue when first received against Slater was not stronger*
than against other suspects and at the time it was received more than
half of the Officers of the Department were engaged at the case. Hence
the number of officers.
*(It was typed ''very much less strong''; then was typed over and
amended in pencil).''
The ''bad'' member of the Birrell family was Wingate Birrell, the
victim's nephew. The government files show that, on the day before he
granted Slater a reprieve, the Scottish Secretary received an anonymous
letter accusing Birrell of murdering Miss Gilchrist and claiming that he
had been let into the flat by the maid, Helen Lambie, to whom he was
Other documents show that the police failed to investigate Birrell
properly, even though he was a known criminal who almost certainly fled
to London immediately after the murder.
The above document reveals that some members of Miss Gilchrist's
family were actually brought to the police station to face accusations.
Doctors, lawyers and army officers are specifically mentioned. There
were three Charteris brothers. Francis Charteris was a doctor. His elder
brother, Archibald, was a lawyer. The youngest, John, was an army
officer. John must be excluded from suspicion as he was not in Glasgow
on the night of the murder. This cannot be said of his two brothers.
Trench claimed that the man seen leaving the murder flat was Dr
Francis Charteris. (According to the anonymous letter, Birrell escaped
over the kitchen window). The people whom Trench cited as witnesses
were, respectively, Birrell's sister and Helen Lambie, Birrell's lover.
In short, this was, as the above document states, a case of one branch
of the victim's family accusing the other.
The solution to this predicament was to place the blame on Slater, a
German Jew whose name had cropped up innocently in the investigation.
Evidence of this framing can be seen in the document where attention is
drawn to the fact that the original entry referring to Slater had been
Birrell murdered Miss Gilchrist, but Francis Charteris was in her flat
at the time, rummaging through her private papers, and therefore had to
be protected, as did Archibald, who was waiting in the street. To this
end, the Charteris family used their influence.
A newspaper article shortly after the murder stated that two men in
Glasgow should have been arrested, but the freedom to do so had been
withdrawn from the police and rested ''solely with the Crown
authorities''. Archibald Charteris was a member of the Faculty of
Procurators and a friend of Alexander Ure, the Lord Advocate, whose
disgraceful and illegal behaviour at Slater's trial so shocked
observers. (Ure went on, as Baron Strathclyde, to become Scotland's
On 7th November, Gilmour decided to release Slater. He also sought a
meeting in the Commons with MacDonald which took place the following
day. It is not known exactly what was discussed at this meeting, but in
a letter to Gilmour the day after, MacDonald called for an inquiry which
would embody ''the broad minded civic justice of the affair''.
Gilmour's response was to refer the Slater case to the newly
established Court of Criminal Appeal, an astonishing act of deception.
The Appeal Court found nothing in Slater's favour other than that the
trial Judge had misdirected the jury by describing Slater as a scoundrel
who did not deserve the presumption of innocence. Slater's conviction
was duly quashed on a point of law.
The MacDonald letters have finally exposed the full extent of this
scandal. Slater was not declared innocent and the guilty parties were
not prosecuted, even though the highest officials in the land knew the
truth. It is surely time to grant Slater a pardon and to reinstate
Trench posthumously to the police force of the city he served so well.