The night my father met John Haigh, the acid bath murderer.
Broadfield House is a Georgian mansion built in the early 1800s. It is situated on what was once the main London to Brighton Road (A23) just south of Crawley. A long drive leads up to the house, crossing Broadfield Brook before curving south. If you followed the drive round to the end you came to Broadfield cottage, my childhood home, nestled in woods and fields. Sadly, it is no longer there, nor are the fields and woods, all having been replaced with Crawley New Town houses and roads. Broadfield House is still there, although looking less splendid now.
The land around Broadfield House originally consisted of landscaped gardens and lake, orchards, grass tennis court, a walled garden with greenhouses, yards, barns and residences for the workers at the house. The estate, much changed, is a now a public nature park owned by Crawley Borough Council.
I lived in Broadfield Cottage with my parents, Vera (neé Parsons) and Jack Cook, my two sisters, Jean and Cheryl, and my brother David.
My father was caretaker of Broadfield House and the offices, as well as being head gardener on the estate from 1946 to 1979. We grew up in its shadow: playing on the veranda, exploring its creepy cellars and of course playing in the beautiful grounds.
After work, my father would sit down and tell us stories about his life.
There was the one about how he was nearly caught when scrumping for apples, and another about the time he was a ‘stop boy’ for the local shoot at Tilgate Mansion. He lived at Tilgate walled garden, at this time, with his parents George and Alice Cook.
We also heard about his first job at aged fourteen when he worked in a laundry in Three Bridges. He had to turn a ‘dolly’ all day to clean clothes, and his wages were twelve shillings and six pence for the week.
There were stories of more recent events, such as the time in 1950 that the Queen, then Princess Elizabeth, visited the architect’s offices (Broadfield House) where the new town was being planned.
As caretaker, my father had to fit a special lavatory for the royal visit. He spent a long time getting it ready, but she never used it!
In 1958 the Queen visited Crawley again and my father was honoured to be one of those who had lunch with her at The George Hotel in Crawley (I still have the seating plan and menu!)
But the most fascinating story that my father told us was the one about the time he met John Haigh, the famous acid bath murderer.
My parents were asked to move into Broadfield House for a few months to oversee the closing down of the country club.
(From the memoir of Jack Cook, 1918-1999)
‘One night in January 1948 there was a knock on the door. When I opened it there were two men standing there.
“Yes?” I said, “What can I do for you?” I noticed one man had very grey hair, the other dark.
“My name is Haigh,” said the dark-haired man, “and this is my friend Dr Henderson. I have booked dinner for two here tonight.”
I said, “You can’t have done because the hotel has been closed down for the last three months”
“But I have,” said Haigh. He took a small diary from his pocket.
The doctor looked at him and said, “Haigh you are mad, I always said you were mad.”
Haigh then asked if he could use the phone and I said, “Yes, come in.”
I heard him speaking to someone in Brighton.
Dr Henderson pulled a gold cigarette case from his pocket and took out a cigarette.
When Haigh had finished the call he said, “If anyone calls here and asks for me, tell them to go to the Punch Bowl in Crawley.”
He gave me two shillings for the phone call and they both left. It had all seemed rather odd.’
My father was later interviewed by the police when they were investigating the Haigh murders – he had been one of the last people to see Henderson alive. Henderson was probably murdered in Haigh’s workshop in Leopold Road, Crawley that very night! Shortly afterwards, Haigh also murdered Henderson’s wife and, like the rest of his victims, her body was disposed of in a vat of acid.
I’m glad that I encouraged my father to write a memoir. It’s full of all the stories he told us and is a book I’ll always treasure.
By Shirley Anne Cook.