Alfred Arthur Rouse murdered an unknown man and burnt him in his (Rouse’s) vehicle at Hardingstone in Northamptonshire, the first murder case in Britain to centre around a car

Thursday 6th November 1930

Alfred Arthur Rouse murdered an unknown man and burnt him in his (Rouse’s) vehicle at Hardingstone in Northamptonshire, the first murder case in Britain to centre around a car. This case is also unusual in English legal history in the sense that the identity of the victim was never known and consequently Rouse was convicted of the murder of an unknown man.

In the early hours of 6 November 1930, two young men returning from the town of Northampton to their home in the nearby village of Hardingstone saw a fire in the distance. A man approaching them from the direction of the fire observed that ‘somebody must be lighting a bonfire’. The two men went to investigate and discovered the fire was coming from a vehicle that was ablaze, containing a body charred beyond recognition. The number plate identified the car as belonging to an Alfred Arthur Rouse, a north-Londoner. Rouse had gone to Wales to one of his girlfriends, but returned to London a day later. He was arrested and confessed, saying that he had picked up the victim during a ride to Leicester. While Rouse went to defecate, the man lit a cigarette in the car. According to Rouse, there was a flash of light, and subsequently the car burst into flames. Alfred Rouse stood trial in Northampton in January 1931, and was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death.

Rouse’s personality was the cause of his failure to win support for the counter-theory that the man in the car was responsible for the explosion that killed him. Rouse, after initially trying to run off, decided to hand himself over to the police. But while giving his statement of what he claimed happened (an accident – but the other fellow was to blame) he let slip a comment that got into the newspapers, referring to his career as a salesman and the women he knew. He referred to these ladies as his “harem”. That did not sit well with the public. His failure to explain why he picked up the unknown person (supposedly just to give him a lift) was dented when he made the callous comment that the unknown person was just somebody who nobody would miss. The final blow to the accident theory was delivered not by Sir Bernard Spilsbury (who did give forensic evidence of the remains of the unknown person), but by an expert on cars who studied the remains of the Morris Minor, and found somebody had forcefully turned a nut and screw to allow petrol to flow into the motor (making a fire easier to set). The chief prosecuting counsel at Rouse’s trial was William Norman Birkett, 1st Baron Birkett and the chief defence counsel was Donald Finnemore.

On Tuesday, 10 March 1931, he was hanged in Bedford Gaol. He confessed to the crime shortly before the execution.

In Alan Moore’s novel Voice of the Fire, set in Northampton at various times throughout history, one chapter tells Rouse’s story in first-person narrative, an evasive and self-serving musing to himself as he sits in the dock during his murder trial. The chapter ends with Rouse seemingly convinced of his ability to charm his jury into acquitting him, with his judgment in this matter proving as poor as it had been throughout the entire story.

Dorothy Sayers used the Rouse case to construct her short story “In the Teeth of the Evidence”, published in her short story collection of that name in 1939. The case is mentioned by name.

The case was dramatized on a 1951 episode of Orson Welles’ radio drama The Black Museum entitled “The Mallet”

The PD James novel, The Murder Room (2003), also mentions the Rouse case among other famous murder cases in the interwar years.

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