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Bath Pool in serenity.

Bath Pool valley was a creation of the Ice Age, and a participant in the industrial revolution by virtue of nearby coal seams in the 18th and 19th centuries. By the 1970s, however, the lake and surroundings had been transformed and matured into a pleasant leisure amenity for the Kidsgrove area in Staffordshire. And it was then that Bath Pool attracted the attentions of an unwelcome visitor who for a time gave the area a spell of national notoriety.

This stranger was a self-employed jobbing builder from Yorkshire who had begun life in 1936 as Donald Nappey, but later changed his name to Donald Neilson. Sadly, he had developed an unhealthy interest in planning and executing military-style operations which became a series of small scale post office robberies. By the time he reached Kidsgrove he had been augmenting his earnings with the proceeds from burglary for fifteen years. With an overdose of self-esteem, he styled himself 'The Black Panther' and had already killed sub-postmasters in Harrogate, Yorkshire; Accrington, Lancashire; and Langley in the West Midlands.

Neilson apparently noticed the potential of the Bath Pool valley for his murky purposes in September 1974. It was uninhabited, not overlooked by any housing, and had several exits with speedy access to a maze of major and minor roads. Most significantly for his criminal plans, he noted the network of drainage shafts, some connected to parts of the old mine workings, which could be used as places of concealment.

On the night of January 14th 1975 he kidnapped 17-year old Lesley Whittle from her familyís Shropshire home. Lesley was a student at Wulfrun College, Wolverhampton, and - of more interest from Neilsonís perverted viewpoint - an heiress to her familyís successful coach business. He left behind a demand for a £50,000 ransom, giving preliminary instructions for its delivery. He then drove to Kidsgrove and forced Lesley to descend a drainage shaft in the Bath Pool valley. He tethered her using a wire, and left her in complete darkness with a sleeping bag and some scraps of food.

Bath Pool in winter.

Attempted Ransom
Ignoring Neilsonís instructions, the family secretly contacted the police, who were an invisible presence on the night of January 16th when Lesleyís brother, Ronald Whittle, attempted to follow Neilsonís over-elaborate trail of instructions.

Neilson thought he had planned and timed events with great precision, while the unfolding events would show how far adrift his militaristic imagination was from the real world.

Firstly, as Ronald Whittle was a stranger to the town, it took him far longer than expected to drive from Bridgnorth police station and find Kidsgrove town centre. Here, he was initially unable to locate his next set of instructions, which had been concealed behind the backboard in a phone box. When he drove to Bath Pool armed with these new directions, the local story is that he was delayed or distracted by a car containing a courting couple. But in any event, he totally missed Neilsonís next message, left beside a flashing torch. He drove past and eventually left the valley, believing he had arrived too late to make the rendezvous. With sickening irony, he had driven within a few yards of where his sister was concealed.

The Search For Lesley
Bath Pool Valley was not a simple search even without its underground tunnels.

The Shropshire Police Force apparently failed to alert the Kidsgrove Police, and the first discreet search of the park was not made until 7th February, and then without success

The vital clue which eventually brought the police back to Kidsgrove was the discovery - some seven weeks after the crime - of a stolen Connaught Green Morris 1300, which had been abandoned by Neilson in a car park at Dudley in the West Midlands. In it was a tape recording made by Lesley Whittle to her mother giving details of the ransom trail for her brother to follow. Neilson had left the car after fleeing from the Dudley Freightliner depot, having shot a security guard, Gerald Arthur Smith, who had disturbed him while he was laying part of the £50,000 ransom trail on January 15th, the day after the kidnapping.

Dudley Freightliner depot was once one of the most profitable in the country, but was closed to help the loss-making Birmingham depot. This view from Castle Hill towards Tipton shows that only the flattened area now remains. Parking was out of view to the near-left, and heavily rusted through tracks still lie in the deep shadow at right, but were severed in May 2002 when the bridge over the Birmingham New Road was taken down.

With this new information, the Kidsgrove force realised the full significance of items being turned up by local people at Bath Pool. These included a torch and strips of Dymo labels - one with the instruction "Drop Suitcase in Hole" which had been found attached to a tree in Bath Pool valley. A full scale search was mounted for the missing girl on 6th March. The following day, Nelsonís coal mine shaft was uncapped, and Lesley Whittleís body was discovered hanging from a landing by a steel wire round her neck. She had either fallen or been pushed over by Neilson.

The previous news blackout was lifted and the story made national headlines. Kidsgrove, which became the headquarters for the murder hunt, was profoundly shocked. What made it worse was that the murderer himself was still unidentified and as it was believed that the criminal must have had local knowledge, every adult male in the district fell under suspicion and had to be questioned. The massive police operation was followed avidly by the press as nearly 3000 men who had worked on the transformation of the valley, and especially on the drainage, had to be painstakingly traced and interviewed. But it failed to identify the culprit.

Arrest And Trial
The cloud of suspicion lingered for months in Kidsgrove until Neilson himself dispersed it in December 1975. Despite the failure of his kidnapping scheme, and perhaps the need to lie low for a time, once the pursuit faltered, Neilson had no compunction about resuming his armed robberies at whatever cost to other lives. Thus he was equipped for a robbery in Mansfield when his suspicious behaviour prompted Police Officers to stop and question him. He immediately pulled a gun on them and forced them into his car. He made one of them drive on, but the other officer managed to distract him and grab the gun, which fired and blew a hole through the roof. After a considerable struggle against both officers and customers from a nearby fish and chip shop, Neilson was arrested.

He resisted questioning for some time, but finally revealed his home address in Leeds, where more firearms and other incriminating material were found. This included a blue balaclava helmet. One of the sub-postmasters had sprayed him with household ammonia, causing the blue dye to run and drip on the floor. Forensic scientists matched the deposit with the dye on the helmet found in his house. They also found a Dymo labeller with a misplaced letter that matched labels left at Bath Pool.

Neilson was sent for trial on 14th June 1976 where he received life sentences for each of his four murders, along with other sentences for attempted murder, burglary and abduction. He is still in a high-security prison and unlikely to be released alive.

It took some while for the stain of this unpleasant and tragic episode to fade from local consciousness in Kidsgrove, and there were people who avoided Bath Pool thereafter, but sadly, in such a crowded island as ours, there are few places that have been spared the passage of grief and evil at one time or another.

The Whittle coach company continues in business, but for the Whittle family and the other families before them, of course, the grief and evil will never pass away at all.

[This article is based on one published in The Best of Kidsgrove Times, volume 4, by Philip R. Leese, with a previously unpublished update, also by Philip, edited into it and added to by Harry Drummond for Dudley Mall. Copyright (c) 2002, Philip R. Leese.

If you want to know more about the Whittle murder, there are several accounts including The Capture of the Black Panther by Harry Hawkes, published by Harrap in 1976.]

Copyright © 2002 DudleyMall.

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