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Robert William HOOLHOUSE





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Rape - Revenge
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: January 18, 1938
Date of arrest: 2 days after
Date of birth: 1916
Victim profile: Margaret Jane Dobson, 67
Method of murder: Stabbing with knife
Location: Wolviston, County Durham, England, United Kingdom
Status: Executed by hanging at Durham Gaol on May 26, 1938

Robert Hoolhouse lived as a tenant on a farm. After a dispute with the owners the Hoolhouse family were evicted. Shortly after this the owners wife Margaret Jane Dobson was found dead.

On 26th May 1938, Robert William Hoolhouse was hanged at Durham Prison for the sex murder of Margaret Dobson.

The Dobsons had owned High Grange Farm at Wolviston, County Durham, for over thirty years. As the result of a dispute they evicted the Hoolhouse family from a tenanted cottage on their land and the Hoolhouse's moved to a nearby village.

Five years later, on the 18th January 1938, the body of 67-year-old Mrs Margaret Jane Dobson was found on a farm track. She had been sexually assaulted and stabbed.

When the police questioned 21-year-old Robert Hoolhouse they found that his face was scratched, he had blood on his clothes and he fitted the general description of a man seen close to the Dobson's farm at the time of the killing. He also had a motive.

Hoolhouse was arrested and tried at Leeds Assizes in March 1938. Even though the evidence linking Hoolhouse to the killing was tenuous - a footprint found near the body was admitted to have not been made by him - he was found guilty.

He was hanged at Durham Gaol on 26th May 1938.



Robert William Hoolhouse


Age: 21
Date of Execution: Thursday, 26th May, 1938
Location of Execution: Durham
Hangman: Thomas Pierrepoint
Assistants: Not Known
Tried At: Leeds
Trial Dates: 28th - 30th March, 1938
Trial Judge: Mister Justice Wrottesley
Crime: Murder
Name: Margaret Jane Dobson
Age: 67
Location of Murder: High Grange Farm, Wolviston
Date of Murder: Tuesday, 18th January, 1938
Method of Murder: Stabbed
Relationship to Killer: None

The story of Robert William Hoolhouse is one of the darkest tragedies of Englisj justice and possibly one of the strongest arguments against capital punishment.

On Tuesday, January 18th, 1938, Margaret Dobson left her home at High Grange Farm, at four thirty in the afternoon. Her husband, Henry, expected Margaret to return at about six o'clock but when she failed to appear, thought she might have stayed overnight at their daughter's home, in Newcastle.

The following day saw Henry up at dawn and by eight o'clock, a number of his workers had arrived and the farm was a hive of activity. Having checked that everyone had enough work to do, Henry decided to walk into the village of Wolviston. It was by then quarter to ten.

As Henry passed down the trackway that led to the main road, he saw something in one of his fields. Going to investigate, he was horrified to discover the body of his wife. Hardly believing his eyes, Henry walked around the body before setting off to the nearest police station.

Margaret Dobson had been brutally raped and then stabbed, and police believed they had a likely suspect in Robert Hoolhouse. The Hoolhouse family had worked for Mr Dobson five years before. An argument had cost Mr Hoolhouse and his son their jobs and the family their tied cottage. This perhaps was reason enough to kill and when it came to the attention of the authorities that Robert Hoolhouse was sporting some new scratches on his face, they decided to have a word with him.

At quarter past one on the morning of January 20th, Robert Hoolhouse was taken into custody and eventually charged with murder. In addition to the scratches on his face, bloodstains had been found on his clothing and his alibi did not check out.

Robert had claimed that on the day of the murder, January 18th, he had been at home at 6, Pickering Street, Haverton Hill, until about twelve thirty. He had then cycled to Wolviston where he visited the home of a friend, William Husband, where he stayed until three thirty. Cycling home via Cowpen, he arrived home at about four. That evening, at six thirty, he caught the bus to Wolviston where he again visited William Husband and where he also saw John Lax and his sister, Dolly. He and Dolly caught a bus for Billingham where they went to the pictures. At eleven o'clock, Hoolhouse saw Dolly onto the bus for Wolviston after which he caught his own bus, for Haverton, arriving home at around eleven thirty.

On January 19th, Hoolhouse was again at home until quarter to eleven when he visited the Labour Exchange and signed on. From there he took a walk before returning home for lunch, after which he cycled to Wolviston again, falling off his bicycle on the way and sustaining scratches to his face. He stayed at William Husband's house until quarter past two when he cycled home.

When police checked this extensive timetable, they found a discrepancy, when the Husbands and the Laxs said he had arrived later on January 18th. Hoolhouse made a second, brief statement in which he admitted that he must have got the times wrong and had left an hour later, arriving at Wolviston at three forty five instead of two forty five. For the police this was highly significant. Pathological examination of Margaret Dobson's stomach contents had put her time of death before four o'clock and they now held that Hoolhouse had lied deliberately to hide the fact that he was killing Mrs Dobson at that time. Robert Hoolhouse was charged with murder.

Had Robert Hoolhouse had a half-decent barrister, he might well have escaped with his life. The evidence against him was flimsy to say the least. To begin with, Percy Swales had seen a man standing in the field, very close to where Margaret Dobson was finally discovered, at five thirty. This man was not Robert Hoolhouse and seemed to indicate that the true time of death was probably closer to five thirty, by which time Robert Hoolhouse was at home in Haverton Hill.

Next there was the evidence of the scratches on Robert's face. When Margaret Dobson was found, she still wore her heavy woollen gloves. The police had actually experimented with these gloves, trying to cause scratches on a volunteer's face. They did not succeed.

Hoolhouse had explained away the bloodstains on his clothing by saying that he had suffered from a boil which had burst. The forensic tests were made on a few spots of blood and no further tests were made which might have proved Hoolhouse's story.

Even more conclusive was the footprint evidence. Henry Dobson had walked around his wife's body and his footprints were plainly visible. However, beneath one of Mr Dobson's boot prints, was a different print. Plaster casts were taken of this and it was shown not to belong to Robert Hoolhouse. The defence barrister completely missed the significance of this vital clue. Since the print was beneath Henry Dobson's, it must have been there first and almost certainly belonged to the killer.

Finally there was the evidence of the semen stains, or more accurately the lack of them. Hoolhouse went to the police station in the same clothing he had worn on the day of the murder. This clothing was extensively tested and no trace of semen staining was found, yet Mrs Dobson had been raped and there was extensive semen stains on her body.

The jury were out for over four hours before returning their guilty verdict. Hoolhouse's parents were deeply shocked by the verdict. They were convinced that Robert was innocent and even had a taxi cab waiting outside the courthouse to take their son home.

Hoolhouse's appeal was lost on May 9th and despite a petition of 14,000 signatures, he was executed at Durham on May 26th, 1938, despite the fact that medical reports had shown that he had a mental age of less than fourteen.

Two important witnesses were never called at Robert's trial. Margaret Barker knew Robert well and had travelled by bus to Wolviston on January 18th. Robert was on the same bus, going to meet Dolly Lax so that he could take her to the cinema. Margaret spoke to Robert for part of the journey and gave a statement to the police that Robert had no scratches on his face at that time, when Margaret Dobson already lay dead.

Finally, Doris Teale, who lived next door to the Hoolhouses, said that she had seen Robert outside his house at about the time he was supposed to be murdering Margaret Dobson.

Robert Hoolhouse was just twenty one years old when he died on the scaffold at Durham. Whatever else he may have been, it is highly unlikely that he was also a murderer.



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