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Alfred Arthur ROUSE





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Seeking to fabricate his own death, picked up a hitch-hiker, knocked him out, and then burnt his car with the man inside
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: November 6, 1930
Date of arrest: Next day
Date of birth: April 6, 1894
Victim profile: An unknown man
Method of murder: Fire
Location: Northamptonshire, England, United Kingdom
Status: Executed by hanging in Bedford on March 10, 1931
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Alfred Arthur Rouse (6 April 1894–10 March 1931) was a British murderer. It was theorised, though never proved, that Rouse, seeking to fabricate his own death, picked up a hitch-hiker, knocked him out, and then burnt his car with the man inside.

His case is unusual in legal history because the identity of the victim was never known and therefore Rouse was convicted of the murder of an unknown man.

Early life

The son of W.E. Rouse, a hosier from Milkwood Road in Herne Hill, Rouse was born in London. His mother was Irish and reported to be an actress. In 1900, his parents' marriage broke up, apparently because his mother deserted, and Rouse and two other children of the marriage were taken to be brought up by his aunt on his father's side. He went to a council school where he was bright (but not exceptionally so) and athletic.

On leaving school Rouse learned carpentry and also went to evening classes where he learned to sing and to play musical instruments (the piano, mandolin, and violin). He had quite considerable musical ability and his voice developed into a good baritone.

He worked first as an office boy for an estate agent, and then in 1909 used his carpentry experience to join a West End furniture manufacturer. A member of the Church of England, Rouse was a sacristan at St Saviour's Church in Stoke Newington.

Wartime service

When war broke out in Europe, Rouse enlisted (8 August 1914), being assigned to the 24th Queen's Territorial Regiment as a Private and assigned the number 2011. The Regiment kept him for training in England before his departure for France, and in the meantime Rouse married Lily May Watkins at St Saviour's Church, St Albans on 29 November.

Rouse arrived in France on 15 March 1915, and was stationed in Paris for some weeks before his unit was sent into battle. During this time, Rouse is known to have fathered a child. His unit was then committed to the Battle of Festubert on the Ypres salient, which began on 15 May. In a bayonet attack, Rouse came face to face with a German soldier and lunged at him but missed; the memory of waiting just for an instant for the enemy reply stayed with him.

On the last day of the battle, a high explosive shell exploded close to Rouse's head, severely injuring him (he also had injuries to his thigh).


An operation had to be performed on Rouse's left temporal region to remove shrapnel, and his leg injuries left him unable to bend his knee, and his leg suffered from an œdema; he could walk, but only with difficulty. He was repatriated and sent to recuperate at a series of Army hospitals. An Invaliding Medical Board hearing on 9 December, 1915 found that his capacity had been "reduced 3/4".

Rouse was formally discharged from the Army on 11 February 1916, and awarded a pension of 20 s per week. His medical records show he was still severely disabled. In July 1916 the doctor noted that Rouse's memory was defective and he was unable to wear a hat of any kind because his scar was irritable, although his speech and writing were unaffected and he "sleeps well unless excited in any way". His pension was raised to 25/- per week the next month.

At the end of January 1917, the doctor found progress, and believed that the injury to his leg could "by degrees be overcome by the man's own endeavour". A year later, Rouse reported some dizziness but the doctor noted how he was talkative and "laughs immoderately at times". September 1918 saw Rouse complain of defective memory and bad sleeping.

Return to work

On 30 July 1919, Rouse was examined again by an unsympathetic doctor who observed that he was now in no disability from his head wound, and that while Rouse wouldn't allow his knee to be flexed by more than 30%, there was no physical reason for the limitation and the doctor ascribed it to neurosis. His pension, which since September 1918 had been 27/6 per week, was cut to 12/- per week on 17 September 1919.

Finally in August 1920 a final examination found his head injury healed, and his knee injury only slightly affecting movement. Rouse's pension stopped on 14 September 1920 with payment of a lump sum of £41 5s. in final settlement of all claims.

In fact Rouse had already found work.


On the early morning of 6 November 1930 two men in Northamptonshire 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 licence 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 urinate, the man lit a cigarette in the car.

According to Rouse, there was a flash of light, and subsequently the car burst in flame. Alfred Rouse stood trial in Northampton in January 1931, and was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death.

On 10 March 1931, he was hanged in Bedford. 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.


Rouse, Alfred Arthur

In the early hours of the morning on the 6 November 1930 Alfred Brown and William Bailey who were cousins were returning from a Guy Fawkes' Night Dance in Northampton. As they walked along Hardingstone Lane, on their way home they saw a man appear in front of them. He was of stocky build and was carrying a small suitcase. The man hurried past the two youths towards the main London-Northampton road.

The young men carried on down the lane and could see a glow from a fire up ahead. When they got closer they could see that it was a car that was ablaze. They quickly ran to the village and fetched two local constables. After they had put the fire out they could see that someone had been in the car which was a Morris Minor. Senior officers arrived and they slowly began to build up a picture of what had happened.

One stroke of luck seemed to be that the car's rear licence plate had survived the fire and it was determined to be MU 1468. They were soon able to trace that the car was registered to 37-year-old commercial traveller A. A. Rouse of Buxted Road, Finchley, north London. Mrs Rouse was unable to identify the remains from the car as her husband.

One part of the puzzle that was missing seemed to be the man the two youths had seen. At that time in the morning it was too much of a coincidence for him not to be connected. They circulated his description to the press. Miss Phyllis Jenkins, of Gellygaer, Glamorgan, bought a copy of the 'Daily Sketch' with the description of the incident. She showed it to a man who had arrived the previous evening who had told her that his car had been stolen near Northampton. He denied that it was his car.

The man was Rouse and Phyllis' sister, Ivy, was his pregnant girlfriend. The 'Daily Sketch' the next day carried more details, including Rouse's name. He returned to London by bus on 7 November, but gossip about his visit and departure had reached the ears of Cardiff police. They quickly informed Scotland Yard and, when he got off the bus at Victoria Bus Station, he was met by DS Skelly.

In his story he told detectives that he had been travelling overnight to Leicester and had picked up a hitchhiker. He had taken a wrong turn and found himself in Hardingstone Lane. At that point he decided to stop for a nap. He had got out of the car to relieve himself and asked his passenger to fill the petrol tank with the contents of a can that was in the car. The man had then, according to Rouse, asked him if he had something he could smoke. Rouse, a non-smoker, conveniently had a cigar with him and he had given it to the man. This seemed to the police to be a little strange.

Rouse went on to say that he had left the car and walked over 200 yards to relieve himself. It was strange but he had taken his suitcase with him on this call of nature. He said that on his way back he saw the car burst into flames. He said he tried to reach the man trapped in the car but had failed and panicked.

Police started to look into the background of this man and found out some interesting facts. He had been born on 6 April 1894, the son of shopkeepers in Herne Hill, London. He had married Lily May Watkins in November 1914 and had almost immediately left to serve in France in the Great War. It was during this service that he had been injured when he had received a head wound in May 1915 and had never been the same since.

When he left the army he got a job as a commercial traveller with his job taking him over a large area. This had given him chance to charm his way into the lives and beds of dozens of women. He had over 80 women on his 'visiting list' by 1930, had fathered several illegitimate children and had even married bigamously. One of his girlfriends was in hospital expecting her second child by Rouse just four days before the incident. Rouse had a pile of maintenance orders building up against him and knew that there was no way that he keep up the payments on his wages. This being the case the police suddenly realised that they now had their motive. The only way Rouse could see out of this situation was to vanish. What better way than to die in a fire.

Alfred Arthur Rouse was charged with murder of an unknown man and brought to trial on 26 January 1931 at Northampton Assizes. Mr Norman Birkett, prosecuting, made no attempt to play on Rouse's lifestyle, he didn't have to. Rouse had told enough lies to condemn himself. Technical evidence was given that showed that the carburettor had been tampered with before the fire had started and Rouse's fate was sealed.

The trial took six days the jury retired to consider their verdict taking just 75 minutes to return a guilty verdict. Rouse was hanged at Bedford prison on 10 March by Tom Pierrepoint . The identity of the victim remains unknown but it may have been an innocent hiker as Rouse had said.


R v A.A. Rouse

The Summer 2002 issue of the Bar News had an item in the Verbatim column which quoted a question asked during the Esso class action. The question was “What is the coefficient of the expansion of brass”. Some in court were mystified by the question; some who read the account of it in the Bar News were mystified by it. (The question itself was relevant (tangentially at least) to the mechanism by which a hot water service might fail if allowed to cool completely and then undergo reheating.)

Still, it was interesting that many readers did not recognise the question as a quote from a famous cross-examination in a famous case.

Alfred Arthur Rouse was a commercial traveller. He was a vainglorious man who seems to have been irresistibly charming to some women: he maintained wives and mistresses around the countryside, and visited them in the course of his journeys around the countryside as representative of Messrs Martins, garters and braces. Each was apparently unaware of the existence of anyone else in Rouse’s life. If nothing else, his complex social life may explain some of his curious conduct when events began to unravel.

At about 2 o’clock in the morning of 6 November 1930, two young men – Brown and Bailey – were walking home from their Guy Fawkes night revels near Hardingstone, near Northampton. A well-dressed man carrying an attaché case climbed out of a ditch in front of them, walked past them without a word and turned uncertainly from Hardinsgtone Lane into the Northampton Road. Bailey then noticed a glow some 400 yards away and asked what it was. The man with the attaché case said “It looks as if someone has had a bonfire down there”. Brown and Bailey later positively identified Rouse as the man with the attaché case. As Brown said during re-examination: “When you go home at that time in the morning you do not usually see well-dressed men getting out of the ditch.”

Brown and Bailey ran towards the “bonfire”; Rouse made his way to the main road and ultimately hitched a lift to London. When Brown and Bailey got to the fire, they found it was a Morris Minor which was blazing fiercely. The number plate was clearly visible: MU 1468. It was Rouse’s car. They called the police. When the fire had been put out, a charred body was found in the front seat of the car. 

In addition, police found an empty jerry-can. On closer examination of the wreck, it was discovered that the petrol cap was on, but loose, the top of the carburettor was missing, and that a junction in the petrol line was loose. The junction was in a position that petrol in the fuel line would drip into the foot-well of the car.

Rouse hitched a lift to London. He told the driver that he had been waiting for a colleague to pick him up in his Bentley. He did not mention that his own car had just burst into flames. Whilst in London, he told a stranger at a coffee-stall that his car (which he described as a Wolseley Hornet) had been stolen. He then caught a coach to Wales. During the trip, he told the coach driver that his car had been stolen. 

Later that day he reached Gellygaer where Ivy Jenkins lived with her family. Rouse was having an affair with Ivy. Rouse told Ivy’s father that his car had been stolen the day before. Shortly, a colleague of William Jenkins came to the house, and said that there was a photograph in the paper of a car which had burnt the previous day. 

Seeing the photograph, in which the numberplate was very clear, Rouse said it was not his car. Later still that day, Ivy’s sister told Rouse that there was a photograph of his car in the paper: she showed him the article, in which he was named as the owner. He asked her if he could take the article, put it in his pocket and left the house.

When Rouse returned to Hammersmith by coach, Detective Sergeant Skelly met him. Rouse said “Very well, I am glad it is all over. I was going to Scotland Yard about it. I am responsible”.

The trial before Justice Talbot began on 26 January 1931. Norman Birkett KC and Richard Elwes appeared for the prosecution. Rouse was defended by D.L. Finnemore. The Crown could not suggest a motive for the alleged murder. Neither could they identify the body, so nothing could be suggested about the deceased which might explain an otherwise senseless killing. 

The principal forensic dispute concerned the way in which the fire started. Finnemore tried to establish the possibility that the fire started accidentally. He sought to suggest that the junction nut might have been loosened by the passenger’s foot, but the experts flatly rejected the possibility. It was against that background that Arthur Isaacs was called by the defence on the fifth day of the trial. He gave evidence that he was “an engineer and fire assessor with very vast experience as regards fires in motor cars”. He advanced the theory that the junction in the fuel line had become loose in the course of the fire, as a result of the fire itself. He gave his evidence with great confidence.

The cross-examination began as follows:

What is the coefficient of the expansion of brass? --- I beg your pardon

Did you not catch the question? --- I did not quite hear you

What is the coefficient of the expansion of brass? --- I am afraid I cannot answer that question off-hand

What is it? If you do not know, say so. What is the coefficient of the expansion of brass? What do I mean by the term? --- You want to know what is the expansion of the metal under heat?

I asked you: What is the coefficient of the expansion of brass? Do you know what it means?--- Put that way, probably I do not.

You are an engineer? --- I dare say I am.

Let me understand what you are. You are not a doctor? --- No

Not a crime investigator? --- No

Nor an amateur detective? --- No

But an engineer? --- Yes

What is the coefficient of the expansion of brass? You do not know? --- No; not put that way.

(The coefficient of thermal expansion of any substance is the measure of the extent to which its size changes as its temperature changes. All substances change their volume as their temperature changes. The change is usually linear, although water is an exception: the coefficient of thermal expansion of water alters as the temperature approaches zero degrees Celsius.)

Birkett was criticized for these questions. It was said that the questions were unfair. It may seem a bit adventurous to expect a witness, however expert, to have the correct number at the top of their mind. Birkett later said that, if the witness had known the answer, he would have then asked the coefficient of expansion of aluminium (of which the carburettor body was made) and would then have moved on to other matters. On any view it perfectly legitimate for him to expect that the witness would understand the concept which was fundamental to his evidence.

Callaway JA has suggested, extra-curially, that the key question was unfair in other ways. It is true that the question would have been more precise if it had asked for the linear coefficient of thermal expansion. Nevertheless, most genuine expert witnesses would assume those details, and would ask for clarification if in doubt. 

Clearly, Mr Isaacs would not have been helped by the greater precision. A more telling point made by Callaway JA is that the question should have identified the precise composition of the brass. Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc, but the proportions are not fixed. Since copper and zinc respectively have different coefficients of thermal expansion, the question as framed has no single answer. If Mr Isaacs had been a genuine expert, he could have devastated Birkett with a different response to the first question:

What is the coefficient of the expansion of brass? --- I assume you are asking for the linear coefficient of thermal expansion, but can you tell me the precise proportion of the constituents of the alloy?

It would be impressive indeed if Birkett had been able to respond accurately.

Rouse was found guilty of murder. His appeal was heard on 23 February 1931. Sir Patrick Hastings led Finnemore on the appeal. The appeal failed. Rouse was hanged at Bedford gaol on 10 March 1931.

Julian Burnside



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