Rescuing the reputation of 1920 East Sussex beach murder victim

A brutal murder in Eastbourne more than a hundred years ago is examined again in a new book.

Murder victim Irene Munro
Murder victim Irene Munro

Jonathan Oates, author of Irene Munro and the Beach Murder of 1920, argues previous writers have much maligned the victim, almost blaming her for her own death.

Jonathan aims to set the record straight with a full account of what really happened in the first full-length story of the murder

First he sets the scene.

“Irene Violet Munro was born in Brighton in 1902 and moved with her mother to live in London in about 1916. She was employed as a typist and on August 16 1920 went alone for her annual holiday in Eastbourne.

“Here, on the next day, she met two young men, William Gray and Jack Field, both unemployed veterans of the recent war. They spent three days together.

“On August 20 the partially-buried body of Irene Munro was found in the Crumbles. She had been battered over the head and her handbag was missing.

“Field and Gray were taken in for questioning, but released, as further evidence and witnesses were sought.

“They were arrested on September 4 and accused of Irene’s murder. They were later put on trial and found guilty. After appeals failed, they were hanged at Wandsworth prison on February 4 1921. The motive was robbery; there was just under £3 in Irene’s purse.”

And yet Munro has been disparaged over time as if she had somehow contributed to her own demise, Jonathan says: “This seems grossly unfair to me and the evidence about her life had been only very superficially used. This is as much her story as the story of a hideous crime and retribution.

“In addition, the stories of her murderers had not been examined in any detail previously and one of them in particular emerges as a far more vicious individual than hitherto known.

“Finally, there is a more universal theme here about personal responsibility: how far is an individual responsible for their own destiny and how far is that shaped by chance and by the actions of others.”

Irene Munro and the Beach Murder of 1920 has been published by Amazon and is available at £14.68 (paperback) and £7.34 (Kindle).

Jonathan, aged 52, who lives in Iver, Buckinghamshire, said: “The idea behind the book began when I saw a copy of Famous Trials II in an Oxfam bookshop in Ealing, near to where I then worked.

“I read the case called Field and Gray, which I had never heard of before. I found that the bulk of the files on the case were located at the National Archives and began to read through these files as well as starting to read through contemporary newspapers and ordered a copy of the trial transcript.

“The book’s significance to me is that this was a story that had not been properly told before and that the book’s protagonist, Irene Munro, reminded me a little of someone I was once at school with.

“Having already written and published a number of true crime books in the previous years since 2005, I thought that I should be able to tackle this case.

“The case was not just a murder, investigation, trial and aftermath, but about three human beings. Often little is known about the victim, but in this case there was a lot more to know; she kept a diary, wrote and received letters and postcards and there were colleagues, friends, lovers and others who spoke about her life and her character.

“She emerged to me as a very sympathetic young woman.

“The book is aimed at those who know Eastbourne, those who are interested in reading about true crime and those who are interested in human interest stories.

“I certainly enjoyed writing the book, writing up as soon as I had more research details, adding and amending to what I had already written. The starting point for the book was discovering the bare bones of the story.

“I have written nearly 40 books, all non-fiction; about the Jacobite rebellions of 1689-1746, about aspects of Ealing’s local history, about how to research various facts of family history and over a dozen true crime books, including biographies of post-war killers Johns Christie and Haigh, Ronald Chesney and Donald Hume.

“My first book was published in 2001. Hitherto I had had a few articles published in scholarly journals following the completion of my PhD.”