Fifty years ago this week a community was in shock after the murder of a mild-mannered shopkeeper. Henry Woodsford reports
Brian Sowerbutts lived and worked in Lostock Hall where his home on Watkin Lane doubled up as the family’s hardware shop.
The 44-year-old bachelor’s body was discovered on March 7 by customer John Beadsworth who went to buy pigeon feed from the store.
When Mr Beardsworth, who had known Mr Sowerbutts for many years, called at around at 5.15pm on the Tuesday and found the door locked so he went round to the side entrance which gave access to the living quarters.
It was something regular customers would often do if they found the shop closed and needed to stock up.
The van driver peered through the door and saw Mr Sowerbutts lying on his living room floor in a pool of blood.
A post mortem examination revealed Mr Sowerbutts had suffered blows to the head and body but the cause of death was described by pathologist Dr John Benstead as ‘manual strangulation’.
The shopkeeper’s body had lay undiscovered for 24 hours and had a wire flex ligature around the neck.
Lancashire County CID Chief Supt Harold Prescott was put in charge of the investigation and told the Press it looked as if there had been “a running fight, which started in the living room as furniture had been turned over, which then spread to the shop”.
He went on to say that: “It appears Mr Sowerbutts, who was a frail man, only about 5ft 5ins tall, put up a pretty good struggle.”
A 50-strong team led by Chief Supt Prescott made intensive house-to-house enquiries and pictures of Mr Sowerbutts were displayed nationwide.
Officers even quizzed children at a nearby secondary school.
Mr Sowerbutts’ uncle, Harold Dawson, of Lancaster Lane, Leyland, helped detectives piece together the dead man’s day-to-day routine in the shop.
Mr Dawson told them his nephew was comfortably off, with “about £9,000 in the bank – £3,000 of which was acquired when his father sold a collection of rare coins shortly before he died in 1965.”
Revealing more about his nephew’s background and upbringing, Mr Dawson said Mr Sowerbutts suffered from epilepsy until the age of 25, and had been brought up in a sheltered atmosphere by his parents.
Neighbours sympathised with him when his parents passed away he depended heavily on them and they often cooked his meals.
Mr Sowerbutts also had a constant fear of being robbed and padlocked his till after every sale.
A man of few friends, he treasured his collection of stamps and cigarette cards and neighbours told of his elation when he obtained two cards which completed a set.
Just four days after the killing police got the breakthrough they needed thanks to an eagle-eyed police constable.
PC Chris Flaherty was on duty in Preston when he spotted a man pushing a bicycle along Ribbleton Lane who fitted the description of the suspect circulated across the force.
He challenged the suspect who admitted he was the man at the centre of the murder hunt and he was arrested by PC Flaherty and taken to Preston Police Station for questioning.
Thomas Duncan Kay’s fingerprints were taken and matched those found on a bottle of turpentine used by the killer to try to clean up the crime scene.
When officers went to his lodgings in St Marys Street they discovered bloodstained clothing in a suitcase.
One local recalls: “I was in the Tardy Gate Inn when Brian’s murderer Duncan Kay came in after his savage attack on the poor shopkeeper.
“He appeared to have been drinking and acted as though he hadn’t a care in the world. I left about 10 minutes later but I understand he got a bit mouthy with the landlord Ralph McKie and was told to go home and sober up.
“He visited the Tardy Gate Inn quite frequently but did not appear to have any close friends and I would say that he was a bit of a loner even then.
“Many of the regulars at the time thought he was rather a strange guy in the way he talked and acted.
“Despite this it was still a great shock to the whole community when the terrible news of his crime came out.”
‘Man faces Lostock Hall murder charge’ read the Lancashire Evening Post front page on March 10, as Kay was charged with the murder.
The 30-year-old unemployed labourer had earlier been interviewed at Bamber Bridge police station on March 4 in relation to the theft of a stolen blind charity collection box.
It emerged Kay knew Mr Sowerbutts had seen him steal the collection box for the blind from the Old Oak Hotel, Hoghton, and, according to Kay’s statement to police, on the evening of March 6 he went to the shop to try to persuade Mr Sowerbutts not to report the matter to police.
The shopkeeper rejected Kay’s plea that he should keep quiet about it and attempted to leave his own shop, saying he was going to the police.
Kay then attacked Mr Sowerbutts with a poker and a bag of coal before strangling his victim in the darkened shop. Before fleeing the scene he changed his bloodstained shirt for one of his victim’s, grabbed 16 shillings from the till and threw his own shirt over a nearby wall.
He then went to the Tardy Gate Inn which was just 250 yards from the crime scene where he was seen by his two brothers, one of whom noticed blood on his jacket.
Kay stood for trial on June 21 and the hearing lasted just 10 minutes. He was sentenced to life imprisonment after pleading guilty to the murder.
The court heard that on March 6 Kay had been drinking at the Conservative Club, in Brownedge Road, Bamber Bridge, and left around 5.30pm, “probably somewhat worse the wear for drink”.
In sentencing Kay, Mr Justice Cantley said: “Kay was sufficiently sober to steal himself a shirt, because his was bloodstained, and leave the man he had killed lying on the floor strangled.
“According to his statement, he decided to take money out of the till, there was only 16 shillings in it, but he was satisfied with that.”
Kay spent almost 40 years in prison before being released in October 2006.
He died two years later, aged 72, and was thought to have lived the life of a recluse, only going out to buy alcohol, an inquest in Doncaster was told. The body of Kay was found at his bedsit in Baxter Avenue, Wheatley, Doncaster, by landlord Jack Walton after he became concerned at not having seen him for more than two days. Police were called and found his body still wrapped in bed covers lying on the floor, looking as though he had rolled from the bed on to the floor, said PC Andy Thorpe.
PC Thorpe said Kay was known to be a heavy drinker and the flat was “very dirty and smelly” with overflowing ashtrays and no sign of having been cleaned “for some time”.
Kay told police: “I killed Brian Sowerbutts, I don’t know why I did it.
“I didn’t go to the shop to kill him, I only went to ask him would he not tell about the collecting box as he had seen me breaking it open on Thursday.
“I had been to the police station over it twice since then.
“The more I drunk, the more worried I was about trouble. Brian came in from the back. I told him the police had me in twice over the collecting box but he said he would tell.
“He walked past the door and grabbed him and pulled him down. It was dark. There were no lights. While he was down there was a bag of coal behind the door and I grabbed it and started hitting him with it ion the head and all over the place.
“He tried to run into the back of the shop but tripped and hit his head on the doorway and I grabbed him and dragged him back.
“He was not moving. I don’t know what I did after tat but I knew he was dead. I killed him. I felt his heart had stopped
“When I switched on the lights I saw I had blood on my suit and shirt. I had only 10s in my pocket. After I killed him I decided to take money out of the till. There was only 16s but I was satisfied with that.
“Before I left I thought I would try to get some blood off my suit with turpentine. I went into the shop and took down a bottle from the shelf but then I thought it wouldn’t remove the stains.
“I don’t remember much about the evening. I must have got home about 9.30pm. I told the wife what I had done but she wouldn’t believe me.
“I do not know what to say about it all, except that when I went to the shop I did not intend to kill him.
“But when I knew he would tell the police I had to stop him somehow, and this was the only way to do it.
“I never intended to kill him, I only went to ask him not to tell the police.”