On JANUARY 31st, 1942, the sound of a shot was heard coming from the attic of a house in Bristol. Moments later a soldier came downstairs and asked a woman to fetch a doctor as he had accidentally shot his wife.
Frederick James Austin, 28, was serving in the Royal Army Service Corps. When he was posted to Bristol his wife Lilian had joined him there, finding work as a railway porter and setting up home for them in the attic. Austin had subsequently moved to Godalming in Surrey with his unit, and he was at home on embarkation leave at the time of the shooting.
He told the police his rifle had gone off while he was cleaning it. He had forgotten that it was loaded, he said, and couldnt explain how he had come to fire it.
Detectives were suspicious. The trajectory of the bullet which had ploughed through Lilian Austins heart indicated that it had been fired from the shoulder. Furthermore, Austin had earlier served for eight years in the Essex Regiment, and it was unlikely that such an experienced soldier would accidentally discharge a rifle while cleaning it.
But if Austin had shot his wife intentionally, what was his motive? On searching the attic the investigators found a love-letter from a girlfriend.
Questioned about it, Austin said the girl was single and he had met her in Godalming. He had written to his wife, saying he loved the girl and wanted a divorce so he would be free to marry her. Then he had written home again, saying it was all a mistake and asking his wife to burn his previous letter. The girl had ended the relationship on learning that he was married. He had kept one of her letters, however, refusing to destroy it when his wife found it during his Christmas leave.
He said that he and Lilian were happy enough in the first few days of his embarkation leave, but on January 28th she found the offending letter again and there was a quarrel. He threatened her with his loaded rifle and she promised to say no more about the letter. Then on January 31st she suddenly raised the matter again while he was cleaning his rifle, and he was continuing to clean it when it went off.
Charged with his wifes murder, he was tried at Winchester Assizes a month later. He told the court that hed had no intention of hurting his wife and couldnt explain what had happened.
After hearing evidence of the bullets trajectory and Austins infantry service, the jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to death. His appeal was dismissed, and he went to the scaffold unaware that the girl in Godalming was now married.