Many thought that 21-year-old Robert Hoolhouse’s guilt had not been proved, and an acquittal was expected. But a jury convicted him of the murder of Mrs. Margaret Dobson, 67, a farmer’s wife whose raped and stabbed body was found beside a cart track near her home.
On JANUARY 18th, 1938, she had set off along the track from the farm to go shopping in the village of Wolviston, County Durham. She failed to come home, and when her corpse was discovered the next day suspicion fell on Hoolhouse. He was thought to have a motive because five years earlier he and his parents had been evicted from their rented cottage on the Dobsons’ land and ordered not to go to the farm again.
Hoolhouse had scratches on his face and blood on his clothes when he was arrested, and the prosecution claimed he had cycled along the track to seek work at the farm. It was suggested that Mrs. Dobson stopped him, telling him to leave; he lost his temper, raped her to humiliate her and then killed her. But this was surmise.
Hoolhouse was known to have spoken of finding work with men engaged in threshing at the farm, but he said he had cycled to Wolviston to see his girlfriend on the afternoon in question. This was found to be true, but his alibi didn’t cover the whole time-frame of the murder. Furthermore, a man with a bicycle had been seen on the cart track in the early evening darkness, and that was enough for the jury.
A petition for a reprieve was signed by 14,000, but Hoolhouse was hanged at Durham Prison on May 26th.