As the family of murdered schoolgirl Elsie Frost raise funds for a fresh inquest, 53 years on, her brother Colin reveals how her killing has affected his life. Laura Drysdale reports.
“For ten to 15 years, I couldn’t have had this conversation without crying,” Colin Frost tells me, as he speaks openly for the first time about the impact the death of his sister Elsie has had on his life and that of his family’s.
“I would have broken down and cried within seconds of starting,” he says.
We are sat overlooking the Bullring in Wakefield, the same city, his hometown, in which Elsie was murdered 53 years ago. Colin was six at the time. The journey he has been on since, to use the old cliche, is something of a rollercoaster ride, likened, he says, to the sharp spikes and sudden troughs of a heart rate monitor in hospital drama Casualty.
It is only recently that he has actually been able to control the emotion, he says. “It’s still there. I can feel it now.”
The life of the Frost family was turned upside down on October 9, 1965.
Fourteen-year-old Elsie was making her way home along a towpath next to the Calder and Hebble Canal in Wakefield after an afternoon with friends at Horbury Lagoon. As she entered a railway tunnel, her attacker struck. Some time later, outside her home, on Manor Haigh Road in Lupset, her brother Colin was playing in the street. Their elder sister Anne had married and left the family house.
“Dad was in bed, he’d been working nights, and mum was doing what she did best and that was watching films on television,” Colin, 59, recalls. “And then I just became aware that there were two people knocking on the door and they had been stood there for a while with no answer.”
He let the two police officers into the house, and standing out of ear shot at the bottom of the stairs, saw one go over to his mother Edith.
“She was sat in a chair looking towards the television. This police officer that went to her clearly told her what had happened and I saw her slump forward and hold her head in her hands.”
Colin, knowing nothing of his sister’s death, was asked to alert his father Arthur, repeating the words the other police officer had said to him.
“I stood at the bottom of dad’s bed and in a quiet child’s voice, I just said ‘Daddy, Elsie has had an accident’. He went from being sound asleep and I remember him jumping up out of bed and rushing past me.”
Much of the next 48 hours draws a blank for Colin, who was taken to stay first with his neighbours and then with his aunt and uncle. On Monday evening, two days later, he watched Elsie’s picture flash up on the 10 o’clock news as Big Ben made its first strike.
“I knew then, even at that age, that something was wrong,” Colin explains. “I have never seen [my uncle] move as fast in my life and the next thing I knew I was scooped up by him and I ended up at the top of the stairs.”
Colin learnt of his sister’s brutal death by a child at school. “I think someone sat in front of me turned around and said ‘you’re the brother of that girl that was murdered’.”
Colin, unsure how he reacted and only able to speculate on why his parents, sedated and full of grief, had not told him themselves, speaks of a switch in demeanour from a “happy-go-lucky chap” to a naughty child.
He flicks through his phone, searching for photos from before and after Elsie’s death, as he tells of the fading of his “nice, bright smile” and visits for two years to see a child psychiatrist.
“Afterwards, I walked with my head down and I sat with my head down,” he says. “I couldn’t actually pick myself up. I couldn’t stand tall... I went from being proud little boy and happy to this very subdued and bent over little chap who was very obviously unhappy.”
Through his teen years, Colin’s unhappiness turned into “a huge amount of anger” before his feelings changed again, making him “really emotional” after having his three children Andrew, Caroline and Jonathan. “My senses were certainly heightened,” he says, reflecting on how growing up without his sister affected his protectiveness as a father. I remember letting the children have the freedom, but being so aware of where they were and what they were doing.”
Colin, who says he struggles to show affection, and his sister Anne Cleave remained quiet about Elsie’s murder, despite her killer never being caught, until the death of their father in 2003. Their mother had passed in 1988.
“We couldn’t talk about it, we just couldn’t talk about Elsie’s death,” Colin says, describing how he shielded his father from any media reports mentioning her name. “My dad reacted to Elsie’s death far worse than my mum and he carried it a lot longer.”
In 2009, Colin, now a civil servant, and Anne set about trying to resurrect Elsie’s unsolved case and get justice for their sister. After writing to then Home Secretary Theresa May and working closely with West Yorkshire Police, the case was reopened after 50 years in 2015. Earlier this year, detectives were preparing to bring charges against convicted rapist and child killer Peter Pickering. His unexpected death in March prompted police to say publicly for the first time that he was the man believed to have murdered Elsie.
“I couldn’t take it on board,” explains Colin, who had regular updates from police throughout the reinvestigation and received a call about Pickering’s death minutes after arriving home from seeing friends run the Wakefield 10k. “It took me several hours to actually understand it. It wasn’t until I started to get contact from journalists in the afternoon that I thought ‘oh Christ this is really bad’.
“I had gone from being on an absolute high in the morning so pleased I had seen my friends compete to in the afternoon being on the deepest of lows. That was a measure of how quickly things changed for us, and that’s only one example,” he adds, referring to the case breakthroughs and the frustration and upset brought with the reinvestigation.
Determined to do everything in their power to try to bring to light the circumstances leading up to their sister’s death, last month Colin and Anne announced plans to lobby the Attorney General for a fresh inquest.
They launched a crowdfunding campaign, which closes on August 30, to try to generate £8,000 to meet the legal costs of the move. Colin and Anne, supported by Wakefield MP Mary Creagh, plan to visit Parliament on the 53rd anniversary of Elsie’s death to hand over the paperwork, officially requesting the Attorney General issues a ‘fiat’, or order, for a new inquest.
Colin says it would give police the chance to put in the public domain the evidence implicating Pickering. It would also, he says, “close the door on the shadow” at the back of Ian Bernard Spencer, who in 1966 was charged with Elsie’s murder but cleared on the orders of the judge who heard the case at trial, due to a lack of evidence. Mr Spencer has since died.
“If it’s a no, we have to accept defeat,” concedes Colin. “It would be closure for the case but not for us or the Spencer family or the people of Wakefield. That would be hard to take.”
“In effect, she was a mum to me,” Colin says, of his relationship with Elsie.
“Mum was working, Anne had left home...that was how caring Elsie was towards me.”
“Tall and slim and really, really gentle” is how he remembers her.
He recalls her teaching him to tie his shoelaces, a skill, thanks to her instructions, that he mastered first time, whilst his sister also accompanied him to Wakefield’s ABC Cinema for the children’s club on a Saturday morning.
“What I remember is that people around her came ahead of her,” says Colin. “She certainly showed that with me.”
To donate to the fundraising campaign, visit www.crowdjustice.com/case/justice-for-elsie-frost/