The Killing of Julia Wallace

An Impossible Murder

Did William Herbert Wallace stage an elaborate locked door mystery in order to murder his wife Julia?

William Herbert Wallace was a buttoned up insurance salesman for the Prudential
William Herbert Wallace was a buttoned up insurance salesman for the Prudential

As far as the American mystery writer Raymond Chandler was concerned, one baffling true crime beat anything he could ever have dreamt up. That case was the murder of Julia Wallace, the locked room mystery by which he judged all others.

Other great literary purveyors of murder, like P.D. James and Dorothy L Sayers, found the strange 1931 death of the Liverpool housewife just as baffling. But for all the mystery surrounding the circumstances of the crime, it is perhaps chief suspect William Herbert Wallace that remains the biggest conundrum of all.

The 52-year-old insurance salesman seemed strangely agitated as he rode the tram to his destination that dark winter evening on January 20th 1931. Wallace was looking for an address he had never heard of before and, whether deliberately or not, his behaviour was ensuring he would be remembered.

William Herbert Wallace, the unknowable insurance salesman
William Herbert Wallace, the unknowable insurance salesman

The tram's conductor recalled how Wallace repeatedly pestered him and his ticket inspector to alert him where to get off. When he eventually pointed Wallace to the correct stop, he seemed particularly keen to impart to the conductor - "I am a complete stranger around here".

On alighting, Wallace struggled to find the house he was seeking. Did 25 Menlove Gardens East even exist? Was he on a wild goose chase? If the suspicion had entered Wallace's thoughts, he had good reason considering the unusual way the appointment had been made.

A local cafe where he attended a chess club had received a call for him by phone the previous night, January 19th, the caller giving his name as R. M. Qualtrough. Although Wallace only attended the chess club sporadically, the caller appeared to know he would be there that night and left a message for him with chess club captain Samuel Beattie, asking to meet regarding insurance business.

Wallace had never heard of Qualtrough and had never received an unsolicited call like this at his chess club before. But 1931 was straitened times for depression-era Britain and he elected to keep the appointment, scenting there may be some valuable commission in it for him. The message directed Wallace to meet Qualtrough at 25 Menlove Gardens East the following night at 7:30pm.

And here he was, lost in the Liverpool night trying to find an address that seemed not to exist. He had asked the tram conductors, he had stopped people in the street, he had consulted street directories in newsagents, he even stopped a policeman and recounted to him the whole strange saga.

The call was received at the cafe were Wallace sometimes played chess
The call was received at the cafe were Wallace sometimes played chess

On each occasion, Wallace had made a particular show of mentioning what time he was due to meet this Qualtrough. Was this a cunning murderer attempt to lay himself a watertight alibi, as some believe, or a flustered insurance salesman failing to make an appointment on time?

It turns out there are lots of Menlove Gardens in Liverpool - North, South, and West. East, however, remains conspicuous by its absence, a fact that was no doubt the subject of local jokes. Whoever had made that call appeared to be pulling Wallace's leg, sending him on a fruitless search for a fictional address.

Was this merely a strange prank or something more sinister? As the 7:30pm appointment evaporated into the night, and with no sign of his destination, Wallace eventually gave up and decided to return home.

It was around 8:45pm when John and Florence Johnston, Wallace's next door neighbours, saw him outside of his house at 29 Wolverton Street. He was looking perturbed, telling them both the front and back door were locked and would not open. Seemingly concerned, he asked the couple - "Have you heard anything unusual tonight?"

The backdoor where Wallace
The backdoor where Wallace's neighbours observed him struggling with the lock

The neighbours followed Wallace back to the rear of his house and watched on as he tried the back door lock one more time. Oddly, this time it worked and Wallace entered the house. As the Johnstons waited outside, Wallace lit a lamp and moved carefully around the house. A few moments later he stepped back outside and said flatly - "Oh come and see, she's been killed".

To the Johnston's horror, Julia Wallace was laid out in front of the gas fire in the front room, violently battered to death, blood splatter splashed across the walls. "They've finished her, look at her brains", a ghostly pale Wallace muttered.

Back in the kitchen, Wallace noticed the locked cupboard where he kept his insurance collection money had been wrenched open and the four pounds inside had been stolen. Was this a robbery that had turned to murder? If so it looked a targeted one, the house had not been ransacked and nothing else had been taken, including the money from Julia's handbag which rested on the kitchen table.

At this point John Johnston took charge, ordering his wife and Wallace to stay in the house and touch nothing whilst he fetched the police and a doctor, the latter clearly a futile gesture considering the grisly state of Julia's body in the room next door.

Police photograph of Julia Wallace
Police photograph of Julia Wallace's battered corpse. But who was the culprit?

Twenty-five minutes later the first of a cavalcade of officers from the Merseyside Police arrived at the Wallace home. It's fair to say their handling of the case over the next few days left much to be desired; the force had been seriously weakened by a major strike in 1919 that had led half of its staff to be dismissed, those remaining often filling in roles they were not properly qualified or experienced for.

The first officers on the scene, PC Fred Williams and Police Sergeant Breslin, made a cursory search of the property. It looked like someone had briefly rifled around in the bedroom, but the rest of the house appeared undisturbed. The officers made one important observation - underneath Julia's body was a partially burnt Macintosh coat. Had this belonged to the killer or was Julia wearing it when she was attacked?

During the next hour, a pressman from the Liverpool Daily Post arrived to do double duty as the police photographer, and John Edward Whitly MacFall, a lecturer of Forensic Medicine at Liverpool University called to act as the police's forensics expert. MacFall's role would prove to be the most contentious, with many commentators feeling he bungled the chance to gather the most vital piece of evidence - the time of death.

Even in 1931, using the cadaver's rigor mortis alone to determine how long someone had been dead was out of date. But that's exactly what MacFall did, stating his opinion that Julia had died at about 8pm, 45 minutes before Wallace returned home, based on the body's stiffness. MacFall would later change his mind on the time of death, despite no other tests been conducted.

A more detailed examination of the body revealed that Julia had been beaten severely about the head with a blunt object, the most severe blows occurring around the left ear were brain tissue could be seen protruding from the skull. The fatal blows were probably inflicted whilst she lay face down on the floor in front of the fire. Police believed she must have brushed the fire as she fell due to the singeing of her dress and the partial burning of the Macintosh coat.

A small clot of blood was found on the toilet but proved to be inconclusive
A small clot of blood was found on the toilet but proved to be inconclusive

Detective Superintendent Hubert Rory Moore arrived next, slightly the worse for wear after an evening in the pub. Like any good policeman, drunk or not, Moore had his eye on Wallace himself as the likely suspect. But there was also the possibility that the crime was the work of the Anfield Housebreaker, a burglar that had plagued the local area in the previous months. Perhaps one of his robberies had resulted in fatal consequences for Julia Wallace?

Whoever the culprit, so frenzied was the attack that it was obvious they must have been covered in blood. Splatter had sprayed around the whole room, blood drizzling the walls seven feet high. An examination of the house's drains and sinks revealed they had not been used that evening, so the assailant must have fled the property drenched in his victims blood.

A more thorough search of the house, yard and surrounding area could uncover no trace of a murder weapon. The Wallace's cleaner would tell police a thin metal fire poker and an iron bar from the parlor were missing. Was one of these the murder weapon?

Meanwhile, a subdued Wallace sat in his kitchen and calmly explained to Hubert Moore and the other detectives the strange circumstances of his evening, how he had been lured on a wild goose chase around Menlove Gardens by the chess club phone call from R. M Qualtrough. Around midnight he was taken to the police station to make a formal statement, stating - "I have no suspicion of anyone".

The Wallace
The Wallace's house on Wolveton Street in Anfield, Liverpool

In the following days, police began to develop some contradictory evidence regarding Wallace's involvement in his wife's death. A switchboard supervisor at the Liverpool telephone exchange had narrowed the call to the chess club to a phone booth just 400 yards from Wallace's house in Wolverton Street.

Tellingly, this booth was adjacent to where Wallace had caught the tram to his chess club the night before the murder. And it was shortly before he had arrived at the chess club that the telephone message had been received. To police, this looked like too much of a coincidence; had Wallace placed the call himself in order to provide himself with an alibi for the murder?

The suspicions against Wallace appeared to be crystallising. He and his wife were, by all accounts, a strange couple; he was frequently ill with kidney troubles and she was described by their few friends as fastidious and peculiar. A former friend characterized their marriage as strained and lacking in feeling. Had Wallace finally snapped and decided to rid himself of his difficult wife?

Police had also noted Wallace's strange demeanor, especially how he had made such a fuss on the tram and around Menlove Gardens, and the number of people had had stopped and asked for directions.

The enigmatic R. M. Qualtrough phoned from a telephone box near to Wallace
The enigmatic R. M. Qualtrough phoned from a telephone box near to Wallace's house

From the Johnstons they discovered the curious business with the locks shortly before the body had been discovered, and how they had magically opened once they were present. Was Wallace ensuring that he would have witnesses when the body was discovered?

Despite Wallace becoming the prime suspect, the reconstruction of the times surrounding the murder looked to be exculpatory for him. He was firmly placed on the tram to Menlove Gardens at 7:06pm, and several witnesses had come forward to state they had seen Julia alive between 6:30pm and 6:45pm. This would only have given Wallace a window of around fifteen minutes to kill his wife, clean himself up, change his clothes and go catch his tram.

It looked extremely unlikely Wallace could have done it in time. Police did try to increase the window of opportunity he might have had by staging a reenactment with a young officer sprinting from Wolverton Street to the tram stop, but it was obvious the ailing 52-year old insurance salesman was not capable of such a feat.

Whoever Qualtrough was, and whatever the purpose of the call, it had succeeded in providing Wallace with an almost cast iron alibi. The problem was, it didn't look like anyone else could have committed the crime either. No weapon, no suspects, no witnesses and the body found in a locked house; whoever had killed Julia appeared to have pulled off the perfect crime.

William Herbert Wallace walks out of the appeal court a free man
William Herbert Wallace walks out of the appeal court a free man

It's no wonder the great mystery writers were so enamoured with the case, it would have made a classic story by the likes of Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers. The aforementioned Raymond Chandler said of it - "The Wallace case is the nonpareil of all murder mysteries...I call it the impossible murder because Wallace couldn’t have done it, and neither could anyone else."

Despite the paucity of solid evidence in the case, the police charged Wallace with the murder. At his short, four-day trial in April 1931, the prosecution tried to argue that the accused had committed the murder naked save for the Macintosh found beneath Julia's body, a salacious theory that made a particular impression in the court-room. The defense countered with the timings that seemed to be exculpatory for Wallace.

The defendant himself cut a lonely, impassive figure throughout, rarely showing any emotion. When called to the stand he spoke nervously but calmy, refusing to become flustered by the often aggressive questioning of the prosecution.

Some thought Wallace's demeanor was what sealed his fate with the jury, rather than the evidence. His round rimmed glasses, reminiscent of Dr. Crippen, probably didn't help either. Despite a feeling by most observers in the courtroom that the prosecution had failed to make their case, and despite the judge summing up favourably towards the defense, the jurors returned in just a few hours with a unanimous verdict - "Guilty".

I am not guilty. I cannot say anything else.

"You, William Herbert Wallace, have been convicted of murder upon the verdict of the jury.", the court clerk announced. "Have you anything to say why sentence of death should not be passed upon you according to law?" Wallace simply replied - "I am not guilty. I cannot say anything else".

Judge Robert Alderson Wright donned the customary black cap, perhaps somewhat reluctantly, and sentenced Wallace to the mandatory sentence of death by hanging. There was little waiting on ceremony in 1930s England, and the provisional execution date, barring appeals, was penned in for just a months time in May 1931. That appeal, however, saved Wallace's life.

Sensational coverage in the press suggested Wallace had gotten away with murder
Sensational coverage in the press suggested Wallace had gotten away with murder

The following month at the Court of Criminal Appeal in London, Justice Gordon Hewart made the unprecedented move of overturning the guilty verdict. The case against Wallace was not - "proved with that certainty which is necessary in order to justify a verdict of guilty", he said. "The result is that this appeal will be allowed and this conviction quashed". Wallace walked out of the courtroom a free man.

The press, of course, delighted in the whole thing. Lurid headlines surrounded the case from beginning to end. Wallace was painted as an occultist, a philander and most of all an intellectual, chess playing mastermind - "The chess player they couldn't checkmate", as one newspaper put it.

Straight from the pages of fiction, Wallace had impeccably plotted a fiendish murder that both outwitted the police and generations of armchair mystery solvers. But if Wallace really was a criminal genius, he did not have long to savour his victory.

The Wallace murder had no key-move and ended, in fact, in stalemate

Seemingly diminished by the ordeal of his wife's death, the trial and the accusations in the press, Wallace moved away to a quiet bungalow in the Wirral. Suffering a recurrence of his old kidney troubles, he fell ill at Christmas 1932 and died in February 1933. If the mild-manner insurance salesman had any dark secrets he had taken them to his grave.

Renowned mystery novelist Dorothy L. Sayers became fixated on the Wallace case
Renowned mystery novelist Dorothy L. Sayers became fixated on the Wallace case

Since Wallace's death, the case has become one of the most debated in criminal history. Dozens of books have been written advocating various theories, some centered on Wallace's guilt, others on his innocence. But the case remains stubbornly unsolved, as Dorothy L. Sayers put it - "The Wallace murder had no key-move and ended, in fact, in stalemate."

Did William Herbert Wallace pull off the perfect crime and get away with murdering his wife?

Evidence For


If there's one thing reasonably clear in this most opaque and baffling of cases, it's that the murder was not the result of a simple robbery that went wrong, ending with the tragic unintended murder of Julia Wallace.

Whilst William Herbert Wallace told police that four pounds was missing from his insurance collection tin, we only have his word for that. If this money was taken during the murder, then the burglar inexplicably replaced the lid and put the tin back where he had found it.

Aside from a small sum of money, nothing else in the house was taken
Aside from a small sum of money, nothing else in the house was taken

More troubling, the putative burglar failed to take anything else. Julia Wallace's handbag, a classic honeypot for any genuine burglar, was resting on the kitchen table next to where Wallace says the insurance money was taken. The handbag contained money and silver, yet the burglar ignored it.

The fact there was no sign of a break-in and the murderer calmly left and locked the doors behind him all but rules out an opportunistic burglar like the Anfield Housebreaker. And no such robber would have had a key or have been allowed entry by Julia Wallace, who was paranoid about strangers.

Some theorists have suggested the Qualtrough call was an attempt to lure Wallace away from the house so they could steal his insurance money, but this does not stack up as a very credible plan. Whilst it's true the chess club met in a public cafe and its schedule was pinned up on the noticeboard, nobody could have sensibly planned a robbery based on it.

The chess game schedule did show Wallace was due to play a match on the evening of the Qualtrough phone call, but it also showed that he had been scheduled to play several games in the previous month and had not turned up to them. The chess club met twice a week but by January 19th Wallace had not played since November 10th, missing numerous matches in the process.

Only one person in the world knew if Wallace would have turned up for his chess match on January 19th and thus receive the diversionary message from R. M. Qualtrough, and that was William Herbert Wallace himself. And if another culprit was somehow aware of this why did they simply not commit the crime on the 19th when they could be assured Wallace would be out all evening?

The chess club
The chess club's schedule showing Wallace's matches was visible on the cafe's noticeboard

If not robbery, then who else would have had motive to murder Julia than her husband? By 1931, Wallace's wife was an elderly woman, who lead quite a sheltered life and had few family or friends. Nobody has ever managed to come up with anybody who would have had a credible motive for Julia's murder beyond her husband and age-old domestic strife behind countless other spousal killings.

That it was personal is evidenced by the degree of overkill, a classic sign of a crime of passion. A burglar would have no cause to batter Julia around the head so ferociously and for so long; eleven blows in all. It was only really Wallace who knew her well enough to have developed such an antipathy.

However, he had an alibi for the evening Julia was killed. Although to many, it seemed a bit too good to be true.

A Conspicuous Alibi

Central to the case against Wallace is his contrived and strange alibi for the evening of the murder. Normally not the most garrulous of men, during his hour or so sojourn to the nonexistent address in Menlove Gardens, Wallace stopped and discussed his prospective meeting with at least a dozen strangers.

Wallace says he left his house on Wolverton Street at around 6:45pm and caught the number five tram at 7:06pm. Both the conductor Thomas Charles Phillips and ticket inspector Edward Angus recalled how a visibly anxious Wallace repeatedly engaged them in conversation about exactly what route he should take in order to make his appointment at Menlove Gardens East. Both informed their passenger that they were not aware of such an address, but advised him which tram he should take next.

Wallace was acting conspicuously on the tram
Wallace was acting conspicuously on the tram

As an insurance salesman and collections agent, it was Wallace's job to travel around Liverpool and he knew the city well. He would often make hundreds of collections in a given week, either by foot or by travelling on the tram and bus network. And he knew the surrounding area of Menlove Gardens quite well, his friend and occasional violin tutor Joseph Crewe lived nearby, indeed Crewe told Police that Wallace had visited his home on many occasions.

In light of what Crewe told police, it did not make much sense that Wallace would need to repeatedly pester the conductor about which route to take. Was his conspicuous questioning on the tram actually Wallace's attempts to establish a timed alibi for his whereabouts during the murder? According to Thomas Phillips, Wallace did not even take his advice anyway, seemingly knowing exactly where he was going.

On alighting the tram Wallace talked to at least four local residents, a woman he stopped in the street, a man at a tram shelter, a young man named Sydney Hubert Green and Katie Ellen Mather who lived at 25 Menlove Gardens West. None of them had heard of Menlove Gardens East, and North and South didn't even have a 25.

Wallace claimed in later statements that it was now it had dawned on him that he was on Green Lane, where his friend Joseph Crewe lived. He called at Crewe's house but he was not home, he and his wife had gone to the cinema. Was it Wallace's intention all along to stop at Crewe's house, ensure the time was noted and thus give himself an unimpeachable alibi?

But with Crewe not there, Wallace next stopped PC James Edward Serjeant, leaving the Allerton Road Station at the top of Green Lane. Despite confirming to Wallace that there was no Menlove Gardens East, the naturally reticent Wallace became strangely lugubrious, volunteering the entire tale of the Qualtrough phone call and his wild goose chase around Allerton.

There was a Menlove Gardens North, South and West, but not East
There was a Menlove Gardens North, South and West, but not East

The most important thing Wallace discussed with Serjeant was the time - "It's not quite eight o'clock", he said. "No, its quarter too", replied Serjeant. What better alibi than a policeman? And just as had done with all those he spoke to that evening, he had fixed the time of their encounter.

He wasn't quite done. He ventured into a nearby post office and newsagents and spoke to several more people about his appointment. The newsagents even checked their account books for any Qualtroughs in the area but to no avail. Wallace says at this point he gave up and elected to return home.

There, we have the curious business with the door locks. His neighbours the Johnstons were alerted to Wallace's predicament by the sound of him knocking on the back door to no answer. "I have tried both the back and the front doors, and they are both locked against me", he told them. But with the Johnstons watching on, the backdoor to the kitchen then unlocked with little effort.

Some believe this to be a theatrical performance on the part of Wallace, designed to ensure he would have his next door neighbours the Johnstons as witnesses as he entered the house and discovered Julia's body.

It's certainly hard to reconcile with his innocence, even if his struggle to open the doors could be explained by old and rusty locks, as the defense maintained at the trial, it does not explain either why he appeared to be so confounded by locks he used dozens of times a day or how the true assailant had entered the property without any sign of force and then locked the doors when they left.

As for the mysterious Qualtrough, police searched Liverpool and found five people of that name, but all denied making the call. Naturally since the call was almost certainly part of a criminal plot, nobody would use their real name to make it.

Wallace was painted as a criminal mastermind in the press
Wallace was painted as a criminal mastermind in the press

Police believed it was Wallace himself who had made the call. He had the opportunity, the phone booth was next to the stop he had caught his tram to the chess club meet the night before Julia's murder and the timing of the call is not contradicted by his known movements. It also acted as an excellent alibi for him, ensuring he was away from the murder scene on the evening his wife was killed.

Whether he could have adopted a gruff voice sufficient to fool his acquaintance, chess club captain Samuel Beattie, is far more debatable. It would be a risky move and if Beattie was to see through the subterfuge, Wallace would have had some serious explaining to do. But as with everything in this case, certainties are hard to come by.

The acting pathologist John MacFall had now revised his time down from 8pm to 6pm, a time which helped neither side as it was long before Julia had been seen alive by numerous witnesses. With the uncertainty about the time of her death, this gave Wallace a very slim but not impossible chance to have killed Julia either before or after his journey to Menlove Gardens.

However, he would have had to tidy himself up and change his clothes afterwards, due to the amount of blood splatter caused by the ferocious attack on Julia. It seems very improbable Wallace could have had the time to do this, however you move the puzzle pieces. Could he have had an accomplice?

The Accomplice

Some students of the Wallace case believe he did not commit the killing himself but hired somebody else to do it for him. If correct, this would make many of the objections to Wallace's guilt based on the timings of the murder go away. And there is some evidence that points in this direction.

In Wallace's police statements, he states that he returned straight home after giving up on his appointment with Qualtrough and did not talk to another person again. This was contradicted by twenty-year-old typist Lillian Hall who says she saw him at around 8:35pm talking to another man on Richmond Road, close to Wolverton Street. Hall had known the distinctively tall and angular looking Wallace by sight for years; she was friends with his next door neighbour's son.

Was this man an accomplice, the man who actually murdered Julia whilst Wallace was establishing his alibi? If this encounter was simply an innocent exchange with a friend or a stranger, Wallace would clearly have no reason to deny it and cast the glare of suspicion on himself.

An encounter at this all night garage may hold the key to the whole case
An encounter at this all night garage may hold the key to the whole case

The accomplice theory would resolve some of the most perplexing evidence in the case. If Wallace had supplied them with a key, it would explain how the killer had managed to enter the house without force and leave by locking the doors. And if Wallace had told him what day he would be attending the chess club, the accomplice could have posed as the mystery Mr. Qualtrough and placed the call to set up an alibi for him.

If Wallace had somehow procured the services of a professional hitman, we will probably never know his identity. But in recent years, some investigators into the Wallace case have suggested a possible suspect in the murder named Richard Gordon Parry. Parry was a young motoring enthusiast and occasional amateur actor with a string of petty crimes to his name.

At about 1am the morning after the murder, Parry drove into Atkinson's all night garage in Allerton. Garage attendant John Parkes knew Parry from boyhood and was alarmed at how agitated he seemed.

Parry told Parkes to wash his car down with the high powered water hose. Parkes, who had always been somewhat afraid of Parry, did what he was told. There was an unspoken sense of menace about the encounter and Parry knew he was doing something wrong, but did not say anything.

The Wallace
The Wallace's kitchen were he kept his Prudential insurance money

Inside the car, Parkes found a bloody glove, prompting the watching Parry to say - "If the police got that, they would hang me!" He then proceeded to tell Parkes a confused story about disposing of an iron bar down a drain on Priory Road. When Parkes had finished washing the car, Parry paid him five shillings and promptly drove off.

The clearly looks extremely suspicious, but there is a problem. Parkes did not mention this incident until 1981, when he told it to author Roger Wilkes for his radio documentary "Who Killed Julia?" Parkes claimed he did not tell anyone at the time both because he did not want to be involved and because he was afraid Parry may retaliate. With Parry's death in 1980 Parkes says he thought it finally time to tell the truth.

Parry is particularly interesting because Wallace and his wife both knew him well. A few years before the murder, he had worked alongside Wallace at the Prudential insurance company and would frequently fill in for him during his many illnesses. Parry had been in the Wallace's house on countless occasions to pay takings from the rounds, had drunk tea with the couple and even struck up a friendship with Julia.

If Wallace really had paid someone to kill his wife, then Parry is an obvious candidate. Julia Wallace was extremely paranoid about strangers and would never let anybody in the house she did not know. Had she answered the door to Parry that night and invited him in as a friend? Or had Wallace provided Parry with a key to the house which he returned after the deed during the meeting observed by Lillian Hall?

Julia Wallace circa 1900. Did she know her killer?
Julia Wallace circa 1900. Did she know her killer?

There are some problems with the theory. Parry was a Jack the lad type who spent a lot of money; he owned an expensive car, a rarity for a man his age in 1930s Britain. But there is no evidence of him coming into a large sum of money, or that Wallace had the means to pay it.

William Herbert Wallace himself also suggested Parry as a possible suspect during his police interviews, listing him as one of a handful of people Julia Wallace would have let in her house. It seems unlikely he would have done this if the pair had plotted the murder together. Police also investigated Parry at the time and concluded he had a strong enough alibi to be discounted.

A Fatal Coincidence

Famed crime writer P.D. James caused a stir in 2013 when she claimed to have done something that had eluded so many of her illustrious predecessors; she had solved the notoriously unsolvable Wallace case.

James's theory revolved around an audacious premise - what if the Qualtrough phone call and the murder were entirely unrelated? A fatal coincidence that has confounded and confused everyone who has studied the case for more than eighty years?

PD James believed Wallace murdered his wife but the phone call was a coincidence
PD James believed Wallace murdered his wife but the phone call was a coincidence

"No rational person could possibly believe the coincidence that Wallace had decided to murder his wife on the same evening that a prankster had conveniently lured him from home and provided him with an alibi", James set out in a Sunday Times article on the case.

James details how she believes Wallace committed the murder but that old Prudential Insurance co-worker Richard Gordon Parry made the call as a malicious prank. Parry had a reputation for dipping his fingers into the till, and it was thought he had syphoned off some of the collections money during his time working alongside Wallace at the Prudential.

Wallace may have informed his superiors about Parry's stealing, leading him to be quietly dismissed from the firm. To get back at Wallace, Parry made the call to send the ailing 52-year old on a wild goose chase around Liverpool on a cold winters night. The prank was in character for the young man, garage attendant John Parkes had previously stated how Parry was prone to calling strangers and adopting funny voices for a joke.

As the author of countless fictional murder mysteries, PD James then applies a bit of lateral thinking. If Wallace was already planning to murder his wife, could he have used the happenstance of the Qualtrough call to provide himself with an alibi? Whether genuine or not, he could exploit the call to prove he was elsewhere when the crime was committed.

James' theory is compelling to a point but falls down by relying on some of the unlikely ideas the prosecution used in the 1931 trial. In order to explain the witnesses who say they saw Julia alive and well between 6:30-6:45pm, James says Wallace may have dressed up in his wife's clothes to fool them.

Wallace was a boney, 6ft 2in tall middle-aged man with a moustache. Unless wearing a thick veil, it's hard to see how anybody could have been fooled into thinking he was a 5ft 3in, plump, elderly lady like Julia.

Evidence Against

A Question of Time

At the 1931 murder trial, the defense centered their case around whether William Herbert Wallace would have had enough time to commit the crime. The police's reconstruction of his movements had firmly placed him boarding the number five tram at Smithdown Lane at 7:06pm, with both the tram's conductor and ticket collector attesting to Wallace's presence.

Witnesses in Wolverton Street saw Julia Wallace alive at around 6:45pm
Witnesses in Wolverton Street saw Julia Wallace alive at around 6:45pm

Working backwards from there, Wallace had to have left his home on Wolverton Street no later than 6:50pm. The day after the murder, a sixteen-year-old milk delivery boy came forward to say he delivered milk to number 29 Wolverton Street that evening, around 6:45pm, and even briefly talked to Julia Wallace about their respective colds.

Close's story was seemingly confirmed by paperboy James Wildman, who glanced up at the clock on the nearby Holy Trinity Church as he made his way to Wolverton Street on his usual rounds. It was just after 6:35pm. A couple of minutes later, whilst delivering a paper to number 27, Wildman saw Alan Close at the Wallace house.

The two separate witness statements tally together, and one of them is backed up by the timing of a nearby church clock. Even the most generous of readings based on these witnesses gave Wallace only about 10 minutes to have beaten Julia to death, to have tidied himself up and change his clothes, to have hidden the murder weapon and to have locked up and left for his tram.

The police did their best to try and expand the time window Wallace had to murder his wife. They got Alan Close to reconstruct his milk round and concluded he could have reached the Wallace's house as early as 6:31pm, despite the paperboys testimony. This, they said, meant Wallace had as much as twenty minutes to act out his grim business and leave for his rendezvous with Qualtrough.

The last sighting of Julia Wallace was fixed by this church clock (credit: Rept0n1x)
The last sighting of Julia Wallace was fixed by this church clock (credit: Rept0n1x)

This tendentious argument may have been enough to convince a jury already predisposed against Wallace to send him to the gallows. But the cooler heads of the appeal court quickly overturned their verdict and Wallace walked free.

Despite dozens of books and endless debate, the simple fact that William Herbert Wallace did not seem to have enough time to kill his wife remains the strongest reason to believe he did not.


Noted crime writer Edgar Lustgarten said of the Wallace case - "Any set of circumstances that is extracted from it will readily support two incompatible hypotheses; they will be equally consistent with innocence and guilt. It is pre-eminently the case where everything is cancelled out by something else."

Richard Gordon Parry
Richard Gordon Parry's arrest photos for an unrelated crime in 1934

Lustgarten astutely sums up the case against Richard Gordon Parry. All of the arguments used against Parry by those who believe Wallace was involved equally apply if Parry acted alone or with his own accomplice.

Parry's name had been alluded to by numerous writers on the case since 1931, and even William Herbert Wallace himself mentioned him as a possible suspect in his police interviews. Author Jonathan Goodman built his classic 1969 book The Killing of Julia Wallace around Parry, who he named only as "Mr. X" for legal reasons.

In 1981, a year after Parry died, Roger Wilkes' radio documentary was the first to publicly name him as the possible real culprit in the murder of Julia Wallace, based on the testimony of garage attendant John Parkes who says Parry all but confessed to him on the night of the murder.

The evidence can be stacked up against Parry quite convincingly. He was a flash young man who had an expensive car and a lifestyle beyond his means. He had worked with Wallace a few years earlier at the prudential and knew the Wallaces and their home well. Crucially, he was also aware that Wallace kept often large sums of insurance collection money in the house.

It was when Parry was filling in for his insurance rounds that William Herbert Wallace first noticed money was missing from his ledger. Parry had been dipping into the takings and would do so on other occasions during the next year. Although not sacked as some authors have alleged, Wallace did inform his superintendent Joseph Crewe about the thefts and this probably lead to a mutual agreement with Parry and his father for him to discreetly leave the firm in late 1929.

Most authors who promote the Parry theory believe the young man, perpetually short of money and with a string of petty criminal offenses to his name, decided to rob Wallace for his Prudential insurance takings. Some authors promote a variation on this theory where Parry himself had an accomplice, another former Prudential employee called Richard Marsden.

Parry frequented the Cottle cafe, where he was an occasional player in an amateur dramatics group that rehearsed there. The Cottle cafe was also where Wallace's chess club met, and where the chess match schedule showing he was due to play on the 19th of January was pinned to the notice board for all to see.

Parry may have seen the chess schedule at the Cottle cafe
Parry may have seen the chess schedule at the Cottle cafe

According to John Parkes, Parry had a facility with affecting voices, and would often make prank calls to people. If Wallace himself had not posed as R.M. Qualtrough and made the hoax call to the chess club, then clearly Parry looks like a prime candidate.

Most Parry advocates theorize he made the phone call to lure Wallace away from his house. Using his car he could have parked on a street and surveilled Wallace, waiting for him to leave his house so either he or an accomplice could call round to commit the burglary.

Exactly how they gained entrance, and exactly what transpired inside to leave Julia's battered body laying dead in the front parlour, is unknown. Both Parry and proposed accomplice Marsden were known to Julia, so it's possible she let them in voluntarily, one distracting her as the other rifled through the kitchen for the insurance money. Perhaps Julia realised what had happened and tried to raise the alarm, resulting in her inadvertent killing.

Whatever actually occurred, John Parkes says early the next morning Parry stopped off at his garage and asked him to wash down his car inside and out. Inside was a glove covered in blood. Parry remarked darkly that he would hang if the police found it. Parry mentioned disposing of an iron bar, which the Wallace's maid later reported was missing from the parlour.

If John Parkes' story is true then it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Richard Gordon Parry was directly involved in the murder of Julia Wallace. The exact nature of his involvement or whether it included anybody else is, like most of this baffling case, likely to remain a mystery.

The Johnstons

Most writers on the Wallace case agree that Julia Wallace's killer must either have known her or had a key for 29 Wolverton Street. Two people who fit both criteria are the Wallace's neighbours John and Florence Johnston. The couple were present in the backyard as Wallace struggled to gain entry to his house just before he discovered Julia's body.

John and Florence Johnston in the 1940s
John and Florence Johnston in the 1940s

As was common practice in the 1930s, the Johnstons had a key for their neighbour's house. They would also have been well placed to observe if the Wallaces were at home or not. In a 2001 newspaper article, authors Tom Slemen and Keith Andrews allege that John Johnston was the real murderer of Julia Wallace.

Slemen and Andrews say they tracked down a man who befriended an elderly John Johnston when he was living in an old people's home in the 1960s. Johnston confessed to this man that he killed Julia in an attempt to rob the Wallace's house. He believed Julia had left for Menlove Gardens with Wallace and killed her when she discovered him prowling around in her house.

All the usual caveats about latter-day testimony apply. Johnston was reportedly suffering from senile dementia at the time and may not have fully understood what he was saying. The Johnstons were also never regarded as suspects by the police. They did, however, move out of the area the very next day after the murder, which raised some eyebrows.

The Wallace case is like a jigsaw puzzle where the last piece never fits. No matter how many times we reassemble it, it stubbornly refuses to form a complete image. At the centre of that fragmented picture remains the unknowable figure of William Herbert Wallace; flustered insurance salesman or criminal genius?

It's fitting we leave the last, typically ambiguous words, to Wallace himself. Sydney Scholefield Allen, a junior defense counsel at the trial who went on to become a long-serving British MP, was called to Wallace's side as he lay dying of kidney disease in 1933. "Well we won sonny, didn’t we", he told Allen.