The Man in the Steel Cylinder
People think of the Blitz as something that happened to London, but cities all over the United Kingdom were subjected to German bombing, the pressure only coming off when the Luftwaffe switched their attention to the newly opened Eastern Front in 1941. Liverpool was one of the victims, and indeed suffered the second most intensive bombing in the country due to its westward-facing port, which was instrumental in the early Battle of the Atlantic.
It was as this time that an area of small streets wedged into the triangular junction of Great Homer Street and what is now the A59 was bombed into non-existence. After the immediate fire-fighting and rescue work were done this zone of destruction lay more-or-less untouched until 1943 when, as a later witness named William Pemberton (who lived just outside the wasted area) testified, a work crew of American soldiers armed with a bulldozer and many shovels had levelled the ground and cleared away the rubble. More to the point of our story, he also testified that he saw them uncover a metal cylinder (later measured as 6’9″ long and 19″ in diameter, or 205 by 48 centimeters) during the course of the operation. While it’s not recorded one imagines there were a few anxious moments until they determined that they’d not come across an unexploded bomb but then, reassured, it was moved off to the side of the cleared area.
Fast forward to July 1945. In the interval the cylinder became a minor part of the neighborhood. It was sometimes used by the locals as an impromptu bench and children climbed over it and rolled it around for a playground amusement. One end of the tube was closed and one had been crimped off by the bulldozer that uncovered it, and that end had re-opened enough for a boy to discover something in it: a skeletal foot.
The boy fetched P.C. Robert Baillie, on patrol on a nearby street, and he called in the detectives to start an investigation. They took the cylinder into their possession and had its 5/32-inch steel cut open by a local welder at the city mortuary, attended by a forensics expert and two coroners. In it was an entire male skeleton, about six feet tall, dressed in clothes of a late Victorian style and with a portion of hair still attached to the skull. A brick wrapped in burlap stood in stead for a pillow. Quite naturally they believed the body to be of a victim of the Blitz—a young man named Flood had never been accounted for at the time—but this was quickly ruled out.
The clothes and other remains strongly suggested that a recent victim should be ruled out anyway. There was a London North Western Railway notice indicating the arrival of goods, dated June 27, 1885 and a postcard from Birmingham dated July 3, 1885. There were two diaries for 1884 and 1885, but unfortunately they were illegible. Some papers were found under the body in a mass of adipocere and after careful restoration they were found to be a receipt and several account sheets for a company named “T.C. Williams & Co.”. There was also a gold signet ring inset with a bloodstone and hallmarked 1859, and seven badly corroded keys. The left side of the skull was damaged, though the coroner would later conclude that this had happened post-mortem—not too surprising if the remains had survived through an aerial bombing and a bulldozer driving over them.
Investigation into Merseyside history showed that there had been a paint manufacturing plant in the area, owned by one Thomas Cregeen Williams during the 1870s and 1880s. It had run into financial trouble and closed in 1884, and Williams then disappeared from the record by 1885. The coroner testified at the inquest into the discovery that he thought the man in the cylinder was perhaps ten years dead, though he allowed that 1885 was within the realm of possibility. Trying to square the more-recent date the police investigated the theory that the body might be that of a son of Williams’ known to have the same name, and that he merely had some of his fathers’ papers in his possession when visiting the site years later. This too was ruled out: he was found to have died and been buried in Leeds in 1919. Tellingly, no-one was able to find a burial record for the father.
Amazing as it was, it seemed that the body had been stuck in the cylinder for sixty years before being discovered. It was determined that it was part of a ventilation shaft, but the question that was not answered—and that remains unanswered—is how the elder Williams (if that was indeed who it was) ended up in it. Was he a suicide, despondent over the loss of his factory, who crawled into the shaft for some final privacy? Or was there a murder involved, with who-knows-who killing Williams in anger over debts or who-knows-what-else reason? Alternatively, was it just misadventure, with Williams in the shaft when he died of natural causes, or was perhaps overcome by the paint fumes that were presumably ventilated through it? A recent theory has been floated that the body was not Williams at all, but rather someone murdered in relation to the factory closing then stashed in the cylinder by him. Williams’s dropping from sight after 1885 would then be because he skipped town and changed his name, perhaps taking one of the many ships that would have left Liverpool that week for North America and points even further abroad.
Ultimately they could not find the answer. On August 20, 1945 the inquest into the matter ended with an open verdict of “death by unknown means”. The area where the cylinder was found was never built up again, so if there are any remaining clues they can be found under the sod of a triangle of open land—a residential apartment and car park at the south end, a large anchor commemorating Liverpool’s maritime history to the north—now covered by a few trees.