The coroner’s court is another place where the Masons often preside. This merely reflects Masonic dominance in the professions from which coroners are selected: the law and medicine. Until recently Gloucester’s District Coroner was the Freemason Russel Jessop. In 1978 this solicitor was Grand Registrar: England’s fifth highest Mason that year. For ten years he was also Grand Secretary of Gloucestershire, overseeing sixty-seven lodges with some 5,000 members. He is also a 30th degree member of the Ancient and Accepted Rite. His St Thomas’s Chapter colleagues revere him as Grand Elected Knight Kadosh and Knight of the Black and White Eagle.
In 1983 Jessop presided over a controversial inquest. That July a ninteen-year-old motorcyclist name Mark Bilney had died from mulitiple injuries after colliding with a police constable and crashing into an oncoming car. At the inquest PC Peter Rowlands testified that he had ‘walked crisply’ into the road and used his torch to signal Bilney to stop, but that Bilney accelerated straight at him. Rowlands claimed he was hit and spun round, but made ‘no action at all to add to a collision’. He said that Bilney’s action was ‘not far short of a suicide attempt’.
Death by misadventure, recorded Coroner Jessop.
However, three eye-witnesses had given him a different description of the tragedy. They said that Rowlands had appeared from behind a police car and jumped into Bilney’s path. Far from deliberately driving at the policeman, Bilney had slowed to avoid him but Rowlands ran at him, waving his torch and shouting ‘Stop’. An eighteen-year-old girl, named Jane Manning, saw what happened:
The police officer ran inot the road. Mark was nearly on top of him. The police officer was facing Mark. His right arm was held out with the torch in it and I heard him say ‘Stop’. Mark had to swerve to avoid the officer. There was not time for Mark to pull to a stop. I saw him swing his right arm forward and hit Mark on the right side of his face or shoulder. Mark seemed stunned. His bike went off into a car that was behind us…
Mark died in the road from mulitiple injuries. His mother is convinced that when she saw his body in hospital, there was a mark on his right cheek: ‘It was a circular indentation and had not broken the skin.’ When the pathologist was later asked by a journalist if he had recorded this indentation, he refused to discuss his report because it was ‘confidential to the Coroner’.
Following complaints by the dead boy’s parents, the Director of Public Prosecutions investigated the incident but decided there was insufficient evidence to support criminal proceedings against PC Rowlands. Later Mr and Mrs Bliney were denied legal aid for a private prosecution against the police. However, the Bilney’s grievance is against not only the police but also Coroner Jessop for the way he handles the inquest. They claim he accepted only the police version of what happened and played down all evidence conflicting with it. Mr and Mrs Bilney wanted him investigated but the D of PP has no jurisdiction over coroners’ courts, nor could they get legal aid to fight his ‘misadventure’ verdict.
Jessop served as Glouchester’s Cororoner for twenty-four years, a reign topped and tailed by controversy. When he was appointed in 1960 twenty-three doctors objected. They felt the post should have gone to the acting coroner, whose father and grandfather had held it for the previous fifty years, but Jessop was confirmed. The post, after all, was not hereditary. Yet when he retired in 1984 Jessop expected the job to go to his deputy: a partner in Jessop’s own firm of solicitors. When another solicitor was chosen instead, Jessop called it a slur on his own man.
In a letter to the Gloucester Citizen, he said he found it difficult to understand how a coroner could supply the best possible public service when he had no experience of the job. He thus overlooked the circumstances of his own appointment back in 1960. Jessop had to call on all his experience when he convened the Mark Bilney inquest. He managed it all on his own, without the aid of a jury. It took years for Mark’s parents to realize how odd this was. According to the law governing inquests, a coroner shall proceed to summon a jury if there is reason to suspect ‘that the death occured while the deceased was in police custody, or resulted from an injury caused by a police officer in the purported execution of his duty’.(1)
Several witnesses say in their statements (available to Jessop before the inquest) that Mark Bilney crashed because of the actions of a police officer purportedly doing his duty. This is clear even from PC Rowland’s statement. He denied deliberately hitting Bilney with the torch (which, incidently, was not produced in evidence) but the collision was clearly caused when, doing his job as he saw fit, he walked out on the road into the path of the advancing motorcyclist. He himelf said,
This version, alongside the accounts of other witnesses, would seem to demand that Jessop summon a jury. Yet did not do so.
In 1963 Jessop himself had been on trial, over an accident which occured when he was travelling home from Cardiff. In order to overtake a vehicle he drove his car onto the opposite side of the highway. This caused a head-on collision and the death of two people. Charged with dangerous driving, he pleaded not guilty but was convicted, finded 100 Pounds and disqualified from driving for three years. The killings had occured in another coroner’s territory. Otherwise, surely, Coroner Jessop would have been compelled to stand down.
1. Section 13 (2) of the Coroners (Amendment) Act 1926, as amended by the Administration of Justice Act 1982 section 62.
Martin Short wrote, produced and narrated the prize-winning ITV documentary series on the Mafia in America, Crime Incorporated. To accompany the series, he wrote Crime Inc.: A History of Organized Crime in America. In addition to writing feature articles for The Times, The Spectator, New Statesman, Time Out and Special Forces, he co-authored (in 1977) The Fall of Scotland Yard, about police corruption in London. He is also the author of Lundy: The Destruction of Scotland Yard’s Finest Detective (1991).
Courtesy Rowena Thursby