It’s the coldest of cold cases.
South Shields Police Constable Thomas Rodgers was missed when, on a spring night in 1914, he failed to call into the town’s police station, in Keppel Street, at the appointed time.
In the early hours of the following morning, his body was found floating in the harbour.
The inquest verdict was that he had drowned. But how, and why?
Now, a century on, a group of former police and civilian investigators has thrillingly come together to investigate the young bobby’s death.
Was it murder? Could it be that, even now, there are people out there who hold clues as to how he died?
We are scrutinising three main theories: accident, suicide or violent conduct. To date we have found evidence that suggests the most likely outcome was that Pc Rodgers was involved in a fight that resulted in his death.Kevin Rigg, former police inspector
The group of investigators is led by Kevin Rigg, a former police inspector and a Doctor of Criminal Justice Studies, and Peter Skevington, a retired trading standards investigator and local historian. The remaining members consist of former detectives, retired police officers of various ranks with specialist skills, and others who have contributed their individual expertise, such as maritime knowledge.
The case came to light when Dr Rigg was approached by Pc Rodgers’ grandson at a talk he was presenting. “ He said that the family had always been uneasy with the perceived lack of investigation into PC Rodgers’s death,” says Kevin.
“With the support of the Rodgers family, we have been working for the past six months, using oral history, archival searches and modern-day forensic expertise to try to make sense of the events that occurred the night PC Rodgers died.
“We are scrutinising three main theories: accident, suicide or violent conduct. To date we have found evidence that suggests the most likely outcome was that Pc Rodgers was involved in a fight that resulted in his death; however, we have certainly not eliminated any of the other lines of inquiry.”
Rodgers, PC112, who also doubled up as a fireman, had been on night shift foot patrol on the evening of Wednesday, May 20, 1914, when he went missing,
His body was found floating close to the Volunteer Life Brigade watch house on the South Pier.
Two days later he was buried in Harton Cemetery, following a full civic funeral which saw his flagged coffin drawn by the police fire tender through the streets, escorted by the police band, a procession of dignitaries, and representatives of other local police forces.
The project has offered former professionals the opportunity to use their skills. Says Dr Rigg: “Interestingly this has worked very well, and those involved have been able to enjoy using their investigative techniques without the time pressures a modern-day investigation would demand.”
There was no post-mortem examination on the body.
“The inquest was held on the same day as Pc Rodgers was found and there was an apparent acceptance that this was a tragic accident. However, it was a warm balmy evening, Pc Rodgers would have known his beat like the back of his hand, and anyone who knows the pier will realise that it is very difficult to accidently walk into the sea at that location, due to the slope of the harbour wall. Even taking a long running jump, a person would still hit the slope of the pier, rather than directly enter the water.”
Hence the spectacle, one recent Saturday, of groups of people throwing hundreds of peppers into the harbour - bizarre on first observation, but actually part of a serious forensic investigation.
Says Dr Rigg: “Saturday’s exercise has allowed us to assess where Pc Rodgers’ body was likely to have entered the water and where it was found. The idea of using fruit was the Harbour Master, Mike Nicholson’s, as it is easy to see in the water, it floats and, being biodegradable, is not a pollution hazard.”
Whilst many of the original documents in relation to Pc Rodgers’ death have been lost or destroyed, the group have still amassed a huge amount of data.
The team ask that if anyone has any further information regarding the death of Pc Rodgers, his brothers-in-law, Pc 24 Thomas Watson, or Pc 36 Thomas Raw, the police, the coroner, or fire brigade of the time, you can contact them via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or ’phone 07984 126669.
Strangely, Pc Rodgers was one of three brothers-in-law who were police constables in the town and shared the first name Thomas; they married three sisters with the surname Clasper, who came from Sherburn in County Durham.
It is hoped that the findings of the investigation, together with research into the policing of the town, and its coroner’s system, will eventually be published.
Says Dr Rigg: “This story seems to generate a great deal of interest – it’s a real whodunnit and we are grateful for the assistance that other organisations have provided.”