Mystery death of a rose grower

Some time in the mid-1990s I met Commander Robert Green (retired), a former British Royal Navy commander who had met and married a New Zealander and moved to Christchurch.

I cannot recall precisely what had initiated the meeting, except that I was at that stage working as a feature writer for The Press. Always on the lookout for a "story", I somehow became aware that Rob Green was in possession of what seemed like a very good one.

It concerned his aunt, Hilda Murrell - a celebrated English rose grower, and in her later years an anti-nuclear activist. In one of the most infamous and controversial of modern cases, Ms Murrell had been murdered and ostensibly sexually assaulted, her half-clad body dumped in a wood some distance from her home near Shrewsbury in England.

I recalled the news of the death of Ms Murrell, because I had been living in England at the time. Questions about the murder, the possible motives for it, and the various loose ends which stubbornly refused neatly to tie up had seemed to multiply back then.

This was at least partly because of the political milieu in which the "murder" had taken place. It was in the wake of the Falklands War and amid fierce debates among a divided British public over the merits of nuclear weapons and power.

It was an era permeated by spooks and paranoia. A certain amount of this had transferred across the world with Cmdr Green when he emigrated. He and his New Zealand wife, prominent anti-nuclear campaigner Kate Dewes, had suffered repeated break-ins of their Christchurch home. Their mail was tampered with; their phones and house, they say, was bugged.

Visiting them was like entering the pages of a Cold War spy novel. Why should anyone care enough to carry on in this manner?

And if so, who?

This is never quite clear and certainly not proven, but the tale in the telling is in parts compelling.

As a naval commander, Rob Green had flown nuclear-armed jets. His aunt, while a quintessentially establishment figure, had become concerned about the building of nuclear reactors and had delivered papers about their dangers. The naval bomber pilot became close to his anti-nuclear aunt.

Cmdr Green had been on the brink of taking voluntary redundancy from the Royal Navy when the Falklands War broke out. Instead he found himself in the naval communications bunker for the conflict and was one of a handful of staff who could have had access to the raw transcripts of the communications concerning the sinking of the Argentine warship the General Belgrano.

That communications was said to have made it clear that at the time it was torpedoed and sunk by British submarine HMS Conqueror - with the loss of 323 lives - the Argentine cruiser was outside the Falklands territorial waters and steaming in the opposite direction.

Had this information become public at the time, it could have delivered a catastrophic public relations blow to Margaret Thatcher and her war effort and when, some time later, some of it went missing, Cmdr Green - and, he suggests - his aunt, came under suspicion.

What really happened on that fatal day in 1984 in the English countryside?

A break-in gone wrong?

Or a botched job by agents of the State intent on recovering secret documents - or perhaps even a combination of the two?

All these years later, supported by Kate Dewes, Rob Green has written his account of the matter in A Thorn in Their side: the Hilda Murrell Murder. It is published by Rata Books this week.

The case has parallels with the latter-day case of Dr David Kelly. Dr Kelly, thought to have been the source of a leak disputing the veracity of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction capability, was similarly found dead in the countryside - apparently by his own hand. But as with the case of Hilda Murrell, there were nagging and bewildering inconsistencies. Those who have followed the Kelly case may well find resonances in this story.

For others, this saga may seem an almost obsessive pursuit by the author of a matter that is now almost 28 years old. That is a long time to plague the mind of any individual. Who knows what wear and tear such stress might inflict.

But it is often precisely the single-mindedness of the long-distance campaigner that ultimately uncovers injustice and deceit. And while Rob Green finishes his book with more questions than answers, there is enough in the whole story to intrigue and unsettle. At the very least it is a window on to a mysterious and still unsatisfactorily explained cold case involving nuclear power, war crimes, the death of a prominent English rose grower and her determined nephew.

Simon Cunliffe is deputy editor (news) at the Otago Daily Times.


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