Was the murder of a Sunday school teacher during WW2 blackout the work of 'the Colne Strangler?'

Elaine Barrett was stabbed in the back at a bus stop in Colne on March 25 1941
Elaine Barrett was stabbed in the back at a bus stop in Colne on March 25 1941 -Credit:Manchester Evening News

On the evening of March 25, 1941, Eileen Barrett took an evening class in dressmaking at Colne Technical College. The pretty 19-year-old Sunday school teacher made a party dress, for an exam she was taking and looked forward to an event to wear it. Tragically, that day was never to come.

As Eileen waited at a bus stop on Linden Road, during a blackout, to make her way home to Trawden, she was grabbed from behind by a man she did not know. Her scream was heard by post master Robert Leonard Duerden, who shouted 'are you alright?' before turning back and checking on the girl.

She told him: "He told me he was waiting for a bus. He got hold of my throat and hit me in the back. I was also waiting for a bus to go home."


At an inquest, the Colne postmaster said the young woman was "terribly frightened" but he and another witness helped her onto the bus to make her way to safety. When asked about anyone else in the area, Mr Duerden said he had seen 'the fleeting figure of a man' running away down Linden Avenue.

But he said he did not realise Eileen had been stabbed until he put his hand on her back to steady her, and felt blood. Eileen was taken to Hartley Hospital, but died 25 minutes after she was attacked.

A post mortem found she had died from a single stab wound to her back, which would not have been possible to have been self inflicted or accidental.

Lancashire Police launched a murder investigation, but despite taking more than 500 statements, no attacker was traced. A mill dam at Vickery Bridge, Colne, was drained in the hunt for the murder weapon, to no avail.

In a statement to the Manchester Evening News, Chief Constable Felton said he feared the killer had struck before, after another attack on a young woman in the same locality, the night before. Teresa Baldwin, 16, was walking to her home on Reedley Avenue when a man came out of the shadows and attacked her.

Teresa told the police she had to fight for her life, but the case was not reported in the newspapers. As the investigation continued, several other young women spoke of being attacked by a lone male, who lurked under the cover of blackout. In each case, their assailant grabbed them by the throat.

'The work of a maniac'

Police issued a statement asking for witnesses to the murder of Eileen Barrett
Police issued a statement asking for witnesses to the murder of Eileen Barrett -Credit:Manchester Evening News

Police were keen to play down speculation a 'Colne Strangler' was on the loose, however media reports speculated Eileen's murder could have been 'the work of a maniac.' A week after the attack on Eileen, villagers lined the route to St Mary's Church in Colne, to pay their respects to the much loved Sunday school teacher and secretary.

An inquest on Tuesday June 24 returned a verdict of 'wilful murder, person or persona unknown'. Detectives delved into Eileen's personal life to try and find clues, but what emerged was a picture of an acctractive young woman any parent would be proud of.

Sporty and bright, her life revolved around the church and she had recently resigned from her job as a secretary intending to sign up for national service to support the war effort. She had boyfriends, but nothing too serious, and she rarely went out at night unless to attend evening classes or church events.

Killing remains unsolved

The bus stop in Linden Road, Colne, where Eileen Barrett was stabbed in 1941
The bus stop in Linden Road, Colne, where Eileen Barrett was stabbed in 1941 -Credit:Manchester Evening News

To this day, no-one has been brought to justice for the murder of Eileen, and with the passage of time her killing is likely to remain unsolved. However in 'The Blackout Murders: Homicide in WW2', author Neil Storey speculates the murder - and the attack on Teresa Baldwin the day before - could have been the work of Arthur Heys, an airman who was later hanged for the murder of Winifred Evans in November, 1944.

Winifred was was serving in the WAAF when she was murdered by Heys, who first grabbed her by the throat, then stabbed her. Storey wrote: “Heys had been born in Colne, grew up in the area and knew it well; in fact, he could have known every dark doorway, alley and blacked-out street.

"He was living with his wife and three children on Harold Street, just five minutes’ walk away from the bus stop on the corner of Linden Road and Albert Road where Eileen Barrett had suffered the stab wound that would kill her.

“He had been employed as a silk cloth weaver at a number of mills in the Colne area up to 1939, but during the early war years had set himself up as a shoe repairer in Colne. The escalation of violence and evolution of method with each attack exhibits a pattern that can be easily recognised from modern profiles of predatory sex offenders and serial killers.

“The modus operandi of the Colne Strangler and Heys was similar too. Each young woman was alone during a blackout and was subjected to a sudden, surprise attack. The attacks also took place on public roads, which had numerous places for the perpetrator to hide as he waited for a suitable victim, and multiple routes by which he could make his escape."

The theory may be compelling but with no means to test it in public, Eileen's murder remains unsolved and identity of the 'Colne Strangler' a mystery.