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Chelmsford author Peter Maggs delves into Polstead’s Murder in the Red Barn

PUBLISHED: 16:53 03 September 2015 | UPDATED: 16:53 03 September 2015

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A physicist who worked on a high-resolution camera that sent images back from Mars has turned his hand to writing.

Drawings, held at Moyses Hall museum, Bury St Edmunds, of the main personalities involved in the tragic story of Maria Martin Drawings, held at Moyses Hall museum, Bury St Edmunds, of the main personalities involved in the tragic story of Maria Martin

Murder in the Red Barn is the third book from Chelmsford author Peter Maggs, who specialises in 19th Century true-life crime. Maria Martin (sometimes Marten) was a young woman shot by her lover and buried in a barn at Polstead. William Corder hanged for it.

Peter became interested in 19th Century social history after investigating his own family history. It led to him examining the story of the first chaplain of Wandsworth Prison, who ended up in jail, accused of indecently assaulting the daughters of a hysterical client. His second book was about a Richmond man convicted of poisoning his bigamous wife. And now there’s a new look at Maria. More about that later. First, a bit about Peter.

“I was born in Maidenhead. My parents had moved out of London to avoid the bombing after they were nearly killed in an air-raid,” he says. “My father self-educated himself, having left school at 13. My mother was a refugee from Nazi-occupied Austria. They met in London while she was learning English and he was learning German. We moved to Ealing when I was six months old.”

Peter won a scholarship to grammar school, but admits: “I was lazy and no good at sports, and thus hopelessly unsuited for a school which prided itself on academic excellence in the classroom and superior performance on the sports field. If the school failed me, I have to admit that I also failed it. I left at 16 with one O-level: physics with chemistry. The one benefit from school was that I fell in with a group of lads there who played in a band. They invited me to join The Downliners. In many ways that saved my sanity. We played gigs all over the south of England, including some at the Suffolk American air force bases. Later, I joined The Eccentrics. In March, 1965, we made a record, What You Got – you can find it on YouTube. We won a contract to play in the Piper Club in Rome, every night for a month. That was June, 1965. We liked it so much we stayed in Italy until the money and bookings ran out. We returned to England in a freezing January, 1966, having sold my guitar amplifier for petrol money. We divvied up the money we had left when we got back to London – £1 each… I was very fortunate in that in March, 1966, I was offered a job at Glaxo in Greenford and the company allowed me time off for study. After a couple of years of night-school and day-release, the A-levels I achieved got me accepted at Southampton University.

The plaque at Polstead Church marking Maria Marten's (or Martin's) burial place The plaque at Polstead Church marking Maria Marten's (or Martin's) burial place

“I studied physics there, and then did a PhD at Essex University. After some time in Edinburgh I came to Chelmsford and worked for the English Electric Valve company for 27 years, initially in technical sales and marketing but for the last seven years as a project manager overseeing the design, manufacture, assembly and test of electronic imagers for use in space.

“One of my projects was HiRISE, a high-resolution colour camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Nearly 10 years later it is still sending back spectacular views of the surface of the Red Planet.” Speaking of red, what about that killing in Polstead?

“I became interested in the famous Red Barn murder more than 40 years ago. The story resonated with me because my academic supervisor lived in Polstead and I grew up in Ealing, where the murderer, William Corder, was arrested.

“I really did not think that there was anything else left to say about it. In fact, the two major books on the case, by Donald McCormick [1967] and Peter Haining [1992] were most unsatisfactory. Haining confused documented fact with a fictional account of the murder; he misread a trial report in The Times and declared that Maria had been staked to the ground in the barn, like a vampire. McCormick was far worse; he manufactured evidence to make a good story, claiming that Maria was stabbed in the Red Barn by Beauty Smith, a local bad lot and associate of William Corder. I was able to show, using transportation records, that Smith, who was sent to Australia for animal-stealing, could not possibly have related this story as McCormick alleged.

Peter Maggs - when he's not looking into 19th Century crime! Photograph: CONTRIBUTED Peter Maggs - when he's not looking into 19th Century crime! Photograph: CONTRIBUTED

“There were many other discrepancies; he claimed that ‘years after Corder was hanged’, his sister found some diaries of his, revealing his time in London associating with various disreputable persons, some of whom were implicated in the murder. In fact, the sister died less than six months after Corder was hanged. The two great mysteries associated with the murder were: did Maria’s stepmother really dream that she had been buried in the Red Barn – as a result of which the body was discovered – or was she involved in a conspiracy? And secondly, although Corder confessed 12 hours before his execution that he shot Maria, he denied to his dying breath that he stabbed her; yet three surgeons found very clear signs of stab wounds on the body.

“By a careful analysis of the evidence in the trial, press reports, and some genealogical researches into the subsequent history of Maria’s family and the Beauty Smith character, I was able to conclude with some confidence that William Corder really did murder Maria Martin by shooting her, and no-one else was involved.

“The stab wounds were very probably made post mortem by an ‘enthusiastic inquest juryman’ keen to probe the extent of putridity in the body.”

When Peter’s not researching and writing, he’s sailing. “I have a 28-foot yacht that I keep at Bradwell, and not infrequently I sail up to Suffolk waters.”

Murder in the Red Barn is published by Mirli Books at £9.99

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