The Bovingdon Bug

The Bovingdon Bug

An extract from ‘Graham Young, the St. Albans Poisoner’

By Johnny Sharp –

As it turned out, the new recruit at John Hadland Ltd. had no need to avail himself of the substances available on site. He had already been to London armed with the same fake ID of “M.E. Evans” that he had used as a teenager, and bought a new batch of “antimony potassium tartrate” (the full name by which he insisted on calling it) and thallium from a West End chemist. Within days of starting work at Bovingdon, the new boy happily accepted the job of making tea for his workmates.

The first colleague Young made friends with was 41-year-old Ron Hewitt, who was soon to leave the firm but had stayed on for a few weeks to show the new boy the ropes so he could take over his job.

Two older members of staff, 59-year-old storeroom manager Bob Egle and 60-year-old stock supervisor Fred Biggs, also befriended Young, lending him cigarettes and money for his bus fare. However, after a time Egle began to spend periods off work ill. Around the same time, Ron Hewitt developed diarrhea, sharp stomach pains and a burning sensation in the throat after drinking a cup of tea fetched by Young. The symptoms lasted a few days, but doctors could only suggest food poisoning or gastric flu. When he was well enough to return to work, though, the symptoms promptly returned, invariably after drinking tea. Over the next three weeks he suffered no fewer than twelve bouts of this mysterious illness.

Hadlands Phototronic

After leaving the company Hewitt had no further symptoms, while Bob Egle also recovered after a holiday. However, the day after returning to work, Egle’s fingers went numb, and he couldn’t move without agonizing pain. By the time he was taken to hospital, numbness had spread through his body until he was virtually paralyzed, and unable to speak. To the horror of his workmates, he died 10 days later, on July 7, 1971. The cause of death was officially bronchial pneumonia arising from an unusual type of polyneuritis known as the “Guillan-Barre syndrome.”

“It’s very sad,” said Graham to colleagues, “that Bob should have come through the terrors of Dunkirk (a crucial battle of World War Two) only to fall victim to some strange virus.” Such was Young’s very vocal concern, he was chosen to accompany the firm’s managing director to the cremation.

In the weeks following Egle’s death, the staff at Bovingdon tried to put the tragic incident behind them. Yet the rather work-shy young storeroom assistant insisted on continually musing about possible medical causes for Bob Egle’s bizarre symptoms. Then in September 1971 Fred Biggs also began to suffer the same symptoms. And he wasn’t the only one.

Young’s fellow storeroom worker Jethro Batt, 39, was made a cup of coffee by Graham one evening, but threw it away complaining it tasted bitter. “What’s the matter?” asked Young. “D’you think I’m trying to poison you?” 20 minutes later Batt vomited and felt intense pain in his legs. Fellow staff members Peter Buck and David Tilson also suffered. In the case of Batt and Tilson, their hair fell out, leaving the latter, as doctors described him, “looking like a three-quarter plucked chicken.” Young had administered various doses of different poisons among his workmates, designed to confuse doctors looking for a common cause of the complaints. These manifested themselves in a number of unlikely ways. A receptionist, Mrs. Diana Smart, complained of suffering from foul smelling feet for months, while Buck and Tilson were rendered impotent for some weeks after their initial illness. “I was going around with several girls at the time,” Tilson later related in court, “and I became useless in bed.”

Their ailments were put down to some kind of virus in the local area, which became known as “the Bovingdon Bug.” By unfortunate coincidence, a stomach bug had spread among the village children on a couple of occasions in the preceding months. Many workers speculated, just as the residents of Neasden had a decade before, that a contaminated water supply might be the cause. Others suspected radioactivity from experiments in a nearby airfield could be the culprit.

If this was the same virus that had spread among the village’s children, it had certainly assumed a virulent new form. After briefly recovering from his first experience of Young’s unique approach to coffee-making, Jethro Batt fell ill again, and after a few days he was in such pain he later said he contemplated suicide. He remained in hospital for some weeks.

Fred Biggs’ condition was the worst of the new outbreak. His condition deteriorated to the point where his skin began to peel off, and the pain was such that he could not stand the weight of a bed sheet on his body.

Even that was not serious enough for Young’s liking, it appears. “‘F’ (Fred) is responding to treatment,” he was later discovered to have written in his diary. “He is being obstinately difficult. If he survives a third week he will live. I am most annoyed.”

Young’s pessimism was misplaced. On November 19 death finally came to Fred Biggs, as merciful release.


The Germ Carrier

By this time speculation as to what was causing “the Bovingdon bug” had understandably reached fever pitch. Winifred Young writes that Diana Smart even confided in the firm’s Managing Director, Godfrey Foster, that she suspected Graham Young was “a germ carrier.” Alas, the only suggestion she could make as to how he might have caught such “germs” was that he lived in a boarding house with a Pakistani family.

On the afternoon that Fred Biggs’ death was announced, the firm’s doctor gathered the staff to a meeting to reassure them that there was no evidence that any lack of hygiene on the company premises could have caused the deaths and illnesses. Yet one man wanted to know more. The doctor was surprised to find himself being grilled by the young store assistant, who asked several detailed questions as to why poisoning by the heavy metal thallium had been ruled out. The doctor was puzzled by his apparent in-depth knowledge of the subject, and told the firm’s owner. He in turn informed the police.

It’s perhaps not so surprising that doctors took a while to consider thallium poisoning as a cause of the outbreak, because until Graham Young used it, it had never been used as a poison in Britain. Death from gradual thallium poisoning is an agonizing affair, something which Graham Young knew only too well. As well as suffering excruciating stomach pains, violent sickness and diarrhea, patients often lose their hair (as did Batt and Tilson, and Young’s stepmother Molly years before) and suffer thickening and scaliness of the skin. Later, degeneration of the nerve fibers sets in, along with weakness of the limbs leading to paralysis, and eventually delirium. The victim usually dies through not being able to breathe. It’s almost worse if the sufferer survives, since the body gets rid of the thallium slowly, meaning days or weeks of agony. If the dose is repeated, it has the effect of being an accumulative poison which kills gradually over a week or two. All things considered, it’s a long, slow method of murdering someone, of which any sadist would be proud.

Graham Young may not have been a sadist in the conventional sense, but he did take great pleasure in following and noting down every last gruesome symptom each of his victims suffered, recording them each day in exercise books and plotting graphs to analyze their progress.

This almost fetishistic documentation proved his downfall. Once the firm’s MD had alerted police, it didn’t take detectives long to work out that the illnesses had started shortly after a certain individual had joined the Bovingdon firm. A quick consultation from a couple of forensic scientists revealed the symptoms of the victims were consistent with thallium poisoning. They were also kind enough to finally inform the firm’s bosses that Graham Young was a convicted poisoner.

Extract from ‘Graham Young, the St. Albans Poisoner’

By Johnny Sharp –

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *