Visitors to Stapleford Abbotts might have wondered how Gutteridge Lane got its distinctive name. Today it is a quiet short-cut in the village – but almost a century ago, it was the scene of the brutal murder of a respected local policeman, the eponymous PC George Gutteridge.

A memorial stone, put up near the spot in 1993 gives a brief outline of the events of that night in 1927, and the lane of course bears his name. So who was PC Gutteridge, and how did he meet the fate that shocked the village and indeed, the nation?

George William Gutteridge – usually nicknamed Bill - was born in Downham Market, Norfolk, in 1891, and joined the Essex County Constabulary in 1910. As Constable 489, he served in Southend, Romford and Grays, with a 10-month stint in the Machine Gun Corps from April 1918 until February of the next year. Moving to Epping Division in 1922, he was based in Stapleford Abbotts where his new section station monitored beats in Stapleford, Lambourne End, Stanford Rivers, and Kelvedon Hatch. The Gutteridge family – George, wife Rose and children Muriel and Jack – lived at No 2 Towneley Cottages, Tysea Hill.

Five years later, this steady existence was - literally – blasted away. PC Gutteridge had been on duty during the day on September 26th 1927. After a five-hour break, which he spent at home with the family, he went back on the beat and made rendezvous with his colleague PC Sydney Taylor, at Howe Green. PC Gutteridge started the short walk back home just after 3am.

Three hours later, Brentwood garage owner Alec Ward found his body. Alec had been on an early trip to the old Stapleford Abbotts post office to drop off mail, and was heading towards Stapleford Tawney by the main road, when he spotted the village policeman slumped against the grass verge, legs in the road, still clasping a pencil. His notebook lay a few feet away, pages fluttering in the breeze.

Alec raised the alarm at once, and concerned neighbours including Alfred Perritt and bus driver Mr Warren rallied round to help. Alec then drove to Stapleford Tawney post office to phone the Romford police. When Detective Inspector John Crockford arrived at 7.45 am, he examined George Gutteridge's body and observed two large bullet holes in front of his left ear, with two exit wounds on the right side of his neck – and, sickeningly, his eyes had both been shot through.

And so the manhunt began. Scotland Yard, in the form of Chief Inspector James Berrett, took over the case. Two .45 bullets were picked out of the road surface, and the post mortem disclosed two more bullets in George Gutteridge’s body.

The murder became linked with the theft of a Morris Cowley car belonging to Dr Edward Lovell from Billericay on the same night. An unusual enough occurrence at the time, as there was only a fraction of today’s car traffic on the road. PC Gutteridge had apparently stopped the driver for questioning as it was equally rare to see a car out and about on the roads then, especially so late at night.

The vehicle was later found dumped in Stockwell, south London, where an empty cartridge case, marked RVIV, was found in a footwell and bloodstains were found on the running board of the car. Both bullets and cartridge case were given to ballistics expert Robert Churchill for scrutiny – and he reported that they had been fired from a Webley revolver.

The search continued in the UK and abroad for over three months – and in January 1928 evidence emerged that implicated Frederick Guy Browne, a known London criminal who ran a garage in Clapham. When Browne was arrested at his premises, police also found several loaded firearms, including a .45 Webley revolver.

There was also another suspect, army deserter William Kennedy, who had decamped to Liverpool after the murder. He had already come to the attention of the Merseyside police forces. During his arrest, he tried to shoot a police officer – who would have suffered the same fate as PC Gutteridge had Kennedy’s gun not jammed. Kennedy was brought to London for questioning, where he admitted being at the murder, but named Browne as the person who had pulled the trigger.

Browne denied all involvement, but Robert Churchill had discovered crucial evidence. Tests he ran proved that the empty cartridge case from the vehicle had been fired from the Webley revolver belonging to Browne – who claimed Kennedy gave him the weapon after the murder.

Both men were tried at the Central Criminal Court, and after evidence from forty prosecution witnesses, including four ballistics experts, and photographs that proved the markings on the cartridge case matched those on the revolver, they were convicted and sentenced to hang. To the end, Kennedy admitted his guilt and Browne protested his innocence.

What happened next?

PC George Gutteridge was buried in Warley Cemetery, the funeral being attended by a large cohort of policemen as well as his family.

The Gutteridge family moved away from the village and settled in Dagenham. However, Muriel kept in touch with her old next-door neighbour from Stapleford, John Alexander, and they married in 1938. Muriel died in 1996 aged 80.

The murder of PC Gutteridge led to the 999 emergency telephone service. At Stapleford Tawney post office, Alec Ward’s call to the Romford police was refused as PC Gutteridge was not stationed there. He was told to call Ongar station instead, and the operator charged him the usual fee of tuppence. An argument followed – in which the postmistress had to intervene – and vital time was wasted. In May 1928, free calls to the emergency services were initiated in London and rolled out to the rest of the country. A campaign for better telecoms in rural areas also began, led by the Essex Weekly News, and the AA and RAC issued police officers keys to their call-boxes which were installed on main roads.

The conviction of Browne and Kennedy was also one of the first convictions secured by ballistics technology – when Robert Churchill matched the shell casings from the scene with Browne’s gun.

Why did they shoot his eyes? This is believed to be a reaction to a popular superstition of the day that the last thing a dead person sees - in this case, his killers – is retained on the back of the eyes and thus might have given a clue to the identity of the murderers.

A memorial stone was positioned at the mouth of Gutteridge Lane in 1993 and a bronze plaque put up on the north wall of St Mary’s Church, Stapleford Abbotts, in 2016.