Mahmoud Mattan, a British-Somali man was in September 1952 hanged after being convicted of murder. The father of three was wrongly found guilty of the murder of shopkeeper Lily Volpert in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay. At just 28 years old, the British-Somali seaman was the last man to be executed in Wales following a horrible court case. His wife and family fought for years to prove his innocence.
Forty-six years after he was executed, he was posthumously acquitted after authorities found evidence had been mostly fabricated and manipulated by police at the time, BBC reported.
Today, The Fortune Men, a novel about Mattan’s story, has been longlisted for the Booker Prize. Somali-born woman Nadifa Mohamed, whose father met Mattan when the two emigrated to Hull, is the author of the book.
“People who knew him said he was spikey, brave, happy to stand up for his rights and for those of the people around him,” Mohamed said of Mattan. “I believe that is, in part, why the police had singled him out to take the blame for the next major crime to be committed in the area.”
Born in what is now Somaliland in 1922, Mattan arrived in Butetown, otherwise known as Tiger Bay or The Docks, in the 1940s. Just like many others who arrived to work there from different parts of the British Empire including British Somaliland, Mattan got a job on a ship. He met Laura Williams from the Rhondda Valley, who was then 17 and was working in a paper factory.
The two got married three months after they met. It was tough for the two as interracial couples were unwelcomed. Even though they had three sons, they found it difficult to find a place where they were allowed to live together. So Mattan and his wife lived separately, in different houses on the same street. Then disaster occurred.
On the evening of March 6, 1952, someone slit the throat of shopkeeper and moneylender Volpert at her shop in Butetown, Cardiff, not far from the docks. Police found her dead in a pool of blood, her throat cut by a razor. The sum of £100 (more than $4,000 today) had been stolen. When the police questioned people including Mattan, he told them he was not on Bute Street that day but at a cinema. He said he was at the cinema until 7:30 pm and then went home. The murder took place at 8.15 pm.
The police searched Mattan’s house but produced no evidence. However, he was arrested following a statement a Jamaican man, Harold Cover, told the police. Cover said he saw a Somali with a gold tooth and no hat or overcoat leaving Volpert’s shop at the time of the murder. Meanwhile, Mattan did not have gold teeth, and people who saw him that evening, before and after the murder, said he was wearing a hat and coat, BBC reported. It emerged recently that Cover identified the man he saw as another Somali called Taher Grass.
Yet, Cover gave the police a second statement, which was at variance with his first. This was after the Volpert family had offered a £200 reward. At the trial, Cover said he saw Mattan leaving the shop at 8.15 pm. Meanwhile, four other witnesses who had been around the shop on the evening of the murder did not pick Mattan out at an identification parade. The police withheld this evidence from the jury and defense. They also did not disclose Cover’s first statement about Grass.
To make matters worse, Mattan’s own defense counsel, T E Rhys-Roberts, in his closing speech, described his client as “this half-child of nature, a semi-civilised savage”.
Mattan was found guilty and sentenced to death. The British Somali seaman was not allowed leave to appeal. He was hanged in Cardiff Prison on September 3, 1952. “I still believed right up to the end that they would let him go, but they didn’t, they hung him,” Laura, Mattan’s wife, was quoted by the Independent in 1997.
“When they did that I just locked myself away in my room with my kids, and then for some time afterwards I used to think I could see him walking down the street towards me. He was a very good husband and father,” she said of Mattan.
Authorities did not let Laura know of her husband’s execution as she only found out when she went to visit him in prison.
Cover, whose evidence sent Mattan to his death, was later jailed for life for attempting to murder his daughter by slashing her throat with a razor. Grass was also convicted in 1954 for the murder of a man. He was however found not guilty on grounds of insanity.
In the 1990s when the Criminal Cases Review Commission was set up, Mattan’s case was the first to be referred to it. His conviction was finally overturned by the Commission in 1998, the first case to be quashed by the organization. Lord Justice Rose described the case as ‘demonstrably flawed’, saying that there was a lack of evidence including a complete absence of forensic evidence connecting Mattan to the murder of Volpert. Mattan’s family was awarded £1.4m, the first time the Home Office compensated the family of a man who had been wrongly hanged.
Laura died 10 years after the compensation. Mattan’s children are also no more, although some of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren can be found in Cardiff today. Last September, a vigil was held outside Cardiff Prison to remember Mattan. His granddaughter Natasha Grech spoke at the event: “Everybody knew that my grandfather was innocent. My mum and dad always said the impact it had on the community was really awful.
“Mahmoud’s sons were ridiculed, bullied, outcast. They couldn’t do normal things. Everyone called them ‘murderer’s children’, my dad hated that especially later on in life when they actually pardoned him.”
“All of those lost years, all of that time. Things could’ve been so different for the three sons. They grew up without a father.”