ESTHER Atkins cut a theatrical figure in her dissolute trade, distinctive in her manner of dress, sometimes wearing an opera cloak, on other occasions adorning herself with broad ribbon sashes that extended from her silk blouse to the bottom of her skirt.

In deepest winter, she mirrored the conditions, advertising herself by draping in white, remaining aloof from other fallen women in cleanliness.

But a prostitute she nevertheless was, not immune from the laws that led to occasional incarceration in Winchester Prison for indecency and disorderly conduct.

However, 35-year-old Atkins, who suffered from a speech impediment and had tragically lost her father at an early age through a sewer repair accident, was bedevilled by a hasty temper. However she always well prepared with a considerable physique to defend herself against violent and kinky punters.

Sadly, it was not effective enough on October 6, 1903.

Atkins, who toured cafes and bars highly popular with soldiers in the garrison town, had only just released from another short term of imprisonment. Within hours, she was once more in trouble, appallingly assaulted and inflicted with serious facial injuries that necessitated medical treatment.

Hours later, she was not so fortunate.

At approximately 11pm, Atkins entered a cab with three men, two serving servicemen, clad in grey overcoats and wearing Glencarry patterned caps signifying the 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers, based at Mandora Barracks in Aldershot. The third had been discharged from the regiment.

They asked to be dropped off at the 'Red' church near the Wellington Statue, one fatally telling the driver Robert Carter he was determined to rob Atkins of the £10 she had secreted in her clothing.

At 2.30am, a near naked body was found in a nearby coppice.

Other good time girls said it couldn't be Atkins.

"Hadn't she died in prison last week," some thought. "No, she can stand up for herself," others were convinced.

But Atkins it was.

The spectacle was horrifying, her head had been battered by jagged branches, her body smeared in blood, the scene reflecting how tenaciously she had fought for her life, despite being held down by her wrists.

Events were soon to take a startling turn.

A labourer came across a Royal Engineers driver and implored him: "Wait a minute, chum. There was two soldiers down at the common who have killed a woman. I heard her scream murder and I went to help her. When I got there, they killed the woman and stripped her, and then set about me. I was knocked about all over the head, body and hands."

Fearing for his own safety and that there was nothing he could do, he said he had fled.

But strangely he appeared uninjured.

The driver advised him to report the matter to the military authorities who in turn contacted the civilian police, and he accompanied Sgt Garrett to the copse where the body was found.

Significantly, her shoes were missing.

But his story was less than convincing.

Police knew the man, who transpired to be former fusilier, 31-year-old Thomas Cowdrey, had been once confined to an asylum and was of low intelligence. Consequently, at the police's request as part of their investigation, the whole of the regiment was paraded in the hope he might identify her assailants but said he could not.

However, he was to remain a person of major interest to them.

But the detectives had not been working alone.

Major Woods had also been carrying out independent inquiries, asking men if they had seen anything suspicious or anyone acting suspiciously and Private John Robertson was to provide vital information. He revealed two colleagues, William Brown, 27, and John Dunbar, 21, had been absent that night without official permission.

Moreover when they returned in the early hours, Brown had asked to borrow a towel to wash his hands and Robertson noticed they were bloodstained.

When questioned, neither Brown, nor Dunbar, denied they had been broken out of barracks and had been in the company of Atkins in the Crimea Inn. They also implicated Cowdrey as being the third man.

A search in the vicinity of Brown's barracks led to the recovery of her shoes, and as a consequence the two men were charged with murder.

The cabbie later took part in an identification parade and convincingly picked out Cowdrey as the third person he had picked up from the pub and driven to near the church. The case against him was further consolidated by the presence of blood on his clothing.

He too was charged with murder.

They appeared before Mr Justice Willis at Hampshire Assizes on November 24, the two soldiers displaying evident signs of nerve, Brown continually gnawing his lip, at strict odds with Cowdrey whose countenance was of a mixture of a sneer and smile.

Asked if they were guilty or not guilty, all replied: "No, My Lord." Brown and Cowdrey speaking in a loud and clear voice but Dunbar quivered in his voice.

The judge told the assembled jurymen it was most terrible case of murder he had the misfortune to try, there would be as much as 60 witnesses, and they could not be separated until the case was complete, so much so they would have to stay at a hotel in Winchester and send telegrams to their families in that respect. Essentials would be delivered to them.

The Crown was led by Charles Matthews KC who in his opening speech alleged Brown and Dunbar had not been out on the sauce and looking for sex that night with another prostitute in Jenny Clark but could not find her and returned to the Crimea. Just as they were leaving, Atkins arrived and they walked alongside her, Cowdrey following a few paces behind.

At the cab stand, Brown asked Carter how much it would cost to drive to the Wellington Statue. "Two shillings," he replied, and Brown said: "All right."

Having alighted, Atkins and Dunbar walked towards the small wood, Cowdrey once more trailing them. Brown meanwhile rowed over the fare before walking after the others.

"That was the last time she was seen alive," Matthews told the court. "She was forced to the ground and a most violent and desperate took place. There were seven wounds on her head, inflicted by some hard, blunt instrument and it is our suggestion they had been inflicted by the buckle of a soldier's belt. There were injuries to her face and the suggestion here is that they were inflicted by part of the bough of a tree, half of which was found the woman's body."

Despite the huge turn out of witnesses, the trial was to last just four days, with each defendant in essence blaming each other for her demise. Brown accepted he and Dunbar had gone to the copse for sex and then attacked Atkins after Cowdrey confirmed she was carrying money.

Dunbar admitted being at the scene but he had neither attacked her, nor had he been aware of any scheme to relieve her of the cash.

In his closing speech, Mr M St Gerrands accepted it was simple decision jury for the jury to make.

"It is a case of murder or nothing," he reasoned. "It is for you to decide whether the men, possessed of everything that should make life so attractive, should go free from court or leave it to suffer a violent and ignominious death."

Deriding the prosecution's case, especially on the notion they had robbed a woman known for her impecunity, he commented: "It is wildest imagination. There can be no more improbable story that a man fresh from the perpetration of a foul murder would go straight to the barrack-room and say to a comrade: 'I have blood on my hand; lend me a towel.

"The recovery of the shoes is a mysterious part of a mysterious case and it remarkable how portions were found after the arrest of Brown on the ashpit, considering the place had been previously searched with care."

Jurors retired for some 40 minutes before convicting Brown and Cowdrey who were immediately to death, and acquitting Dunbar.

The issue of the shoes raised considerable disquiet they had been deliberately planted by a third party after Brown's arrest.

Though Dunbar orchestrated a campaign to that effect that his fellow Scot was innocent and Cowdrey was solely responsible, the Home Secretary Aretas Akers-Douglas refused to interfere, and so it was at 8am on December 16 that the two men walked the 30 yards from the condemned cell to the shadows of the gallows.

As the rope was fastened around his neck, Brown acknowledged: "Before I pass from this world, I confess I helped to do it."

Cowdrey then exclaimed: "Spare me five minutes to speak the truth. God helped me in my innocence. I am going to Heaven. Brown is the man who done it and has confessed."

No sooner had the words "I helped" had died on Brown's lips than they were executed.

And the prison bell tolled...