“YOU’VE handled their dead body, one minute you are talking to them about their family, then you’re cutting them down and putting them in an anonymous grave in the prison grounds.” 

Writer Nadifa Mohamed had sought to think through the grim, if mundane, realities of a judicial killing when writing her novel The Fortune Men, that tells the true story of British-Somali man Mahmood Mattan. 

The 28-year-old seaman’s body was cut down from the gallows, and buried in an unmarked grave, exactly 69 years ago today in the grounds of Cardiff Prison - the last man hanged in the city. 

“That’s one of the most upsetting things I found about the day they executed Mahmood was how recongisable it was,” said the London-based novelist of the rain-lashed September 3, 1952. 

“I could imagine them doing that right now. Giving you your apportioned breakfast, trying to coax you into your suit so you could be executed in your suit. It’s so bizarre and these warders had befriended him in that period of time and then are quite happy, and willing, to facilitate his death knowing he’s been claiming his innocence all the way through that’s really, really disturbing.” 

During his final hours Mahmood received a visit from his friend Mohamod Kalinleh, accompanied by an imam who asked the condemned man outright if he had killed the Tiger Bay shopkeeper and pawnbrooker Lily Volpert that March, slitting her throat and making off with £100 - around £3,000 today. 

In a 1990s television interview with the Black Britain current affairs programme the elder of the Cardiff Somali community recalled that conversation with Mahmood: “He said, ‘will you tell me the truth?’ Have you committed this murder?’ He says, ‘Sir, in my time I done lot of things but this murder I’m going to be hung (for) today I haven’t done it.” 

Mahmood’s innocence – of a crime he always denied – wouldn't be legally recognised until 46 years after his death. It followed decades of tireless campaigning by his widow Laura, but the memory of the wrongful conviction remains in the Cardiff's Butetown still known as ‘The Docks’ - and is one of a number of injustices involving the police, race and the legal system. 

Community organiser Ali Abdi says the history of Mahmood - born in what was the British territory of northern Somalia, known as Somaliland, who found himself wrongly convicted of murder in the city where he had sought to make a new life with Welsh wife Laura Williams, and their three sons - is still significant today. 

“The case is still well known in the Somali community in Cardiff and also many parts of the UK where there are sizeable Somali communities,” said Ali. 

Neither is Mahmood’s death the only flashpoint between the authorities and the Docks community. The wrongful conviction of three men, from Butetown, of a 1988 murder has been a long running sore – five black men were arrested, and tried, when police had originally been searching a for a white man who had been their prime suspect. 

READ MORE: BBC series tells the story of Cardiff Five

Two were acquitted at trial and the three convicted cleared their names two years later. A 2011 trial, dubbed, Britain’s biggest ever police corruption trial, with 13 officers in the dock, collapsed over missing evidence – leaving a feeling that the case and the treatment of the five men has never been resolved, even following the 2003 conviction of the real killer. 

The latest tension between Wales’ oldest black community and the police is the unexplained death, this January, of 24-year-old Mohamud Hassan shortly after he was released, without charge, from custody at Cardiff Bay police station. His family has alleged he was assaulted following his arrest, and his death is currently being investigated by the Independent Office of Police Conduct.  

The death, of Mohamud, who lived in Roath and was of British-Somali heritage, sparked protests outside the police station in the historic docklands. 

“The community are still coming to terms with the tragic death of Mohamud and are obviously concerned,” said Ali. 

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While that investigation is ongoing, it has given the impression that the community is fighting the same fight its forefathers had nearly 70 years earlier, when they raised £500 (around £15,000 today) to help towards Mahmood’s legal fees. 

In court that money counted for little. The defendant’s own QC, in perhaps the most stark, example of the how race was viewed, described Mahmood as “this half-child of nature, a semi-civilised savage”. 

Mahmood Mattan was executed at Cardiff Prison Picture: Huw Evans AgencyLaura Mattan and her son Philip at her husband's grave inside Cardiff Prison Picture: Huw Evans Picture Agency

His words still angered Laura, who died in 2008 aged 78, when she spoke to the Black Britian reporter in the 90s: “He’d make a good prosecution lawyer rather than a defence because he, as far I’m concerned, he helped the prosecution to hang my husband, by what he said. He was more civilised than the one who called him a savage.” 

Novelist Nadifa, who has conducted interviews with people who knew those involved in the case and poured through letters and documents, has described Mahmood, unlike other black sailors at the time, as a man who “definitely did not know his place”. 

From her research she said: “That’s another reason the police hated him. Many people would be too afraid of the police to tell them to their face that they’re liars, he does that from the beginning and it’s also reckless on his part.” 

READ MORE: Nadifa Mohamed's Fortune Men and romance of Tiger Bay

In the 90s TV interview Laura gave a glimpse of a man who wouldn’t settle for second best: “People thought he was cheeky because he was British-Somali and he wanted to be British, live British. I think sometimes he forgot he was black, you know cos he wanted to do, whereas many of his countrymen – or his people, as he called them – stayed down the Docks, Grangetown, Splott, like down there, but he wanted to move up, amongst the white people do everything that the white people done. 

“He loved everybody and he thought everybody loved him but he just didn’t know the hostilities that was going round.” 

Laura, who was supported by her three sons with Mahmmod, Omar, David and Mervyn and their half-brother, her son Philip, finally saw some form of justice in 1998. Two years after they had succeeded in moving Mahmood from his unmarked prison grave to a public cemetery, the court of appeal overturned the conviction, ruling the chief prosecution witness, a violent police informant, was unreliable. The family were also awarded compensation, reported to be £1.4 million. 

Politicians and the judicial system had turned a blind eye, from at least the 1960s, when doubts had been cast on the safety of the conviction. That hadn’t deterred Laura, and Ali thinks there should be public recognition of the injustice that not only took a man’s life but condemned his widow and children to living with the stigma. 

“It’s a significant part of our Welsh history - we have to own that before we can truly move forward,” is Ali’s reasoning for in part why the case can’t yet be put to bed: “A plaque dedicated to Mahmood Mattan and acknowledging he was killed by injustice, providing an education resource, and telling the real story while also honouring the role his wife Laura Williams, from the Rhondda Valley, played in not giving up the fight to clear his name would be a momentous moment for Cardiff and Wales.” 

He is pleased that The Fortune Men, which has been longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, has brought renewed awareness of the case. 

“Nadifa’s book is exceptional and connects with many of the community here as our fathers and many of the current generation of Somalis living in Cardiff parents and grand-parents were Merchant Navy seamen and travelled from Somaliland to Wales for work and would have known Mahmood as the community has always been pretty tight-knit.” 

The Fortune Men has attempted to shine a light on the plight of all involved in a chain of events that started with the brutal murder of a 41-year-old woman in March 1952. Today’s anniversary is a reminder of just how powerful, and dangerous, the state can be for those on the margins of society. 

While racism is still a blight on the modern world, including in Wales, Ali believes progress has been made and Cardiff’s Somaliland community has advanced: “The Somaliland community in Cardiff and Wales have come along way since the time of Mahmood’s passing, back then you would find us primarily working in the Merchant Navy and relatively small in numbers. 

“However fast forward and we still remain here, but in much bigger numbers, and are doctors, educators, activists and entrepreneurs. We also have Welsh speaking Somalis and Somalis active in public life. Racism back then seemed to be much more overt, whereas nowadays especially with laws and consequences it still exists and more often is subtle and disguised a lot as banter.” 

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