Melvin Harris was born in Newport, Monmouthshire on 19 February 1930. He attended St Julian's Grammar School where the teaching staff told him that he was 'impossible' but would 'make his mark on the world.' From an early age he showed his inquisitive and independent spirit of mind when he conducted his own scientific experiments. On one occasion there was a loud explosion and Melvin staggered out of the garden shed and ran round the garden with a blackened face and blotting paper sticking to his hair.
In contrast he was also an angelic choirboy and sang solo at the local Church of England Church. He had ambitions to dance like Fred Astaire, which worried his parents as they didn't see this as being quite natural. However, politics were soon to take over, at the age of thirteen years, when he witnessed the poverty surrounding him and the waste of fresh fruit and vegetables that were thrown into the river whilst people were starving. It is said that this led him to abandon his previously held religious beliefs.
After Grammar School he won a scholarship to Art College. At 18 he did his National Service and took to playing the bugle in the RAF Band. At this time he also developed a taste for London and would settle there. On leaving the service he did not return to art school but became a commercial artist and worked mainly in the London theatre and film industry including work at making props for the ballet. This also included work as a film technician.
His interest in politics persisted and he lectured in the miners' halls in the valleys of South Wales. This led to him becoming an organiser for the Labour Party in Newport which involved public speaking up and down the country, including Hyde Park. He became disillusioned with the Labour Party where he found his socialist views were being submerged by the demands of the party machinery and short-term political expediency. His socialist views then took him into the Socialist Party of Great Britain - he wanted a truly free society without violence and totalitarianism; a society in which everyone pulled together for the common good.
All the time he had been developing his passion for woodwind music, especially the oboe. He had been inspired as a boy when heard a Leon Goossens recording. This eventually led to him making oboes himself. These instruments were made to such a high standard that he set up his own musical instrument business in Hampstead. He became so skilled that he eventually repaired all the woodwind instruments at the Royal College of Music. At one stage he became a mature student at Swansea University (Politics, Philosophy and Economics) before returning to his music business. It is of interest to note that Melvin made the oboe used by Jeremy Irons in the film The Mission.
He accumulated a large collection of woodwind recordings that he would later donate to the University of Washington, Seattle where it is now housed in the University Music Library as The Melvin Harris Collection of early recordings of performances on wind instruments.
Melvin met the actress Maureen Gavin, then living in Muswell Hill, in 1965. They married and the devoted couple would go on to spend forty happy years together. They worked on a pilot for a children's comic TV series and Maureen found that she had never laughed so much in her life before. She found security in Melvin's strength, warmth, wisdom and generosity. She found him to be a brilliant and thoughtful man. They had no children.
He worked for the BBC, first in the field of music and then became an 'ideas' man with much success. He worked on general investigative programmes, particularly in the field of the paranormal. He met a producer who loved Melvin's mysteries and he was awarded a fifteen-minute slot on BBC Radio 4 called 'Strange to Relate', which went out at 1.15 p.m. on Saturday afternoons in the early 70's. This programme resulted in an approach from Granada Publishers and a couple of books followed.
Melvin them moved into television work with Yorkshire TV and in 1982 began work with Simon Welfare. For many years he was consultant researcher for Arthur C. Clarke. He was skilled at exposing hoaxes and frauds and was particularly adept at identifying the literary origins of myths and fantasies. In the 1980's he also presented a children's series called 'Extraordinary.' A result of his work on mysteries was one of his many books Sorry You've Been Duped (1986), which, in turn, led him into research on the classic mystery of the identity of Jack the Ripper. Melvin was a forthright speaker and was not tactful in his dealings with hoaxes and frauds. He would leave his opponents in no doubt about how he felt.
Melvin's research into the Ripper, and discussions on the subject with his friend Richard Whittington-Egan, led him to develop this work into his first Ripper book Jack the Ripper The Bloody Truth (1987). Richard had written at length on the suspect Robert Donston Stephenson in his 1975 book A Casebook on Jack the Ripper and suggested to Melvin that this particular character was worthy of further research. As is well known in the world of Ripper studies Melvin's recognition of Robert Donston Stephenson (Roslyn D'Onston) as a viable suspect for the murders resulted in two further books on the subject; The Ripper File (1989) and The True Face of Jack the Ripper (1994). Ripper lore is littered with myths, fantasies, hoaxes and spurious 'facts' and Melvin applied himself to identifying and exposing these whenever he found them.
Over the years Melvin and Maureen lived in various locations including London; County Cork, Ireland; Hadleigh, Essex; Hitchin, Hertfordshire; Lydney, Gloucestershire; and finally in the Swansea Valley, Wales.
Just before he died Melvin was talking of a New Year filled with great adventures. He died peacefully in bed of a heart complaint at about 4.30 p.m. on New Year's Day 2004. His funeral took place at 12 noon on Tuesday 13 January 2004 at Swansea Crematorium. Some of his favourite music was played; Scarlatti, Oboe Sonata; Delius, Prelude; and Delius, Song of Sunrise.
Melvin's name and his work are immortal. His friends and family will treasure his memory. His friend Peter Birchwood was proud to know him and will miss him. Peter said that Melvin's honesty and knowledge put him head and shoulders above everyone else in the field. Melvin was a friend who was kind and helpful. He always gave good advice and would point Peter in the right direction in solving a problem. A few minutes conversation with Melvin would soon make you feel much better.
I came to know Melvin through my research into the Whitechapel murders and I am proud to have counted him as a true friend. I met him several times and he spoke with me for many hours over the years. He was a great support and strength when I lost my brother a couple of years ago and more recently when I suffered a heart attack. His heartfelt concern for me evinced genuine warmth that is very rare. His wise counsel and friendship will be sorely missed. His vast knowledge never failed to amaze, and this was tempered with a wonderful and often mischievous sense of humour.
Another respected author, Philip Sugden, supplies these final words about Melvin:
"He was a gallant pursuer of the truth. He cared about facts, truth and honesty. I respected and admired him a great deal. We've all benefited from what he's done."
Stewart P Evans.
With thanks to Maureen Harris, Peter Birchwood, Philip Sugden, and Brian Cainen.