Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?

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  1. Ian Topham says:

    Re: Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?
    [quote] But in 1953, a rival theory – this one involving spying – arose to challenge it. Wilfred Byford–Jones, a columnist on the Wolverhampton Express & Star, wrote about the 10–year–old case and was contacted by a woman who called herself "Anna" and claimed that Bella had been murdered for knowing too much about a pro–German spy ring which included a Dutchman, a foreign trapeze artist, and a British officer who died insane in 1942.[/quote]

    In Issue 60 of white Dragon Magazine, David Taylor of Parasearch writes about some of the theories and possible solutions in more detail.

    When Anna spoke to the authorities it transpired her real name was Una. She explained that her husband, Jack Mossop may have been involved. They lived near Kenilworth and Jack worked in an aircraft factory. Jack met a Dutchman called van Ralt in 1940 and suddenly he seemed to have a lot more money, so much so that he bought expensive clothes and even an officers uniform (though he was not in the armed forces). Una and Jack went their separate ways when his drinking became too much, but Jack came back in 1941, ill and with something terrible haunting his mind. He was having nightmares about a skull in a tree. Jack confessed that he met up with van Ralt at a pub near Hagley called the Lyttleton Arms and found his arguing with a Dutch woman. They all went for a drive and en route van Ralt killed the woman. Jack helped hide the body in the tree. Una said Jack died in a Stafford mental hospital in 1942.

  2. Ian Topham says:

    Re: Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?
    Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?
    Myth, Magic & Madness in a Worcestershire Murder By David Taylor

    As a schoolboy in the 1970’s I used to accompany my mother to work during the school holidays. She worked in the restaurant of a pub near Hagley, Worcestershire, and I would happily play in the fields outside or read and draw comic book adventures in a quiet corner of the busy kitchen. It was here that bar and kitchen staff loved to tell me stories that the pub was haunted. They would recount how lights would be turned off, glasses would fly off shelves, doors would open by themselves, shadowy figures would be seen and cold draughts would be felt. The culprit for all of this supernatural activity I was told, was the ghost of a woman they enigmatically called ‘Bella’.

    These stories were probably one of the root causes of my life long interest in folklore and the supernatural. For nearly 30 years I have been actively investigating the paranormal with a group I founded over 20 years ago called Parasearch. It was while I was investigating a local reported haunted house that I stumbled on who the ghost of ‘Bella’ may have been. It is a story of a grizzly murder, espionage and possibly witchcraft going back over 65 years.

    Today there are still more questions than answers about one of Worcestershire’s most notorious murders. I am routeliny approached by the media wanting a fresh angle on the Bella case, such is the allure the story still generates. There have been countless newspaper and magazine articles about it, not to mention TV and radio programmes, two books and even a play and an opera! And when questions go unanswered, speculation and conspiracy begin to circulate. So, what do we know about the case of ‘Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm”?

    The Body in the tree
    We know that on 18th April 1943 four teenage boys – Bob Farmer, Bob Hart, Fred Payne and Tommy Willetts from the town of Stourbridge were exploring the Clent Hills and nearby Hagley Wood. Their interests inevitably turned to ‘bird nesting’ – looking for birds’ eggs in trees was a popular child’s pastime 60 years ago. It was whilst climbing on an old, gnarled Wych Elm that Bob Farmer noticed something strange. Reaching into the hollowed out tree he caught sight of something white in colour. With the aid of a branch Bob managed to dislodge whatever it was. He soon realised that he had made a dreadful mistake, and what lay on the ground before them was a human skull! Shocked and upset by their discovery, not to mention fearing getting into trouble for trespassing in Hagley Wood, the boys agreed to keep their discovery a secret. They stuffed some old rag which they had also discovered in the tree into the skulls mouth before returning it to its original hiding place by carefully balancing it on the end of a long stick.

    It was Tommy Willetts who finally gave in to his conscience. He told his father who in turn told Chris Lambourne, the local police sergeant. It was decided that the eldest boy, Bob Hart, would show the police where the tree was. The skull was still there, together with a bone sticking out of a hole in the tree. This was enough to declare the area a crime scene, and police reinforcements were called in from Hagley. Sergeant Skerratt of Clent and P.C. Pound of Hagley arrived on the scene to make sure that no potential evidence was disturbed until C.I.D had been called and Professor James Webster, the forensic scientist, had been called to the scene. This was obviously going to take some time, so volunteers were asked to guard the scene overnight.

    The following day, Professor Webster, Superintendent Sidney Inight and Deputy Inspector Williams arrived at the wood. The hole in the tree where the remains had been found was too narrow to examine, so a local lumberjack by the name of Jack Pound was called to chop the tree.

    Along with the skull were found several human bones, a cheap wedding ring, a bottle, a pair of crepe-soled shoes and some rotten material. The rest of the skeleton had probably been removed by wild animals. To help track down any vital clues the local Home Guard, Scouts and other volunteers were drafted in to search the wood. Most of the skeleton was eventually found, but one thing seemed strange. The right hand was discovered intact, approximately thirteen paces from the tree, whereas the other bones seemed randomly spread out. Why this should be was to lead to further macabre speculation.

    So, who was the skeleton and how did it come to end up in a hollowed out tree?

    With the search for human remains over, the job of forensic investigation began. The skeletal remains were reconstructed by Professor Webster to see what could be learnt about the body. It was believed that the body was that of a woman, probably aged about 35. She was 5ft tall with mousy brown hair and irregular teeth in the lower jaw. She had also given birth at least once. He estimated that she had been dead between 18 months and 2 years. There were no marks of disease or violence on the body. The coroner declared a verdict of murder by asphyxiation due to the rags discovered in the mouth. Recent research by local historian Joyce Coley suggests that this verdict is wrong, as the rag in the skulls mouth had been put there by the young boys to aid getting the skull back into the tree. As happens with cases where the victim is unknown a name becomes attached to their remains. In this case she was called ‘Bella’. In 1944 the case took a new twist. Graffiti appeared chalked on a wall in Upper Dean Street Birmingham asking – “Who put Bella down the Wych Elm – Hagley Wood”. This was the first time that a name had been given to the grisly remains. Similar graffiti began to appear around the region. Today the same question is asked in white paint daubed on the obelisk on top of nearby Wychbury Hill. For the police investigation this could be a vital clue as they potentially had a name for the mystery woman. Records were checked and re-checked for names like Isabella, Luebella, Claribella etc. But once again the trail went cold.

    Now the long hard work began. The police began to check the 3,000 reports of missing women in a 1,000 square mile radius. But to no avail. Publicity about the case prompted a letter from a soldier who said that his girl friend, Mary Lee, was missing and probably in danger. The police soon found her alive and well. A local medium contacted the police and offered the name and address of the victim after going into a trance by the tree. The police checked the psychic information out but drew a blank. An identity card of a woman had been found in the wood, but hopes that this would lead them to uncover the identity of the victim soon failed when the card’s owner was found alive and well, if a little puzzled as to how her identity card had ended up in Hagley Wood, a place she claimed never to have visited.

    Any hope of uncovering the woman’s identity through her clothing were soon dashed. Surprisingly, there were no labels on any of the clothes found with the body. Perhaps they had been cut out. The shoes that had been found with the body had been manufactured by Silesby’s, a company in Northampton. Of the 6,000 pairs that had been sold only 6 could not be traced, all from a market in the Black Country.

    The witch in the Wych Elm?
    As time passed, speculation began to grow. The discovery of the severed skeletal hand near to the body led the police to contact Dr. Margaret Murray, a leading folklorist of the time. She was author of several books on witchcraft traditions in Europe. She suggested that the severed hand was evidence of ritual activity by a coven of local witches. This theory became the central theme in a popular book on the murder in the 1960s by Donald McCormick (McCormick, 1969).

    In the annals of witchcraft and occult practice, it was believed that a severed hand, called a ‘Hand of Glory’ could detect buried treasure. It was suggested that the Hagley Wood/Clent Hills of the 1940s was, like today, used by local practitioners of the occult arts. Some saw significance in the body being in a Wych Elm tree too. My own research with respected academics in the field suggest that there is no substance to the Witchcraft theory. First, Professor Ronald Hutton from Bristol University told me: “I know the facts of the Hagley Wood case well, and there is absolutely nothing in them to suggest the involvement of witchcraft in any form. All that we have, to this day, is the dead body of a young woman concealed in a wood, strongly suggesting foul play though suicide, with parts of the body scattered by animals, a possibility; and that’s it. No definite ritual elements were present”. (Hutton, pers. comm)

    Dr. Juliette Wood is a respected folklorist, Director of The Folklore Society and author of many books on folklore, including ‘A Coven of Scholars’ an analysis of Dr. Margaret Murray and her witchcraft theories. Commenting on the involvement of Dr. Murray with the case she told me: “Unfortunately her theories about folklore were something of an idee fixe and don’t really echo actual practice.  They are cult books now, but not much regarded by historians of witchcraft. The ‘covens’ of the 1940s were more likely to be the nature covens (early versions of modern paganism) started by Gerald Gardner and certainly not black magic. The ‘Hand of Glory’ is largely a fiction favoured by a certain kind of popular scholarship (Montague Summers is a good example of this).
    As to burial in a tree as a magic rite.  It certainly isn’t part of witchcraft practice (or the folklore associated with it).  New research on witchcraft trial records are turning up interesting things, but this one I have not come across.
    Murray had a habit of making this kind of analysis based on nothing much more than her own belief that witchcraft had survived.” (Wood, pers. comm.)

    The comments by Dr. Wood concerning the burial of suspected witches in trees in folklore was also confirmed by historian and folklorist Jeremy Harte. (Harte, pers. comm)

    Owen Davies is a professor of Social History and author of books on witchcraft and supernatural belief. He told me: “It is certainly an intriguing case, but from what I know of the details I see no evidence for ritual/witchcraft involvement. The existence of covens during the war is obviously a matter of debate rather than fact, and even if there was one in the area I cannot conceive that they would be engaged in ritual murder or the use of body parts”. (Davies, pers. comm)

    In recent years I have heard speculation that Bella was the willing victim in either Operation Cone of Power or a similar event. According to historian Professor Ronald Hutton, (Hutton, 1999) Operation Cone of Power was a magical attempt to keep the Nazi threat from the shores on Britain. It was supposedly held on various dates between May and August 1940 and supposedly involved Gerald Gardner and covens from the south of England. It is said that some of the older members of these covens willingly gave up their lives so that the ritual would work. Historical research carried out by Philip Heselton suggests that similar rituals were carried out by covens around the country (Hesselton, 2000). Some have speculated that Bella was one such regional victim. It should be said however that there is no historical evidence to support this.

    I think we can safely say that the witchcraft theory is no more than speculation, based primarily on hearsay and supposition.

    The spy who came in from the cold?
    Another theory that has become popular to explain the mystery involves wartime espionage. In 1941 whilst serving in the Home Guard in the area, Mr. Basterfield was called out to investigate a parachute alert in the Clent Hills/Hagley Wood area. Britain’s defenses were on high alert for German spies parachuting into the country. A thorough search was made of the area, but nothing was found.

    Also around this time reports of screaming coming from the woods were received by the police, but nothing suspicious was found upon investigation.

    Over the years the publicity surrounding the case has brought forward various new testimonies from people who believe they can add something new to the case. One gentleman, Warwick Plant was a young boy during the second world war. His parents owned a nearby public house. He remembers a woman coming into the pub and asking his mother if she could sing and play the piano for money. The woman, who gave her name as Bella, was poor, and Warwick remembers his mother giving her a pair of her old crepe shoes. The two women became friendly, and Bella explained that she used to belong to a concert party in Europe, but with the start of the war she had come to England. And then one day Bella stopped coming to the pub. She was never seen again.

    Another letter to the press came from a woman calling herself ‘Anna of Claverley’. She urged the authorities not to take their investigations any further, as those involved were beyond the power of earthly justice. She eventually agreed to meet the authorities and revealed that her real name was Una. She had been married to a man named Jack Mossop and they had lived in Kenilworth in Warwickshire. Jack worked in an aircraft factory, not a particularly well paid job, and they were always short of money. In late 1940 Jack had met a Dutchman by the name of Van Ralt. It was at that time that Jack mysteriously came into some money. He began to buy expensive clothes and even bought an officers uniform even though he was not in the services. He began to see Van Ralt more frequently and drink heavily. Una could take no more and the couple split. In late 1941 Jack came back to see Una. He was very ill. He looked disturbed and complained of not being able to sleep. He had nightmares about a human skull looking up at him from out of a hollowed out tree!

    Jack eventually confided in Una that he had met Van Ralt at the Lyttleton Arms near Hagley. When he arrived, Van Ralt was having an argument with a Dutch woman. Van Ralt told Jack to get into his car and drive the couple to the Clent Hills. During the journey the argument had become more heated, and Van Ralt had killed the Dutch woman. Stopping near Hagley Wood, Jack had helped carry her body into the wood where it was hidden in a hollow tree. Una claimed that Jack had died in 1942 in a mental hospital in Stafford. Interestingly there is a report from the Hagley Wood area at the right time of a car parked by the side of the road with a man in military uniform in the drivers seat. In the back seat was a woman apparently asleep underneath a coat. Unfortunately this report was never followed up at the time.

    So, could this be the explanation to one of Worcestershire’s most curious murder mysteries? Was Bella a Dutch native who was acting as a German spy? Had she been parachuted into the Hagley area as previous reports suggest? Was she the same Dutch woman who was murdered by Van Ralt?

    After the war another informant told a curious story that may just lend support to this theory. Peter Osborne’s father was a British soldier during the war. Before his call up papers arrived he had lived near Hagley Wood and was a Special Constable. He had volunteered to guard the remains of the body in the tree overnight to protect the scene of crime. After the war he had been stationed in Germany to help clear up and sort out German files. One file allegedly gave descriptions of several German spies in the Midlands. One of them matched the description of Bella. The file told of a German spy who been parachuted into the midlands somewhere between Kidderminster and Birmingham. Her code name was Clara. An added twist to this story, related to me by Peter, is that as a child he was taken on a country ramble through Hagley Wood to see the Wych Elm tree by his father. This was approximately 12-15 years after the event. Many years later Peter decided to ask his father about his memories of Bella in the Wych Elm so he could record them for posterity. His father refused point blank to talk about the incident and even denied having been involved!

    In April 2005 another twist to an already strange case was added. A bundle of 1940’s papers, found in a deserted Nazi post in Belgium by a British soldier in 1945 were up for auction. Among the papers was a document dated 1940, suggesting that the Third Reich had its eye on the Shropshire towns of Bridgnorth and Ludlow as possible Nazi HQ following a successful invasion of Britain. The documents suggest that that Hitler was still hoping to invade Britain in 1941, a year after being defeated in the Battle of Britain.

    Bella out of the tree?
    Does the ghost of Bella still haunt the area today? The stories I heard as a child at the public house opposite Hagley Wood suggest this may be so. However, in 2007 the case took an interesting twist, one that may suggest that Hagley Wood and the surrounding area is part of a much larger and richer haunted landscape. A retired police officer, Detective Constable Roger Ryder came forward with a report of his own supernatural sighting 30 years ago:

    “As I drew closer to the pub, suddenly the figure of a man ran out of the car park. He was dressed like one of the old cavalier soldiers – the big hat, boots, red uniform and sword. My initial thought was that the pub was holding a fancy dress party and some drunk was larking about. He ran straight across the first two lanes of the carriageway and stopped right in the middle of the central reservation. As I approached, our eyes met. It all happened so fast but I remember thinking that if he starts running again I’ll never be able to stop in time. Suddenly he sprinted out diagonally across the road in front of me towards Hagley Hall. I slammed my breaks on but knew, at 60 mph, it was too late. I went straight into him and swung the steering wheel right round.

    I got out and looked for the body on the road. Nothing. I checked the field next to the car, the hedge and finally under the car itself. Nothing. It was deadly quiet. I looked across at the pub – it was in total darkness”.

    Investigations carried out by my group, Parasearch, uncovered other witnesses to unnerving experiences along the same stretch of road between Hagley Wood and the nearby Iron Age hillfort of Wychbury.

    In the 1980s a husband and wife were driving home late one night when they too encountered the figure of a spectral cavalier by the side of the road. More recently in 2008 Mr. Klein was driving along the A456. He had just gone past Hagley Wood when the figure of a cavalier walked across the road in front of him.

    But it is not just cavaliers who haunt this stretch of road. In the 1990’s my wife Carolyn witnessed the apparition of a strange looking dog as she drove home one night. Other witnesses have come forward with reports of a strange black shape seen by the side of the road. The earliest report we have so far is from 1962. A young couple driving home after an evening out in Birmingham were terrified when they encountered the figure of a man dressed in grey lying down in the middle of the road. Thinking they had run someone over they searched the area for a body. But as is so often the case, the road was deserted.

    The Bigger picture
    In 2008 I received several reports of a phantom child being seen along the Oldnall Road only a few miles from the A456/Hagley Wood. The huge amount of publicity generated by the case (which ultimately saw me being interviewed on both Irish and Spanish radio!) brought forward other witnesses who had seen a whole range of apparitions along this rural stretch of road. Interestingly the road runs through a very important regional Mesolithic site. It is also within the shadow of Wychbury Hill. I cannot help feel that the close proximity of all these ghostly reports to ancient sacred sites is significant. I doubt very much if the ghost of ‘Bella’ walks the A456, but something is certainly being seen by motorists as they drive to their destinations.

    Bella as living folklore
    In the late 1980’s I wrote a letter about the ghostly reports to a local newspaper, as I had become actively involved in psychical research by this time. In 1999 the journalist Richard Askwith wrote an article about the Bella mystery for The Independent newspaper. All the known facts were neatly summed up – even my ghost story got a mention! The article was seen by the opera composer Simon Holt, who was immediately hooked by the story, and went on to write and compose an operatic libretto called ‘Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?’ The opera premiered in 2003 to good reviews. I saw it in 2003 when it came to Birmingham. The central theme of the opera has the ghost of Bella appearing to the two boys (depicted as grown up) who found her, and recount her grisly death. The local amateur dramatics society – Stourbridge Theatre Company – marked their 75th anniversary with a specially commissioned play about the murder. The Coventry based indie band, ‘The Pristines’, have also released an album called ‘Who put Bella in the Wych Elm?”. And a quick search on the internet shows that the mystery surrounding the murder still generates a lot of interest.

    As the years pass our chances of solving the mystery about Bella slowly fade. There are certain things we can be fairly sure can be ruled out, such as the witchcraft theory. Others, like the spy theory are intriguing, but certainly need more evidence. Perhaps we will never know the truth. Perhaps some things are better left unknown.

    (This article is a much expanded version of the authors contributory chapter on the Bella case in ‘Foul Deeds & Suspicious Deaths Around Worcester’ by Anne Bradford, published by Wharncliffe Books, 2008). David Taylor would be interested to hear from anyone who may have information to add to the Bella mystery or anyone who may have had a strange experience in the areas described. He can be contacted at: david.taylor@pasrasearch.org.uk

    COLEY, Joyce, 2007, Bella : An Unsolved Murder, History into Print
    DAVIES, Owen, Personal. Communication, March 2009
    HARTE, Jeremy, Personal Coomunication, April 2009
    HESELTON, Philip, 2000, Wiccan Roots Capall Bann
    HUTTON, Ronald, 1999, The Triumph of the Moon, Oxford University Press
    HUTTON, Ronald, Personal Communication. March 2009
    McCORMICK, Donald, 1969, Murder by Witchcraft, Arrow Books
    WOOD, Juliette, 1999, Margaret Murray and the Rise of Wicca, 3rd Stone magazine (Issue 34, April-June)
    WOOD, Juliette, & OATES, 1998, Caroline A Coven of Scholars, Folklore Society
    WOOD, Juliette, Personal Communication, March 2009