Mystery. Murder. And half a century of suspense

Black magic was blamed when four teenagers found a woman's skeleton in a tree in wartime Worcestershire. More than 50 years on, her story still haunts this corner of the Midlands. But who did put Bella in the Witch Elm? And why can't they let her rest in peace?

The crowd of eclipse-seekers who watched Wednesday's wonder from the top of Wychbury Hill in northern Worcestershire were frustrated - like many Britons - by a haze of cloud that passed over the sun at the crucial moment. A mixture of passing New Agers, local youth and a few more sedate residents of the prosperous village of Hagley, they were too excited to let this set-back ruin their morning. But there was also another shadow hanging over the occasion, whose chill was, for many, harder to ignore.

Behind them, fenced off with barbed wire, the crumbling stone obelisk of the Hagley Hall estate teetered heavenwards, as it has done for 200 years. On it, a sinister piece of fresh graffito gleamed in the half-light: "Who put Bella in the Witch Elm?"

For Hagley-dwellers - and especially for those who remember the village before the post-war expansion of Birmingham forcibly connected it to the modern world - those words have a dark significance. They refer to a story which retains an unsettling force in these parts.

It begins on a sunny April Sunday in 1943, when four teenage boys from nearby Stourbridge went birds'-nesting in Hagley Wood. Their quest took them to an old, hollow wych-hazel - also known as a wych-elm, on account of its size and age. For a minute or two they climbed and searched. Then one of them, Bob Farmer, gave a cry: from out of the tree, a white skull was grinning at him. "There was a small patch of rotting flesh on the forehead with lank hair attaching to it, and the two front teeth were crooked," he later stated.

The frightened boys ran away and - unsure if the skull was human or animal but certain that they should not have been in the woods in the first place - at first told no one about their find. Then Tommy Willetts, the youngest, told his father, who told the police. Their investigation uncovered the more-or-less entire skeleton of a young woman within the tree. Her mouth was stuffed with taffeta, and a gold wedding ring and some crepe shoes were found nearby - but perhaps most chillingly of all, one of her hands was missing. This, it was suggested, was a classic sign of a black-magic execution.

Subsequent examination - by the well-known forensic scientist Professor James Webster - suggested that the dead woman had been 35, was the mother of one child, and had been dead for about 18 months before she was found. The coroner declared it murder, with asphyxiation the probable cause. Exhaustive trawls through dental records and missing-person files proved unexpectedly fruitless, and the press were briefly enthralled. But, before long, the horrors of war distracted attention from the "Tree Murder Riddle".

But then, that Christmas, the graffiti began to appear. "Who put Luebella down the wych-elm?" said the first one, in nearby Old Hill. "Hagley Wood Bella", said another, in Birmingham. Gradually, the messages - which seemed to be written by the same hand - took what was to be their settled form: "Who put Bella in the wych-elm?" they asked.

The implication was that somebody knew, but appeals to the unknown graffitist to contact the police proved fruitless. Instead, the slogans continued, and, at some point in the late Forties, other hands took up the cry as well.

Like "Kilroy was here", it soon became a slogan for those who could not think of a slogan of their own, an expression of solidarity with fellow graffitists, with a hint of contempt for urban sophisticates who weren't in on it. "It's just a joke," says Carl Baldacchino of West Mercia police. "It doesn't mean anything."

In this case, though, there was a difference. Whether or not the graffitist knew the answer, an answer was still required: who did put Bella in the wych-elm?

The general use of the name Bella, a common Black Country name, to describe the unknown victim gained currency when Professor Margaret Murray, of University College, London, made the suggestion that the severed hand was a sign of a black-magic execution. Belladonna is associated with witchcraft, as is wych-hazel, and as was, according to local legend, Hagley Wood. The "witch" theory - that Bella had been executed for unspecified crimes against a coven - quickly became popular.

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.

Rumours that two German parachutists had landed and vanished in the area in early 1941 lent weight to the "spy" theory, as did the plausibility of the spy ring's alleged activities: guiding Luftwaffe bombers to the various munitions factories in the area.

According to Byford-Jones, some of Anna's facts were subsequently "verified", and both MI5 and the police investigated her claims. But no arrest followed. Either it was a false trail, or someone was covering up.

At this point, the story frays away into loose ends. The mystery lay dormant for years. Every decade or so, a new outbreak of graffiti, or a new theory, would reactivate it. Yet new evidence was scarce. Some anonymous letters to another local journalist in the 1970s briefly revived the "spy" theme, but the allegations largely rehashed Byford-Jones's, while the suggestion that Bella was a Dutchwoman called Clarabella Dronkers was never confirmed.

The odd detail lent weight to the suggestion that people in high places were suppressing evidence: it emerged, for example, that Professor Webster, now dead, had bequeathed Bella's skeleton to a friend at Birmingham University Medical School, but that it had somehow gone missing. However, the passage of time was already making certainty impossible. West Mercia police refused, and still refuse, to allow anyone access to their files, on the grounds that the case is still open. The cover-up theorists rest their case.

But no one has yet suggested who is being protected, or why, and the fact remains that none of the more colourful lines of inquiry has yet led anywhere. Alternative explanations - that the killer may have been a GI (perhaps the father of that one child), and that Bella may have been abducted (in her taffeta nightdress) when she fled from an air-raid that subsequently destroyed her Birmingham house - have repeatedly been advanced. And, while they're neither provable nor satisfying, they're closer to the received wisdom in Hagley than either the "spy" or the "witch" theory. After the last outbreak of Bella fever (in the mid-Eighties), it really looked as though the lady in the wych-elm would be left to rest in peace. Can the new graffito on the obelisk revive the old misgivings?

At nightfall, Hagley Wood is a place of dark rustlings and confusing shadows. The comforting murmur of Birmingham and its motorways is always just audible, but it doesn't take much to imagine yourself back into the vast, rural silence of the past. An explosion of broken twigs - caused by a family of startled deer - can still make even a cynical heart beat faster.

The remains of Bella's wych-elm are still there, rotted by age and buried deep among brambles and thrusting sycamores that have grown tall since her day. Is black magic performed around this wrinkled crone of a tree, whose shock of suckers has been compared to a witch's spiky hair? If so, I hope that those who perform it are wearing some good thornproof clothing.

But no one I asked in Hagley - from a self-professed paranormalist to a respected local historian - could tell me anything of a current occult tradition involving Hagley Wood. "If it was witchcraft, it's the only incident of its kind that I've heard of round here," says Geoff Pardoe, Hagley representative of the Worcestershire Local History Forum. "I've never come across any of it," says Harry Tromans, a former Daily Mirror journalist who wrote about the Bella case as a cub-reporter in 1943.

Later, in the archives of the Black Country Bugle, I found old letters suggesting that, before the war, witches' sabbaths were regularly held in Hagley Wood, while the pub opposite, The Gypsies' Tent, was associated with hauntings and other occult goings on. But The Gypsies' Tent has long since made way for a Travel Inn, and the authors of those letters are dead, as, indeed, are all who were directly associated with the mystery.

"It's a thorny old chestnut," says Tromans, stirring the arboreal metaphor with the conscious panache of an old hack. "There are all these theories, but no one actually knows anything. We'll probably never know. Anyone who might have known anything is dead, anyone who might have done it is dead. It's lost - we should let it go."

But whether Bella will be let go is a different matter. Lord Cobham, who owns Hagley Hall, has no plans to remove the graffito from his obelisk, for fear that "a power-wash might knock it down". As far as he's concerned, it's just one more example of a seemingly unstoppable vandalism problem that plagues his entire 1,200-acre estate, resulting from its easy accessibility to every urban delinquent in the West Midlands.

Yet visiting vandals from nearby Birmingham are unlikely to have been responsible for a message whose full resonance is appreciated only by that dwindling number of elderly Hagley-dwellers who have lived there since the Second World War. And, as long as the message remains for all to see, people will wonder what dark thoughts animated the elderly hand that wrote it.

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
    The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

    The haunting of Shirley Jackson

    Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
    Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

    Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

    These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
    Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen