Black Country Muse

Subtitle

Myths.

Now it's a fact of life, that the longer the timespan from the actually event, the less chancc there will be of the information today being totally accurate. Memories fade, distortions creep in, witness's fall out of the woodwork, and everyone adds their own pet theory. A failure to solve the event, often leads to wild speculations, and sooner or later, depending on the local superstition levels, Witchcraft and the Occult is raised as a solution. There are many Murders, and unexplained deaths, that fit into this catogorie. The Midlands have quite a few, here's one that crops up on a regular basis.

Hagley Wood is part of the estate of Lord Cobham, whose residence is Hagley Hall, Worcestershire, not far from Halesowen. It's always been a popular starting point for a bit of rambling on the Clent Hills, family walks and picnics, and of course, for the younger, and more energetic of the inhabitants, a bit of courting. The Woods have easy access, via Hagley Wood Lane, from the busy Birmingham to Kidderminster road. It has always of course, been an area where a fair amount of poaching was done, as it was on this day, the 18th April,1943. Four young lads, complete with dogs, set off from Wollescote, it being Wartime, and rations short, in search of a few rabbits. This was a weekly ritual for the youngsters, Thomas Willetts, Frederick Payne, Robert Farmer, and Robert Hart, but this day was going to be a little bit different. After some unsuccessful chases, they proceeded on to Clent and Walton Hills, and when the light started to fade, made their way back towards home, birdnesting on the way. Nearing the Hagley road, Robert Farmer spotted a Blackbird leaving an old Wych Elm, and sure enough, there was a nest with four eggs in it. Calling to the youngest of the four, Robert Hart, he told him to have a look at another Wych Elm, not far away, and suprise, surprise, he found a human skull. It was in a hollow section of the old tree, and boys being boys, Hart tried to hook it out with a stick. He eventually succeeded, and all four of them, a bit shocked, put it carefully back into the tree. Also in the hollow, according to Farmer, was a Green bottle, a pair of shoes, and more bones. They exited the spot in something of a hurry. Around the site of  "Oldnal Pits", they met Donald Payne, Freds older brother, and they returned to the tree, to show him what they had found, once again, hooking the skull out, and replacing it. All four of them told their parents what they had found, but only Harold Willetts, Thomas's father, bothered to report it to the Police.

The next day, Sergeant Charles Lambourne, from Cradley, Sergeant Richard Skerratt, from Clent, Constable Jack Pound from Hagley, and the local motor patrol Sergeant, Jack Wheeler, arranged to meet the four lads at the Wych Elm whicn contained the Skeleton. ( More pictures in the " Images from the Forums " Album, in the Gallery ) Looking into the hollow cavity, Sergeant Skerratt, convinced it was a human skull, hurried off to phone his Divisional H.Q, at Stourbridge. They passed it on to the County C.I.D, at Hindlip Hall, who despatched Detective Supt Inight, and Detective Inspector Williams, accompained by a Forensic scientist from Birmingham, Professor J.M.Webster. It was impossible to examine the skull and bones from the hollow top, so Jack Pound, a good man with an axe, enlarged the hole from further down. It becomes important, at this stage, to take note of what was observed. Measurements in the records, say that the old tree had been broken off, five and a half feet from the ground. The cavity through which Robert Hart had first seen the skull, was three and a half feet from the ground. The widest part of the cavity was twenty four inches across. It was clear to all of them, that they were looking at a most unlikily place to hide a body. Why not simply bury the body, there were plenty of less obvious places around the woods. Lifting out the skull, Prof Webster found cloth wedged into the skulls mouth, and declared it a murder scene. A full scale search soon turned up more bones in the vacinity. A shine bone was tangled in the roots of another nearby tree, finger bones from one of the hands, which had been severed from the body, and some scraps of cloth were also uncovered. By the end of the day, almost all of the skeleton had been found, and it was then transported back to his Birmingham Laboratory. Given that there was a War on, Prof Webster did a very good job on the remains, and the clothing. It was, he said, the remains of a woman, about 35 years of age, she had been wearing a wollen cardigan with blue and yellow stripes, a mustard coloured skirt with side fastening zip, a light blue belt, her underwear was rayon, and she had black crepe-soled shoes. She was also wearing a very cheap roll gold wedding ring, which was about 4 years old. The estimate of her death was between 1 and 4 years, which he later ammended to about 18 months. There were no signs of any injuries or desease, but because of the cloth found in the skull, he gave it as suffocation. He was also convinced that given the narrow opening in the tree, she had been put in before rigor mortis set in. He was certain, she had been forced into the tree, feet first, shortly after death. The Coroner had very little option, but to go along with this, and a verdict of  'murder by persons unknown ' was bought in. And so it was now left up to the Police, to find out who she was, and who killed her. No easy  task, as we now well know.

The Police, thanks to Webster, at least had a few clues to begin the task. Her strangely aligned teeth for a start, and enquiries began around the area. It produced absolutly no response. Whoever she was, she had not registered with any local Dentist's. They had no luck either with the missing persons file. It had grown during the War, and not every one who went missing, wanted to be found, or in some cases, never reported missing at all. The next step. was the clothing, and while they did find the manufacture's of most of it, they were so widely sold, they didn't find any link to the victim. They also had luck with the shoes, which were of an unusual design, deligent work tracking down all but 4 pairs that had been sold. Once again, there was no link back, it was as if this woman had arrived from another planet. Then they dug up a promising lead. In 1941 a report had been made, by a couple of businessmen and a woman, of hearing screams in the Wood. They called the Police, and Sergeant Skerratt, together with P.C.Jack Pound, had made a search and found nothing. It was put down to Foxes, as it very likely was. The next information suggested that it may be useful to have a word with the local Gypsies, they did, but again drew a blank. Time passed, and no more progress was made with the skeleton in the Wych Elm. Any distractions during the War, were eagerly snapped up by a weary public on rations, and sure enough letters started to arrive at local News Papers. The rumour, that the wood had been used for withcraft and black magic, was just too much of a temptation for some of the more " knowledgable " locals, who now advanced many outlandish theories. Not content with this, some wag, maybe taunting the police over the lack of any progress, wrote in paint, on a wall in Old Hill the words, " who put luebella in the wych elm ". This was followed by others, all with a similar theme. Odd though, to use the old fashioned form of the name. Did this first writer know the woman in the tree ?

 

Now the real weird stuff really started. First, she was of course a German spy, this followed reports/rumours, that parachutes had been found in the woods, in 1940. It should be remembered, that finding these should have been reported, but they rarely were. The shortage of clothing, led to many being cut up and used for underwear, the remains just being dumped. Then came theories that she had been a victim of ritual murder, the Wych Elm being the traditional place to imprison the spirits of unwanted witches. Another theory, from an anonomous writer, held that she was a fugitive from the bombing in Birmingham, and she had been killed for reasons best known to the murderer. I couldn't make sense of that one either, there was I, just thinking that all murder's had a reason. Some said the murderer was a local man, as only he would have known the wood so well, and known about the hole in the tree. Meanwhile, the messages on walls and building continued, without fail, in Halesowen, and Blackheath. Non of this, was any help to the hard pressed police force, it merely served to muddy the already clouded waters. It was then put forward, by another so called " expert ", this time a member of the fraternity who claim to be able to see into the past and future, that she was a Dutch Agent named " Clara Dronkres ", working for the Germans. No explanation though, as to why she finished up in a tree in Hagley Woods. On one of the many revivals of this mystery, a former member of the Home Guard, who, with the passage of time may have been suffering from what could be described as " memory problems ", claimed to have seen the murderer, and his victim, on one of his many patrols through the woods. He hadn't reported the incident at the time, so he said, but when he saw an article in a local paper, in 1974, it " jogged " his memory. Another Home Guard, from the same unit, claimed to know, "that he knew for certain", that two German agents had parachuted in to the area, one being " Bella ". Found by our own security forces, she had, he said, been quietly done away with and stuffed into the tree. Into this mayhem stepped Doctor Margaret Murray, a noted " expert " on the occult, who made, or tried to make, a link between this murder, and the one at Lower Quinton, in Warwickshire, some years before. ( Charles Walton, killed, so it was suggested, by Devil Worshippers ) Most of the more intelligent members of the area though, dismissed such suggestions, as pure and utter rubbish. The local Church Warden, Mr A.H. Hodgetts, stuck to the view that the woman was a Romany, and had been punished by her fellows, for some serious transgressions of their code. There have been many others, including a strange letter from Canada, the writer of which, purports to have held information, unknown at the time. It turned out he didn't, and the police were well aware of the information, which had already been investigated. Then there was the strange Mr Cogzell, who claimed he could identify the shoes found with the skeleton, as they had been cut when displayed on a TV programme. He claimed to have been present when they were repaired. Discribed by Prof Webster as " Black ", they were wet at the time, so when they dried out, they were found to be a shade like midnight blue, but they were not damaged by cutting. They were labeled in the police sketch as Blue. Invited to view them, Mr Cogzell claimed they were not the shoes from the tree, they were the wrong colour, and had not been repaired with stitches. He then accused the police and Birmingham University of a bit of deception, (he may have got a bit over excited at this stage) and was asked to vacate the building and grounds. He was not a happy man. I did say, you should carefully note the police reports. It was perfectly possible for a slim woman, as the skeleton suggests she was, to have got into the tree unaided. Why, I don't know, perhaps it was Winter and she had nowhere else to go. She certainly didn't get out. Apart from the cloth in the skulls mouth, which could have been pushed in with all the stick poking, young Robert Hart had done, there's not a single piece of evidence that would point to her being  murdered in the first place. Forget the witchcraft, German spys, Gypsy revenge, Devil Worship, and a host of other rubbish. If she was murdered, and there isn't a single shred of evidence to suggest she was, it was almost certainly a local, possibly a man on leave from one of the services, perhaps he never survived the War. We shall never know now anyway, and for the rest of time, that skeleton will remain just " Bella ", the woman in the Wych Elm. I have put a few more pictures, in the 'Images from the Forums'  gallery, should anyone be interested, for you can bet your bottom dollar, at some stage, the case will come back again in the future. See more strange stuff on the Folklore Page.

WHO REALLY PULLED THE TRIGGER.

I was bought up to believe, that this country had the finest Police Force in the World. Not much, up until the 1960s, really dented this belief, shared I suspect, with the rest of the population. The Myth of the good old honest British bobby was well and truly intrenched. Then things started to go badly wrong, and the myth began to shrink and vanish, replaced by the bitter realisation, that they weren't much better, and in some case's, a bit worse than others. The disbandment, of the Midlands Serious Crime Squad, was an indicator that things were not as they seemed. Convictions began to be overturned, and we were left wondering, just where it would all end, and we were not the only ones. For the 4 men jailed for this next case, it would take 18 years.

At about 4.15pm, on the 19th September, 1978, Carl Bridgewater cycled down the track that led to Yew Tree Farm. The Farm House, which was at the end of Lawnswood Road, just off the busy A449, Wolverhampton to Kidderminster Road, was a bit run down, and in need of a few repairs. Carl, who was 13, lived in Wordsley, barely a mile away, and was in the last stages of finishing his paper round. He knew the owners, Frederick Jones, and his sister Mary Poole, quite well, and as usual, would have entered the farmhouse via the back door, and given them their evening paper. But not on this occasion, Fred and Mary were out, although the back door was open, forced open as it later turned out. The time was about 4.20pm. No one knows what happened next, that he disturbed someone in the house, is in no doubt. That he had been shot fatally in the head, is also not in doubt, but what was in doubt, and always would be, was who had fired the Shotgun, that blasted away the youngster's life. His body was found at about 5.30pm, by Doctor Angus Macdonald, who was on his way home to Prestwood, and had called in to check on his patient, Mary Poole. It took just a few seconds, to assertain that the lad was dead, and to also take in that the place had been ransacked. Dr Macdonald called the police.

Staffordshire Police launched the biggest murder hunt they had ever undertaken, and soon established that a blue vehicle had been seen parked in the trackway to the farm, the afternoon of the murder. Some items taken from the farm, were found scattered around the grounds, although Fred Jones was not really sure what had been taken. He valued the mising items at £500, but an expert put the value nearer to a £100. It was assumed, that at least 2 vehicles hab been used to carry away the " loot ", but in truth, it would all have fitted in an average car boot. No trace of any of the missing items were found, and at this stage, several policemen were trying to fathom the motive for killing Carl. It seemed so senseless, unless it had been done, because he had recognised the intruder that afternoon. 3 months went by, then there was another burglary, similar in nature to the one at Yew Tree Farm, less than an hours drive away, at Chapel Farm, Romsley, near Halesowen. Was this the same gang, the chance soon came to find out, someone had written down the getaway cars number plate.

The car belonged to a Linda Galvin, was a green Austin 1100, and she lived in Birmingham, with her boyfriend, Vincent Hickey. When the police called, Vincent legged it, knowing the car had been spotted at Chapel Farm. A few days later he gave himself up, and both he and his Solicitor were surprised, when he was agressively questioned about the Yew Tree Farm murder. Vincent Hickey had form for burglary, he had admitted to the Chapel Farm robbery, and was now terrified he was going to get done for murder. He took the police to another man on the raid, Jimmy Robinson, who had more form than Hickey, and they arrested him as well. The next one named was Patrick Molloy, and after a few weeks, Vincent's cousin, Michael Hickey was also under lock and key. After many hours of questioning, Vincent Hickey confessed, only to withdraw the statement later. Patrick Molloy, already a sick man, also gave a detailed statement, implicating the 4 men. They were also found to be responsible for a raid on a Tesco store, in Castle Vale, Birmingham, and for which they were rightly convicted. The Yew Tree Farm murder however, all three denied any knowledge of, despite Molloy's signed confession. To be fair to these men, the Police were struggling on the case. There was not a shred of evidence linking them to the scene, or the killing. The confession's had only come after some very questionable treatment, and the Police were convinced that Molloy was telling the truth. His statement, was so close to the facts as they knew them, that senior officers were confident that they had the right men. Based on this "evidence", all four, were convicted of the murder of Carl Bridgewater, at Yew Tree Farm, in 1979. Patrick Molloy died in Prison, in 1981, and thus deprived the remaining three, of any chance of a succesful appeal later on. His evidence, gained with some suspect methods, would remain the keystone of the whole case.

Michael Hickey, top left, Vincent Hickey, top right, Jimmy Robinson, bottom left, and Patrick Molloy, bottom right.

In the years that followed, the Serious Crime Squad, were discredited, and disbanded for a whole variety of mis-deeds, including fabricating evidence. Some senior officers were sent on long gardening leaves, and put out to grass. Others were moved to different divisions, and a few resigned. None of this made any difference to the appeal in 1981, nor the review which came in 1989. Molloys statement was concidered to be a safe ground for the convictions. Yet there was another suspect, a man who had been already rejected by the police, who had a car the same colour, and matched a discription given at the time. Hubert Spencer, who ended up shooting a farmer not far away from the scene of Carl Bridgewaters death, at Holloway House Farm, just up the road. The mistakes made by the police, in retrospect, are easy to see, fixation on known criminals, a closed mind to other possibilities, something which we wouldn't have believed 33 years ago. They finally won their appeal in 1997, largely thanks to Michael Hickey's mother, Ann Whelan, who, while recognising her son was no angel, knew he was not a killer. The real victims of course, were Carl Bridgewater, and his parents, who throughout all the years kept a low profile, and their dignity intact.

CARL BRIDGEWATER. 1965 - 1978    R.I.P.

THE MYTH OF THE EVIL EYE.

The belief, that the eyes of the dead can still see, is a very old one. Certainly the Romans believed it, and maybe before them, the Greeks. How it came to be entrenched so deeply, here in the Midlands, I will leave for others to answer. The younger readers of this piece, may never have heard of the subject before, mainly I suppose, because a great deal of folklore and superstition, has become obscured within the new age of technology. I left out a few details, concerning the unsolved murder of a Pendeford Policeman, in 1887. ( Police Murders ) When his lifeless body was fished out of the Canal, he had some extensive damage to, and around his eyes. At the time, this was put down to the use of grappling hooks when searching for him. This was later revised by the police surgeon, and held back by the police, as only the murderer would have known about it, and it would have confirmed a confession. There have been many others up and down the country over time, and the myth was strengthened, when photography arrived. In explaining, that a camara used a similar system of lenses as the human eye, some of the less well educated, were under the impression it was an exact replica. So the belief, that the last thing any person saw, would be imprinted on the eye, just like a picture, was fairly widespread. 

On the morning of 20th January, 1914, a young girl, on her way to take a bite of breakfast to her father, at Wrights Foundry in Ettingshall, Bilston, had a very nasty shock. As she walked up one of the many old waste banks, she noticed, propped up against a bricked up mine shaft, a bundle. Thinking it was clothes, she went to have a closer look. She would later wish she hadn't. It was the slumped figure of a man, and even to her, it was plain that he was dead. He had several holes in his head, and more horrifingly, there were two large blood dripping gaps where his eyes should have been. Her screams bought men to the scene, the local policeman, PC Robert Bellingham arrived, who, seeing this was out of his league, quickly called for his Inspector. The man had been shot 4 times, twice in the head, and then once in each eye. This was going to be a difficult case.

A reconstrution of the murder scene, by a local paper.

The victim turned out to be Kent Reeks, an American from Boston, who had come to Ettingshall, from his hotel in Liverpool. He had left there the day before, saying his was off to see some friends in the Midlands. ( maybe that was a slight exaggeration on his part ) He had not been robbed, there was money in his pockets and in his wallet. The Police then found out, he had arrived in this country under the name of E.S.Hyde. All very strange, and it got worse. Another American had also stayed at the same hotel, a Mr G.H.Ramsden, who had now mysterious disappeared. The two men had been seen in Wolverhampton the night before, having, what one witness discribed, as " not a friendly drink ". Now called the " Millfield Murder " in the press, it had several baffling elements. Whoever the two were, they would have needed local knowledge to find their way across the waste land. This was deduced from the facts, that the body had not just been dumped, and it had been a foggy night as well. The Police did in fact arrest a man, one George Rogers from Bilston, after he booked a passage to America just after the murder. It turned out not to be his real name, but the police had no evidence to connect him with the murder, so he was released.There have been a great many theories put forward over the years, but nothing has come close to solving the case. A distinct lack of eyewitness'es, so to speak. Almost 14 years later, in September 1927, on a quite Essex country lane near Romford, P.C.George Gutteridge was shot to death. Once again, 4 shots had been fired, two in the head, and one each into his eyes. The similarities are startling. The two murders were soon caught, William Kennedy was apprehended in Liverpool. Frederick Browne was arrested at his Garage in London, complete with the gun and cartridges that had killed Gutteridge. Browne had connections with the Black Country, and had been here many times, disposing of stolen cars. He may also have had family in the Ettingshall area. All conjecture now of course, they were both hanged on 31st May, 1928, and if there was any link between the murders, the secret went with them to the grave. I believe in some quarters, the Myth of the Evil Eye still exists, even in this day of the digital photo. Read more about the regions supperstition's on the Folklore Page, and more Myths in the Topic about the Titanic in the Forum section.

 

One enduring myth, well a series of them really, have been around a very long time, and they concern the dreaded Workhouse. For those unfamiliar with this much miligned institution, the proper title of which is Union Workhouse, they replaced the older versions, better known locally, as The Parish Poor House. This was an early version of a welfare state, which looked after the more unfortunate parishoners, who through either old age, infirmity, or hard times, had need of some assistance. The money to run it all, came in the form of a rate, levied on those who could well afford to pay. It was not a popular system. The first myth, is that those who had fallen on hard times, were actually sent to the Workhouse. No they were not. Anyone needing help had to apply for parish assistance, and many were refused. ( An early form of weeding out the cheats soon came in ) True, that there would be a certain amount of shame in going in, but better that than starvation. Some only stayed a few weeks, as their conditions improved, and the breadwinner found employment. The very old stayed much longer, for not many parishes would knowingly send someone away who was frail and infirm. The second myth, is that the Workhouse's were like being sent to Prison. Well for a start, there were no bars up the windows, except in places where they were meant to actually keep people out. And of course, they all had a standard set of rules. One singled out, was the forcible seperation of families. In the days when there were no Marriage Certificates, it was difficult to prove either way, what the receiving Officer had been told, and in any case, the Union Workhouse's were never designed as an alternative to a family home. To keep down the spread of sickness and infections, all those admitted had to have a bath, and were then issued with a clean set of clothes and bedding. A third myth is that the inmates were forced to do heavy manual labour. No they were not, not in those Workhouse's that were properly run. The rule was, that if you were fit and able, you would, to offset the cost to the parish, undertake such jobs as repairing roads and fences, and for the women, working in the Laundry, and sewing and mending clothes. They were of course, paid for this work, a fact overlooked by the mythmakers. Anyone refusing, far from being whipped and beaten, ( another myth ) they were asked to leave the relatively comfortable shelter of the Workhouse, and take their chances back outside.

Fair enough I would say, for today, we have a similar set of rules for those who also refuse to train or take a job, and for which they are quite capable of performing. Far from being being viewed today as places of evil, they were a godsend to those who had nowhere else to turn, and one more fact always overlooked, The Union Workhouse's, through an extensive outreach programme, assisted thousands more outside, that they ever did inside. Money, Food, Clothes, Shoes, all distributed around the area, saved a large number of people from a cruel death, in a sometimes cruel world. The nail that finally sealed the fate of the system came in 1909, with the introduction, by Lloyd George, of a state pension for all those over the age of 70. A welcome relief for the elderly, some of whom saw it all as a bit of a Miracle.