At the very height of the carnage of world War Two, some lads were out illicitly searching for birds eggs to eek out their meagre wartime diet on a private estate in the English Midlands. What they found when investigating a promising hollow tree was something quite spectacularly gruesome. Initially forgotten about as the war raged on, their discovery wasn’t about to lie down and play dead. Strange graffiti daubed on local walls and monuments fired speculation about the case that was to involve crime of passion, Satanism, ritual gypsy killings, prostitution, Nazi spies, cabaret singers, conspiracy theories and even a trapeze artist. Today on its 70th anniversary the as yet unsolved case of Bella in the Wych Elm has become a major a source of inspiration to creative artists in the UK.
Author Cathii Unsworth’s latest book That Old Black Magic is intricately wound around Bella’s discovery, ‘That Old Black Magic is, of course, a work of fiction, my own imaginings woven around what those schoolboys found in that tree in Hagley Woods, Worcestershire, on 18 April 1943.’ Cathi told us: ‘Teenagers Robert Hart, Thomas Willetts, Bob Farmer and Fred Payne had been playing football on that Sunday afternoon, when they took a walk from the village of Woolscote up to Hagley Woods. The boys knew they would be trespassing: the land formed part of the ancestral home of Viscount Cobham, which had been landscaped in the middle of the 18th century. The estate is dotted with follies, including, at the summit of Wychbury Hill, an 84ft (26m) obelisk. The friends entered the stretch of woods 630 yards parallel to the Kidderminster to Birmingham Road in search of game for the pot. What they found instead were human remains – the skull of a woman – inside the hollow trunk of a massive witch hazel tree, known locally as the Wych Elm. Terrified by what they had found – and the fact that they might be punished for trespassing or worse – the lads agreed to put it back where they had found it and tell no one. This resolve lasted until bedtime for the youngest of their number, 13-year old Tommy Willetts, who broke down and confessed to his parents. They in turn alerted the Worcestershire County Police.
The next morning, officers returned to the scene with Professor James Webster, Head of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology from Birmingham University. Inside the tree, they found the remains of a woman, a crêpe-soled shoe and the decomposed clothing she had been wearing. A further search of the surrounding woodland uncovered the bones of her right hand buried nearby, as well as the matching shoe to the one in the tree 100 yards away.’
Curiously given that it was wartime there were no identification papers found with the body and the labels had been carefully cut from her clothes. Cathi continued: ‘According to Webster they had discovered the body of a woman about 35 years of age, who was 5ft tall. He estimated she had been in the tree for between 18 months to three years. The hollow had an upper aperture of 24 inches and a lower aperture of 17 inches, therefore he ruled out suicide. “It was an excellent place for the concealment of a murder and I think it indicates local knowledge.” From the position of the bones the woman was in a semi-reclining position. “She must have been put in before rigor mortis or after it passed off… She would either be killed close to the spot or was murdered in the near vicinity so that it was possible to convey her to the spot before rigor mortis set in.” ‘
A nationwide search followed, with police first checking 3,000 missing persons’ files from the surrounding 1,000 square miles. Prof Webster drew up a detailed picture of the woman and what she had been wearing at the time of her death. Her shoes were traced by detectives to a batch sold at a market stall in Dudley. Photographs of her crooked teeth were also widely circulated around dental practices, and published in medical journals. But these elicited no response.’
It seemed that nobody knew who the dead woman was… until a message was received in the night, just before the Christmas of 1943. WHO PUT LUBELLA DOWN THE WYCH ELM? was chalked in capital letters three-inches deep, on the side of a house in Old Hill, about a 15-minute walk from Hagley Road. A few days later, another appeared in Upper Dean Street, Birmingham, asking: WHO PUT BELLA DOWN THE WYCH ELM HAGLEY WOOD? This was followed by two more, high up on the same block of buildings in the fruit market area of the city, stating simply: HAGLEY WOOD BELLA. Picking up on the links to the Hagley Woods skeleton, local press asked in return: Do you know Bella?
No one replied. But the skeleton in the tree now had a name that everyone, including the police, started using. And still the tracts refused to go away. Similar markings reappeared on a five-bar gate at Hawne, and on a wall in Wolverhampton in August 1944. Both read: HAGLEY WOOD LUBELLA WAS OPPOSITE ROSE AND CROWN, HASBURY. Yet police could find no trace of any woman, missing or otherwise, who went by this name.’
Did the writer of this message of this message know something the police didn’t or was it just a sick joke designed to taunt them? Bizarre ideas about the identity of the woman now known as Bella soon blossomed as the messages fueled speculation and more people became interested in the case. Cathi continues: ‘Professor Margaret Murray was an established Egyptologist with a concurrent interest in folklore. Her books The Witch Cult in Western Europe (1921) and The God of Witches (1933) expounded on a theory that an ancient witch cult was prevalent in pre-Christian Europe. Murray drew attention to the corpse’s missing right hand, a detail that signified to her that the murder bore the hallmarks of Black magic ritual. It was arcane tradition, she said, to imprison the spirit of a dead witch inside a hollow tree.
Still, a decade passed without further development. In November 1953, The Wolverhampton Express and Star columnist Lt Col Wilfred Byford-Jones returned to the unsolved murder’s scene on it’s tenth anniversary, mulling over Prof Murray’s theories as he roamed Hagley Woods at night in as series of atmospheric articles he penned as ‘Quaestor’. These provoked a response. A woman calling herself ‘Anna’ from Claverley claimed to have known the identity of both the woman in the tree and her killer – and it had nothing to do with witchcraft.’
Byford-Jones passed the letter on to Worcestershire CID and met with his informant. (real name Una Mossup) She told him a story about a spy-ring passing on secrets to the Germans so that Birmingham’s armaments factories could be targeted by the Luftwaffe. It involved a Dutchman, a male trapeze artist and a former officer of the British armed forces who died in an insane asylum in 1942. MI5 were brought into check these details and Quaestor wrote that they had verified the identity of Anna’s officer. Though this all sounded very promising, this trail also went cold – although the presence of corporeal spooks in the mix only heightened the mystery when Bella’s remains, which had never been buried, disappeared from Birmingham Medical School.
Six years ago, a declassified MI5 file detailed the interrogation of a German agent named Josef Jakobs, who had been parachuted into the Huntingdonshire fens at Ramsay, near Peterborough, in January 1941. Jakobs had on him fake ID papers, a longwave radio, a map with two nearby RAF stations ringed on it, and in the lining of his suit was a photograph of a glamorous woman, with a message written on the back, in English, and signed: Your Clara.
Jakobs told his interrogators she was his lover – an actress and singer called Clara Baurele, an influential woman connected to senior Nazis, who worked as a secret agent. She had spent two years in the music halls of the West Midlands before the War and spoke English with a Birmingham accent. Jakobs brief was to make radio contact with her as soon as he landed. Instead, he had broken his ankle on the way out of the plane, and was subsequently surrounded and captured by local farmers. Jakobs’ interrogators did not consider that he could be successfully turned into a double agent and could not verify his story. He was Court Martialed under the 1940 Treachery Act at the Duke of York’s HQ, Chelsea on 4-5 August 1941 and convicted of Treason. Jakobs was to be the last person to be executed at the Tower of London, dispatched by firing squad at 7.12am on 15 August 1941 at a miniature rifle range.’
These two competing theories about Bella’s identity with everything that went with them were just too good for Cathi to resist as the inspiration for That Old Black Magic. ‘Coupled with the strange characters Anna of Claverly told Quaestor about,’ she continued: ‘This was the line of story I felt most compelling as a novelist. Along with the hauntingly gothic setting of Hagley Park and Wychbury Hill, it all suggested something from the pen of Dennis Wheatley, who of course also worked for the Secret Service in World War II. He was a good friend of the spymaster Maxwell Knight, whose wartime brief was to infiltrate the many secret societies with occult leanings that supported the Nazi regime.
I had always intended to write this novel around the case of Helen Duncan, the last British woman to be found guilty of practicing Witchcraft in a highly controversial trial at The Old Bailey in March 1944. During the research for my previous novel Without The Moon, I first came across the wonderful true life characters of Hannen Swaffer, aka the Pope of Fleet Street, who defended Mrs Duncan at her trial with a magnificent oration about ectoplasm, and Harry Price, the Ghost Hunter, who had by then spent over a decade pursuing her as a fraud. Price and Maxwell Knight became the link in my novel to these two stories, inspired by the fact that the former suffragette-turned-fascist Christabel Nicholson, who had an avid interest in the supernatural, visited her Nazi agent friends at a Russian tea room virtually next door to the Price’s National Laboratory for Physical Research in Roland Gardens, South Kensington. She was also a member of The Right Club and was tried and acquitted of being part of a Nazi spy ring in a case instigated by Knight the summer of 1941.
Harry Price had connections to Germany – before the War broke out he had been in discussions with Bonn university to move the NLPR archive over there; and in 1932 he had also taken part in stunning scenes of goat-based sorcery to mark the centenary of the poet Goethe, when he tried to recreate a spell called The Bloksberg Tryst high in the Brocken Mountains of Harz, which he described as “the most pagan area of all Germany”. Harry possessed a magical text called The High German Black Book, which Goethe was said to have based the Walpurgis Nacht scene in Faust upon. Needless to say this was also too good – and too Wheatley – for me to ignore in my plotting.’
This is all very intriguing stuff, but as they say on TV there are other theories about who Bella was. Published in 1968, Donald McCormick’s book Murder by Witchcraft elaborates upon the espionage story. McCormick had obtained secret files from the Abwehr (German military intelligence) about an agent known as Lehrer who had a Dutch girlfriend in the Birmingham area. This Clarabella Dronkers had crooked teeth just like ‘Bella’ was about 30 years of age and being a foreigner had no dental records stored in the UK. Coupled with this a Nazi spy, one Johannes Marinus Dronkers was executed in Wandsworth Prison on New Year’s Eve 1942. Was this ‘Bella’s husband? It would explain the wedding ring found with her corpse, and the missing labels from her clothes. Was she murdered as part of a Nazi of spy ring love triangle?
Other speculation has it that Bella was a local prostitute murdered by a client, that she was a local barmaid killed by an American GI or that she was a gypsy killed in some kind of ritual, all of which leads us neatly on to James Blogden. In Blogden’s latest novel The Hollow Tree three competing versions of Bella along with her killers get to take part in a modern day drama as a young amputee gains alarming supernatural dimension shifting abilities.
‘Initially I was attracted to the uncanny nature of the crime – I’d never heard of a body being found in a hollow tree’ James explained, ‘the fact that it was unsolved, with Bella’s remains having disappeared and the suggestions of occult activity surrounding it. The bones from her hand found near the tree inspired the story that witches were trying to create a ‘hand of glory’ and that gave me the idea for Rachel losing a hand and gaining her own supernatural power. But it was the competing theories about Bella’s identity, which made me think about using different avatars.
They’re all taken from material found online and in the original case files. There really was a Dutchman, though he almost certainly wasn’t a spy. The leshy is simply a cool monster I’ve been dying to use for ages, and it meshed nicely with the gypsy narrative. The Small Man is a distillation of all the misogyny lying behind not just the crime itself, but the narrow range of alternatives for Bella’s true identity: witch, spy or whore. Having two teenage daughters, I wanted to explore that as a metaphor for the social constraints and expectations still placed upon young women today.’
But its not just writers who have been inspired by the mystery, filmmaker Tom Lee Rutter also found the story of ‘Bella’ irresistible. Tom’s atmospherically aged monochrome docudrama Bella in the Wych Elm joins the boys as they make their gruesome discovery and explores some of the local legends that have grown up around the case. Tom was drawn to the story because, ‘the case interested me so much because, it was local and generally accepted as a celebrated piece of Black Country heritage. As someone who is Black Country born and bred I was brought up on a healthy plethora of ghost stories from my mum and both grandparents – and Black Country folk are such an Earthy, humble and superstitious bunch. When the details of the mystery unfolded into my orbit it had grabbed my imagination straight away – and seemed like the perfect story to adapt to celebrate Black Country heritage. Also the element of the anonymous graffito to me evoked an ominous, faceless folk tradition that added to its creepiness.’
John isn’t the only filmmaker to be inspired by the case. Britain’s foremost female paranormal investigator Jayne Harris has used previously classified police and MI5 documents to piece the sinister jigsaw puzzle of Bella’s death together in her documentary Who Put Bella in the Wych-Elm. ‘For me, the case of Bella is the ultimate murder mystery.’ Jayne said, ‘Teenage boys find a body in a hollow tree, no one knows who she was, who killed her or why and pretty quickly fantastical conspiracy theories ensue. Is she a Nazi Spy perhaps? well it was World War Two so possibly. No, she was a Witch – the area is known for Pagan gatherings and she had her hand cut off and buried close by! These are just two of the theories, which have really captured people’s imaginations over the past 75 years and you can see why. An added gem to this story is the fact that her remains are now missing along with other evidence and police reports. Mysteries within a mystery!
I grew up in Stourbridge, the location of the murder and the now infamous Wychbury obelisk adorned with the words “WHO PUT BELLA IN THE WITCH ELM” was a familiar sight to me, but I didn’t really know what it was all about, who this Bella person was and why she was being referred to in this way. So during the winter of 2014 I decided I would educate myself on this particular local legend, and once I started I couldn’t stop. It had me hooked instantly. I saw flaws in the original police investigation, evidence for and against each of the best known theories and just couldn’t get my head around the fact that the key evidence, Bella herself, was apparently missing.
How do you lose human remains associated with what was until 2005 still an open murder enquiry? Nothing about it made sense. And I just knew that I had to share this deliciously dark true story with as many people as possible. I’ve written books before and I knew that wasn’t the way to go, this story needed to be visual. The only problem I faced was the fact that I had never made a film before and had no idea where to start! I work in a very haphazard way at the best of times, never terribly organised and usually coming up with ideas at the last minute and running with them. The Bella film was the epitome of my usual working practise. Disorganised and spontaneous, but somehow I managed to throw it together in a logical way and while I don’t consider myself a professional filmmaker, I am quite happy with what I managed to produce with zero budget! It was certainly a baptism of fire.’
So has Jayne solved the mystery?
‘I can’t say that I have a particular theory myself, as has always been the case with this story, just the moment that you think you may have cracked it something will turn up that throws the whole idea out of the water. If I had to commit to any particular school of thought however, I’d be inclined to say she was involved in Nazi espionage to some degree. There is so much evidence in support of it that it can’t be ignored.’
As the year rolls on more and more projects about ‘Bella in the Wych Elm’ are creeping out of Hagley Wood and its environs. Whether we ever get to the bottom of this intriguing mystery of who she was or nor it is going to be an interesting ride with hoards of fascinating material to sift through both fact and fiction.
Cathi Unsworth’s That Old Black Magic is published by Serpent’s Tail
James Brogden’s The Hollow Tree is published by Titan Books
Tom Lee Rutter’s Bella in the Wych Elm is currently playing the festivals, and on DVD complete with a very nice set of postcards from Bella in the Wych Elm https://bellainthewychelm.bigcartel.com/product/bella-in-the-wych-elm-limited-edition-dvd-set.
Jayne Harris’s Who Put Bella in the Wych-Elm? – the untold secrets’ is available from Amazon Prime or on DVD from HD Paranormal at https://www.hdparanormal.com/online-store/Who-put-Bella-in-the-Wych-Elm-DVD-with-BONUS-EXTRAS-p109747059