Unsolved Murders


Age: 35

Sex: female

Date: 18 Apr 1943

Place: Hagley Woods, Wychbury Hill, Hereford and Worcester

The body of a woman was found in a tree by poachers.

The woman's identity was never determined but she was later named Belladonna and Bella.

She was found in a Witch Elm tree in Hagley Wood on the Hagley Estate in Hereford and Worcester by four boys who were bird-nesting at about midday on Sunday 18 April 1943. One of the boys said that he left the others and went to the stump of an old elm and that when he looked in he saw a skull. He said that he then called his other friends over and that they then raked out the skull with a stick and then put it back in. When they got back home one of the boys mentioned the find to his father who then called the police.

When a policeman went to the scene he said that the tree was about 35 yards from a lane that was accessible to motor traffic and which was used a good deal by courting couples.

The police noted that there had been a gipsy camp there two or three years earlier.

A professor with the West Midlands Forensic Science Laboratory said that he ruled out the possibility of suicide or accident. He said that he went to the wood and had the tree trunk opened out and had the skeleton extracted and that when he was finally able to reconstruct the skeleton, he found it to be that of a woman probably aged about 35 years. He added that there was no evidence of violence on any of the bones. The woman was said to have had mousey hair and the remains of her clothing suggested that she had been wearing dark blue and mustard coloured clothes.

Her full description was given as aged between 25 and 40 years, most probably 35, five feet in height, light mousey brown hair, neither dyed not bleached and with a noticeable irregularity of the front teeth in the lower jaw. Her clothing was described as consisting of a dark blue and light khaki or mustard-coloured striped knitted woollen cardigan with cloth-covered buttons, and belt of slightly lighter shade of blue, blue stripe in cardigan itself, light khaki or mustard-coloured woollen cloth skirt, with side patent fastening and blue crepe-soled shoes size 5 1/2. The general quality of her garments was described as being poor and it was thought that she had not been wearing stockings.

A wedding ring was also found with her remains with the words 'Rolled gold' stamped inside.

However, he said that he found part of a garment stuffed deep into the cavity of her mouth and said that that might have been her cause of death.

He said that he thought that her body had been in the tree for at least 18 months and probably much longer. He added that he could not imagine anyone getting into the tree voluntarily, stating that the aperture of the tree hollow came down from 24 inches to 17 inches. and he concluded that he thought that the woman had been killed within a short distance of the tree and while her body was still warm that she was put into the tree. He also noted that she might have been killed a greater distance away and then brought to the scene by car. He said that he was certain that her body had not been stiff when she was pushed into the tree.

The police said that they had no clues regarding anyone’s involvement in the affair. They also said that it seemed quite definite that the woman was not of the locality and their investigations revealed no one that could remember seeing a woman matching the description of the dead woman at any time.

The police said that they did find a pair of shoes in the hollow tree trunk and it was thought that they might have aided in her identification.

Hagley was described as a rural spot that was within easy reach of Birmingham and the Black Country and to have attracted many visitors during the summer who went there by road, hiking, cycling or by bus. It was reported that when petrol was available for pleasure that people went to the woods in large numbers by motorcar, picnicking there and sometimes camping on the other side of the road from the wood.

It was also noted that evacuees also drifted there in considerable numbers during the lively enemy air activity over Birmingham early in the war.

Hagley Wood itself was accessible only by foot. The lane that ran up to it, described as a narrow winding lane, little more than a cart-track, ran beside the wood and was described as being easily negotiable by car up to the point where a five-barred gate afforded entrance to the wood. However, it was noted that the gate itself was locked. It was said that if the body had been taken by car that it would have had to have been carried some distance along a woodland path and then through some undergrowth before reaching the elm tree.

It was further noted that the risk of discovery in taking the body there by car during the day would be great and as such, if it had been taken by car, then it was probably done at night.

It was also noted that if the body had been brought by car to the wood then the murderer would have had to have known of the existence of the tree.

At her inquest a verdict of murder by some person or persons unknown was returned.

The mystery of her death took on a number of folkloresque theories including it being a black magic execution and that she was a German spy that had been spying for the Luftwaffe.

In December 1953 a detective with Worcestershire CID said that they had received an anonymous letter saying that Bella was a Dutch woman and that the person that had put her in the tree had died insane in 1942.

*map pointers are rough estimates based on known location details as per Place field above.

see en.wikipedia.org

see BBC

see Independent

see The Sun

see BBC

see Evening Despatch - Thursday 29 April 1943

see Daily Mirror - Tuesday 01 June 1943

see Birmingham Daily Gazette - Monday 26 April 1943

see Belfast Telegraph - Monday 07 December 1953