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The Hagley Wood Murder: The body in the Wytch Elm

The actual witch elm in Hagley Wood

The actual witch elm in Hagley Wood

In April of 1943 three boys went bird egg hunting in Hagley Woods – lands on the estate of Lord Cobham below Clent Hills in the Cotswolds District of England. In the midst of the forest was a stunted elm tree. It was a likely spot for a nest, so one of the boys clambered up to the top, some five feet from the ground. The boy, Robert Hart, discovered that the tree was hollow. Staring up at him from the rotting leaves inside the trunk was a human skull. A body had been tossed into the hollow trunk of the ancient elm.

Within a short while Worcestershire County Police were able to determine that the skeletal remains belonged to a woman of medium height. At the time of her death she was dressed in a dark striped woolen cardigan, a light blue plastic belt, a dark cloth skirt and blue crepe soled shoes.

The bones showed no evidence of injury, so the cause of death could not be determined. The only distinctive feature of the entire skeleton was the mouth – the teeth were particularly irregular. Professor J. M. Webster, one of the country’s top forensic pathologists, was called in to minutely examine the remains. It was he who developed a mass of evidence including the clothing and the teeth. The teeth were especially important. Dental records, even in the 1940s, were such that the identity of the woman would not long remain a mystery. Even so, the police contacted shops and manufacturers, possible sources of the clothing and the distinctive crepe soled shoes.

As the police investigation widened, several disturbing facts surrounding the location of the body came into consideration. The tree that served as the woman’s grave for some eighteen months was known locally as “The Wytch Elm.” Looming above Hagley Wood were the Clent Hills – atop which was an ancient circle of stones said to have been used by local witches for sabbats. Eighteen months after the body in the Wytch Elm was discovered there another killing 40 miles away. The body of Charles Walton was found beneath an oak tree at Meon Hill, his body staked to the ground with his own pitchfork – and a cross deeply carved in his throat with a knife.

The villagers in nearby Lower Quinton were convinced that witchcraft was behind the Walton murder. Police began to consider that the Hagley Wood murder might have similar connections.

As I write this, 71 years after the body of this 35 year-old woman was discovered, she remains unidentified. Despite the wealth of clues, nothing was ever learned about who she was, or how she died – or who murdered her.

I came across both murders in my research for The Watch: Churchill’s Secret War for the Soul of Germany. I decided to keep the memory of the lost woman in the wytch elm alive by weaving it into the storyline. In the book (a reflection of the still largely secret truth) Churchill uses occult groups in England to actively combat the pagan work of Himmler’s black priesthood, the SS. Himmler and Hitler both used astrologers – so Churchill employed them to tell him what Hitler might be thinking. It was also important to let Himmler know that an occult war was being staged against the Nazi Reich.

In the book the body in the wytch elm finally gains a name and a face. It might be fiction – but then again, there are those who believe it may not be far at all from the truth.

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