Tuesday, March 22, 2005

An unusual murder

Upper and Lower Quinton are quaint, peaceful villages in Warwickshire, on the very North East fringes of The Cotswolds. They are also the setting for one of the strangest murders of the twentieth century, which remains unsolved to this day.

The villages nestle beneath Meon Hill, close to the ancient Rollright Stones. Meon Hill has a strange history. There had long been legends of black dogs haunting the hill, a common English superstition (it was often said that people saw phantom black dogs prior to their deaths), and it was an ancient site. In 1875 John Hayward, a local man, had murdered Ann Turner, a woman he believed to be a witch, by impaling her on the ground with a hayfork and then slashing her throat, and cutting the sign of the cross in her body, a traditional way of killing witches and stripping them of their power.

On St Valentines Day 1945, a 74 year old labourer, Charles Walton, was cutting hedges at Fir Farm on Meon Hill. The old age pension had been introduced by this time, but Charles still liked to work; he had no real need, having been left a considerable sum of money in his wife's will 18 years earlier. He was known for his special and unusually empathetic ways with animals, and knowledge of ancient country lore, and seems to have been a well liked person. As darkness fell, his niece, Edie, with whom he lived, became concerned. She called on her neighbour, and they set off to the farm. The farmer claimed to have noticed a figure working in the distance earlier in the day, but had not actually spoken to Charles.

They found the body soon after, with the throat slashed and a cross carved into the flesh. The body had been pinned to the ground with a hayfork. The most famous policeman of the day, Inspector Fabian of Scotland Yard, was sent to investigate.

All 500 inhabitants of the village were interviewed, with few leads. Fabian suspected that, in fact, there was a wall of silence, a conspiracy within the village. A prisoner of war was arrested, but it soon became clear that this Italian gentleman regularly escaped from the nearby camp and let himself back in, in order to kill the odd rabbit for the pot. Fabian investigated thoroughly, but never uncovered the truth about what had happened to Charles Walton. There were two interesting lines of enquiry.

According to a book from 1929, Folklore, Old Customs and Superstitions in Shakespeareland, written by J. Harvey Bloom, a man called Charles Walton died there in 1885 after seeing a ghost. Although in another version of the tale on a website, it was a plough boy by the name of Charles Walton who saw a black dog nine days running on Meon Hill, once with a headless woman. There are rumours that a large black dog was found hanging by the neck on Meon Hill after the murder, and another run over by a police car. Was this some strange, supernatural event? Was the ploughboy the same Charles Walton, who would have been 14 in 1885?

However, Charles Walton's bank account was checked after the murder and the £297 which he had been left by his wife was missing; this was a large sum of money by 1945 standards, and Walton's rent for the cottage, which he shared with his niece who worked for a local factory, was 36 old pence a week. Given that he spent little, was in receipt of a pension, and still worked, this was mysterious. There are rumours that he had leant money to a local farmer, or had funded a black market operation during the war. Had somebody committed a grubby little financially motivated killing, and sought to throw police off the scent by dressing it up as something more fanciful?

This account shows that the villagers are still reluctant to talk; it also has some wonderful photos of Walton's cottage and Meon Hill. This account gives a little more detail into the witchcraft angle.