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Charles Walton - 50 years on

By Adrian Pengelly

Published Imbolc 1995

When St. Valentine's day draws near the thoughts of many throughout the country will turn to love and romance. The same will be true in the quiet and sleepy Warwickshire villages of Upper and Lower Quinton, but here February 14th also stirs darker memories and reminds the older residents of deeds they would rather forget. It was in the vicinity of these two villages that one of the strangest murders in British legal history took place, a crime whose brutality shocked the nation and which remains unsolved to this day. This year will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the events which have since become known simply as the Witchcraft Murder.

It was early on the morning of 14th February 1945 that Charles Walton, a farm labourer, set off to cut hedges on the lower slopes of Meon Hill. Walton was 74 years old and had lived in Lower Quinton all his life. He had worked on the local farms since he left school and despite his old age and rheumatic joints, which required him to use a walking stick, he still undertook light work whenever he could. According to the local paper, the Stratford Upon Avon Herald, Walton took with him his own tools, a hayfork and a trouncing hook, and a piece of fruitcake for his lunch. He was seen off by his niece, Edie, whom he had adopted as a child and who acted as a housekeeper for him. They lived together in a small half-timbered cottage in Lower Quinton that Walton rented for 3 shillings a week.

Charles Walton was a popular and well liked member of the community, although regarded as slightly eccentric by some, and with a mixture of suspicion and respect by others. It was well known that there was something a little peculiar about Walton, wild birds would flock to him to be fed from his hand, and he had the ability to tame wild dogs using only his voice. He was well versed in country lore, rather too well according to some people, and seemed to know much about the old ways of the countryside. Few areas of Britain have a deeper association with traditional witchcraft than Warwickshire and privately it was accepted that Walton was involved with the various covens operating in the area. Despite this, it seems that Walton had few if any enemies and could number most of the village amongst his friends.

Shortly after Walton left for Meon Hill, Edie went to work in a local factory and didn't return home again until 6pm. She was concerned on her arrival that Charles was not there to meet her. He was a man of habit and always returned home at the same time, especially during the winter months when the dark evenings made working outside difficult.

Fearing that he might have been taken ill, or that he'd had an accident, she ran next door to her neighbour, Harry Beasley, and together they walked up to Firs Farm to see whether Charles had stopped off there on his way home. Alfred Potter, the owner of Firs Farm and Walton's employer that day had not seen him either, but had noticed a distant figure that morning on the hillside whom he had assumed to be Walton because he seemed to be cutting hedges. Also concerned, Potter joined the two and carrying torches, they walked up the hill to the point where Walton had last been seen.

After a short search of the area the group came across Charles Walton's body. He had been brutally murdered with his own trouncing hook, which still lay embedded in his throat, and then pinned to the ground with his hayfork. A large cross had been carved deeply into Walton's chest and neck and the blood from this wound had soaked the ground surrounding the body. The Police were immediately summoned and such had been the ferocity of the attack that it took two constables to remove the hayfork from the ground. Waltons mutilated body was carried down the hill into the village and a major Police investigation began.

The inquiry was led by Superintendent Alec Spooner of the Warwickshire CID, but such was the level of public interest in the crime that within a few days Scotland Yard were called in to head the investigation. Detective Superintendent Robert Fabian, the most famous Police Officer of the day, and his assistant Sergeant Albert Webb travelled up from London on the night train and the following day they met with Spooner to co-ordinate the hunt for the killer. After discussing the various points of the murder, they turned to speculation as to the nature of the person who had committed the crime. Being a hardened and experienced London Officer, Sergeant Webb immediately suggested that it was the work of a maniac, after all, who else would attack and mutilate an old and defenceless farm worker ?

Fabian tended to agree, but Spooner, who had already been doing his own research, then produced a book which was to give the crime an entirely different angle. The book, Folklore, Old Customs and Superstitions in Shakespeareland, had been written by J. Harvey Bloom, a local vicar, in 1929. Spooner had underlined a passage in the book which told of how, in 1875, "a weak minded young man killed a woman named Ann Turner with a hayfork because he believed she had bewitched him"

Further on in the book, another page had been marked. This told of how in 1885, a plough boy by the name of Charles Walton had encountered a large black dog on nine successive days while on his way home from work. On the last occasion, the dog was accompanied by a headless woman. Of course legends about black dogs are not rare, especially in rural areas, and there had long been stories of a ghostly black dog on Meon hill that heralded death to those it appeared to, but was it possible that this Charles Walton was the same person ?

Spooner then handed Fabian another book, Warwickshire, published in 1906. The author, Clive Holland, another local man, described the murder of Ann Turner in greater depth and additionally he included an account of the trial of John Hayward who was eventually found guilty and hanged. In his defence, Hayward stated that he considered he was acting for the good of the whole community as Ann Turner had "bewitched the cattle and land of local farmers". He said that he had "pinned her to the ground with a hayfork before slashing her throat with a bill hook in the form of a cross". Holland explained that this was an ancient and traditional way of killing a witch and was known to have existed in Anglo-Saxon England where it was called 'stacung' or 'sticking'. It was believed that this was the only way to prevent the dead witch rising from the grave.

One can imagine that even in a 20th Century Warwickshire Police Station, Fabian and Webb, accustomed as they were to the evil that exists in men, still felt a shiver as they listened to Spooner. The similarities between the two cases were obvious, but whatever their private thoughts they were professionals with the eyes of the nation upon them and they resolved to find themselves a 20th Century criminal.

An incident room was set up at Stratford-upon-Avon Police Headquarters and Fabian began his investigation. An aircraft from nearby RAF Leamington Spa was flown over the site of the murder and extremely detailed photographs were taken of the whole area. These still exist and even from an altitude of several hundred feet, the bloodstains on the grass are clearly visible. Unfortunately they did not reveal anything of any use to the police.

The next step was a ground search which was carried out by local officers, with help from soldiers of the Royal Engineers with metal detectors. In particular they were looking for Waltons pocket watch which it had been discovered was missing from his waistcoat. Fabian thought this unusual as the watch was only a cheap one, made of tin, but he hoped that if found, it would bear the fingerprints of the killer. Despite an intensive search of the area however, the watch was not located.

The 493 inhabitants of the village all received a visit from Fabian and Webb and were asked to account for their movements on the day of the murder. At Police HQ, Fabian had set up a large map on the wall of his office and all suspects were marked on it with a pin so that he could track their movements. Within days an arrest was made, an Italian prisoner of war from the nearby camp at Long Marston had been seen hiding in a ditch on Meon Hill with blood on his hands. After questioning however, it transpired that the man was merely a poacher who had regularly escaped from the camp to supplement his diet with a few rabbits. He was returned to the camp without charge and the search continued.

Fabian then turned to Alfred Potter who appeared to have been the last person to see Walton alive. Potter was working in his own fields that morning and estimated that he had seen Walton on the hillside at around 2pm. He assumed it was Walton because nobody else should have been on his land cutting hedges. In his statement he described Walton as wearing shirt sleeves, but when the body was found Walton was wearing a sleeveless work shirt. Had Potter seen the killer, or was he merely mistaken?

The inquiry was losing momentum now and despite using the latest police and scientific methods, the murderer was no nearer to being caught. Some 4,000 statements were taken and travelling people were traced and interviewed as far away as Somerset and Yorkshire. Samples of hair and clothing from the murder scene were analysed and every avenue was explored.

Fabian reluctantly turned to the witchcraft theory and discovered that according to the old Julian calendar in use until the Middle Ages, February 14th actually fell on February 2nd which, according to local superstition was traditionally the best day for a blood sacrifice. At this point of the year the earth was just beginning to recover from the winter and a ritual sacrifice was seen as a certain way to ensure a good harvest would follow. As Fabian pursued this line, he found a general reluctance amongst the local people to talk about it, in fact one man was heard to say that Walton was "dead and buried so there was nothing to worry about". The probability that Walton had played the leading role in some sort of pagan fertility sacrifice seemed so unlikely that, faced with a barrage of silence from anyone questioned about it, Fabian decided to look elsewhere.

The last line of enquiry was that of Walton's past, but nothing was found there either, except for the strange disappearance of Walton's money. It seemed that when Walton's wife had died in 1927, she left him a sum of £297, which was quite a considerable amount. He was known to have placed it in a building society but when Police investigated, the balance was only £2 11s 9d. It was estimated that his weekly outgoings were certainly no more than £2 per week and anyway he had worked all his life and been a man of very frugal habits. Some 60 shillings was found in his house but the remainder was never accounted for and no explanation was ever given for its disappearance.

As the inquiry drew to a close, Fabian took one last walk up the hill to the site of the murder, "a bleak and lonely place", as he recalled it in his memoirs. As he looked around, a large black dog ran past him. Shortly afterwards a young boy came up the hill and Fabian asked whether he had lost his dog. When the boy looked puzzled, Fabian explained that he'd just seen a large black hound, at which the boy gasped and turning, ran as fast as he could down the hill. Later that day, a large black dog was found dead, hung by its neck from a tree next to the murder scene and the same evening, a police car ran over and killed a similar dog in a lane near the village.

Reluctantly, Fabian and Webb returned to London, no closer to finding the murderer than when they had begun. Every modern police method had been used but it seemed that Britains top detective had been beaten by a seemingly motiveless killing.

The inquest on Charles Walton gave the cause of death as "Murder by Person or Persons Unknown" and he was buried in the churchyard at Lower Quinton. The churchyard was recently landscaped and the headstones removed so that now there is no trace of Charles Walton or the events of February 1945.

Long after the case was forgotten, Superintendent Alec Spooner continued his own personal hunt for the killer. He remained convinced that the killer was a local man and soon became a familiar figure in the village. Every year on the anniversary of the murder, Spooner would climb to the scene of the crime, and then walk around the village, hoping to find a clue that had been missed before. Even after his retirement from the force, he continued to visit the village in the hope that one day, the killer would make a mistake and give himself away.

A strange postscript to the crime occurred in August 1960 during the demolition of outhouses behind Charles Walton's cottage. A workman saw something shinning in the gloom and on picking it up it he found it to be an old tin pocket watch. Later that day it was identified as being the watch that Walton was wearing on the day of his death. On opening the watch case, a small piece of coloured glass was found. Walton was known to have carried this around with him, never letting it out of his possession.

The general consensus of opinion amongst the villagers was that this was a piece of witch glass, used to either reflect or absorb any evil thoughts that had been directed at its owner. The odd thing abut this find was that the police had searched the building shortly after the crime and found nothing, so it appears that the killer must have returned at some point later to deposit the watch. Why had the murderer felt it necessary to take such a large risk in returning the watch, when he could easily have disposed of it by other means ?

At the time of writing, the file on the murder of Charles Walton remains open, and in Warwickshire Police archives it is still possible to see the weapons used to commit the crime. Despite the efforts of various writers, journalists and occultists through the years, we are still no closer to finding the killer than Fabian was in 1945.

Visiting the village today, one cannot help noticing that the older inhabitants are still reluctant to talk about Walton's death, and some of those that will talk suggest that a cover-up may have taken place. There is certainly the suggestion that some people know rather more than they are admitting to. Whatever the truth about the awful events at Meon Hill on Valentines Day 1945, it is certain that they will continue to intrigue people for many years to come.