The murder of Charles Walton on Meon Hill in 1945 is linked with witchcraft. But what are the facts?
Of the 141 murders in England and Wales in 1945, the most notorious was the brutal slaying of Charles Walton.
Poor Charles was a humble farmhand. Aged 74, he was arthritic and walked with a stick. By rights he should have been looking forward to a few final years of simple living in his Lower Quinton home before quietly shuffling off this mortal coil largely unnoticed, a slender entry or two in the parish records attesting to his existence.
Alas that was not to be. His grisly end means his notoriety looms even to this day, the more so as he is the longest-standing unsolved murder in Warwickshire police archives.
Murders by their very nature tend to the brutal and many go unsolved, but what singles Charles Walton’s out for our special attention is its connection with the dark art of witchcraft.
The events surrounding the seemingly motiveless murder are well-documented in newsprint of the day as well as the thorough, copious police reports, including the accounts of Robert Fabian, the lauded investigator from Scotland Yard called into solve Charles’s murder. These sources have provided many a hack and historian delving into what became known as the ‘Witchcraft Murder’ with rich material over the years.
The facts are these… On 14th February 1945, on a cold day in the middle of the muckspreading season, Charles had been employed to trim the hedges in a field called Hillground at Firs Farm on the slope of Meon Hill. Charles’s niece Edith, 33 - whom he adopted aged three after the death of her mother, his sister - gave him a piece of fruitcake for his lunch before she set off to work herself. Edith worked as a print assistant at the Royal Society of Arts which had relocated to the village during the war. She expected him to return to their shared cottage by dark, or certainly before her own 6pm home time, to eat the meal she had prepared for him.
When there no was sign of him, she feared her elderly uncle had perhaps fallen, and so summoning neighbour Harry Beasley and farmer Alfred Potter, who Charles had been working for, she set off to hunt for him.
After a short search of the area where Charles had last been seen, their torches shone upon the obviously dead Charles by a corner of the Hillground hedge – his head almost cut off and pinned to the ground by his gaping neck with a pitchfork and large pools of blood soaked the ground thereabouts.
Police from Stratford were quickly sent for, as well as Detective Superintendent Alec Spooner of Warwickshire Constabulary. The first medical observations were made by Dr AR McWhinny, who had a private practice in Stratford. His notes documented the brutal slaying at hands unknown using Charles’ own billhook and the pitchfork:
“The body was lying on its left side with the knees and hips in a bent position. There was a gash on the right side of the neck involving the main structures of the neck, and the cut ends of main vessels and the lacerated windpipe could be seen. The tip of a billhook [was] buried at least four inches in the tissue at the front of the neck… In addition the face was impaled by a pitchfork, one prong entered on either side of the face just below and in front of the angle of the jaw. The handle of the fork had been pressed backwards and the end of the handle was wedged under the cross member of the hedge behind the head, thus anchoring the head to the ground.”
An autopsy report later revealed that the murderer had in addition beaten Charles over the head with his own stick, and that he had numerous other injuries including multiple bruises, a severed clavicle and broken ribs. He also had defensive wounds indicating he had fought for his life.
Despite persistent reports that a cross had been carved into Charles’s chest, indicative of a ritualistic murder, the detailed report makes no such observation. Nevertheless, even now, 76 years on, whispered rumours of witchcraft, ghostly black dogs, and ritual sacrifice surround the murder as it has passed into the dark folklore of the region.
If you were making a horror film and you wanted to summon that spooky Wicker Man type ambience, then the slopes of Meon Hill would be the perfect spot. Even on the brightest of days there seems to a weight of expectation hanging heavily in the air. It’s the sort of place where the only birdsong is the sinister caw of an irate crow. Indeed when this author visited recently I wouldn’t have been surprised to encounter Vincent Price in a black swirly cape giving the old stink eye.
There are many strange tales associated with Meon Hill. It rises above the hamlet of Upper Quinton and the flat Avon plain, rippling at its foundation are ancient ridge and furrow fields and atop is an Iron Age fort. Its 637ft-high summit is often swirled by cloud, and for those travelling from Stratford it stands as a moody gatekeeper to the Cotswolds beyond its southern side.
Legend has it that it was created by Old Nick himself, who seeing the construction of Evesham Abbey from Ilmington Hill, in a fit of annoyance kicked a huge clod of earth at it to bury it. However Saint Ecguuine saw it incoming, prayed, and it fell to the ground and became Meon Hill.
Picking up on the beliefs and strange ways of people of rural Warwickshire, Fabian began researching possible links between Walton’s murder and the occult. He started by reading Folklore, Old Customs and Superstitions in Shakespeare Land, written by a local clergyman named J Harvey Bloom in 1929.
Two tales in the book are of particular interest in the case at hand.
The first is the story of a savage murder that bears certain similar hallmarks to Charles Walton’s. Thirteen miles over Meon Hill, in the southern-most tip of Warwickshire, Anne Tennant, 79, was living a peaceful life in the Cotswold village of Long Compton until she was murdered by James Hayward using a pitchfork.
A report in the Stratford Herald describes the horrendous event:
“On the night in question, between seven and eight o’clock, the poor old woman left her cottage for the purpose of going to a small shop in the village for a loaf of bread. On her return she met Hayward, who had just left his work in the harvest fields and who, without a word on either side, attacked Mrs Tennant with a fork which he was carrying, inflicting such injuries upon her head and body that she died in the course of three hours. In fact, had it not been for the assistance of Mr John Taylor, a farmer, who resided near where the attack took place, he would have killed her on the spot. The only reason that can be assigned for the murder is that Hayward, for some time past, had been under the impression that he was influenced by witchcraft and that Mrs Tennant and several other women in Long Compton were witches, and he was determined to rid the village of them.”
In his book of 1906, Clive Holland in his account of the Tennant murder explains that using a pitchfork in killing a witch was a relic of the old Anglo-Saxon ‘stacung’ or ‘sticking’. It was believed to be the only effective way to kill a witch and neutralise any curses or spells. Holland points to the eerie confession given by murderer Hayward:
“I pinned her to the ground with a hayfork before slashing her throat with a billhook in the form of a cross.”
Although the courts found Hayward insane and locked him away for life, he was not on his own with his strange beliefs. Reporting on the case, the Illustrated Police News observed: “It was proved in evidence that fully one third of the villagers believed in witchcraft.”
The account of the Tennant murder that Fabian had read in Folklore, Old Customs and Superstitions in Shakespeare Land also included a reference to a ploughboy who, in 1885, met a black dog on his way home from work. Nine times he met the strange dog – a creature which represents evil in Warwickshire folklore. On the ninth day it appeared as a headless woman, and on the following day he learned of the death of his sister. And what was the young lad’s name? Charles Walton, and the locations of the sinister sightings was Meon Hill.
It wasn’t just rural folk who experienced unfathomable encounters. Shortly after Charles’ s death, Fabian, the fearless man of Scotland Yard, reported seeing the same black ‘ghost’ dog; and a few days later, locals found a black dog, dead, hanged from the branch of a bush by its collar, close to where Charles’ body had been found. This time of the year, it was noted, was the Roman Feast of Lupercalia, when dogs were sacrificed to ensure good crops.
Although Fabian later speculated in his book Anatomy of Crime who the real killer might be – strongly suggesting that Farmer Potter, who had behaved strangely throughout the investigation, may have been the culprit, motivation unknown, he also acknowledges other sinister goings-on.
Usually people want to help the police, especially if a victim is vulnerable. But local people in fact avoided participation in the murder investigation, and seemed unbothered that a madman was potentially on the loose. Fabian commented that when he tried to interview local people there were, “lowered eyes, reluctance to speak except for talk of bad crops – a heifer that died in a ditch.”
Perplexed Fabian noted. “But what had that to do with Charles Walton? Nobody would say.”
Could Charles Walton’s inclination to dabble in witchcraft led to his untimely end?
Locals certainly seemed to think of him as eccentric. His spotting of the black dog that preluded his sister’s death was given as evidence of his special witch-like powers. And during a search of his residence after the murder, there were a number of natterjack toads found kept in the garden – creatures used to blight crops since the 16th century according to the annals of British witchcraft. One local lad, perhaps keen to muscle in on the murder drama, reported he had seen Walton harness a toad to a miniature plough – a means of cursing the earth that it touched.
Fifteen years after his death, talk of Charles as a witch or warlock was revisited with the apparent strange discovery of his pocket watch. Police had searched for it extensively at the time of his murder, even using metal detectors around the crime scene. It was said never to have been out of Walton’s possession, and thus they believed it may have been handled by the murderer and yield tell-tale fingerprints.
According to various unsubstantiated reports on the internet the watch was found in August 1960. Although many have repeated the story, its original source seems lost. The gist is this, while demolition work was being carried out on the outhouses behind Walton’s old cottage, a workman spotted a metallic glint: there was the watch. And inside the old tin watch was a piece of darkly coloured glass. Also known as witch or scrying glass it is used in the art of divination. Whether this happened like it is told or is just another apocryphal element in the tale of Walton’s witchery is hard to fathom.
Looking back today, where does all this leave us?
Fabian was reluctant to offer any black or white answers. But 25 years after the murder, he issued a grave warning while working on his book Anatomy of a Crime:
“I advise anybody who is tempted at any time to venture into Black Magic, witchcraft, Shamanism — call it what you will — to remember Charles Walton and to think of his death, which was clearly the ghastly climax of a pagan rite. There is no stronger argument for keeping as far away as possible from the villains with their swords, incense and mumbo-jumbo. It is prudence on which your future peace of mind and even your life could depend.”
Although the inhabitants of modern Upper Quinton are mindful or the rich heritage and interesting beliefs of their predecessors, they are less worried about dark forces than commercial ones which are currently threatening the community.
As this was being written the current owner of the land where Walton was murdered - where his blood seeped copiously into the soil – is seeking to sell part of the tranquil spot so houses can be built there. If developers won’t take notice of the local residents vehemently fighting planning permission perhaps they would do well to heed Fabian’s warning and not mess with this curious and special place.