In this episode, we go back to 1945, the last breaths of WWII, to detail a grisly murder of a 74-year-old man which takes a bizarre turn into the realms of folklore and still to this day remains unsolved. Known as the pitchfork murder or the witchcraft murder, this is the case of the murder of Charles Walton, on 14th February 1945 in Lower Quinton, England.
Wikipedia – Quite a detailed overview of the case.
BBC Punt PI – A lighthearted podcast, but there’s some nice, modern investigation of the case in this episode.
Amazon – The case that foiled Fabian: Murder & Witchcraft in rural England – Very detailed and a good, enjoyable read. As with most other books on Charles Walton, delves heavily into the witchcraft element.
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On the night of February 14th, 1945. The body of Charles Walton was found on a farm in Lower Quinton, Warwickshire in England. His throat had been slashed open and the prongs of a pitchfork dug into the mud on either side of his neck, pinning the body to the ground. As leads on the case faded away, paranoia and superstition crept in, leading to theories of witchcraft and the occult, remnants of which linger still. This is dark histories, where the facts are worse than fiction.
Charles Walton was born on the 12th May 1870. In 1945 he was 74 years old, suffered from rheumatism and walked with the aid of 2 sticks. Despite this, however, he was still undertaking light work on the local farms of Lower Quinton. His life had been centred around the land, he had worked since a young man as a farm labourer and had earned the reputation of being a skilled horse trainer. His wife had died in 1927 and now, as a widower, he shared a rented cottage in the heart of Lower Quinton with his 33-year-old niece, Edith Walton who he had adopted with his wife after his sister had died in 1915.
Lower Quinton was a small, rural community with a population of just 493 and Charles was well known in the village. Though he was thought of as something of a loner and there were those that regarded him as an eccentric, whilst others viewed him with a mixture of suspicion and respect, he was generally popular among the locals. For the previous nine months, he had been working on a local farm known as The Firs, owned by Alfred Potter.
Around 9 am on the morning of February the 14th, Charles left his house to walk up to a field known as Hillground, part The Firs which rested on the slopes of an area locally known as Meon Hill. With a mind to trim the hedgerows, he left home with a pitchfork and slash-hook – A long-handled, sickle-like instrument used for cutting and trimming foliage. As he passed through the churchyard, he was seen by two witnesses who were to be among the last people that would confidently record seeing him alive.
At 6 pm, Edith Walton returned to their cottage after her days work to find it empty. Charles was usually home from work by 4 pm and was a man of fierce habits, therefore, she found it to be unusual that he hadn’t yet returned. Beginning to worry that Charles had fallen ill, Edith visited her neighbour, another agricultural worker named Harry Beasley. Together they walked up to the Firs farm and called in on Alfred Potter, the owner of the farm. Alfred confirmed that he had seen Charles earlier in the day cutting hedgerows up on Hillground and all three walked up to the field, torches in hand to see if they might find him.
Alfred took them to the spot he had seen Charles working earlier in the day and after a short search, the party came across the body of Charles Walton, lying on the ground near the hedgerows. The scene was a grisly one and it proved too much for Edith to bear, she began screaming loudly at the site of Charles body and Harry Beasley attempted to pacify her and pull her away from the scene.
Charles body lay sprawled on the ground, with his shirt unbuttoned. The prongs of his pitchfork were buried in the mud on either side of his neck and the handle wedged into the hedgerows, effectively pinning the body to the ground. The Slashhook was buried in his throat, leaving a wide gash across his neck that almost severed his head from his body. Searching nearby the men found Charles walking stick, spattered with blood and matted hair, whoever the killer was, he had used Charles own stick to beat him severely, before cutting his throat with his slash-hook, killing him outright.
As they were coming to terms with the horrific scene before them, a man named Harry Peachey passed by and after calling him over, the group enlisted his help in alerting the police back in the village. Harry Beasley accompanied Edith home, who was clearly struggling to deal with the events and Alfred Potter agreed to stand guard over the scene until the police arrived.
The first policeman on the scene was PC Michael James Lomasney who arrived at 7.05 pm after responding to Harry Peachys news reaching the village station. Members of Stratford-upon-Avon CID were later to arrive, as well as members of the West-Midlands forensics team.
At 11 pm, Alfred Potter gave his first statement to the police, claiming that he had owned the farm for 5 years and had known Charles for the entire time he had been there, employing him on a casual basis for the previous 9 months to trim the hedgerows around the various fields. In the morning, he had been in the College Arms with Joseph Stanley, a farmer of White Cross Farm and after leaving at noon, he had seen Charles working about 500–600 yards away, from an adjoining field. He noted that there was around 6–10 yards of hedgerow left to cut and that, the body had been about four yards further on from the spot he had seen him previously, which would be about half-an-hour’s work. He described Walton as an “inoffensive type of man but one who would speak his mind if necessary”
The body was finally removed at 1:30 am in the morning. One of the first observations noted by police concerning Charles was a missing pocket watch that despite being carried with Charles religiously, was nowhere to be found on his body or nearby in the field. Whilst not expected to be worth very much, it was at the time the only tentative lead for a motive that the police had.
The official autopsy report stated that Charles Walton had bruising on ribs, chest and head, all of which matched his walking stick. His Trachea had been cut. He also had several defensive wounds, suggesting that he put up as best a defence as he could for a 74-year-old man. He had a cut on his left hand alongside bruises on his right arm and left hand.
Almost immediately the local police sent a message to Scotland Yard requesting help on the case. On the 15th February, the Deputy Chief Constable of Warwickshire sent a message requesting assistance, citing a nearby Prisoner of War camp as a primary concern. The message read:
“The Chief Constable has asked me to get the assistance of Scotland Yard to assist in a brutal case of murder that took place yesterday. The deceased is a man named CHARLES WALTON, age 75, and he was killed with an instrument known as a slash hook. The murder was either committed by a madman or one of the Italian prisoners who are in a camp nearby. The assistance of an Italian interpreter would be necessary, I think. Dr Webster states deceased was killed between 1 and 2 pm yesterday. A metal watch is missing from the body. It is being circulated.”
The nearby camp was named Long Marston and was situated 2 miles from the village of Lower Quinton. It housed both Italian and German prisoners throughout world war 2, but by this stage of the war, as with many of the British camps, it had a rather relaxed view of security akin to modern open prisons. Many prisoners were encouraged to integrate into the local communities in a limited capacity, often working as labourers on the local farms. As is commonly the way, it is often an initial leap of logic to suspect an ‘outsider’ to a case and so it was here in the tight-knit community of Lower Quinton.
On the 16th February, assistance from Scotland yard arrived in the form of Chief Inspector Robert Fabian and his partner, Detective Sergeant Albert Webb. Fabian was one of the foremost inspectors of the generation and highly respected. The pair were also joined by Detective Sergeant Saunders from special branch, a fluent Italian speaker who would act as an interpreter when questioning the Italian PoWs.
With the arrival of Fabian, the investigation begun in earnest and despite Fabian writing in his later published biography that the people of Lower Quinton were cold and in some cases threatening towards the inspectors, even citing anonymous letters threatening Fabian directly along with his family, they managed to collect over 500 statements from residents of the village and surrounding areas.
Edith Walton was interviewed by the police and she told them that she had lived with Charles since she was three years old after the death of her mother. Charles paid all the rent on the cottage, as well as giving her a weekly allowance and supplying the households coal and meat. Along with his pension of 10 shillings a week and casual earnings from farm work, he had savings of £11, 11 shillings and 9 pence, money which had been left to him after the death of his wife. She also stated that Charles had left his purse at home on the day of the murder.
Harry Beasley was also interviewed and he stated that “Potter had a reputation as a decent man to work for”. Concerning the night of the murder when the three walked up to Hillground and discovered the body, he stated that Alfred Potter had told him that he had seen Charles at work at 12:15 that day and that upon discovering the body, he was certain that Potter realised he was dead immediately.
The police took a second statement from Alfred Potter. He told the police that Charles Walton had usually worked on about four days each week when weather permitted. He said that he left it to Walton to say how many hours he had completed and implied that Walton was sometimes paid for hours he had not actually worked. When the police mentioned that they were hoping to take fingerprints from the murder weapons, he became angry, stating that he had in fact touched both the slash hook and pitchfork whilst discovering the body and that he had mentioned this to police previously.
Detective Sergeant Saunders undertook interviews with the Italians and despite finding that the security of the camp was lighter than anyone expected of a PoW camp, with the prisoners essentially being free to come and go as they pleased, no Italian connection with the murder was found and eventually the suspicions of the camp members subsided, as no solid leads materialised, nor any motives.
Becoming desperate, RAF planes were called in to photograph the entire village and the royal engineers swept the entire murder scene and surrounding area with mine detectors in an attempt to find any trace of the pocket watch, though nothing was found.
As leads faded away, paranoia and superstition crept in. Many theories were put forward which still linger today, blurring the facts of the case and taking it in an even darker direction.
Folklore and the pagan roots of the country are often heavily referenced in rural English communities and Lower Quinton was no exception. It was said that the devil attempted to throw a large clod of earth to smother a recently built Abbey. The Bishop of Worcester noticed the devil and with the power of prayer, altered the devil’s aim, causing the earth to fall short of the Abbey which led to the formation of Meon Hill, the site of The Firs.
One year prior to the Charles Walton murder, there was a high profile trial of a woman named Helen Duncan that invoked the witchcraft act of 1735. We can assume then, that whilst uncommon, there was still some legitimate concern around pagan and folkloric beliefs at the time of the murder.
Rumors began to circulate among the village and there were a minority that held Charles Walton with some suspicion. The fact that he kept toads lead some to pass rumours that he had used them to sabotage the previous years’ harvest. Others noted that he had an unnatural affinity with animals. It was well known that he had trained horses, but it was claimed by some that he could also tame wild dogs and that birds would often flock around him and feed from his hand and would even “obey his requests” to not eat the seeds from his plot of land. Despite no mention in the official autopsy and police reports, there were also rumours that a cross had been carved into his chest at the time of his murder.
Upon his arrival, Fabian himself was presented with two strange tales of local history. Detective Super-Intendant Alex Spooner, head of Warwickshire CID presented Fabian with a book, published in 1929, entitled “folklore, old customs and traditions in Shakespeare land”. The book contained a story of one Charles Walton, who in 1885 had seen a phantom black dog on the road whilst walking home from work for several consecutive nights. On the final night, he had seen the dog accompanied by a headless woman. Upon returning home, he found that his sister had passed away. Black dogs have long been a staple of British folklore, often signifying death and generally viewed as a dark omen, often with a satanic association.
The second piece of local history presented to Fabian was the murder case of eighty-year-old Ann Tennant, in Long Compton, just 15 miles from Lower Quinton. In 1875, she had been brutally murdered by a man named James Heywood with a pitchfork and slash-hook, then pinned to the ground in a way resembling Charles’ murder. James Heywood later claimed that he killed the woman on the grounds that she was a witch.
We now know in fact, that the boyhood Charles Walton from the book was highly unlikely to have been the same person as the murder victim, no records have been found in any of the birth or death records pertaining to him having a sister who died in 1885.
We also know that the murder of Anne Tennant, in fact, did not hold many similarities at all to the murder of Charles Walton, except for the fact that a pitchfork had been involved in both cases. Ann had been attacked in front of several witnesses and died in her sister’s house from injuries sustained by James Heywood, who stabbed her in the legs and head with a pitchfork. A slash hook was not involved at all.
Whether or not Fabian took any stock in either story or the rumours surrounding Charles at the time of the murder is debatable. He makes no mention of them in any of his police reports, however in his autobiography, published 25 years later, he refers to the case as “The Witchcraft Murder”. He also wrote of an encounter with a black dog whilst walking on Meon Hill one evening and makes several references to Pagan lore and witchcraft concerning Charles Walton, going as far as to write:
“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.”
Regardless of the veracity of any of the claims pertaining to witchcraft and folklore that surrounded the case, or the conviction of Fabians belief in them (he was a renowned self-publicist by the time he released his biography) they have persisted throughout the years, leaving a curious stain on the case which remains unsolved to this day.
One final twist to the case came In 1960. Whilst clearing the outhouses of Charles Waltons cottage, his pocket watch was finally uncovered. Whilst the obvious thought would be that he simply left it at home on the day of his murder, some have argued that being a man of such renowned habit, this is highly unlikely. Its also known that the police undertook an extensive search of his house and grounds which turned up nothing. This has lead people to theorise that his murderer had in fact returned at a later time to place the watch there, before slinking back into the shadows of anonymity.
Lower Quinton remains as closed today on the subject of Charles Walton as it was to Fabian in 1945. When talking with the BBC, The landlord of the College Arms, Tony Smith, said:
“I can’t talk to you about that. After 17 years of running this place I know there are some things we don’t talk about. Talking about it would upset people and there’s no sense in alienating people in a small village like this.”
“In cases like this, there’s always someone that knows something. Someone knows what happened, but for the sake of relatives and for not upsetting people, no one will say.”
And thus, the murder of Charles Walton stays unsolved, a curious case which is deeply tangled in the local folklore of which it has itself become a part of.
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