On 18 April, 1943, four boys (Robert Hart, Thomas Willetts, Bob Farmer and Fred Payne) from Stourbridge were poaching in Hagley Woods near to Wychbury Hill when they came across a large Wych elm. (An article in The Independent gives the species as “wych–hazel”, but that is merely an old synonym for the same kind of elm.) Hagley Wood is part of the Hagley Hall estate belonging to Lord Cobham.
Believing this a good place to hunt birds’ nests, Farmer attempted to climb the tree to investigate. As he was climbing, he glanced down into the hollow trunk and discovered a skull, believing it to be that of an animal. However, after seeing human hair and teeth, he realized that he was holding a human skull. As they were on the land illegally, Farmer put the skull back and all four boys returned home without mentioning their discovery to anybody.
On returning home the youngest of the boys, Tommy Willetts, felt uneasy about what he had witnessed and decided to report the find to his parents. When police checked the trunk of the tree they found an almost complete human skeleton, a shoe, a gold wedding ring, and some fragments of clothing. After further investigation, a severed hand was found buried in the ground near to the tree.
The body was sent for forensic examination by Prof. James Webster. He quickly established that the skeleton was female and had been dead for at least 18 months, placing her time of death around October 1941. He found taffeta in her mouth, suggesting that she had died from asphyxiation. From the measurement of the trunk he also deduced that she must have been placed there “still warm” after the killing as she could not have fit once rigor mortis had taken hold.
Since the woman’s killing was in the midst of World War II, identification was seriously hampered. Police could tell from items found with the body what the woman had looked like but with so many people being reported missing during the war, and people regularly moving, the records were too vast for a proper identification to take place. The current location of her skeleton is unknown.
In 1944 the first graffiti message related to the mystery appeared on a wall in Upper Dean Street, Birmingham, reading Who put Bella down the Wych Elm - Hagley Wood.