The Unsolved ‘Witchcraft’ Murder That Shocked Britain

Charles Walton's brutal murder on Valentine’s Day, 1945, fuelled a vision of rural England that has influenced cinema and literature ever since.

Valentine’s Day remains a bittersweet occasion for the people of Lower Quinton, a small village in the West Midlands. Some of the locals have been known to plan annual trips away, just so they aren’t around when February 14th comes around. It’s as if the horrors of a 77-year-old unsolved crime still linger, like a dark fog.

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It was Valentine’s Day in 1945 when the body of 74-year-old Charles Walton, a farm labourer who grew up locally, was found twisted on the idyllic slope of Meon Hill. Walton’s throat had been slashed deeply by his own trouncing hook. His body was pinned to the floor by a protruding pitchfork, and there was a cross carved into his chest.

The murder of Walton was the moment “witchcraft made it into the daily newspapers”, according to the BBC’s now out-of-print 1971 documentary, The Power of the Witch. The investigation was also the final case for retiring chief inspector Robert Fabian, an ageing celebrity detective of the era who bought into the hype that he was the reincarnation of Sherlock Holmes.

Lower Quinton subsequently gained a new level of media attention, and the newspapers relished in turning the story of Walton’s death into an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery about backward-thinking, sun god-worshipping rural folk. Salacious headlines about human sacrifice were abound, and the local Coventry Telegraph referred to the case as a “whodunnit witchcraft murder”.

“The then 87-year-old Margaret Murray [author of the popular but much maligned The Witch-Cult in Western Europe: A Study in Anthropology] believed the Walton murder was likely a ritual act, performed with the purpose of replenishing the soil,” explains Darren Charles, a historian from the Folk Horror Revival project.

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Touching on some of the wilder rumours that circulated, he says: “Apparently the year before Walton’s death proved to be a difficult harvest and the beer brewed from those crops was undrinkable. Walton was seen as an unusual fellow, who had bred Natterjack toads in his garden and tamed wild dogs with just his voice.”

Although this might all sound far fetched as a motive for murder, Charles says it was much more logical in the context of the time; of a remote region re-connecting with its ancient superstitions amid the dread and fears of World War II. To some locals, unsure of the future, looking backwards, and outside of the Christian church for philosophical guidance, was far more appealing.

“Near [to where Walton’s body was found] is the Rollright Stones [an ancient stone monument] and the Burhill Iron Age Hill Fort, which give the whole region a sense of being ancient, magical, and strange,” adds Charles.

The crime remains unsolved, giving it a certain mystique to filmmakers, and arguably acting as a nucleus for the booming folk horror genre. David Pinner’s 1967 novel Ritual was loosely based on the Walton murder. When it was adapted into 1973 cult classic The Wicker Man, the idea of a rural town harbouring pagan beliefs and merrily sacrificing dissenters solidified itself as a narrative device in horror cinema, with a through line that can be traced all of the way to Ari Aster’s Midsommar (2019) and Ben Wheatley’s In The Earth (2021).

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The BBC’s 1970 play Robin Redbreast and the more unhinged The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) were also littered with ritualistic murder and horny villagers who relied on sacrifice to prompt good harvest. And the idea Walton was nearly decapitated as an act of revenge for casting curses on the crops has narrative similarities to screenwriter Nigel Kneales’ 1975 TV play, Murrain (a name which relates to a disease blighting crops), where villagers grow resentful of a local they suspect of witchcraft. The same way the horrific crimes of Ed Gein are said to have inspired the framing of a whole generation of Hollywood serial killers, the Walton case seems to have lit something inside of British folk horror filmmakers.

Speaking of the murder’s influence on horror cinema, director Liam Gavin, the man behind underrated 2016 British ritualistic horror, A Dark Song, tells me: “One of the defining features of folk horrors is this connection to the land, to the past and into a pagan lore. I think the Charles Walton murder speaks to this idea that we are connected to this blood that runs through the soil.”

The murder, he tells me, “possesses many of the tropes of folk horror; the idea of some ancient community or hidden community that maintains these roots to the past. I think the murder points to a dark mystery of a world, of a cult, just tangibly out of reach.”

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The idea of people in the sticks being more susceptible to demonic influence became more and more prominent in cinema across the 1970s. However, Maria J. Pérez Cuervo – a writer specialising in archaeology and the creator of Hellebore zine – insists these stories were also being told when Walton was alive in the 1930s and early 1940s. “The link between rural communities, pagan beliefs, and ritual sacrifice was very much in the zeitgeist when Walton was murdered, largely due to the popularity of The Golden Bough by Sir James Frazer, a direct inspiration for both The Wicker Man and Robin Redbreast,” she says.

“Frazer had traced a common template for a series of myths and rituals from around the world, concluding that they were part of a widespread belief in a solar god-king whose ritual killing ensured the fertility of the land, and who would be reborn again in the spring to start a new cycle. His work suggested that the apparently inoffensive rituals performed in remote rural corners in Britain were actually pagan survivals. This proved inspiring for many authors working on genre fiction, and also had an impact on the way Walton’s murder was reported – and therefore in how the case is remembered now.”

It's an assessment criminology professor David Wilson very much agrees with, referencing Dennis Wheatley’s 1934 novel The Devil Rides Out as another example of a horror story that lurked in the public subconscious around the time of the murder. The number one suspect regarding Walton’s death, Alfred Potter, was a farmer involved in a financial dispute with Walton.

“The simplest solutions are usually the best and I believe the true culprit [Potter] alluded to a number of local witchcraft conspiracies to lay a false trail,” says Wilson, who is also keen to talk up the media’s role in influencing the case. “Here was this rural backwater, so of course the media was going to be interested in stirring up witchcraft, headless horsemen, and occultism,” he explains.

“Because the media was metropolitan and ‘enlightened’, they played on the cliches of locality. The whole idea of evil lurking in these tiny, seemingly beautiful, hamlets was a trope that existed very heavily across the 40s and even beyond, and you could say Detective Fabian got too lost [in the noise]. That’s probably the biggest factor to why it remained unsolved.”

In the aforementioned BBC documentary, The Power of the Witch, Walton’s own niece describes what was reported in the press as witchcraft being “ridiculous. None of it was true”. Fundamentally, the case is still being talked about in 2022 because of our need to connect ourselves to macabre stories, according to Wilson.

He concludes: “Whether it’s Jack the Ripper or Bella in the Wych Elm, the unsolved murders create an intrigue that evolves with each new generation. Charles Warlton’s murder was reported as this real-life Sherlock Holmes mystery; those kind of cases seem to last forever.”

@thobbsjourno

Tagged:

murder, Valentine's Day, HORROR, witchcraft, true crime, Folk Horror

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