Leicester Chronicler

Tempus omnia revelat
Time reveals all


Listening to the historic heartbeat of the City of Leicester and its environs in the English East Midlands

A reflection of past and present thoughts and aspirations


 

The Green Bicycle Murder
Saturday 5 July 1919

 

The murder of Bella Wright from Stoughton, on a quiet country lane in south Leicestershire in July 1919 has become one of the area's most celebrated unsolved crimes, largely due to the unexpected acquittal of the chief suspect, former schoolteacher and soldier, Ronald Light.

 

Green Bicycle murder scene

 

The location of the murder was a field entrance off the Via Devana, the ancient Roman Gartree Road, near to its junction with the lane that leads into the small village of Little Stretton. Apart from a modern gate and mechanised rather than manual hedging, and the tarmac road surface, the scene has probably changed little. Bella Wright was found in the road, her bicycle lying beside her.

 

Little Stretton Chapel

 

Bella's body was moved to the nearby chapel in Little Stretton where it lay overnight, thus destroying valuable scene-of-crime forensic evidence.  At first it was believed that the young woman had fallen from her bicycle but an investigation of her body on the following morning revealed that she had died of a gunshot wound. 

Much of the local knowledge of the events surrounding the Green Bicycle dissipated when the men and women who lived in the area at the time moved away following the break-up of the nearby Powys-Keck estate, now part of the larger CWS farm holdings in the area. However, many of the buildings and locations pertinent to the murder enquiry remain, including the chapel.

 

Bella Wright

 

On Saturday 5th July, 1919, twenty-one year old Bella Wright left her family home in the farming estate village of Stoughton with her bicycle, to visit her uncle, George Measures, in the nearby village of Gaulby.

Somewhere along the route she met a male cyclist on a green bicycle who accompanied her to Gaulby, and waited for her outside her uncle's house.  According to Ronald Light's later testimony - for he was the man with the green bicycle - he waited for her, outside her uncle's home, and they later left Gaulby together,  passed through Kings Norton, and then parted company.  Light, allegedly, took the lane towards Leicester, whilst Bella continued on her way.  It is to be noted that the route Light claimed he followed would also have been Bella's quickest route home, but the young woman apparently chose instead to take a more circuitous route.

 

The Gartree Road

 

On the same evening at about 9.20pm, a local farmer, Joseph Cowell, found Bella's body lying across the Via Devana, otherwise known as the Gartree Road, just outside the village of Little Stretton.  He moved Bella onto the grass verge beside the road and then left the scene to summon help.  Two farm labourers guarded the body whilst Cowell sought the local police constable.

PC Alfred Hall later attended the scene, but by the time the nearest physician, Dr Edward Williams of Billesdon, had arrived, the men had loaded Bella's body onto a farm milk cart and had moved her to the chapel in Little Stretton.

 

Ronald Light

 

Ronald Light lived with his mother at 54 Highfield Street, off Leicester's London Road, only a few minutes' cycle ride from where the Gartree Road enters the city. He had been invalided out of the army suffering from shell-shock. 

The eventual case pivoted on the unusual mechanical construction of his green bicycle in which the brakes could be applied by back-pedalling. 

Between the time of his arrest and the commencement of the trial, Light's bicycle went missing, only to be dredged up, in two parts, from the waters of the canalised River Soar.  Several of the preliminary police court hearings took place at Leicester's castle court - formerly the Norman castle of the town - and during one adjournment, as he was being held in a room overlooking the canal, Light was heard to exclaim "Damn and blast that canal".

On 12th June 1920, Ronald Light walked from the court at Leicester Castle, a free man. In a masterly argued and structured defence, his counsel, Sir Edward Marshall Hall had demonstrated that there was an absence of an apparent motive. The young woman had not been assaulted, and the prosecution had offered no reason why anyone should have wanted to shoot her. He argued too that Bella could not have been shot at close range by the type of revolver owned by Ronald Light. Perhaps most importantly, Hall demonstrated that the prosecution had failed to prove that Light was anywhere near the scene of the murder at the time.

Further damage to the prosecution's case was the doubt that Hall raised regarding the testimony of two schoolgirls who had been brought before the court as witnesses. He argued that many months had passed since the murder,  and that the girls had not only read and heard much about the case, but had made up their minds that Light was the murderer.  One of the girls admitted in court that the date had been suggested to them, both during the proceedings and beforehand during police interviews.

Many still believe that Ronald Light was indeed the murderer, and more recent research has revealed traits in his character that would suggest that he certainly had the potential to kill.  No other suspect has ever been offered. Others suggest that the death of Bella Wright was a tragic accident caused by a stray bullet fired by a man or boy in an adjacent field shooting birds with a rifle.  In Marshall Hall's words:

 

"Imagine a girl cycling along a lane highly flanked by a hedge. In a nearby field a man or boy is out shooting birds with a rifle or revolver at some distance. He takes aim at a large bird upon a gate between the field and the lane. The bird is hit; but the bullet continues on its flight, or perhaps ricochets into the lane. Tragically, the girl is struck by the bullet. The man with the gun may remain sadly unaware of the terrible result of his actions."

 

Bella Wright's grave in Stoughton churchyard was left unattended for many years. The vicar, perhaps overwhelmed by the crowds that attended her funeral, even omitted to record the burial in the church register. Bella's father, supporting a large family on a lowly farm-worker's wage, was unable to afford a gravestone.

However, Bella's surviving brothers and sisters visited the grave regularly, and in recent years a small plaque has been donated.  Regularly, fresh flowers are placed in the quiet corner of the village churchyard where Bella Wright now rests in peace.

 

Stone cross at Church Langton

 

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Stephen Butt 2004-2006. Rev 17/04/06