The canal glints like bottle green glass as dragonflies dance across the surface, but it hides a deadly secret.
This quiet stretch of the Grand Union Canal in Leicester is the scene of a murder investigation, and divers are hunting for a murder weapon hidden beneath the murky water.
They believe a revolver, supposedly thrown into the canal by a killer, could hold the key to cracking a case that has mystified police and historians for a century.
Annie Bella Wright, Bella to her friends, was found dead in a lonely lane outside Leicester on July 5 1919.
The 21-year-old factory worker had been shot in the head, a bullet hole below her left eye the only blemish on her pretty face.
Blood oozed from the back of her large straw hat where the bullet had left her body.
Beside her lay the bicycle she was riding when she left her uncle’s house in the village of Gautly, seven miles east of Leicester, shortly before 9pm.
A trail of bloody bird tracks led from Bella’s body to the top of a nearby wooden gate.
In the meadow beyond, a crow lay dead, and the long grass was freshly flattened into a footpath leading to the distant cornfields.
For author Antony Brown, the case was an obsession.
‘It feels like a Sherlock Holmes mystery,’ he says.
‘You could almost imagine him standing at the crime scene examining the evidence as the last of the evening light faded.’
Antony was an avid Sherlock Holmes fan at university, and became curious about whether any mysteries as intriguing as Sherlock’s existed in real life.
That’s when he stumbled upon the Green Bicycle mystery.
‘I was hooked: a young woman in a lane next to a bicycle, bloody bird footprints and a dead crow.
‘It just felt like a case for Sherlock! It’s very puzzling,’ he says.
‘Deaths like this can cast a shadow over a family for generations, so I wanted to keep Bella’s memory alive and try to find out what happened to her, so there was finally some closure.’
Today, teams of forensic scientists would comb the countryside for clues to find Bella’s killer, but a hundred years ago things were very different.
The bullet, lying just a few feet from her head, was only found the next day.
With no scientific evidence to call upon, local bobby Alfred Hall and his colleagues were forced to construct a case by tracing the victim’s last known movements.
Bella worked at a local tyre factory, covering the shortage of men caused by the First World War.
She rose late after working the evening shift the previous day, finished writing a letter to her boyfriend Archie Ward, who was stationed aboard HMS Diadem in Portsmouth, waiting to be demobbed after the war, said goodbye to her mother, and rode to the post office.
Meeting the post mistress en route, she handed over the letter and her money, then made for her uncle’s house.
By the time she arrived she had picked up an unlikely travelling companion – a small, unshaven man with a squeaky voice, who showed up again as she was leaving and offered to accompany her.
Bella told her uncle that the man was a stranger she had met on the road, who had been riding alongside her but ‘not really bothering’ her, although her relatives thought it seemed odd.
Her uncle, George Measures, claimed the man used Bella’s name, while her cousin Agnes said the pair seemed familiar.
The family were able to give police one more vital detail – the man rode a distinctive pea-green bicycle.
Seven months later, the frame of an identical green bicycle was found in the canal in Leicester.
The identification number had been filed off, but an expert reconstructed the code and traced it to a shopkeeper in Derby, who revealed he’d sold the bike to a former soldier named Ronald Light, who was sent home from the front line during the First World War, suffering with hearing loss and shell shock.
Police finally had a suspect.
Light denied owning a green bicycle, then backtracked, insisting he’d sold it to an anonymous buyer.
Soon after, dredgers searching the canal found a brown leather army holster.
There was no gun inside, but it was filled with the same bullets as the one found by Bella’s body.
The right man?
Light was charged with murder.
At the trial the prosecution claimed Bella rejected Light’s unwanted advances and tried to get away, but he caught up with her.
In a fit of rage he allegedly knocked Bella to the ground, pulled out his revolver, which he had smuggled home illegally, and shot her in the face while she was lying in the road.
If the bullet was fired down while he was standing, it would explain why it was found close by, the prosecution claimed.
‘I don’t think this case could have happened in another time or country,’ says Antony.
‘In 1919 there were lots of men coming back from the front line with guns, illegally in most cases, and cycling was a major form of entertainment and transport.’
When Light took to the stand he admitted owning the bicycle, meeting Bella on the road, and even throwing the holster into the water, as he feared being accused by the police.
But he denied killing Bella.
Light was acquitted in June 1920 after his defence barrister, Sir Edward Marshall Hall, regarded by many as the best in the land, raised doubts about much of the evidence.
Light changed his name, moved to Kent and married a widow whose husband was killed during the war.
He died in 1975, aged 89.
With no other leads, the case grew cold, although a series of amateur sleuths have tried to investigate Bella’s death.
The ‘shooting crows’ theory proved particularly popular.
First published by writer Trueman Humphries in The Strand Magazine in 1922, the theory accepted the jury’s verdict that Light was innocent.
It suggested Bella’s death had been an accident.
The fields were a popular spot for ‘rooking’, shooting crows and other scavenger birds.
Humphries claimed Bella might have been accidentally shot by youths shooting a crow on the nearby gate.
That would explain the blood on the gate, the bloody bird tracks near the body, and the dead crow.
Incredibly, experts believe it’s possible for a boy lying in the meadow to have shot at such an angle that the bullet hit Bella below the eye.
Years later a third theory emerged.
Rumours began to circulate that Light admitted to killing Bella while collecting his things from the police station three days after the trial.
This ‘signed confession’ was supposedly locked in a safe and had been seen by several officers.
Light allegedly told the officer on the desk he and Bella were riding home together when he agreed to show her his revolver, which was hidden in his pocket.
Not realising it was loaded, he took it out, but as he handed it to Bella it went off unexpectedly, killing her.
Light supposedly admitted to running off in a panic, throwing his service revolver and another gun into the canal at a quiet spot near his home.
Several weeks later he smuggled the leather holster and his distinctive green bicycle out of his mother’s home and dumped them further along the canal.
Antony hopes finding the guns will finally solve the century-old mystery.
In the meantime he has reproduced much of the evidence he discovered – including the document from the police safe and PC Hall’s memoirs – in his book, for readers to decide for themselves whether Light got away with murder.
‘The police did their best to find the gun that killed Bella, but they didn’t know where to look,’ says Antony.
‘They never saw the documents.
‘That is why I believe the revolver might have been thrown into the canal at a dark spot more than a mile away from where the bicycle was found.
‘Trying to find those guns in the canal after nearly 100 years is like looking for a needle in a haystack, but if we find them, it would be a sensational discovery that throws light on what really happened to Bella.’
Writer Antony Brown says…
‘I wanted to go back in time to old historical cases, examine the evidence, then let the readers become the cold-case jury.
‘I know we can’t ever solve the crimes, as they weren’t solved at the time, but I can bring a bit of closure to the situation.
‘It’s 100 years since Bella lost her life and I want to bring her back to the public’s attention.
‘When I’m writing a book I get completely immersed in the world.
‘The people become alive to you, and you create an odd sort of relationship with the victim.
‘My wife gets a bit tired of me talking about the case all the time!
‘I’m told by readers that because it’s a true story it lingers with them far longer after they close the book than if it was fiction, especially as I let them vote on my website for the outcome they believe is true.’
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