In small villages throughout England, the killing of people alleged to be witches was not uncommon. In 1945, the murder of Charles Watson is considered to be the last of this phenomenon.
by Chuck Lyons
The murder of Charles Walton is considered the last witch killing in the United Kingdom. The 74-year-old farm laborer was found dead on Valentine’s Day 1945, his neck cut open and the prongs of a pitchfork jammed through his throat, pinning him to the ground. A rude cross had been carved into his chest. Walton, who had resided in the village of Lower Quinton in Warwickshire, England all his life and was apparently well-known in the area, had nonetheless sometimes been considered odd. To some, he was just the simple farm laborer he appeared to be, but other local residents believed he had been “stained” by a childhood encounter with a mysterious black dog—and some considered him a warlock.
The British Islands and especially England have a long and tarnished history of witches and witch killings, and the Cotswolds, that hilly area of south central England in which Lower Quinton is located, has a well-earned “historical and modern reputation for the practice of witchcraft.” From at least the 10th century onward, literally hundreds of people in England and Scotland were accused of being witches, were prosecuted, and executed, the last being a Scottish woman named Janet Horne who was sent to the stake in 1727. Twenty supposed witches and warlocks were also executed in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692 and four more died in prison.
But Janet Horne was not the last witch. Far from it.
In 1944, as World War II raged, two elderly women, Helen Duncan and Jane Yorke, were subjected to full criminal trials in London’s Old Bailey and carted off to jail under terms of the 1735 Witchcraft Act. (It has been claimed by Duncan’s supporters that she was arrested and imprisoned by the military from fear she would reveal the secret plans for D-Day, information she had presumably gathered by extrasensory means).
Throughout the centuries in England’s small villages local witches—or at least suspected witches—were often dealt more directly and outside the law.
In 1945 was it Charles Walton’s turn?
Charles Walton's Last Day
A widower, Walton shared a small cottage with his 33-year-old niece, Edith Isabel Walton, who he had adopted 30 years earlier when her mother died. Walton was a loner who did not socialize much with other villagers. He seemed to be more comfortable with animals and had developed a reputation as a good trainer of horses. He was not disliked in the community, but rumors about him circulated among at least some of his fellow villagers who gossiped that wild birds ate out of his hand and dogs were attracted to him, that he raised giant toads and practiced horse-whispering, a dark art that allowed him to communicate with animals. Some of his neighbors held him responsible for the poor crops the following autumn had produced despite weather that should have brought a lush harvest
On February 14, 1945, he was seen to leave his cottage with a pitchfork and a slash hook (a curved blade on a rod used in pruning) and to have limped—he walked with a cane—through the village between 9 and 9:30 a.m. He was not regularly employed and sought out casual farm labor as it became available. For several months, however, he had been working for Alfred Potter who managed a farm known as The Firs. On this day, Walton was known to be heading out to cut back hedges in a field known as Hillground on the slopes of Meon Hill.
Potter would later describe Walton as "inoffensive type of man but one who would speak his mind if necessary."
When Walton did not return home at the expected time that afternoon, Edith Walton and a neighbor went to The Firs where they enlisted Potter, and the three went to the field where Walton had been working. There they found Walton’s body. He had been beaten over the head, apparently with his own cane, and his neck had been cut open with his slash hook. The pitchfork had been jammed into the ground with prongs on each side of Walton’s neck pinning his body to the ground and its handle wedged under the nearby hedges, probably to keep it in place. The slash hook had been left in Walton’s neck. Early accounts, though this was not repeated later in the case, also said a rude cross had been carved in his chest—probably with the slash hook.
This was not unusual. Other alleged witch killings in which people were murdered by those who believed they had been cursed or given the evil eye often included such a carved cross on the body of the dead witch.
Scotland Yard Investigates
Scotland Yard was quickly brought into the case, and Chief Inspector Robert Fabian of Scotland Yard was sent out from London to investigate.
The killing, he concluded, was “clearly the ghastly climax of a pagan rite.”
Early in his investigation Fabian became aware of a book written in 1929 by the Rev. James Harvey Bloom, rector of a church in the nearby hamlet of Whitchurch. In the book, entitled Folklore, Old Customs and Superstitions in Shakespeare Land, Rev. Bloom had written that a local plough boy named Chares Walton had in 1885 been confronted by a “phantom black dog” several nights in succession including once when the dog was accompanied by a headless woman. On that night the boy Walton learned his sister had just died.
Was this boy the same Charles Walton who had been murdered?
The murdered man would have been about 15-year-old at the time, so he could well have been, but some evidence also works against that conclusion. For one thing, he did not have a sister who died in 1885. Fabian also discovered many in the neighborhood held a belief that February 14 corresponded in the old Julian calendar to the date of Imbolc, a pagan festival that marks the beginning of spring and that Imbolc was the best day for a blood sacrifice that would help the earth recover from hardships of the recent winter.
Was this killing a reaction to the poor crops of the previous season?
In addition, Fabian determined that there also appeared to be significance in the location of Walton’s killing at the edge of Meon Hill. The area had given birth to a number of strange tales. Those tales included ones of devilish doings and of the (presumably black) phantom hounds of the Celtic king Arawyn hunting on the hill at night. Lower Quinton is also only a few miles from the Rollright Stones, a stone circle similar to Stonehenge but much smaller. There at Rollright on May 12, 1949, four years after Walton’s killing, two woman reported they had witnessed a witches’ gathering with “shadowy figures dancing in a queer fashion and bouncing up and down,” mumbling a chant, and following a leader who was wearing a “goat-face mask.”
Fabian also mentioned several times in later years that he had met “a wall of silence” when he tried speaking with residents of the area. "The natives of Upper and Lower Quinton and the surrounding district are of a secretive disposition,” he said, “and they do not take easily to strangers.”
A British television reporter who took a look at the case 50 years after Fabian’s remarks seemed to have encountered the same stonewalling. “The people (of Lower Quinton) I spoke to were friendly,” he said, “but impenetrably tight-lipped.”
Was there perhaps a village-wide conspiracy to rid Lower Quinton of Walton?
The Prime Suspect
Italian prisoners of war being kept in the area as well as local and visiting British and American soldiers were interviewed without success as well as numerous area residents. Alfred Potter, the man who managed The Firs and was employing Walton, became the prime suspect and was rumored to have owed Walton money. In his own defense Potter said he had been in a local pub with another farmer and had left about noon to attend to some livestock. Crossing the fields on his way back to The Firs, he said, he had seen Walton working some 500 yards away but had not bothered speaking to him. Once home, he said, he read the newspaper for a while and then went outside to help another man laboring on the farm before returning to the house for his mid-day meal. His wife collaborated his story.
Local medical examiners estimated Walton had been killed between 1 and 2 p.m.
The trousers Potter admitted having worn on the February 14 were also examined by specialists and two marks on the front of them were “believed” to be blood stains. Investigators reported, however, that the trousers had been cleaned too thoroughly for a positive identification. A number of local residents also spoke out in support of Potter, and a man named Harry Beasley who did farm labor in the area and was known to be a friend of Walton’s told police that "Potter had a reputation as a decent man to work for.”
Potter stayed to his story—except for some jumbled details—for the remainder of the investigation.
The Scotland Yard investigators eventually returned to London without have made any progress in their investigation while a local policeman, Detective Superintendent Alex Spooner, continued to investigate the murder for years also without success.
A newspaper that appeared at the time of the ninth anniversary of Walton’s death linked the death of Ann Tennant almost 75 years earlier with that of Walton. On September 15, 1875 Tennant had left her house in Long Compton, another Warwickshire hamlet, to do some shopping. On her way back, she met a group of farm workers returning home, a group that included a man named James Heywood. Without warning Heywood attacked Tennant with a pitchfork, stabbing her in the legs and head. A local farmer ran to Tennant's aid and restrained Heywood until police arrived.
But it was too late. Tennant died that night of her injuries.
Heywood claimed to police that Tennant was a witch. He also said there were other witches in Lower Compton and he would kill them as well. He was found not guilty of Tennant’s murder on grounds that he was insane and spent the remainder of his life committed to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Stories were later circulated that Tennant had been pinned to the ground with a pitchfork and slashed with a billhook, which is similar to a slash hook, but those stories are unsubstantiated. It was also revealed that Walton was a relation of Tennant’s, though the exact nature of that relationship remains unclear. It is possible, however, that Tennant was Walton’s great-grandmother.
In the end, the killing of Charles Walton remained unsolved.
Despite all the interviews with Italian POW’s, with English and American soldiers, and with residents of the Lower Quinton and vicinity, the spotlight of suspicion continued to shine on Alfred Potter. But suspicion is not proof, and neither Potter nor anyone else was ever charged in the killing of Charles Walton.
And no one knows what really happened at the base of Meon Hill that Valentine’s Day 70 years ago. Was a Cotswold witch killed or simply a quiet man who was kind to animals? His killer or killers are the only ones who know what happened.
They are also the only ones—if even they know—why it happened.