Who Was Bath’s Widcombe Hill Killer?

“We found the body in the garage – it was quite a horrendous sight.” Sergeant Bob Allard, Avon and Somerset Police

Nearly 40 years ago, a brutal and seemingly motiveless murder occurred in the quiet suburb of the Widcombe Hill district of Bath, England. The crime is largely unknown, which is surprising considering its savagery, and remains in limbo as a cold case on the files of Avon and Somerset police.

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Beryl Culverwell

Fifty-two year old Beryl Culverwell lived with her husband Anthony, 57, in their comfortable detached house, “Woodholme”, in Widcombe Hill, Bath. Anthony was a successful stockbroker, working from offices in St Nicholas Street, Bristol – whilst Beryl busied herself as a charity worker and trustee, working for a long-established voluntary organisation named the Bath Maternity Society. This organisation was established in 1886, and its goal is giving assistance to young married and unmarried mothers, who find themselves in financial difficulty. Beryl’s role involved her visiting young mothers in hospital or at their homes, attempting to help in any way that she could – be that recommending financial help from the society in deserving cases, or simply just as much as offering emotional support and a shoulder to cry on. Beryl also volunteered elsewhere in her busy life, working at the local community centre in Widcombe Hill where she helped out with events, and ferrying senior citizens to and from the community centre. She was highly regarded in her work and volunteering, and was much-loved. Her entire family circle was a happy and close one, Beryl and Anthony had celebrated their silver wedding anniversary in 1978, and their quarter century together had produced two sons and a daughter, who were young adults themselves.

Friday 13th January 1978 was a bitterly cold evening, and Anthony arrived home from work just after six pm that evening to find Woodholme in darkness, although Beryl’s Renault car was parked in its usual spot on the drive. Although unusual for the house to be in darkness at this time, it was not uncommon. Sometimes, throughout the course of her work with the Society, Beryl would visit a young mother living within walking distance of the Culverwell house. Being a caring person, Beryl would often stay and comfort an upset young mother – which was a common occurrence in that line of supporting. Perhaps Beryl was still out at such an appointment.

But whilst Anthony was initially unconcerned when entering the house and calling out for Beryl, but getting no reply, it was when he took stock of the kitchen that he began to become uneasy. There was food shopping strewn across the kitchen table, perishables that should have been put away immediately in the fridge such as bacon and chicken. Beryl’s purse lay on the table next to a half full glass of ginger wine, and something had been left burning in the oven. Anthony turned it off and found it to be a blackened, burned pastry. By now worried, Anthony searched for any messages Beryl may have left for him, and checked room by room throughout the house – perhaps Beryl had taken ill and collapsed, or had had an accident?

A search of the house proved fruitless, and the only possible place left to look in was the large garage, which was reached by a door through the downstairs utility room. This door was, however locked from the house side – so Anthony thought it unlikely that Beryl was in there. But he decided to check anyway – and in doing so was to make a discovery that would shatter the lives of himself and his children.

Turning on the light, Anthony immediately saw Beryl lying on the garage floor in a large pool of blood. He rushed over to try to gain a response, but Beryl was sadly dead, having bled heavily from massive and severe head and body wounds. Nearby to the body, Anthony noticed one of the family kitchen bread knives lay discarded – heavily bloodstained. Beryl’s sheepskin coat also lay nearby. A shocked and distraught Anthony immediately summoned the emergency services, and when they arrived, it was quickly confirmed that Beryl had been savagely clubbed a number of times across the head, and then stabbed in a maniacal attack with a knife taken from her own kitchen.

Examining the scene and trying to piece together the likely events of the day, it appeared that upon getting home after a shopping excursion that day, Beryl poured herself a glass of ginger wine and was about to make some lunch. It was known that she had a 2pm appointment with a young local mother that afternoon – and investigation revealed that she failed to keep this appointment. Was Beryl dead by then? Also at the scene were a pair of secateurs that had been taken from the garage and used to cut the telephone wires in the house, then left in the hall. But aside from this out of place object, there was no sign of any violent struggle in the house itself. There was no bloodstaining apparent, and nothing had been kicked or knocked over in a struggle. It was apparent that Beryl had been killed where she was found – had she disturbed an intruder and fled to the garage, or had an intruder broken in and forced her there, then killed her. And why?

Beryl’s body was taken away from the scene for a post-mortem examination, whilst the murder investigation team, headed by Detective Superintendent John Robinson, began the enquiry. From the onset, police were plagued with questions at every turn. It didn’t seem to be a sex crime – there was no sign or reports of Beryl having been sexually assaulted, nor of her clothing having been interfered with. Nor did the motive appear to be robbery – not only did nothing appear to be missing from the house, but there was also no signs of any ransacking – and Beryl had money both found on her person and in her purse, which was found on the kitchen table. No unexplained fingerprints or forensic evidence left by the killer(s) were found in the house, and apart from the secateurs left in the hallway and the kitchen knife in the garage, nothing else seemed out of place in the main house. Nor had anybody in the vicinity heard any screams or sounds of a struggle.

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Widcombe Hill as it appears today

House to house enquiries in Bath, concentrated within the Widcombe Hill area got under way, road blocks were also set up and passing motorists questioned as to whether they had seen anything or anyone suspicious on the day of the murder, and an appeal was made to local guest house proprietors asking for information about any sudden arrival or departure, in case this person may have been the killer. Known local criminals were looked at and questioned, a mass search of the surrounding areas was undertaken, and hundreds of statements taken from people in the local area. A detailed look at Beryl and her families lives, their friends and work acquaintances was undertaken in an attempt to establish a possible motive – or a suspect.

By Monday 16th January 1978, the inquest into Beryl’s death had been opened and adjourned for further investigation, and full details of the post-mortem were revealed. The pathologist had discovered at least 5 separate blows to Beryl’s skull that had been caused by a heavy, blunt instrument; and 21 separate stab wounds to Beryl’s body inflicted by her own kitchen knife. Cause of death was concluded as being shock, and loss of blood, as a direct result of these wounds. The estimated time of death had been between four and five hours before the body was discovered. This tended to support the police theory that Beryl had been attacked whilst preparing lunch. But police were still unable to pinpoint a clear motive – a thorough examination of Beryl’s life revealed no secret lovers, no one who was known to dislike her, or nobody that had fallen out with her in any way. She was loved or liked by all who knew her, and wasn’t involved in anything illicit or unlawful.

Police had managed to establish a few lines of enquiry at the time of the massive 1978 investigation, but none were to provide any advancement in the search for Beryl’s killer. There were several crucial sightings of a vehicle that police wished to eliminate from the enquiry, a yellow Ford Cortina Mark III that had been sighted parked outside Woodholme at about 2:00pm on the afternoon of the murder. More crucially, the same car containing two men had also been seen turning out of the driveway of Woodholme at about 2:45pm – the witness was certain about this because the car had shot out of the driveway at considerable speed, driving erratically and almost hitting another car as it sped off. Police staged a reconstruction using a similar car in an attempt for further potential witnesses to come forward, but despite this, the vehicle was never traced. Nor was a description of the driver or passenger ever established.

That weekend following the murder, police believed that they had found a crucial clue with the discovery, half a mile from the Culverwell home, of a bloodstained man’s handkerchief. The location where it was found led police to consider the possibility that it had been dropped by Beryl’s killer when fleeing fled from the rear of the house and across fields, before heading into Bath itself. An appeal was made to dry cleaners within the area, as it was believed that Beryl’s killer would have been heavily bloodstained and police asked for any reports of bloodstained clothes being brought in for cleaning. But before a week had passed this lead had been eliminated from the enquiry. A reliable witness was found that had seen a man with a nosebleed throw the handkerchief away – some days before Beryl’s murder.

Although this was a forensic clue that led nowhere, it is reported that detectives did have another clue, one giving the origin of the weapon used to club Beryl – it was slivers of the butt of a shotgun. Parts of the butt were found in the pools of blood in which Beryl’s body lay, and enough could be gleaned from piecing fragments together to ascertain that the weapon was an old-style model with a Rogers side lock action. A line of enquiry with local gun dealers as to anybody who had approached them asking for repairs to be made to such a gun, however, proved fruitless. Several anonymous telephone calls to police by a person claiming to have found such a weapon in some remote hills in the Bath area were also unable to be traced.

The enquiry eventually was wound down as one line of enquiry petered out after another, and although not closed, it remained officially “active with regular reviews” for many years. In January 2003, on the 25th anniversary of Beryl’s murder, a re-appeal was made however, and the case featured as an appeal on Crimewatch UK. However, it did not generate much new information, perhaps no more than rekindling local interest. By this time, Beryl’s children had families of their own, and her husband Anthony had passed away never knowing who was responsible for the murder of his beloved wife.

This is a savage crime, and one that there is relatively little information readily available to research. I did manage to source a book entitled “Bristol and Bath Whodunnit?” by author David Kidd-Hewitt that covers Beryl’s murder in a chapter, and in using this text for reference for this post I have remained faithful to the author’s findings. However, other sources contain a piece of important information that is not featured within this chapter, and I believe it worth mentioning here because it may affect any profile of Beryl’s killer. A Freedom Of Information request available online concerning undetected homicides in the Avon and Somerset area from 1946 onwards details Beryl’s murder. It contains the following:

13 January 1978 BERYL CULVERWELL 52 YEARS White – North European “WOODHOLME” WIDCOMBE HILL BATH. MRS CULVERWELL WAS FOUND MURDERED IN THE GARAGE OF HER HOME. SHE DIED FROM STAB WOUNDS AND SEVERE HEAD INJURIES. HER BODY HAD BEEN TIED WITH TWINE. UNDETECTED ACTIVE WITH REGULAR REVIEWS

This is the only reference available to Beryl having been found bound with twine.

What then, is the likely profile of Beryl’s killer? Firstly, it must be remembered that so much concerning this case remains unknown, and what scant information there is only serves to raise more questions than provide answers. There is no discernible suspect, and the exact motive remains unclear. It should also be emphasised, as regular readers will be familiar with, that I in no way offer the following as definitive, it is pure hypothesis based upon the available information.

No physical description exists of a suspect in the murder, and due to the large passage of time since the murder any physical description would be useless anyway. I believe that the house was deliberately targeted, and that there was more than one killer. The houses on Widcombe Hill appear large and tend to be detached, and would offer attractive targets for burglary as they suggest affluence and rich pickings. Burglars also tend to operate in pairs, and this is not your classic striped jumper glass cutter masked burglar as depicted so often in film and TV. A likely scenario is that Beryl arrived home after shopping that morning, and began to prepare a lunch for herself. This explains the food in the oven, and the timing can be near definitively confirmed because the ever punctual and reliable Beryl failed to keep an appointment at 2:00pm.

It is possible then that her killer – or killers, because evidence suggests that this was the work of more than one offender – knocked on either the front or back door and burst in when it was answered, or crept in and surprised Beryl in the kitchen at gunpoint. She may or may not have been tied up – if she was, then this would suggest more than one offender – and taken to the garage. Or perhaps she was threatened at gunpoint by one offender, and marched to the garage to secure something to restrain her – perhaps strong twine, that would need a knife to cut? Two offenders would also account for the telephone lines being cut – one does this whilst the other one guards the victim. It must have been done before Beryl was killed – what would be the point of doing so after such a brutal murder? Why were the telephone lines cut anyway? To allow ample time for the offender to escape, or to stop Beryl from contacting help? This seems the only likely reasons to do so. But this also serves then to suggest that Beryl’s murder was unplanned – because if the intention is to not leave someone alive in the house, there serves no purpose in doing this.

It is possible that Beryl tried to flee to the sanctuary of the garage – where she could have locked herself in – but why not scream or try to leave the house, or to alert neighbours? Was she then caught and clubbed into unconsciousness? But why then the need to commit such a ferocious attack –, or did she try to escape from the garage, was clubbed into unconsciousness, and then the offender(s) panicked, stabbed and battered her repeatedly, then fled before anything could be taken? Or did bloodlust take over – or did she even recognise her killer and said so, causing her death? The witness statements detailing the yellow Ford Cortina that contained two men leaving the scene, driving very fast and very erratically, all support the scenario of it being a bungled robbery that led to an unplanned murder. This is also supported by the use of a knife from Beryl’s own kitchen to stab her, and the fact that it was left at the scene. This seems unplanned and disorganised. If the killing was planned, the killer would have likely taken away a murder weapon with them, not left it at the scene. They would have also left the house quietly, without drawing attention to themselves.

But what if the killer(s) HAD gone to the house with the deliberate intention of killing Beryl? I believe this also could be a possible scenario, and it could also be possible that Beryl was killed by someone that she knew. There are reasons to believe that she, or the Culverwells, were known to her killer(s) at least. Consider that Beryl’s car was on the driveway. Would an offender really choose at random a house, however affluent and remote it appeared, if a car was visible in the driveway and it appeared that someone was at home? In the middle of the day? Unlikely – unless you were familiar with the family and recognised which was Beryl’s car and which was Anthony’s. This suggests either someone who had watched the house for a period of time and had learned the family routines – or someone who knew Beryl. If it was someone she knew, this would also the support the reason for the lack of signs of forced entry and the lack of any screams – Beryl may have admitted the killer(s) willingly to the house, not suspecting that she had any reason to fear them?

If this was the case, and her killer was someone she knew, then who was it? Beryl’s life, and the lives of her family, were scrutinised in an attempt to identify a suspect or a motive. Nothing, no-one stood out. Everyone who knew the Culverwell family was spoken to and looked at as potential suspects – friends, neighbours, family and colleagues. All were eliminated from the investigation. There was no obvious motive to be found; no affairs, no dodgy dealings, no long running feud or even crossed words with anyone were found. Was it someone that she had met in the course of her volunteering, perhaps the estranged partner of one of the young mothers that she had counselled – who had taken a grudge against someone they believed had helped their partner to get free from their control? Had this person followed Beryl and gone to her home to confront her that fateful day?

What are the possible motives for the murder then? Sex, robbery, or personal. It is unlikely to be a sex crime – there was no reported rape or indecent assault, and Beryl was found fully clothed. A sex attacker would have left the victim in a state of at least some undress, and would also have committed the sex attack in a more comfortable location rather than a garage. Whilst there is ample precedent of a sex attacker killing the victim, the level of violence is unusual, strangulation would be more likely a method.

I believe that a personal motive would have been identified and that if someone did have a grudge against Beryl, then this would have come to attention during the initial police investigation. It is highly unlikely that if a person feels strongly enough about an individual to not only desire to, but to actually set out to murder them so brutally, that it remains kept entirely to themselves and no one else has an inkling of this. I believe the initial motive here was robbery. Beryl was a trustee of the Maternity Society – did someone believe that there may be large amounts of cash readily available to her – but this graduated to an unplanned murder when Beryl attempted to escape or fought back, and perhaps the killer(s) left in a panic, all thoughts of robbery abandoned. It does not explain the savagery of the crime, however. Bloodlust, or hatred?

I believe it likely that the killer, or killers, of Beryl Culverwell had offended before the murder, but were at the younger end of the offender scale, no older than early to mid 20’s. If it was a shotgun that was used to brutally club Beryl, it suggests to me a younger, less mature offender. An experienced burglar does not take a shotgun to burgle a house – but a younger, less experienced offender may do so, perhaps out of bravado or to fulfill some macho fantasy. I also believe it very likely that the killer(s) have committed other crimes following this killing. It is too savage a crime and too much forensic awareness was shown at the scene for this to be a first-time offender, although this may have been the offender’s first murder.  There is likely to be a history of violence in the offender’s past, and possibly housebreaking or theft. This killer was in the files somewhere. I believe it most likely that there was more than one killer – as stated above, this is supported by the sighting of a  vehicle containing two men driving away. Two people would also possibly explain the different methods of attack – it suggests two persons attacking at once, perhaps in a rage, or perhaps one forcing the other to do so to attain dual culpability. The killer(s) would certainly have been familiar with the area of Widcombe Hill, perhaps living in the local area, or perhaps working there or having been schooled there.

Of course, after so many years that have now passed since Beryl’s murder, the possibility exists now that the offender or offenders are themselves dead now. If they are still alive, they will be middle-aged to elderly themselves. They may have moved away from the area, or be in prison or a hospital. Or they may still live close by, hoping that fortune smiles upon them and that they never face justice for their crime. They have gotten away with murder for nearly 40 years now. The family of Beryl Culverwell deserve that good fortune and justice more than her killer(s).

Anybody with any information concerning Beryl’s murder should contact police using 101, or Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111

 

The True Crime Enthusiast

 

 

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