The Green Bicycle Murder Mystery
The 5th of July was a day of ‘if onlys’ for Bella Wright. If only she hadn’t worked the night shift the day before. If only the thunderstorm that had threatened all day followed through. If only her cousin hadn’t decided to pay her family a visit that weekend. If only she hadn’t asked for help from a stranger on a country lane. If only…
Annie ‘Bella’ Wright was a charming and beautiful young woman who, at 21, had the world at her feet. Born into a poor farming family in Leicestershire, she still lived with her parents in their quaint but cramped cottage in the village of Stoughton. Like many women of her generation, Bella had tasted freedom during the First World War. The young men had gone and the factories needed female workers, so Bella left her job as a maid and cycled five miles into Leicester each day to work in a giant rubber factory.
On the morning of Saturday, July 5th, 1919, Bella arrived home about 8:30 in the morning and went to bed. At 4:00 p.m. she rose and sat quietly for half an hour or so writing letters to friends, including her childhood sweetheart, a sailor waiting to be demobbed. He and Bella were expected to marry, but lately she had been talking to her mother about an army officer whom she had met. She was clearly flattered by his attention.
A little after 4:30 pm, she climbed on her bicycle and rode off towards the post office. As fate would have it, she met a neighbour who offered to take her letters for her. Bella was delighted, she was planning to visit her cousin and her new baby, who were spending the weekend at her uncle’s home at Gaulby, a few miles away. This would give her a little extra time. The English weather, temperamental as always, had other ideas; light showers had dampened the hot July day, and now the bruised clouds were gathering in the sky. Bella, at the last minute, decided to turn back home and fetch a raincoat.
Ronald Light was born into a life of privilege. His father, a wealthy engineer and inventor, had made a fortune. Sadly, Ronald was the only one of the Light children to survive infancy. Precious to his parents, he was coddled and indulged throughout his childhood. Signs that all was not right began to emerge early. He was expelled from school in his teens for removing the clothes of a young girl. Despite this setback, he managed to complete a degree at Birmingham University and gained employment as a draughtsman for a railway company.
In 1914, he was sacked after setting fire to a cupboard and drawing indecent graffiti on a toilet wall. A few months later he was caught setting a haystack alight. Things were not looking good for Light until the outbreak of the First World War and a chance to redeem himself came along.
Light, like others of his class, was not expected to serve in the lower ranks of the army but was offered a commission. He became Second Lieutenant Light of the Royal Engineers. It didn’t take long for him to mess up. On the 1st of July, 1916, he relinquished this role on the insistence of his commanding officer and was demoted to the ranks. If rumour is to be believed, he had sexually assaulted a French postmistress.
A few weeks later, his father died after falling from a balcony at his home. Recorded as an accident, the suspicion was that he had committed suicide, shamed by his son’s demotion. Light’s less-than-illustrious career in the armed services was not quite complete. In 1917 he was court-martialled for forging movement papers. Twice his regiment was stood down on the day it was to depart for France and was told to ‘await orders’. It transpired that Light had forged the papers. He was medically discharged from the army suffering from shell shock and partial deafness with the advice to ‘get plenty of fresh air’.
In 1910 Light had treated himself to a new bicycle. Purchased from BSA it was described as the ‘De luxe’ model. At a time when the standard colour of bicycles was black, the De luxe was pea green. Other features included upturned handlebars, a wide well sprung leather saddle and crucially, in Light’s case, a coasting brake on the back wheel.
On the 5th of July, after stopping at a local bicycle shop for a quick repair, Light left the grime of Leicester behind him and following doctor’s orders, cycled off into the countryside.
A Fateful Meeting
Both Bella and Light were to claim that their meeting was a chance event. Light stated that he had seen Bella at the side of the road attempting to fix the flywheel on her bicycle. As he cycled past, she looked up and asked him if he had a spanner. Light didn’t but stopped to help the young woman. The two then mounted their bicycles and rode off together chatting and laughing.
Bella, young and beautiful, and Light on his green bicycle with its unusual coasting brake made a distinctive couple and a number of witnesses came forward to say they had seen them on that fateful Summer’s evening. When they reached the cottage of her Uncle George in the village of Gaulby, Bella went inside. At this point, one would expect Light to go on his merry way. He didn’t.
A Family’s Concern
George Measures was not happy to see Light hanging around outside his cottage. There was something about the man’s demeanour that unsettled him and he was concerned that his niece, who was supposed to be engaged, was overly familiar with him. Bella did her best to put his mind at ease.
“Oh him, I don’t really know him at all. he’s been riding alongside me for a few miles but he isn’t bothering me at all. He’s just chatting about the weather.”
Nevertheless, she put off leaving the cottage to the last possible moment. At 8:30 pm keen to be home before dark she eventually said her goodbyes. Outside, there was no sign of Light. Bella embraced her uncle and cousins fondly. Her family claimed she looked relieved. As she turned to leave, Light, who must have been watching from afar, freewheeled down the lane to the cottage exclaiming;
“Bella, you have been a long time. I thought you had gone the other way!”
Bella’s cousin concerned by his sudden appearance pulled her to one side while her husband engaged Light in a conversation about his unusual bicycle and the modification to the back wheel. Once again Bella assured a member of her family that there was no familiarity between herself and Light and that the two had only met that evening.
At 8:50 pm as dusk was beginning to settle, Bella and Light set off together pushing their bicycles up Gaulby Lane. As they reached the brow of the hill, the young woman, so vital and full of life, turned and waved a last goodbye before mounting her bicycle and disappearing out of sight. Her family would never see her alive again.
Bella’s Body Discovered
Thirty minutes after saying her last goodbyes, Bella’s body was found on the Gartree Road. Strangely, it was not the shortest route home for her. What had made her turn this way? Bella lay close to a gate, her bicycle was overturned and her face was bloodied. The farmer quickly concluded that she had simply met with an accident and fallen off her bike. He ran to fetch a doctor and a police officer but while the doctor quickly concurred with the farmer, that Bella’s death was an accident, the officer, PC Hall, had his doubts. The three men carried the young woman’s body through the darkness to an abandoned cottage and left her until morning. What started as a day full of hope and promise ended for Bella on the cold kitchen floor of a derelict building, her body waiting to be claimed by a family who, just a few short miles away, were frantic with worry when she didn’t arrive home by nightfall.
PC Hall could not rest, and at the first sign of daybreak he returned to the scene to carry out a detailed examination. Five metres from Bella’s bicycle, trodden into the mud by the farmer’s horse, he discovered a shell casing. On the gate close to where Bella’s body was discovered, he found blood. A closer inspection revealed the claw marks of a crow who lay dead in a field nearby. The crow, Hall said, had made at least 16 trips backwards and forwards to and from Bella’s body to gorge on her blood, the horrible bloodstained tracks still clearly visible. At the time the macabre incident held little significance but was to prove crucial as the case progressed. PC Hall ran to the cottage where Bella’s body lay. Carefully wiping the blood from her lovely face, he found what he was looking for. Bella Wright had been killed by a gunshot.
The Hunt for the Green Bicycle
A post mortem confirmed PC Hall’s suspicions. Bella had been shot in the face from a distance of about 2 metres. The bullet had exited her skull at the back. The news of Bella’s death spread like wildfire across the country. She was the headline of every newspaper and the topic of conversation in pubs and churches alike. Only one man claimed not to know of her death, the very man the police were looking for, the owner of a distinctive pea-green bicycle, Ronald Light.
It was days, Light claimed, before overhearing a conversation between his mother and their maid, the penny finally dropped. Realising that he was possibly the prime suspect in a murder, Light kept quiet and began to dispose of evidence that could connect him to Bella. For some months, he hid his bicycle, and then, when the dark winter nights came, he went to a canal branching off from the River Soar and threw his dismantled bicycle into the murky depths below. He kept just one-piece behind, the back wheel with its distinctive coasting brake.
In the following weeks, he sold the clothes he had worn on the evening of Bella’s death and applied for and successfully gained the post of a mathematics teacher at a Cheltenham school. He must have heaved a sigh of relief. Months had passed; he was in the clear.
A Stroke of Luck
On the 23rd of February, 1920, the police finally received a stroke of luck. The barge of Enoch Whitehouse snagged on something resting on the bottom of a Leicester canal. Leaning over the side, he hauled up the chassis of a green bicycle. He knew what it was immediately and contacted the police. The canal was dredged and over the next few days the missing parts of the bicycle were recovered, except, of course, for the rear wheel. An army issue holster and a box of bullets of the same calibre as the one that killed Bella were also retrieved from the water.
Light had been clever but not clever enough. He had filed down the serial numbers on his bicycle but BSA, the company that made it, managed to detect the faint remnants of a number hidden inside the chassis. The bicycle had been ordered by a shop in Leicester in 1910 with a special request for a coasting brake on the back wheel. Fortunately, the shopkeeper had kept meticulous records and could tell the police exactly who had bought the bicycle, one Ronald Light.
Light was arrested at the school where he was teaching in Cheltenham. From the beginning, he adopted a stance of detached calm and superiority. He was an innocent man, and responded with disdain to the questions of the oafish police in his clipped upper-class tones. He denied everything insisting that he had never owned a green bicycle. When the receipt he had signed in 1910 was placed before him, he suddenly remembered that he had bought such a bicycle but had sold it in 1916 to an officer in the British army whose name he could no longer remember.
Eventually, when eyewitness after an eyewitness identified him, he was forced to admit that he was the man on the green bicycle who had accompanied Bella on her last journey. He claimed that they had ridden together from Gaulby to the next crossroads, where he turned right and she turned left, never to meet again. He had tossed away his bicycle, holster and bullets and sold his clothes in a panic when he realised she was dead. Once he was committed to this subterfuge there was no going back. His mother was ill and he did not want to upset her. What was the point of coming forward anyway? There was nothing he could tell the police about Bella’s mysterious death but in the face of the overwhelming evidence against him, Light was charged with the murder of Annie Bella Wright.
Light’s trial began in June 1920 and was widely reported. Astonishingly, the English press were sympathetic to his plight. Depicted as an officer and a gentleman, he was treated with deference, whereas Bella was constantly referred to as a ‘factory girl’. One publication even had the audacity to question her virtue. Despite the evidence, the prosecution had a massive task on their hands. They took the tack that the beautiful Bella had rejected Light’s sexual advances and tried to escape down the lonely country lane where she was discovered. Angry and frustrated, he followed her and shot her in the face with his old service revolver. Earlier in the day, Light had approached two young schoolgirls out on a bicycle ride, intimidating and attempting to separate them. Crucially Light’s past history of sexual harassment was not revealed in court.
Money talks, and Light’s mother had the funds to employ the best barrister in the land, Sir Edward Marshall Hall. He argued that Light’s only crime was in not coming forward. The girls that had claimed Light had bothered them were asked to identify him almost a year later when their memories had faded. Could their testimony really be trusted?
As for Bella’s uncle, he was surely mistaken when he implied that there was a degree of familiarity between his niece and the accused. Light had not referred to Bella by name outside his cottage, he had merely uttered the word ‘hello’, an easy mistake to make by a man of advancing years.
The missing revolver was never discovered because it no longer existed, Light had left it in France when he had resigned his commission, a fact the jury believed despite a friend of Light’s claiming that he had posted it to her from France for safekeeping and she handed it back to him in 1917. It was the absolute demolition of the prosecution’s gun expert however, that saved Light from swinging at the end of a rope. He was forced to admit that Bella could have been shot from a distance by a rifle. Could the true culprit be a farmer or a young boy out shooting rabbits? Indeed, was this not the more likely course of events as the wound to Bella’s face was small, too small to have been made by a revolver? Light was acquitted and the nation cheered.
The Crow Theory
The crow theory was expounded in the years following Light’s acquittal by H. Trueman Wright. In a self-congratulatory piece entitled ‘Red Claw of the Carrion Crow’ written in 1943, Stuart Martin revisits the theory and ‘solves the case’.
‘Ronald Light was found Not Guilty at his trial. He deserved that verdict. He may have been foolish but he was no murderer. The prosecution could not produce a motive.
The bullet might have been fired from a service revolver but it might also have been fired from a rifle. Suppose somebody was out rabbit shooting or bird shooting. On the white gate a big crow rested. A sitting bird. From far across the field the man with the rifle fired. The bullet went right through the crow and struck Bella Wright who was cycling past at that moment.
Proof of all this would have been available if PC Hall, amateur Sherlock Holmes had lifted the dead bird and taken it for examination. Very good of PC Hall to have found the bullet.Very good. But not quite Sherlock Holmes.’
A Final Twist
Three days after his acquittal, the Superintendent of Leicestershire Police, Levi Bowley typed up a statement he claims was made to him by Light while he was on remand. Bowley had been good to Light and in response Light revealed the truth of what happened on that fateful bicycle ride with Bella. Inadmissible in court, it was locked in a safe and only came to light in recent years. There is some question both to its veracity and authenticity.
‘I did shoot the girl but it was completely accidental, we were riding quietly along. I had my revolver in my raincoat pocket and we dismounted for her to look at it…I had no idea there was a loaded cartridge in it…her hand was out to take it when it went off. She fell and never stirred…I got on my bicycle and rode away.’
Ronald Light changed his name and went on to live a long life, marrying and living in Kent until his death at 89. He had two further brushes with the law involving inappropriate conduct towards a woman and a child.
The mystery surrounding Bella’s death is still hotly debated and depending upon your perspective Light is guilty or innocent. For many, Light’s trial and acquittal had as much to do with the English class system as it did with the physical evidence. His barrister argued he had no motive for killing Bella. The implication was that such an upstanding, composed, well-spoken officer, gentleman and engineer could not have been interested in a poor ‘factory girl’. The jury believed him. The only possible solution to the ‘ Green Bicycle Mystery’ would be the miraculous discovery of Light’s missing revolver and a match or mismatch to the bullet casing retrieved at the scene. Unlikely certainly, but one can only hope and wish for Bella’s sake that one day the truth surrounding the death of a lovely young woman who went out for a cycle ride on a Summer’s evening and never went home is finally revealed.
- ‘The Green Bicycle Case’ -Herbert R. Wakefield
- ‘The Green Bicycle Murder’- Bill Donahue
- ‘The Green Bicycle Mystery’- Antony M. Browne
- ‘The Green Bicycle Mystery’- The Cold Case Jury Collection
- ‘Red Claw of the Carrion Crow’- Stuart Martin
- ‘Leicester Mercury’
- ‘Leicester Chronicle’
- ‘Daily Mirror’
- ‘The Times’
- ‘The Guardian