Who Was Killer Child Mary Bell?

Updated on August 26, 2019
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A writer from the north of England, Ann enjoys writing about the unexplained and the paranormal, as well as historical crimes and mysteries.

Newcastle, England, 1968

The Newcastle of the 1960s was a strong vibrant city with a rich cultural heritage. Sadly, it was also a city that struggled with poverty, like many of its northern counterparts. Scarred by the Blitz and deeply affected by the post-war decline in heavy industries, unemployment was rife.

The Scotswood area felt the lack of jobs and investment more keenly than others. Much of its population lived on the breadline. Neatly kept terraces stood side by side with half-demolished houses, the result of a grindingly slow slum clearance programme that promised much and delivered little. For the children of Scotswood, there were no leafy parks or well-maintained playgrounds. Instead, they played in the rubble of ‘Rat Alley’ or an area of scrubland nicknamed ‘Tin Lizzie’, where the old forgotten air raid shelters and broken bricks offered rich pickings for children poor in resources but rich in imagination.

A Dangerous Playground
A Dangerous Playground | Source

The Death of Martin Brown

Upon this dangerous playground, accidents were bound to happen. When the body of a young child was discovered in a derelict building on Rat Alley on Saturday, May 27th, 1968, the residents of Scotswood were saddened and angry but not entirely surprised. It was 3 o'clock in the afternoon when a group of ashen-faced children ran sobbing from the building to alert some workmen nearby. As the men entered the decaying wreck that had once been someone’s home, they must have prayed that the kids were playing a cruel joke. Sadly, they weren’t.

On an upper floor the men found the tiny body of 4-year-old Martin Brown. There were no signs of injury on his body, just a little foam on his lips and a discarded pill bottle nearby. Had the small child swallowed the contents believing them to be sweeties? An autopsy proved not. Martin’s body was drug-free and had no sign of violence; his death was recorded as accidental. Little Martin was cruelly dubbed ‘Rat Alley Boy’ boy by the press, and while many judged, few put their hands in their pockets to help. Martin’s grieving parents began preparations for a pauper’s funeral.

Incensed by the newspaper coverage, the residents of Scotswood were galvanised into action and did one of the few things available to them: they protested. Cobbling together makeshift banners from sheets and sticks, they marched into Newcastle demanding better housing and safer play areas. Leading the march and holding her banner with pride was a stunningly pretty child, 11-year-old Mary Flora Bell.

Martin Brown
Martin Brown | Source

A Knock at the Door

The weeks that followed Martin’s death must have been a blur for his parents. No doubt they reproached themselves for letting their 4-year-old out of their sight but these were the days when children of all ages played out from dawn to dusk. The close-knit community rallied about them, a steady stream of visitors at their door offering crumbs of comfort.

Nevertheless, Martin’s mother was taken aback when she discovered little Mary Bell standing on her step the day before his funeral. When the child asked if she could see Martin, the heartbroken mother explained as gently as she could that Martin had gone to heaven, that her son wouldn’t be coming out to play ever again. To her astonishment, Mary explained that she knew Martin was dead, she hadn’t called to ask him out to play. Instead, Mary asked to see the dead body of the toddler in his tiny coffin. Martin’s mother slammed the door in Mary’s face, shocked and upset. What she didn’t know for some months is that she had just come face to face with the child who had killed her little boy.

The Mary Bell Case

Signs of Psychopathy

They say that hindsight has 20/20 vision, and this certainly seems to be true in the case of Mary Flora Bell. Born on May 26th, 1957, Mary’s young life was to be a troubled one. The daughter of a prostitute, Mary was neglected and quite possibly physically and sexually abused.

Despite her background, Mary was gifted in other ways, and she was strikingly pretty with jet black hair and piercing blue eyes. She was keenly intelligent and quick-witted. Mary was also a bully who terrified other children, stubbing a lit cigarette out on the cheek of one little girl. By the summer of 1968, she was displaying the classic traits of a psychopath. A child with few friends, she had struck up an alliance with the girl who lived next door, a girl older in years but no match to Mary in cunning, 13-year-old Norma Bell. By the summer of 1968, both girls were moving onto the police radar.

Mary and Norma: Partners in Crime

Early in May, Mary and Norma persuaded a toddler called John G to go with them to a sweet shop nearby. When the young lad was found, dazed, bleeding and covered in his own vomit later the same day, both girls were interviewed by the police. The girls clearly had time to get their story straight and gave strikingly similar statements. According to the two friends, they had gone home and left the little lad to do the same. The police accepted their story and let the girls go. In reality, Mary had assaulted the child.

The same day that John G was attacked, Mary and Norma went to play in the grounds of a nearby nursery school. Squeezing through the metal bars, they joined other children playing in the sandpit. For some reason, Mary took exception to one of the girls, Pauline Watson. Grabbing the girl she stuffed sand in her mouth and began to strangle her before switching her attention to another girl Susan Cornish. When Mary was reported to the police by Pauline’s mother, Norma proved less loyal, describing in detail how her friend had attempted to choke the 2 girls with sand before squeezing their necks. Despite this, the police put the incident down to a childish squabble.

The day after Martin’s death, Mary turned 11. When Norma Bell’s father heard strange noises coming from his backyard, he rushed out to investigate. To his astonishment, he discovered Mary Bell with her hands around the neck of his youngest daughter, slowly squeezing the life out of her. Despite her diminutive size, it took a clip around the ear before Mary released her grip. Turning angrily to face Mr. Bell, she levelled him with her piercing blue eyes and promised retribution. Had Mr. Bell ended his older daughter’s relationship with Mary after this incident, he would have saved his family further grief. Instead, the friendship flourished, and before long there would be further trouble and, sadly, another death.

Norma Bell
Norma Bell

The Nursery Incident

The nursery school seemed to hold a fatal fascination for Mary and Norma and the day after Mary’s birthday, the two girls ventured back again. This time, not content with playing in the school’s grounds, the two girls removed some slates from the roof and broke inside. Surprisingly, despite the nursery being filled with toys, the girls didn’t steal anything. Instead, they left a number of notes that they had written at home and brought with them. Calling themselves Faggot and Fanny, the two girls confessed to the murder of Martin Brown.

When the police investigated and discovered the notes, they put them down to a childish prank. The staff of the nursery, though, had enough of break-ins and petty vandalism. Unbeknown to Mary and Norma they installed a burglar alarm and when the two children broke in a few days later, the police were quickly on the scene. Mary and Norma were arrested and charged with burglary and with the threat of a court appearance hanging over them, they were to keep their noses clean for the next few months.

One of the notes left by Mary and Norma
One of the notes left by Mary and Norma | Source

The Murder of Brian Howe

It was the 31st July and the summer holidays had finally arrived. With few parks and open spaces nearby the children of Scotswood made their own entertainment. The demolition of slum housing proved a source of endless fascination for them and groups gathered each day on Rat Alley to watch the wrecking balls wreak their havoc. Joining the gang of children that day was three-year-old Brian Howe. When the little boy hadn’t arrived home for his tea by dusk, the police were called and his family began a search.

At least one person knew where the little lad’s body was, Mary Bell. Chillingly, she attempted to direct members of his family to where his corpse lay on the Tin Lizzie, desperate to see their reaction. Just after 11 o'clock that night, Brian was discovered. There were abrasions on his legs, a piece of his hair had been cut off, an attempt to carve either an M or an N on his stomach had been made and his genitals had been mutilated. A post mortem concluded that the little mite had been asphyxiated. The astute pathologist also concluded that Brian had been murdered by another child. The penny finally dropped for local police and the Martin Brown case was immediately reopened.

Brian Howe
Brian Howe | Source

Norma Is Paid a Visit

The police began to interview the local children immediately, desperate to find the killer child before he or she struck again. On the 4th of August, it was the turn of Norma Bell. Unlike her partner in crime, Mary, Norma could not maintain her composure and lie. The truth soon came tumbling out. Mary, she claimed, had persuaded little Brian to accompany them to the Tin Lizzie, where they played close to the old abandoned air raid shelter. As she had done on previous occasions, Mary then told Brian that he had a sore throat and began to massage his neck. At this point, Norma begged Mary to ‘Let the baby go’.

Sadly, Mary was on a mission and while Norma claims she turned away, the younger girl strangled the toddler. Both girls fled the scene but what they couldn’t have known was that they had been witnessed by a young boy walking his dog. Not content with what she had done, Mary returned later with a knife and a pair of nail scissors and mutilated Brian’s body. She was to confide in Norma what she had done and where she had hidden the scissors and the knife.

The Tin Lizzie
The Tin Lizzie | Source


The two girls were arrested. Unlike Norma, Mary kept her composure. Both girls placed the blame squarely upon the other but from the start police believed that Mary was the driving force behind the heinous crimes. The little girl was cold and dispassionate while Norma cried hysterically. It was the evidence in her school books that were to prove Mary’s undoing. She denied being present at the murders despite an eye witness and insisted that Norma or a mythical boy with a pair of nail scissors had committed the crimes, yet in one of her school books she had drawn a picture of Martin Brown lying next to an empty pill bottle, a fact the police had suppressed. Despite her cunning and intelligence little Mary Bell had dropped herself right in it.

Fred Dinenage Murder Casebook: Mary Bell

The Trial

From the very beginning, the two children were treated differently. Both charged with the same offence, Norma was sent to a secure hospital while Mary was placed on remand at the much harsher Seaham Detention Centre. While Norma’s shocked family rallied about her, Mary was effectively abandoned. When the two girls eventually stood trial, Norma appeared lost, bemused and frequently upset despite her mother and father sitting in the public gallery. The more detached Mary appeared calm and intensely interested in the events unfolding about her. A few days before Christmas the verdict was returned. Both children were found not guilty of murder but Mary was convicted on the lesser charge of manslaughter due to diminished responsibility. Her sentence was detention at Her Majesty’s Pleasure.

Mary Bell
Mary Bell | Source

The Great Escape

With Mary’s sentence decided, the authorities faced the problem of where the young child should go. Eventually they hit upon Red Bank Special Unit in Newton le Willows, where she was to be the only female inmate. Despite being imprisoned, Mary was to make the headlines again when the television programme ‘Midweek’ alleged that the girl was at the centre of a sex and pornography scandal.

At 18 Mary was moved on. Now a young woman she was sent to Moor Court Open Prison in Staffordshire. Intrigued by the outside world and finally mixing with girls her own age, Mary saw her opportunity one day and went on the run with 21 year old Annette Priest who had been convicted of prostitution and theft.

The police were to quickly release a statement after taking advice from the Home Office;

‘Bell killed some smaller children when she was 11 years old. Now she is 20 and prison authorities say she is not the slightest bit dangerous. She is just a missing 20 year old in an open prison’.

Nevertheless, the press whipped a terrified public into a frenzy at the thought that the child killer on the loose. Far from stalking fresh victims the young woman spent her two days of freedom enjoying her first disco and drinking with two young men the she had met hitchhiking. Eventually, caught sitting in a car with the two men, Mary was sent to the harsher and more restrictive Styal Prison.

Mary Bell escapes
Mary Bell escapes | Source


Two years later, Mary Bell was transferred to Askham Grange Prison, with a view to release. Living in a hostel in the prison grounds, she was allowed to get a job in a nearby town. The press soon discovered what was happening and followed Mary to her workplace pestering her for a story or photographs.

When she was eventually released in 1980, she was given a new identity and her life as a free woman began. Bell was to claim that in these first years she struggled to cope and even went shoplifting in a bid to be sent back to prison and the safety of a familiar routine. In 1984 she gave birth to what was to be her only child, a little girl. Concerned to protect her baby, Bell obtained an order protecting their anonymity until the girl reached 18.

Mary Bell her identity revealed
Mary Bell her identity revealed | Source

Identity Revealed

Bell lived the following years in relative obscurity. The Home Office and the police kept close tabs on her whereabouts but other than that she was allowed to put the past behind her. Occasionally a dogged journalist would uncover Mary Bell’s identity and offer her thousands of pounds to tell her story but she remained tight-lipped, that is until she met the author Gitta Sereny.

It is hard to know what tempted Mary more, enough money to put a deposit down on a small house or the opportunity to explain how she became such a damaged child. Whatever the reason, both Bell and Sereny had misjudged a public who weren’t prepared to forgive and forget.

When Sereny’s book ‘Cries Unheard: The Mary Bell Story’ was published in1998, there was a massive outcry. People were incensed that while the parents of Martin and Bryan had endured a lifetime of sorrow, Mary was not only getting on with her life but profiting from her crime. Her new identity was leaked by a member of the police. The gloves were off and the press descended on Bell’s recently purchased house. That night Mary had to reveal to her 14-year-old daughter her true identity and her past crimes. Mother and daughter were eventually whisked away by the police for their own protection, bedsheets covering their heads to conceal their faces.


A Change to the Law

Mary and her daughter were forced into hiding, moving from safe house to safe house to avoid the press. Bell, of course, had brought this all upon herself. The government made strenuous efforts to retrieve the money that she had received but it was gone. Galvanised by public opinion Parliament passed a law so that no further criminals could not profit from their crimes.

There was, of course, another innocent victim, Bell’s 14-year-old daughter. She had no idea of her mother’s crimes or her previous identity until the house was surrounded by journalists in the middle of the night. Forced to leave the seaside town where she lived, she must have been in turmoil. In 2003 a further law was passed granting her and her mother lifetime anonymity. Bell’s daughter has since given birth, making Mary a grandmother.

The mothers of Brian and Martin
The mothers of Brian and Martin | Source

Who Is Mary Bell?

The answer to the question ‘Who is Mary Bell?’ is a complex one. The truth is, like most of us, she is many people: killer, psychopath, abused child, bully, victim, liar, prisoner, manipulator, sociopath, mother and grandmother. More than anything though, as Mary Bell approaches her mid sixties and probably craves a peaceful life, she is a woman who must always look over her shoulder, a woman that must live in dread of that late-night knock on the front door that means, once again, she has been discovered.

Should children who kill be released back into society?

See results


  • Mary Flora Bell: The Horrific True Story Behind an Innocent Girl Serial Killer, Nancy Veysey and Ryan Becker
  • Killer Child: Mary Bell, Sylvia Perrini
  • Mary Flora Bell: The True Story, Kate Smith Adams
  • Cries Unheard: The Story of Mary Bell, Gitta Serena
  • The Case of Mary Bell: A Portrait of a Child who Murdered, Gitta Serena
  • Chronicle Live
  • Wikipedia
  • Murderpedia
  • The Times
  • The Observer
  • The Daily Mirror
  • Pinterest

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Ann Carney


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