DIANE JANES – ED STOW – APRIL 2018
In what now passes for normality, we gathered on the basement meeting room of the Chamberlain Hotel on the Minories for the April 2018 meeting of the Whitechapel Society.
Sue Parry gave the ‘Parish Notices’ before Steve Rattey announced the topic for the next interim meeting) – whether the Whitechapel Murders and Torso Murders are linked. What an interesting subject for discussion!
Ruby Vitorino resumed her role as compere, by introducing the speaker, who is also her favourite crime writer, Diane Janes. Janes’ talk had (for me) a rather strange title: ‘Digging Out the Truth: What Really Happened at Wolf’s Nick’.
I was totally in the dark (black mark – sorry I hadn’t properly read the pre-meeting blurbs sent out by Sue Parry). ‘Wolf’s Nick’? It sounded like a bayou in the southern states of the USA. Was this one of those transatlantic murder mysteries, Lizzie Borden or some such?
But no, it was much closer to home. Wolf’s Nick is in Northumberland, some six miles southeast of Otterburn, which is on the main road to Newcastle. It is named after a notch in a hill line. In January 1931, a twenty-seven-year-old local woman called Evelyn Foster was found very badly burnt at Wolf’s Nick in the early hours of the morning. She died of her injuries soon after.
There was great controversy at the time as to whether or not it was a murder, and crime writer Diane Janes set out to reinvestigate the case by studying the police records.
Diane observed that the past is a foreign country. Attitudes change. Not only are the 1930s very different to now, but the 1930s were very different to the Victorian era. The Chief Constable of Northumberland Police was an ex-military man, Captain Fullerton James (Diane’s main anti-hero), and he was essentially an upper-class Victorian who was coming up to his retirement at the age of sixty-eight, having been in situ since the preceding century. Evelyn Foster, in stark contrast to him, was a modern woman. She was independent, unmarried and worked as what we would now describe as a mini cab driver, connecting the remote moorland farms and villages of the Cheviot Hills. Her father ran several transport businesses in Otterburn, and was a self-made man.
On the night in question, Evelyn took some regular passengers to a farm to the north, and according to her account, was flagged down by a man who had left a car a few miles north of Otterburn. He seemed respectable and he wanted a lift to Otterburn so he
could get a ride from there to Newcastle, via cab and perhaps, by bus.
She dropped the man off in Otterburn and offered to take him part of the way as a fare if he could not obtain a lift from anyone else. In the meantime, she went home and told her mother what had transpired before going out again. According to Evelyn, she met the same man and drove him towards another village where he said he hoped to get a bus, but it was on the way there that his demeanour changed. He told her to stop and take him back to Otterburn. When they got to Wolf’s Nick, he pushed her to one side in the car, and attempted to rape her. Then he poured petrol on her, set her on fire and abandoned the burning car in a field.
Soon afterwards, a bus (belonging to Evelyn’s father’s company) came by. It stopped and the driver and conductor went to inspect the fire and immediately recognised Evelyn. Although she was badly burned, she managed to say: ‘That awful man’.
She was taken back home and underwent medical treatment. While she lapsed in and out of consciousness she was able to give a partial account of what had happened and a description of the man. However, she died of her injuries soon afterwards.
A major police investigation ensued. Northumberland Police were not a large force nor were they well equipped with things such as cars, radios or telephones. Detectives were loaned them by the separate Newcastle City Police. However Captain Fullerton James personally took charge of the case, even though he was based in Morpeth, over twenty-three miles away, and he insisted on all the paperwork being typed out and sent to him.
The police found it difficult to corroborate Evelyn’s account of what had happened. No one saw anyone with her in her car, although her car was seen, and the doctor could find no indication of sexual assault. The official police line was that she had somehow set fire to herself. Perhaps as part of an insurance fraud that had gone wrong. Perhaps because she was mentally disturbed and it was some sort of highly strung, self-harming suicide attempt. But Diane felt that the Victorian personality of Fullerton James couldn’t come to terms with Evelyn as a modern independent woman, who was used to going out on her own when driving people from place to place.
At the inquest, the coroner instructed the jury not to give a verdict of murder, but the jury – which comprised local people who knew Evelyn from birth – ignored this instruction and returned a verdict of murder. The police were then obliged to investigate, although it is fairly clear that they only went through the motions. The case remains a great mystery, with local rumours and myths spreading and becoming entrenched as the perceived wisdom of what ‘really’ happened.
The police files were opened to the public in 2012, and Diane went through them with a fine tooth comb. It appeared that of the hundreds of witnesses interviewed, only twelve were called to the inquest. Was this cherry-picking or does it show thoroughness? Would most of these witnesses have contributed to understanding how Evelyn had died?
One of the persistent local rumours was that a local landowner was somehow involved in her death. But the police thoroughly investigated those claims and a firm alibi was established.
Interestingly, and in contrast to the Ripper case, the police files on Evelyn Foster are more or less complete, which allows for an accurate re-appraisal of the investigation. They show how leads were followed up and it seems understandable that Fullerton James may have become bogged down and swamped with all the paperwork. He may have suffered a similar information overload to Chief Inspector Swanson who had to handle all the Jack the Ripper paperwork at Scotland Yard. Mind you, Swanson’s paperwork must have made the Evelyn Foster file seem like a few sheets of foolscap by comparison.
While conducting her research for her book, Diane recreated a crime scene investigation room with a large-scale map on her wall, and cards for each witness in order to establish a timeline. In doing so, she discovered that a witness had heard a car turning at a village called Belsay, which is where Evelyn said she was forced to turn back. And another witness had seen a man in a bowler hat walking away some miles off after the attack. This matches Evelyn’s description of her attacker as wearing a bowler hat. Diane also found a credible suspect who was named at the time but overlooked – but to find out more you will have to buy the book…Thankfully, Diane had copies of her book ‘Death at Wolf’s Nick: The Killing of Evelyn Foster’ which she kindly signed.
There was a lively Q&A afterwards conducted by Frogg Moody – during which I expressed my doubt that the police had actually got it wrong! We also found out that Diane had been writing for ten years, but had previously been a barmaid, a washer-upper and had also worked for the NHS prior to earning her living with her pen.
This was an interesting talk and a spur to further enquiry, and I have been reading around this intriguing case ever since.