Memory, Rumour and the Murder Mine: Dudley, 1961

The study of history should come with a warning: that if we do not seek to find historical ‘facts’ for ourselves, interpret them for ourselves, and make conclusions for ourselves, then we are at the mercy of the historical ‘facts’, interpretations and conclusions of someone else. Influential figures, particularly those considered divisive (such as politicians, journalists (media), educationalists and social campaigners, for example) are often accused by opponents of manipulating ‘facts’ for their own ends: ‘fake-news’, for example. Further, as the post-modernist philosophy adopted by many promotes personal over that of collective truth, open discussion can be closed down through fear and intimidation by those have an interest in their truth being espoused while hypocritically suppressing yours: if we fail to question then, however unwillingly, we allow other people’s alleged truths to fester and become accepted fact; we all need to question, examine and arrive at our own viewpoint as, whether it be right or wrong, it is at least our own.

In the great scheme of things such Orwellian attempts at deliberate misinformation for sinister gain are not really an issue when looking at the kind of local stories of interest like this one as its purpose is generally to inform, entertain even; however, if I wanted to present even this story in such a way as to show that Dudley Borough Police and the Home Office deliberately covered up the brutal murder of a working-class woman for a shadowy purpose (which they did not) then the insidious nature of controlling historical narratives is all too clear.

25″ OS 1887 Map showing the Castle Mill Basin (1969, in blue). The Birmingham New Road has not been built. The wharfs are now a part of the Canal Trust and the Black Country Museum (click to enlarge)

This is a sad tale, as it deals with someone completely lost to us now. The purpose in writing it is two-fold. First, it seeks to set the record straight, as much as it can, primarily to give a little dignity to the lady involved. Second, its retelling is also intended to highlight the limitations of memory: to show how individual and collective memory, rumour and simple acceptance of truth have, in this case through no planned deception, given birth to a series of exaggerated events that have seen the colloquial naming of a geological feature within Dudley as ‘Murder Mine’.

These events would have remained unaddressed had it not been for two reasons. First, the case was brought to my attention during the process of seeking better control of the (former Dudley) Coroner’s records held at the Archive. Second, a little while ago Dudley Museum made a video (with the help of Brian, from the Dudley Canal Trust) on the ‘ghostly tales’ of the canal. This video was not meant to be serious, just a bit of general entertainment, but is on repeat play, with other short videos, within the museum gallery and features Brian recalling what he had once been told by a mine inspector some years back. The relevant clip is shown below. Brian’s good faith is not in question here, but the actual events he relates are open to scrutiny through contemporary newspaper accounts and the Coroner’s file (access for which was granted by the Coroner, although understandably without reproducing any photographs from that file. I have also redacted any names that do not appear in press coverage).

A summary of the video (as it is appreciated that the sound is not of the best quality) is as follows: a mine inspector (who is not named) once visited the Dudley canal caves, and had done similar inspections for a number of years. Back in 1951, this inspector was in a cave adjacent to the canal; the entrance then being some ten or so feet lower that it is today. Concerned that a limestone slab constituted a trip hazard, he instructed that it be removed. Upon removal, the skeleton of a young lady was found underneath. The lady, to this day, remains unidentified. Some old clothes and part of a whalebone corset were present indicating she had ‘been there a while to say the least’. The rusty blade of a knife, without a handle, was found under the body which could have fallen though the skeleton as the body decomposed. As far as Brian is aware, ever since then it has been known as ‘Murder Mine’ by the locals.

The Castle Mill basin from the mouth of the mine (click to enlarge). 2019.

So, how much of this is true? How much an exaggeration? And how much pure invention? Well, you can judge for yourselves as we look at the evidence, however, that evidence comes from 1961 and not 1951.

Murder Mine was at least once a mine, even though it had long since been abandoned by 1961. This mine, along with others, and the tunnel and canal network, were a part of the subterranean workings within the limestone outcrop on which Dudley Castle was built (although at the opposite end); they fed the kilns that are now located within the Black Country Museum and were built and originally operated by the Earl of Dudley (from the 1770s, although it isn’t clear when the Murder Mine was dug). The workings were enlarged over time and canal branches followed to link workings and the Castle Mill Basin, originally in a cavern, became exposed. The extraction and processing ceased in the 1920s and 1930s. The sketch below of the Dudley workings belongs to ‘Blossom’ and was found on his boating blog; it is undated and not scaled, but shows the mine’s depth (which goes on beyond a blockage) and colloquial name ( ).

Blossom’s plan of the workings, with Murder Mine named (click to enlarge).

The report made by Detective Inspector MacDougall to the Chief Constable of Dudley Borough Police in May 1961 first described the location of the cavern, it being: ‘in the Dudley Zoo grounds between Castle Mill Lodge and Forest Road [Forest Road is the other side of the wooded area on the 1887 map, but had not been built then], and is approximately forty yards from a disused canal basin which forms the junction of two underground canals’. Back in 1961 the basin was disused, although it contained ‘stagnant water’; it was smaller than present – the cavern entrance being some forty yards from the canal basin compared to today – as the 1989 tunnel between the mine and the old canal tunnel had of course not been constructed. Finally, as Brian said, the entrance to the cavern was down a dip – it has since been levelled – and the cave was frequented by rats.

The basin was no picturesque exemplar of industrial archaeology; instead, it was then overgrown and was described by MacDougall elsewhere, as was the cavern itself, as a playground for local children. This fact had seen the tragic drowning of a boy in 1949. Further, there had been a deeply distressing incident in September 1958 when a young girl’s body had been recovered from the basin under very suspicious circumstances. The case is too sensitive to discuss in detail; while a criminal investigation did follow, although no successful prosecution was made, whispers of murder were clearly circulating in the local community according to the press. The fact that MacDougall does not, and nor does anyone at any point within the Coroner’s file or the newspaper accounts, refer to the cavern as ‘Murder Mine’ during the 1961 case suggests that it is from this event that the name was later derived and not from the incident of 1958.

I would like to pause at this point to remember Susan.

MacDougall went on to describe the cavern itself as: ‘approximately 75 yards in length, and varies in breadth from 25 feet to 45 feet. The roof inside the Cavern is 30 to 40 feet from the ground. The entrance to the Cavern is in the form of a triangle, the base being about 16 feet wide and narrowing to a point, the height from this point being 7 feet from the ground. Inside the Cavern there are numerous large pieces of rock, which have fallen from the roof at various periods’. The cavern has since been blocked after just a few yards with a mound of rubble.

Murder Mine, today: it is now blocked after a just a few yards. 2019.

On the morning of Tuesday 16 May 1961 two workmen from Johnson, Poole and Bloomer, a mining engineering company based in Priory Street, Dudley, were working in the canal tunnel between Castle Mill basin and Severn Sister’s Cavern. Joseph Stanton was the elder of the two men, being then 40 years of age, and from Pensnett; while Ronald Westwood was two years younger and from Lower Gornal. At around 12.50 in the afternoon the were taking their lunch in the open air at the Castle Mill Basin when they were approached by a man called Dennis Hickman, from Kinver, along with a Boxer dog he was walking on behalf of someone. Hickman may have been known to Westwood previously and was an employee of British Federal, a welding company based at the Castle Mill works.

Hickman, likely as he knew the two were mining engineers, advised that a vixen had gone into the ‘Castle Mill Cavern’. Why this motivated the engineers, especially on their lunch break, isn’t stated but they had a ‘powerful electric light’ and so went into the cavern while Hickman remained at the entrance. Around thirty yards into the cavern the two men came across something ’round and brown in colour underneath a piece of rock’. Stanton thought it was a child’s ball but Westwood poked it with stick only to find it was ‘hard’. Westwood ‘picked up the rock’ covering, which wasn’t very heavy (although it was also described in another statement as ‘half a hundredweight’ – that is 56 pounds in weight). It was then they noticed it was a human skull.

The two then ‘moved away other pieces of rock and uncovered a human skeleton’. This evidence shows that there were rocks (the main one as mentioned, weighing 56 lb, was on the head itself) that partially covered the remains, but this was no limestone slab removed as a trip hazard. The bones were located on a flat area between to very large pieces of rock, each weighing up to a ton. Also, there were ‘very large pieces of rock on the right of the cavern sloping to where the skeleton was lying’. Stanton, with his experience as a miner, commented that he believed the rocks were from a roof fall, but a fall could ’cause other pieces of rock to slide down the slope over the skeleton’: in short, while there had been rock falls from the roof, there was no definitive proof that the rock that lay on the body had not arrived there postmortem.

The skull was found face down, though slightly to the left, and was the closest part of the skeletal remains to the mouth of the cave. Then, ‘found at increasing depths under the covering of rock and rubble’ were the rest of the remains. These remains were in anatomical order as avowed by Stanton, who held a certificate in first aid from the St. John’s organisation. The medical report states: ‘the spine [included with this were the ribs], pectoral girdle, pelvic bones, and lower limb bones were found as though the body had been placed or pinned down face downwards’. Saying that, only one full arm (ulna and radius) and one full leg (tibia and fibula) were found according to the medical report – and one assumes these were from the same limbs, however it was not recorded. For those bones that were not present, it is suggested throughout the file that rat activity could be the reason – and foxes need to added to that.

In a somewhat bizarre act, the two workmen decided to form a pile out of the bones instead of leaving them in-situ. It was after this possibly evidence-destroying act that Mr Hickman came into the cavern to view the remains before leaving. The two workmen then left the cavern and contacted Mr. Friend from their company, who came and viewed the remains before returning to the company premises. All of this had only taken an hour and a half, as at 2.20 pm a phone call was received by the police from a Mr. Poole of the company saying that the men had found a ‘body in a cavern at Castle Mill’. Stanton and Westwood remained at the cavern until the police arrived.

The police took around ten minutes to arrive, but the main cavalry turned-up at about 2.50 pm in the form of Superintendent Hullah, Detective Inspector Alexander MacDougall (who was the main Dudley Borough Police liaison with the Coroner), Police Constable Douthwaite (the Coroner’s officer) and the police photographer. At around 3 pm Doctor Barron, the police surgeon, arrived. Barron’s initial thoughts were that the remains: ‘judging by the pelvic bone, appeared to be that of a female. The flesh was all eaten away and the bones were discoloured… Death occurred many years ago’. MacDougall and Douthwaite then fixed the distance of the skeleton from the entrance as being 102 feet.

Following Barron’s advice the police called in a forensic team: this team was made up of Doctor Montgomery, from the University of London Forensic Laboratory at Birmingham, and Doctor Griffiths, a Home Office pathologist. They arrived at 7 pm. Over that evening and the following day a further search was made and further bones recovered. Along with the skeletal remains there were also recovered certain articles of clothing, as well as a set of dentures and part of an umbrella. Soil samples were also taken. Permission was obtained from the Coroner to remove the remains for further analysis.

The cavern entrance in 1961, showing the dip down. Birmingham Daily Post

By this stage the press had been notified and had been photographed – or obtained photographs – of activity around the cave entrance. On 19 May the inquest was opened and then adjourned to gather more evidence after the initial statements on discovery. With this, the focus of investigation moves onto the analysis of the bones and items found.

Doctor Walter Montgomery examined the clothes and the accompanying accoutrements. The first thing that is noticeable is the absence of certain evidence – although the archaeological maxim that that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence does need to be remembered. The first thing to mention is that there was nothing found giving a definitive identity or an absolute date (or at lease give an absolute terminus post quem, the point after which death must of occurred).

Then, at no time does Montgomery mention, or indeed does anyone in the entire Coroner file mention, a rusty blade underneath the skeletal remains. In fact, no item other than clothing was mentioned at any time other than the dentures and the umbrella. The Dudley Herald did mention a ‘rusty hairpin’ in its first report on 19 May: however, considering there is no mention of this in any other news report (as yet seen by myself) or within the Coroner file, and that the Herald then wrongly reported the colour of the shoes, it is possible that their reporter may have misheard or reported here-say.

Next, with the body some 100 feet inside the cavern, there was no evidence found of any lantern, torch or candle holder that must have lit the way to that spot. It may seem self-evident that light was needed, but we do have proof: the Dudley correspondent for the Birmingham Daily Post scouted out the spot within the cave, he did so by the light emitted by one ‘miner’s flickering tallow candle’. Saying that, if our lady had just a candle, then it is unlikely to have survived, however, the point as a whole needs to be remembered.

Montgomery’s report on what he did find was laconic, stating that: ‘the position of some of the fragments of clothing suggested that the clothing was present in the cave when the last roof fall occurred’; according to the Birmingham Daily Post correspondent: ‘Beyond the point where the bones were found, a rockfall [presumably the one Montgomery meant] almost completely blocks the tunnel’. His identification of the umbrella is simply that it is a ‘lady’s’ model and of ‘black cotton’.

Montgomery had little to go on with the clothing in general as there were no labels and even the type of garment was unclear. There were ‘fragments of a printed mercerised cotton dress… the original colours included cream on a red background’. After this, Montgomery simply states that ‘fragments of a green cotton garment are present’, as well as ‘fragments of coarse black lace’. He could at least identify ‘fragments of a laced corset consisting of canvas covered with cotton fabric’. It is possible, along with animal activity, that fungal spores had rotted the fabrics away in the damp atmosphere.

The shoes did yield some information that is significant for it offers much as to the fate of the smaller bones, flesh and fabrics (added to natural putrefaction and fungal spores): both shoes bore evidence of rodent tooth marks (most of the upper parts being eaten away). The shoes were fragmentary, but were made of black hide and had ‘toe caps and low heels’. The right shoe has evidence of a single strap. These shoes, sole-wise, were practical for cave exploration.

The remains of the shoes were taken to an expert: in the form of Enoch Merrington, from Messers Collins, High Street, Dudley. According to MacDougall, Merrington ‘was of the opinion that the footware were manufactured about 40 years ago’. Allowing a margin of error on top of this, this would have placed the shoes to the period of the Great War to the General Strike of 1926. The life-span for a pair of shoes depend on their quality, the frequency and nature of use, and whether they were subject to repair. As no comments on any of these issues were recorded in the file, the shoes can only give a vague terminus post quem of around 1920.

The skeleton was examined by Doctor Griffiths. His confirmation of the natural articulation of the body was made – in other words: ‘bones were found as though the body had been placed or pinned down face downwards’. Griffiths examined the pelvic bones, sacrum (the base of the spinal column), clavicles and shoulder blades – which confirmed the remains were that of a ‘female… and that the age of the deceased was over 25 years at the time of death’.

The skull offered a little more. The cranium was blackened on the right side with staining of both the interior and exterior. This was subjected to Benzidine tests, which showed dried blood in these areas, as well as in the right eye orbit. No hair was found at all, so a report in the Daily Herald (London) on 18 May 1961 that she had ‘dark hair’ was unfounded. Griffiths turned his attentions to the cranial sutures: the closing of parts of the coronial and saggital sutures indicated to him that the remains were from a 30-35 year-old woman.

Griffiths recovered most information from the skull (click to enlarge). Unknown source.

The skull did reveal a number of defects, all of which were to the right side and their location can be ascertained by the diagram above. The right maxilla (upper jaw) had a: ‘crescentic shaped [fracture] ¾” long in the vertical axis, with a radius of ½”. The curve of the crescent was directed towards the nasal bone. The fracture was slightly depressed. The frontal process of the right maxilla [the bone between the nasal bone and the eye orbit] showed a linear fracture running into the floor of the eye orbit. The right frontal bone showed three shallow linear depressions’. His conclusion, however, was that there ‘was no evidence as to whether the injuries found had been sustained by the deceased before or after death’.

Griffiths contacted Mr James Kirby, a Consultant Dental Surgeon at Dudley Road Hospital, and he and his technical staff gave expert opinion on the dentures and the teeth. There was an upper and lower denture found. The upper denture was in two parts. The denture was made of vulcanite: ‘the teeth in the denture were of the cheap variety, and the original denture appears to have been of the type made for someone in a low income group, although the subsequent repair had been made by an expert’. The lower denture was a partial denture of vulcanite with a metal bracket.

Detective Inspector MacDougall did refer the dentures to ‘a large number of dentists and dental technicians’, for two reasons. The first of these was to ascertain more information on the dentures themselves. As with the shoes, nothing definitive could be found: ‘opinions differed as to the age of the dentures, but all agreed that the dentures were made over 25 years ago’. This is not surprising as vulcanite dentures had been made from the mid-nineteenth century, although universally popular by the end of the century, and continued to be manufactured until the Second World War.

The second reason was then to refer to the dental records of those dentists to see if there was a match to the dentures found. MacDougall felt ‘the only hope of identifying the skeleton is by the means of the dentures and records of dental patients’. The Detective Inspector was to be thwarted, however, as he had ‘not yet located any dentist who has kept records dating back 25 years, and it appears fruitless to pursue the enquiries any further. Since the National Insurance Act came into force in 1948 [creating the National Health Service], dentists destroyed their old records, and they are now only required to keep records for two years’.

MacDougall had not been idle despite the lack of evidence: along with photographs and particulars of the case being presented in the press (although not always accurately, as shown), ‘enquiries have been made by all Police Forces relating to persons missing from home over 25 years ago’. These forces had received details both separately and through police publications. Further, the photographs of the dentures has also been published in the ‘Dentists Journal’. At the point of his report on 5 August 1961, ‘no identification had been made’.

Dudley Borough Police, and those forces in the immediate vicinity, did keep missing persons registers. These were checked. A report in the Birmingham Daily Post from 25 October 1961 claimed that a woman, who was ‘a known frequenter of the caverns’ had been suspected but the police had been ‘unable to make the final link which would have made the identification certain’. There is some truth in this, although at no stage in MacDougall’s report is it mentioned that she was a frequenter of the caverns.

The lady in question was described at ’35 years in age, 5′ 5″ in height and of plump build’ when she went missing around 1936. She was a married woman, a native of Kidderminster and, it was believed, left with a gentleman that was lodging at the house at the time. This man, it was known, was a native of Manchester. By 1961, the husband of the lady had died and her daughter, who had been 13 years-old at the time, could offer no assistance and so the trail went cold. DNA testing was not available then.

The inquest had been reconvened in August, although again adjourned, before being brought to a close on 24 October. With MacDougall drawing a blank on identification, the actual verdict of the court on the death were left open as no definitive evidence could be found to suggest either unlawful killing (murder), misadventure (death resulting from a deliberate action – such as going caving) or accidental death. It was Griffiths’ final conclusions that showed how little could be ascertained:

The skeleton is that of a female of average build, age 30-35, height 5’5″ – 5’8″. The bones appear to be components of the same body and show normal articulation to each other. The positions of the bones as discovered at the scene suggest that the deceased died, or was placed after death, face downwards with the head pointing to the mouth of the cavern, and the head on the right side. There was minimal coverage of the upper part of the body by rubble and rock, and maximal over the lower part of the body. Fractures of the right upper jaw were found, but there is no evidence as to whether these injuries were caused before or after death. The skull showed the presence of blood on the inner and outer aspects of the right side, but there is no evidence as to either the cause of the bleeding, or whether the blood was shed before or after death. Examination of the skeleton did not real a cause of death. The dentures found appear to have been made before 1939, of cheap materials, but repaired by an expert. The position of the skeleton in relation to the rock and rubble suggest that the deceased may have pinned down by a fall of rock from the roof of the cavern.

The Borough Geologist in the now levelled ‘Murder Mine’. 2019.

So, what are the theories? Murder or accident, it seems. I fall to the accident theory and will explain why, but first a comment on the frustrations of the case file: the witnesses do not seem to approach some vital questions, which even an acknowledgement that they could not answer would at least be of evidential value.

This lack of exploration may be illustrated if we take our ‘cave frequenter’ as the model for our victim. First, a historical context was missing: at her disappearance, around 1936, it was likely the zoo, which opened in 1937, had not been constructed and it is also possible that the canal system and mining operations were no longer working – suggesting that cave exploration was a reasonable assumption. The dentures dated from at least from 1939, but could be somewhat older, so fit with this – although there was no evidence recorded that this lady had dentures. The shoes date from around 1920, which is possible, although it would have helped had the description of the footware included if the shoes had been re-heeled and an expert opinion on if they were fit for cave exploration could have been useful.

The phrase ‘frequenter of the caves’, when linked to the disappearing at the same time as the lodger, may subliminally infer that our lady was of shady character and making the murder scenario more likely – as she was alone. What happens if she wasn’t alone? The possibility of other remains wasn’t discussed. The Birmingham Daily Post correspondent said the cave was partially blocked after her body position and the evidence from the inquest said there were rockfall debris all around – including whole slabs of limestone – is it not possible that the lodger, now simply an innocent caving companion, could still lie buried, lantern and all, under it?

Another disappointment is the lack of apparent interest in the rubble – not all of it of course, but the one piece that had lain over the head and had been removed by Stanton and Westwood. A proper description (especially weight), forensic analysis (test for blood, if possible) and expert opinion on what damage such a rock would do to a skull (if it struck a direct or glancing blow) would have been useful. Soil samples were taken, but nothing was ever used as evidence at the findings.

Perhaps the most frustrating is the umbrella. The design, if ascertainable, would be useful first for dating – as the pocket umbrella had only been invented in the 1920s. Second, if it was a standard type, then it could be assumed there was no wrist-strap and she must being carrying it when she fell at the spot she was found – if she received injuries elsewhere why would she take her umbrella? And if her body was dragged there, why go back to the scene to deposit an umbrella when it could be easily disposed of in the canal?

The partial covering of the body makes little sense unless it was a natural event: if it were a case of murder, surely you would either leave the body hoping the cave itself would hide it, or you would cover it all. The injuries could have been cause by a human hand, but are perhaps more suggestive to me, as Griffiths suggested, that she was struck, fell and pinned through a rock fall, or tripped and hit her head – possibly dying when hypothermia set in.

The investigating officers do touch upon the murder aspect. Detective Inspector MacDougall, at the end of his first report in May, simply says ‘the local press have published various stories regarding the skeleton, and have even suggested it was a case of murder’, while the Dudley Herald quoted Superintendent Hullah in its initial report as saying that ‘we don’t know cause of death and because of that we can’t rule out foul play’. They, like Griffiths it could be argued, favoured slightly the person being pinned from a rock fall, but really it was all speculation.

When looking at memory, those of the mine inspector have been found wanting: 1951, rusty blades, method of discovery, trip hazards and so on, although she had been there a while, the corset and the lack of identification were accurate. When looking at truth, the death remains unexplained but ‘Murder Mine’ is a misnomer – it should really be called Mystery Mine or Skeleton Mine. This story will not likely change much: the then Castle Mill Mine will stay as Murder Mine rather some other, more accurate name, because the murder myth has more appeal.

After trying to give the deceased a little dignity it would have been nice to visit the grave of the lady concerned; an unknown body would, after release by a coroner, be buried at the local authority’s expense, the problem is, when Dudley Council checked their cemetery records, there wasn’t a grave for an unknown lady for that period. And so another mystery started.

As there is nothing in the Coroner file to suggest then he, or Dudley Borough Police, received the remains back from the Forensic Laboratory in Birmingham, a Freedom of Information request was sent to West Midlands Police, as the successor body to Dudley Borough Police, asking if they had any information on the case. They replied that they had none. Therefore, the request was sent to the Home Office as it was their pathologist the carried out the examination. They politely replied that they had no record of the case either, as they seemed to have passed this responsibility onto Forensic Archive Ltd. A West Midlands Forensic Laboratory file does survive in the National Archives for the period up to the late 1930s , so I am hopeful the files for the 1960s exist and may provide an answer as to what happened to the remains after August 1961. Their reply is awaited.

In memory of the one I don’t know, and the one that I do

With Thanks to:
Black Country Coroner and Staff
Dudley Archives
Dudley Canal Trust (especially to Brian)
Dudley MBC Cemeteries
Dudley MBC Museum (especially to Graham Worton)
Ordnance Survey