It was July 5th 1919 and Annie Bella Wright, the eldest of seven children born to an illiterate farm labourer and his wife, lived in a small cottage in the village of Stoughton, just outside of Leicester. Annie was aged 21 at the time, and worked in a factory – Bates’ rubber mill, five miles away from home. Her transport was a bicycle.
Bella, as she was known, was like many other young ladies of the time. Earning her own money, contributing to the family and enjoying a level of freedom previously frowned upon until the recently ended Great War had changed the role of women in society. Filling in the places left empty by young men off fighting the war, these young ladies had been awakened to a new phase of modernism, women’s rights and a relaxation of previously strict moral values. Voting rights for women were just around the corner, in part thanks to the efforts of the women’s suffrage movement, and buoyed by over four years of independence, they were not about to relinquish their place in the world, for the boredom of the kitchen sink.
Bella had a young suitor – a sailor by the name of Archie Ward, who in July was serving offshore as a Navy stoker. It was rumoured that she also had the admiration of another man; from conversations with her mother and colleagues, it was stated that Bella had confided that a young officer had fallen in love with her.
On the afternoon of the 5th, Bella was not at work. She made the decision to cycle to the nearby home of her uncle, George Measures, a few miles away in Gaulby. Her cousin had recently given birth to a baby and Bella was keen to see the new addition to her family. On her way to Gaulby, it appears that Bella was suffering mechanical issues with one of her bicycle wheels.
It was there that she was found at 6.45 pm, by Ronald Light, who would later claim she flagged him down for assistance with a loose nut. They were unable to rectify the situation, possibly as a result of lack of tools, so Bella assured Light that she was on her way to see her uncle, and he would have the necessary means to sort the issue. Light offered to accompany her. When they arrived at Gaulby, her cousin and her husband were at the cottage. Bella mentioned the problem with the wheel, and her uncle responded that he did not like the look of Light. It was later suggested that this may have been the mystery man with whom Bella was developing a friendship, however she gave no intimation that she knew Light previously to the evening. She did not hurry herself in the visit, and Light wandered away up the street to have a stroll around the village church.
When Bella emerged from the cottage some considerable time later, the family were somewhat surprised to see Light was still waiting. Bella assured her uncle she was safe and would part company with Light on the journey home. They departed Gaulby at around 8.50pm. Just thirty minutes later, Bella was found dead near a field gate at the side of the Via Devana road, a few miles away. An alarm was raised and PC Alfred Hall attended the scene, accompanied by a doctor who pronounced her death. A cursory examination was made and it was quickly decided that Bella had met with an accident whereby she fell off her bike and hit her head, causing her death. PC Hall later testified that blood found on the top of the nearby gate, which was thought to be Bella’s, was taken there by a feeding raven; there were no footprints found either side of the gate. However it was soon deduced that neither were there any ravens known in the area.
PC Hall returned home following the discovery, and spent a rather restless night, feeling that the details somehow did not add up. He returned to the scene early the next morning, where Bella had not yet been removed from, and had a look around. Seventeen feet from her body he found in the mud at the side of the road, a .455 bullet casing. He returned to Bella’s body and after wiping down her still bloodied face, found a gunshot entry wound. The accident was now a suspected murder.
Investigations soon revealed Bella’s movements that day, and the stranger accompanying her, also on a bicycle. His machine being unusual in its style and colour – it was a relatively new and expansive bright green BSA model. Despite lengthy enquiries however, the owner of the bicycle was not immediately traced. In fact, it was only by chance that canalman Enoch Whitehouse happened to be guiding a horse-drawn canalboat down the River Soar the following February, when the rope went tight under the water line. After some tugging, the rope was lifted and was discovered to be entangled in the rusting frame of a green bicycle. Police were called and checks revealed that although the serial number had been filed away from both the frame and the seat lug, and the make filed away from the fork, there remained a faint serial number on the fork which enabled the Police to trace the vendor of the cycle to a shop. Their records gave the police the details of the owner – Ronald Light.
Follow-up investigations would bring forth a witness, labourer Samuel Holland, who confirmed he had stood and witnessed Light dismantle the bicycle and throw the parts into the river from the Upperton Road Bridge in the city, some three months previously. Light would later admit he kept the cycle hidden in a cupboard for five months before taking it and disposing of it, to avoid upsetting his frail, elderly mother.
Ronald and his mother lived alone, following the death of his father during the war. It was later revealed that the senior Mr Light, a successful plumbing parts inventor, had quite probably committed suicide during the early years of the war, possibly as a result of his son’s behavior. In 1902, Ronald Light had been expelled from the respected Oakham School aged 17, following allegations of improper conduct, in that he lifted a little girl’s skirts over her head. Around the time of the war, he admitted to improper conduct with an eight-year-old girl and was also brought up on charges of attempted sexual activity with a young lady of 15. He was later fired from his civilian position, working on the railways, after allegations of arson and vandalizing station property with indecent graffiti. He joined the war effort, as a commission officer, in the Royal Engineers, but later lost his commission. In 1916 he rejoined as a gunner with the Honorable Artillery Company, surviving the war, but suffering shell-shock and deafness.
At the trial, two girls aged 12 and 14 testified that Light chased them on their bicycles on the afternoon of the murder, but they were able to make their escape.
The prosecution outlined their theory that after departing her Uncle’s cottage, where she had hoped to lose the “annoying” Light, she had made attempts to leave him behind on the journey home, taking a short cut, where she was unfortunately headed off by Light who had taken the opportunity whilst wandering around the high ground of the village church to check out the surrounding countryside and the roads and lanes, to formulate his plan of attack. He was waiting for her by the gate, and shot her. Light’s defence was that they had remained friendly and he had offered to show her his service gun, which had accidentally discharged when he removed it from his bag, hitting her in the head and knocking her off her bike. He had panicked and fled, later disposing of the bicycle, and the gun, which had been recovered, also from the river, along with the ammunition which tests showed matched the bullet recovered at the scene. Early forensics refuted this version saying that there was a lack of damage to Bella’s face, indicating that she had been shot from some distance, they estimated around the area of a nearby cattle grid where the two roads met; the road which Bella took to make her escape, and the road Light used to head her off. Most likely following some indecent and unwanted actions from Light towards Bella from which she tried to escape, fearing she was about to be raped.
Light’s trial took place at Leicester Castle. He was portrayed as the upstanding ex-Army officer, from the middle-class background, in contrast to Bella’s factory girl status and poor beginnings. His previous behavior was not revealed to the court. In somewhat of a shock verdict, likely due to a lack of strong evidence and too many possible variables, Light was found not guilty of Bella Wright’s murder.
Following his acquittal, Light vanished. He was known to have been living on the Isle of Sheppey in 1928 under the name Leonard Estelle. Six years later, he married war widow and mother of three Lilian Lester. Her husband Sgt Ernest Lester also served with the Royal Engineers until he was killed in action in 1917. It is not known whether the two had known each other. Lilian abandoned her two young sons in an orphanage in Wolverhampton following the death of their father, fearing she wouldn’t be able to support them on a widow’s pension. Her daughter stayed with her. The couple had no children together; Lilian was older than Light, who was 49 when they married. Despite this, her daughter knew nothing about his involvement in the death of Bella Wright, nor his trial until after Light’s death in 1975 aged 89.
Several books have been written about the murder/accident. Each one concluding in a different way as to Light’s guilt. Nobody else was ever brought to trial or accused of her death. It seems the accident theory was the one to go down in history. Police Superintendent Levi Bowley backed this up with a note written three days after Light was acquitted, stating that whilst awaiting trial, Light confessed the accidental shooting to him. The authenticity of the note is questioned as is the truth behind its contents.
I have met personally with a family member of Bowley, who states that even today after hearing his family member’s version of events, a narrative he defended vehemently, he agrees with what is written on the note.