On the 5th July 1919 an English farmer named Joseph Cowell was travelling along a road near the village of Little Stretton in Leicestershire where he made a horrifying discovery. By the side of the road, alongside a bicycle, was the body of a woman.
The face of the woman was covered in blood and Cowell assumed that she had met with an accident while out riding. However, the investigation which followed turned up a tangled web of events and confusion surrounding the death, and in many ways left more questions than it answered.
The woman, identified as the 21 year old Bella Wright, had been murdered. But who really killed her, and why, remain a mystery to this day in what has become known as the Green Bicycle Case.
Annie Bella Wright was born on the 14th of July, 1897. She was the daughter of an agricultural laborer and his wife. She lived in Stoughton, Leicestershire. She went to school up to the age of 12 and then started working as a domestic servant to bring in much needed money for the family.
From this she moved to work in a rubber factory in Leicester, the Bates & Co.’s St Mary’s Mills, some four miles away. She would travel to work on her bicycle, the easiest and cheapest way to get around.
Bella was well liked by those who knew her in the local community and seen as a girl of good character. At the time of her death she was engaged to be married to a Royal Navy sailor stationed in Portsmouth, and was doubtless looking forward to starting her new life.
The Day of the Murder
A great deal is known about Bella’s activities on the day she died, through both her familiar routine and her contact with people she knew throughout the day. She had worked a night shift in the factory, and then went to mail a letter she had written to her fiancé.
Later, she went to visit her uncle, who lived in Gaulby. Several witnesses saw Bella on the way to her uncle accompanied by a strange man, who then waited outside for her. Shortly before 9pm the two were seen leaving together, and when Bella was asked who the man was she replied she had no idea, but that he was not bothering her.
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Roughly 30 minutes later Cowell discovered Bella’s body and raised the alarm, returning to where she lay with a local policeman and doctor. The latter, Dr. Williams, ordered the body moved to a nearby empty farmhouse where he confirmed the farmer’s suspicions that Bella had met with an accident on the road.
However the policeman, Constable Alfred Hall, was unsatisfied with the conclusion and returned to search the area where Bella had been found. There, crushed into the soft ground beneath the imprint of a horse’s hoof, he found a bullet.
Armed with this new evidence, the doctor re-examined Bella’s body and confirmed Hall’s suspicions. Bella had received a wound beneath her left eye which had been obscured by the blood, but when her face was cleaned this was discovered to be a bullet hole. Bella had been murdered.
Nobody but Bella and her mysterious male companion had been seen in the vicinity of where she was found at the time and her death. All eyes now turned to this unknown man, and the police started a search. Eyewitnesses were able to offer a good description, and were in particular agreement that he rode a green bicycle.
Despite a detailed description of the man and his bicycle, the case ran cold and it would be a further eight months before a chance discovery led to the breakthrough the case needed. On 23 February 1920 the tow rope of a barge snagged on a heavy underwater object in the nearby River Soar.
When the barge owner drew the object to the surface, it was found to be a green bicycle. An attempt had been made to file off the serial numbers but police were able to still make them out, and they traced the bicycle to an army officer named Roland Light.
Light was tracked down and arrested, but denied ever having been in the area at the time of Bella’s death. However things quickly turned against him. He was identified by witnesses as the man who had accompanied Bella that evening, and a pistol holster and bullets matched the one found at the scene were also recovered from the canal where the bicycle was found.
The holster was army-issue and was quickly confirmed to have been the one issued to Light. Given this evidence, and despite Light’s protestations of his innocence, the case went to trial in June 1920, just under a year after Bella’s death.
A New Story for the Trial
Now on trial, Light had a new explanation for the events and his apparent involvement in them. He now confirmed that he had met with Bella that evening, but the pair were unacquainted and the meeting was by chance.
As per the testimony of Ronald Light during the trial, he was riding his bicycle to a crossroads near Gaulby when he saw a young woman who was attempting to repair her own bicycle. Bella asked him whether he had a spanner and although Light did not, he was able to help.
In a brief conversation, Ronald Light got to know that Bella’s intended destination was Gaulby, and so he offered to accompany her. Bella accepted the offer. Light also confirmed the eyewitness testimony that he was the man who waited outside the house.
However, Light then claimed that shortly after the pair were seen leaving together, and shortly before Bella was killed, he parted company with her. Later, having read about her death in a newspaper, he panicked at the close resemblance of the description of the murderer to himself and disposed of his pistol and bicycle in the canal.
Given a lack of certainty as to the gun that fired the bullet, and given Light’s courteous and civil demeanor in court, he was given a not guilty verdict on the 11th of June 1920. Wright’s family believed that Ronald Light got away with murder.
Too Much Left Unsaid?
In this case we are faced with a conundrum. On the one hand, there is an overabundance of evidence and information about the case. The actions of Bella and the timeline of the murder are almost completely clear. And the actions of Light are deeply suspicious, but possibly still the actions of an innocent man.
On the other hand, much of the cause and motive of the murder remains hidden, a secret perhaps carried by Light and perhaps even by the murdered girl as well. Bella was known to have a second suitor before announcing her engagement, could this have been Light?
On his part, Roland Light was observed to greet Bella by her first name and the two seemed to know each other when observed talking together that evening. And Light was rumored to have confessed to another officer that he had killed Bella that day, but that it had been an accident.
Did Light kill Bella? The jury concluded that this had not been proven, and he lived on until dying at the age of 89 in 1975. But his name will always be associated with a murder for which it certainly looks like he was responsible.
Top Image: Light had made an attempt to disguise his ownership of the bicycle and hide it in a canal. Source: Auntie P / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
By Bipin Dimri