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The ‘Deep Freeze’ Murder
Ann Noblett, 17, of Marshalls Heath
She was innocent, shy and seventeen. She’d been to dancing classes – rock and roll lessons – at Lourdes Hall, Harpenden, then caught a Green Line bus home. It was just after six o’clock that evening, 30th December, 1957, when she alighted, alone, at Cherry Tree Corner, Marshalls Heath, near Wheathampstead, and began to walk up the quiet lane to her home, barely quarter of a mile away. Another local, girl, Shirley Edwards, saw her walking in the lane as she passed by on her scooter.
But Ann Noblett never got home that night, and wasn’t seen again until her frozen corpse was discovered in a lonely wood, nearly seven miles away, over a month later. Except, that is, by her killer, who almost certainly picked her up in a car and drove her past her house to the place where she was suffocated.
There was, it seems, a clear motive behind Ann’s murder, for some of her clothing had been removed, so she was probably sexually assaulted. Not so clear are many other factors: when and where she was killed, and if she was killed elsewhere, how her lifeless body was carried into the wood, and the greatest mystery of all, by whom.
Ann Noblett was described as ‘a quiet, home loving girl’, and certainly her unexpected failure to arrive home that night must have caused her parents a great deal of concern. Neither they, nor anyone else, had any idea why Ann had disappeared, and it seems certain that if she had got into a passing car she must have known the driver – unless, of course, she was abducted by force. Either way, it seems she was murdered shortly after, the grim results of the post mortem showing that the food she had eaten that day was still undigested in her stomach.
The wood was Rose Grove Wood, near Whitwell. The drive there from Marshalls Heath is a tortuous affair, with many twists and turns along dark, country lanes, with a choice of routes. But any conclusions the police might have drawn about the killer’s activities that night were speedily dispelled by the evidence they uncovered on the discovery of Ann’s body, for, it seems, she may have been killed elsewhere, and her body kept elsewhere, before being later taken by a person or persons unknown to the wood where she was found.
Ann’s body was discovered by Leading Aircraftman Hugh Symonds, of R.A.F. Stanmore, who lived at Whitwell. Mr Symonds, with his brother, Brian, 14, had taken their dog, Rip, for a walk in the woods. ‘We had gone about half a mile along a path when Rip ran into the wood,’ said Mr Symonds, adding ‘I followed him, and in a clearing about 100 yards into the wood I saw the girl’s body.’ Mr Symonds said the body was not visible from the lane, but once in the wood it could be seen from 20 yards distance. He said Ann was lying there, as though asleep.
The discovery of the body at this spot was strange indeed, for not surprisingly, Ann’s parents had reported her missing immediately, and the woods were searched on New Year’s Eve by police with tracker dogs. It was searched again, this time with the help of 300 soldiers and local people, again without success. The lane, in fact, is a cart track, and was used as a short cut by locals in those days, though not so often, perhaps, at that time of year. Yet during the searches, and afterwards, over a period of a month, no-one had seen Ann Noblett’s body, not even gamekeepers, well acquainted with the woods and surrounding land. Could it really have lain there undetected for so long?
The senior officer who took charge of the case was Detective Chief Superintendent Robert Elwell, of Hertfordshire CID. In keeping with the practice of that time a senior detective of New Scotland Yard’ Murder Squad was called in, in this case Det Supt Richard Lewis. The Yard’s assistance was sought, not because their detectives had superior skills to their provincial peers (as the public might have thought) but because the Yard had greater resources to deal with serious crime. In any event, the case was described as ‘one of the most baffling for years’, and became the focus of attention of the national press.
‘We shall never rest,’ said Ch Supt Elwell, as the police launched a massive murder hunt, and the Daily Herald reported, optimistically, ‘All the cunning of the murderer to cover his tracks has not deceived Scotland Yard’.
When Ann’s body was discovered, it was frozen. Given the time of year – and, yes, winters were colder then – this suggests she would have lain there for some time. But the weather had been unusually mild, and it seems Ann’s body may have been hidden in a deep-freezer before being taken to the wood. At least that was the opinion of the Home Office pathologist, Dr Francis Camps, who carried out the post mortem. Because of this, the case became known as the ‘deep freeze’ murder.
This unusual turn of events sparked off an equally unusual line of enquiry for the police, and detectives were dispatched to farms over a widespread area to check out freezers where poultry was kept in freezing temperatures, awaiting favourable market prices. In seeking to determine whether or not Ann’s body temperature could have been so low by lying outdoors, police even sought the help of the Meteorological Office, who were asked to supply temperature records for the day and night periods during the time Ann was missing. It seems they weren’t as low as they might have been, lending greater weight to the theory that Ann had indeed been kept in a freezer.
Police ‘deep freeze’ enquiries extended to owners of refrigerated vehicles, everything from ice cream vans to vehicles carrying frozen vegetables. They established that there were scores of such vehicles ‘buzzing’ around the Hertfordshire lanes, packed with frozen vegetables, poultry and fish. They cast their net far and wide, to London and throughout the Home Counties.
A company executive told police, ‘Really low temperatures can be achieved merely by plugging in a cable from the van to an electric point’, and that drivers would load and unload unsupervised. It was possible, he said, for a body to be carried about in such a vehicle for weeks. It might even have possible to have kept her body frozen in a bed, by inserting sticks of dry carbon dioxide, of the type used to keep ice cream frozen in boxes, and pulling the bedclothes over to prevent gas escaping.
There were, too, the usual enquiries of local residents. In Marshalls Heath, where Ann lived, and Whitwell, where people were asked if they had seen a strange vehicle in the lane, near Rose Grove Wood. Who had walked in the woods lately, and could they think of any ‘suspicious persons’? Someone reported seeing a ‘black car’, driven by a middle aged man wearing horn-rimmed spectacles. Neither was traced or identified.
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Thoughts that Ann had been abducted and murdered by a local person, someone she would have known, were reinforced by the theory that if her body had been hidden in a deep freeze and later taken to the place where she was discovered, whoever it was must have known the area. Moreover, he would have required great strength to carry her into the wood from the track, some 300 yards through scrub – Ann weighed over eleven stones. Either that or he would have had help. There was no sign that she had been dragged. A whole series of endless questions was thrown up because, crucially, no-one could satisfactorily establish whether she was killed at the place she was found or, having regard to the findings – and opinion – of the pathologist, her body was indeed kept frozen and moved later.
Police called in biologists to try and establish how long Ann had lain where she was found. Not that long, one might think, if the ‘deep freeze’ theory was accurate. At least a fortnight, the biologists said, because there was at least two weeks’ difference in the growth of snowdrops and ferns underneath Ann’s body and those around it. This, I believe, is crucial evidence, tending to discount the deep-freeze theory of the pathologist. The body would have thawed, surely, lying outside for two weeks in lower-than-normal temperatures.
Also crucial was the discovery that Ann, who was found fully clothed and wearing her overcoat, had been stripped and re-dressed, proved by buttons on her underclothes being wrongly done up, a mistake Ann would not have made. She was found lying, as though asleep, still wearing her spectacles. Said Detective Chief Supt Elwell of her killer: ‘He may think he has committed the perfect crime, but we shall never rest until he is caught’. Until he is, the macabre chain of events surrounding the death of Ann Noblett will forever remain a mystery.
I wonder if the police are still looking.
When Ann Noblett’s lifeless body was discovered in Rose Grove Wood, also found were a number of coins from her purse, amounting to thirty shillings (£1.50). Had the killer deliberately placed them there to suggest Ann had lost no property? – a cunning act in times when the death penalty had been abolished, except for murder in certain circumstances, including the furtherance of theft. For, if her killer was caught and could prove he had not stolen anything, he would not hang. Better it would be, for him, if he could prove he had raped and murdered Ann, rather than robbed her, an offence, however unjustly, not carrying the death penalty.
The coins were examined for fingerprints, but seemingly none were found.