ON a winter's night in December 1957 teenager Anne Noblett alighted from a bus at Cherry Tree Corner. She was never seen alive again. The deep freeze murder has baffled police ever since.

SHE was innocent, shy and just 17. 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 on December 30, 1957, when she alighted, alone, at Cherry Tree Corner, Marshalls Heath, near Wheathampstead, and began to walk up the quiet lane to her home, a quarter of a mile away.

Another local girl, Shirley Edwards, saw her walking in the lane as she passed by on her scooter.

But Anne Noblett, who was a domestic science student at Watford Technical College, never got home that night. She wasn't seen again until her frozen corpse was discovered in a lonely wood, almost seven miles away, more than 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 Anne'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? If she was killed elsewhere, how was her lifeless body carried into the wood? But the greatest mystery of all is who committed the murder?

Anne Noblett was described as "a quiet, home-loving girl", and certainly her unexpected failure to arrive home that night must have alarmed her parents.

Neither they, nor anyone else, had any idea why Anne had disappeared. It seems if she had got into a passing car, she must have known the driver unless she was abducted by force.

Either way, it seems she was murdered shortly after her disappearance the grim results of the post mortem showed 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.

But any conclusions police might have drawn about the killer's activities that night were dispelled by the evidence they uncovered on the discovery of Anne's body, for, it seems, she may have been killed elsewhere, and her body kept elsewhere, before being taken to the wood where she was found.

Anne's body was discovered by leading aircraftman Hugh Symonds, of RAF 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.

"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 Anne looked as though she was asleep.

The discovery of the body at this spot was strange indeed for, not surprisingly, Anne'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 Anne's body, not even gamekeepers, well acquainted with the woods. 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 the time, a senior detective of New Scotland Yard's Murder Squad was called in Det Supt Richard Lewis in this case.

The case was described as "one of the most baffling for years", and became the focus of the national press.

"We shall never rest," said Chief 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 Anne's body was discovered, it was frozen. Given the time of year winters were colder then this suggests she would have been there for some time.

But the weather had been unusually mild, and it seems Anne'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 Anne's body temperature could have been so low by lying outdoors, police even sought the help of the Meteorological Office, which was 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 Anne 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". The executive also told police 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 been 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 Anne 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 with horn-rimmed spectacles. He was never traced or identified.

Thoughts that Anne 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 Anne weighed over eleven stone. 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, nobody 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 establish how long Anne 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 is crucial evidence, tending to discount the pathologist's deep-freeze theory. The body would have thawed, surely, lying outside for two weeks in lower-than-normal temperatures.

Also crucial was the discovery that Anne, 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 Anne would not have made. She was found lying, as though asleep, still wearing her spectacles.

Detective Chief Supt Elwell said 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 Anne Noblett will forever remain a mystery.

I wonder if the police are still looking.

FACT ONE: When Anne 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 Anne, rather than robbed her, an offence, however unjustly, not carrying the death penalty.

The coins were examined for fingerprints, but seemingly none were found.

FACT TWO: Police investigating the murder of Mary Kriek, 19, a Dutch girl found battered to death at Boxted, Essex, on January 6, 1958, joined forces for a time with the Scotland Yard/Hertfordshire investigation into the murder of Anne Noblett.

There were similarities in the two cases, in that each girl was seen getting off a bus, alone.

In 1959, police arrested two suspects at Southend, and questioned them about both murders.

One of them turned out to be a refrigeration expert. Both were released without charge.

January 30, 2002 19:30