Mystery at Wolf's Nick
The Death of Evelyn Foster
Mystery at Wolf’s Nick
In January 1931, a seemingly vicious crime shocked the community of the small village of Otterburn in Northumberland. Evelyn Foster was a young care-free woman who owned her own car and used it as a one-cab taxi business. On the evening of January 6, 1931, an employee of Evelyn’s father came across what looked like an object on fire, but as he got closer soon realised it was Evelyn’s car aflame on the side of the road at Wolf’s Nick, a desolate moorland. The badly burnt young woman was lying next to the wrecked vehicle, and was taken home where she told her family and the police the circumstances of what happened to her. She told a terrifying tale of how she had picked up a customer who launched and unprovoked attack, throwing her onto the back seat and raping her, before setting the car on fire. Evelyn Foster died from her wounds the next day. The subsequent police investigation discovered numerous unanswered questions about the victim’s version of events, and many wondered if a crime had even been committed.
Evelyn Foster was the 28-year-old daughter of Mr. J. J. Foster, who owned a garage in Otterburn, and Evelyn herself owned a motor vehicle, which she used as a one cab taxi business in Northumberland. At 7:00pm on January 6, 1931, the young woman returned home and told her mother she was going back out shortly to ferry a customer in her taxi. She explained she had driven three passengers to Rochester, and on her way back she was approached by a young man who had gotten out of a car at nearby Elishaw, and wanted her to drive him to Ponteland, near Newcastle, where he intended to catch a bus home. He arranged to meet Evelyn at the Percy Army Hotel later that evening, and when her mother expressed some concern, Evelyn told her the man had looked respectable and was gentlemanly towards her.
The next time anyone saw Evelyn Foster was later that evening under the most distressing of circumstances. On that bitterly cold evening, bus driver Cecil Johnstone was driving along the road at Wolf’s Nick, a desolate and lonely moorland between Kirkwhelpington and Otterburn, when he saw a fire at around 8:30pm. As he drover closer to investigate he saw it was a car that belonged to his employer’s daughter, Ms. Foster, that was ablaze by the side of the road. Beside it was lying Evelyn, badly burned but still alive. Mr. Johnstone immediately took the young woman home to Otterburn where she told her parents and the police that she had been attacked by a man who had set fire to her car. Although she was severely injured and drifted in and out of consciousness, she was able to give a vivid account of her ordeal to her mother, as well as a doctor, nurse and policeman who had been called to the house.
Evelyn said that after driving through the village of Belsay, roughly 8km from Ponteland, her passenger suddenly requested she turn back to Otterburn. When she had turned around and began driving back, the man lunged at her and struck her in the eye and as they both struggled he took control of the wheel. She said the man stopped the car at the top of the hill at Wolf’s Nick and started “knocking her about“, before placing her onto the back seat where he raped her.
She described her attacker as a young man, around 25-26-years-old, roughly 5ft 6in tall, clean shaven with a Tynside accent and wearing a dark tweed suit, an overcoat and bowler hat. When he was finished the man threw a rug over her, removed a bottle or tin from his pocket and emptied the contents over her. She told those present how she “went up in a blaze”. The next thing she felt was a bump as the car was going over rough ground. She told her mother, “I was all alight. I do not know how I got out of the car. I lay on the ground and sucked the grass. I was thirsty.” She died the next morning, and her last words were reportedly, “I have been murdered.”
For those who had listened to her recount the horrific events of her ordeal, it appeared that she had been murdered by the unknown passenger she was driving to Ponteland. The Police launched an investigation to discover what happened to the young woman, and how she came to end up mortally injured on the moorland at Wolf’s Nick. Her father told the local press of his anguish, saying, “It’s terrible!, it’s terrible!,” he said, “I can’t think why it happened. Her pure had not been taken away and I can think of no motive.” A large operation was undertaken by Northumberland police force, who organised a huge search to locate the mysterious man.
Detectives under the Chief Constable of Northumberland, Captain Fullarton James, began questioning other residents of the village and soon realised they were encountering more questions than answers. Nobody other than Evelyn had seen the stranger in the village that evening, and her father admitted her had not seen the man either. The proprietor at the Percy Arms pub, where Evelyn said she picked up the man, said that no stranger had been in the bar and they heard no talk from other villagers about a taxi to Ponteland. Other witnesses saw Evelyn driving around in her taxi alone that evening. Despite this, the newspaper headlines for January 8, 1931 read, “Girl Motorist Attacked by Mysterious Stranger.” At the scene of the crime, officers found a man’s scarf and gloves, but could not be sure if they were left by Evelyn’s attacker or by someone else.
Further questions were raised at the autopsy. Professor Stuart McDonald conducted the post mortem on Evelyn, concluded there were no external injuries on her body apart from the burns. Contrary to her claims that she had been ‘knocked about’, there was no trace or evidence of bruising to the face which would suggest she had been viciously beaten. Strangest of all, there was ‘no sign at all’ that she had been raped. Serious doubts were now cast over her version of events, that she had been attacked and set on fire. When police searched the car they found signs of burned heather where the car was found on the side of the road, but no sign of burned heather by the side of the road itself.
The coroner, Mr. P. M. Dobbs, told the jury at the inquest they could rule out suicide as a cause of death. He said there were just two points they should consider, firstly that Evelyn Foster was murdered, and secondly that it was possible she set fire to the car herself to obtain an insurance payout, and accidentally caused the injuries she sustained. The jury, who all knew and liked Evelyn, deliberated for just two hours before reaching their verdict, that it was wilful murder on the part of some person or persons unknown. In spite of this, the police took the unprecedented step of announcing that, in their view, the ‘mysterious murderer’ did not exist, and Chief Constable James declared during an interview with a local newspaper that the verdict of the inquest was against the weight of evidence, and Evelyn Foster had not been murdered. With no new evidence to the contrary, the case remained open.
Evelyn’s father voiced his criticism of police handling of the investigation, going so far as to write a letter to the then Home Secretary, John Robert Clynes. Mr. Foster argued that his daughter’s car was left unattended for hours after the incident, and any useable fingerprint samples were not taken. He also said police failed to check shoe imprints around the scene of the crime. Over the next few years, the mystery of Evelyn Foster’s unsolved death at Wolf’s Nick gradually disappeared from the headlines. The Foster family never recovered from Evelyn’s dreadful death, and her sister would say years later, “We were just young then, but that night made us old. We’ve turned it over and over in our minds ever since. We were such a close family. The hurt was terrible.”
Three years later, at the beginning of 1934, another murder caught the public’s attention, and went some way towards providing a possible answer to the mystery. 35-year-old Ernest Brown was found guilty of the murder of his boss and lover’s husband, Frederick Ellison Morton. Brown shot Morton as he sat in his car, which he set on fire with Morton inside at Saxton Grange Farm on 5 September 1933. He was sentenced to death at Leeds Assize for the crime and was hanged by the British Executioner Thomas Pierrepoint on 6 February 1934. As he awaited execution on the scaffold, Brown was told by a chaplain “you should use these last few moments to confess your sins and make your peace with God”.
Brown was reported to have whispered either, “ought to burn,” or “Otterburn”, and died seconds later. He closely resembled the description of Evelyn Foster’s attacker and had spoken with a Tynside accent, but no evidence could be found linking him to the crime, which has remained one of Northumberland’s oldest unsolved crimes.