The death of a young woman in July 1919 on a quiet country lane in Leicestershire has become one of the area's most famed unsolved crimes, largely due to the unexpected acquittal of the chief suspect. Was the woman’s death just a tragic accident – or did a murderer escape justice?
It was a fine summer’s day in July. Pretty Bella Wright, 21, set off on her bicycle from her home in the village of Stoughton – just four miles outside Leicester – where she lived with her parents. She was going to visit her uncle George in nearby Gaulby.
On the way there, Bella met a young man on a green bicycle, who rode with her and apparently waited for her outside her uncle’s house. Then Bella set off for home again, and she and the man parted company.
Bella, a young factory worker, would not be seen alive again…
Later that evening, a local farmer found Bella’s body in the road, her bicycle lying beside her. He assumed she’d fallen from her bike and hit her head.
He hurried to get the police and a doctor, but it was too late. Examining the scene by candlelight, the doctor agreed that the victim had probably taken a fatal tumble.
But something about the accident didn’t seem right to the police officer who’d been summoned that night. PC Alfred Hall couldn’t see how or why Bella had come off her bike.
Returning to the accident scene early the next morning, he found a smear of blood on the gate to the field beside which Bella had fallen. And, just feet from where her body had been on the road, he discovered a bullet from a 0.455-calibre handgun embedded in the earth.
PC Hall rushed to the church where Bella’s body lay. Her face was covered in blood – but there, just below her left eye, the officer found a bullet hole. It was murder, not a cycling accident.
But who would want to kill Bella Wright?
Bella’s uncle told the authorities that he’d seen the stranger who’d been with his niece on her visit to him. The man rode a ‘vivid green bike’. But police were unable to identify the man, despite circulating wanted posters. Weeks, then months passed – and the circumstances surrounding Bella’s death seemed likely to remain a mystery.
Then, seven months after Bella’s body was found, a horse-drawn coal barge snagged an underwater obstruction – the frame of a green bicycle.
The bike’s serial number was traced to a shop in Derby, where records identified the buyer as a man named Ronald Light, 34, who’d lived with his mother only a few minutes’ cycle ride from where Bella’s body was found.
Light was arrested on 4 March 1920, at the school in Cheltenham where he’d just taken up a teaching post.
At his arrest, Light admitted to police that he was indeed the man who’d been riding with Bella, and confessed he’d thrown his green bicycle into the canal, along with his pistol and a handful of bullets.
And, sure enough, later that month an Army pistol holster and bullets were dredged from the canal. They matched the bullet found by the farm gate.
Light claimed he hadn’t come forward to avoid worrying his mother, who was in poor health. He said he’d taken the bike to a bridge over the River Soar, dismantled it, and thrown it into the water. He even said that the holster was his, and that he’d owned a revolver – apparently admitting everything.
An open-and-shut case? No – for, most crucially, Light did not admit killing Bella Wright…
Ronald Light was the son of a wealthy inventor, and his military service and class standing gave him an unspoken advantage in court over the victim. Bella was a factory girl, and although of good character, born to impoverished, illiterate parents.
However, according to a prosecution brief from his murder trial, Light had been expelled from school at the age of 17 for taking ‘sexual liberties’ with a girl half his age. And, after his military discharge he had, in his 30s, been accused of ‘improper conduct’ with a 15-year-old and an 8-year-old girl.
In addition, Light had later been fired from a railway job and from a farm, both times accused of suspected of arson.
Two other young girls, aged 12 and 14, testified at the trial that Light had tried to accost them as they rode bikes in the countryside on the day that Bella Wright was found dead.
Still, despite the details of Light’s early misdemeanors being known to prosecutors at the time of the trial, they seem to have been suppressed – for reasons which are still unclear, even today.
Light’s previous offences also went unreported by the newspapers of the time, which were generally sympathetic to the ‘engineer, teacher, and ex-Army officer’ accused of the murder of a ‘factory girl’.
The well-spoken Light spent four hours on the witness stand at his trial. He admitted poor judgment in failing to step forward as a witness and by disposing of the bicycle. He blamed shellshock from the war.
Asked whether he was a killer, he replied, ‘Certainly not!’
His counsel Sir Edward Marshall Hall argued persuasively that Light had no apparent motive for murder. Bella Wright had not been assaulted, and the prosecution had offered no reason why anyone should have wanted to shoot her.
Hall argued that Bella couldn’t have been shot at close range by the type of revolver owned by Light. Perhaps, most importantly, he demonstrated that the prosecution had failed to prove that Light was anywhere near the scene of the murder at the time it took place.
Light’s defence suggested that Bella Wright could have been hit by an accidental shot from a distance, perhaps fired by someone out hunting. The jury, already inclined toward the personable Light, agreed with this fairly unlikely proposal.
As the jury announced the verdict of not guilty, Light was hailed with shouts of congratulation in the courtroom.
Following his acquittal, Ronald Light left Leicester to live at the Kent coast, where he later married the widow of a soldier killed in the war. He died in 1975, aged 89.
At least two books have been written about the case, one in the 1930s defending Light – and one some time after which concluded that Light got away with murder, due to Britain’s rigid class system.
Whatever happened that summer’s day in 1919, the death of Bella Wright seems destined to remain an unsolved murder mystery.