Jonathan Sharp, The Heartwood Institute and Witchcraft Murders

They are two of the most notorious unsolved murders of the 20th century, and both have attracted occult baggage that has developed its own strange, tangled mythology. In April 1943, the remains of a still-unidentified woman were discovered in the cavity of a wych elm tree in Hagley Wood, Worcestershire. A year later, a campaign of cryptic graffiti (“Who Put Bella Down The Wych Elm?”) began in the West Midlands, and has continued sporadically to the present day.

And, in February 1945, elderly farm worker Charles Walton was found brutally murdered in a field close to the Warwickshire village of Lower Quinton. As with the Hagley Wood murder, there have been suggestions of links to magical rituals. And the occult associations of both cases have come to fascinate Cumbrian musician Jonathan Sharp, who has used them as the inspiration for his new album Witchcraft Murders, available through the Library of the Occult label and recorded under his customary nom-de-plume, The Heartwood Institute.

I caught up with Jonathan over Skype, and asked about the album’s genesis:

Bob: Can you tell us a little about these two unsolved crimes? Let’s talk about “Bella In The Wych Elm” first. What exactly happened?

Jonathan: A group of kids were playing around this particular wych elm, and one of them climbed up and discovered a skull looking back at him from the cavity inside the tree. I think initially they were frightened to tell anyone, because they were on private land where they shouldn’t have been. In 1943, that was a bit more serious than it is now. But the story came out, and once the police were involved they discovered the full remains of a woman’s body stuffed inside the tree.

There was no immediate identification, and the occult theories came into play because one of the woman’s hands had been removed. The track ‘Hand of Glory’ on the album references that. But then it starts to get even more bizarre. There’s a theory that, because some of her clothing was identified as being European – which was pretty unusual in 1940s England – she might have been connected to a spy ring. Was she a German spy? Or a double agent? There are all kinds of strange theories. And, to this day, the body has never been fully identified.

It’s interesting how many different potential identities for her have been suggested. I’ve certainly seen the spy ring theory, but also suggestions that she may have been a Birmingham sex worker, or a drunk woman from the village who became the victim of a prank by two local men. Which one sounds the most likely to you?

Much as I like the idea of the spy ring, I think she was probably the Birmingham sex worker. But it’s just the clothing… where would she have come across European clothing in the middle of World War 2? But there are other, more outlandish theories too. A group of Satanists in the area who needed someone to sacrifice…?

And then there’s the graffiti: “Who Put Bella In The Wych Elm?” Where did that come from?

It’s almost become like an internet meme. I guess there might even have been people spraying that graffiti who are unaware of its origins.

Yes, it’s like the Slender Man!

Any idea where the occult theories actually originated? Professor Margaret Murray seems to have been among the first to suggest this had the hallmarks of a ritual killing.  

Yes, it’s hard to look at this case without getting into the territory of Margaret Murray. But she’s a difficult one to assess, because I think she was often willing to credit witchcraft when it wasn’t necessarily there. She wrote the book The Witch Cult in Western Europe, and prior to people like Gerald Gardner she was trying to build a case for witchcraft being connected to Druidism and things like that. She didn’t go the whole hog and create a religion out of it like Gerald Gardner did, but I think she was maybe trying to tie things together that didn’t necessarily go together.

But I believe there were letters to one of the West Midlands papers as well, from people saying “I know this to be a ritual killing…”, things like that.

The ‘Hand of Glory’ theory came from Margaret Murray, didn’t it? There’s a suggestion that the removed hand might have been an attempt to create one of these rather macabre artifacts. We should probably explain a bit about that…

Yes, my understanding of the ‘Hand of Glory’ is that it needs to be the hand of an executed murderer, with candles attached to the finger ends. It then gives magical powers to the user. It can be used to cloud people’s memory.

There’s actually one in Whitby Museum. Apparently burglers would use it to magically keep householders asleep while they ransacked the place.

Yes, there’s Cumbrian folklore to that effect, too. The Hand of Glory was used to knock out the owners of a pub…

There are similarly strange stories attached to the other case you cover on the album: that of Charles Walton. Can you tell us a little about poor Charles?

He was a farm worker, and quite an old man when he was murdered. He lived with his niece, and went out to work as he usually did, but he didn’t return at the end of the day. His niece raised the alarm, and she and some of their neighbours went out looking for him. And found the poor man dead where he’d been working, with a pitchfork and a bill-hook stuck into his neck. It was a brutal murder.

And again, there are some occult significances to the way in which he was killed. Staking to the ground is, apparently, a traditional way of killing a witch and making sure their powers drain away into the earth.

I guess the difference in this case is that we actually know who the victim was, and it’s possible to look at Charles Walton’s life and try to find a motive for killing him. Is there any evidence he was involved in occult activity?

Yeah. I can’t remember the name of the book I read as teenager, but it mentioned this murder and that he was suspected of having the power to blight crops. Although whether that was post-1940s embroidery, it’s hard to say. And then the investigating police officer Robert Fabian waded in with that famous quote: that the murder had been “the ghastly climax of a pagan rite”.

That’s a curious one, isn’t it? That quote is actually from 1970. Fabian didn’t make any mention of an occult connection when he was investigating the case in the 1940s.

No… he’d become quite a celebrity figure by 1970, and when he came out with that quote it was the middle of the hippy magic revival. I think maybe he was reacting to what was happening then, and that’s why he threw that quote out there.

There are so many theories, though. Apparently Lower Quinton was near a Prisoner-of-War camp, where Italian prisoners were allowed to come and go as they pleased. So there’s a theory he was murdered by one of them. But when you look at the list of potential suspects, it seems most likely it was done by the guy he was working for – Alfred Potter. He couldn’t really provide an adequate or reasonable account of his day.

But it’s the occult trappings that fascinate me. I think what attracts me to both cases is the hauntology aspect: when you look back at events, they become embroidered. Really, these were simply two terrible murders, but they’ve picked up these extra trappings over the years. So what may have been, say, a simple dispute over money has turned into an almost legendary cult sacrifice. It’s the passage of time that’s done that.

You mentioned reading about Charles Walton’s murder when you were a teenager. Were you fascinated by this kind of subject matter when you were a kid?

Oh, definitely – yes. I was always the kid in Maryport Library. I’d be straight to the 900 sections of the Dewey System, because I knew that’s where all the interesting stuff was! Ultimately, I ended up working there for a little while. I read the Janet and Stewart Farrar books, and works by Doreen Valiente. I remember reading about Charles Walton in the book I mentioned, and it referred to him as The Toad Man! Apparently, one of his magical powers was to hook natterjack toads up to a miniature carriage, and run them across fields to blight peoples’ crops. That’s the kind of thing that sticks in your mind…

The nature of the stuff that was available to us as kids in the 1970s was quite extraordinary.

Exactly! I can’t quite pin down the age I was when I read that, but I was probably far too young. [Laughs]

Did you have to be a little bit sensitive approaching the album, given that these were real people who lost their lives? Did you a feel a sense of responsibility to them?

Yeah. It’s striking a balance between doing something that’s interesting, but not making it exploitative.

When Tom McDowell from the label approached me, I was racking my brains… you know, it’s called Library of the Occult. It was an opportunity to work on something probably a little darker than usual for me. And this was the topic I settled on. Initially it was just going to be a single, but then it became a case of “I’m game if you are – I’ll make an album”.

A couple of tracks on the album reminded me of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop: ‘In The Shadow of Meon Hill’ has got a lovely hint of Roger Limb about it…

…I’ll take that as a massive compliment!

Please do! I’m guessing you were the type of kid that watched Doctor Who and became fascinated by the music on the show?  

Yeah, I remember seeing, sometime in the 1970s and 1980s, interviews with various members of the Radiophonic Workshop. These guys making these incredible noises. And I thought… “How do I do that?” As a teenager, it was my ultimate dream job.

And I suppose I have my parents to thank. I had piano lessons from the age of six or seven, and I played the violin as well. I was probably in my mid-teens before I decided I was far too cool for it all, but that was the time when basic synths were becoming… not quite affordable, but not hideously expensive either. And I was lucky enough to get a Roland, and start to make weird noises. That’s how it all began.

You were in a band called New Mind in the 1990s…

Yeah, that was electronic stuff, but really hardcore industrial. Like Skinny Puppy. I did that throughout the 1990s, working mostly with European labels. And I ended up further and further in debt! Then, around the year 2000, I fell into recording library music and stopped making commercial music. I gave up on it for quite a long time.

There are photos of you performing with New Mind where it looks incredibly visceral and sweaty. Do you ever miss that kind of thing?  

Erm… yes and no! [Laughs]. I’ve been out doing a couple of gigs as The Heartwood Institute, but I miss playing some of the bigger places. But it’s a different kind of show, really. Heartwood is downtempo, and it’s all about listening, whereas the whole industrial thing was really in your face. I’m almost pleased there aren’t quite so many photos of that period! It was all the industrial cliches… power tools, angle grinders and sparks. Yeah… [Laughs]

What was your biggest gig? Where did you play?

A lot of venues in London that aren’t really around any more. The Marquee. The Dome at Tufnel Park. I was involved in another industrial band at the time too, and we played at the Astoria, at the top of Charing Cross Road. That was a big venue! It was all just good fun at the time. I remember seeing Nine Inch Nails on their first visit to the UK… that was at the Riverside in Newcastle in 1991, and there were about eight people in the audience. And they still totally went for it! You’ve never seen so much gear smashed in front of so few people. And Richard Patrick, who played the guitar, was the twin brother of Robert Patrick, who played the villain in Terminator 2. So it literally looked as though Trent Reznor was chucking T-1000 into the audience… [Laughs]

And I’m fascinated by library music. How does it work? Do you just compose tracks and then see what you can sell? Or do you get specific requests – “We need a track that sounds exciting and dynamic!”

Usually, it’s working to a brief. And in the 20-odd years I’ve been doing it, it’s gone from “Can you do a track?” to “Can you do an album?”! There’s a huge turnover in content. It’s a really peculiar business – you used to get paid upfront, but not any more! You write the music, it goes to the publishers, they market it to production companies for TV and film, and once it gets used it generates performance royalties through the PRS. The usual deal is a 50/50 split between the writer and the library. So I can basically write a track in, say, January 2020… and the first time any money gets back to me is autumn 2021. There’s quite a delay!

Trust me, I’ve chased invoices for longer than that. What’s the most curious brief you’ve had?

For a while, the whole banjo, ukulele and whistling thing was quite big! It was all over TV. And then they tried to reinvent it: “What else can we match up with banjos, ukuleles and whistling? We want a banjo, ukulele, whistling and dubstep album! And then a dubstep Christmas album…”

So, yeah. Christmas Carols in the dubstep style. [Laughs]

Chris “Concretism” Sharp sent me an advert for Christmas tree lights that he once soundtracked. I can’t think of anyone less likely to soundtrack an advert for Christmas tree lights, but he was very proud of it. I’ll dig it out…

So when did The Heartwood Institute begin to take shape?

About five years ago. I’d just started dabbling for fun again, for myself. But I thought I’d put it on Bandcamp to see if anyone liked it, and it just grew from there.

And was it always intended to be a vehicle to explore your childhood feelings? I guess you’d been aware of labels like Clay Pipe and Ghost Box

Definitely, yeah. And I just played around, and melancholy electronica came out. Which, at the time, felt like an antidote to the library music I was making.

I love your solo album, Divided Time. Its connection to the stash of childhood photos you found is just so evocative. (NB There’s a full interview with Jonathan about this project here)

Those photos just brought back so many memories, and that album came to me really very quickly. I’m plugging away at a follow-up, but it’s a slightly different period so has a different feel. It’s 1979, which for me was a big year. My parents always lived in two different areas and I moved between them, and at that time my Dad was living and working in New York. So I spent the long summer of 1979 in upstate New York. I’m digging around looking for what are actually slides instead of photos – slides were big at the time!

Up to that point, the biggest city I’d ever been to was London, and I’d never been out of the country before. So to suddenly find myself in 1979 Manhattan was – “Woah!” It’s taking shape quite slowly, but it’s coming together.

Witchcraft Murders is available here:

And Concrete Island, a new J.G Ballard-inspired collaboration with Hawksmoor, is here:

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