Bella in the Wych Elm - The Van Raalte Connection

Wilfred Byford-Jones - summer 1945 (courtesy of Pete Merrill - from dust jacket of one of Byford-Jones' books)
Wilfred Byford-Jones - summer 1945
(courtesy of Pete Merrill - from dust
jacket of one of Byford-Jones' books)
In the mid-1950s, after "Anna of Claverley" wrote her cryptic letter to journalist Wilfred Byford-Jones, the police were able to track down and interview the letter writer, one Una Abel Mossop.

Una claimed that in 1941 her husband, Jack Mossop, had told her a story about a mysterious Dutchman named van Raalte and his "girlfriend". Apparently van Raalte and Mossop stuffed the girlfriend into a hollow tree in Hagley Wood and left her there. The story had several different variations: what Una said in her letter to Byford-Jones, what she told police in the Dick Whittington Pub (the source of the Frick & Frack rumours), what she told police in her signed statement several days later and Byford-Jones' own recollections five years later (the source of the "trapeze artist" connection). In some accounts the girl was simply drunk and stuffed into the tree... in others, she was killed by van Raalte and stuffed into the tree.

What did the police do with this information? Not all that much it would appear. The police files from the Worcester Archives have one, very slim (17 images), folder entitled: Folder 5 - Laura Frances Ryllis [sic] van Raalte. The folder contains:
  • Worcestershire Constabulary (WC) message (7/12/53) from the War Office stating that "from scanty particulars given, no trace can be found". [The War Office likely wanted a first name and/or a date of birth to narrow down the options.]
  • WC notes regarding one Marinus Pieter van Raalt - born 16.3.11, landed 1948, married to an English girl named Margaret [N.B. Marinus Pieter van Raalt died 1999 in Lincolnshire]
  • WC message (7/12/53) stating that there is no record of the Dutchman at Coventry or in Warwickshire. [N.B. It would appear that the police searched for a van Raalte and came up empty.]
  • WC message (7/12/53) stating that "there is no trace at Standard Motor Works" [N.B. This is a follow-up to the message above - so likely no trace of the Dutchman at Standard Motor Works]
  • WC message (31/12/53) regarding enquries by the Coventry City Police into the address in Coventry (9 Grosvenor Road) and to an ice show (Frick & Frack). No results. 
  • WC message (31/12/53) regarding a message from the manager of the Coventry Theatre who remembered a 1938 ice show called Frick & Frack by two European aliens (possibly German) - he suggested contacting Tom Arnold Productions. [N.B. Frick & Frack were a well-known Swiss duo]
  • WC message (1/1/54) about enquiries with Tom Arnold Productions re: "Frik and Frack" (Una had suggested that van Raalte was affiliated with a stage show in some way) - no records kept longer than five years.
  • letter from W.P. Wilson of Kenilworth to Det. Sup. Williams dated 3 January 1954 - apparently Wilson had had an interview with Williams and was passing along some information about a tall fair-haired man, Vic Draco. He had no recollection of a "Van ...".
  • CID Nottingham letter (6/1/54) regarding Laura Francis Rhyllis [sic] van Raalte who had been the subject of correspondence in August 1940. [N.B. We'll come back to this in a bit as it has some useful information.]
  • letter from L.F. Rhylllis [sic] van Raalte to the Chief Constable of Worcestershire (17/8/40) requesting permission to purchase a Guide Book of Worcestershire as she will be staying in Malvern for a week and wants to use the guide and maps for sightseeing. A handwritten note from a police officer states that she was the subject of a complaint to the Nottingham Police.
  • letter from CID Nottingham (17/8/40) to Chief Constable of Worcestershire to accompany an anonymous letter of complaint as noted in a telephone conversation.
  • anonymous letter of complaint to Nottingham Police (30/5/40) re: Mundella School stating that M. van Ralty [sic], an alien, was teaching the girls the German national anthem.
  • note from a police sergeant (Worcestershire Constabulary) (25/8/40) stating that van Raalte and a Miss M. Chapman had stayed at Beauchamp Hotel in Malvern from 17 to 24 August and that they spent very little time in the hotel, leaving via bus or train for surrounding districts and returning in the evening. Nothing of a suspicious nature was observed by hotel staff or police.
Beauchamp Hotel, Malvern (from Hip Post Card site)
Beauchamp Hotel, Malvern
(from Hip Post Card site)

The 6 January 1954 letter from CID Nottingham to Worcestershire Constabulary notes the following of Ms. van Raalte:

Laura F.R. van Raalte was born in London of German parents on the 17th June, 1899. Her home address is 59 Ashburn Avenue, Golders Green, London, N.W. 11, and she is in lodgings at 2a All Saints Street, Nottingham. She is a single woman and since September 1936, has been employed as a teacher of German at Mundella Grammar School, Nottingham. Prior to obtaining this position she held similar posts at Chester, Bedford, Leytonstone, Brighton, York, Castleford and London. In May, 1940, Miss van Raalte was the subject of an anonymous letter alleging that she was teaching her pupils the German National Anthem. Since that time she has not come to adverse notice.

All of this information just leads to more questions:
  • It does not appear that Laura van Raalte interviewed by the Worcestershire Constabulary in 1954. An obvious line of questioning would be whether she knew a Jack Mossop, whether she had any family in the area, etc. Perhaps the police simply ruled her out as a candidate for Bella.
  • Was any search made of the name van Raalte in the Home Office files, the UK Traffic Index and the Aliens Register files? Even if, as the War Office memo suggests, there wasn't enough information to go on, surely the name "van Raalte" could not be all that common in the UK?
  • The police said there was no record of a van Raalte in Coventry or Warwickshire. Was any search made of the neighbouring counties?
  • Why was Una Mossop not asked for a general description of the mysterious van Raalt? Approximate age, hair colouring, height, build, etc. Even a rough age could have helped to narrow down the field of candidates.
Even though decades have passed, the van Raalte connection would seem to be a fruitful line of research, so let's give it a shot.

The van Raalte Clan
Let's start with a concrete fact: Laura van Raalte was born in London on 17 June 1899, supposedly of German parents. From there, we can discover the following...

Van Raalte & Sons tobacco shop on Piccadilly Circus, London
Van Raalte & Sons tobacco shop on
Piccadilly Circus, London
Laura Frances Phyllis [not Rhyllis] van Raalte was born of parents Lion Leon van Raalte (1874-1953) and Jeannette Moore (1869-1940). Laura's parents had been married 1 June 1897 in London. A year after their marriage, they welcome their first child, George Francis van Raalte, born 20 May 1898 in London. The police had stated that Laura was born in London of German parents, but this is actually not accurate.

Laura's father, Leon van Raalte, was born 23 August 1874 in Lambeth, London. Leon's father, Joel Joost van Raalte, was born 1837 in Amsterdam, worked as a commercial traveller, and passed away 1901 in London. It was Joels' father (Laura's great grandfather), Salomon Abraham van Raalte (1803-1885), who first came over to England with his family (including son Joel). Salomon was the founder of the tobacco firm, S. van Raalte & Sons, on Piccadilly Circus, London.

After Salomon brought the family over to England, his son Joel van Raalte (Laura's grandfather) married Frances Elizabeth Cable (born 1847 in Putney, Surrey) in 1871 in Tunbridge Wells. The couple had several other children (4 daughters and two sons), all born in England. Leon (Laura's father) had worked for the Stock Exchange and later the Labour Party. He passed away on 24 October 1953 in Richmond. If we trace Laura's Dutch ancestry even farther, we find that the clan originates with one Salomon Jacob (born around 1715) who was known as "de Jode van Raalte" - the Jew from Raalte. Salomon likely arrived in the village of Raalte, Holland around 1722 from Germany or Poland. It would, therefore, be a stretch to say that Laura Frances Phyllis van Raalte was born of "German parents". The family had a long history in The Netherlands and England. Although, one could wonder about her mother...

Laura's mother, Jeanette Moore was born 29 November 1868 in London and, according to the 1939 National Register was a music teacher. Interestingly, the National Register shows that Jeanette and her husband, Leon, were not living together in 1939. Leon was living in Richmond with a woman named Gladys (née Clements) van Raalte (1895-1950) whom he married in February 1942. The 1939 Register lists Leon (married) as living with Gladys van Raalte (single), August van Raalte (born 1924) and one closed record. It appears that Leon and Gladys had two children (half siblings of Laura) and that their relationship started quite a few years earlier, with August being born in 1924 and Thomas around 1927. When Jeanette (Moore) van Raalte passed away in 1940, her probate listed her as the wife of Lion van Raalte suggesting that the couple never divorced but simply separated.

As for Jeanette's heritage, the 1891 Census shows a Jeanette Moore (born around 1868/69 in East London) as a music student in Islington. Her parents were George and Sara Moore (both born in East London). There aren't that many Jeanette Moore's born in London around 1868 and she was likely born in Whitechapel (birth registered in the first quarter of 1869). I think it is safe to say that Jeanette's heritage is British.

It would seem to be sloppy police work to assume that a name such as "van Raalte" was indicative of German heritage. A rough rule of thumb is that surnames beginning with "von" are of German heritage and those beginning with "van" are of Dutch heritage. While "von" often indicates a connection to the German nobility, "van" simply means "from".

It would appear that the police did not interview Laura van Raalte, likely dismissing her as a Bella candidate because she was alive and well. Clearly, she was not the "Dutch piece" of Una Mossop's story but what became of Laura?

Laura Frances Phyllis van Raalte
As noted above, Laura was born 17 June 1899 in Stoke Newington. She appears in the 1901 census as living with her parents and brother in Hampstead, London. By 1911, it is just Leon, George and Laura who are living in Hampstead, with no trace of Jeanette.

Laura earned a B.A. in 1920 (University of London) and an M.A. in 1922 (Bedford), quite an accomplishment at the time. The police records noted that Laura was a school teacher who had taught at Chester, Bedford, Leytonstone, Brighton, York, Castleford and London before arriving at Mundella Grammar School (her placement in 1954). Some of this can be confirmed by other sources.

Mundella Grammar School staff - Laura Frances Phyllis van Raalte
is the short woman with her hands clasped. (ca. 1945)
(from Mundella Grammar school)
For example, on 28 July 1933, Laura left England for a month long excursion to Gibraltar with several other teachers aboard a passenger liner. Her home address was Castleford, West Yorkshire. An early 1930s electoral register notes that she was living at 13 Hill Road in Glass Houghton, West Yorkshire (part of Castleford).

A 1945 staff photo for Mundella Grammar School shows Laura in the second row. A 1947 staff list for Mundella (with handwritten notes) states that Laura taught Latin, German and Maths.

Laura was a dedicated teacher and remained a spinster throughout her career, often a requirement for female school teachers in those times. In 1976 (at the age of 77) she married Philip K. Hayes (83 years old) in Rushcliffe, Nottinghamshire. Their married life was short for Philip passed away in 1980. Laura passed away in in May 1995 in Basford, Nottinghamshire at the age of 95.

While the police made no real effort to trace Laura, evidently deciding that, since she was alive, she was not a candidate for Bella, it is intriguing that they also made no real attempt to trace any male van Raalte's in neighbouring counties. Even the fact that Laura had a brother, and two half-siblings seems to have escaped the notice of the police.

George Francis van Raalte
George Francis van Raalte was born 20 May 1898 in Edmonton, London. George was a Pembroke man, having studied at Pembroke College (Oxford) in 1916. He joined the British Forces on 22 March 1917 (just before his 19th birthday) and was transferred to the Royal Air Force on 1 April 1918. According to his military records, he was an undergraduate student and about 5'3" tall. On 25 May 1919, he was transferred to the RAF Reserve.

Ernest Bailey Grammar School (1947)
George Francis van Raalte is in the middle of the photograph
with his arms crossed.
(Andrews Pages - history of Matlock)

On 22 December 1926, George married Marion Somerville. They had at least one child, Muriel, born 1929 in Derbyshire. The 1939 National Register notes that George was an assistant secondary school master, living at Bryncliffe, Matlock, Derbyshire. He also appears in electoral registers as living in Matlock in 1932 and 1941. George appears in a group photo from the Ernest Bailey Grammar School (Matlock) in 1947 and is listed as a Senior Master.

George was a bit of a poet and entered several New Statesman competitions in the early 1930s. A blog devoted to the New Statesman poetry competitions notes that:

"There is some evidence that van Raalte was Dutch, even if his name didn't prove it. He appears as a writer in learned classicist journals, and he appears in the records of the Fabian Society. In a letter written to the WR in 1933, he gives his address as Matlock (Derbyshire)."

Elsewhere, the site notes: "George van Raalte, a Dutch classicist, and active member of the Fabian society". While the "WR" reference is the earlier quote is a mystery, the Fabian Society was (and still is) a socialist group. In the early 1930s, Oswald Mosley (later the leader of the British Union of Fascists) and his wife Cynthia were members of the Fabian Society for a time.

While the name "van Raalte" certainly has Dutch origins, George (as with his sister) was born in England. There is no evidence that George van Raalte was involved with Jack Mossop, particularly given the fact that he was assistant master of a secondary school. He likely did not have the time to drive around the countryside on pub crawls.

Laura's Half-Siblings
August O. van Raalte and his younger sibling were both living in Richmond, Surrey in September 1939 with their parents, Leon and Gladys van Raalte. While August would have been 17 years old in 1941 when Bella was likely killed, it would seem to be a bit of a stretch to consider him for the crime. The younger sibling would have been only 14 years old in 1941 and this seems even more of a stretch.

Van Raalts in the 1939 National Register
I did some sifting through the National Register looking for male van Raaltes (and Ralts) and there were 21 who were alive in 1939. Of those, two were born in 1927 and 1932, likely too young to be candidates for a mysterious Dutchman. Another, living in Hampshire, passed away in 1940, just outside the window of Bella's murder. Of the 18 remaining: 13 lived in the Home Counties (London, Middlesex, Essex, Kent, Hertfordshire and Surrey); with the other five lived in Buckinghamshire, Cheshire, Derbyshire (George Francis), Leicestershire and Devon.

There are thus, no obvious van Raaltes living in Worchestershire or its immediate neighbouring counties. There is always the possibility that a few van Raaltes have had their names so badly transcribed/misspelled in the 1939 National Register, that they are not easily traceable using Ancestry's search feature.

Aliens Register
The 1939 National Register only includes those civilians who were living in England on the date the register was taken (29 September 1939). Military personnel were not included in the National Register, so any van Raalte's who were serving with the British Forces would not be included. At the same time, any individuals who arrived in England after that date, as refugees from the Continent, for example, would also not be included. There are lists and registers for refugees, as well as resident aliens, but those have not yet been released to the National Archives. It is rather perplexing that the police did not extract more information on the mysterious van Raalte from Una. Even an approximate age would have perhaps helped narrow the parameters enough that the Aliens Register could have yielded some useful information.

Some Thoughts
What can we glean from all this? Well, unexpectedly, it would appear that quite a large number of van Raaltes came to England from Holland in the mid and late 1800s. Most seem to trace their ancestry back to the Salomon Jacob "van Raalte" who arrived in Holland in the early 1700s. The police comment that Laura van Raalte was born of "German parents" is therefore not accurate and suggests shoddy background research on the woman.

The failure of the police to obtain more details from Una Mossop as to personal particulars of the mysterious van Raalte is perplexing. Even an approximate age and description could have been helpful in narrowing down the pool of individuals who may have been present in War Office, Home Office, Traffic Index and Alien Register records.

While there were no obvious van Raalts living in Worcestershire and surrounding counties in the 1939 National Registration, this does not necessarily mean that some did not move there in following years, as bombing made London a dangerous location. There is also the possibility that Dutch van Raalte refugees arrived in England after September 1939 and may have been living in the Worcestershire area.

My own sense is that the police, for whatever reason, did not entirely believe Una Mossop's story of the mysterious van Raalte, viewing her as a less-than-credible witness. Even if there was a mysterious Dutchman named van Raalte, the question always comes back to - how would this individual have known about the hollow wych elm in Hagley Wood?

Ancestry - genealogy information (births, marriages, deaths, passenger lists, electoral registers)
Geneanet - van Raalte clan
Dutch Jewry - van Raalte clan (synopsis of the family)
Dutch Jewry - List of van Raalte individuals
Malvern - Beauchamp Hotel on Facebook
Beauchamp Hotel - formerly on Hip Post Card site
New Statesman blog - poetry competitions including George F. van Raalt
Matlock schools site - mentions George van Raalte as a senior master
Matlock, Derbyshire - Ernest Bailey Grammar School - 1947 group shot
Mundella Grammar School site - has a group photo of staff from 1945 including Laura F.P. van Raalte


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