The story of Nellie Rault
By Liz Walton
On 9 May 1919 a young girl from Jersey serving with Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps (QMAAC) was murdered in woods near an army camp in Bedfordshire. The crime has never been solved.
Nellie Rault was born in 1898, the daughter of Jacques Rault, a saddler of 4 Weston Villas, St Helier, Jersey, and his wife Anne Elizabeth. The 1901 Jersey census shows Nellie Florence Ruby Rault age 3 living at Gordon House, St Aubin’s Road along with her mother, Anne Elizabeth Rault, married, age 32, tailoress, listed as head of household, Annie Frances Rault, age 11, Adelena Maud Rault, age 8, and May Emeline Rault, age 5, daughters, all born in St Helier, Jersey.
Anne Rault married John W. Bewhay, of Clifton Cottage, St Aubins Road, St Helier at some time between 1901 and 1919. According to the 1901 Channel Islands census he was a widower age 45, born in St Martin, and his occupation was plasterer.
In 1917, 19 year old Nellie joined the newly formed Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC), after having served in the Women’s Legion. WAACs (as the ladies were known) did not have full military status but they wore uniform, were officially part of the British Army and worked under the War Office. In April 1917, 20425 Worker Nellie Rault was posted to Haynes Park Royal Engineers Signals Service camp, located in the grounds of a stately home in Bedfordshire.
Nellie worked as a cook in the Officer’s Mess and was described as being a cheerful, respectable girl. She was less than 5 ft tall, dark and “good looking”, “a sturdily built young woman of a bright and happy disposition, and a great favourite with all with whom she came into contact”. She was said to be a “home loving girl”,1 who kept in close contact with all of her sisters and visited her family in Jersey regularly. Her last visit was at Christmas in 1918. She returned to Haynes Park on New Year’s Day 1919, having recently signed up for a further year with what was by then the QMAAC.
Four months after her return to England, Nellie Rault was murdered in Wilstead Wood, Beds. She was last seen alive at about 3.30 pm on Friday, 9th May but was not missed until roll call at 9.30 the next morning. On the following day search parties were organised but her body was not found until the afternoon of Monday, 12th May. She had been stabbed several times in the chest and back, and attempts had been made to hide the body under bundles of cut undergrowth in woodland about 150 yards outside the camp gates.
From the Ampthill and District News Nellie’s funeral took place on Wednesday 14 May at Haynes Parish Church, with full military honours. Her coffin went to the church on a Royal Engineers cable wagon, covered with the Union flag and topped with huge cross of flowers from her colleagues. The lengthy procession was led by the RE Regimental Band. Her mother in Jersey had been informed of the tragedy by telegram but was not able to attend, presumably because of the time scale. The chief mourners were her uncle, Mr Tarbet and Miss Hickson who was in charge of the QMAAC contingent at Haynes Park. The Jersey Evening Post of 1 May 1919 features a letter which Mrs Bewhay received from Queen Mary, stating that:
- “The Queen has heard from the headquarters of the Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps of your daughter’s fine record of good behaviour and splendid
work since her enrolment, and Her Majesty cannot help hoping that the knowledge that your daughter in her short life was able to render such honourable service to the Corps may be some consolation to you in your bereavement.”
CSM Montague Cecil Keith Hepburn, of the Royal Engineers, Haynes Park was arrested on Tuesday 13 May, charged with Nellie's murder and remanded in custody. He attended the inquest but declined to give evidence at any stage. The Coroner, in his summing up, noted that the crime was not premeditated and that he did not want the jury to be influenced by the fact that Hepburn had been arrested by the police. He also mentioned Hepburn’s popularity in the camp, and his “long and honourable career” in the army. The official wording of the final verdict was that Nellie had been “brutally murdered by being stabbed to the heart by some person or persons unknown”.
CSM Hepburn had been out with Nellie on previous occasions and they had danced together at the YMCA Hut on the evening before she died. He had also arranged to meet her on the day of her death. He was described as “a well set up man of somewhat taciturn appearance".
When charged Hepburn is reported to have said “I can say that I am innocent - quite innocent. A mistake has been made.” The trial evidence was lengthy, confused and often conflicting. After two formal remands the Bedford Divisional Court assembled for a magisterial hearing against Hepburn, who was charged with murdering Nellie Rault “feloniously, wilfully and with malice aforethought”. However, the Assistant Director of Public Prosecutions, Mr Sims, made a statement to the effect that “The Director of Public Prosecutions has carefully considered the evidence thus far obtained in the case and has arrived at the conclusion that the best interests of justice would not be served by immediately proceeding further with this inquiry”. Directions had been given for further police investigations but in the meantime Hepburn was discharged and the case dismissed.
The CID was called in on 7 June, but officers were unhappy that it had been left so late as the inquest had concluded and the body been buried by then. However, an inquiry took place under Superintendent Wensley, who reported to the Director of Public Prosecutions in July, 1919. The DPP’s response to this stated that “upon the evidence available it is not probable that Hepburn would be convicted of wilful murder if he were to be charged with this offence.” However, the case notes go on to say that “I regret to have been obliged to come to this decision because I entertain a strong personal opinion as to the identity of the person who committed the murder”. Hepburn’s alibis, his only real defence, were also totally discredited.
Newspapers in Jersey and Bedfordshire had made much of the murder and subsequent trial, and interest was rekindled on 10 February 1924, when the News of the World carried a “cool, calculated and detailed confession” of Nellie’s murder. This was reported to come from an anonymous writer who called himself “Frenchy”. The Montreal Police had also received letters from a Mr P Peter, c/o the Montreal Tramways, which stated that he knew who had killed Nellie from what he had seen in Haynes Park Wood, and that the person involved was currently in Montreal. These letters were sent on to the CID in London. The “confession” letter in the News of the World received much public attention because the facts in it tied in with what was known about Nellie’s death.
The writer said he was a married man with a wife in America, and was an American army deserter who had been working at Shorts Brothers Aircraft factory at Cardington in Bedfordshire at the time of Nellie’s death. However none of the people from Shorts whom the police interviewed could identify “Frenchy”, though a letter to the News of the World, which was passed on to the CID, named him as Leroy Morey of Illinois. A Corporal Atkins of the RE was also investigated after allegations were made against him, and there were further enquiries in Scotland.
Despite all this no one was charged with Nellie’s murder, and who killed her and why remains unknown. Nellie is buried in St Mary’s Churchyard, Haynes, near where the camp used to be.