My attention has been caught this week by a mystery that has haunted our neck of the woods for the past 41 years, and one in which my dad was actively involved. It is the case that some call ‘The Nude in the Nettles’, but that my dad referred to as ‘the Unknown Lady of Sutton Bank’.
On 29th August 1981 a man phoned Ripon Police Station to say that there was a body by the road towards Scawton and Rievaulx, not far from its junction with the A170 Thirsk to Scarborough route. When the officer on duty asked for the gentleman’s name, he gave the strange reply, “I can’t identify myself for reasons of national security.”
At first they thought it might be a crank call, but the local bobby was still despatched to investigate. Sure enough, he did find badly decomposed remains, including a skull and a few bones darkened with age. A wall of dense rosebay willow herbs, which in August grow up to six feet tall, meant the remains were invisible to passers-by and so the conclusion was that the caller would only have known about the body if he had some connection to it being placed there. To this day, that man has never been traced.
Dad was immediately involved in the investigation in his role as North Yorkshire Police press officer. He was to co-ordinate the force’s public response, give media updates, and issue appeals to help identify the dead woman and find her killer, if indeed she had been murdered (and although foul play is suspected, this has still not been conclusively proven).
Dad advised his superiors that it would be prudent not to announce the discovery publicly until after that evening’s TV news bulletins. He reasoned that whoever made the call would be watching, and when nothing was broadcast, it might prompt him to either contact them again, or even revisit the scene. Officers were posted to keep a watch on the dump site, but the man never made contact again.
Forensic examinations revealed that the body had lain there for about two years, and established that she could not have been put there before 6th October 1979 thanks to the date on the lid of a jar of meat paste lying beneath the remains. A jockey also came forward, as he exercised horses daily past that location, and he reported that in the October of 1979, there had been a horrid smell lasting for days which he put down to the rotting carcass of a badger or fox. He was planning on investigating further, but then broke his leg, and by the time he was back in the saddle, the smell had gone so he forgot all about it.
There is lots more to tell about this story, and if you want to know more, Dad goes into far more detail in his book, Murders and Mysteries from the North York Moors. He retired from the police the following year, 1982, but always followed developments with a keen interest, saddened every time they led to another dead end.
The reason the story has made the news now is because North Yorkshire’s Cold Case Review Team issued a new appeal in March which has resulted in 28 fresh names being put forward. The police will rule out those they can, and then, as there is DNA on file, they will be able to test any family members of the remaining names and possibly establish if anyone on that list is our unknown lady.
To remind you, the woman was dark-haired, around 5’4” tall, had size four feet, and a malformation in the upper spine, which means she may have held her head at an unusual angle. She was also a mother who had given birth at least two, possibly three, times. Her children would be middle-aged or even older now. Does anyone reading this know someone whose mum disappeared suddenly in the late 1970s? Perhaps they were told she had gone of her own accord? If you’d rather not go to the police, get in touch with me via my contact page at countrymansdaughter.com.
Even the tiniest scrap of information can lead to a breakthrough, so wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could finally give our Lady of Sutton Bank a name?
And I know that that would make Dad very happy too.
Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug
This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 3rd and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 1st June 2022.