On the morning of Monday, 20 January 1930, colliers Kenneth Penn and Clifford Watkins were on their way to work when, as they walked over Morse Hill, between Drybrook and Ruardean, they saw a young woman lying on the side of the road, apparently unconscious. Her hands were bound with string and a lady’s stocking was tied around her mouth. One of the young men stayed with the woman, while the other hurried to the police station at Ruardean to fetch help. When he reached the station, he discovered that another informant had arrived there shortly before him. Collier Jack Brain had seen the woman as he rode past on his bicycle, but had felt too scared to stop and had ridden straight to the police station. A policeman and a doctor went up to Morse Hill and carried the still-unconscious woman back to the station.
When she recovered consciousness, the woman revealed that she was Dorothy Beard, who was twenty-one years old and worked as a domestic servant at the house of Mr Bryant, a schoolmaster in Drybrook. On the previous night, she had been on her way home to her parents’ house in Ruardean. Walking along the lonely road in the dark, she had been whistling to keep her spirits up. Suddenly she came across a man crouching down beside a hedge. Despite the strangeness of his position, she said ‘goodnight’ to him and he replied in kind, but then jumped up and demanded money from her. She said she hadn’t got any money and tried to carry on walking, but he said ‘You shall not pass’, and put something over her mouth. She remembered nothing else until she woke up in the police station. It had been discovered that the stocking which had been tied around her mouth had been soaked in spirits of camphor.
Dorothy Beard described the man as being middle-aged, fairly tall, of big build and clean-shaven. He was wearing a mackintosh and a trilby hat which was pulled down over his eyes. A woman gave a statement to the police that she had seen a man answering this description walking towards Nailbridge, not long after the incident was known to have taken place.
The newspapers reported that this was the latest and most serious in a number of incidents which had taken place in the Forest of Dean in the last two months. There had been many stories of encounters with a strange man on lonely roads or at the back of isolated premises, with most of those reporting the incidents being female. It was said that many young women and girls had been stopped in various parts of the district, until they were afraid to venture out after dark.
On 16 January 1930, The Citizen had reported on another young woman’s ‘alarming experience’ with the ‘mystery man who prowls’. A woman in the Coleford area had been greatly frightened by a man who jumped from behind a hedge and flashed a powerful light in her face. She was so shocked that when she reached her destination, she collapsed and remained unconscious for two days and could remember nothing when she woke up, until seen by a specialist who helped her to recover her memory. The incident was then reported to the police. Since then, the newspaper stated, a strange man had been reported prowling around houses in Coalway and flashing a light in people’s faces.
Whether the man who attacked Dorothy Beard was the same one who badly frightened the Coleford woman is not absolutely certain, although their descriptions were said to be similar. Dorothy’s attacker did not use a flashlight, although this may have been because she saw him before he could surprise her. The earlier victim was not (as far as is known) asked for money and was certainly was not left gagged and bound, but this may have been because for some reason the attacker lost the opportunity to carry out his intended actions.
As far as the use of a flashlight is concerned, it may be the case that the ‘mystery man’ was actually one of a number of people who thought it was good fun to mess around with torches on dark evenings. One such person appeared in early March 1930 at the Littledean Petty Sessions. Reginald Cowmeadow, aged eighteen, was summoned for flashing a torch in people’s faces at Cinderford and was fined one pound plus costs. The police superintendent said that there had been a lot of complaints about this sort of behaviour taking place, especially on Sunday nights.
No more incidents of a similar nature were reported after the attack on Morse Hill. Dorothy Beard’s attacker was not discovered, so the true facts concerning the identity of the ‘mystery prowler’ never came to light.
Newspapers (all accessed on www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk):
The Citizen, 16 Jan, 20 Jan and 8 March 1930
Gloucester Journal, 25 Jan 1930
Illustrated Police News, 30 Jan 1930
©Jill Evans 2019