Agatha Christie and a real life Shere murder mystery
PUBLISHED: 12:04 15 September 2010 | UPDATED: 11:57 25 March 2015
The undisputed queen of crime, Agatha Christie has sold millions of books across the world. But in a bizarre case of life imitating art, the strangest story of all concerns the night that she faked her own death at Newlands Corner, near Shere, and vanished into thin air.
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine October 2008
Words by Alec Kingham
I'm on the trail of a missing person, 82 years after she disappeared, whom I suspect decamped to the Surrey village of Shere when she abandoned her car and faked her murder in December 1926.
Much has been written about novelist Agatha Christie's 11-day 'disappearance', with speculation about her motives ranging from a publicity stunt, a cry for help or memory loss, to the less credible 'fugue' - a dreamlike trance.
Agatha, on the only occasion she discussed the episode, stated: "For 24 hours, I wandered in a dream, then found myself in Harrogate as a well-contented and perfectly happy woman who believed she had just come from South Africa."
Rather than speculate on her ambiguous motives, I decided to examine those first 24 hours - her movements immediately after dumping her car at Newlands Corner in West Clandon. In my opinion, before she booked into a spa the following night in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, Agatha probably sought refuge in Shere.
It is important to realise that the 35-year-old writer was in a disturbed state of mind. Her beloved mother had died eight months earlier and she was facing the end of her marriage. Her husband Colonel Archibald Christie, a Royal Flying Corps fighter pilot, announced he was setting up home with his mistress, Nancy Neele, who lived south of Shere in Godalming (significantly, Agatha booked into the spa under the pseudonym Teresa Neele. She liked wordplay and a newspaper later claimed 'Teresa' was an anagram of 'teaser'). Agatha was also anxious the couple might gain custody of her daughter, Rosalind.
Fake crime scene
At approximately 9.45pm on Friday December 3, 1926, after an argument with Archie (who promptly moved out), Agatha left her seven-year-old sleeping daughter with servants in their home in Sunningdale, Berkshire, and drove to Newlands Corner. There, she abandoned her Morris Cowley two-seater coupé on a steep track by a deserted chalk quarry, and after leaving a bag of clothes and an expired driving licence in the car to create a fake 'crime scene', Agatha began her disappearing act.
The quarry track is flint-strewn and difficult to negotiate on foot and my guess is that rather than return up the steep hill to the dark Shere Road, Agatha sought somewhere safe to stay overnight. From the quarry, it is about a two-mile walk to Shere, navigating a footpath that crosses stiles and fields, passing Albury Church before it threads along the Tillingbourne stream into the heart of the village.
Although it is a scenic route by day, with the Surrey Hills rising to the north, at around 10.30pm, even on a clear moonlit evening, the walk must have been a frightening ordeal, and the weather report for that night describes the area as shrouded in a dank mist. There was no Surrey puma lurking in the undergrowth, but December is chilly and Agatha risked hypothermia, as well as falling and injuring herself in the dim light. She wasn't dressed for trekking outdoors: the missing person report issued by the police described her as wearing a grey 'stockingette' skirt, green jumper, grey cardigan, small velour hat and, significantly, no wedding ring.
However, Agatha wouldn't have been daunted being alone in the countryside because she grew up in rural Torquay, South Devon, where she enjoyed horse riding and amateur dramatics.
A Shere mystery
The Tillingbourne stream, a tributary of the River Wey, flows west along the valley from Leith Hill to Guildford and used to power several paper and corn mills and tanneries in the area. It also fed the Chilworth Gunpowder Works, close to where Agatha left her vehicle, one of the foremost suppliers of gunpowder from 1625 until its closure in 1920.
Although derelict today, in Agatha's time, six years after it ceased operating, a small community known as 'Tin Town' occupied the former factory buildings. It is unlikely Agatha sought refuge there, and because Shere was a popular leisure destination between the First and Second World Wars, my guess is she headed upstream and found lodgings overnight there instead.
As the stream traverses Shere, it passes beneath the point where Middle Street segues into Shere Lane. Adjacent stands the White Horse public house that is today characterised by a set of wooden punishment stocks at their front entrance. A further 100 yards up the road is the Prince of Wales, another inn that in 1926 provided overnight lodgings.
As a teetotaller, Agatha wouldn't have paused for a drink, and because it was now pub closing time she would want to avoid the departing crowd. Undoubtedly tired from her walk, and anxious to avoid the public, it is likely she went straight to bed.
On her first night in Shere, Agatha would need anonymity, because she was now a successful, recognisable author who was apparently 'dead' in this vicinity. Although the only publicity picture of her in circulation appeared on the dust jacket of her murder mysteries (the novelist disdained interviews and restricted photos), she was nevertheless a household name after the recent publication of her best-selling sixth novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
Indeed, within a few days, 15,000 people would descend on this area and fan out in search parties, many motivated by a £100 reward posted by the Daily News for information leading to her discovery.
So, rather than local inns, Agatha would probably have retired to a private bed and breakfast and booked in under an assumed name, although which name she adopted is anyone's guess; searching original tenant records from long-closed premises for unknown pseudonyms is a next to impossible task!
Flight to the north
On Saturday morning, in preparation for her long train journey to Yorkshire, it is likely Agatha bought snacks at the grocer's, before sauntering in St James churchyard (she was a practising Anglican). I'm of the opinion she succumbed to the great British tradition of a cup of tea.
The Lucky Duck tea room at the heart of the village was then a joint barber shop and shoe repairer, with a red and white candy stripe out front indicating the hair cutter was also licensed to perform surgery, but there would have been equivalent tea rooms in which to retire.
Shere is one of the few rural English villages to have retained its original Tudor character; it has essentially remained the same since Agatha's likely visit in 1926. I wonder what she would have made of her surroundings as she strolled past 400-year-old cottages, quaint shops and ducks paddling on the shallow Tillingbourne stream - all of which continue to characterise the village today. Her attention might have been drawn to the old forge, where blacksmiths have crafted metals for over 300 years. As a promoter of temperance, she would certainly have approved of the well on Middle Street, bored by the abstemious Spotteswood sisters in 1886 to discourage people drinking at the White Horse.
However, time was running out; unbeknown to Agatha, a gipsy lad, George Best, had discovered her abandoned vehicle at eight that morning and, suspicious that its lights were still on, alerted the authorities. While she was preparing her flight, a massive police operation was set in motion - including surveillance of her adulterous husband who was immediately suspected of her murder. Nearby Silent Pool was dragged during the search for her body as well as ponds along the course of the Tillingbourne.
Echoes of her books
In order to leave the 'crime' scene, Agatha needed to make her way to the nearest mainline railway station, Guildford. Her best option would have been to summon a taxi from the garage (now a florist), because few people owned cars in 1926, but a mystery writer knows that a train is more anonymous than a taxi - her seminal novel Murder on the Orient Express, published in 1934, follows that premise.
And so one must speculate she again headed out into the swirling mist on foot and followed the Tillingbourne eastwards one mile to Gomshall railway station for a train to Guildford and thence onwards to Yorkshire.
Here we must abandon the detective trail as our quarry leaves the jurisdiction. History records that Agatha was eventually discovered in Harrogate on December 14 by a banjo player named Bob Tappin, who summoned police. However, that's another story...
So, what do the experts say?
No one knows for sure what happened on that fateful night, but here some local experts give their opinions
Ann Noyes is secretary of the Shere, Gomshall & Peaslake Local History Society. Here, she presents the hard facts of the case
"There must have been B&B establishments in Shere because it was very popular with artists between the wars and they would have needed somewhere to stay," says Ann. "Would a woman like Agatha have stayed at a pub on her own? I don't know.
"We know there was a tea room in the village called The Lavender Lady open in the 1930s, though I'm not sure about 1926.
"There were trains from Gomshall to Guildford (there still are). Trains are more impersonal than taxis and passengers are therefore less traceable so that might have been a better option."
Sophie Mariner works in the visitor information centre at Newlands Corner, where Agatha abandoned her car. She reckons it's not impossible that Agatha spent the night there as well, before making the long trip up to Harrogate
"As Agatha Christie was in the midst of a personal crisis when she disappeared, perhaps she travelled to Newlands Corner to clear her head and think while enjoying the stunning views looking out across the Albury Downs," says Sophie.
"Staying in her car overnight, waiting for the first train the following morning, she may have been lucky enough to watch the sun rise over the North Downs.
"Perhaps she may also have taken part in a spot of early morning birdwatching while listening to their different calls and songs. She may have even visited the Silent Pool on her way to the train station and witnessed the early morning mist as it rolled gently across the water.
"We will never know Agatha's actual movements during that time. We can only speculate what her true intentions were. Whatever her reasons may have been, she certainly chose a beautiful and unique backdrop against which to stage her mysterious disappearance!"
Meg Gardiner is a best-selling crime writer based in Cobham. Here, she puts forward her own scenario of what happened
"The idea that, after dumping her car at the chalk quarry, Agatha Christie hiked to Shere is plausible and intriguing," says Meg. "But if you want an alternative scenario, here's mine...
"Past the chalk quarry, the Shere road climbs a long hill. Just before the top, right at Newlands Corner, there's a 400-year-old farmhouse. I'd bet that in 1926 there was a barn there. Rather than continue hiking to Shere village on a bitter December night, Christie could have snuck into the barn and bedded down for the night.
"Or, if she was really determined to hide out, she could have slunk into the woods across the road from the farmhouse and nestled among the roots of one of the ancient yew trees. Nobody would have found her there."
Mark Davison is a local journalist and co-author of Surrey In The Sixties and Surrey In The Seventies. He suspects that Agatha may have spent the night sleeping in her Morris Cowley, before heading off on her long journey north
"My guess is that Agatha Christie caught the first train the next morning from Gomshall Station to Redhill and changed for London before travelling on to Harrogate," says Mark. "It may have been that she spent the night in her car, awaiting the first light of dawn to make her escape.
"For if she left her Berkshire home about ten that night, then she probably didn't reach Newlands Corner until close to midnight. She may not have gone straight there, either. Perhaps she drove around mulling over what was going on in her life.
"Having reached the secluded area of the North Downs, she could have parked up, out of sight, realising that no one would be out walking there until daybreak.
"Then, at dawn on the Saturday, my suspicion is that she would have gathered the belongings she needed and, without arousing any curiosity, taken a stroll towards the nearest station at Gomshall.
"Using this rural station on the Reading-Guildford-Redhill line, she would have avoided being seen by the many people in the bustling town of Guildford."
HAVE YOUR SAY!
What do you think happened to Agatha Christie that night? And why, even 82 years later, has the mystery never been solved? Let us know your views by e-mailing email@example.com
Agatha Christie: The queen of crime
- Agatha Christie (nee Miller) was born in Torquay on September 15, 1890.
- She is one of the best-selling fiction authors of all time with an estimated two billion copies of her works sold; a billion copies in the English language and another billion in over 45 foreign languages.
- In 1914, she married Colonel Archibald Christie, an aviator in the Royal Flying Corps. The couple had one daughter, Rosalind, before their divorce in 1928.
- In a writing career that spanned more than half a century, she wrote 80 novels and short story collections.
- Agatha also penned more than a dozen plays, including The Mousetrap, which opened in London on November 25, 1952, and is now the longest continuously running play in theatrical history.
- Her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), was also the first to feature her eccentric Belgian detective Hercule Poirot who went on to appear in 33 novels and 54 short stories.
- Her last published novel, Sleeping Murder (1976), featured her other world-famous sleuth, the shrewdly inquisitive Miss Jane Marple of St. Mary Mead
- Following her debut in The Murder at the Vicarage in 1930, Miss Marple appeared in 12 novels and 20 short stories
- Both Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple have been widely dramatized in feature films and made-for-TV movies
- In 1930, she married the archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan and later wrote an entertaining account of the many archeological expeditions they shared together.
- In 1971, she achieved her country's highest honor when she received the Order of Dame Commander of the British Empire. Agatha Christie died peacefully at home on January 12, 1976 after a short cold.
- Agatha died on January 12, 1976, at the age of 85 and is buried with her second husband in Cholsey in South Oxfordshire.
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