Murder at the mansion

One of Shropshire's most notorious murders was committed two decades ago today at a remote countryside mansion. No one has ever been convicted of the crime, but the case remains open.

Heath House at Hopton Heath

One of Shropshire's most notorious murders was committed two decades ago today at a remote countryside mansion. No one has ever been convicted of the crime, but the case remains open. Sharon Walters who reported on the events for the Shropshire Star in 1987, looks back at the amazing story.

Simon Dale, retired architect, who was murdered at his home 20 years agoToday it is 20 years since retired architect Simon Dale was found battered to death at his country home on the south Shropshire border.

The partially sighted eccentric recluse was convinced that Heath House at Hopton Heath was an integral part of the legend of King Arthur, and that the Holy Grail was buried nearby.

His death remains one of West Mercia Police's few unsolved murders and the file remains open to this day, although there are no plans to make the inquiry active.

However, it did lead to the discovery of a cruel fraud that left the widow of a former Postmaster General and cabinet minister to die penniless in a Herefordshire nursing home. And the person convicted of that fraud was none other than her own niece, and direct descendant of the abolisher of slavery William Wilberforce: Baroness Susan de Stempel.

The Baroness was once married to Simon Dale and was the only suspect in the murder inquiry.

She was charged with the murder but with no physical evidence to connect her she was cleared. She was, however, convicted - along with two of her children, Sophia and Marcus - of the cold-hearted defrauding of her elderly aunt.

It was the stuff that film scripts are made of, and it all happened in quiet rural idylls in north Herefordshire and south Shropshire.

The story began back in 1957 when Susan married Simon Dale after a failed affair with Baron Michael de Stempel, a European aristocrat.

Susan de Stempel was charged with the murder but was later cleared due to lack of physical evidenceThey moved to Heath House and had five children, but by the end of the 1960s the marriage was over and they divorced in 1972.

Efforts by Susan failed to secure the sale of the house and Simon Dale continued to live there, working on his theory of the King Arthur connections. He worked on books and lived more or less as a recluse.

Police theory is that Susan finally snapped and battered him to death in the kitchen of his home.

He was found by his editorial assistant Giselle Wall, who still lives in the area, his supper of toad-in-the-hole still cooking in the oven.

No weapon was found, and while circumstantial evidence pointed at Susan, nothing concrete could be found to link her to the death.

During the murder trial she remained utterly calm and detached. Apparently believing that she was above everyone, she treated even prosecuting counsel and the trial judge with contempt. Her iciness and aloof attitude astounded police.

But it was during investigations into the death of Simon Dale that suspicions of fraud were aroused. So once the murder trial was over, proceedings began in relation to the matter of fraud. The aloofness continued.

In late 1984 Susan had finally married her baron and acquired her title.

How the Shropshire Star broke the news in September 1987Shortly after that, the Baroness's aunt, Lady Illingworth (widow of former cabinet minister Lord Albert Illingworth), who was suffering from dementia, was invited by Susan for a holiday at her then home in Docklow, north Herefordshire.

Within weeks her considerable fortune - money, gold bars, valuable paintings - had disappeared, her will had been forged and she was soon in a nursing home, where she subsequently died.

Stripped of any means of payment the funeral bill went unpaid and no one collected her ashes, which were scattered in a garden of remembrance by the undertakers. There was no sign of her family.

As in the previous trial, police were astounded by the detachment shown by the Baroness and by her daughter. All four defendants were convicted: the Baroness got seven years; the Baron four years; Sophia 30 months; and Marcus 18 months.

To this day detectives repeat there was only ever one suspect for the murder of Simon Dale.

Curiously back in 1968 a local GP, Dr Alan Beach, was lured to the house by the husband of a patient who was unhappy about treatment of his wife.

Dr Beach was shot dead in his car in the drive. The house had a history.

Comments for: "Murder at the mansion"

tony partridge

what a load of rubbish

ticklemouse

I understand the gold bars which went missing (or perhaps never existed) have not been recovered.

And whatever happened to the Baroness, jailed in 1990 for 7 years?

Why, this story could run and run !

I look forward to more breaking news on the matter!

William

Susan Wilberforce is now 73 and lives in Hastings, Sussex.

Gordon McDonald FRICS

In July 1977 I met Simon Dale at Heath House. At that time I was the manager of the Country House Department of Bernard Thorpe and Partners in Hereford. The reason for my attendance at the property was Simon Dale's request for a valuation, he indicated, to agree a divorce settlement with his ex wife. I took to Simon straight away I found him very affable and for a time we corresponded on his theories of the Arthurian legend and the lost city of King Arthur. My notes state "a walled city which was destroyed in the 6th century who's inhabitants worshipped a bull and its gates were surmounted by horned bulls heads". Simon believed that the location surrounded by seven hills was around Clungunford.

At the time of our July 1977 meeting he seemed earnest in his intention to agree a settlement with his wife. As time passed so the value of the house was rising and he needed my figure to think through how best to resolve the impass. One option we discussed was converting and selling one of the outbuildings.

In the end our correspondence ceased and I moved away to Gloucestershire. However, his enthusiasm for things Roman and the dark ages rubbed off on me. Years later I was to discover under my own house the remains of a Roman Villa which an old friend of his, Donald Macer-Wright of Littledean Hall, helped me excavate.

Gordon McDonald FRICS

When I visited Simon Dale to give him his divorce settlement valuation in 1977 he was keen to show me the cellar which he believed could be Roman. I was not convinced but over the years I have come across recycled masonry dating back thousands of years in many similar houses to Heath House. I have documented evidence of stone from standing buildings being removed in the 16th century from a Roman city at Falkirk by "gentlemen carrying away stone to construct their own villas".

What did surprise me in the cellar at Heath House at the time of my visit was an icy presence which has haunted my memory to this day.

If Simon is correct about his Arthurian post Roman connection with Clungunford sooner or later something will turn up and a Time Team scale investigation will reveal all.

Simon died in the house he quite clearly loved and his murder has ensured that he will remain for all time part of its legend.

peter gilbert

I believe i nearly ran him over once whilst passing Heath house he was walking in the centre of the road,must admit it is a lovely property but what a history.

Sharon

This is very true.

I am an Ancestor of this family, and it was told to my father by his mother, and also my fathers cousin, that money was expected to come down to the family.

We have never seen it, and never new where it went.