Shropshire murder mystery helped inspire novel

A notorious unsolved murder in a remote Shropshire country mansion has helped inspire a novel by author Linda Hurcombe.

The Jesse Tree draws on the brutal murder of blind architect Simon Dale, who was found battered to death at his country home at Heath House, near Clungunford, in September 1987.

Linda's book is about the friendship between a young teenager who moves into the area and a Romany gipsy she meets who has inside information about a murder at the manor.

“I stumbled onto this grim tale of high society and low down deeds quite by accident when one day my friend Sue and I were driving by the beautiful and then empty Heath House, on the way to a wild swim at Brampton Bryan,” said Linda, who has lived at Clun for over 30 years.

“Sue pointed out Heath House to me and mentioned the murder that had occurred. It was the stuff of 'stranger than fiction' tales, and I was immediately intrigued.”

Baroness Susan de Stempel, Simon Dale's former wife, was acquitted at a trial of his murder.

She was then re-arrested for another crime, the defrauding and forging of the estate of de Stempel's senile aunt, Lady Margaret Illingworth, a wealthy widow who was left a pauper after being fleeced.

De Stempel admitted the crime, which had been uncovered as a result of the murder investigation, and was jailed for seven years, of which she served nearly five.

Linda said: “I mentioned the story to a journalist I knew, Helen Dawson, who had recently moved to Shropshire with her playwright husband John Osborne. She was as fascinated as I was.”

The Jesse Tree

To gain proper entry to the mansion, Helen and Linda formed an ad hoc film location crew. Helen was to be the locations manager, and Linda, her American agent.

They made business cards, gained approved access – this was when the mansion was put up for sale in 1994 or 1995 – and had a grand time sleuthing through every room in the 50-room mansion.

The pitch for a TV documentary was unsuccessful, but with what Linda calls "the Miss Marple in me" she continued to persevere, deciding to use this unsolved tragedy as the skeleton for a novel.

A series of events led to Linda setting the book aside but now, more than 30 years after the murder at the manor, The Jesse Tree has been launched at an event at the Castle Bookshop in Ludlow.

The novel is published by Leominster-based Orphans Publishing.

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