For Karl Smith and his friends, the scout trip to Oxwich Bay in Wales should have been a great boyhood adventure. But it was a trip from which Karl never returned. While the scoutmaster was away, a group of boys snuck down to the sea, leaving their piles of clothes behind in camp. When they got back to their tents, one pile remained untouched. Karl had apparently swum out, and not emerged.
Although Karl’s death by drowning at the age of 12 was premature, it also initiated a longstanding 70-year mystery. For decades, an unknown visitor has been leaving gifts on Karl’s grave in the Cotswold village of Prestbury in which he was born and buried. These not only included the usual flowers, but also symbolic objects like sheaves of corn and feathers. Karl’s surviving family and local residents had no idea who was depositing the items.
DOWN the deep sea, full fourscore fathoms down,
An iron vault hath clutched five hundred men!
They died not, like the nations, one by one:
A thrill! a bounding pulse! a shout! and then
Five hundred hearts stood still, at once, nor beat
– ‘The Fatal Ship’, by Robert Stephen Hawker
But one clue was that the visitor was evidently well-versed in literature; he or she left behind poems by both popular and less well known authors, sometimes with a significant line or word changed to personalise the work. When a BBC journalist Camila Ruz sought to solve the mystery once and for all, she turned to Professor Stephen Regan, an expert in poetry, elegy and mourning. Reading between the lines of the verse, Professor Regan filled a key piece of the puzzle when he noticed a poem by the priest and writer, Robert Stephen Hawker.
To find out what happened next, and how this led to the (almost) complete solution and a heartwarming meeting, watch The Stranger at My Brother’s Grave on iPlayer until 30th November.