J.L. Carr's second novel A Season in Sinji begins with the arrival in the W.V.S. canteen at R.A.F. Blackfen, where Flanders and Wakerly are having tea, of an unnamed and beautiful, barefoot blonde woman (SS 7).
She walked in from the rain wearing an open scarlet mac, no shoes and sodden silk stockings, followed by a soldier who was shorter than her who bought her a cup of tea which she described loudly in an aristocratic voice as 'disgusting dishwater' (SS 7). She made a vivid impression on the two airmen. Several months later, when stationed at R.A.F. Sinji in West Africa, Flanders saw a photograph of the same woman in an old copy of The Daily Mirror under the headline 'BEAUTIFUL BLONDE BLUDGEONED. BODY FOUND IN CRICKET PAVILION'. She had been living in a pavilion with a soldier until he had killed her; the newspaper didn’t say why (SS 121-2).
In a letter that J.L. Carr wrote in June 1943 to his R.A.F. friend Edmund Cooney (the model in the novel for Wakerly), he recalled that they had seen her in a canteen at R.A.F. Farnborough when they were being trained as photography technicians:
She spoke ‘governing class’ in a very loud voice, commenting rather rudely on canteens . . . she had no shoes, grey slacks, torn silk stockings, page boy hair, super figure.
The story in Carr’s novel is about 19-year-old Joan Pearl Wolfe (b 11th March 1923), who was said in newspaper reports to 'dress like a tramp but talk like a lady'. She had bleached brown hair. Her father, who was a master watchmaker, had died of tuberculosis aged 34 in 1931 when she was 7, and the following year her mother remarried. In 1939 when Joan was 15 she returned from school one day to find the body of her 34-year old stepfather lying dead in front of the gas stove in the sealed-up kitchen of their house in Tunbridge Wells; he had committed suicide (TFP, 1939). When she was 16 Joan started running way from home and eventually left for good. According to her mother, Joan was 5 foot 5 inches tall (Critchley, 1959).
Joan became what was called a ‘camp follower’, hanging around military bases near Aldershot. In the summer of 1942 she had been living rough on Thursley Common near Witley in Surrey, sleeping in wigwams built for her by a 28-year old Private in the Royal Canadian Infantry Corps named August Sangret (b 28 August 1913), who was 10 years older than Joan. He was the son of French-Canadian and Cree parents and had not been to school, so could not read, but was said to be intelligent. He was billeted nearby and would attend roll call at 10 pm and then leave his barracks without permission to stay the night with Joan in the wigwams that he built for her from branches covered with army capes. He was 5 foot 4½ inches tall (Critchley, 1959).
Joan Pearl Wolfe
In June 1942 Joan visited her mother in Tunbridge Wells, who by then was married to her third husband, but did not stay. Her mother had written in May to Joan asking her to ‘get cured and make an effort to be a good girl’ (Critchley, 1959). The press reports said that Joan had ‘a roaming disposition’ and was known to sleep in the open while she met Canadian soldiers from the barracks at Witley. She said that she had been engaged to another solider before meeting Sangret, but he had returned to Canada.
Joan had written to Sangret a week after they had first met to say that she thought that she was pregnant by him and wanted to get married. Her letter was read to him by his Commanding Officer. Sangret told his C.O. that he wanted to marry her but may not have understand that, if she was pregnant, he wasn’t the father. Joan and August stayed together for two weeks in one wigwam but were warned by Canadian military police not to remain there, and for a while Sangret was confined to the Guard House at his Barracks.
In August 1942 Joan was found by police in a very dirty condition and was admitted for a second time to Warren Road Hospital in Guildford. After a week there she was given a pass to leave the hospital for the afternoon, but did not return. In early September Joan was living in a derelict pavilion at Thursley Cricket Club where she was visited by Sangret. On the walls of the pavilion Joan wrote: ‘A. Sangret Canada / J. Wolfe now Mrs Sangret England / September 9th 1942’. She was last seen alive four days after that inscription was written.
On October 7th Joan’s body was found partially buried in sand on Hankley Common near Thursley by two Royal Marines on field exercises. It had been disturbed by army bulldozers as they were creating a training ground for tanks. Many of Joan’s possessions were found strewn around the area including her identity and ration cards, as well as a wooden stake with some of her hair attached to it. She had been stabbed first, then her skull had been crushed with the stake. The pathologist could not tell if she had been pregnant as her body was too decomposed.
An oddly hooked knife, which was thought by pathologists to have been used in the attack, was found in a blocked drain at the camp where Sangret was billeted and was said to be owned by him. Another knife, found by police while searching the common, had been thrown away as unimportant before its potential as a murder weapon was appreciated. The trial of August Sangret was the first at which a cleaned and reconstructed human skull was used as evidence for the prosecution and which the jury were allowed to handle and scrutinise (Critchley, 1959).
Sangret pleaded innocent at his trial but was found guilty and, although the jury appealed for mercy, he was sentenced to death. His appeal was refused even though the Judges recognised that the evidence against him was entirely circumstantial (Critchley, 1959).
The case was widely reported in newspapers of the time as ‘The Wigwam Murder’. Photographs of Joan Wolfe that Carr might have seen in the overseas edition of The Daily Mirror were published in national editions on 7th December 1942 and 13th January 1943, but with headlines different from the novel, and the images show a woman with short dark hair wearing a prominent crucifix (see above). J.L. Carr and his friend Edmund Cooney were both trained in aerial photographic techniques during a four-month course at R.A.F. Farnborough between May and August 1942, so they may have seen Joan and August not long before she was murdered, although Witley is nearly 15 miles south.
Carr continued in his letter to Edmund Cooney:
Who was she and why did she leave home? . . . it does show what strange and fantastic people we are under the skin of comfortable homes, happy marriages and the 8.15 train, doesn’t it. I wondered who she was and why she had no [shoes] . . . this is one of those cases where one’s curiosity concerning the end of the story is satisfied – dissatisfied I really mean, because she must have been a rare spirit.
As Wakerly said in the novel (SS 96):
Poor kid! I wonder how she got into that state? Beneath all the bravado she must have been desperate, pushed to the wall, no way to turn. She was probably sick as hell, and all most of us thought about was how we could take advantage of her.
August Sangret was hanged at Wandsworth prison on 29th April 1943. As he was a serving soldier when he died, his name is recorded on the Brookwood War Memorial.
On 8th January 1943 Joan Wolfe’s remains were buried in the graveyard of the Church of St Michael & All Angels at Thursley in Surrey, not far from where her body was found. Her grave was given a marker in September 2023, but that's another story.
Critchley, M. (1959) The Trial of August Sangret. Notable British Trials Series Volume 83. London: William Hodge & Co. Ltd.
TFP [Tonbridge Free Press] (1939). Ill health leads to suicide. Tonbridge Free Press, 25th August 1939, page 6.
(Last updated on 26/9/2023)