Norfolk headless body

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Position of Swaffham, Norfolk, near where the woman's body was found
Approximate position of Brake Hill Farm, near Swaffham (arrowed)
Brake Hill Drove, western end

The Norfolk headless body case relates to a woman, believed to have been murdered, who died around the first or second week of August 1974. Her decapitated body was found near Swaffham, Norfolk, England, on 27 August 1974. Her head has never been found. The woman has never been identified; one theory that police are working on is that she was a prostitute known as "The Duchess" who worked the Great Yarmouth docks under this pseudonym, and who had disappeared in mid-1974.


The badly decomposed body of this woman was discovered on 27 August 1974 by a 19-year-old tractor driver named Andrew Head who had been out walking when he found this body on land belonging to Sir Peter Roberts. Head later recalled: "I lifted one corner of the cover over the body and that was enough – I could see what it was. I went home and phoned the police."[1] The body was discovered near a track leading to Brake Hill Farm, Brandon Road, within Cockley Cley.[2] Combine harvesters were used to clear fields to allow them to be searched.[3]

Police believe the woman died in either the first or second week of August 1974. She was estimated to be aged between 23 and 35[4] and 5 ft to 5 ft 2 in tall.[5] Her hands and legs were bound to her body[1] and she was wearing only a pink 1969 Marks & Spencer nightdress.[4] She had been decapitated[5] and her head has never been found.[6] Her body was wrapped in a plastic sheet embossed with the words National Cash Registers.[7] A collector in the United States identified the cover as being from a payroll machine and the exact model but the enquiry also established that thousands of the machines would have been made with many exported.[8]

With her body was a length of rope that was unusual in being made of four strands, rather than the more usual three or five strands. An expert told police that the composition of the rope "suggests it was made for use with agricultural machinery". Police traced the place of manufacture of the rope to Dundee in Scotland but the firms that made that type of rope have since ceased trading.[9]

The first murder enquiry into the death ran from 1974 to 1975 during which time police spoke to 15,000 people and took 700 statements. They completed 6,750 house to house questionnaires.[4]

In 2008, Norfolk Police exhumed the woman's body under Operation Monton and took a DNA sample but were unable to identify the woman. They established that she was right-handed, had probably given birth,[7] had consumed water found in Scotland and that fish and crabs formed an important part of her diet.[6] They have issued several appeals for information. In 2008, the case was featured on the BBC's Crimewatch programme.[7] In 2011, police made another appeal and identified 540 missing women as a result of fresh enquiries.[4] In 2016, the case featured on television again and twice in the online version of BBC News.[6][9]

In 2009, police began to examine serial killer Peter Tobin's links to Norfolk, to determine whether he could have been involved in the case, or in any other unsolved murders in the county.[10]


After the woman's remains were exhumed in 2008, samples of her toenails, hair and thigh bone were subjected to DNA and isotopic analysis. A full DNA profile of the victim was obtained but there was no match with any database, but the independent isotopic analyses carried out by professor Wolfram Meier-Augenstein and another scientist, which looks at the traces left in the body from the water consumed during a person's lifetime, both indicated that she was probably from the central Europe area including Denmark, Germany, Austria and northern Italy.[4][8]


From a second post-mortem examination of the woman, Norfolk police learned that her pelvic girdle had widened which happens during pregnancy to allow a woman to give birth, indicating that she had likely borne at least one child in her lifetime.[4]

"The Duchess"[edit]

Following a call from a former police officer, after the case featured on Crimewatch in 2008,[8] Norfolk police are examining a theory that the woman is "The Duchess"; a prostitute who lived in Great Yarmouth docks and who disappeared in mid-1974 leaving all her possessions behind. "The Duchess" is believed to have arrived in the port town on the Esbjerg Ferry from Denmark. Her clients were often lorry drivers who travelled between Esbjerg and Yarmouth using the ferry and she also sometimes accompanied drivers on deliveries across England. This woman is understood to have worked as an escort around Great Yarmouth in the mid 1970s, with her clients often being truck drivers. She was aged in her late 20s or early 30s, hailed from Denmark, and regularly travelled between East Anglia and Denmark in 1973–74. She had lived for four or five months in the dockers' hut at the Ocean terminal,[7] and is believed to have also spent time in custody, although contemporary records from this era have been destroyed, and thus the police still do not know this woman's real name. Furthermore, they cannot be sure that the dead woman was indeed "The Duchess".[9]


  1. ^ a b Cockley Cley: Police exhume headless body. Lynn News, 29 May 2008. Retrieved 1 February 2016.
  2. ^
  3. ^ "Woman's headless body is found near farm track", The Times, 28 August 1974, p. 3.
  4. ^ a b c d e f DNA could solve historic murder. Norfolk Constabulary, 25 January 2016. Retrieved 1 February 2016.
  5. ^ a b Cold case: Headless body found in Norfolk. Peter Walsh, Eastern Daily Press, 27 August 2011. Retrieved 25 January 2016.
  6. ^ a b c England's unclaimed dead and the people trying to give them a name. Laurence Cawley, BBC News, 25 January 2016. Retrieved 25 January 2016.
  7. ^ a b c d Is headless corpse Yarmouth's. Liz Coates, Great Yarmouth Mercury, 11 March 2010. Retrieved 25 January 2016.
  8. ^ a b c Headless corpse discovered in Norfolk 40 years ago 'could be sex worker known as "the Duchess"'. Paul Peachey, The Independent, 26 January 2016. Retrieved 21 February 2016.
  9. ^ a b c Norfolk headless body inquiry finds missing women. BBC News, 24 January 2016. Retrieved 25 January 2016.
  10. ^