Seventy years ago, a tragedy claimed a young boy’s life—but in recent years, an intriguing mystery surrounding him has captured his sister’s imagination, and proves that some people are never truly forgotten.
On August 1, 1947, an English Boy Scout troop was on a camping trip at Oxwich Bay. Among them was 12-year-old Karl Smith.
While the scout leader was away buying food, the unsupervised boys snuck off and went to the beach.
While the scouts were in the water, tragedy struck: Karl didn’t make it out alive.
A few of the scouts got him out of the water and tried to revive him, but he was dead. The report at the time supposed he had “collapsed from something … I suppose he just turned over and that was the end.”
He was buried at St Mary’s Church in Prestbury. The death hit the small Cotswold village hard—it was a major story, and at the time Karl’s parents received a huge outpouring of support.
Karl’s sister, Ann Kear, was only 7 years old at the time, and has a limited memory of the events and her brother’s life.
Decades later, Kear is now in her late seventies, and her parents have both passed on. Without them, she has no one left to talk with who would remember her brother, and presumed she was the only one keeping his memory alive.
Or so she thought.
But after all this time, it seems that somebody still remembers, and deeply cared for, her late brother:
Mysterious letters and gifts have appeared on his grave from an unknown person.
Kear leaves flowers at her brother’s cemetery plot—and is always surprised when there are new flowers or ornaments. On one recent visit, she noticed a rose that hadn’t been there before.
“When I come here, I think, ‘wonder what’s going to be on there today?’” Kear said in a BBC Stories documentary, The Stranger at My Brother’s Grave.
Tributes have included flowers, a sheaf of corn, a pheasant’s feather, handwritten letters, and poems that allude to death by the sea and dying young, implying that they remembered the circumstances of his death.
The mysterious stranger has seemingly been visiting regularly since Karl’s death 70 years ago. But in recent years, Kear has been determined to find them—if they knew her brother, it could be a valuable link to a nearly forgotten past.
“I’m desperate to find someone that can tell me more,” she said. “You know, I haven’t sort of let it rule my life, but I feel if I can find this out about whoever knew him, I’m doing for Mum and Dad, really.”
Kear also knew that the opportunity was running out.
“It’s not fading away, but eventually, it will, because the person doing it must be getting on in years,” she said. Anyone who knew Karl would be at least 80.
She asked around town, looked for strangers at the grave, and even made the news, but still no one was identified, and the mystery continued.
But then, journalist Camila Ruz agreed to take the case and help find the stranger.
Ruz took Kear to the Gloucestershire Archives, and they focused their search on a likely group of suspects:
The members of Karl’s Boy Scout troop, who were with him when he died.
Sorting through old photos in the archive, they were able to get the scouts’ names and contact some of the surviving members.
However, after a number of emails and letters, none of the scouts contacted were the visitor, nor could they offer any information.
Sensing a dead end, the searchers turned their attention away from the scouts. They looked for clues in the poetry, looked for information from the locals, and contacted friends from Karl’s grammar school.
Still no sign of the stranger at the grave.
But then, Ruz remembered seeing a name that kept coming up in the records—a member of the scouts who she was unable to find, and whose records seemed to stop at 2014: Ronald Joseph Westborough.
Westborough was a person of interest for Ruz because he seemed particularly close with Karl, and the two had shared a tent the night before he died.
On a hunch, she revisited her search—and discovered Westborough had changed his name when he was remarried.
Finally with his contact info, she called him—and had some good news for Kear, news that left her in tears:
Westborough mentioned that he still frequently visits Karl’s grave—they found their stranger!
Even better, Westborough happily agreed to meet Kear. She would finally have someone to talk about her brother with.
Westborough, about 80-years-old now, was good friends with Karl—and vividly remembers the day he died.
“There was about, I don’t know, maybe about 24 boys, I suppose,” he said. “And I lost sight of him after a bit because there were so many of us rushing around, throwing balls about and things like that.”
“I got dressed and then everybody else seemed to come out, and there was just Karl’s clothes in a pile.”
Westborough was one of the boys who found him in the water and dragged him out. He also went to give a police report.
It was a terrible memory—but one that ended up having a surprisingly positive impact on his life.
“We went to court and I always remember there was a policeman there, and he said ‘You did very well. Don you know, when you leave school, you ought to go into the police force.’”
“Later on, at 16, I did.”
His friend’s traumatic death inadvertently led him to joining the police cadets—Kear was deeply moved to know that her late brother had such an impact on someone’s life.
The two visited the grave and shared funny memories about Karl, both glad they finally had someone to talk to.
But there was another twist:
Westborough wasn’t the one leaving the poetry.
He paid visits and left flowers, but the poems were never his. So someone else—maybe multiple people—still visit Karl.
Ruz will stay on the case and try to find out who’s behind the poetry. For now, Kear is just amazed that so many people still remember and care for her brother.
“He’s not even here now, and he’s still touching people,” she said. “That’s something pretty remarkable, really, isn’t it?”