Sherlock Holmes and the Spiritualists: Blackpool, Conan Doyle and Houdini

This is off topic.

Doyle and Houdini two intriguing giants, it involves Blackpool, there is a crime  and an epic row  erupts between Doyle and Houdini .    And finally: Spiritualism…  Blackpool has always had a religious and especially alternative religous aspect… With these excuses off we go…



Emmanuel Swedenborg claimed direct communication with God.  The philosopher Kant thought he was bonkers but interesting.  In the US two children started table rapping and so on.   The American Civil War left people bereaved and longing for communication with their lost loved ones.  Mediums contacted the dead.

Abraham Lincoln tried to communicate with his dead son  William (typhoid) through a medium.


Blackpool has always been liminal.  At the end of land strange beliefs flourish.   Blackpool had a Swedenborgian Church and one of the few specifically built Spiritualist Churches in Albert Road.  The holiday atmosphere of Blackpool included clairvoyants and forturne tellers,  the astrological signs at Bispham Parish Church, the long survival of witchcraft and fairy stories, the boggarts and holy wells, pre-christian traditions all add up to a spookiness.   Your Rochdale mill-worker did not believe in fairies but he kind of knew the stories and on a moonlit night…


The end of the 19th Century saw a  growth in unorthodox religion… Satanism, Spiritualism, Paganism.  Instead of prayers late Victorians would have a seance or  summon up Satan.  The onetime Conservative Prime Minister Arthur Balfour was a dedicated table rapper.  Mediums were in demand.  Our own Winston Churchill appears in the outfit of the Ancient Order of Druids.  A physicist Oliver Lodge founded the Society for Psychic Research to examine evidence. William Butler Yeats and Alesteir Crowley attended sessions at the Golden Dawn.  Madame Blavatsky had many followers.  In Russia the country was half run by Rasputin… a mystic.

New beliefs were in the air.  Relativity, electromagnetism, quantum all supported the idea that the solid world was governed by unseen  forces.  In upper-class circles successful mediums had a field day.  T S Eliot captures the mood:

Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards.


!897 Garnett, Kansas.  The Opera House.  A clairvoyant is in contact with a recently deceased mother.  She complains that her son spends more time gallivanting with his secretary than putting flowers on her grave.  A local businessman walks out.  And then the atmosphere changes.  The clairvoyant announces that he will contact a beautiful young woman, Sadie Timmins who has been found murdered.  The murderer is unknown.  He will through his assistant Bessie contact the victim and solve the murder.he victim of an unsolved murder.    And then  assistant voiced the spirit Sadie.     She is abut to name the killer…   It  is unbearable.  And then Bessie  fainted…download


The man is Houdini and his assistant Bessie is his wife.

When Bessie and Houdini turned up at the town prior to the show they went to the cemetery and chatted.  The local murder was very present in peoples’ memories.  From there  on it was not hard for a skilled artist create enormous tension.  The audience had  no idea of the prior knowledge and the whole thing was deeply impressive.  Many stage mediums used similar techniques… one had an assistant hide in a lavatory cubicle and make notes about what people were talking about.

In later years Houdini became famous as an escapologist…  the most impressive stage magician ever.  He had qualities: intelligence, self-confidence, determination, physical toughness  and courage, a brilliant flair for self-promotion.  Many people believed that he had supernatural powers.

CONAN DOYLE AND SHERLOCK HOLMESquote-i-never-guess-it-is-a-capital-mistake-to-theorize-before-one-has-data-insensibly-one-begins-to-arthur-conan-doyle-282585

A quote from Conan Doyle… making a claim that is extravagantly untrue.

Conan Doyle a genial cheerful doctor created Sherlock Holmes.  I cannot think of any figure in literature who exists independently of his creator as distinctly as Sherlock Holmes.  One  explanation is that Conan Doyle used parts of his own experience  that he wished to discard or deny:  moodiness, pessimism, addiction.  Sherlock was Conan Doyle’s anti-self.  Conan Doyle had Lancashire connections… he went to school at Stonyhurst… it has the largest collection of Catholic relics in the world although I doubt the curator will show you the collection of dessicated priest’s heads.  A visit to Stonyhurst puts you in mind of Baskerville Hall.   Tolkien went there too.

Sherlock Holmes was a sensation.  He made Conan Doyle rich.  Doyle came to resent Holmes.  He  preferred his more literary works about Brigadier Gerard. Doyle was more romantic than his hyper-rational creation.  So Doyle killed him off… both Sherlock Holmes and his antagonist Professor Moriarty were killed at the Reichbach Falls.


Who killed Sherlock Homes?  Moriarty or Doyle.


And then…  Doyle needed the money.   He was a very generous man and had a constant need for money.  So he brought back Sherlock to fill a financial need.  This made Sherlock even more charismatic … he was now god-like… resurrected from the dead.  Like Moriarty Doyle had tried and failed to destroy Holmes.

When  Holmes reappeared , in disguise, he has a book about tree worship… this must refer to the Golden Bough with its mythology of sacrificed kings being killed and re-arising… like Holmes.   Doyle couldn’t even kill his own creation who had an annoying life of his own.  A dummy  takes on a life of his own…  who is the ventriloquist and who the dummy?



One  reason for Conan Doyle’s distaste for Holmes  was that Conan Doyle was increasingly taken up with Spiritualism.  His son Kingsley had died in the influenza epidemic at the end of the war.

Doyle fell for spiritualism and paranormal beliefs in a big way.

The Cottingley Fairies were dreamed up by two young girls possibly bored.  They cut up pictures of fairies and photographed them using one of their father’s cameras.  To us the results are ludicrous but to Conan Doyle they were evidence.




The SPR treated  the Cottingley Fairies with  caution.  But Conan based a whole wing of his belief system on their real existence.  Conan Doyle published a book called The Coming of the Fairies.  It is difficult not to squirm.   It is also easy to see why Conan Doyle rejected the Sherlock Holmes approach…   it is not hard to imagine what Sherlock would have made of the Cottingley Fairies.

Interestingly the one of the girls admitted the fraud in later life but she also believed in fairies and said that one of the photos… the vaguest… was genuine.


The Coming of the Fairies.

Doyle also championed spirit photography.

Doyle was inspired by a Boston couple Dr and Margery Crandon.  Unlike many Mediums money was not their motive… they were a wealthy couple.  Some of the effects were dramatic.  As their career unravelled it turned out that they used stage magic at least on some occasions.  Margery was  sexually voracious and exhibitionistic, they were borderline loopy.  Or actually not much borderline.

Conan Doyle’s first wife had died after a long illness.  He had been an attentive and devoted husband.  He then married his secretary Jean who as luck would have it turned out to be a medium and an automatic writer.  Automatic writing is where the medium is taken over by a spirit and scribbles all kinds of stuff at a furious rate, in case you are thinking this is bonkers, it is, but William Blake and Coleridge both claimed that their work was dictated in this way.    A slight diversion here.  W B  Yeats proposed to his lifelong love Maud Gonne and when she turned him down he proposed to her daughter and she turned him down and then he proposed to Georgie… George as she was always called.  Presumably if Georgie hadn’t accepted he would have gone on proposing to people…

Yeats was 25 years older the relationship was a bit tricky at first until… as luck would have it… it turned out that George was a medium and automatic writer.  The spirit who dictated the automatic writing gave specific advice about diet, sexual difficulties…  As it happens this  coincided with George’s wishes.  And indeed so it was with Conan Doyle and Jean.  Yeats and Conan Doyle do not seem to have had a moment of doubt about the reality of their spouses’ mediumship and Yeats published a whole booklet called a Vision in which he appears to believe that the automatic writing conveys a whole psychology as complex and  reliable as Freud’s.  Based on some writing that his wife did while she was in a trance…

At this second if you are like me you might be asking…  were all our ancestors loopy?  I think the answer is yes…  at least partly.    When our current concerns and obsessions are examined in future years a lot of what we hold sacred will be seen as daft (and futile)  as  the Victorian obsession with preventing boys masturbating.

The problem is that we don’t know which bits.

Doyle when he spoke about spiritualism came across as good-humoured, bluff, amusing…  rather like a retired colonel … He was exceptionally winning and inspired confidence.  Spiritualism could not have a more convincing advocate.


Both Conan Doyle and Houdini had outstanding careers.  Houdini shaped his career much more consciously.  There is a German crime story in which Houdini and Sherlock Holmes meet up.  And inevitably Conan Doyle and Houdini… two of the most celebrated people of their times met one another.   Conan Doyle in many ways had a golden life.  His father was an artist who sadly declined into alcoholism and dementia but Conan qualified as a doctor and shortly took up writing with great financial success.  He had a sunny, energetic radiant personality.  At the same time he seemed to embody English Common Sense.  He was a gifted sportsman.  He had a chivalrous attitude: for example he tended to believe that women and children could not lie.

Houdini’s father was a rabbi.  Houdini experienced anti-Semitism.  His background was impoverished and his success much more down to a conscious mastery of skills.  He was brilliant and also well aware of the dark side of life.  He had been a fake medium himself.  He never seems to have given up on the idea of survival of death and the possibility of communicating with the dead.  He was much more capable of dissembling than Conan Doyle.  A decisive feature of his life was the death of his beloved mother.  He visited mediums after her death and although he said he never saw anything he could not easily reproduce throughout his life he never lost belief in the possibility.  At the end of his life he was filled with gloomy foreboding as if he forsaw his death.  And  many Spiritualists did  predict his death with relish and enthusiasm.


At first Conan Doyle and Houdini got on well.  Conan Doyle always complained that he never understood Houdini .   Houdini  could put on a persona to suit the circumstances.  In addition Houdini, despite appearances, was  insecure and the friendship of Conan Doyle, who in many ways was a representative of the Establishment, was something he treasured.   Now Houdini would have instantly seen through  Conan Doyle’s evidence of spiritualism but he may well have kept his mouth shut because he realised to speak his mind would be to lose Conan Doyle’s friendship.  In this respect Houdini looked on Conan Doyle as child-like and obsessive.Houdini MFB Press (dragged) copy

Houdini and Doyle

Once Houdini asked Doyle to go into the garden and write down a phrase and put it in a box.  Doyle wrote down a phrase in Hebrew from the bible.  When he came back Houdini wrote the phrase on a piece of paper.  Doyle credited Houdini with extra-sensory powers.  How did Houdini do it?  I haven’t got the foggiest idea.

Over time their differences became more pointed.  One cause of dispute was when the journal Scientific American offered a stupendous reward for anybody who could offer evidence of psychic communication.  No claimant was able to claim the reward because Houdini was an expert at all forms of magic and also because his technique of separating  the medium from  access to the materials disrupted the process.  The effects attributed to spirits only happened when the medium was in contact with the materials.

One great source of disagreement was ectoplasm.  Mediums claimed that this was a non-material substance  that could be photographed or seen in seances.  Doyle believed in it.  Houdini said it was a conjuring trick using traditional conjuring materials such as silk.  I will not disconcert you by discussing where Houdini claimed Mrs Crandon concealed her ectoplasm or his claim that her husband had facilitated this by a surgical intervention but Houdini’s antagonism to what he saw as fraud was sometimes pathological.



The absolute crisis in the relationship between the Doyles and Houdini came about when Lady Doyle conducted a seance and contacted Houdini’s mother.  Houdini’s feelings can be imagined.  First of all he was insulted by the idea that he could be fooled by an amateur.  Second the message was in English and full of Christian symbolism where Houdini’s mother was a pious Jew and spoke Yiddish and finally there may have been a slight uncertainty on Houdini’s part.  Had Lady Doyle really contacted his beloved mother?  He had tried to contact his mother through mediums and failed.

Houdini was an expert  at concealing his feelings so the Doyles did not realise that Houdini was horrified.  My guess is that Lady Doyle  believed that she was a medium (maybe she was?) and saw her role as bringing comfort.  But as Marx would observe (I think) don’t our beliefs often  coincide with our interests?

Any road up the foundations were laid for a feud in which the bitterness was often concealed in protestations of admiration.

It is hard not to believe that Conan Doyle had gone quietly crackers (away with the fairies comes to mind)  on the subject of spiritualism but he was a brilliant stage performer and effectively an evangelist for spiritualism.  Taking the opposite view Houdini performed a a show discrediting spiritualism by demonstrating the tricks of mediums.  Fist fights and street violence took place.  It is said that mediums and psychics including Lady Doyle longed for his destruction.

They had their way: He was destroyed.   An athletic student asked if he could hit him.  Houdini agreed, this was one of his acts and he would brace himself by tightening his stomach muscles.  The student hit him before he had done this.    This eventually caused his death.  Interestingly for conspiracy theorists we know nothing else about the student who hit him except that he became a vicar and drank himself to death.  Houdini reappeared as a spirit to Jean Doyle the medium and acknowledged that Doyle had been right all along.  Lenin also contacted her.


Doyle asserted the truth of spiritualism.   Houdini gave lectures demonstrating how mediums faked  performances.   And both came to Blackpool.  Sadly for my story Houdini did not come in his anti-spiritualist mode but he did have an encounter that involves crime.


Houdini visited Blackpool early in his career.   On June 12 1905 he  went to  the Police Station (where St John’s Market is).  The Chief Constable and various councillors and ex-mayors witnessed him escape from his cell and through another locked door in seven minutes and wrote a letter on Blackpool Police Stationery.

This was widely reported in the Blackpool and local papers and cannot have harmed his appearance at the Hippodrome during that  week.  Intriguing to think what went on behind the scenes to get the councillors and mayors and Chief Constable to endorse Houdini.  (He may have been locked in the cell which still exists under the fish-stall).

Even though Houdini was a superstar and was massively wealthy  he still cadged drinks at a Blackpool pub.   Well actually it didn’t.  This is what happened: On Saturday George William Green was charged with “unlawfully and knowingly attempting to obtain by false pretenses the sum of four shillings.  ”  On the previous Friday  morning  George went into the Adelphi Hotel on Church Street.  He approached Joseph William Rome and showed him a printed card saying that he was Houdini.  He asked if Joseph would lend him 4 shillings and he would pay him back 50 shillings.    Mr Rome wisely refused.  William went on to ask another customer to lend him a shilling.  William said: “I was drunk.  I do not know what I have been doing lately.”

Houdini appeared in the witness box.

The previous day, Friday, about 1.00 pm  a person from Fleetwood had turned up and claimed that Houdini owed him money after a drinking session.. Houdini contacted the Police and William was arrested about 3.15 that afternoon.   William Green was sentenced to 28 days hard labour which seems harsh when he had never been proved to have gained anything by his deception.  But then Houdini and the Chief Constable…


Conan Doyle lectured  in the Pavilion at the Winter Gardens on Tuesday 20  January 1920 on Death  and Hereafter.

He defended spirit photography:  “They were either cold-blooded deliberate frauds or else the thing was true. ”  Houdini would agree with that.

Doyle described the world of the after-life which is depressingly similar to this life.  So similar that many dead people do not realise they are dead until a denizen explains to them.

His message was optimistic.  The dead are so happy that they would not wish to return.

Doyle believed that this was a first stage and later the spirit moved on.  The next world is much more congenial.  “No mother who has lost a baby need ever grieve.”  Doyle acknowledged the existence of fraud.

He says he has discussed family matters with his deceased brother and his deceased son.  When asked about death they said: It was an extraordinarily pleasant process.

He discussed the attitude of the Church which was often hostile.   He said that Spiritualism is not a religion but an aid to all religions.  Doyle  urged his audience to seek personal experience: “Test it”.

Among the audience were the Mayor, councillors and vicars.  A vote of thanks was seconded by Mr J Armitage President of the Blackpool Spiritual Church which kind of undermines Doyle’s point that spiritualism is not a religion.

He gave an interview to Allan Clarke the author of Windmill Land.  Allan Clarke had lost a son and became  inclined to Spiritualism.

Doyle and Houdini had both suffered great bereavements and it may be that the success of spiritualism  owed something to the sense of loss that followed the War.


































The Saddest Place in Blackpool? 1942 Blackpool’s saddest year.

Is this the saddest place in Blackpool?    In this grave  in Marton Cemetery six people are buried. They all died on the same day on Tuesday 3 March 1942.


What happened?

When Phil Haynes told me about this grave I was shocked that I hadn’t known about this and that the incident was not more well-know.   People in Blackpool had other things to think about.


Within living memory residents of the Moss spoke a different dialect.  It was an agricultural enclave surrounded by aggressively unrural Blackpool.  It was a place where community and tradition prevailed.  Strawberries and then tomatoes from the Moss were famous and enjoyed premium prices.  Farmers took cartloads of sewage from Manchester Square.  Traditional though the Moss was it had been  created by modern drainage and Enclosure .  In the 18th Century a farming revolution increased the value of land by a quarter.  This is the time when many of the great estates were rolling in money, building stately homes and gardens and using wealth to finance the slave trade and the Industrial Revolution.    Jane Austen country.  So as you can imagine these fortunate landowners decided that they would share their good fortune by giving their workers a huge pay rise.  Well no they didn’t.  What they decided was that common land which had been worthless was worth… well acquiring.   So they employed legal experts and MPs to pass bills saying that the land used in common really belonged to them.  The people who used the common land had no access to politicians or legal representation.  The  landowners did well.  Much of the land was to become part of urban Blackpool and building land was worth ten times as much as agricultural land.

After  a thousand years the people of Marton and Layton, perhaps smallholders living at  subsistence  levels, were no longer able to use the area for grazing and  peat.

Any road up the new character of the mosslands was of large flat fields hedges and dykes draining the  boggy land.  Broad well planned roads like Lytham Road and  and Highfield Road were the basis of South Blackpool’s later urban geography.  It is said that peat burials were dug up in the land but a peat burial would not look different from an old log to a farm labourer.  Stony Hill… the site that gave its name to an area and was probably a pre-Roman burial site and a landmark for fifteen hundred years where some kinds of ritual had carried on since before  Christianity were cleared away … efficient agriculture.

An agriculture enclave with its own traditions and customs conservative at a time when growing urban Blackpool was brash and innovative.  There are still houses on the Moss and in Layton built in the traditional Fylde way from sea cobbles.  Enough limestone could be found on the beach to make mortar and the structures were stable… the mortar stretched in extreme conditions.

But I digress.   One Monday  morning there were six live people in a house on Marton Moss and next day there were six corpses.  Why?  Well I don’t know but this is what I think happened.


Six people dead in a house gets as much space as a report on rationing.  But we are talking about March 1942.  An impartial gambler might  bet on Germany winning the War.   Expansionist Germany and Japan were at the height of their powers .  They still enjoyed  agressor’s advantage.


The “Blackpool Regiment” was a revival of the idea of “Pals Regiments.”  Regiments would come from a town the idea being that they would be more willing to volunteer and cohesive.  The idea was shelved when it turned out that a town could lose its young male population  in  twenty minutes of machine gun fire.

Many young people from Blackpool volunteered and  were caught up in the biggest British disaster of the War.  The capture of Singapore by the Japanese was an unprecedented event.  The British surrendered to a smaller force with fewer resources.    Churchill wanted the commanders at Singapore to fight to the death and then commit suicide presumably as a morale raising gesture.  Hitler wanted the same of the commanders at Stalingrad.   The British surrendered on 15 February 1942.

It is only fair to say that the Japanese General Yamashita was a maverick who was sidelined by the Japanese Command after Singapore.  He had Japanese wrongdoers executed and apologised for massacres.  He was executed after the war on the basis that he was responsible for the actions of his men even if he was unaware of them.

Every day in the Gazette their would be pictures of lads missing.  Of the 580 people in the Blackpool Regiment 224 died, 134 as prisoners of war.  Many of the survivors did not fully recover.   So the tragedy of the Smith family is a tragedy within a larger tragedy.



On Monday 2 March 1942 the older children went to Moss Side School from their home on Moss Side Lane.  Edmund Smith worked as a nurseryman.  In the evening his wife Freda went to see the White Geese Calling at the Opera House.  Edmund called at the Doctor because his son David had bronchitis.

About three in the afternoon the following day, Tuesday,  Edmund’s brother who lived within yards  broke into the house.  In the kitchen his brother, his sister in law and his nephew Baron  were dead.  He called the police.  In other bedrooms were two daughters and another son.  These are the deceased: Edmund Arthur 37, Freda 36, Baron 10, Peter 9, David 4, Carol 3.  All the deceased had throat or head injuries except David who had no marks.   A razor and piping was found which was thought to be the weapon involved.  David was ill with bronchitis so he may have been killed without leaving marks.  Because Baron’s body was discovered in the kitchen he may have been disturbed by noise and gone to investigate.

The Inquest was brief… about half an hour… and concluded that Edmund had killed his wife, his family and himself.  All agreed that Edmund and Freda had been very close and that they had been proud of their family.  Edmund’s brother Harry said that they were very happy.  The people of Marton Moss… Edmund’s colleagues…  were not given to gossip but a work  colleague of Edmund said that he had said he was going to see a solictor the next day.  I do not believe that Edmund told a fellow worker that he was going to see a solicitor without explaining the circumstances.  Possibly Edmund and Freda were experiencing difficulties… why  would he see a solicitor?



The funeral service was at the Coop undertakers on Bispham Road.  Six coffins.  Rev C W Macready from the Marton Church had the task.  The funeral cortege was led to Marton Cemetery by two police cars.  Five hundred people attended as six coffins were lowered into the ground.  I would like to believe that it says something about the sense of community among the people of Marton Moss that there was no word of condemnation of Edmund.

Edmund’s mother was in a mental institution.

Imagine: a man with some mental frailties has built his life around his wife and family and this relationship is threatened…

Think about Edmund Smith’s state of mind when he has killed his wife and children and sets about cutting his throat.  And you have problems… really?

Many thanks to Blackpool Local and Family History and a big thanks to Phil Haynes who told me about this little known incident.  His work indexing early issues of the Blackpool Papers is exhaustive and (I imagine)  exhausting.





Two funerals and a wedding: Notes from the underground

27 March 2015

A wedding is taken place.  The couple kiss and swear to be soulmates. Rings are exchanged.  Family and guests surround the couple.  Marc is marrying Mikhail.  Well all right.  Gay marriage has been legal since 2014.

The couple kiss passionately and the cake is cut with a plastic knife.  A plastic knife? We are in …..  Full Sutton high security prison.  Mikhail Gallatinov’s mother says she his proud that her son had changed history.  Well…

The authorities says the couple would not share a cell.  A prisoner tells papers that they had sex in the library.

This is the first gay wedding in a British Prison.  An newspaper in the US comments that: “Britain (is) leading the way in depravity.”  Good to hear we lead the way in something…

And the happy couple?  Well they could each tell a story and one of them could tell a surprising story involving Blackpool.

Mikhail Gallatinov.  At the time of his marriage he had been in prison for 18 years.  In 1997 he had strangled a man he had met through a gay dating site.  He had barely finished an earlier sentence involving predatory paedophilia.  He told an undercover police officer that he intended to kill somebody.  He was under surveillance when he murdered Adrian Kominski aged 28.   The next day the surveillance team realised that something was wrong.  He was stopped in a service station and the body of Adrian Kominski body was found in the car boot.

The trial judges said  “This was a cold-blooded, well-planned, callous, chilling and apparently motiveless killing.”  He was sentenced to a minimum of 20 years, he was 23 years old.




Mikhail Gallatinov

In the early hours of January 2007 a man Malcolm Benfold a chef was brutally killed on the Middle Promenade near the Imperial Hotel.  This is the  best known outdoors  gay meeting spot in Blackpool.  (A former Conservative activist claims that he met rent boys there to bring to sex and cocaine parties at the Imperial Hotel… much as I long to believe this I don’t).   The attack  was brutal and sustained and involved kicking and a bottle. Two other men had been threatened and robbed and it did not take long to identify three suspects.  They had been drinking all day and their leader, Marc Goodwin, had talked about “gay bashing.”



Marc Goodwin

At the trial at Preston Crown Court Marc Goodwin  changed his plea.  His representative argued that the crime had involved robbery rather than homophobia.  Marc Goodwin looking the traditional “ashen faced” was sentenced to a minimum of eighteen years.  At the risk of rendering Daily Mail readers orgasmic  I have to say that Marc had three children with his fiancee and that he was living in a hostel for homeless people.


Crime does not offer many examples of noble people but Wendy Bridge, Malcolm Benfold’s younger sister, is one.  Under a restorative justice scheme she talked to Marc in prison.  During the trial he was aggressive but when she met him in prison he was pale and shaking.  He said he was sorry and that he wished there was a death penalty so that he would die.  She was angry at this and said it was pointless and that Marc should take advantage of the chances offered in prison and come out a better person.  Marc said he had done courses in anger management and numeracy and literacy.  Marc also said that he had long thought he was gay and had sought counselling and had “come out.” Marc’s swaggering macho persona at the time of the attack was an attempt to deny his sexual orientation.    Marc said that he could not remember the incident because of his drinking but that there might be a connection between his sexual identity and his frenzied attack on a bisexual man.  Wendy spoke to warders who said that he was doing well in prison.

Wendy’s reaction to the marriage was measured.  She is not against prisoners getting married but she thinks that murderers are different and that marriage should be something that people work towards…  a goal to be achieved.  Wendy says that she does not hate Marc and hopes he leaves prison a better person.  She thinks that he is being manipulated by Mikhail who is nearing the end of his mandatory sentence and might seek to improve his eligibility for release. Wendy’s ability to put aside anger is instructive to me.  Tony Benfold,  Malcolm’s older brother takes a less tolerant view.  He says he hopes they strangle each other.


Take Marc Goodwin at the time of the crime.  He has a fiancee and three children but he is living in a hostel for homeless people.  At some level it must be clear to him that he is not greatly valued by society.  One understandable reaction is to reject society … to rebel.  Marc is more likely to become an astronaut than get a job.  He is, not unlike a lot of people in Blackpool, within spitting distance of despair.  George Orwell was once somewhere impoverished god awful place  (Bolton??) in the 30’s and he asked the barman what was the quickest way out of here.  “Bottle of gin.”

This is why Blackpool has the highest rates of alcohol abuse, drug abuse, suicide, depression….   Could it be that in different circumstances Marc Goodwin could be writing letters in spidery writing  to government ministers demanding the retention of homeopathic medicine the the NHS?  With  persistent failure and poverty would we be Marc? I don’t know.  And Marc’s journey from homophobic killer to Gay Wedding?   It is an inevitable part of the career of US tele-evangelists who denounce sodomy to be discovered in motels with young friends.   Does homophobia mean repressed homosexuality?  My guess: sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t.

If I were not a half-hearted atheist I would say pray for Malcolm Benfold harmless victim and his sister Wendy whose nobility lightens a dark story.

malcolm benfold

Malcolm Benfold


thanks to the Local and Family History Centre for their help and patience.




The lady in the fishtail coffin: The burial ground at St John the Evangelist Blackpool.

In 2009 Blackpool Borough Council undertook to pedestrianise the area outside St John the Evangelist a  burial ground.  At the time BBC believed that the burial ground had been cleared of all human remains and burial artifacts in 1927.   However removal of the surface revealed coffins, human remains and funerary objects.  Following recommendations the council commissioned Oxford Archaeology North to undertake a watching brief of further groundwork and to excavate and record any human remainst that were exposed.  This piece is  derived from that Survey.  It led me to read the burial records of St Johns and they  not unjaw-dropping.  Average life expectancy in  early nineteenth century Blackpool was in the twenties or early thirties.  Most people did not see forty.   As late as 1884 when sanitary matters improved  life expectancy was 35.   Many infants died.  Many children and young adults died.  Bodies were washed up on the beach and buried without a name… sailors or passengers.  Sometimes there is a moving note…  William Thornber, drunken, adulterous, pugilistic, half bonkers, wholly lovable Blackpool historian and sometimes vicar writes: “My niece” next to the registration of an infant death.  Some people did live to old age… the oldest I recall was 91… but very few.

It is tempting to look back and think that these people had grim lives but throughout the nineteenth century people were living longer lives with more leisure and greater prosperity.  The arrival of the railway in Blackpool in 1846 was a stunning phenomenon…  probably nothing in our own lifetimes has so vividly separated the present from the past.    In the later part of the century the addition of sewers and piped water increased life expectancy.  It is difficult to understand Blackpool’s reputation as a health resort given that life expectancy was low.  But people did come to Blackpool for health.  Friedrich Engels urged his friend Karl Marx to come to Blackpool when Marx was ill, sadly Marx went to Margate instead.

The original Church of St John the Evangelist of 1821 (when Blackpool’s population was 749) was replaced in 1878 when the population had increased ten times.  In 1927 the eastern side of the church near Cedar Square was made an Open Space.  This meant that tombstones were removed to Layton Cemetery and human remains uncovered were reinterred at Layton Cemetery at night to prevent distress.  As far as we can tell about 70 individuals were removed and reburied in Layton Cemetery… some of them known and many unknown.  Very likely many of the unknown individuals were buried together.  A monument in the Cedar Square area lists 336 individuals.  These names derive from headstones.  Since we know there are 1225 burials according to the Parish Records and Oxford Archaeology gives the number as 1800 , a small proportion of the remains in the churchyard were reburied in Layton Cemetery.  It seems that there was a good deal of jiggery and no little pokery behind the council’s claim that it believed that the site had been cleared of human remains.  It seems  unlikely that the remains of between 1255 and 1800 people were removed and reburied in Layton Cemetery in the 70 coffins they prepared for the event.    In 1927 the churchyard had not been used for new burials since the opening to Layton Cemetery in 1873.  In 1954 remains from eight graves on the Church Street end of the burial ground were reburied in Layton Cemetery.  The majority of the people buried at St Johns remain where they were buried. Poor people, and most people were poor, were buried on the unfashionable North Side… where St Johns Market is now. The cells… one remains under the fish stall… of the police station must have been at the same level as the coffins in the churchyard and only yards away from the Victorian prisoners.

A feature of the examination of remains by Oxford North is the poor state of peoples’ teeth.    A skull reveals false teeth.


An exposed skull revealing false teeth on a copper plate

Taking the teeth of dead soldiers and reusing them  was a ghastly but profitable industry.  People boasted of having “Waterloo Teeth.” As late as the 1860s barrels of teeth were imported from the American Civil War.

To expedite work the team preparing the site tried to avoid uncovering remains or artifacts because each time a site was uncovered work would stop until the archaeology team recorded it. Evidence of 73 graves was revealed but 53 of these were grave cuts.  That is evidence of burial digging rather than remains or coffins.  Nine coffins were uncovered and three  coffins with remains exposed.  After recording these were  left in place since they were at or below the level of work.

The artwork  “The Wave” required a 2 metre deep trench to support it and it was in this trench that the most exciting discoveries were mad.    The partial remains of seven individuals were found.  The remains of a brick vault and eight coffins and skeletons were discovered including the intriguing  haunting  intact skeleton of the Lady in the Fishtail Coffin.



The coffins uncovered were usually of the conventional shape, the type we are familiar with… this is called one-break.

The three exceptions were two oblong shaped coffins which may have been used for children and the enigmatic fishtail coffin.


fish coffin 1

Fishtail coffins are unusual but not unknown.  The fishtail coffin contained the skeleton of a young woman aged 25-35. fish coffin 2

The coffin was elaborate… made of oak instead of the more usual elm and it was polished.  The undertaker had taken steps to brace the coffin after the body was placed in the coffin using a simple frame.  The coffin itself was unusually intact as a result of the care that went into its preparation and there were decorative features including iron plates which probably identified the person.  Unfortunately these were corroded beyond recognition.  Everything indicates that  care had been taken over the coffin and that it was more costly and intended to be seen.  Poignantly the remains of what may have been a posy of flowers was attached to the lid of the coffin.  This piece of rough fabric may have been placed by a parent or friend and it is dizzying to think of its recovery a hundred and fifty years later.  If the fabric was associated with a posy it dates the coffin to the 1860s or later when this form of funerary decoration became coffin 3 (1)


The evidence from the skeleton gives an unsettling picture of this young woman’s life. She was aged between 25 and 35.  She had lost half her teeth and her remaining teeth were in bad condition… she suffered from periodental disease and abcesses.  Given the pain it is surprising that she did not have all her teeth removed and replaced by false teeth.  She had broken her clavicle, her shoulder-bone, and it had not healed properly so that one shoulder-bone was longer than the other.  Her fifth vertebra had sacrilised… this means that it had fused and this may have caused back-pain, discomfort and difficulty walking.  And to top it all she suffered from scoliosis, curvature of the spine.  Unsuccessful treatment of scoliosis might have added to her problems.   All these conditions were apparent from the skeleton.  It may be that she had other problems.

It is tempting to conclude that this young lady’s life was hell on earth.   But we cannot know that and we do know that she was cared for, that her parents or relatives cared for her and took care over the funeral arrangements.  She was loved.  It may well be that she was mostly happy and content.

One detail which I cannot leave out.  An examination revealed matter inside the skull this was referred to an expert who concluded that it was the lady’s brain which in the special conditions had remained intact inside the skull.


I am going to have a stab at naming the girl.

I have taken the arbitrary step of focusing on ladies aged 27-33 rather than the 25-35 parameters of the archaeologist.  The age is  likely to fall within those boundaries.

Since the coffin was elaborate and  expensive it is likely that the relatives would have wanted a headstone.  Most of the burials in St Johns did not have a headstone.  So if we look at the names of the people on the monument which lists the names on the headstones and correlate it with the names on the monument that will give us names of ladies who died between the ages of 27 and 33.

Here they are:

Hannah Bowker aged 28 buried 29 June 1857

Nancy Fallows aged 27 buried 27 August 1865

Ann Forshaw aged 27 buried 19 August 1849

Ann Nuttall aged 33  buried 12 May 1852

Thomasine Smith aged 32 buried 4 May 1858

Hannah Barratt aged 32 buried 23 March 1882

The use of fabric to attach a floral tribute  to the coffin lid was a funerary practice of the 1860s.  By the late 1860s fishtail coffins were less used.  The use of a polished wood coffin rather than a painted one points to a later date as the archaeology report puts it: “Well after 1825.”  The later date is unlikely because by that time Blackpool had its own newspaper and an unusual coffin might have caused comment, because fishtail coffins were becoming rarer after the 1860s but most decisively because Hannah Barratt is one of the named reburials in 1927.

It is likely that a lady whose health was as compromised as the lady in the coffin would not be married in Victorian times and that if she worked she would work at home at a career which would allow for her illness.

So if we focus on unmarried ladies buried around the 1860s and aged between 27 and 33 the name Nancy Fallows draws attention.  She  is in my  view the most likely candidate.  I would put the probability at less than 50%.


If the lady in the fishtail coffin was Nancy Fallows for the sake of retrieving a story what do we know about her?

She came from Little Bolton.  In 1861 she is listed in the Census Record living with her father William and her mother Margaret.  Her father is a cotton spinner.  She is a dressmaker.  In 1871 Margaret and William still live in Little Bolton and Nancy  does not.  Her death is reported in the local newspaper published in Fleetwood where she is described as a “milliner.”

The rest is guesswork.  If she were the child of loving parents and in deteriorating health they may have hoped that Blackpool would help her recover.  We do not know where she stayed.  There is a Thomas Fallows, a boarding house keeper, at South Beach.  Could he have been part of the extended family? The fishtail coffin was an elaborate tribute to a loved daughter.   Possibly more loved because of her illness.  Her occupations, dressmaker and milliner, are jobs that could accommodate her illness.

On the other hand it might not be Nancy Fallows at all.

Something about the story haunts us.   One is an image of futility.  A sick lady dies and all the love in the world cannot save her.  Or is it an image of the triumph of love over adversity.  Her parents do all they can and their last act is to arrange an elaborate funeral.  Maybe their last act is to put a posy on the coffin.

Another aspect… like the grave scene in Hamlet… is the realization of the the strange physicality of death.   We do not normally feel like an assembly of organs and bones and other stuff..  we feel like a free mind but death reminds us that we are a collection of bits most of which we aren’t aware of and have no idea what they do… what is a spleen for?  Death reminds us that in some ways we are machines.

A body is buried in the 1860s and the coffin is reopened a hundred and fifty years later with the remains of a floral tribute attached to the lid. What does it mean, not in particular case but in all our cases.   To quote Larkin:

solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

Beyond strange   is the piece of soft tissue identified as the remains of a brain found inside the skull and preserved in the special conditions.  Three pounds of substance are the most complicated known structure in the universe and  the thing that gives us consciousness.  Eighty six billion neurons enable you to read this and enabled the lady to understand the world in which she found herself…

And where is the lady now?  All the remains and funerary pieces were interred at a discrete ceremony at Layton Cemetery on 25 November 2009.    Speaking as a lukewarm atheist you have to admire the Anglican Church for coming up with a ceremony for any set of circumstances.  For those of us… I include myself… with a gothic sensibility  the  language of the report is often unintentionally and therefore more strikingly  gruesome .  When the coffins were moved in 1927 they had warped and leaked small bones into the soil below.  The contractors charged with the removals put down wood shavings… remnants of which remained to “absorb the coffin liquors.”  Phrases like “the last vestiges of seven individuals” and the “skeletal inventory ” cling in the mind.

I am massively grateful to David Law who helped me find the report.

Oxford Archaeology North have been exceptionally helpful.

The Local and Family History Service is always helpful.

And Carol Porter for helping me with reproducing images none of which I will ever understand.

The actual report is available here, thanks again David Law, I had seen it before but I was looking for it for ages until you helped me.  I welcome any comments or corrections.


The report is at this site.  I had to search within using Blackpool St Johns as keywords within the site.  It came up immediately.  It is an intriguing piece of work unjustly overlooked.

St. John the Evagelist Churchyeard, Church Street, Blackpool

From : Oxford Archaeological Unit unpublished report series
Publication Date: 2010
Author(s): J Griffiths





Billy Hughes: Blackpool Property Repairer. January 12, 1977



Billy Hughes


Wednesday 12 January 1977

Billy Hughes is being taken from Leicester Prison to Chesterfield Magistrates Court escorted by two prison officers in a minicab.  He is charged with stabbing a man in the face and raping his girlfriend at knifepoint.   He asks to use the toilet at Trowell service area.  Billy Hughes stabs  wounds both prison officers.  Hughes  handcuffs them together in the back of the minicab.

There is a snowstorm… the worst for 15 years.  The taxi driver and the prison officers are dumped  at Spitewell and Billy drives on the B5057 He crashes the taxi near Beeley  not far from Chatsworth House.  Billy heads north across Beeley Moors…  he walks and jogs for three hours in freezing snow until he comes to Pottery Cottage.

Pottery Cottage is an 18th century pottery  converted into three dwellings.  The middle cottage is empty.  At  one end live the Morans and at the other live two teachers, the Newmans.

The Moran family consists of 5 people, Arthur Minton,  72, a retired grocer and his wife Amy, 68,  their daughter Gill Moran, 38,  her husband Richard Moran, 36,  and the adopted daughter Sarah aged 10.  Richard Moran is  from Ireland and has a  successful career as a sales director. They are a well to do family living in a lovely cottage.  The unimaginable is about to happen.

Hughes arrives at Pottery Cottage.  He is exhausted and freezing.  He notices two axes outside the cottage, used for chopping wood.  With an axe in each hand he bursts in.  Amy is preparing vegetables.  With Amy and Arthur under control he makes a quick tour of the cottage.  Richard and Gill are at work and Sarah is at school.  Billy takes  a  5 inch boning knife from the kitchen drawer and pockets it.

Gill arrives  just after 3.00 pm in her Hillman Imp from Chesterfield where she works as a secretary.  Her mother lets  her in: “There’s a man here on the run from the police.  He’s got a knife but he’s promised not to harm us. ”

Hughes:  “I have stabbed two prison officers, but I did not kill them.  But I do know how to kill.”

About 3.30 the school bus drops Sarah.  Gill tells her that Hughes – is a motorist whose car has broken down and tells her to play in her room.

Richard comes home after 5.00pm to find Billy holding a knife to his wife’s throat.  Hughes cuts flex from a lamp, a vacuum cleaner and washing line and ties up his victim’s hands and feet with their hands behind their backs and their feet tied together.  Arthur resists and tells Hughes to leave the home. Hughes pushes Arthur to the floor.  Arthur has an artificial leg and struggles to stand.    Hughes gags all the victims.

Hughes slings 12 stone Richard over his shoulder and carries him  upstairs.  He does the same with the two women.  Then he carries up Sarah.  The four are all in different rooms.  Amy manages to free herself.  Hughes binds her more tightly and she cries out in pain.  He gags her.

Arthur, tied up in an armchair,  is the only person downstairs.

The next morning, Thursday,  a van visits the cottage to empty the septic tank.  Gill believes that the only way to survive is to obey Hughes and she signs the sanitation worker’s docket to confirm that the work has been done.

She glimpses her father covered by a coat through a glass kitchen door.  Hughes tells her that he is asleep.

Hughes tells her to ring her office and Sarah’s school to say they are both ill.  Hughes orders Gill to drive to Chesterfield to buy cigarettes and a newspaper: “I know you won’t do anything silly because I’ve got your family here.”

When Gill returns he says that Sarah is well but that Gill cannot see her.  At 9.30 Hughes carries Richard downstairs and orders him to phone his office to report sick.

gm and husband

Richard and Gill Moran

hen Hughes unties Richard and Amy.  Gill makes soup and toast.  Hughes takes toast and soup for Sarah and Arthur.  Incredibly Hughes and his captives read the papers and play cards.  Hughes says he wants to test drive Richard’s Chrysler 180 and Richard and Gill accompany him for a short drive.  He plans to use the Chrysler to escape and to take Gill as hostage.  He says he has a friend in Sutton in Ashfield with whom he has committed a robbery.  He wants to see his friend to take his share of the proceeds.  He packs a suitcase and  ties up Mrs Minton and Richard.  He gets in the Chrysler and sets off with Gill.  Hughes says he has forgotten instructions he has written down to get to his friend’s place and briefly returns.  They set off again and at Sutton in Ashfield they stop at a truck stop called Roy’s Cafe.  Hughes takes the ignition keys disappears and then returns.

Hughes says he has been disturbed by a policeman and shows a truncheon.  They return to Pottery Cottage.  They arrive at 2am on Friday.  Hughes says that he, Richard, Gill and Amy will all sleep in the same room so that he “can keep a proper eye on them. ”

In the morning they all wake up.  Hughes orders Gill to make tea and toast.  Then he tells her he wants to go shopping for supplies.  He wants tins of soup, stew, camping gas stove, gas cylinders, cigarettes, sweets, steak and lamb chops.  He gives Gill £25 that he has stolen from his search of the house:  “While you are out buy a nice present for Sarah.”  He tells Richard to drive his wife to Chesterfield to get the supplies.  Hughes clears snow from the drive.  Richard and Gill go to the supermarket to get the supplies.  They fill the car with petrol and buy an Enid Blyton from a book-store for Sarah.

They buy a copy of the paper where they see a photo of Hughes on the front page.  When they arrive back Hughes is with Amy Minton who has a job cleaning the cottage at the other end of the row.  Mrs Minton cleans for them every week.

Gill cooks a meal for them.  Richard, Gill and Amy hardly eat but Hughes wolfs down his meal.

Hughes says that he needs money to escape and asks Richard if there is any money at his office.  Richard tells him that there is.  “Right we’ll go and get it.”

At 6pm Gill and Richard and Hughes get into the Chrysler and drive to Brett Plastics at Chesterfield.  The night shift has started.  Richard goes in alone and tells a colleague he is working late.  He brings in Gill and Hughes from the car.  Hughes searches the safe and drawers.  He finds about £210 in wages and a cash float.    They go back to the car.  They return to Pottery Cottage.

He ties up Richard and puts supplies in the Chrysler.  He says he is leaving drives off with Gill.  At the roundabout he says he has forgotten a road atlas and they drive back for it.  He tells Gill to wait outside.  He says: “I am just going to check on Sarah and your dad.”

When he returns the car will not start.  Furious Hughes tells her to get help from the neighbours.  Gill, unsupervised whispers to  them that Richard is tied up.  The neighbours do not know about the prison escape.   Hughes is still trying to start the car.  Gill gets into the car.   Amy Minton, her throat cut,  appears at the driver’s windscreen and then falls dead in the drive.  Then a car starts next door.  The neighbours, the Newmans, who do not have a phone, race off to tell the Police.

Hughes says that they will have to make a run for it .  They come to a cottage belonging to mechanic Ron Frost and ask him to give them a tow with his pick-up to get the car started.  Gill manages to mouth to Ron’s wife, Madge, what is happening.  Ron starts the car.  Hughes drives towards Baslow.  By the time Ron gets home his wife has alerted the Police.

At 8.19 pm Hughes is driving the Richard’s  car with Gill as his hostage.   Gill’s state of mind is beyond  imagination.  She has seen her mother appear at the windscreen of the car and then fall dead in front of her eyes.  She has spent days with a terrifying stranger.  She has not seen her father or her daughter for two days.

The Police assume that Hughes, who had escaped three days before,  was out of the area but now they have  two phone calls from Madge Frost and from the other Pottery Cottage residents, the Newmans, who bravely drove off and contacted the Police from a neighbouring home.

Officers arrive at Pottery Cottage but Hughes has already driven off with Gill.  They find four murdered people.  Richard, Sarah, Amy and Arthur.

The blue Chrysler is moving at dangerous speed along the A619 shadowed by an unmarked Police car.  The shadowing car moves in front.  The Chrysler crashes into a wall.  Two officers run towards the car but halt when Hughes holds an axe above her head: “Back off or I’ll kill her.”

Hughes drags Gill out and demands the officers hand over their car.  He speeds away in the hijacked Marina.  He is heading towards Cheshire and police marksmen are  flood into the area.

At Rainow on the A5002 between Whaley Bridge and Macclesfield police block the road with a bus.  At 10.00 pm Hughes tries to swerve round the bus but crashes into a wall.  Armed officers surround the car but dare not shoot because of  Gill.  Hughes demands another car and safe passage.  For half and hour they negotiate.   Hughes screams: “Your time’s up.”  He raises the axe.  A shot.   Hughes is shot  in the head but continues to move.  Another officer shoots Hughes two times through the body.  A third officer shoots Hughes through the heart.

It is Friday night.  Hughes has been at Pottery Cottage since Wednesday.  There are four murdered people:  Richard, Sarah, Arthur and Amy.

Gill is injured from the axe and from flying glass.  But then she is told that her mother, her father, her daughter and her husband are dead.   Arthur, Gill’s father was killed on the first evening.  Gill had glimpsed his body through a glass kitchen door and Hughes had told her that he was sleeping.  Sarah was killed while Gill drove to Chesterfield for newspapers and cigarettes for Hughes.

When Hughes returned for a map and goes into the house: “to look after Sarah and your dad” he cuts Richard’s throat and Gill’s mother Amy’s throat.  Amy had fallen through a window and survived for a time and bravely, mortally injured attempted a warning.

Let’s pause for thought.  The mystery of other people.   I long to be told that Hughes is insane.  That Billy Hughes, a father, would kill a ten year old girl.   He acted with cunning… making a charade taking soup to Sarah and Arthur who were already dead.  I want to think that Billy Hughes was insane: the alternative is unbearable.


A psychiatrist said that he was: “An explosive psychopath.” Billy Hughes had not lived a blameless life until the time that he was shot four times by armed officers.

When he escaped he had been classified as a low escape risk and not a danger.  This would be surprising except that it was based  on what Billy Hughes had told prison officers.  He had four convictions for violence two of them involving police officers and had been sentenced to a total of fifteen years.  He was on remand for stabbing and a knife-point rape.  While in the prison kitchen he had stolen a knife.  He was suspected of the theft but a search failed to find it and he concealed it when he was searched before the mini-cab journey to court when he escaped.

So who was Billy Hughes…  I want to say how did he get to be like that? But I think that is unanswerable.

Billy Hughes was born in Preston.  He appeared in court at the age of 14, his first of twenty one appearances.  His main crime was theft but he became more and more violent.  He regularly resisted arrest and once killed two police dogs with his hands.


Billy Hughes was living  in Grasmere Road, Blackpool, and working as a property repairer.  When Hughes escaped Blackpool Police, who had vivid memories of Billy Hughes,  moved to protect his separated wife Jean who lived in Loftos Road, Blackpool.

BH wedding


Richard and Jean Hughes

Jean had interesting things to say about Billy Hughes.

After Billy’s death she said: “He was very violent to me and the children but on the other hand he had some pleasant ways about him at times.”

Jean praised the kindness of Blackpool Police who had taken her to a secret location while Billy Hughes  escaped.  The Police had taken Jean’s two children to Revoe Infant School while Jean was in hiding.  Nicola kept asking where her daddy was: neighbours told her: “He’s been hurt… and gone to Baby Jesus.”

According to Jean Hughes, Nicola wrote letters to Billy asking him to come home quickly and she’ll give him medicine to make him better.  Nicola: “loved Billy with her whole heart. ”  So Billy Hughes was loved by Nicola and Jean Hughes: “I used to love Billy.  I don’t now.  I shall never forgive him for what he did but I believe he was ill and needed mental treatment.”

The couple had met in 1972 when Billy had come out of prison and he proposed when she visited him when he was imprisoned again.  She recalled that for the first eighteen months he had been: “Not too bad.”  But he became  violent.  Especially when he drank.  Did Billy Hughes make an effort when he married Jean?

Blackpool Police remembered  Billy Hughes.

He regularly resisted arrest.  In 1972 his car was stopped in Grange Park  and drugs were found in the boot of his car.  There followed a fifteen minute battle which sent two police officers to hospital.  Billy Hughes managed to wreck the back of a police vehicle and there was another struggle.  In the cells he wrecked his cell, wrecked the toilet and headbutted another officer.  He was called: “Mad Billy.”  He was sentenced to three and a half years and been free for less than six months when he was remanded at Chesterfield for rape and Nicola.  Jean said touchingly that Nicola keeps asking where her daddy is.

Billy painstakingly made models out of matchsticks and careful landscape drawings for Nicola.



Billy Hughes…  so much trouble in his lifetime continued to cause problems dead.  First of all his wife Jean wanted him to be buried in Blackpool.  Jean was a practising  Catholic and wanted a service at St Cuthberts on Lytham Road in Blackpool.  The priest agreed to a service.  When he was criticised the priest said that if Billy Hughes was mentally ill he was not responsible for his actions.

Jean prayed every night for Gill Moran.

Billy was to be buried by the state.   Jean found that this would not cover the transport of the body from Chesterfield.  Billy Hughes was to be buried at Boythorpe Cemetery.  There were local protests, the cemetery gate was locked, the grave was filled in. A pub landlord said: “I was disgusted that that they planned to bury the carcass of that animal Hughes alongside the alongside the good living citizens we have here.”

As a result of the protests Billy Hughes was cremated at the same crematorium as the family he had murdered.


bh blackpool mass

Billy Hughes’ ashes were transported to Blackpool.  We do not know what happened next.  My guess is that in keeping with her  intention there was a discreet service at St Cuthberts  for family and friends who hadn’t been able to attend the funeral. If Jean followed her original plan:  the ashes were scattered at St Cuthberts.

Billy Hughes was possessed by rage.  He was not successful as a criminal.  He was impulsive and  strong.  My sense is of somebody not at home in the world.  Other people were there to do what Billy Hughes wanted and if they didn’t agree he could use his strength and menace to enforce his way.  With his  hours in the gym and his powerful physique there is  hyper-masculinity and entitlement.  He was awaiting trial for stabbing a man in the face and raping his girlfriend at knife-point.  What Billy Hughes wants Billy Hughes gets.

Linked to strength and entitlement Billy Hughes was… I don’t know what the pc term is nowadays…  he was  thick.  Or  given his power and capacity to intimidate he hadn’t had to think much…   His hopes of escaping were  hopeless… he couldn’t keep out of prison.  When the car wouldn’t start at Pottery Cottage he said to Gill that they should make a run for it.

Strong, thick,  menacing and in a world  beyond his comprehension Billy Hughes was like a wild creature unsuited to the world around him.  Something would have to go.  Can you feel sad for Billy Hughes?  I think you can feel sorry for Billy Hughes and also for his victims.  Maybe as Jean Hughes said he was let down by the Prison Services.  Jean Hughes attributed Billy Hughes’ crimes to his mental health.

Jean Hughes seems to me  noble.

My guess is that Billy Hughes’ actions were a response to a world which he didn’t understand.  What is the state of mind of a father who cuts the throat of a ten year old girl.

Other minds: how can somebody look and sound like us and be so different?


Of all the people I have ever read about none captures  attention like Gill Moran.  There are people who have suffered worse losses but not many  In two days she lost her husband, her father, her mother and her daughter.  There is a difference in tone in those days.  People don’t suffer from stress or have counselling.  People were stoical, didn’t dwell on things… carry on.

Gill Moran remarried.  Two years after the events she married Jim Mulqueen who was a cousin of her husband and looked  slightly like him.  In 1980 they had a daughter.  Things did not all go well… her husband took to drink.  Possibly tension and grief had an impact.  Eleven years after the events at Pottery Cottage he was jailed for two years for threatening a  publican with a shotgun.

gm and child

Some people say that suffering makes you better but they are mostly wrong.

When Gill came home on Wednesday  12 January, 1977 her world changed forever by circumstances beyond her control…

For a time Billy Hughes actions became a figure of speech:ill do a

Thanks as usual to Blackpool Local History Centre and also to Robert Wright who suggested Billy Hughes as a subject.