Month: November 2014

IRA Operations in Blackpool 1939 and 1982


On August 27 1939 a bomb exploded near the door of Blackpool Town Hall.  It was part of an IRA campaign which involved  English cities especially Liverpool.  The most famous participant was Brendan Behan who wrote about his experiences in “Borstal Boy.”  The events were soon overshadowed by more serious matters.

In October 1984 the Grand Hotel in Brighton was bombed.

Patrick Magee

Patrick Magee

The man most closely connected with the Grand Hotel bombing was Patrick Magee.

In April 1983 Patrick Magee was in Blackpool.  He  was victim of a  bold “sting” operation by British Intelligence.

Central to the sting was Raymond O’Connor who was about 50 and lived in Milbourne Street, Blackpool.  Raymond O’Connor was a petty crook and a heavy drinker.  He was also the step-father of Thomas Maguire.  Thomas Maguire was a Dublin schoolteacher, a graduate of Trinity College Dublin.  Raymond O’Connor said he looked on him as a son.

In January 1982 Thomas Maguire visited his mother in Blackpool. Thomas expressed an interest in helping the Republican Cause.  Raymond O’Connor had been in the Royal Air Force and had received medical treatment at Weeton Barracks.  He was familiar with the layout of the barracks. Thomas and Raymond visited the area.

According to Raymond O’Connor he:  (Raymond) “could not bear what was going on,” and contacted the Police.  In February 1983 Raymond  met senior Provisional IRA figures in Dublin.  He met three senior figures in the Provisional IRA: Brendan Swords, “a Gerry Adams lookalike”, and a man with a pot belly.

The  meeting was to evaluate an operation aimed at the Eagle and Child pub in Weeton, a pub used by soldiers from Weeton Barracks.  The Second Battalion of Light Infantry were based at Weeton Barracks.  The Provisional IRA were especially interested in the Barracks because SAS and RUC units were trained there.  This information came from Raymond O’Connor. It was not true.

In April 1983 Patrick Magee and Patrick Murray came to Blackpool.  They were followed by the Intelligence Services and photographed  wherever they went.  Patrick McGee who was known as “the Mechanic” and his colleague Patrick Murray, “the Minder” had a plan.

They were to park a Cortina at the Eagle and Child.  That car was to be replaced by a hired van with a bomb and McGee was to drive off in the Cortina.

Patrick Magee  knew that they were being watched and in April 1983 in an carefully pre-planned move  he evaded four cars in a  a high speed car chase.  Patrick Mcgee and Patrick Murray abandoned the car in the car park of Preston railway station with the doors still open.  In fact they did not take the railway.   Patrick Magee had  been aware that he was being watched at a very early stage.

It is hard to believe  that Patrick Magee was not interested in the Imperial Hotel, Blackpool, where the Conservative Party were to hold their conference in October 1983.  The easiest way to look at the place would be to book a room there with a female partner.  This is exactly what Patrick Magee did at the Grand Hotel Brighton.

In October 1984 the Grand Hotel Brighton was bombed.  The bomb had been placed by Patrick Magee.  Five people lost their lives and Mrs Thatcher was lucky to survive.  I am amongst Mrs Thatchers’s most ardent dislikers but one  cannot help but admire the aplomb which Mrs Thatcher showed on this occasion.

Patrick Magee was eventually tried and sentenced to eight life sentences.  He was freed as part of the Good Friday agreement.  He has since taken part  in reconciliation activities.

Four years later after the Brighton Bombing Raymond O’Connor was the chief prosecution witness at the trial of Thomas Maguire who was effectively his son in law.  The Prosecutor described him as “an inveterate liar.”  We have to pause here.  The Prosecution’s only significant witness is Raymond O’Connor and the Prosecutor who is relying on the jury to accept Raymond O’Connor’s version of events calls him: “an inveterate liar.”

During the trial the officer handling Raymond O’Connor says that he is unreliable.  Have the authorities formed a queue to shoot themselves in the foot?    The intelligence services may be unethical but they are not stupid.  They may have been embarrassed by their failure to apprehend Patrick Magee.    Raymond O’Connor showed  courage when he met the IRA leaders in Dublin. As an intelligence coup it was a breathtaking .  To understand the motivations of the Intelligence Services is like trying to understand the moves of a Grandmaster based on a  study of tiddlywinks.   One reason the  authorities wanted to distance themselves from Raymond O’Connor was that his  story was well there isn’t a word for it… hyperpreposterous.  According to Raymond O’Connor he was driven by conscience to report his step-son Thomas Maguire’s activities.  If we believe him the authorities let a casual informer motivated by conscience go over to Dublin to discuss an operation in the Fylde by the Provisionals.   Raymond O’Connor did more than discuss the project he initiated it by saying that the SAS and RUC trained at Weeton Barracks.

Let’s recap:  Raymond O’Connor contacts the police regarding suspicions about his son-in-law’s Republican inclinations.  The Investigators say: “Thank you for your concern and actually would you mind just popping over to Dublin and meeting leaders of the Provisional IRA and while your there you might…”

Raymond O’Connor was an Intelligence asset  before his meeting with  Thomas Maguire.  He suggested the Weeton Operation and he went to Dublin and  promoted the operation.  In other words he instigated the operation.  British Intelligence promoted the operation to draw in a skilled bomber and his contacts.

At a guess the Intelligence Services were hoping to locate a cache of explosives that the Provisionals had on the mainland.  If they located the cache…  and if there was to be a bombing Raymond O’Connor would have to have contact with the cache, they would not reveal its existence but keep it under surveillance.  In this way they could thwart IRA operations without the IRA understanding how this was done.  This in itself would create tensions because the Intelligence Services hinted that they had highly placed informants.   This may have been true or it may have been propaganda or both.

By a majority the jury found Thomas Magee Not Guilty.  The Jury knew a fishy story when they heard one.

The priority of the Intelligence Services was to locate an IRA explosives  cache and the priority of the Provisionals was to evaluate the reliability of the  Blackpool connection  possibly with  the Imperial Hotel as a target. The whole Weeton bombing plan might have been a red herring.   But who knows isn’t telling.

Patrick Magee was interested in the the Conservative Party Conference at the Imperial Hotel in October 1983.

As regards the trial it looks as if the Intelligence Services are not trying to convince the jury or anybody.

We do not know what happened to Raymond O’Connor.  He would need to assume a new identity and resettle in some other part of the country.  He would have been helped by British Intelligence.  We do not know what his partner, Thomas Maguire’s mother, thought about Raymond O’Connor giving evidence against her son Thomas Maguire. We do not know what went on in the mind of Raymond O’Connor.

We can  admire people we do not like or  understand  and Raymond O’Connor’s courage in meeting leaders of the Provisional IRA was a sensational  display of chutzpah.

Blackpool Serial Killers: Peter Manuel. Did Hannibal Lecter serve ice-creams on the Golden Mile?


When the Scottish actor Brian Cox portrayed Hannibal Lecter in Manhunt he based his performance on a study of Peter Manuel.  PETER MANUELMany unusual  people have walked on Blackpool’s Promenade including serial killers.  Myra Hindley, George Joseph Smith the Brides in the Bath Murderer and Scotland’s Peter Manuel. It is tempting to speculate about murderers.  What makes them different?  We imagine that they have greater powers, more insight, higher intelligence.  And there is a streak in many of us that admires the person who breaks the rules… Satan, Robin Hood, the Kray Twins…  The rules as we receive them are arbitrary, we did not make them and nobody consulted us.  When God told Adam and Eve not to eat the forbidden fruit, in the Bible it does not say it was an apple, it could have been a banana, He did not explain his reasons. Many murderers  have a belief in their own uniqueness and cleverness.  This makes it difficult for them to socialise.  People tend not to be charmed by people who not only believe they are cleverer than everybody else but are uninhibited about expressing this belief.   Many serial killers are clever and socially isolated. Take Peter Manuel.  At the time of his execution he was thirty-one on National Assistance and living with his parents.  He had not got a girl friend.

And yet he had previously been flown to London by the American Government to discuss secret conspiracies against the US government.

He was well-groomed, and strong.  He was five foot four with a tiny chest measurement.  He killed many times. He longed to belong to the world of gangs but he was rejected because he couldn’t keep his mouth shut. There is a hint that he was bullied when he was young.  He was a loyal son and confessed when the investigators put pressure on his family.  He slipped back to a house he had broken into to feed the family cat.  He killed at least  eight people.  One of the delights about studying crime is that we are trying to understand other people and other peoples’ minds are the strangest things the universe has to offer.

Peter Manuel was born in Manhattan in 1927.  The Depression eventually drove his parents back to Scotland in 1932. Peter was a clever lad but always at odds with authority.  From his earliest years he sought to be the centre of attention.  His father Samuel and his mother moved to England is search of work.  His father and mother shine out as being loyal and supportive towards their wayward son. Peter took to housebreaking and served time in Borstal. In 1945 Peter moved to Blackpool.  Blackpool offered casual work, plenty of opportunities for the unprincipled, accommodation and a tolerant attitude to working visitors.  He sometimes slept on the beach and drifted from job to job.  He worked in amusement arcades and as a street photographer.  He was on the fringes of the Blackpool Underworld, the promenade girls and the illegal gamblers. He showed off, smoking cigars and drinking brandy.  He once appeared with a gun.  In the end he annoyed everybody  by trying to steal a gang member’s girlfriend.  He was beaten up.  He returned to his parents. Although Peter was intelligent he was  annoying.  He had some knowledge of the law and he used this knowledge to confuse the authorities.  One of his odder characteristics was that when faced with imprisonment his crimes grew wilder and more frequent.  If reasoning was involved he possibly thought that the investigation would take place when he was in prison and therefore not a suspect.  Another explanation is that he was crazy. Faced with a spell in prison he committed a series of sex attacks in 1946.  At the age of nineteen he was charged with rape.  Peter Manuel chose to defend himself.  The court praised his defence but he was found guilty and sentenced to eight years imprisonment in addition to the twelve months he was already serving. In prison he read about the law and gave advice to convicts.  He was released in 1952 and it seemed rehabilitation was a possibility.  His ever supportive father got him a job with the Gas Board.  When released from prison he set out to ingratiate himself with the police, for example he gave information that led to the recapture of two escaped prisoners. In 1954 he met Anna O’Hara and fell in love. It is possible if things had taken a different turn that Peter would have become a good husband and father.  Peter always dressed impeccably and Anna was  attractive.  Nobody seeing Peter would guess his past included imprisonment.  He was polite and not a heavy drinker. Peter and Anne went to dances, listened to the radio, went to the cinema.  In 1955 they got engaged. They argued over religion.  Anna was a Catholic and although Peter’s family were Catholic he had given up.  If he loved Anna why did he not just pretend, it’s not as if he was a model of probity in other matters?  Maybe  he relished the role of outcast.  Peter was always gentle and polite with Anna.

On the day he was to have married he assaulted Mary McLachlan. She knew him slightly although not by name. Although he threatened Mary Maclachlan it is unclear whether he raped her.  There is a suggestion that he gained satisfaction by terrifying his victims. He was allowed to conduct his own defence.  The verdict was: “Not Proven.”  This convinced Peter Manuel that he could get away with anything, that he was simply cleverer than the authorities.  Peter Manuel’s gargantuan self belief accounts for his further actions.  It boosted his already considerable sense of immunity and self-importance.

A seventeen year old girl called Anne Kneilands was murdered on a golf course in East Kilbride on 2 January 1956.  She had been “criminally assaulted”, meaning that there was a sexual element in the crime.

The Watt family lived at 5 Fennsbrook Avenue in Burnside on the South side of Glasgow.  William Watt had gone for a fishing trip and was staying near Lochgiphead ninety miles from his home.  Mrs Marion Watt, her daughter 17 year old Vivienne and her sister Margaret Brown were found shot dead in their home.  Immediately the investigators suspected William Watt.  Their suspicions strengthened when two witnesses identified Mr William Watt driving to his home.  One witness went so far as to identify Mr Watt, his car and his dog.  The investigators employed a driver to demonstrate that Mr Watt could have driven from his hotel, killed his family and returned to his hotel without being missed.  Mr William Watts had no history of violence.  One problem was that the fuel in the car was not compatible with a round trip of nearly two hundred miles.  The investigators theorised that Mr Watt had hidden the fuel on the road and refilled his car.

Mr Watt was charged and spent 67 days in Bairnlinnie Prison.  It is a sobering thought that he could have been hanged on the identification evidence.  It was widely believed that he was guilty.

Eventually Mr Watt was released. Peter Manuel contacted Mr Watt’s solicitor saying that he had information about the murder from his criminal contacts.  What followed defies imagination.  Peter Manuel and William Watt had a series of meetings in which the crime was discussed and Peter Manuel claimed the crime had been committed by criminal acquaintances.

On Sunday 8 December 1957 a taxi driver called Sydney John Dunn shot dead at an isolated spot in County Durham.  He had driven a passenger from Newcastle earlier that morning.  Peter Manuel had been attending an interview at Newcastle.

17 year old Isabelle Cook disappeared in December 1957.  Her body was found on 16 January 1958. Peter Manuel lived close by.

On the 6 January 1958 the bodies of Peter Smart, Doris Smart and their son Michael aged 10  were found all shot in the head at their home at 38 Sheepburn Road.  They lived within walking distance of where Peter Manuel lived.  The were killed on January 1st.  Somebody had opened and closed the curtains and fed the cat whilst the dead bodies lay in their beds.  Peter Manuel had attended family parties  during this time and he had treated his family and friends.

Eventually missing notes were traced to Peter Manuel and he was arrested and charged.  He was charged with eight murders.  He offered to confess to spare his family pain.

After the beginning of the trial he dismissed his legal representatives and took over his own defence. The charge of murdering Anne Kneilands was dropped because of lack of evidence.   In some respects he conducted his defence with skill.  He revived the original investigators’ idea that William Watt had murdered his family and if this were the only crime he might have caused enough confusion to be acquitted.  He skilfully blended fact and fiction.

It was probably with some gratification that he heard the judge compliment him on his defence which was offset by the fact that he was sentenced to death.  His appeal failed and he was hanged by Harry Allen on 17 September 1958.  When the advocate was presented with evidence that Peter Manuel had an abnormal personality he expressed the view that Peter Manuel was: “Simply a bad man.”

There are unanswered questions.  Did Peter Manuel murder the taxi-driver Sydney Dunn?  The case that he did was that he was in the area at the time.  The case against: why would Peter Manuel murder Sydney Dunn  miles from any means of transport and how did he get away?  Numerous other crimes have been blamed on Peter Manuel.  He was the most dangerous kind of killer, abnormal enough to commit pointless crimes but normal enough not to draw attention to himself.

Peter Manuel is surely the oddest character to have worked in the Golden Mile at Blackpool.  In the theatre of the imagination we  can visualise him serving an ice-cream to the young Myra Hindley.

Your friendly local hangman

Could you have caught a train from Blackpool to see a public hanging in Lancaster?  Yes you could.  And you could have done that for nearly twenty years from 1846 until 1865.  This came as a surprise because we think of trains as part of a modern world and public hangings as something from a more distant past.  When the railway station was built in 1846 there were no sewers and so no flush toilets.  There was no running water.  The railway station would have had a public toilet which would have emptied into a cess pit.  This would have been occasionally emptied by night soilmen.  Basically these were men armed with a cart and a bucket and a shovel and one of their number would climb into the cess pit…

However that’s a whole other story.

Men and women were hanged in substantial numbers at Lancaster.  Hangings were on a Saturday which maximised  attendance and commercial opportunities.  Hangings were an early tourist attraction.  The people hanged were very rarely murderers.  On 13 September 1806 three sodomites from Warrington were executed along with two others for different crimes.   Two more of the Warrington sodomites were executed on Saturday 4 October 1806.

Would people have gone from Blackpool to see public hangings in Lancaster?  Sadly they definitely would.  Public executions were  popular events, the portrayal of executions was a mainstay of entertainment for years,  at Louis Toussauds.  Machines on the piers portrayed the execution of Mary Queen of Scots for the modest fee of one penny.  Mary was not only Elizabeth’s cousin but also her successor.  Elizabeth was often unpopular and Catholics looked forward  to her death.  The execution of Mary Queen of Scots prevented a Catholic Succession and increased the bitterness of some Catholics.  Half the remaining Catholics in England lived in Lancashire and a the Fylde was a Catholic stronghold.

Executions were free and  entertaining  social events and seeing a life end would give the audience a sense of the preciousness and the fragility of life.  The central act of Christianity  was an execution.

Blackpool’s first historian Thornber tells us of Leonard Warbreck from Layton acted as hangman after the unsuccessful Jacobite rising of 1745.  The rebels reached as far as Derby and retreated without a battle.  They occupied Lancaster and Preston for a time and Poulton people are said to have buried their valuables at Hounds Hill.  There may have been  local sympathy for Bonnie Prince Charlie and the possibililty of  a Catholic Succession.  Annoyingly William Thornber writes: “I shall not defile my paper with enumerating his crimes of wanton cruelty.”  So one of the first people from the Blackpool area we know about was a hangman.  A little later, again according to William Thornber, a man called Henry Hardicar from Little Poulton went to London to see the beheadings in London.  He seems to have gone the 235 miles on foot.  His comment was: “I saw the Lords heided.”

The  “Lords” were William Boyd, Lord Kilmarnock and Arthur Elphinstone, Lord Balmerino who were executed 18 August 1746.  They were almost the last persons to be beheaded in Britain.  The very last was Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat, on 9 April 1747.  He was about 80 years old and just as he was about to be decapitated he was amused when about 20 onlookers died following the collapse of a scaffold built to enable people to view his execution.  This is claimed to be the origin of: “laugh your head off.”

Until the beginning of the 19th Century hangmen were  recruited from amongst the poorest, they were often criminals themselves.  They supplemented their income by selling the hanged person’s clothes and by selling the rope as a souvenir.  In earlier times when there were religious executions they might sell bits of the executed person which would then be venerated by believers. Stonyhurst College has the largest collection of relics, basically bits of dead Catholic Martyrs, in England.  This is because a lot of Catholics were executed at Lancaster.  In the ninteenth century a new generation of scientific humane hangmen developed techniques minimise suffering.

Lancaster fought ferociously for its exclusive right to execute Lancashire people.  Not only the hangings but the holding of assizes in Lancaster were profitable.  However Manchester and Liverpool gained the right to hold Assizes and hangings.

What makes a person decide to become a hangman? It is intriguing to try to put oneself into another person’s mind.  The simplest explanation is that it was the money . Later hangmen were minor celebrities and commercialised aspects of their profession by selling their memoirs and managing pubs. A high proportion of hangmen came from the North West.

Throughout history executions have had a ritualistic element and this is true of modern hangings.  Since public hangings ended executions were carried out in prisons.  Hangmen took a pride in the swiftness and reliability of their work.  The person to be hung wore a different uniform from the other prisoners, it was grey.  The prisoner was constantly attended and an effort was made to keep them occupied.  The actual execution spot was as close as possible to the condemned cell.  In some cases it was actually attached to the condemned cell and connected by a door hidden by a wardrobe.  The rope would be delivered to the prison the day before the hanging.  Hangmen preferred a used rope because it was more elastic.  There was a table based on the weight of the prisoner which was used to calculate the “drop.”  Hangmen liked to observe the prisoner to make allowances for physique.  Sometimes the hangman would observe the condemned man at exercise or in his cell.  Sometimes the hangman was introduced to the condemned man although understandably  his role was not explained.  Condemned women wore canvas underwear at the hangings for reasons that will be explained later.  The prison doctor would  sedate the prisoner to ensure a quiet last night.  On the morning of the execution the prison clocks would be stopped to pacify the other inmates.  The hangman and his assistant would enter the condemned cell, pinion the prisoner, lead him to the scaffold, situate him on the trapdoor, put a hood over his head and smartly remove the pin that held the trapdoor in place.  It was claimed that the whole process could be done in seconds.  The prisoner would be left hanging for an hour and then removed and buried in the prison grounds.


Let me introduce three gentlemen who you would not like to meet in the morning.close-up-of-john-ellis-outside-his-shoppierrepointHarry Allen

The first is John Ellis, the Rochdale hangman, who hanged George Joseph Smith, the Brides in the Bath murderer and Frederick Holt.  Although he was conscientious and appeared to have nerves of steel he is said to have been disturbed by the hanging of Edith Thompson.  Edith Thompson was hanged for the murder of her husband.  Many people think that she was not guilty and that she was really hanged because of her behaviour.  Her lover Frederick Bywaters was also hanged.  Edith Thompson had to be carried to the scaffold in a chair and after the execution there was loss of blood caused by an haemeorrhage.  It is possible that she was pregnant.  Afterwards condemned women had to wear canvas underwear when hanged.   John Ellis took to drink.  This was an occupational hazard for hangmen.  A hangman that John Ellis assisted is said to have tried to hang the clergyman instead of the condemned man.  John Ellis  was also upset by having to hang an eighteen year old boy.

He returned to his job as hairdresser.  He had money troubles and increasingly took to drink.  After attempting suicide (which absurdly was a crime at the time) he succeeded in cutting his throat in 1932.

The second gentleman is Albert Pierrepoint who hanged Neville Heath.  He spent his honeymoon in Blackpool and went on to run pub in Southport.

Finally there is Henry Allen who hanged Louise Merrifield and James Hanratty.  He later retired to Fleetwood where he gave change on the pier.  Refreshingly he did not have regrets and said he never lost a moment’s sleep over his work.

Curious interactions Hiram Maxim, Blackpool Pleasure Beach and Lord Derby

Let us start with a quiz.  What do the following have in common?220px-Hiram_Maxim_Captive_Flying_Machines 220px-Maxim_machine_gun_Megapixie 220px-Maxim_portraitThe answer lies in the curious career of Hiram Maxim.  Hiram Maxim was a genius.

Who was responsible for the first heavier than air flight?  Who invented the lightbulb?  The answer is Hiram Maxim.  Whose invention shaped the First World War.  You’ve guessed it.

Hiram Maxim was born in the United States but came to Europe.  He was a prolific inventor and among his inventions were mousetraps, curling irons and the first automatic firesprinkler.  However he exprience a moment of enlightenment-if that is the right word- when in a hotel in Vienna a fellow American said:

“If you want to make money invent something that will enable these Europeans to cut each others throats with greater facility.”

So he did.

The Maxim Machine Gun was the first fully automatic portable machine gun.  It was produced in cooperation with Vickers, the same firm that later went on to make aircraft at Squires Gate Blackpool.  Because of its extraordinary firepower the Maxim Machine Gun was bought by all the major European Powers.  It also helped bring civilization to Africa where in the lines of Hilaire Belloc:

In the end we have got

The Maxim Gun and they have not.

So Hiram Maxim was a very rich man.  He was a friend of Edward V11.  His passion was developing heavier than air flight and he produced a magnificently steampunk aircraft which weighed 3.5 tons and was powered by steampower.  The prototype ran on rails and when it began to take off the experiment had to be aborted.  In order to finance his interest  in flight he produced the “captive flying machine.”  The one at Blackpool Pleasure Beach dates to 1904 and is the oldest operating ride in Europe.

In the First World War the Maxim Machine Gun and its successors changed the face of warfare.  In the past wars had been settled by a big battle such as Waterloo.  The combatants fought it out and everybody went home happy… except the dead.

However at the beginning of the First World War the British were confident that a single battle would settle the affair.  Their tactic was to shell the German lines and than attack.  But the cunning Hun were quick to work out that an artillery attack was a prelude to an infantry attack.  At an artillery attack they would withdraw or retreat to deep bunkers.  Then they would return to their lines and man their machine guns whilst the British Infantry approached across open space made more difficult by the earlier artillery attack.  Several thousand lives later the British and their allies realised this.  The machine gun had made attacking a great deal more expensive than defending and the opposing armies dug trenches and killed one another in the hope that the other side would run out of people.  The British High Command still talked chirpily about “one big push.”  Eventually the Germans and their allies did actually run out of people but it took a very long time and a great many lives.

The Derby family is one of the great English families.  They first came to prominence at the Battle of Bosworth where they played their cards cannily supporting the future Henry V11 at the last moment.  Supposedly a member of the family handed the future Henry V11 Richard 111’s circlet after the Battle of Bosworth.  If you know what a circlet is I suggest you get out more. A circlet is a kind of informal crown worn on more informal occasions such as when being killed at the Battle of Bosworth.  The Derby family continued to play cannily.  They briefly got unstuck during the Civil War when James was executed by the Parliamentarians following  war crimes at the Battle of Bolton.  He was executed at the scene of his crimes.

However the family soon recovered.  The Earl of Derby appears in Shakespeare’s Richard 111.  In fact some people believe  that the Earl of Derby wrote Shakespeare’s works.

Be that as it may the Derby family were enormously influential in Lancashire.  They were called the Kings of Lancashire and the fourteenth Earl was Prime Minister three times in the Nineteenth Century.  The family were the most prominent Conservative Family.  The family name was Stanley and Stanley Park, Derby Baths are all named in their honour.  Throughout Lancashire there are innumerable Stanley Arms and Derby Arms, testament to the  creepy obsequiousness of our ancestors.

In the First World War the problem was manpower.  Unlike the other belligerents Britain did not have conscription.

Lord Derby was the British War Minister from 1916 to 1918.  He had the idea that people from the same area might like to be pointlessly slaughtered amongst their friends so in a speech at Liverpool he proposed the idea of the Pals Regiments.  People flocked to enlist.

On the First of July 1916 700 of the Accrington Pals advanced on the village of Sere.  235 were killed and 350 wounded in twenty minutes in large part because of the invention of Hiram Maxim.  Subsequently the idea  of Pals Regiments was abandoned.  Lord Derby went on to play a part in the Versailles Peace talks.

Murder of John Gretrix, Old Meadows Lane, 1819


Do your recognise Old Meadows Lane?  Probably not.  It is an incospicuous lane off Whitegate Drive.  It is on the North Side of Whitegate Drive between Glenroyd Close and Knowsley Avenue.  One of Blackpool’s most prominent yeomen was murdered there in 1819.

Old Meadows Lane where John Gretrix was murdered in 1819

Old Meadows Lane where John Gretrix was murdered in 1819

The history of murder in Blackpool begins with a sensational murder of which we sadly know almost nothing. “Mr John Greatrix, who about eighteen or twenty years ago , was barbarously murdered on his return home from Preston market.” So wrote William Thornber in 1837. William Thornber was not a man of few words and it is striking that he passes over this incident so briefly. The spelling of the name is slightly different from the name on the burial record. John Gretrix was the tenant at Whinney Heys, the farm attached to one of the great halls of the area which dated back to Elizabethan times and is the site of Victoria Hospital.

What happened? Blackpool had a population of about 400 at the time. John Gretrix was 49 when he was buried on 27 January 1819 at St Chads in Poulton. What little we know is: The attack was brutal. The victim had been to Preston Market and may have had a drink before his death at the Saddle. The attack happened at Old Meadows Lane. Presumably the attack happened in darkness. If Blackpool was anything like it is now by tea-time the day after the murder everyone in Blackpool would know who did it. Or gossip would have named a murderer. To sum up: one of the leading farmers in the area had been murdered. Everyone would know John Gretrix. The silence is deafening.   William Thornber was interested in promoting Blackpool, he was the son in law of Henry Banks, the Father of Blackpool. He wanted to promote Blackpool as a Northern Bath where genteel families could enjoy the health benefits of an area famed for the longevity of its residents, not as somewhere where leading landowners are hacked to death on their way home.  If John Gretrix had been to Preston Market he must have been on a horse or a horse and cart. This makes an attack by more than one person more likely. Since it was dark when he was attacked he was probably followed. After all it would be an almighty coincidence if after dark a murderer out for a walk happened to bump into a yeoman on his way back from market. He would have recognised his attackers. Blackpool had a history of wrecking, smuggling and earlier still Catholicism and Jacobitism. Blackpool residents were unlikely to be forthcoming to the authorities. There would have been an inquest but the record is lost. For a generation the murder of John Gretrix must have been a source of gossip. It was the most significant crime in the emerging town. Every household would have named a suspect. The suspect would have greeted his neighbours who would have talked behind his back. The murderer may well have lived in the Blackpool until the 1860s or 1870s and taken his secret to the grave. Blackpool residents entertained themselves with tales of the headless boggart of Whitegate Lane. Later Whitegate Lane and Whitegate Drive as it became the most select part of Blackpool.  Most people in emerging Blackpool were farmers and either illiterate or near illiterate and there were two cultures: the polite culture of the wealthier with its dependence on writing and the popular culture which depended on the spoken word hence the strange fact that everybody in Blackpool, Layton, Marton and Hardhorn would have talked about the death of John Gretrix and  the murderer and the motive for many years and yet the subject is hardly written about at all.

A walk along Whitegate Drive shows the magnificent homes of early residents.  For example the magnificent  former Elmslie Girls School at 194 Whitegate Drive was built as a private home.   I am always intrigued by a gatepost near Old Meadows Lane.  It is not made out of stone, it is made out of metal.  Why?  I haven’t got the foggiest idea.  Edwina, the wife of Louis Mountbatten, lived in Whitegate Drive.  She later had an affair with Jawaharlal Nehru the first Indian Prime Minister and the successor to Gandhi.  The ever enterprising Lou Gannon who employed the Rector of Stiffkey wrote to Gandhi (and the Empress of Abyssinia) offering them a place amongst his “starving brides to publicise their cause.


One of John Gretrix’s sons, also called John, achieved permanent minor fame by being one of the Seven Men of Preston who signed Joseph Livesey’s declaration of 1832 which started the teetotal movement and the Temperance Movement.  He died in Preston on 30th December 1887 aged seventy nine.  It is tempting to believe that  temperance was a reaction to father’s intemperance.  But  we haven’t got the foggiest notion if this is true.

ROBERT PEEL The murder of John Gretrix was not investigated. There was no Police Force and the creation of a Police Force was the work of Robert Peel, an occasional visitor to Blackpool. Robert Peel was a phenomenon. He was the Prime Minister of Britain. He was a Tory. He came from the North West. It is said he had a Lancashire accent. Until the 18th Century Lancashire was the poorest part of England. It was undefended from the Scots. Unlike the East Coast there were few ports trading with the continent. It was sparsely populated and the land was boggy. It was traversed by rivers which made road traffic difficult. Until the 11th Century ordinary people spoke a form of Gaelic.   When Henry V1 was defeated at the Battle of Townton he wandered around the North West ignored at first and then betrayed, then imprisoned, then restored, then deposed, then murdered. As A J P Taylor said the History of England was the history of the South, at least until the 18th Century. But everything changed. The most neglected part of England the North West was the seat of the Industrial Revolution. The first canals, the first railways, the first engines, the first factories appeared in the North West. Previous Tory leaders had come from the landed gentry but Robert Peel’s grandfather was a small holder and textile salesman. Robert Peel’s father however was a factory-owner. He was a new class of person in England. He employed 15000 workers far more than the greatest landowner. The Tory Party and its successor the Conservative Party is the most formidable electoral machine on this planet.  Part of the brilliance of the Tories is to recognise and assimilate the new. So the Tory Party which had recently represented aristocratic landowners especially in the South came to choose a leader whose background was in manufacturing in the North West. Robert Peel Senior was a partner of William Yates and married William Yates’ daughter Ellen Yates. Wiliam Yates went on to buy land in North Shore… the Yates Estate and young Robert Peel, the future Prime Minister, used to visit his father and mother in law. The Yates estate is recalled in Yates Street and also in General Street. One of Yates’ sons became a general. Oddly Blackpool has another connection with the incident which changed British Law and also involved Robert Peel. Daniel M’naghten (the spelling varies but this is the most usual spelling) was the illegitimate son of a Glasgow landlord and wood turner. He was intelligent and able and anxious to improve his education. He was also a Radical. At some point he sold his business and eventually moved to London. It was here that he decided to shoot the Prime Minister Robert Peel. In 1843 he mistakenly shot  Robert Peel’s secretary, William Drummond. At first it seemed a slight wound but the secretary died five days later. One writer attributed William Drummond’s death to the actions of the Doctor rather than the assassin… he says that the Doctor bled the Secretary over enthusiastically. For centuries “bleeding” involved opening a vein and drawing blood off. The only effect of this operation is to reduce life-expectancy. It was not until the late nineteenth century that Doctors ceased to have a negative effect on life expectancy. At his trial it emerged that Daniel M’naghten believed that “the Tories” were following him. Possibly they were, it was a time of great unrest. The judge decided that he was not guilty because he was unable to understand his actions. When this was clarified by judges it became known as the M’naghten Rules. These rules have been part of our law since that time. So poor M’naghten lived out his days in an institution.

Meanwhile in Blackpool a Doctor was becoming prominent in the council and was photographed laying part of the tram track for the new tram system. He became Mayor of Blackpool twice in 1880 and 1885.  He lived in Queen Street. His name was Thomas McNaughton and he was the half-brother of Daniel M’naghten.