Month: January 2015

Blackpool: Murder at the Foxhall



The Foxhall Hotel

The Fox Hall was the first substantial new building in Blackpool. It was built in the later 17th Century. Edward Tydesley was the son ot Thomas Tyldesley a leading Royalist who was killed at the Battle of Wigan Lane in 1651.  The Tyldesley family  hoped to benefit from the Restoration.  Charles 11 has promised to reward his followers who had suffered in the Civil War for their support of the King.  The family  hoped that they would be awarded Layton Hawes the common land shared by Layton and Marton.  Charles 11 did not carry out his promise, probably distracted by affairs of state.

The Foxhall became a centre of Catholicism and of Jacobite resistance when the Stuarts were Unrestored.  The obscurity of its location discouraged attention and the Fylde was amongst the most Catholic areas of England. The adventurous Thomas Tydlesey the son of Edward besides supporting Catholics and Jacobites was involved in smuggling from the Isle of Man where duty was not charged on spirits and wine.

The building became a hotel.  It was demolished as recently as the 1980s and replaced by a distressing “Fun Disco”.

cernunnos 1The Foxhall “fun disco.”

There is something poetic about the fact that Blackpool’s first major new  building is the site of almost  its first murder.  John Gretrix was murdered in 1819 in Old Meadows Lane just off Whitegate Drive.  But the murder in 1895 is  fully recorded. There is  a novelistic quality.  Does life imitate art?  I haven’t got the foggiest notion but the reporting of the crime does seem to be influenced by detective novels.  The “detective” was becoming a literary device and there were detective stories where the problem required abstruse thinking.

Although it is distant in time the people who suffered were as real as we are and their sorrows and dismay at their fate were as real as our feelings.  Over the whole affair there is a veil of melancholy.

John Toomey was fifty six  years old.  He worked with his wife at the Foxhall Hotel.  It was October 1895 and the end of the season and John Toomey was given his notice.  His wife Sarah was not given her notice.  They had been married for thirty years.  It had not been a happy marriage and John had deserted his wife a number of times and co-habited with other women and travelled to the United States.  In spite of this they had six children.

John had worked as a packer in the Hulme area of Manchester.  He was very jealous of his wife and believed she was cohabiting with two of the waiters at the Foxhall.  He was regarded as a good worker and their quarrels were not apparent to other workers. On Friday 11 October John Toomey bought a knife at a shop in Foxhall Road.  He explained that he was going to the United States and that he wanted it for hunting.

October had been a month of exceptional storms.  The bodies of three people were washed up near the Imperial on Saturday October 5.

On Sunday  13 October there was a merry lunch for the staff at the Foxhall.  In spite of the fact that it was the last day for some of the workers the atmosphere was good humoured and John and his wife Sarah were the most jovial.  After lunch the staff went for a nap.  Sarah went upstairs around 12.35 pm.  John had a cigar and a glass of stout before going upstairs.  He was last seen at 2.35pm.

Sarah usually made tea for the staff and when she didn’t appear the staff made their own tea which they enjoyed as a novelty.  They laughed that Sarah had overslept and one of the waiters, Joseph Smith,  went to wake her at 5.50.

In her room she lay on the floor.  It was assumed that she had fallen until it was realised that her throat had been cut and she had nearly been decapitated.

John was young looking for his 56 years and had a luxuriant moustache.  From later witnesses we know that he walked to the Red Lion at Bispham where he had a drink and a cigar.  This is a considerable walk for anybody.  It is about five miles.   What thoughts went through his mind on that strange journey?  Did he regret his act?

At the Red Lion at about 5.00pm  he asked the Landlord if he could entrust someone with an errand.  The errand was to deliver two pounds and fourteen shilling plus his watch to his daughter Lucy Morris in Freckleton Street.    William Brooks a cellerman at the Palatine Hotel who  lived in Moon Street  volunteered to perform the errand and set off to Revoe where John Toomey’s daughter lived.  John Toomey said that he was going to Fleetwood to catch a ferry to Belfast.   After an hour he left.

William Brooks arrived in Revoe just about the same time that Sarah’s body was being discovered at the Foxhall.  When William Brooks delivered the money and his gold watch she feared the worst and said: “I don’t want the money, I want my mother.”  She hurried to the Foxhall Hotel.

Later at the inquest Lucy said that John had threatened to cut Sarah’s head off and throw himself in the sea.  This had happened a few times and it was not a happy marriage.  John had seemed a bit strange lately. He was especially upset that she would not link arms with him when they went for a walk on the Promenade the previous Sunday.  John Toomey, the son, said: “There never was a better woman.”

John Toomey Senior’s fellow workers said he was: “a steady hard working reliable fellow though rather strange at times.”

It was clear that John had murdered Sarah and a watch was kept on ships at Fleetwood but no trace of John appeared.  His jacket was discovered in a field at Bispham.  It was thought that he might have thrown himself in the sea.

Rumour had alternative explanations.  One was that John had taken spare clothes on his flight from the Foxhall and his talk of catching a ferry to Belfast was a red herring.  He had left the jacket to confuse his persuers.  Another theory was based on the fact that John had a connection with in amateur theatricals.  John had disguised himself as a woman and caught the ferry or otherwise escaped in disguise.

On Thursday 17 October Sarah’s funeral took place.  She was carried from her daughter Lucy’s house to the Promenade and then to Talbot Road and Layton Cemetery.

There were developments.  On  Friday 18 October  a man fitting John’s description was found at Clarence Gardens in London.  He had shot himself through the left temple.   John’s brother lived in London where he sang in a Catholic Choir.  He had not seen John for years and another  friend identified the body at St Pancras Mortuary as John Toomey.

At Blackpool Chief Constable Derham, who had recently been in trouble with the Council for appointing his son as a P.C. asked for further identification. John had injured his toe in his job as a packer and this would provide more conclusive identification.

But it was not to be because John Toomey’s body was washed up at Rossall on Monday 28 October.  It was taken to Fleetwood Mortuary and identified by his daughter.  John’s features had been distorted by the sea but he was identified by the injury to his toe.

The inquest on John Toomey found that he had committed suicide.  John’s son, also John, gave evidence that suggested that he might have been mentally ill but the Coroner said that there was no evidence that this was the case.

Something about this case fills us sadness.  It is the thought of John Toomey tramping to Bispham to stop off at the Red Lion for a final drink and a cigar before drowning himself.    Did his mind go back thirty years to when he married Sarah.  At one time they must have loved one another.  And when he sent money to his daughter was he trying to tell  his children that he still loved and cared for them?  He was not a good father and he was not a good husband but  he was surrounded by circumstances out of his control.   His brother was a Catholic and sang in the choir at his church.  Did John recall his Catholic youth and  the words: “Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.”

If he went straight from the Red Lion to drown himself at Bispham he would be dying at about the same time that his wife’s body was discovered.

He was buried without a ceremony at Layton Cemetery on Thursday 31st October.   The unidentified man in St Pancras Mortuary… what was his story?  We will never know but we guess that he had an interesting if not a happy life that led him to that strange place.

Blackpool: Owen Oyston rapist or victim?


Owen Oyston is a colourful character.  He was born in 1932 ,  attended St Joseph’s College, Blackpool and briefly had a career as an actor.  He appeared in the television series “Crown Court.”  However he made a great deal of money through his Estate Agency in the 70’s and 80’s.  He sold his estate agency in 1987.  His business interests included cable television. In 1990 he took over the chairmanship of Blackpool Football Club.  In 1996 he was offered control of Manchester United but refused because it would mean abandoning Blackpool Football Club.

In 1996 he was convicted of rape and sentenced to six years in prison. Owen Oyston was not a typical entrepreneur.  He was a supporter of the Labour Party, its biggest individual donor, he supported the miner’s strike and he was a major financial backer of News on Sunday, a brief and unsuccessful attempt to launch a Socialist popular newspaper.


He attracted the attention of Michael Murrin. Michael Murrin had owned a fish and chip shop in Longridge.  He moved to Preston where he pursued his obsession with investigating Labour Party councillors and activists. Chris More, a private investigator who worked for Michael Murrin, said that he was “a nutcase.”  Michael Murrin was an obsessive character but occasionally his intuitions may have been right.  He was convinced that there was a paedophile ring operating in the Establishment.  He named Jimmy Savile at an earlier stage.  He was  a man on a mission and his particular mission was exposing corruption amongst Socialists. He conducted investigations using his own money and later he was able to attract funding from backers.  Owen Oyston was a particular object of his  interest.  A straightforward right-wing businessman might well feel antagonism to Owen Oyston.  In addition Murrin was convinced that Owen Oyston was involved with a “Preston Mafia” of Labour Councillors  who were developing Preston Docks.  He conducted investigations and sent dossiers to government ministers.  There was a criminal investigation which did not find evidence of criminal activity.  Michael Murrin also instigated investigations into Liverpool Council which also failed to find evidence.  Over the years Michael Murrin must have instigated dozens of criminal investigations which  failed through lack of evidence. In the course of his investigations he employed Chris More.  Chris More was a private investigator and one of   the most talented hackers in Britain.  He was able to use his skills to illegally obtain access to a range of documents including Owen Oyston’s tax return. Chris More went on to work for Rupert Murdoch’s News International.  The investigation into the “Preston Mafia” who included Frank McGrath  came to nothing.  There may well be no connection with the fact that the  builder involved in the development of Preston Dock was a  Conservative Party donor.


However Michael Murrin, through his interest in Owen Oyston, attracted  financial support for further investigations from three characters, Peter Blaker, Robert Atkins and Bill Harrison.  Peter Blaker was the MP for Blackpool South.  He had a natural interest in discrediting Owen Oyston because they were rivals in the development of cable television.  Robert Atkins was the MP for South Ribble and a close friend of John Major.


Bill Harrison was a successful Lancashire Property Developer.  He had leased a site near Marton Mere and developed it as a caravan park.  The site was leased from Blackpool Borough and Bill Harrison’s was the sole tender.  The deal was criticised by the Sunday Times and by the Caravan Owners Association.

The Conservative leader of  Lancashire Council was Len Broughton. Margaret Thatcher and other Conservative Ministers often stayed at Bill Harrison’s Preston home.

In 1975 Bill Harrison’s daughter was involved in a car accident in Kirkham in which two young women pedestrians were killed.  Bill Harrison rang Len Broughton to ask for details of the Lancashire Chief Constable.  Bill Harrison contacted the Chief Constable, Stanley Parr.  Subsequently Bill Harrison’s daughter was charged with careless driving rather than the more serious charge of causing death by dangerous driving.  Subsequently this was part of a series of charges against Stanley Parr which led to his dismissal in 1977.

Bill Harrison may have blamed Owen Oyston for the publication of an article about the case.  Whatever the reason Michael Murrin, Peter Blaker, Robert Atkins and Bill Harrison continued to investigate Owen Oyston and to report their findings to interested parties such as the Inland Revenue.  This must have caused annoyance and inconvenience to Owen Oyston but nothing substantial was discovered.

Michael Murrin’s efforts had been expensive and he was close to bankruptcy.  He was threatened with a libel case by Owen Oyston and the two men met at Owen Oyson’s home.  Michael Murrin apologised and offered Owen Oyston tapes of his conversations with Peter Blaker, Robert Atkins and Bill Harrison.  The tapes were evidence that there had been a conspiracy to undermine Owen Oyston and  could form the basis of a legal action against Atkins, Harrison and Blaker.  The three had given financial support to obtain information about Owen Oyston by illegal means.  It may not be entirely a coincidence that shortly afterwards Robert Atkins resigned as Countryside Minister to spend more time with his family.



And  shortly before the legal case was to be heard Owen Oyston was arrested and charged with rape.  For Atkins, Harrison and Blaker this was convenient. Owen Oyston did not deny that he had used his wealth and power to seduce young women.  We may feel that this is unethical but then again we have probably never been faced with that temptation. The circumstances of the charges against Owen Oyston  give rise to suspicion. Owen Oyston was charged on two rape charges. The charges involved two separate trials.  Some people may think that this was a shrewd move on the part of enemies of Owen Oyston because if he had been tried on both counts at the same trial it might have appeared obvious that the charges were groundless.  Because of the rules regarding anonymity the two victims are referred to as “A” and “B”.

The case of “A” collapsed because  she lied.  She had been Oyston’s mistress before and after the alleged rape.  This does raise the question of why she was prepared to put herself through this ordeal.  The only explanation I can think of is that she was offered inducements by people eager to convict Owen Oyston.  Who by?

The second trial resulted in a conviction.  The jury had difficulty reaching a verdict and since it is impossible that they were unaware of other charges against Owen Oyston they may have reached their verdict on a “no smoke without a fire” basis.  It is true that Owen Oyston used his money and influence to have relations with young girls on an industrial scale.  The jury may have felt he was generally sleazy.  But would a man with all the young girls he could deal with bother with the inconvenience of rape?

Owen Oyston was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison. There are reasons to doubt the conviction. The girl, “B”,  was sixteen at the time.  She had a history of drug misuse including hallucinogenics which may have impaired her memory.  She was offered immunity from prosecution regarding her drug-taking.   “B” was unable to supply a date for the rape.  She could not say what month or year it had taken place.  The girl’s friend who was with her denied her version of events and said afterwards that she would believe for the rest of her life that an injustice had been done.  “B”  was  given a sum of money as an out of court settlement for psychological damage.  She benefitted financially. “B”  did not make an accusation at the time and the accusation was made more than two years after the event.  There was no medical or forensic evidence that the event had taken place. Owen Oyston not only denied the rape but denied having sexual intercourse with the victim. He  admitted having had sexual intercourse with other girls of a similar age.

In other cases a line of defence would be that consensual intercourse had taken place.  This would be hard to disprove.  Owen Oyston did not admit guilt  though this would have helped him to obtain early release through parole. Nobody knows if Owen Oyston is guilty except himself and the girl “B” but  the evidence does not establish that Owen Oyston was guilty “beyond reasonable doubt.”

Imagine a murder trial being conducted on the basis of the evidence of a sixteen year old heavy drug user with no body, no date, the witness only recalling the event four years after it took place and her evidence being disputed by the only other witness. Imagine that she stood to benefit by giving evidence.  And finally imagine that the source of the accusation was not a police investigation but evidence obtained by illegal methods by an unsavoury band of obsessives and business rivals.  Something not right there.

The Chief Constable Stanley Parr was dismissed after an enquiry.  He was subsequently fined following a motor accident which he appears to have tried to conceal by implying that his car was stolen at the time of the accident.  Frank McGrath the alleged member of the “Preston Mafia” investigated by Michael Murrin was later imprisoned for money laundering for a drugs baron, Chris More the private investigator was imprisoned for helping the escape of  his son who was accused of murdering a cannabis farmer in Cheshire.   Michael Murrin continues to write letters to the Queen.

The evidence that Owen Oyston was guilty of rape is questionable.  It is not questionable that he attracted prolonged hostile attention from a group of right wing Conservatives who used  illegal methods and had motivations ranging from business rivalry to political antagonism.  If you think Owen Oyston is sleazy take a look at his opponents.    These men were not acting in the interests of justice.  They used  influence to escape justice and to break the law.   They were using their wealth to pursue a man whose politics they disapproved of.  If they were keen to seek out corruption they need not look  far.

It is worth reflecting that whilst  efforts were made to convict Owen Oyston on questionable charges accusations of Jimmy Savile and Cyril Smith  did not result in action.  To defend an accused rapist is not to defend rape but to say that in this specific case the evidence would not be acceptable in any other case such as fraud.  You do not need to admire  Owen Oyston to realise that his crime was supporting Left Wing causes and incurring the wrath of rivals in the property development and cable television business.


Sources The most coherent account of the events is an article in “Lobster” Winter 1998 issue 34 by Andrew Rosthorn which is the basis for much of this article.  Available online.  A  concise summary of the case is made by Workington MP Dale Campbell-Savours in Hansard 5 March 1998, available online.