THE MOST CROOKED TOWN IN BRITAIN?
BLACKPOOL IN ITS GOLDEN AGE: 1940-1970’s
The years after the War were a glorious time for Blackpool. Blackpool was the most crooked town in Britain. Blackpool’s post-war days were years of endemic surreal comic dishonesty. Dishonesty became the norm. The material comes from Rupert Croft-Cooke’s “Smiling damn’d villain,” and from the Gerald Mars’ recollections of growing up in Blackpool: “The making of an anthropologist.”
Paul Lund twice came to Blackpool when he was released from prison in the 40’s and 50’s. He came to Blackpool because : “Anybody could make money there.” Paul Lund was not alone. If you were released from prison, or a mental institution, or had a dubious discharge from the services, or were on the run Blackpool was the place to go. You could get a job on the Pleasure Beach. Tax and National Insurance were alien concepts to small businesses in Blackpool. Thirteen year olds worked in cafes. Wages were minimal. But there were compensations.
Paul Lund was not interested in working in a bar. An aspect of the Second War is the criminalisation of masses of formerly respectable people. Rationing was an opportunity for profiteering. The Blitz was a chance to loot. Military Stores were a source for theft. Many people especially young men were thrust into a world were traditional values did not apply. In Blackpool young men outnumbered young women. The war and the subsequent years constituted a Golden Age for Blackpool prostitution. Paul Lund describes a shooting in a Blackpool Bar. Scarface Jock, a former associate of Billy Hill the more successful and intelligent precursor of the Krays, was arrested. Scarface Jock was with Blackpool Mary at the time. Blackpool Mary was the sister of Madge Leadbetter who was later murdered in York Street. Scarface Jock was involved in protection which was the characteristic gang crime of the time. A stallholder on the Golden Mile could have his business disrupted. He (or she etc…) paid no tax and employed under-age workers. Easier just to pay.
Paul Lund made a good living in Blackpool. He stole and sold rationed goods. The Summer Season of 1945 was Blackpool’s busiest ever. Blackpool was far and away the premier resort. Other resorts had closed down during the war but Blackpool had thrived boosted by the Civil Servants and the Forces based.
Imagine you owned an ice-cream factory or a rock factory. Sugar is rationed. Demand is sky-high. You need to get sugar or lay off workers and lose money. That’s where Paul Lund came in. I would guess that the Police were busy enough and that small businesses were well represented in the Council and nobody bothered much. So Paul Lund would steal sugar and sell it to factory owners. He would steal cooking fat and sell it to fish and chip shop owners.
Small businessmen, the backbone of the local Conservative Party and the Council benefit from crime. The Council benefits from crime. Crime partially finances the The Police Service.
GERALD MARS: THE MAKING OF AN ANTHROPOLOGIST
Gerald Mars came to Blackpool when he was about 11 and went to Palatine School. He came from an industrial area of Manchester. His first experience is that instead of playing football the lads are playing brag or pontoon for money and the older lads are selling nylons and silk ties out of attache cases. If they hadn’t got an item they would take an order. Money-making is highly regarded. Children work in cafes and boarding houses and at the rackets that work the Golden Mile. Children will work for nothing because they are learning a highly-regarded skill. Children tout boarding houses to queues.
Gerald Mars eventually works on the Pleasure Beach and the Golden Mile. The main rackets are mock auctions. This involves an auction of highly-prized goods such as televisions at bargain prices. The valuable goods are not really sold but a “gee,” a stooge bidder, is sold the goods. A good salesman: “a barker”, will build a mood of excitement like an evangelical preacher. A large excitable crowd adds to an atmosphere of reckless bidding for ordinary goods.
Highly-regarded Fortune Tellers on the Golden Mile are experts at “cold-reading.” You can tell a lot about a person from a brief careful observation. You might be able to guess class, occupational range, wealth, likely relationship status. If you can make statement that everybody will agree with such as: “Beneath the surface you are a deep thinker. Your friends would be surprised.”
The most skilled cold-readers can uncover personality traits through unrelated questions. On the whole the Fortune-Teller can impress a client and will give the client general positive advice. It may not be a coincidence that Sigmund Freud visited Blackpool twice.
Gerald also draws the lines of conflict. A stall holder who employs staff will be robbed. So he will employ another person to watch the first person. The two employees will then conspire to rob the stall-holder. A capable staff member will minimise his theft by increasing the number of customers which is in the interest of the stall holder. There is an unstated contract: the stallholder is robbed within a range.
In kitchens in the hotels food and cutlery are redirected to the homes of employees. Management reacts by threatening a “purge.” One kitchen worker recalls that in fear of a “purge” she dug a hole in the garden to bury plates and cutlery only to discover previously buried items.
On the Golden Mile barkers entice customers to shows. There is the Palace of Strange Girls where naked women have to stand still to comply with the law. There is the Russian Hermaphrodite.
Gerald recalls that one show featured a Peruvian Amazonian Lizard. A helpful academically inclined visitor pointed out that the Amazon does not flow through Peru and was told to:”Just piss off.”
In bars staff could make three times their wages through fiddles. These involved giving customers cheaper drinks, short measures and fiddling the cost of drinks. Waiting-on staff had more opportunities and so had to “pay off” bar staff.
On trams staff had ways of avoiding stops so that they could maximise break-time. There were ways of fiddling fares but Gerald avoided these because the Corporation would not tolerate it. Anecdotally I was once told by a former tram-conductor that he had researched his ticket machine and found out where the rivets that held it together had come from. He had ordered the rivets and then he took the machine apart, adjusted it, and re-assembled it. As a result he and his driver doubled their wages. He had to increase the number of travellers to compensate.
Landladies have been dealt with by J.K. Walton (the Blackpool Landlady) . Their activities illustrate the ferocious competitiveness that drove the market and that made Blackpool attractive to working-class visitors through low prices. These included only spreading margarine at the edge of a piece of toast that had a fried egg on it and charging for salt and pepper: “cruet money. ”
Gerald Mars describes Blackpool as “crimongenic.” Because criminal activity is normal in so many lives it ceases to feel “wrong.” There are a number of factors: low wages , the lack of a trade-union movement in hotels and cafes, employers often do not pay National Insurance or Tax and employ people on a cash basis making Blackpool attractive to ex-prisoners or other people on the run, the turnover of staff and customers does not encourage relationships based on trust , many workers have to make as much as they can during the season to survive during the Winter months, unlike factory production which is more cooperative, work in small businesses is competitive.
There is a surreal quality. In the summer sun visitors have a sense of unreality and well-being as they eat ice-creams which include stolen black-market sugar, on the Golden Mile Behind the scenes workers are vigorously robbing them and each other. Blackpool’s iconic symbol the Tower began life as a business scam and became a reality through the heroic shrewdness and determination of John Bickerstaffe.
Overlooking this festival of criminality was Blackpool Council. Blackpool Citizens did not have great expectations of their council. The council was run by the Conservatives. Although there was Liberal and Labour representation on the Council it was overwhelmingly Conservative. Cards on the table I am a bigot of the Left. but if one party is in power it encourages corruption. In Preston the former Leader of the Council, a Labour Party member, was imprisoned for money laundering for a drugs baron. Interestingly Frank McGrath was investigated previously by the former fish and chip shop owner and according to his employee “nutter” Michael Murrin over accusations that he benefited from residential developments at Preston Dock.
This investigation stopped: the builder was a donor to the Conservative Party.
Back to the point.
START AS YOU MEAN TO GO ON
One of the first acts of the Blackpool Local Board, set up in 1851, the forerunner of the Council, was to sell Blackpool Market to the Council. The Market was in Market Street close to the Town Hall. The market was owned by a syndicate of local businessmen and was sold for more than its share value. The Local Board included members of the syndicate.
The Local Board did notable things. They installed a sewage system. There was opposition from farmers. “Them fancy flush toilets are for benefit of hotels and visitors.” What was wrong with having a giant sewage gathering pit where Blackpool FC now plays?
Although early Blackpool’s reputation for health and longevity encouraged early tourism life expectancy was shorter in Blackpool.
Blackpool was able to benefit from water from the Fells which was piped to Lytham St Annes and to Blackpool as an afterthought. Before that water came from pumps and wells.
I hope to deal with the sewage problem another time but the pig population of Blackpool was half the human population and animals were slaughtered and remains thrown into Spen Dyke or one of the other dykes that ran into the sea (in those days butchers bought and killed animals at the back of shops).
Blackpool Corporation had a piratical, original, imaginative approach to its work. The purchase of gasworks, the tram system which enabled the development of suburbs, the Illuminations and the brilliant use of publicity were achievements. The quality of schools was high. The Council was Conservative. Councillors represented,often were, local businesses and appreciated Blackpool’s dependence on the tourist industry. Builders, brewers and entertainment were major interests. Builders had a snug relationship with council officials either ignoring planning regulations or building outside the Borough, say in Ibbotson Street, to a lower standard. Blackpool had a “can do” attitude and council officials minimised their interference with enterprise. Law enforcement was subordinated to tourism which largely financed law enforcement. Beggars, especially beggars from other parts of the country, would be shortly dispatched to prisons or workhouses. There was a tolerant attitude to drunkenness and prostitution if it did not obstruct business. Blackpool had a gay community before similar sized towns.
(I would appreciate any reminiscences. The Gay History of Blackpool should be recorded.)
The Police understood that tourism was to be encouraged.
Blackpool had its highest number of visitors on a single day in August 1945. The One Party State that was Blackpool became a source of finance for Councillors. Was their activity criminal? Like so much in Blackpool it was borderline. When corruption was investigated it was never proved. Imagine the scenario: Councillor A would submit a contract to supply meat to the Corporation and would conscientiously not vote. Councillor B would submit a contract to supply dairy products to the Council but declare his interest. Councillor A would vote for Councillor B’s submission and so on. Agreements would be made when tenders were submitted and contracts would be allocated.
There would be informal contacts between Councillors, council staff and the Police. The Derby Family, their family name was Stanley, were the foremost Conservative family, they sponsored Conservative Clubs and Masonic Institutions.
There was a “Blackpool Way of doing things.”
This is speculation. I have talked to ex-Councillors who have confirmed that corruption was rife but that there were no persecutions because evidence is lacking. The councillor I spoke to recalled suicides.
There are events that cast a sidelight.
Although the Conservatives had a near monopoly of power there was a short period when the Liberals were in power. In post war Blackpool the main opposition to the Conservatives was from the Liberal Party. Charges of “corruption” are often a way of discrediting opponents.
On Monday 19 December 1955 Trevor Jones of Newton Drive Blackpool saw his wife off with a friend shopping in Manchester. Some time during the day he shaved, dressed immaculately including his spectacles, took 40 phenobarbitone pills, drank half a bottle of whiskey, went to bed and covered himself to his shoulders in the bedcover. At 5.3o his wife Mary returned to find his body.
Trevor Jones was the Borough Clerk of Blackpool. He led a full and interesting life. He was the brother in law of Amy Johnson who had spent her last night alive at the house in Newton Drive.
In 1955 the Liberals were threatening an investigation into corruption in the Council. Trevor Jones may have felt that he would be implicated. If the legality of a contract was at issue he would have been asked his opinion. With an enquiry looming and believing that he would be the scapegoat he got into a state.
A burning cigarette was left in the centre of a chair in the Mayor’s parlour and in the Lady Members Room. It may be that this was Trevor Jones’ symbolically expressing his rebellion and resentment. There was no fire and in normal times this would be ignored.
But these were not normal times. “Mystery fires to be investigated,” was the headline in the Gazette and a Special Committee was set up to investigate. Trevor Jones stayed off work and gave an interview to a national paper where he talked about “a snakepit.” He claimed he had been getting phone calls accusing him of accepting bribes.
He was in a state and like many of us when he was in a state he responded by making matters worse.
He committed suicide.
This was a gift for the Conservatives because it distracted attention from the corruption allegations . He could also be blamed if any questions were asked.
When the the final report was studied, in private, in 1958 it was found that Councillors had awarded themselves £250000 of contracts.
WHY DID THE POLICE CHIEF AND HIS DEPUTY RESIGN?
Gerard Mulholland stood as Liberal Parliamentary Candidate. He has since died. He has this to say:
“The then Tory Housing Chairman was the person designated to collect the bribes for planning permissions and for night club (and some other liquor) licences which in some cases were paid in the form of suitcases stuffed full of used notes handed over out at low tide at Squires Gate under the watchful protecting eye of the constabulary parked at the end of the promenade.”
As they drove to Squires Gate the Housing Chairman may have passed Mixie Walsh’s colleagues collecting from stalls on the Golden Mile. Were they in in the same business?
We have no way of verifying this. However resignations did follow shortly after the report into corruption in February 1958. The Chief Constable Harry Barnes resigned in June and his deputy in July. The allegations were discussed in a “closed meeting.”
Following the resignations Stanley Parr became the Chief Constable of Blackpool and subsequently of Lancashire and his career gives us an insight into how Blackpool worked.
THE OWEN OYSTON AFFAIR
I have already written about this in my blog: “Owen Oyston: Rapist or victim?” My argument is that there is something disquieting about the trial (trials really) of Owen Oyston. He was targeted by an emetic right-wing cabal of business rivals, political enemies and a “nutcase”, using illegal methods.
I will focus on the part that casts light on how things were done. Bill Harrison was a local builder and businessman. He developed the caravan site at Mereside. He was awarded the contract without competitive tender in a move that was criticised in “The Times.” His daughter ran over and killed two young women pedestrians on the Kirkham by-pass. Bill Harrison rang up the Conservative Leader of Lancashire Council, Len Broughton, who advised him to contact the Chief Constable of Lancashire Stanley Parr.
Subsequently the charge against the daughter was reduced from “causing death by dangerous driving” to “dangerous driving.”
Following a complaint by one of his officers Stanley Parr was dismissed as “unfit to hold high office.” He had been promoted from Chief Constable of Blackpool to Chief Constable of Lancashire. It is possible that he did not realise that he could not behave in the same way in Lancashire.
The charges against Stanley Parr were that he intervened to help friends. He was at war with traffic wardens because he routinely cancelled charges against his friends. He misused police vehicles using them to take his wife shopping, to buy fish from Fleetwood fish market and drive his family to airports for their holidays.
He had “unsuitable acquaintances.”
And there was the odd incident of the Mayor’s love triangle. The Mayor, James Hessey had an affair with a woman called Eileen Atherton. Her lover Lesley Henshaw threatened to shoot her if she saw the Mayor again. Lesley Henshaw was arrested and committed suicide in his cell.
What are we to make of this? Stanley Parr may have seen his job as above all to smooth the way for the council and financial hierarchy in Blackpool.
There is a tragi-comic postscript. After he was fired Stanley Parr was attending a meeting. His car was involved in two minor accidents. He claimed that his car had been stolen before the accidents happened. He was not believed and he was fined. At his funeral it was said that he had risen to great heights and had a great fall. He did not believe that he had done anything wrong.
MOVING UP THE SOCIAL SCALE
I cannot resist including this final episode because it illustrates how, in Blackpool, crime runs through the town like… I’m not going to say it…
There is a term “liminal” which means “on the threshold.” It is used in psychology and anthropology and to be frank I don’t understand it. But things happen at the margins that do not happen in other places. Blackpool is at the margin. The next thing to the West is the Irish Sea. It may be that because of its reputation people behave in Blackpool in a more uninhibited way.
The plot to kill (or not kill) Norman Scott by Jeremy Thorpe’s associates was hatched in the Imperial Hotel amidst striptease artistes.
I mention the Imperial Hotel because that is where, in 1987, according to Anthony Gilberthorpe, he was sent out to find rent boys for a drug and sex party at The Imperial during the 1983 Conservative Party Conference . There are few other towns in England where drugs and rent boys were so readily available and Anthony’s quest took fifteen minutes.
The Provisional IRA may have studied the Imperial Hotel, their most accomplished bomber had been in Blackpool earlier in the year, and the rent boys were given passes and whisked past the Police cordon.
THE STRANGENESS OF BLACKPOOL
It has to be said that in its Golden Age of Crime contrary to expectations Blackpool was a fun place to live. People enjoyed minor crime. There was an exciting frenzy of enterprise. And crime is a form of enterprise. Many people had a shady side to their lives. They used black-market goods, employed under-age workers, cheated their customers. But it was done with panache and good humour.
Money makers were role-models, exemplars. You would think all this borderline crime would make for a dysfunctional society. But this was not the case. Without legal sanctions people had a sense of where the limits lay. Protection gangs had to judge how much they could take from stall-holders without resistance. Kitchen workers had to steal enough to feed their family but not arouse suspicion. Everybody knew everybody else was at it. It was like a Hindu Festival or the flight of starlings at sunset : it organised itself… kind of…
There was not much violence in Blackpool. Heroin and poverty had not transformed the town. Economic prosperity seemed guaranteed. Just a few daring young people going to Spain…
The Golden Mile, Blackpool, was a joy for visitors. On the glorious unreal Golden Mile the staff robbed the owner, the owner paid protection to gangs and employed under-age children and may have heard of tax but didn’t dream of paying it and they might all attend church and the Conservative Club and complain about lack of law and order. If you wanted planning permission you paid off a Council Official. The operation was overlooked and protected by the Police.
So they say.
Some people say that nothing good can come from corruption.
Well Las Vegas..
There is something surreal about Blackpool. And people did die.
Corruption and corporate do not appear in annual reports just as Mixie Walsh did not issue a financial analysis. What we have is a glimpse of a system that is baroque and combines the genteel villainy of Ealing Comedy with occasional death.
REFLECTIONS ON CRIME
In our kind of society organised crime depends on law enforcement. Take drugs. The high cost of drugs is a result of law enforcement. Strong law enforcement is a condition for high profits and organised crime. In, say, Afghanistan ,where there is not strong law enforcement drugs are cheap, available. The difference between the cost of heroin in Afghanistan and the UK is caused by law enforcement and provides the motive for organised crime.
The characteristic crime of post-war Blackpool was protection, which depends on reliable profitable ventures. The stability of these ventures depends on a rule of law.
You are probably against crime. Really?
Consider the number of people partially employed in crime. Policemen, security staff, cctv manufacturers, coroners, undertakers, florists, crime-writers, film-makers, insurers, lock manufacturers, prison doctors, psychologists, chaplains, coroners, mortuary staff.
For every active criminal there are one hundred and seventeen people involved in crime related industry.
No there aren’t I just made that up. A lot of people are employed in crime industry to some degree. This drives up wages for all of us.
Britain’s role as a financial centre depends on relaxed tax enforcement. The most expensive houses are owned by offshore companies based in tax-havens. The owners who probably did not come by their wealth by ministering to lepers.
Banks have been complicit in money-laundering. Security firms are the heirs to protection gangs. The drive to organised crime yielding super-profits is matched by a drive to launder money which flows through financial markets and property markets and into businesses. At the organisational level crime and corporate business are not easily distinguishable.
The biggest bribe in history was paid by British Aerospace as part of the al Yamamah agreement. Some of the money helped finance 9/11. The deal netted Britain £40 billion. Earnings financed schools and hospitals and kept people at work in British Aerospace Warton for years.
An enquiry by the Serious Fraud Office was stopped. Because the Saudis objected. Some of the details have come out in American Courts.
Is Blackpool a microcosm? Of England, the World? Think of Mixie Walsh’s gang collecting protection, while Councillors collected from businessmen and at the Conservative Conference members of the government attend orgies with cocaine and rent-boys collected off the streets.
Blackpool was a microcosm of England but more garish, more blatant, more strange,more enchanting, more Blackpool. A microcosm by Hogarth.
(Help me please. I am sure that some readers will know more about the affairs of Blackpool Council. If you do please let me know. I believe that there are other suicides involved. If you want to be anonymous or contact me anonymously I would be grateful. I am also interested in the History of Gay Blackpool and would be grateful for any information. )
J K Walton The Blackpool Landlady (Wonderful book: sums up a vanished era.)
Rupert Croft-Cooke Damned Smiling Villain
Gerald Mars The Making of an Anthropologist
There is a blog about the Oyston Affair that is the best piece of research I recall reading.
Gerard Mulholland sums up an insider view in his comments.
And finally there is the Evening Gazette. Often very discreet in its comments.
Anthony Gilberthorpe’s allegations