In 1962 Michael Downs, who was 17 risked his life to rescue a 67 year old Blackpool man, James Tweedale, from the sea at Blackpool. Sadly James Tweedale died. Michael Downs, who was serving in Libya, became the youngest person in the British Army to receive the British Empire Medal for Gallantry. His parents were flown to Tripoli to see him receive his award. His mother said that it was the proudest moment of her life. She was fortunate not to see further stages in Michael’s career.
In 1978 I was fingerprinted along with many other people in Blackpool in connection with a murder. In spite of a search by eighty detectives the killer was not caught. Eleven years later the murderer was tried. Michael Downs is Blackpool’s only (as far as we know) home-grown serial killer.
His activities were so extended in time that it is difficult to know where to begin. Let’s begin with the murder for which I was fingerprinted all those years ago in 1978. This is not a happy story but one of the unexpected joys of looking at old papers is remembering the past. This is what was going on in Blackpool in 1978. Incidentally I also came across a photo of Prince Charles opening Blackpool Police Station arguably the ugliest building (or the most wonderful brutalist building) in the universe. My unkind heart leapt with joy.
(the Evening Gazette)
On the morning of Tuesday January 31 1978 the body of 64 year old widow Mrs Catherine Weaver was found in the kitchen at the Nook Rest Home on Seventh Avenue in South Shore. Mrs Weaver suffered from cancer and weighed only six stone when she died. She had been stabbed with a nine inch vegetable knife that was found near the body. A length of clothes line had been used to secure the victim.
Eighty detectives were assigned to the case under Detective Chief Superintendent Brooks.
Mrs Weaver was the widow of Mr Ronnie Weaver whose family had a rock making business. Later Mr Weaver had worked for Telefusion. Older people will remember Telefusion which was a major company in its day. Among other things they would relay radio stations to your home. A dial was used to select the radio station required. There was a Telefusion Shop on Dickson Road which is now Cash Converters. You can recognise the shop by the giant radio aerial..
Mrs Weaver was said to be “a loner.”
From the Evening Gazette
Detectives were aware from the position of the body that Mrs Weaver may have been sexually assaulted or raped.
On Thursday 2 February three clues were found in Watson Road Park: another knife, a cap comforter and pink rubber household gloves which were taken from the Nook Rest Home. A cap comforter can be used as a scarf or folded into a woolen headpiece. It could also be used as a mask. Cap comforters are used by the Army. Suspicion was directed at the Army Camp at Weeton.
In spite of door to door questioning in which twelve thousand people (including me) were interviewed no progress was made. The findings in Watson Road Park (and the lack of evidence that a taxi had been used) suggest that the assailant was local and on foot. The knives had been bought in St Annes but there were not further clues.
The attack happened around 4.30am. It is probable that the killer took Mrs Weaver from her room and killed her in the kitchen. A sexual attack rather than burglary. The killer may have targeted the home because it was a Nursing Home. Which further suggests a killer with local knowledge.
Ten years later on January 26 1988 Mrs Gabriella Morris was found murdered at the guest house she ran on the Promenade opposite the Little Bispham tram shelter. She was aged 70. She had been stabbed and suffered blows to the head. She had put up an intense struggle.
Betty Morris’ guesthouse at Little Bispham.
The Police found fingerprints which matched those of a petty criminal Michael Downs and he was arrested in February, 1988. In July 1989 he was sentence to 25 years imprisonment for the murder of Mrs Gabriella Morris and the murder of Mrs Catherine Weaver.
Gabriella Morris was always known as Betty. She ran a small guest house in Little Bispham. She made costumes for children’s plays and had made costumes for showgirls who appeared in Blackpool shows. She was an eccentric character, a loner. Her friend said that she had married once but the marriage had only lasted a week. Her great love had been a Pole in the Air Force who died in the War. She carried a great bunch of keys and she looked at men around the tram stop in Little Bispham opposite her Guesthouse with binoculars and rang up the Police it she found them suspicious. She was going deaf and so was increasingly isolated. Something had happened.
Betty Morris from the Evening Gazette
What had happened was that on November 27 1974, fourteen years before she was murdered, Betty Morris had been tied to her bed and hit with a hammer, Detectives investigating the case believed that she had also been raped. But Betty Morris would not say this. The attacker had worn a mask. Most puzzling to investigators was that Mrs Morris had offered her attacker three hundred pounds but he had only taken a hundred pounds. The terror of the attack had made Betty Morris suspicious of strangers and very concerned with security. Mrs Morris had been tied up with washing line.
These three incidents stretched over fourteen years.
What more do we know about Michael Downs. He was born on December 31st 1944. He lived in Thursby Avenue, South Shore. His father was a butcher.
He went to Thames Road School and Highfield School. He was described by teachers as dishonest and not very clever. He was on probation when he was eleven and later sent to an approved school for burglary and arson. It is hard to imagine the feelings of his respectable parents.
And in 1962 Michael Down tried to rescue a drowning man in Blackpool and received the British Empire Medal for Gallantry. And his parents were flown to Tripoli to see Michael awarded his medal. Sadly his day of glory did not last long. He killed an Arab Taxi driver and was imprisoned for six months for manslaughter. A knife was used. I am guessing that alcohol was involved. The six months reflect the ethnic values of the late British Empire.
In 1967 Michael married Linda. They had met playing snooker at the Farmer’s Arms in Highfield Road. The marriage lasted ten years, they lived at Mereside. The marriage ended in 1977 when Michael was imprisoned for eighteen months for burglary. While he was in prison Linda became pregnant by another man. Released from prison Michael took the news mildly and Linda and Michael remained friends.
Michael had jobs involving driving: working for a dry cleaning company and later driving for a taxi firm. While he was a driver for a laundry company he visited the Nursing Home in Seventh Avenue and the Guesthouse at Queens Promenade in Little Bispham.
In 1974 the attack on Betty Morris took place.
In 1978 Catherine Weaver was killed shortly after Michael’s release from prison and his separation from Linda.
On the evening of May 3, 1980, an incident took place which could have ended Michael Down’s criminal career. At Thames Road Miss Hilda Keefe aged 64 saw an intruder breaking into her house using a glass cutter. She shouted out. The intruder climbed into the house. Upstairs Miss Keefe’s intrepid 87 year old mother shouted to get the attention of a neighbour and the intruder fled leaving behind pieces of washing line. Miss Hilda Keefe gave a very accurate description of the intruder. It would be eight years before he was convicted.
It is at this point that the best opportunity to convict Michael Downs arose. PC Dave Milner took an interest in the victims and visited them regularly. He knew that pieces of washing line had been left at the murder of Mrs Catharine Weaver as they had at the intrusion on Thames Road. Miss Keefe. Miss Keefe said that it was surprising that the intruder could not be found because he was wearing a green coat. PC Milner said that it was not in her statement that the intruder was wearing a green coat and Mrs Keefe said that she had seen the intruder again in Lytham Road.
PC Dave Milner took to looking out for the man in the green jacket where Miss Keefe had seen him. Eventually he spotted Michael Downs crossing the railway bridge on Lytham Road. Michael Downs was questioned and claimed he did not know where Thames Road was. This seems unlikely because he lived in the next street. Glass cutters and knives where found in his flat.
He denied the intrusion and also denied the murder of Catherine Weaver. Does an innocent person feel the need to deny murder? PC Dave Milner remained suspicious and put his suspicions on record. We have to wonder if the case would have been different if investigators had known about the murder of the Arab Taxi Driver in Tripoli. Michael Downs had been questioned over the murder of Catherine Weaver before the incident with Miss Keefe in Thames Road. The Police did not know about the Tripoli incident. Michael Downs had already killed with a knife when Catherine Weaver was murdered. PC Dave Milner was convinced that a murderer was on his patch. The similarities between the Catherine Weaver murder and the incident involving Miss Keefe were: an intruder who appeared to target an older woman, the presence of washing line at both scenes, a break- in, and Seventh Avenue, Thames Road and Watson Road Park where evidence from Catherine Weaver’s murder was found are within walking distance of Michael Downs flat.
Map from the Evening Gazette showing the proximity of Seventh Avenue, Watson Road Park, Thames Road and Severn Road where Michael Downs lived at the time
The conviction of Michael Downs throws light on that rarest of creatures: a Blackpool Serial Killer. He was imprisoned for twenty-five years. The defence argued that Michael Downs was not fully responsible. The jury did not accept this.
Interesting and puzzling are the recollections of Michael’s friends and partners. He seems to have been well-liked. His ex-wife said he was a conscientious father and remained close friends with her. His ex-girlfriend Dee Pritchard recalls an ideal partner who she would happily have married if it were not for his drinking. He stayed with a couple in Queens Town for months and they recalled him with parental affection. They insisted that they would visit him in prison and that they never detected any anger or violence.
We know Michael Downs’ movements almost up to the point where he murdered Betty Morris. His girlfriend Dee Prichard confirmed to him that the relationship was over.
Michael drove to see his former wife at Grange Park. He had a cup of tea. He had hoped to see his his son but he was absent.
And then Michael drove to Queens Promenade and assaulted and murdered Betty Morris.
Michael and Dee Pritchard had met over a shared enthusiasm for CB Radio. The words CB Radio take you back to a different era. The recent past is stranger than the distant past. .
CB Radio was like that. Ordinary people contacted other people on CB Radio. I recall seeing a man on a bicycle who had an elaborate CB Radio rig on the back of his bike in a wooden box. One of the attractions was a chance to meet the opposite sex and this is how Michael met Dee. Also CB Radio had its own language which bonded enthusiasts and excluded strangers. Serial killers are serial killers for a tiny proportion of their life… they have interests, hobbies…
So there we have it. An ordinary man, a kind of Everyman, popular, quiet who killed a taxi driver and old ladies from time to time. And who risked his life trying to save a drowning man at Blackpool. Three different Michael Downs?
Michael Downs had a compulsion so overwhelming that he attacks Betty Morris and revisits and kills her fourteen years later. Have we any sympathy for Michael Downs? Michael Downs had a longing for older women and was prepared to kill to escape detection. The killings happened when he had drunk and when he was under stress.
Is it a coincidence that the murders happened around the time of his birthday? Probably.
Michael Downs’s crimes were spread over such a long time that investigators failed to connect them. Between his crimes he seems to have lived a near normal life, making friends, having enduring partnerships and indulging his interest in CB radio.
And if we’re allocating sympathy how do we ration sympathy between Michael Downs and Catherine Weaver and Betty Morris. Particularly Betty Morris. She was attacked and sexually assaulted by Michael Downs who was wearing a mask. Michael Downs already knew Betty Morris because he took laundry from her guesthouse. She did not recognise him because he was wearing a mask. The chilling thought that she unkowingly spoke to him after he had assaulted her. In my view she deserves major sympathy because her life disrupted by the earlier incident and her assailant came back fourteen years later to kill her. And what does it mean about Michael Downs that he returns after fourteen years to kill the woman he had already assaulted? What is the nature of such a long-lasting obsession?
She became more eccentric, obsessive about security and reporting men at the tram stop opposite her guest-house to the Police.
Or consider Catherine Weaver suffering from cancer and weighing six stone sexually assaulted and murdered in Seventh Avenue.
Maybe one percent for Michael Downs and ninety-nine percent for Catherine Weaver and Betty Morris.
What about the Arab Taxi Driver. Killed by a foreign soldier who was given a miniscule sentence. Did he have a wife and family? We don’t know.
Where is Michael Downs now? Well if he is still alive it is likely that he has been released.
Michael Downs from the Evening Gazette
All of the photographs are from the Evening Gazette which is available at Blackpool Family History Centre. Many thanks to the ever helpful staff