UNSOLVED MURDER OF FLORENCE PORT: FLEETWOOD 1947

I have gone off topic to write about a crime that happened in Fleetwood in 1947. Fleetwood and Blackpool  are like separate universes.   To a visitor from Blackpool Fleetwood is  industrial wastelands, good architecture with a Regency look, neat terraced houses, a  gloomy  uplifting seascape, mud and water.  Like Blackpool Fleetwood is a town that used to have a reason for existing.  I will write a psychogeography of Fleetwood later so that people who don’t like that kind of thing can avoid it.  But the bottom line is that Fleetwood’s decline is more recent and more catastrophic: there remains a lot of the former Fleetwood… a haunting and stark and doomed beauty.  For my money its the most romantic of the Fylde towns, England’s most beautiful ugly town.  Trawler fishing used to define Fleetwood and trawlermen were tough, hardy, daring.  The job was  well-paid and dangerous.  Deaths at sea or in the docks were everyday events and maybe not all of these deaths were accidental. If a trawler came back with less people then it set off with…  who’s to say? Spells at sea would be followed by explosive scenes in the pubs that lined the docks….    you can imagine.

Fleetwood people in a Marxist kind of way took their values from their trade and were cooperative compared to the insouciant dog eat dog attitude of Blackpool people.  Smuggling was a sideline in the town and people were close-mouthed with the authorities.

What follows is the saddest story.

On Thursday 23 October 1947  Florence Port, aged 10, had tea with her father.  She would not sit down for a meal as her father said but she took what she wanted. She lived at Heathfield Road, Fleetwood.  The houses are modern and well-built.  Then she went to see her married sister Mrs Edith Eagle at Flakefleet Avenue.  On the way she would have passed close to Flakefleet School where she was a pupil.   Her father was a trawlerman but had injured his leg and had been unable to work for seven months.  Her two brothers were at sea on trawlers.  Her mother had died the previous December.  Mr and Mrs Sumner were lodgers at the home, Mrs Sumner helped look after Florence.  florence-port

 

The first report when Florence Port is missing on Thursday 23 October 1947 from the Evening Gazette

 

Mr Port went to the British Legion.

Edith took  Florence  home shortly before 9.  Florence played the piano with her playmate Vera Parker.  Then Florence went out to play with some boys that she heard calling.  Mrs Sumner asked Vera to ask Florence to come in for her bath but Florence refused and ran off.  Mr Sumner looked but could not see her. Florence was seen talking to some young boys outside her home.  She was seen   at 9.10 alone at a street corner in Heathfield Road.   The man who saw her said he had often seen her but not alone or so late.

When Mr Port came back with a friend about 10.35 she had still not returned and he searched and then called the Police.  A search followed concentrating on a nearby brook.  In the early morning Mr Port and a neigbour found Florence’s wellington boots and some underclothing in the alley at the back of her house.  These alleys were used for dustbins , one alley would serve several houses.

On Friday the search continued and bloodhounds were brought.  During the day Florence’s body was found concealed  in a piece of wasteland off Fleetwood Road.  She had been interfered with.

A Police investigation revealed that Florence had suffered from asphyxia caused by shock, she suffered from congenital conditions including  an enlarged heart.  It was also found that she had eaten a meat an potato pie or hot pot within two hours of her death.  Since she had not eaten this at home and had no money she must have been given them.    A murder investigation followed.

13 year old George Kay said he was playing when Vera Parker called for Florence to come in but she took no notice.  She went into a back alley.  A man came running out.  He was holding his jacket round his neck and he had bushy hair tumbling down one side of his face.  He was middle-aged.  The same man had told him to “beat it” earlier in the evening, about 8.00pm.

“I think he was a stranger.  I have never seen him before.”

 

The funeral was conducted by Skipper H A Howes from the Fleetwood Seaman’s Mission and a choir sang “Safe in the arms of Jesus”   A forgotten world where trawler skippers are deeply religious.  Skipper H A Howes had also conducted the service for Florence’s mother.

After the service two thousand local people filed past the grave.

THE INQUEST

The most detailed account of the events came out at the Inquest when fifteen witnesses spoke.   Florence’s socks were clean.  This means that she had been transported to where her body was found and that she almost certainly died in the alley at the back of her house where her underwear and wellingtons were found.

A picture emerges of Florence.  Her father had described her as “rather backward.”  She was a happy child who sang songs from the radio.  She was unlike many little girls in that she preferred making catapults and bows and arrows and building with bricks.

There is a suggestion that she prefers the company of boys, for example she will not come in on the Thursday evening when when she was killed because she heard boys calling.

The most disconcerting thing said at the inquest comes from Florence’s 25 year old sister Edith Eagle: “when her mother was alive she told her that she had seen Florence standing in a doorway with some boys who were interfering with her.  That was about two years ago.”  When the Coroner asked if Florence had ever confided in her Edith Eagle replied that: “Florence would not have told her anything.”

The Coroner returns to this point with Mrs Sumner, who says she had no suspicions.

This Florence Port goes her own way, lives in her own world. She is tomboyish, preferring catapults and bows and arrows, to dolls.  She is obstinate when she will not come in for her bath.

The verdict of the inquest was that Florence Port had been murdered by person or persons unknown.

 

SUSPECTS

THE STRANGER

Going back to 13 year old George Pye’s viewing of a stranger who went into the alley before Florence and then ran out partially covering his face

It seems so improbable.  The man was already in the alley when Florence walked into it.  But if he was a stranger it is hard to see how he would go up a back alley in the dark to the back of Florence’s house (because of the arrangement of the alleys it is not obvious which entrance will lead to the back of which house)  and Florence coincidentally and for no reason go along the same alley.

Then he  sexually assaulted her.  Then he left the alley.   Then he must have gone back and moved the body without being seen along a ten minute walk to the nearest bit of wasteland in spite of being a stranger. In the dark.

And not be noticed by anybody else before or since.

Still anything can happen.

AN OLDER BOY

The Coroner had  in mind the possibility that Florence was “intefered with” by older boys.  We cannot know this.  It may be that there was sexual play on the part of Florence and older boys.  Florence died of asphyxia and shock after being “interfered with.”

So it is possible that Florence went willingly to the back of her own house to engage in sexual play with a bigger boy.  And she died of asphyxia.  There was no evidence that she was deliberately killed.

The problem is this.  Would a thirteen or fourteen year old lad who was accidentally present when a girl died have the presence of mind to move the body alone along a ten minute walk along a fairly busy road?  And could he do it without being seen?  And without help?

HELP?

What if he asked for help from friends or siblings. I find it hard to credit that a lad, say thirteen, in panic would have the capacity to move a body to the waste ground alone.  How was the body moved?    The alleyway system could be used for almost the whole route which would minimise the possibility of being seen.  The body was left on wasteland opposite Flakefleet Avenue which suggests this was the route.

I think this is the most likely explanation.  It must have happened on a  tight timetable.  Mr Port returned about 10.35 .  Florence was last seen at 9.10.   And the body must have been moved before 10.35.  The reason for moving the body was to delay an investigation and to change the interest of investigators from Heathfield Road.

sketch-map-of-fleetwood-1

 

Apologies to cartographers.  This is my sketch map of the area.  Using the alleyways it would be possible to move Florence’s body from behind her home to the wasteland where it was found with only brief intervals in danger of observation…  most notably crossing Fleetwood Road.  The body was found opposite Flakefleet Avenue which suggests this was the route.

A PUZZLE

The most striking thing is that the crime is never solved.  How can this be?   If we discount the bush-haired “stranger,” or  if we include him, how many suspects can there be in a town like Fleetwood?  The more obvious suspects are “bigger boys.”  How many of them could have been on the streets in that area and how difficult would it be to account for them?

This is all so long ago that there are  very few people who remember the incident and what follows is speculative.

The Police either knew who did it or did not try very hard to find out.  Maybe  they wanted to spare Mr Port’s feelings and that a good number of local boys could have been involved in some way including a number with parents who were influential. At that time people would take a more condemnatory attitude towards Florence Port than now.

There is probably not much significance in the partly digested pie or hotpot.  Maybe a child had shared a meal from a fish and chip shop.

Suppose the Police decided that it was in the best interests of the people of Fleetwood that the murder of Florence Port remain unsolved.  What comfort would it be to Mr Port to learn that his daughter was involved in sexual activity and died as a consequence.  What would be the point of involving a young lad in a murder charge when the crime was  more likely accidental?   It is unlikely that a young lad would be convicted on the evidence because Florence’s congenital problems played a part in her death.

Florence would have been known to hundreds through Flakefleet School and her death must have been the topic of conversation for years.  Some people knew the truth and some people, friends and neighbours, who saw Mr Port, knew the truth and kept their secret.

 

It is easy to judge, speculation may be wrong.  What is true is that Florence was a happy little girl and enjoyed her life and her death is a cause of sorrow to her father and her sisters and brothers.

 

Thanks to the ever patient staff at Blackpool Family and Local History Centre

 

22 comments

  1. Hi, I am looking to speak to the author of this article. I believe we could have lived in florences house and she haunted us as children. My sister used to sit and speak to a young girl. This story has touched the hearts of a few of us in Fleetwood and we want to do something for Florence.

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    1. Hello Karina, just off hand I can’t recall which house it was. I seem to recall that it was the last house next to a street. I’ll have another look. I do find Florence’s story moving and if I can help in any way I’d be proud to do that. I haven’t looked but I think Florence must have a headstone in Fleetwood Cemetery. I’ll try to find out what number it was and let you know. You can email me at martinocallaghan9@gmail.com. Or if you prefer I’ll ring you… I’m never in and I’ve never got to understand mobile phones.
      Thanks for your comments… best wishes Martin OCallaghan

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    2. Hello Karina and apologies. I’m pretty sure the number was 94… I’d say I was 99%. My bit of doubt is that it’s based on a sketch so it could possibly have been next door. Some more background. Florence was a downs syndrome child. Her sister was actually her half-sister. Her father was called James William. Her brothers left Fleetwood but her sister was widowed and remarried and lived in Heathfield Road not far from where Florence lived. Her name when she remarried Edith Alexander. I am less sure that the investigators did not make a genuine effort. It is hard not to believe that the killer even if it was accidental was local and probably had help moving the body . Florence’s father died I think in the 70s. He still lived in Fleetwood as far as I know so he is probably buried in Fleetwood Cemetery. That’s all I can add just now. Best of luck. Martin.

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  2. Hi,
    I studied Florence’s death for quite a while and visited her grave in Fleetwood Cemetery. It is marked by a single small urn and kept tidy by the cemetery workers but nothing special so it looks like a 70 year old grave. The case has never been closed by the Police “Odd ??” I have my suspicions and theory’s….. Correct she lived on Heathfield Rd (and her sister) who has now passed away, correct her father died late 60s early 70s her brothers one was a half brother… I have quite a lot i could add if anyone is interested………. Who am i ? I am the son of one of her brothers making Florence my Aunt. Kind Regards. .. rodfraser60@mail.com

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    1. Hello Rod thanks for contacting me. I think the story of Florence Port is puzzling. What you say is totally fascinating. If you want to tell your story as anonymised as you like I will incorporate it into what I’ve written. Thank you so much and I hope you are able to tell me what you think. As far as possible I will try to put your views. Best wishes and I truly hope you will tell me what you think… apart from anything else I think it will be a kind of resolution for you… best wishes Martin

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    2. I lived at 102 Heathfield Road, as a seven year old, when Florence was murdered, and remember it very well. Florence was what you would call in those days ” quite backward “, but she was a friendly kid, and was very popular with the other kids, she wasn’t victimised as is often the case, as she was really a bit of a character.

      All the kids in the area were terrified, particularly me, I think. Leaving the light on in the hall, scared of the slightest sound..all that kind of stuff.

      The police interviewed everyone in the neighbourhood, but I don’t think any arrests were ever made. I know that there were all sorts of rumours flying around as to the culprit, and I don’t think it would be fair for me to air them now, but I would have hoped that, with modern technology, they could still come up with indications giving a bit more closure.

      It is highly likely that the perpetrator will be dead by now, a twenty year old then would be 92 now.

      Colin Oldfield

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      1. Dear Colin thanks so much… it’s utterly intriguing to hear from somebody who experienced the events. I agree that the killer… and I’m thinking it was probably half accidental anyway… is dead by now. Some things I think… he must have been local, he almost certainly had accomplices, the police may well have had a good idea even if they had no evidence… but then again I have been wrong so often… thanks and I would always be happy to discuss this with you especially suspicions and the atmosphere at the time… don’t worry I definitely won’t put them online. martinocallaghan9@gmail.com best wishes Martin

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  3. I remember years ago my mum telling me about a murder in fwd which I was totally shocked about cus to my knowledge in all the time I grew up there I’d never heard of such a thing my mum grew up on heathfield rd and so did all the family she was a McClellan she told me this young girl had learning disabilities and been murdered down the back alley but I really thought my mum told me this child was only 3yrs of age either I heard wrong or I part imagined it but on the plus side with technology of today I’m sure they cud find closure

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    1. Hi
      Regarding McClellan’s on Heathfield road … Madge McClellan was my mums best friend (Eva Fraser) and i used to go to school with one of her daughters “Penny” there was an older son and a sister who had one arm. I called her aunt’y Madge. I often see her grave when visiting Fleetwood cemetery as i visit Florence’s and our family’s “Fraser” graves…. Roddy Fraser..rodfraser60@mail.com

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      1. Hello David bit of a long shot this but I wonder if your mother would mind talking about the events… it would be interesting to get a view from somebody who was there. If not no worries…. I know a lot of people find this wearing. Best wishes Martin.

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      2. I recently received a copy of your latest missive regarding the sad case of Florence Port, and would advise that the statements made below are nonsense.

        ” The Police either knew who did it or did not try very hard to find out. Maybe they wanted to spare Mr Port’s feelings and that a good number of local boys could have been involved in some way including a number with parents who were influential. At that time people would take a more condemnatory attitude towards Florence Port than now. Suppose the Police decided that it was in the best interests of the people of Fleetwood that the murder of Florence Port remain unsolved. What comfort would it be to Mr Port to learn that his daughter was involved in sexual activity and died as a consequence. What would be the point of involving a young lad in a murder charge when the crime was more likely accidental? It is unlikely that a young lad would be convicted on the evidence because Florence’s congenital problems played a part in her death. ”

        To think that the police would not have done their very best to find the killer because of some kind altruistic stance is absolute rubbish, everybody, apart from, of course, the unknown perpetrator was desperate to enforce justice. It was never intimated that parents with ” influence ” affected the investigation in any way whatsoever ! I don’t think it is helpful for you to rewrite history to meet your rather peculiar, but unclear, agenda. I can assure you that no one was in any way condemnatory towards Florence, she was just a friendly backward kid, who was unlucky to be struck down by someone who was very evil, and cruel !

        Regards,

        Colin Oldfield

        Col

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      3. Hello Colin maybe you’re right and I don’t know. From an outsider’s point of view it seems obvious to me that Florence died at the back of her home and her body was moved to where it was found. This means that at least two people were involved. Now how many people, mostly young people, were out in that area at that time of night? It is also not clear to me that Florence was deliberately killed it seems more likely that she died during some sexual activity. She had a prior condition. I’m not at all saying there was a conspiracy but suppose a lot of young people were involved with Florence in one way or another and that the police were not convinced that she was deliberately murdered and that it would be a very distasteful operation to publicise all the circumstances…. I don’t think local people would be condemnatory but it would bring pain to her father and sister…. However I am only talking about how it looks to an outsider. What do you think? Best wishes Martin.

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      4. Hi Martin,

        I do remember it very well indeed, but obviously I don’t know where Florence was actually murdered, I would have thought that the police could have determined whether it was in the back street or in the field where she was found, as I recall, either in, or on the edges of a small pond . If they never new, I would have guessed that she was actually murdered near to where she was found by the pond. It was quite a way from the back street to the field, and involved crossing a major road.

        Your drawing of the area is inaccurate, but doesn’t affect anything.

        With regard to your second point however it is, however romantic, just not in any way feasible, in that, the thought that the police at that time, or any time in the last hundred years, would take into account local feelings is rubbish. Unlike today murder, of any sort, was extremely rare in England during this period, the local people were extremely disturbed, particularly the children, by the crime, and there is no way that they wouldn’t have pressed charges, if they had got the required evidence.

        Your view indicates to me that you must be relatively young, and does not reflect the police stance, at the time, who if anything would have been a lot tougher on crime, than they are now, and they were certainly not benign, nor would they be making social judgements, It is of course unfortunate that they did not have the forensic tools, now available, which would have helped to solve a terrible murder, that kept me and my peers awake for weeks at the time.

        Finally your depiction of Fleetwood, being some sort of throwback, of a quasi marxist community, with hyper religious trawler men, involved in smuggling, does quite frankly not reflect reality. There might well have been a bit of smuggling going on, but it would only be a few fags, and some booze. Fleetwood in those days was, although undoubtedly working class, quite a well off community, it was a major fishing port, and had a major industrial I.C.I chemical plant, on its periphery. It was in the ” North Fylde ” voting area, and used to regularly vote in Tories, as MP’s.

        Cheers,

        Colin Oldfield

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      5. Hello Colin… thanks for your reply I have
        no wish to antagonise you. I’ll do a longer reply later. My view that it Florence died at the back of her house in the is based on the fact that her knickers and wellingtons were found there. Of course nobody knows what really happened but my guess is that she died during sexual activity with an older boy. The body was moved. Again this is a guess but I do not think a lad could do it on his own especially in a state of shock and help from say an older brother. The intention being to confuse the investigation. Using back alleys it would be easy to move the body especially if say a wheelbarrow or a pram or a motorcycle was used. The maximum exposure would be crossing Fleetwood Road but two people acting together could easily cross the road without being observed. It is not clear that Florence was murdered … the perpetrator was probably a juvenile and it was not a murder. I’m flattered that you think I’m young… I’m not. As for the Marxist thing well I’m not a marxist but I do think that the culture of Fleetwood connected to the fishing industry was one of intense trust between people which would possibly mean that the Police met a wall of silence. Remember that not much later than this a Chief Constable was deposed among charges was that he’d acted on behalf of a friend to have a charge reduced from causing death by dangerous driving to careless driving. I accept that Fleetwood was proseperous. Florence had a heart condition and may have died of shock during sexual activity. In my view the Police were capable of pragmatically deciding that there was nothing to be achieve by the trial of a juvenile especially since murder could not be established. The sea going clergyman was a real character who conducted Florence’s funeral. I could be wrong. Best wishes Martin

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      6. Yes OK, if the clothing was found in the back street, then this would indeed give credibility to the murder being committed in the back street, but this depends on what the police thought at the time, surely there would have been tyre tracks from ” the wheel barrow, or bike ” however I am not aware that the investigation ever indicated that it was anything but a murder enquiry. It was at no time ever mooted that her death was accidental. The police ( C.I.D ) were sure it was a murder, and although all the boys in the neighbourhood were questioned, including young kids like myself, the only people, ” taken in for questioning ” , were adult males, and there were extremely strong rumours, about one of them !

        You need not feel flattered that I raised the possibility that your views reflected a somewhat youthful view of the events, that happened so many years ago, merely that they seem rather naive in that the thought that the police would have considered following the course you suggest, is quite frankly ridiculous, I can assure you that the police in that period were much tougher, and less benign in the forties than they are now.

        I am afraid your comments, include too many phrase, such as : ” my guess is “….” this is a guess “…” the perpetrator was probably a juvenile “…” the police met a wall of silence “. It is also totally unacceptable for you to make reference, In my view, to some Chief Constable carrying out illegal acts related to some non related driving offence, which has nothing whatsoever to do with the Florence Port murder.

        As an aside, I can advise you that Fleetwood was an extremely tough town, but this mainly related to the fishing community, I do not know of a tougher or more dangerous activity than deep sea fishing so it is hardly surprising, that there was,almost, continuous fighting going on in the areas where most of them lived, and Heathfield Road was right in the heart of this culture, but this was not prevalent, within Fleetwood, as a whole. which was actually quite a quiet town.

        I really think your conjecture about the Florence Port tragedy, should, unless new evidence is presented, be put in a drawer labelled ” Unsolved “, I consider it unfair on the family, and friends of Florence, and on the people of Fleetwood to be exposed to what are in effect just guesses plain and simple, you have, I am afraid, really not contributed anything of any substance.

        Regards,

        Colin

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      7. Hello Colin
        Well I can only say that I have tried to deal with probabilities. I think it highly probable that Florence was killed at her back door and that her body was moved. I am not at all sure that something like a wheelbarrow was used. I have walked the route along the alleys. I find it hard to believe that an adult could have gone into an alley with Florence in daylight and with lots of kids on the street without there being a witness. So… again probabilities… an adult is more improbable than a young person, the body was moved, the perpetrator had help especially if it was a young lad. If the perpetrator had help it was likely a family member. I have no intention of disrespecting anybody these things happened 73 years ago but apart from that they tell us something about the history of Fleetwood and changing attitudes and I can’t think that anyone has a diminished view of Fleetwood because of the article. I have withdrawn articles in the past not because they were incorrect but because they upset living people but surely this isn’t the case here. I should thank you because you have made me think about these things and I acknowledge that I have ( I stole this off AJ P Taylor) “strong views lightly held.” Best wishes and thank you
        Martin

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