For the Devil has broken parole and arisen,
He has dynamited his way out of prison,
Out of the well where his Papa throws
The rebel angel, outcast rose.
W H Auden
My intention is to focus on crime and violent events but I cannot resist stories from the Gazette which were new to me. You could say that Blackpool was populated by prostitutes spivs dotty vicars and heroes. Or that it was our finest hour.
THE 1939 HORIZON
In 1939 Blackpool was bombed. By the IRA. The event was overshadowed by the War but a campaign by the IRA was under way. Brendan Behan aged 16 was on his way to Liverpool presumably to join an orperational unit. He was arrested and sent to Borstal where he met Neville Heath… more later. ( Brendan Behan’s saying: “I am a drinker with writing problems” wish I’d thought of that first). Elsewhere Finland was in a struggle with Russia. Newspapers took the side of Finland. At about the same time Russian forces clashed with the Japanese and the success of Zhukov… the most capable military leader of the war… influenced Japan’s “Southern Policy” aimed at the United States. Later Finland was an ally of Germany ( I haven’t checked this but I recall that Finnish aircraft had swastikas on aircraft long after the war ended… politically incorrect or what?) and Britain was an ally of Russia.
Surprising insignia of the Finnish Air Force Command
I am told ( I have not checked) that on the day war was declared the Times devoted more words to the dance The Lambeth Walk than to war.
In spite of dreamy sense of catastrophe Blackpool was booming … new buildings: Derby Baths, the Odeon Cinema, the Casino, the New Opera House, the Solarium, Woolworths, St Johns Market had recently been built.
The Gazette went from silly optimism to realism. A well informed gambler in 1940 would bet that Germany would control Europe for generations. The invasion of Britain was not within the capacity of German forces but, as in the case of the Armada… the threat united people. The peculiar, restless, uneven nature of Adolf destabilised his enterprise, his later career displays advanced fruitloopery. An observation about history goes: “Everybody knows what’s going to happen after it happens.” My point is that from 1940 Britain victory seemed unlikely.
In 1942 Adolf declared war on the United States. He was under no treaty obligation. Germany was now at war with the British Empire, the Soviet Union and the United States. An eight year old could work out the outcome on the back of an envelope. Germany might survive a couple of years . That it survived for three is a tribute to Adolf’s (yawn) charisma. The war transformed from a pursuit of realist goals to an operatic suicide with all the Wagnerian trimmings by Adolf.
Blackpool’s preparations make bleak reading. At the Raikes Garage on Church Street there was a store of paper coffins and the Town Clerk, Trevor Jones… who much later committed suicide… had detailed plans for public buildings to become mortuaries. Pro-forma paperwork to accompany each cadaver. Trevor Jones was the brother in law of Amy Johnson who often flew to Squires Gate and visited the home in Newton Drive. She perished in the war.
There were two thousand air raid shelters in the area. Shelters on the promenade provided for 85000 people. A shelter underneath the Metropole was the site of a murder.
The expected bombing did not happen on time… both sides paused uncertain what to do….
Pill-boxes , anti-aircraft batteries and beach defences appeared.
Communists were enthusiastic about war until the Nazi Soviet pact. Many Conservatives were opposed to the war. It would lead to the end of the Empire. They were right. Adolf was disconcerted by the Japanese victory at Singapore saying that it meant the end of the white race in Asia. “Conchies” refused active service and sometimes refused to work in non-combat roles because this released others for combat roles. The religious group most associated with conchies in Blackpool were the Christadelphians. People who worked for the council who were “conchies” were dismissed.
When Germany attacked the Soviet Union most opinion was united. Four out of five German servicemen who died in the war did so on the Eastern Front.
A Spitfire Fund raised money. At one of the events lion cubs were displayed and a young girl walked off with a lion cub. The loss was detected later.
AIR FORCE TRAINING AND CIVIL SERVANTS
Blackpool was a base for air-force training and for parts of the civil service during the war. 1700 civil servants moved to Blackpool. 770000 RAF troops received training, the biggest military training centre in the world. The Olympia buildings in the Winter Gardens were used to teach Morse Code. Troops bathed nude at Derby Baths. Aircraft at Squires Gate took part in the defence of Manchester and Liverpool. Fires from Liverpool could be seen from Blackpool. A third of Wellington bombers were produced at the Squires Gate factory.
The Vickers factory at Squires Gate built Wellington Bombers. You see photographs of five young air force men and read that none of them survived the war. These nineteen year olds spent hours in aircraft knowing that an unpleasant death was their likely fate. Two thirds of bomber crews were killed. A General was asked what undermined courage… he said: “Imagination.”
All this activity had an economic effect. Female unemployment fell from 3700 in January 1940 to 184 in August.
“If he’s being difficult shoot him.” This is Lord Beaverbrook’s speaking about a farmer angling for compensation when the Warton Airbase was constructed. 12000 American airmen moved into a small town. And Blackpool to the North was a year round entertainment centre. “Blackpool has more ways of parting people from their money than any other place in Britain. ” Armed military police supervised dances at the Winter Gardens and saturday night there was a fight between Americans and others. Americans earned three times as much as British counterparts and their uniforms were smarter.
Evacuation of children from northern cities meant that schools operated a shift system. There was ill feeling because the allowances paid were small. Some children were said to be difficult or wet the bed. Many of the children were from poorer homes and when they were billeted with middle class families there was mutual shock. Evacuees drifted back. Even though the evacuation was not a success the experience helped more successful evacuations during the blitz and the V1 and V2 campaigns.
In 1939 37000 children and expectant mothers arrived in four days. There were complaints that children were not billeted in affluent areas… such as Newton Drive and Whitegate Lane. There is a cringe-making report in the Gazette where children are chosen by host families and one family choses: “a negro.”
At one time half the homes in Blackpool were used as billets during the war either for civil servants, or evacuees or air force recruits.
Among evacuees were Barbara Windsor and the baby who became Cynthia Lennon. “Put out More Flags” by Evelyn Waugh has his anti-hero become billeting officer in order to make a nice living placing unspeakable families with genteel upper class couples (plenty of china). They pay him to remove the children. Evelyn Waugh visited Lytham Hall and although Brideshead Revisited is not based on Lytham Hall it had some influence (stately home, loopy catholics).
Mervyn Peake who wrote the wonderful Gormenghast Trilogy was in Blackpool for air-force training. He is said to have written some of it on North Pier. Also in Blackpool was R F Delderfield who wrote To Serve them all my Days. He wrote a Worm’s Eye View a play based on his experiences in Blackpool which was a hit in the West End starring a youthful Diana Dors. Jack Rosenthal, who wrote many tv plays and dramas including Coronation Street wrote the Evacuees… a play based on his experiences in Lytham St Annes.
My favourite book about this time is by Allan Prior (father of Maddy Prior) who wrote for Z Cars and the Gazette. “My old Man” is a masterpiece about human folly, an obvious autobiography it explores the seedy logical world of gamblers in Blackpool before and after the war. The book opens with a policeman coming to take the Old Man to prison. The Old Man is (surprisingly ) upper class… former officer , he puts on his regimental tie when in trouble, and he has a live-in maid… never paid. A feature of the book is the Old Man’s optimism. His generation saw the First World War and were surprised to be alive.
“Vamp till ready” is a work by the poet Roy Fuller who lived in Blackpool and was from a wealthy family… he writes about the vulgarity of his (I think) Rochdale relative who was a Conservative councillor and Mayor of Rochdale. He was also very Left Wing at this time. He recalls a comrade who died in the Spanish Civil War. The book is so charming and dry that you never know if he is aware of the irony of his position.
DEATH FROM THE SKIES
Blackpool suffered one lethal enemy bombing on 12 September 1940. A German aircraft dropped bombs which landed on Seed Street near North Station. The aircraft was returning after a raid on Manchester. Eight people died and the street was destroyed.
On October 1 1940 a lone bomb destroyed several houses in Church Street, Ansdell and one person was killed. In Kirkham one hundred and thirty houses were damaged and two people lost their lives in 1941.
A bomb hit Leopold Grove in Blackpool but nobody was injured.
Non-lethal bombings happened at North Shore Golf course and Lindale Gardens near the Vickers site at Squires Gate. 139 bombs and 11000 incendiaries hit Blackpool and the Fylde.
Damage at North Shore Golf Club
The most severe incidents were accidents. On 27 august 1941 a training flight resulted in a mid air collision between aircraft which caused the fuselage of one aircraft to crash onto the entrance of Central Station… eighteen people were killed. The engine of one of the aircraft destroyed 97 Reads Avenue which was never rebuilt. The body of one of the aircraft crew was found in Regent Road with an unopened parachute.
The most distressing Fylde incident was the crash of a B24 Liberator heavy bomber on Wednesday 23 August 1944 at Freckleton. The aircraft had taken off from Warton. The weather was unusual … hurricane-like…and the aircraft crashed into cottages and a snack-bar at Freckleton before ending up in Holy Trinity reception classroom. In the school 38 children and 6 adults were killed. In the snack bar which catered especially for American servicemen 14 adults were killed. The three aircraft crew were killed.
An injured child recalls that Bing Crosby sang to the victims.
Thanks to the Gazette. Freckleton: the aftermath
On August 9 1944 about 3.40pm Mrs Hannah Haworth aged 55 was enjoying a holiday in Blackpool from her home near Preston. She was staying at a hotel in Queens Drive with her husband and daughter. She was hit by a bullet and died in hospital. The coroner said the bullet came from aircraft training over the Irish Sea.
The major source of casualties in Blackpool and the Fylde was traffic accidents in the blackout. In august 1940 eleven people died in a motor coach returning to Rugely from Blackpool.
There were reports in the Gazette of women being molested in the darkness. Although crime was under- reported burglars must have found the blackout helpful. Rationing provided an incentive for theft. Blackpool traders needed sugar and fat to carry on their fish and chip shops , ice-cream businesses and rock manufacturing. Businessmen needed to break the law to continue in business. Crime moved up the social scale. Police had to cope with extra rules such as blackouts and rationing and there was an increased population… civil servants and servicemen… on top of this the most experienced and able officers were taken by the forces.
Crime took a back seat compared to the war effort. Looting was a feature of the blitz but not reported.
PROSTITUTES AND FORTUNE TELLERS
This is Blackpool in the War: a number of young men training for the air-force. Many civil servants. Well paid American airmen at Warton. Blackpool was the prostitute centre of Britain… with a changing stream of young men and an all year season. Blackpool was a magnet for young women because of the glamour of all year dancing and the number of young men… troublesome young girls appear in the town.
Blackpool has always been a dancing town and the transition from peace to war brings to mind the strange closeness of dancing and war . Auden’s poem “Dance Macabre” captures this. Probably reading too much into it… it was just dancing.
The police were not active in suppressing prostitution. Possibly they thought it was a waste of time. The Feldman Theatre had nude shows… the models were not allowed to move and by the kind of sleight that makes you suspect the existence of God, the other Feldman, the store on the prom, was a VD clinic.
Fortune tellers were prosecuted. The authorities may have mistrusted fortune-tellers… Adolf had it in for fortune tellers in his later stages .
So there were clampdowns on fortune-tellers which involved a policewoman having her fortune told and providing evidence for a prosecution.
MARRIAGE ABORTION BIGAMY
Strain on marriage was increased by the war. Bigamy was common. Divorce was expensive for working people and couples drifted apart and felt able to remarry. There were cases of bigamy in the courts but this was a fraction of the real number.
A lady living in Park Road burned her still-born child in the fireplace. She had an affair while her husband was abroad. Witnesses spoke of her good character and her husband spoke up for her.
Abortion was an illegal option.
Mary Casey aged 28 kept a boarding house in Commercial Street. She died and since she had been attended by Doctor Billing there was not an inquest. She was buried at Carleton Cemetery. At the insistence of her estranged husband she was exhumed. Jennie Flynn aged 41… a housewife of Lytham Road… was charged with murder. If found guilty she could have been hanged.
The death was a consequence of an abortion. Mary Casey had an affair with a lodger, Mr Seed. Mr Seed asked Jennie Flynn for help on December 22 1939. Mary Casey became ill after the abortion. Dr Billing was called in. Mary Casey died and Dr Billing gave the cause of death as heart failure. It is interesting to recall that this was the Dr Billing who certified that Alice Burnham, the victim of Brides in the Bath murderer Joseph Smith, had suffered a heart attack in the bath at Regent Court. He had two of his former patients exhumed. Mary Casey’s estranged husband told Jenny Flynn that he was not satisfied with the Doctor’s explanation. Jenny Flynn offered the husband money. Mary Casey was exhumed and a post-mortem carried out.
On April 29 at Manchester Jennie Flynn was sentenced to 12 months hard labour for “using an instrument for an illegal purpose.” Her representative said that she: “denied running her boarding house for the purposes suggested by the police.” The detective investigating the case, Detective McKenna, later apprehended German war criminals who were hanged by Mr Pierrepoint.
A MURDER IN WHITEGATE DRIVE…
At his time the newspapers did not usually refer to homosexual offences. Blackpool may have had one of the earliest gay communities outside of the big cities. The degree of tolerance varied and there are stories of young policemen acting as bait in public toilets and of accused men committing suicide. If anybody wants to share memories of those times… policemen or gay men… I would be very glad to learn more about this hidden history.
Gunner Elvet Howells aged 29 of the Royal Artillery was charged with the murder of John Thompson Wood aged 41, a Blackpool Bus Conductor at Mr Wood’s flat in Whitegate Drive. John Wood had twelve stab wounds. John Wood and Elvet Howells had been having drinks and John Wood invited Elvet Howells to stay the night. John Wood had four stab wounds in the chest and eight in the back. Elvet claimed that John Thompson proposed an indecent act and when refused John Wood attacked Elvet Howells, who acted in self-defence. The jury took five minutes to find Gunner Elvet: “Not Guilty.” Elvet Howell’s claim of self defence is hard to square with the fact his knife was used and the multiple stab wounds. But Elvet Howells was in the uniform of the Royal Artillery.
POLICE AND CRIME
An anecdote (from after the war) has Blackpool’s Chief Constable buying fruit from a shop in Cookson Street which was a brothel. It would be surprising if he used his ration card.
Two cases involving policemen are reported. One officer was accused of burglary and identified by a fellow officer. The accused said, and his wife supported him, that he had been at home at the time of the crime. One piece of evidence against the accused was that his bicycle had been involved. The accused said that his bicycle had been stolen from his shed. The accused policeman was acquitted.
A second policeman was accused of planning to steal fat from a warehouse. He had been seen unlocking a door to the warehouse where his duties would normally have taken him. Because of an unforseen event… an aircraft crash… his duties were disrupted. He returned to the warehouse later. In his defence it was said that he and his wife owned a boarding house and did not need that quantity of fat. He too was acquitted.
BLACKPOOL’S SADDEST YEAR… 1942.
I have written before about Blackpool’s saddest year so I will be brief. Blackpool councillors supported the founding of the Blackpool Regiment. The Blackpool Regiment, this was an informal name it was really the 137 Field Regiment Royal Artillery, of who 580 were sent to Singapore which surrendered on 15 Feb 1942, 224 died 134 as prisoners of war.
Leo Rawling’s book about his experiences as a prisoner of war is unique because it is a squaddie’s point of view. Leo came to Blackpool when he was 13 and had his own business when he was 17 signwriting and stagepainting. His drawings document the experiences of prisoners. He worked on the bridge which was the model for Bridge Over the River Kwai. Gratifyingly, in a way, he spends as much time moaning about officers as the Japanese. His point of view reinforces what we kind of always knew that the POWs were not selfless heroes but ordinary people and that there were resentments between POWs who thought some camps were “cushy”. It is a gloriously amateurish resentful punkish work that tells us as much as we dare know about what it was like to be a POW. Leo went on to work as an illustrator especially for the comic Victor.
One of Leo’s illustrations from The Dawn Came up Like Thunder
The anxiety of relatives and friends can be imagined. It was often months before a “missing” person was located so many families did not know if their sons, or husbands were alive or dead. .
Because of these concerns the following the Japanese Surrender Professor McGrath of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine gave a talk at Blackpool Central Library to five hundred wives, mothers and girlfriends about what to expect from the survivors of the Blackpool Regiment. Generally the survivors were returned by ship which gave them an opportunity to gain weight and recover. They were questioned about their experiences and advised not to talk. For all we know this may be good advice.
Because of the surrender of Singapore the events of Tuesday 3 March 1942 did not receive attention. Six people were found dead in a house on Marton Moss. Edmund Smith had killed his wife Freda and four children and himself. They are buried together at Marton Cemetery. This is the most lethal crime in Blackpool’s history.
Two former residents of Blackpool featured in the Gazette. One murdered the other and was hanged. Twenty-five year old Ernest Hamerton formerly of Cheltenham Road Blackpool, a kitchen porter, was charged with the murder of Elsie Ellington also from Blackpool. The murder happened on January 16, 1940. The couple had moved to London. Elsie Ellington was 29 and had worked at the Lyons Cafe in Church Street. She lived at Leaford Avenue in Blackpool. Ernest Hamerton had formerly worked at “one of Blackpool’s leading hotels.” Which one? He was handy for the Imperial… but we don’t know.
Elsie was found stabbed to death.
On Friday February 9th 1940 he was sentenced to death at the Old Bailey. Ernest Hamerton asked for no leniency. He said: “The last words of the girl who I knew loved me when she was dying were: “You bad———-.”
“If I had lived those three words would have haunted me to the grave.”
An event which may have been connected with gang crime was the assault on a taxi driver Mark Abson aged 29 who lived at Elaine Avenue Marton. This was not a murder . Mark Abson died following an operation on his lip which had been caused by an assault… three men were charged with malicious wounding and acquitted. Mark Abson was attacked on August 25th 1945 at the Discharged Soldiers and Sailors Club in Talbot Road.
How could this be connected to a gang?
Mark Abson had been complimented by Magistrates on April 11 1945 for telling police about suspicious behaviour by three men who had robbed the Brewer and Turnbull Warehous at Hornby Road. The thieves took two carpets. The carpets were in storage and may not have been missed for some time. The carpets were valued at £1100. They must have been large or high quality, you could easily buy two houses for less than that in Blackpool. So the crime involved high value goods. The thieves would need a client who could sell the carpets. The thieves must have had inside information about the warehouse. Two of the gang were jailed for a year and one for fifteen months. Brewer and Turnbull were among the earliest and most famous removal firms and closely connected with Blackpool.
Although Mark Abson’s name had not been released at the earlier trial he had been threatened. He carried a stick in his taxi to defend himself. So was the assault connected to the robbery ? Chief Constable, Frank Barnes, opposed bail, on the grounds that witnesses might be intimidated. He said that some witnesses had been threatened and that others were too frightened to speak out. The three accused were acquitted. There were no witnesses.
Joan Long was found dead and partly clothed in an air raid shelter on Princess Parade in front of the Metropole early on Wednesday morning on the 26th July 1945. There is a photograph of Joan in the Gazette from the time. You look at it and look again. It is taken post- mortem. I will use another photograph from the Gazette.
Joan Long from the Gazette
Joan Long had a story to tell. She enjoyed the benefits of being a young woman in a town where young men far outnumbered women. She also enjoyed a drink. Apart from their intended purpose air raid shelter provided privacy for couples.
The inquest was longer than usual because expert guidance was needed. The cause of death was strangulation.
Thomas Montoya, an American airman based at Warton, was identified at a large scale identification parade. He said he had been with Joan Long but that he had not murdered her. The trial was a Court Martial held at Blackpool Police Station. The defence claimed that Joan had an epileptic seizure. Joan was slightly impaired because she had suffered from meningitis. Her father William Long described her as: “Not very bright.” This might be a result of her childhood illness.
William Long , Joan’s father, had a story… he joined the Army as a Private and Left as a Lieutenant in the First World War. Which was exceptional.
The British and Americans would not have wanted this case to gain too much attention when cooperation was essential. Thomas Montoya was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to ten years.
LOOPY VICARS HEROIC COUNCILLORS
A shameful pleasure of reading the Gazette is the reliable occurrence of vicars … the letters to the Gazette which turn banality to an art form…and councillors. On the eve of VE day one resident found the “dog problem” in Bispham the most noteworthy event. The most significant moment in history and a Bispham writer takes up his pen…
A vicar mysteriously rails against anonymous letters (“cowardly”). Unintended consequence is that you wonder what he’d been up to. Vicars disputed about whether we should love the Germans… “snakes”. One said that Jesus’ words (loving our enemies) did not apply because Jesus was “speaking before the day of poison gas and bombing planes.” One Vicar deplores people getting married in May. He puts this down to superstition. During the war the Bishop of Blackburn led an annual “mission to the sands.” A chaplain led prayers before council meetings.
Thanks to the Gazette. The bishops’ mission to the sands
An interesting letter which sparked many others concerned the burial of German war dead… A German victim was buried at Lytham and flowers were put on his grave… which prompted outrage.
Many writers resent holidaymakers because they take up room on trams. The “sandwichgate” saga was an exchange of letters. Why do workers have to go home for their dinners (filling up trams), why can’t they take sandwiches? Have you considered comes the reply how long you would have to queue to get the ingredients?
A letter is from a mother who protests when her son, killed in the war, was named by a spiritualist.
One Blackpool councillor used a newspaper article to criticise his fellow councillors for “defeatism.” He said that half of Blackpool councillors were defeatist. This must have been disconcerting for other councillors. Another councillor accuses him of being a “cowardly sniper.” Much fury, rage and so on. “Town Hall Watch on Spies” said the Gazette on April 30 1940, in St Annes Alderman W. Hope said that the 64000 enemy aliens were the advanced guard of the Nazis (many had fled the Nazis).
There is anger especially when the Holocaust became known. Another bishop is scorned for regretting the destruction of Cologne Cathedral. Many military historians debate the effectiveness of bombing to this day: the critical question: could the same resources be used more effectively? Almost two thirds of bombing crew were killed and in unpleasant ways. A bomber is a slow moving container filled with bombs being shot at.
The horror of the war especially perhaps for the Germans who had limited possibility to mourn their losses. The sufferings of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad were Dantean.
We should think about the Merchant Navy and also especially the Fleetwood trawlermen. Being a trawlerman in peacetime was hazardous enough but in war time there were u-boats, enemy aircraft and mines. A growing concern in letters to the paper is housing. Many people were desperate for a home and returning servicemen made the problem worse. It was felt that people who had suffered in the war were entitled to good housing. Grange Park and Mereside were planned partly as homes for heroes and the survivors of the Blackpool Regiment were given special consideration. For many people Blackpool was heaven during the war. It was spared serious bombing and entertainment boomed. In the background there was suffering not least for the Air Force Trainees and the Blackpool Regiment.
Thanks to the Gazette. A variety of entertainment in wartime Blackpool. Theatrical agents relocated to Blackpool.
The presence of so many civil servants meant that many discussions about the future of the country were held in Blackpool and the ideas that led to the welfare state and the Health Service were refined. Alongside this the evasion of rationing meant that entrepreneurs with a flair for living close to the edge thrived. Two national stereotypes Arthur Daley and Sir Humphrey were conceived in Blackpool.
Nothing is more striking than the range of fate in wartime Blackpool and the Fylde. One moment you are walking in Norbreck and the next a bullet out of the sky enters your head. One day you are dancing in the Tower and the next you are flying over cities you remember from geography lessons last year.
I hope to continue by looking at two murders which involved women who at one time lived in Blackpool.
Thanks to Local and Family History and their ever helpful staff at Blackpool Central Library… The newspaper archives of the Gazette and many of the personal reminiscences were invaluable.