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 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.




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.


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?


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.



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.


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


Blackpool 1937. Mass observation. Sex, dancing, sewage and death.


Off topic again. But apart from that this story of Blackpool in 1937 and 1938 has everything: sex, excrement and death.




Tom Harrisson: “explorer, journalist, broadcaster, soldier, guerrilla, ethnologist, museum curator, archaeologist, documentarian, film-maker, conservationist and writer.” Wikipedia.


And it has one of the most gloriously eccentric characters…  and the competition’s fierce… think of the Rector of Stiffkey (he figures too in an off-stage way).  I will not dwell too long on Tom Harrisson because…  well words fail me.  He lived among headhunters and cannibals.  So it was natural he would turn his attention  to Blackpool.   Whilst not actually a liar  he implies in his best-seller “Savage Civilization”  that he ate human flesh.

His book was a wild success and   broke new ground in anthropology: it is critical of the influence of Europeans .  Tom immersed himself in native cultures and came to appreciate that they have an internal logic.   Any road up the point is that Tom had a gift for getting on with people from different cultures.  Tom worked hard but he was also a womanizing drunken brawling kind of guy: what is there not to like?

On one of his early expeditions he shared a yacht with Douglas Fairbanks.

On his return to England he joined the Surrealist poet Charles Madge  and to form Mass-Observation:  movement to carry out anthropology in Britain.  In articles in the New Statesmen Tom promoted the idea of close observation of ordinary people.  Intellectuals had been puzzled by the Abdication Crisis and the Coronation. There was also great interest in the industrial North West which was suffering.  Books such as: “Love on the Dole”, and “Down and Out in Paris and London” were fashionable and documentaries  sketched the lives of ordinary people.  Gracie Fields and George Formby were working-class heroes.

Tom Harrisson , gloriously unusual,  was a good organiser and fund-raiser and  observer.  It is here that his uniqueness amongst eccentrics lies.   The other well-organised eccentric that comes to mind is Hitler.  And… let’s not push this too far… Tom Harrisson had a mysterious self-confidence that made people… even people who didn’t like him, obey him.  Tom explained this himself by saying that a group of people will quarrel among themselves unless they have a common enemy and he solved the problem by being the enemy.  True or not he was leader.  And  he did make enemies.

During  the war Mass-Observation offered much needed feedback about the success of propaganda and the effects of the blitz on morale.

With his experience amongst head-hunters Tom was chosen to lead a group to be dropped behind Japanese lines in Borneo  to prepare for an invasion.  Tom encouraged the natives to take up their much loved and suppressed head-hunting.  Afterwards Tom became a museum-keeper in Singapore and died in a car accident.

That’s as brief as I can make it.  Anyway the bit that concerns Blackpool is that in 1937 and 1938 Tom Harrisson who  had a great aptitude for getting money out of wealthy donors… managed to enthuse   young volunteers and get  funding for some paid volunteers.  The town they chose was Bolton which was an  mill-town which was suffering badly in the Depression.  Pictures of the time show mill-workers who look cheerful but are clearly undernourished.

During Wakes Week many of the mill-workers and other workers decamped to Blackpool.  Blackpool papers at the time have headlines   such as “Bolton Visitor Drowns.”  So Mass Observers were also based at Blackpool where they stayed at Chiltern Avenue.   And Tom Harrisson visited and stayed there.  Thomas Harrisson liked to work lying on a bed listening to George Formby records and sending out for fish and chips which he shared with other volunteers.

What follows is a vivid random string of observation. Imagine time-travel.  This is as near as you can get to visiting Blackpool in 1937.



The Mass Observers… (I will put MO ) were mostly young  middle-class university types.  Most were Left-Wing.  Some were very rich.  One arrived in a Bentley.    Some regarded it as fun and an opportunity to meet the opposite sex.  The MOs were  of course  were observed themselves and sometimes they cannot resist airing their knowledge: talking about dancing at the Tower Ballroom one MO  says that these are modern versions of tribal gatherings which end in copulation:: “As they still do among American Negroes.”

Some had great fun and many were prepared to make an effort:  Tom told his former girlfriend and the future wife of a famous Labour MP to stand alone near the Tower Ballroom and see how many men approached her.  More that five did in a few minutes.


The observers stay at a variety of places.  These  were Hotels such as the Norbreck Castle or the Metropole “where the big knobs hang out”, Boarding Houses,  Kippaxes (this was the name for unlicensed boarding houses, basically private houses that let rooms illegally, and Squires Gate Holiday Camp.

One MO arrived at a boarding house and was told he had to share his room with two boys.  Blackpool flourished by letting at ferociously competitive rates and if demand exceeded supply they would send their children to sleep in a coal-shed or ask visitors to share a room.

Only the best rooms in the best hotels would have their own toilet.  Even in the Metropole  the cheaper rooms shared  a toilet in the corridor and the rooms had a chamberpot, a “jerry.”  (One of my favourite jokes about  landladies is an alleged note  which said: “Do not place the chamber-pot under the bed as the steam rusts the bed-frame.”)  Chambermaids might work from 6am to 8pm and earn less than a pound a week.

The MO’s are deliciously politically incorrect.  One says his fellows include a “Welsh pansy.”  Another sits at a table with a “man in a wig.”  A passing couple are: “lesbians?”  At the Norbreck on the noticeboard is:  “Receipt of £500 given by Norbreck Hydro to a charity for cripples.”

Landladies exploit every advantage.  One landlady offered fortune-telling as part of the service.

The Kippax, the cheap unofficial boarding house, was popular with middle-classes because it offered more privacy and independence.

The holiday camp at Squires Gate was an economic option.  The chalets offered privacy and there was entertainment.  On the other hand there were drawbacks: an MO observed a couple return to their chalet to find camp employees with a dog, a sack, a stick and a ferret, digging out a rat .

“I’m not coming again if there’s rats.”

“Oh stop mithering.  They’ll not eat you.”

Wild sexual shenanigans  take place near the railway line at the back of the camp. That’s what they say.  At the Norbreck a bell is rung in the morning and guests return to their rooms.  That’s what they say.

Blackpool Publicity Department adored Blackpool’s sexual reputation which attracted visitors.



The MOs quickly tumble to the fact that untreated sewage is discharged at Manchester Square.  A windmill is deployed to disguise a pipe.  One MO says that the civic arms  of Blackpool include a windmill and it is  appropriate that the civic symbol disguises a sewer. The sewage is “screened.”  This involves nothing fancier than using a screen to break up the discharge and disguise its nature.  Nevertheless sanitary staff patrol the beach picking up “floaters.”




Fortune tellers and tableaux where people paid a minimum amount to see a “headless girl” or  a five-legged cow were a feature.  For visitors these were good value because part of the entertainment were the “Barkers.”  A gifted Barker was highly paid and could build up a crowd.  Barkers promoted shows and also the mock auctions which were a feature of the Golden Mile.   Gypsy Fortune Tellers  claimed to have advised the Royal Family. Indian Dancers and  religious symbols from Buddhism and the Koran add to a sense of exoticism.  Pretty girls: “gees”  lure punters into arcades.

In 1937 shortly after it was visited by the MOs  Luna Park was destroyed by fire.  It was  where the Sea Life Centre is now.  There were suspicions at the time that it was not an accidental fire.  There had been other fires and there was a threatening letter.  Luna Park was managed by two Japanese brothers.


Pretty girls (“Gees”) would lure young men into spending money on slot machines.



Blackpool has always been a dancing town.  Many girls tell MOs that they dance every single day and visitors on holiday could dance afternoon and night.  The Tower Ballroom and the Winter Gardens were the biggest.  The Tower Ballroom could accomodate five thousand people.   Many MOs combined flirting with observing.  One says  that dancing is like sex but less intense.  Some things surprise us now.  At the end the band in the Tower Ballroom plays: “God Save the King.”  And everybody leaves.  To do what?


Well sex obviously.  One MO says that for unmarried Worktowners (people from Bolton) sex is  outdoor sex.  This is because of crowded conditions.  One description of Bolton involves courting couples having sex standing up in the alleyways at the back of terraced houses (think again about Sally in our alley) a “knee trembler.”  On Sunday afternoons amorous married couple packed their children off to Sunday School (you can’t help wondering if the founders of the Sunday School Movement foresaw this) and had sex on the sofa: a “soffey ender.”

But I digress…

In Blackpool the opportunities for outdoor sex  involved the sandhills and the beach.  Besides the lucky couple there was an inquisitive audience.  An MO says: “Watchers are not youths only.  For older men of scroptophilic tendencies the sands are a happy hunting ground. ”  And: “silent circles surround each couple observing their manoeuvres from a range of less than 2 yards.”  MO counted 253 couples on the  beach one August night.  As Jane Austen said: “Why else do we exist on this earth but to provide innocent entertainment for our neighbours?”

The stoic MOs wandered the beach at night and down back alleys pretending to be drunk.  On the whole the MOs believe that extra marital sex is  rarer than believed.   In an admirable piece of commitment one MO has sex with a visitor.  He takes up with a married visitor who is looking for fun: they embrace and he: “felt a pair of artificial knickers…  pulling these down… at the same time kissing her…”

We are left wondering what “artificial knickers” are.

Sex is ubiquitous.  There are sweets called: “Fanny’s whatsits” and “May’s Vest.”  “May’s vest” is a pun about Mae West who incidentally popped into Blackpool’s Town Hall after the War.


Prostitution has always been a career option  in  Blackpool.  A prostitute could earn as much as a chef… a chef at a top hotel was the best-paid worker in Blackpool.  And the chef would spend a lot more time working.  A high ranking Police Officer says that there are a few but they mostly come from out of town.  There were a lot, full-time, occasional and part-time.  Like landladies they have to earn enough in season to keep them through the winter.    According to the MO they line the promenade North of the Tower when the Ballroom closes.  There are families: mothers and daughters who are prostitutes.

A chambermaid could work from six in the morning to eight at night for less than a pound a week.  Local girls were  hard to recruit and agents advertised in local papers for girls who may have thought a job in Blackpool was glamorous.

An attempt to help vulnerable girls was the Fylde House of Help in Reads Road,  run by the Reverend Yates and the formidable Miss Boden, who was over 6 feet tall.  Beds were available and advice was given.  228 girls stayed there in 1937, 115 were under 16 and 74 from other districts.   MOs said, Blackpool’s reputation as the Sodom and Gommorah of the North West was overstated, it was not unfounded.  The figures from the Police include “frequenting.”  I take this to mean something like “cottaging.”  There were 30 charges in Blackpool and none in Bolton.  Strangely, or actually not so strangely, I have never seen these reported in the press.   There were 23679 attendances at a VD clinic in Blackpool which implies a lot of socialising.   Illegitimate births were the highest proportionally in the country.


Sex was  an obsession and a taboo.  And an earning opportunity.   The Liverpool Museum of Anatomy managed this in spades. It was attached to Louis Toussauds.   Topics included models of: “The Sexual Parts of a Hermaphrodite.”   54 exhibits dealt with the effects of syphilis.  One exhibit would shock “even the most habitual masturbator.”  It portrayed  “a confirmed onanist.  He became idiotic and rapidly sank into second childhood.  (What a fearful account he will have to give of himself on judgement day.”

Be warned.

A  moral tone accompanies the displays so a syphilitic penis is a “warning to thoughtless husbands.”

A  depiction of “the female Jesus” Louise Lateau, who experienced stigmata and is for no known reason semi-nude.


The centre piece of Toussauds waxworks was a “Chinese execution.”  Death and exoticism are neatly linked.  Toussauds went to some length to obtain “authentic items. ”  The Buck Ruxton murder in Lancaster was in the public mind.  Buck Ruxton had killed his wife and maid and chopped the couple up and dropped the parts wrapped in newspaper in various locations.

Buck Ruxton’s wife had been part of a “fast-set” around Lancaster Council  and Buck Ruxton, a popular doctor, probably suspected infidelity and killed her and a maid  after she had been to Blackpool Illuminations.  Buck Ruxton had supplied his own furniture to Toussauds to raise money.  So Blackpool visitors saw a Buck Ruxton effigy with his actual furniture.

MOs note how “ruxton” was a verb used by Worktowners: “I’ll ruxton the bastard.”  And Bolton housewives used to refer to brawn wrapped in paper as: “ruxton.”  I remember hearing somebody singing a parody of: “Red Sails in the Sunset,” “Red Stains on the Carpet.”  This referred to Buck Ruxton and may be the last  gasp of the murder ballads that accompanied executions.



One feature of Blackpool were the peep shows with titles like: “The Secrets of the Harem.”  The many shows in Blackpool had showgirls and in 1939 a MO says that: ” it was possible for the first time to see a fully nude female breast.”  One of the attractions of the Fun House on the Pleasure Beach is the opportunity for underwear spotting.



There was much religion  in Blackpool and Bolton. In Bolton the most common profession was clergyman.   It is a bit of a diversion but interesting that MOs explored a phenomenon at Westhoughton.  This was the “Keaw Yed” festival.  5 pubs displayed cow’s heads.  The Vicar of St Bartholomews said to an Observer: “I don’t question it but after midnight on Wakes Sunday I always find a large pasty and a draught of beer on my doorstep.  And two years ago there was a cow’s head tied to the church lychgate on the Sunday morning. ”

We are lost in deep  time here.  Wakes festivals were connected with Wakes Weeks and the growth of Blackpool as a “holy day” resort.

To get back to Blackpool religion was represented amongst the shows that greeted visitors: Pastor Jeffries a “four square revivalist” had a Marquee where he would dispense preaching and healing.   And the Bishop of Burnley holds an annual service for the staff and stall-holders of the Pleasure Beach.



Luke Gannon was an inventive impresario.    In 1937 one of his inventions was “Pat who was bad but is good.”  Pat was in a motorboat and boatmen sold places to visitors who wanted to go and see her.  The “telescope men” who rented telescopes also did well.  The exact way in which Pat was bad is not stated but we guess it was not cheating at bridge.   Remorseless in pursuit of money Luke Gannon  invited Gandhi and the Empress of Abbysinia to appear on the Golden Mile.  From 1933 to 1936 the Rector of Stiffkey had appeared in a barrel in Blackpool.  In 1937 he died after being attacked by a lion  in Skegness.  The Rector of Stiffkey, the “prostitutes padre  was “fitted up” and defrocked by the Bishop of Norfolk on the basis of  unreliable evidence.  He  had a theatrical background.

He was seen by millions at Blackpool and was the best known clergyman… well ever, probably.



Colonel Barker:  Luke Gannon uses the death of his colleague the Rector of Stiffkey  at the paws of a lion.  The barrel and the apparent corpse wrapped in sheets are a reference to the Rector.


“Colonel Barker” replaced the Rector of Stiffkey.   Colonel Barker was born a woman and dressed as a man.  Colonel Barker appeared with a lady.  The story  was that the two were not to enjoy  marital bliss during the season.  “I am doing this for the woman I love.”  Why exactly Colonel Barker needs to do it is not explained.    They were viewed in a pit with two single beds and a Belisha Beacon between the beds.  The “Belisha Beacon” was a recent innovation.  Luke Gannon had tumbled to the idea that his tableaux did not need to make any sense at all. People paid just to look at the couple.  In his crafty way Luke Gannon managed to refer to the deceased Rector.

An MO records the scene.  The couple in the pit have a packet of Craven A beside the bed.  An audience member says: “The silly bugger.”  An attendant silences him: “Pass no remarks, please.”

A notice says :

“The first person in the world to have the now famous operation changing her sex from that of a man to that of a woman.”

Colonel Barker had an interesting career at one time joining the  Fascist Party.  In an essay about Lady Chatterley’s Lover D. H. Lawrence mentions Colonel Barker.  Lawrence visited Blackpool and he might just have seen Colonel Barker. Sadly after an adventurous life she died in 1960.

A lady at the sideshow who worked for Luke Gannon had memories of the Rector of Stiffkey.  She turned to the Rector when Luke made a pass at her and she slapped Luke.  She recalls that he joked about his youth: “When men were men and pansies were flowers.”

Luke was married but lived with his girlfriend who was a Fortune Teller.  Luke  Gannon’s brutal but effective world view was summed up in an interview with an MO: “I always say that you can divide the public like this: 50% certifiable, 30% on the brink, and the other 20% living of the others. ”  Luke Gannon once applied to be manager of Blackpool Football Club.




Mystery Man Lobby Lud


Newspapers promoted their circulation.  Lobby was a Mystery Man and that somebody carrying a News Chronicle could use the formula: “You are Lobby Lud and I claim my £50.  ” Many newspapers used similar ploys the Daily Mail had the Guinea Man and the Daily Dispatch Percy Pickles.  MOs reported holidaymakers clutching the paper and harassing strangers.  Readers of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock will recall a Lobby Lud character.

Lobby Lud had his picture taken with a midget on Blackpool Tower.


A Working Man’s Hair specialist

Herbalists were connected with the origins of Blackpool as a  health resort. Herbalists would have a model alligator in their window.  One herbalist used a boa constrictor to lure crowds.

There were dozens of fortune-tellers including Luke Gannon’s common law wife Madame Kusharney.   With the abdication in recent memory many would claim that they gave confidential advice to the Royal Family.  There was every variation… gypsy fortune teller, scientific fortune teller.   The  Professor and the Pool Winning Buddha  helped people win Littlewoods Pools with the help of “astrological salts.”

Mock auctions were a feature of the Golden Mile. A skilled Barker would entice a huge audience and create an atmosphere.  Here an MO sees a salesman selling… well knickers:

“Well ladies here we are look at these lovely undies, fit for the queen.  In fact they are better than the Queens.  And only 1/6… no dammit I’ll treat all you ladies-1/3d.”

Of Madame Celeste:”Her reading of the Duke of Windsor is here it you would like to see it?”


The MOs explore the places where workers live.  In Lark Hill they find a doss house where waiters in the hotels sleep eight to a room.  Colonel Barker and her partner used to stay there  but they had an incomprehensible row with the landlady which involved a rabbit.

The world is on the verge of a cataclysm with Franco and Mussolini and Hitler on the rise and Japan occupying  China.  Yet very little of this comes across in everyday life.  One MO does note a Communist Rally in 1937 when about 200 people attend.

On a wall somebody has written: ” Let us all joins Sir Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts for peace and money.”


There are attempts to unionise hotel workers but they are  hard to organise.  Waiters have a  strike in 1937.  The problem is that there are many ready to take their place.  A Labour Party supporter complains that the Council does not sort out the sewage problem.  Blackpool is a Conservative town and a tradition of municipal entrepreneurialism keeps the rates low.

R H O Hills, the Winter Gardens and Pablo are agreed to be the best  employers although hours are long.  Pablo the Spanish Ice Cream maker takes his workers on holiday at the end of the season to France or Holland and workers come back year after year.

Because wages are low many workers improve their income by fiddling.  One stall-holder tells an MO that  he wouldn’t employ anybody who didn’t cheat… a cheating employee will maximise his employer’s income.  Kind of  profit sharing.

And what happens in Winter?  Very likely in Winter people go hungry, children appear at school in clothes given to them by charities.  11000 people are unemployed.  Unemployed men search for coins carried to the  “Klondyke”,  the drain that empties in the seawall by Blackpool Tower.

So that’s it.  Blackpool in 1937 and 1938 and the MOs that help us see what it was like to wonder at Colonel Barker  or gawk at a waxwork of Doctor Buck Ruxton amid his genuine furniture.  So many individuals created a giant collective fantasy  that was Blackpool …  a War is coming but they  do the Lambeth Walk or pay to see a Headless Girl.   Maybe the dance is the real thing and war  just a passing state.    And where else can you hear those voices?    I liked: “But that’s what I’m afraid of with my mother in law when you give her some brandy she’s like a lunatic.”

Blackpool with its  flaws,  because of its flaws, delivered joy and ease and comfort and abundance and wonder for the workers on holiday.  In the  MOs words we hear the joy of  Bolton workers at a week of freedom from work.  Bolton workers saved regularly for their funeral and for their holidays.


The Mass Observation Records are available on Microfilm at Blackpool Local and Family History Centre.  There is a splendid book “Worktowners in Blackpool” edited by Gary Cross.




Michael Downs:Blackpool Serial Killer 1963-1988


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.




Seventh Avenue


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 26 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

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   are are 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 1961 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: dry 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.   PC Dave Milner took to visiting 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’  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 Down 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.

So sympathy?

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






Albert Dean and Mary White Blackpool 1925


An enchantment about  the past  is that you find yourself in another world.

There is probably nobody alive who remembers the case of Mary White and Albert Dean in Blackpool in 1925.  Here are a couple of advertisements from Blackpool papers of the time.







What was going on in Blackpool in 1925?  The Depression creeping over the horizon.   People could chose from 13 cinemas and numerous live shows.  Radio was taking off.   Religion was a major force.  An unfortunate Blackpool reporter went to a different church every Sunday and report on the sermons.  A letter to the paper said that the use of wireless in church indicated the collapse of society.    It was still an  ordered and law-abiding society.  People appeared before magistrates charged with riding bicycles without lights or riding on the pavement.  Behind  glitter there was  fear and dread.  The  fears included unemployment and war .

Sometimes when you read papers from 1925 you think how silly people were… pompous  childish and deluded.  They were but so are we…

And in 1925 people may not have known where the threat was but they were right to believe it was there.  Born in 1890, say, you would experience two world wars and a major depression in your lifetime… if you did live…

Still life goes on… mostly…

Lewis Cardwell was twelve.  He attended Waterloo Council School and was a promising footballer.  When he got to his  home at 36 Crossland Road on March 21, 1925,  the door was locked.  He asked a neighbour for a key.  The neighbour had not got a key, so Lewis climbed up the drainpipe and through a window.  His aunt lay at the bottom of the stairs, dead.  Lewis climbed back throught the window and went to Hawes Side Police Station which was two hundred yards away.


PC Randle used a ladder to access the house and found the body of Mrs White which was taken to the mortuary at Layton Cemetery.

Mary White was Lewis Cardwell’s aunt.  Lewis Cardwell had  lost his mother and his father.  His father had died many years before probably from  war injuries.  His mother had only died a year ago and her sister Mary White had moved into her sister’s house to look after her when she was ill.  After her sister’s death she looked after Lewis and his sister Dorothy who was six.

Mary White had been widowed when her husband had been killed in the War.  She supported herself by washing and taking in lodgers.

Suspicion fell on Albert Dean.  He had been a lodger of Mary White and they had a close relationship for four  years.  Before her death the relationship had become more fractious.  Albert Dean was finding it difficult to find work.  He was forty-six and there were plenty of younger people looking for labouring work.  The Chief Constable Mr H E Derham had a description of Albert Dean, “a man of the labouring classes,” circulated.

Albert Dean was arrested the next evening at the Goldbourn public house in Preston and returned to Blackpool as a prisoner.

The inquest followed.  Dean was said to be a quiet reserved man who had been cohabiting with Mary for four years with occasional absences.  Lewis Cardwell said that they got on well and were “sweethearts.”  He said he knew nothing about another woman, “a fancy woman” he said.

Lewis said that when he worked Albert had handed over his wages to Mary and that he asked her for money.  Lewis painted an unflattering picture.  Mary had a temper and would throw anything that came to hand, pans, knives at anybody who annoyed her.  He said he had never seen Dean hit Mary.  He said he did not get on well with Dean.

John Jennings, the other lodger, said that Mary and Albert usually got on well but that there had been quarrels over money.  The night before her death Albert had told Mary to put a penny in the gas meter and that had led to an argument.  Jack and Albert Dean shared a room at the front of the house. Mary White slept with her nephew and niece in the back room.

A pawnbroker said that on the morning of Mary White’s death Albert had come to his shop and pawned trousers and boots.  Some of the clothing belonged to his fellow lodger.  He had just over a pound.  The pawnbroker said that he looked very nervous.  Albert said that he needed a drink.

The Police Doctor said that Mary had cuts on her hands.

The  Inquest Jury found that Mary White had been murdered by Albert Dean.

The coroner said that the case would be followed by a trial for murder at Liverpool Crown Court.

The trial at Liverpool was very short lasting only a day.  Albert Dean said that Mary had attacked him with a razor and he had killed her in a struggle adding rather unsentimentally that: “she bled like a stuck cow.”

He was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to eight years in jail.

There was discussion in the Blackpool Papers about the distinction between manslaughter and murder.  If he had been convicted of murder Albert Dean would have been hanged.

It is hard to miss the tone of  admiration for Albert Dean in the Blackpool papers.  He is said to have been “plucky” in court.  He had served in France in the Coldstream Guards during the war and been a prisoner of war for fourteen months.   Mary White was said to have been very strong.  She worked as a labourer at one time doing work that was normally done by men.  And she was “an inveterate smoker with the filthiest clay pipe imaginable.”

Albert Dean’s wife , who was separated, and “prepossessing” daughter attend the trial in Liverpool.

The lenient verdict was surely influenced by Albert Dean’s military service: words like “soldierly” are applied to him. All the evidence was  that Albert and Mary were fond of one another.

They were hard bitten people.  Albert was increasingly dependent on Mary for money and he was drinking a lot.  Perhaps he was finding it more  difficult to find work and resented his dependence on Mary for money.  He impressed the jury by his brief direct answers and he paid tribute to Mary.

The children, Lewis and Dorothy Cardwell, were initially taken by relatives.

This glimpse of a world, the world of 1925 with its pawn shops and war widows and ex-servicemen and newspaper reports on Sunday Sermons.








Colin Smith: Blackpool Artist

This is off-topic.  No crime.  But it is about Blackpool which is even more fascinating than crime and it is about an artist.

I saw a painting eight years ago.

My heart leapt.

The artist was called Colin Smith.  I knew nothing else about him.   I wanted a print of the painting but there were none available.  I noted the name and decided that I would like to talk to the artist.

This is the painting.




From the moment I saw it I adored it.  Why?  Well it seems to me to be a depiction of Blackpool Tower and Promenade.  (I refuse to say iconic)    So far so good.  It is in a tradition of nostalgic art… you can see dozens of them.   I suffer from being a socialist and a  snob so I kind of think of this as the kind of thing a prosperous scrap metal merchant might put on his (or her obviously) wall :  “Now that’s what I call proper art.”

But it is more….  The camels give it a  surreal, witty twist.  The painting plays on the connection of the beach and a desert and on the fact that camels from the Tower Zoo  did exercise on Blackpool Beach and in Victorian times camel rides were offered on the beach.  Finally the painting encapsulates Blackpool as the world capital of Surreal.   This is hard to explain but you have experiences in Blackpool that  you don’t have anywhere else.

Three examples:  I was in Blackpool in Bank Hey Street.  In front of me was an older respectable looking man.  A retired geography teacher?  Suddenly he shouted: “Don’t worry Mabel, I’ll rescue you.”  And he ran (really ran) backwards into a shop.  He did this a lot.

Walking down Redbank Road outside Sainsburys and I saw Jesus walking in the opposite direction towards the sea, carrying his cross.  It was Good Friday.

Keeping to a religious theme Michael Fox was walking towards the Tower  along the Promenade from the North.  He was starring at the Grand in a play called: “Doctor at Sea.”  He saw the Tower and the  pier  form a cross reflected in the sea.  He became a Christian and a recluse joining a Christian group called the Navigators.   He  had been in the film: “Performance” with Mick Jagger,  substances were taken.


Blackpool  is surreal.

The painter was Colin Smith.  Many years later I was speaking to an old friend, an ex-teacher and I saw a painting on her wall.  It was quite different from the camel painting but I knew immediately it was a Colin Smith.  I asked and she told me that her son knew the painter and that they had worked together at BNFL Springfield and that she had asked the painter if he would sell her a painting.  He is  reluctant to sell his paintings but perhaps because of special circumstances (her husband was terminally ill) he agreed to sell her the painting.

So I searched in the Voter’s Register and I located Colin Smith and I sent him a note asking if I could interview him and to my joy he agreed.

Colin Smith lives in a carefully maintained Victorian House with sympathetic decor.   I was struck by the colours in the neatly-kept garden.

Colin Smith is an alert seventy year old with striking light blue eyes.sep-2016-116



He has been retired for 15 years.  He worked as a chemical plumber at the Nuclear Power Plant at Springfield near Preston.  He has had little art training.  He did go to night school.  When I asked him why he started painting his answer was surprising.  His partner was giving up smoking and they stayed in more to avoid temptation .

He went to school in Manchester and was struck by the paintings of Van Gogh.  He particularly admires Van Gogh, Rembrandt and Jan Van Eyck.

He had an exhibition at the Grundy Art Gallery in Blackpool and won a prize for the painting I like so much.  I said to him that I had admired the way that the Tower was subtly altered (its hard to put your finger on but the Tower is the wrong shape and  this adds to the surreal effect)  and he laughed and said it was a mistake because he was using a photograph the angle was distorted.  He showed me more of his work.  Some of it uses a seaside theme.

At seventy he is a fit alert man.  He still cycles.  Sadly he lost his partner.  He is a Christian although  this does not influence his work.  I mentioned that I knew somebody who was a Christian in Blackpool and he said he knew of him too.  ( I hope to write about my Christian friend some time.  Although he only as a tiny pension from the Post Office he goes to Uganda every year.)

And so I left.  If Colin Smith had been born say thirty years ago he would have gone to art college and produced diamond decorated skulls put together by somebody else…  So let’s be grateful that he didn’t.  Colin Smith’s painting  of the Tower makes me a  bit happier.  Best of all I obtained a print.

I often write about crime and it does make you aware the people have a dark side.  Walk around Blackpool on a busy day and you will pass murderers, addicts, paedophiles. And when you are in Blackpool in the crowd you will pass murderers and drug dealers but you will  pass astonishing artists.

This is another of Colin Smith’s works.



I hope you enjoy Colin Smith’s work as much as I do.



The unsolved murder of Harry Howell 1988


Unsolved murder of Harry Howell of Ibbison Court, Blackpool in 1988.'Detectives believe this photograph was on a bus pass inside a wallet stolen by the murderer.'Published EG 02/12/1988, 23/12/1988, 06/11/1989, 19/01/1990



Harry Howell died in his sheltered housing in Ibbison Court off Central Drive, Blackpool,  on November 5, 1988.  He was died from blows to the head with a blunt instrument.  His murderer has never been found.  The absence of the killer is tantalising.  We can say things about the killer:  he was cool-headed,  determined, he may have been flustered or disgusted by his actions , and  he is absent.  It is like a detective story where there are clues but no solution.  The events have the inconsistency of real life.

Ibbison Court is named in memory of Ibbison Street.  Ibbison Street had been built outside Blackpool’s then boundary probably to avoid building standards which were not enforced anyway.  Revoe was a  lively community with  the atmosphere of a village.  Ibbison Street was the site of the: “Donkey Backs.”  Donkeys were kept in stables.

But let’s go back to the facts.

Harry Howell had lost his partner, his common-law wife, a month earlier.  He had a minor stroke and his eyesight was impaired.  He was a little deaf.    After his death his neighbours said he was popular but then they would  say that about Goebbels if he lived next door and been murdered.   He had a routine: betting shops, pubs and cafes.

Harry Howell had worked for many years at British Leyland and he lived with Elsie Flegg until she had died  a month before he did.  He is said to have kept himself to himself.  But he did go out for a drink to the George on Central Drive or Brunswick in Bonny Street or the Royal Oak in South Shore.

He was seventy-four years old.  Unfortunately he kept his savings in his flat.  He did not trust banks or building societies.  And he may have talked about this when he had a drink.

Saturday November 5th 1988 was the last weekend of Blackpool illuminations and a day when people would be leaving their seasonal jobs and their temporary homes in Blackpool.  It was the last day Harry Howell was seen alive and probably the day he died.

However it was not until November 22, seventeen days later that his body was found.  A window cleaner, a seventy year old window cleaner, called John Johnstone saw the body slumped in a chair and also saw that the door had been tampered with. John Johnstone, former RAF fitness instructor, is one of those walk-on characters you wish you knew more about.  Sadly he died within a year.

Harry Howell had been bludgeoned to death with a blunt instrument which was never found.  He had been dead for seventeen days.  How did this happen in sheltered housing where resident are visited six times a week?  It is now that we sense the shadowy absent killer.  A notice appeared on the door on Monday 6th November saying:” No milk gone away for two week’s holiday. ” And then the notice disappeared.

The seventeen days between the murder and the discovery of the enquiry difficult.  Mr John Johnstone, the seventy year old window-cleaner, had seen somebody knocking at Mr Howell’s door .  The man seen by Mr Johnstone was in his 40’s, five foot seven.  This was after the murder and the man might well have been the killer.  In fact he could have been placing or taking away the note that cancelled the milk and delayed the discovery of the body.

There was another clue.  In the flat was a paper bag from Burtons the baker containing the remains of two beef and horseradish sandwiches.  On the day of Harry Howell’s murder two beef and horseradish sandwiches were bought by a tall slim man in his 30s at the Burtons on Central Drive only yards from Harry Howell’s home.  The man told the shop assistant  that they were “for the old man who called there every day for a pie.”

At one time the investigation involve eighty police officers.  Six thousand people were interviewed and two thousand statements taken.

To summarise the problems:

Were there really two men?  It seems more likely that a single person committed the crime.

Why did the killer, who seems to be deeply calculating disclose the information to the shop-assistant which linked him to the crime?

Investigators discovered two thousand pounds in the flat including eleven hundred pounds on Harry Howell’s person.  The killer had taken Harry’s watch and wallet, risky because they are identifiable, why did he not search the body?

Where was the blunt instrument?

It seems to me that the person in the Burtons on Central Drive  and the person John Johnstone the window cleaner saw  were the same person.  Probably it was after the murder and the killer may have been attaching or taking away the note that impaired the investigation.  Given that nobody else called on Harry Howell for seventeen days this seems probable.  A colleague suggested that the unforced disclosure in Burtons about: “the old man who called there every day for a pie” was because of nerves.  The man was about to carry out at least a robbery he may have spoken more than he intended through tensions and accidentally revealed what was on his mind.  The sandwich was likely to have been an excuse.  If the killer had a casual acquaintance with the victim then the killer may have decided to call at the flat hoping that Harry Howell was out but carrying the sandwich as an excuse for his visit.  The killer knocked and there was no reply so the killer forced the door.  He entered the flat but then Harry Howell, slightly deaf, appeared.  Maybe Harry Howell recognised the killer.   The killer used the blunt instrument on Harry Howell’s head until he was dead.  He searched the flat and discovered money.  He missed one cache and although he took Harry Howell’s watch and wallet he did not search the body where there was another eleven hundred pounds.  Was this because of disgust?

Had the killer brought the blunt instrument with him?   If he had this suggests that he was at least partly prepared to use lethal violence.  The killer took away the blunt instrument which helped deprive investigators of evidence.  It could have been something quite normal such as a bottle and would have disappeared before the investigation began seventeen days later.

Then the killer left.  Richer but not untroubled.  I am guessing that the idea of writing the notice came after he had left Harry Howell’s murdered body.  The killer thought furiously about what could link him to the crime.  The visit to Burtons Bakery…?   The longer the delay in discovering the body the easier it would be for the killer to avoid detection.  And the idea of a notice  was successful and shows a clear-headedness, a determination and a capacity for thinking which really makes this crime different from many other similar unsuccessful crimes. I assume that the killer put the notice on the door after and separately from the killing because I cannot imagine somebody having just murdered Harry Howell writing out a notice.  It seems more like an act after the event when the situation has been reviewed.    In putting a notice on Harry Howell’s flat he was also making a calculation.  It slightly increased his risk while he was placing the notice but it greatly diminished his risk of being caught in the long run.  Similarly taking the notice away.

And that’s about a much as we know.  There were two appeals on Crimewatch but nothing significant.

There are two events which  cast light.  One is that attention switched to Accrington where a jeweller said that a man had tried to sell a similar watch to the one stolen from Harry Howell.

The other event happened almost a year later at Ingleton.  On August 3rd 1989 an 88 year old former bus-driver, Jack Shuttleworth,  was murdered at Ingleton.  He was killed by blows to the head in his garden shed.   He was normally a recluse but he had been so taken by somebody he met whilst repairing his car that he invited him into his house.  He  had been taken in by Brian Newcombe.  Brian Newcombe (51) was on  a  crime and killing spree.  He had a long criminal career which did not involve violence  and was at the time sought by Nottinghamshire Police regarding the theft of several thousand pounds.  Brian Newcombe was able to win Jack Shuttleworth’s confidence because Brian Newcombe was a car mechanic and Jack Shuttleworth was working on his car.

Brian Newcombe was a prodigious thief, liar and charmer.  He had robbed his landlady in Scotland and then become engaged to her friend and then fled to York and then killed Jack Shuttleworth.  He then went to Preston and then to Glasgow where he met a widow called Margaret McOnie and embarked on a tour of the Orkneys with her. On August 24 her body was found on a hillside.  She had died as a result of blunt instrument blows to the head.  He stole her her cheque-book.  He travelled around the North West… Bolton, Morecambe and was  arrested in Mansfield.  Ten weeks later Jack Shuttleworth hanged himself in Armley Prison.

The similarities between the murder of Jack Shuttleworth and Harry Howell are striking.   An elderly loner is charmed by a stranger, both the victims have backgrounds involving vehicles, a blunt instrument is used, the perpetrator is  resourceful.  The killings happened within a year of one another and were linked to the  North West. In both cases a wallet is stolen.  Brian Newcombe had a restless, wandering nature and his crimes were spread out geographically.  The loneliness of Jack Shuttleworth and Harry Howell might make them susceptible to a stranger who expresses an interest in their concerns.  In both cases there is a strong element of opportunism.  The robbery of Harry Howell was planned but the killer presumably made Harry Howell’s acquaintance by chance.  No witnesses noticed Harry Howell with a new friend which suggests that the “friend” was not a local person.

Did Brian Newcombe kill Harry Howell?  There is no evidence.

The suicide of Brian Newcombe meant that further investigations in that direction became pointless.

Brian Newcombe, supposing that he was not the killer, might have been the kind of person who killed Harry Howell.

What kind of person?

It is hard to look at the case without being struck by the cold-blooded but cunning act of leaving a notice saying that Harry Howell had gone away for a fortnight. It is likely that the killer knew Harry Howell personally.  How else could he know where he lived?    Maybe he met Harry Howell on one of Harry Howell’s drinking sessions.  The killer may gained  Harry Howell’s confidence.  Perhaps Harry Howell boasted about the wealth hidden in his flat.  And  brought about  his  death.  

I  wonder what people who kill people spend the money on.  What pleasure is worth somebody’s death.  But  we are not all the same and it is possible that the killer of Harry Howell never gave it a thought.  Other peoples’ minds may be utterly different.

It is not possible to think about Harry Howell without sadness that this  lonely man was not able to live out his life peacefully.  Maybe his killer is still at large.  You may have passed him in the street.

Is justice  possible?   The  advance of forensic science  might mean that evidence can now be recovered from the paper bag from Burtons on Central Drive and handled by the killer.

Many thanks to the staff of Blackpool Local History Centre.

Most of the information comes from the Blackpool Gazette.






A Contract Killing in Blackpool

Alan Rosser was 34 when he died.

He was treasured by Mods or Retro Mods for “Modding Up” Vespa Scooters.    He was hard-working and  owned his own busines, Imperial Engineering. In March 1999 equipment worth £40000 was stolen from his garage, Imperial Engineering, at back Eaves Street in North Shore.

A model citizen, then?

In other respects he was not such a model citizen.  He had a committed a series of traffic offences and one conviction for cannabis possession.

On Friday  November 12, 1999  at 6.30 pm he was shot in the head at close range with a .45 revolver and died the next morning in Preston.  And we do not know who did it or why. Was it a contract killing?   If it was  it is the only contract killing that has ever happened in Blackpool ( as far as we know).   There is a lot to think about: the influence of drugs, organised crime, the nature of contract killing and who becomes a  contract killer.

Blackpool was always a drinking town but when drugs ( I suppose alcohol is a drug) were added the criminal landscape changed utterly.   If you look at crime cases dealt with at the local Magistrate’s Court more than half involve drink or drugs.  And Blackpool has the highest incidence of deaths involving heroin in Britain.  The term “lethal cocktail” was so frequently used by the coroner that it became a dark joke: “Can I have a lethal cocktail?”  The term “cocktail” is so unusual, so middle-class, I doubt if any of the victims of a “lethal cocktail” had ever had a non-lethal cocktail.

A  sketch of drugs in Blackpool: when I was writing about Paige Chivers, who used amphetamines,  fell out with her father over money,  and was murdered, I noted that her father was a heroin user:   “Paige’s father was murdered in an unrelated incident.”  He was murdered in an argument over £20.00. Paige was excluded from school over drug-use .  Her father threatened her over money which led to her leaving home and  her death.  Her father died in an argument over money. One of the men involved in her murder confessed to his former girlfriend’s son when he was deeply influenced by marijuana.

Alan Rosser was a keen clubber.  He travelled to Wolverhampton, Manchester and Sheffield.  The officer in charge of the investigation said: “He was well known to DJs and door-staff.”

Alan had a conviction for cannabis possession.   Why  go clubbing in Sheffield  Manchester and Woverhampton when there are umpteen clubs within walking distance?  Could Alan Rosser have been involved in drug trafficking? Because Alan Rosser’s death looks like a contract killing it suggests a link with organised crime and drugs.  The investigators believed that Alan could be involved in drug trafficking but at a low level.

This suspicion about drugs and gangs and debt grows stronger when we learn  that he was kidnapped and beaten in March 1999, eight months before his death.  He was kidnapped from his garage by a gang of eight to ten man gang, beaten with iron bars and left on the side of the M55.

Why?  The most likely reason would be that he owed money.  Why did he owe money?  We don’t know.

Putting together a ten man kidnap gang, transporting them to Blackpool , finding Alan Rosser’s place of work, and kidnapping him all need a  level of organisation and resources.  Even stranger is the fact that the gang stole forty-thousand pounds worth of equipment from Alan Rosser’s garage.


Following the murder there was an investigation involving 75 detectives.  Detectives interviewed many people and built up a picture of Alan Rosser’s life.

It was assumed that the murder and the kidnapping were linked and involved debt and  drugs.

Four  men were tried at Carlisle Crown Court for the kidnapping in March of Alan Rosser. The jury were told that Alan Rosser had died since the kidnapping in an unrelated incident. The kidnappers had been investigated in connection with the murder and they were not suspects in that case.  In December 1999 three men were convicted and one was found not guilty.  Jason Gillard was the man who was found not guilty.  The crucial fact in the case of Jason Gillard was that an eyewitness was unable to identify him.  We will return to Jason Gillard.

Eyewitnesses saw a man running from near the garage on Dickson Road and along Carshalton Road towards Sherbourne Road.  This man looked frightened and was concealing something.  Probably his car was parked in or near Sherbourne Road.   The man was tall and thin.  There was an identikit drawing.

The Police had their work cut out.  Because of his wide travels Alan Rosser’s acquaintances were widely spread.  The Police said he was: “Well known to DJs and doormen.”  As often with Alan Rosser you feel that they are keeping something back.  If it was a contract killing Alan probably did not know his killer.  People nearby said they heard shouting before the shot.  So the killer probably lives somewhere else altogether and did not know his victim which makes it difficult to connect him with the crime.

In March 2000 two men from Manchester were briefly detained but they were released. So the case was and is unsolved.


You will recall that Jason Gillard was found not guilty for the kidnapping of Alan Rosser.  He was alleged to have been the leader of the gang that kidnapped Alan Rosser.  The evidence against him was a partial fingerprint at the Imperial Garage and DNA from a cigarette found in the  van.  The DNA only meant that Jason had been in the van.  The partial fingerprint was too unreliable.

Jason Gillard led a full and interesting life.

In May 2003  at Minshull Crown Court in Manchester Jason Gillard was sentenced to eight years for two charges of blackmail.  His victim was “Mr X”.  Mr X was a businessman and garage owner.  In 1996 he was persuaded to sell a garage worth £200000 to Roger Ormsby, a businessman, garage-owner and drug dealer.

He sold the garage  for £86000.  It is likely that he accepted this deal because Jason Gillard had threatened to torch his business and  did set fire to his home.  “Negotiating skills they don’t teach you at the Harvard Business School.”

Roger Ormsby, Jason’s colleague and the person who bought the garage from Mr X , was found shot dead at the wheel of his BMW in an alley in Moss Side in January 2000.  (It tells you something about the area that somebody else was killed there the same year and this led the council to install better lighting.)

You  might think that having helped Roger Ormsby secure the garage for £86000 when it was worth £200000  from Mr X  Jason Gillard  would feel satisfied.

This was not the case.  He got to thinking that he had torched Mr X’s home and that Mr X had claimed insurance.  Surely he,  Jason Gillard, was entitled to that insurance money?   After all he’d done the work of actually setting fire to Mr X’s home.  The injustice of it rankled.   So he went to see Mr X and told him he owed him money.  Mr X gave him £1000.  Hoping that Jason would go away.  Jason then asked him for £2000 or Jason would “cap” Mr X.  Mr X took that to mean that Jason would shoot him.  Possibly the example of  Roger Ormsby, shot in his BMW, gave this threat credibility.  Mr X contacted the Police.   The Police installed listening devices and were able to link a threatening telephone call to Jason Gillard.

There are many things here that give pause for thought. Jason Gillard was involved in two unsolved shootings and also threatened to shoot Mr X.    He was a garage owner (like Alan Rosser and Roger Ormsby and Mr X) and he could use the equipment stolen from Alan Rosser.  He was involved in drugs.  He had a relentless need for money… we have to wonder why:  was he an addict, did he collect Ming china?  In the case of Mr X he only gained a thousand pounds and he went down for eight years.  Even with remission he would serve a year for every £250.  The sad likelihood is that Alan Rosser died over a trivial sum.

That is not to say that Jason Gillard had any part in Alan Rosser’s death and  the police will have looked at this aspect to such an extent that it is near certain that Jason Gillard was not the killer of Alan Rosser. What it does illustrate is the world of organised crime linked to drugs.   This is the world in which Alan Rosser might have become involved. There are not many contract killers around… I will come to this… it is possible that the same person killed Alan Rosser and Roger Ormsby.

Prison did not  have any reformative effect on Jason Gillard.  In 2011 he appeared at Plymouth Crown Court.  He had been arrested earlier when he was part of a team thought to have distributed cocaine worth £2 million.  He skipped bail, fled abroad and was arrested later when he contacted Police and returned to England.


When I were a lad I used to drink at a pub where everybody knew the crime hierarchy and there were always rumours that there was a contract out on the local boss.  It was all rubbish.

In  fact contract killings are pretty rare.  An academic study by  by David Wilson investigated 36 contract killings.  There was a wide range of competence and David Wilson believes that although the claimed cost of a hit is £15000 this is an overestimate and the true cost is about £3000.  This is a staggering low amount considering the risks.

Many of the would-be killers are amateurs.  In 2005 in Manchester two contract killers walked into a pub in Manchester and pointed a gun at their target.  The gun jammed and they were both shot dead with the gun they had brought.

David Harrison was convicted of a contract killing in 2015.  He was 63 and it is very possible that he committed many similar crimes.  He may be the nearest thing to a professional contract killer.

CCTV, mobile phone tracing, automated number plate recognition all make this kind of crime more difficult than in the past.  David Harrison’s location was tracked through his mobile phone.

A word of warning: although contract killing is  the least detected murder don’t try it.  Over and again  ordinary people seeking  contract killers ending up talking to undercover policemen (or policewomen obviously).   Criminals are  looking for a negotiating tool that they can use with the Police so if they can turn somebody in it is win/win for the Police and the crooks.  In effect the criminal becomes an informant and therefore   protected.

Alan Rosser’s workshop called “Imperial Engineering” is named after the Imperial Hotel, it is opposite the Imperial Hotel across Dickson Road,  a whole area derived a living from the Imperial Hotel.  Waiters, chefs, porters…  and drug dealers, prostitutes, rent boys.  It is interesting to think that it was here in the Imperial Hotel that another contract killing was planned.  The attempted killing of Norman Scott by  Tony Newton illustrates the unreliability  treachery and sheer mind numbing stupidity which without moral considerations make using a contract killer a very dodgy proposition.

The average fee for a professional contract killing is £15000 but it can be as little as £200.  You get what you pay for.  There aren’t enough contract killings in the UK to keep even one contract killer in business.

There are probably a small number of effective contract killers who do it as part of business which might involve other crimes.  Contract killings are often used in connection with marital difficulties and debt.  It is hard to understand the circumstances of Alan Rosser’s killing because it made payment of a debt impossible.  It could have been a combination of debt and  rage.  It could have been to prevent Alan Rosser giving evidence in the kidnapping case.   Many gangland killings are intended to intimidate, but it is difficult to understand how this could apply to Alan Rosser.




This is Alan Rosser

Murder victim Alan Rosser

Alan Rosser’s death has been the starting point for a journey but he was a living person.  Like ourselves he might not have considered it deeply but he  enjoyed his life.  He was a hard worker.  He was still at work at 6.30 pm on Friday evening when his life was ended by a man who probably didn’t know him for reasons we don’t know.

And a mother lost a son, a sister a brother and a brother a brother.  And almost certainly over  a trivial sum.  At the centre of some acts of crime is an truly disorientating disproportion.  A criminal values his own advantage at an utterly different level from somebody else’s disadvantage.

It is easy for me to write this because I was brought up in  good circumstances.  Imagine you were surrounded  by violence and terrible need and had to compete relentlessly for everything.  Would you…?

We are dealing with minds  different from our minds and with a  parallel state with its own codes.

Is there  hope of justice for Alan.  Is it possible seventeen years after the event to interview the three people convicted for the kidnapping and ask them if they want to say more ?  It might clarify the circumstances.   Or could improved forensics elicit more from the partial fingerprint?

Other than that it is unlikely we will  know and we are filled with sadness for Alan Rosser who may have got mixed up with people beyond his imagining, people at the very edge of our own understanding.


Almost all the information came from the Blackpool Gazette.  Thanks to that invaluable source Blackpool Local History Centre where local newspapers are available on microfilm.