The lady in the fishtail coffin: The burial ground at St John the Evangelist Blackpool.

In 2009 Blackpool Borough Council undertook to pedestrianise the area outside St John the Evangelist a  burial ground.  At the time BBC believed that the burial ground had been cleared of all human remains and burial artifacts in 1927.   However removal of the surface revealed coffins, human remains and funerary objects.  Following recommendations the council commissioned Oxford Archaeology North to undertake a watching brief of further groundwork and to excavate and record any human remainst that were exposed.  This piece is  derived from that Survey.  It led me to read the burial records of St Johns and they  not unjaw-dropping.  Average life expectancy in  early nineteenth century Blackpool was in the twenties or early thirties.  Most people did not see forty.   As late as 1884 when sanitary matters improved  life expectancy was 35.   Many infants died.  Many children and young adults died.  Bodies were washed up on the beach and buried without a name… sailors or passengers.  Sometimes there is a moving note…  William Thornber, drunken, adulterous, pugilistic, half bonkers, wholly lovable Blackpool historian and sometimes vicar writes: “My niece” next to the registration of an infant death.  Some people did live to old age… the oldest I recall was 91… but very few.

It is tempting to look back and think that these people had grim lives but throughout the nineteenth century people were living longer lives with more leisure and greater prosperity.  The arrival of the railway in Blackpool in 1846 was a stunning phenomenon…  probably nothing in our own lifetimes has so vividly separated the present from the past.    In the later part of the century the addition of sewers and piped water increased life expectancy.  It is difficult to understand Blackpool’s reputation as a health resort given that life expectancy was low.  But people did come to Blackpool for health.  Friedrich Engels urged his friend Karl Marx to come to Blackpool when Marx was ill, sadly Marx went to Margate instead.

The original Church of St John the Evangelist of 1821 (when Blackpool’s population was 749) was replaced in 1878 when the population had increased ten times.  In 1927 the eastern side of the church near Cedar Square was made an Open Space.  This meant that tombstones were removed to Layton Cemetery and human remains uncovered were reinterred at Layton Cemetery at night to prevent distress.  As far as we can tell about 70 individuals were removed and reburied in Layton Cemetery… some of them known and many unknown.  Very likely many of the unknown individuals were buried together.  A monument in the Cedar Square area lists 336 individuals.  These names derive from headstones.  Since we know there are 1225 burials according to the Parish Records and Oxford Archaeology gives the number as 1800 , a small proportion of the remains in the churchyard were reburied in Layton Cemetery.  It seems that there was a good deal of jiggery and no little pokery behind the council’s claim that it believed that the site had been cleared of human remains.  It seems  unlikely that the remains of between 1255 and 1800 people were removed and reburied in Layton Cemetery in the 70 coffins they prepared for the event.    In 1927 the churchyard had not been used for new burials since the opening to Layton Cemetery in 1873.  In 1954 remains from eight graves on the Church Street end of the burial ground were reburied in Layton Cemetery.  The majority of the people buried at St Johns remain where they were buried. Poor people, and most people were poor, were buried on the unfashionable North Side… where St Johns Market is now. The cells… one remains under the fish stall… of the police station must have been at the same level as the coffins in the churchyard and only yards away from the Victorian prisoners.

A feature of the examination of remains by Oxford North is the poor state of peoples’ teeth.    A skull reveals false teeth.


An exposed skull revealing false teeth on a copper plate

Taking the teeth of dead soldiers and reusing them  was a ghastly but profitable industry.  People boasted of having “Waterloo Teeth.” As late as the 1860s barrels of teeth were imported from the American Civil War.

To expedite work the team preparing the site tried to avoid uncovering remains or artifacts because each time a site was uncovered work would stop until the archaeology team recorded it. Evidence of 73 graves was revealed but 53 of these were grave cuts.  That is evidence of burial digging rather than remains or coffins.  Nine coffins were uncovered and three  coffins with remains exposed.  After recording these were  left in place since they were at or below the level of work.

The artwork  “The Wave” required a 2 metre deep trench to support it and it was in this trench that the most exciting discoveries were mad.    The partial remains of seven individuals were found.  The remains of a brick vault and eight coffins and skeletons were discovered including the intriguing  haunting  intact skeleton of the Lady in the Fishtail Coffin.



The coffins uncovered were usually of the conventional shape, the type we are familiar with… this is called one-break.

The three exceptions were two oblong shaped coffins which may have been used for children and the enigmatic fishtail coffin.


fish coffin 1

Fishtail coffins are unusual but not unknown.  The fishtail coffin contained the skeleton of a young woman aged 25-35. fish coffin 2

The coffin was elaborate… made of oak instead of the more usual elm and it was polished.  The undertaker had taken steps to brace the coffin after the body was placed in the coffin using a simple frame.  The coffin itself was unusually intact as a result of the care that went into its preparation and there were decorative features including iron plates which probably identified the person.  Unfortunately these were corroded beyond recognition.  Everything indicates that  care had been taken over the coffin and that it was more costly and intended to be seen.  Poignantly the remains of what may have been a posy of flowers was attached to the lid of the coffin.  This piece of rough fabric may have been placed by a parent or friend and it is dizzying to think of its recovery a hundred and fifty years later.  If the fabric was associated with a posy it dates the coffin to the 1860s or later when this form of funerary decoration became coffin 3 (1)


The evidence from the skeleton gives an unsettling picture of this young woman’s life. She was aged between 25 and 35.  She had lost half her teeth and her remaining teeth were in bad condition… she suffered from periodental disease and abcesses.  Given the pain it is surprising that she did not have all her teeth removed and replaced by false teeth.  She had broken her clavicle, her shoulder-bone, and it had not healed properly so that one shoulder-bone was longer than the other.  Her fifth vertebra had sacrilised… this means that it had fused and this may have caused back-pain, discomfort and difficulty walking.  And to top it all she suffered from scoliosis, curvature of the spine.  Unsuccessful treatment of scoliosis might have added to her problems.   All these conditions were apparent from the skeleton.  It may be that she had other problems.

It is tempting to conclude that this young lady’s life was hell on earth.   But we cannot know that and we do know that she was cared for, that her parents or relatives cared for her and took care over the funeral arrangements.  She was loved.  It may well be that she was mostly happy and content.

One detail which I cannot leave out.  An examination revealed matter inside the skull this was referred to an expert who concluded that it was the lady’s brain which in the special conditions had remained intact inside the skull.


I am going to have a stab at naming the girl.

I have taken the arbitrary step of focusing on ladies aged 27-33 rather than the 25-35 parameters of the archaeologist.  The age is  likely to fall within those boundaries.

Since the coffin was elaborate and  expensive it is likely that the relatives would have wanted a headstone.  Most of the burials in St Johns did not have a headstone.  So if we look at the names of the people on the monument which lists the names on the headstones and correlate it with the names on the monument that will give us names of ladies who died between the ages of 27 and 33.

Here they are:

Hannah Bowker aged 28 buried 29 June 1857

Nancy Fallows aged 27 buried 27 August 1865

Ann Forshaw aged 27 buried 19 August 1849

Ann Nuttall aged 33  buried 12 May 1852

Thomasine Smith aged 32 buried 4 May 1858

Hannah Barratt aged 32 buried 23 March 1882

The use of fabric to attach a floral tribute  to the coffin lid was a funerary practice of the 1860s.  By the late 1860s fishtail coffins were less used.  The use of a polished wood coffin rather than a painted one points to a later date as the archaeology report puts it: “Well after 1825.”  The later date is unlikely because by that time Blackpool had its own newspaper and an unusual coffin might have caused comment, because fishtail coffins were becoming rarer after the 1860s but most decisively because Hannah Barratt is one of the named reburials in 1927.

It is likely that a lady whose health was as compromised as the lady in the coffin would not be married in Victorian times and that if she worked she would work at home at a career which would allow for her illness.

So if we focus on unmarried ladies buried around the 1860s and aged between 27 and 33 the name Nancy Fallows draws attention.  She  is in my  view the most likely candidate.  I would put the probability at less than 50%.


If the lady in the fishtail coffin was Nancy Fallows for the sake of retrieving a story what do we know about her?

She came from Little Bolton.  In 1861 she is listed in the Census Record living with her father William and her mother Margaret.  Her father is a cotton spinner.  She is a dressmaker.  In 1871 Margaret and William still live in Little Bolton and Nancy  does not.  Her death is reported in the local newspaper published in Fleetwood where she is described as a “milliner.”

The rest is guesswork.  If she were the child of loving parents and in deteriorating health they may have hoped that Blackpool would help her recover.  We do not know where she stayed.  There is a Thomas Fallows, a boarding house keeper, at South Beach.  Could he have been part of the extended family? The fishtail coffin was an elaborate tribute to a loved daughter.   Possibly more loved because of her illness.  Her occupations, dressmaker and milliner, are jobs that could accommodate her illness.

On the other hand it might not be Nancy Fallows at all.

Something about the story haunts us.   One is an image of futility.  A sick lady dies and all the love in the world cannot save her.  Or is it an image of the triumph of love over adversity.  Her parents do all they can and their last act is to arrange an elaborate funeral.  Maybe their last act is to put a posy on the coffin.

Another aspect… like the grave scene in Hamlet… is the realization of the the strange physicality of death.   We do not normally feel like an assembly of organs and bones and other stuff..  we feel like a free mind but death reminds us that we are a collection of bits most of which we aren’t aware of and have no idea what they do… what is a spleen for?  Death reminds us that in some ways we are machines.

A body is buried in the 1860s and the coffin is reopened a hundred and fifty years later with the remains of a floral tribute attached to the lid. What does it mean, not in particular case but in all our cases.   To quote Larkin:

solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

Beyond strange   is the piece of soft tissue identified as the remains of a brain found inside the skull and preserved in the special conditions.  Three pounds of substance are the most complicated known structure in the universe and  the thing that gives us consciousness.  Eighty six billion neurons enable you to read this and enabled the lady to understand the world in which she found herself…

And where is the lady now?  All the remains and funerary pieces were interred at a discrete ceremony at Layton Cemetery on 25 November 2009.    Speaking as a lukewarm atheist you have to admire the Anglican Church for coming up with a ceremony for any set of circumstances.  For those of us… I include myself… with a gothic sensibility  the  language of the report is often unintentionally and therefore more strikingly  gruesome .  When the coffins were moved in 1927 they had warped and leaked small bones into the soil below.  The contractors charged with the removals put down wood shavings… remnants of which remained to “absorb the coffin liquors.”  Phrases like “the last vestiges of seven individuals” and the “skeletal inventory ” cling in the mind.

I am massively grateful to David Law who helped me find the report.

Oxford Archaeology North have been exceptionally helpful.

The Local and Family History Service is always helpful.

And Carol Porter for helping me with reproducing images none of which I will ever understand.

The actual report is available here, thanks again David Law, I had seen it before but I was looking for it for ages until you helped me.  I welcome any comments or corrections.


The report is at this site.  I had to search within using Blackpool St Johns as keywords within the site.  It came up immediately.  It is an intriguing piece of work unjustly overlooked.

St. John the Evagelist Churchyeard, Church Street, Blackpool

From : Oxford Archaeological Unit unpublished report series
Publication Date: 2010
Author(s): J Griffiths






Billy Hughes: Blackpool Property Repairer. January 12, 1977



Billy Hughes


Wednesday 12 January 1977

Billy Hughes is being taken from Leicester Prison to Chesterfield Magistrates Court escorted by two prison officers in a minicab.  He is charged with stabbing a man in the face and raping his girlfriend at knifepoint.   He asks to use the toilet at Trowell service area.  Billy Hughes stabs  wounds both prison officers.  Hughes  handcuffs them together in the back of the minicab.

There is a snowstorm… the worst for 15 years.  The taxi driver and the prison officers are dumped  at Spitewell and Billy drives on the B5057 He crashes the taxi near Beeley  not far from Chatsworth House.  Billy heads north across Beeley Moors…  he walks and jogs for three hours in freezing snow until he comes to Pottery Cottage.

Pottery Cottage is an 18th century pottery  converted into three dwellings.  The middle cottage is empty.  At  one end live the Morans and at the other live two teachers, the Newmans.

The Moran family consists of 5 people, Arthur Minton,  72, a retired grocer and his wife Amy, 68,  their daughter Gill Moran, 38,  her husband Richard Moran, 36,  and the adopted daughter Sarah aged 10.  Richard Moran is  from Ireland and has a  successful career as a sales director. They are a well to do family living in a lovely cottage.  The unimaginable is about to happen.

Hughes arrives at Pottery Cottage.  He is exhausted and freezing.  He notices two axes outside the cottage, used for chopping wood.  With an axe in each hand he bursts in.  Amy is preparing vegetables.  With Amy and Arthur under control he makes a quick tour of the cottage.  Richard and Gill are at work and Sarah is at school.  Billy takes  a  5 inch boning knife from the kitchen drawer and pockets it.

Gill arrives  just after 3.00 pm in her Hillman Imp from Chesterfield where she works as a secretary.  Her mother lets  her in: “There’s a man here on the run from the police.  He’s got a knife but he’s promised not to harm us. ”

Hughes:  “I have stabbed two prison officers, but I did not kill them.  But I do know how to kill.”

About 3.30 the school bus drops Sarah.  Gill tells her that Hughes – is a motorist whose car has broken down and tells her to play in her room.

Richard comes home after 5.00pm to find Billy holding a knife to his wife’s throat.  Hughes cuts flex from a lamp, a vacuum cleaner and washing line and ties up his victim’s hands and feet with their hands behind their backs and their feet tied together.  Arthur resists and tells Hughes to leave the home. Hughes pushes Arthur to the floor.  Arthur has an artificial leg and struggles to stand.    Hughes gags all the victims.

Hughes slings 12 stone Richard over his shoulder and carries him  upstairs.  He does the same with the two women.  Then he carries up Sarah.  The four are all in different rooms.  Amy manages to free herself.  Hughes binds her more tightly and she cries out in pain.  He gags her.

Arthur, tied up in an armchair,  is the only person downstairs.

The next morning, Thursday,  a van visits the cottage to empty the septic tank.  Gill believes that the only way to survive is to obey Hughes and she signs the sanitation worker’s docket to confirm that the work has been done.

She glimpses her father covered by a coat through a glass kitchen door.  Hughes tells her that he is asleep.

Hughes tells her to ring her office and Sarah’s school to say they are both ill.  Hughes orders Gill to drive to Chesterfield to buy cigarettes and a newspaper: “I know you won’t do anything silly because I’ve got your family here.”

When Gill returns he says that Sarah is well but that Gill cannot see her.  At 9.30 Hughes carries Richard downstairs and orders him to phone his office to report sick.

gm and husband

Richard and Gill Moran

hen Hughes unties Richard and Amy.  Gill makes soup and toast.  Hughes takes toast and soup for Sarah and Arthur.  Incredibly Hughes and his captives read the papers and play cards.  Hughes says he wants to test drive Richard’s Chrysler 180 and Richard and Gill accompany him for a short drive.  He plans to use the Chrysler to escape and to take Gill as hostage.  He says he has a friend in Sutton in Ashfield with whom he has committed a robbery.  He wants to see his friend to take his share of the proceeds.  He packs a suitcase and  ties up Mrs Minton and Richard.  He gets in the Chrysler and sets off with Gill.  Hughes says he has forgotten instructions he has written down to get to his friend’s place and briefly returns.  They set off again and at Sutton in Ashfield they stop at a truck stop called Roy’s Cafe.  Hughes takes the ignition keys disappears and then returns.

Hughes says he has been disturbed by a policeman and shows a truncheon.  They return to Pottery Cottage.  They arrive at 2am on Friday.  Hughes says that he, Richard, Gill and Amy will all sleep in the same room so that he “can keep a proper eye on them. ”

In the morning they all wake up.  Hughes orders Gill to make tea and toast.  Then he tells her he wants to go shopping for supplies.  He wants tins of soup, stew, camping gas stove, gas cylinders, cigarettes, sweets, steak and lamb chops.  He gives Gill £25 that he has stolen from his search of the house:  “While you are out buy a nice present for Sarah.”  He tells Richard to drive his wife to Chesterfield to get the supplies.  Hughes clears snow from the drive.  Richard and Gill go to the supermarket to get the supplies.  They fill the car with petrol and buy an Enid Blyton from a book-store for Sarah.

They buy a copy of the paper where they see a photo of Hughes on the front page.  When they arrive back Hughes is with Amy Minton who has a job cleaning the cottage at the other end of the row.  Mrs Minton cleans for them every week.

Gill cooks a meal for them.  Richard, Gill and Amy hardly eat but Hughes wolfs down his meal.

Hughes says that he needs money to escape and asks Richard if there is any money at his office.  Richard tells him that there is.  “Right we’ll go and get it.”

At 6pm Gill and Richard and Hughes get into the Chrysler and drive to Brett Plastics at Chesterfield.  The night shift has started.  Richard goes in alone and tells a colleague he is working late.  He brings in Gill and Hughes from the car.  Hughes searches the safe and drawers.  He finds about £210 in wages and a cash float.    They go back to the car.  They return to Pottery Cottage.

He ties up Richard and puts supplies in the Chrysler.  He says he is leaving drives off with Gill.  At the roundabout he says he has forgotten a road atlas and they drive back for it.  He tells Gill to wait outside.  He says: “I am just going to check on Sarah and your dad.”

When he returns the car will not start.  Furious Hughes tells her to get help from the neighbours.  Gill, unsupervised whispers to  them that Richard is tied up.  The neighbours do not know about the prison escape.   Hughes is still trying to start the car.  Gill gets into the car.   Amy Minton, her throat cut,  appears at the driver’s windscreen and then falls dead in the drive.  Then a car starts next door.  The neighbours, the Newmans, who do not have a phone, race off to tell the Police.

Hughes says that they will have to make a run for it .  They come to a cottage belonging to mechanic Ron Frost and ask him to give them a tow with his pick-up to get the car started.  Gill manages to mouth to Ron’s wife, Madge, what is happening.  Ron starts the car.  Hughes drives towards Baslow.  By the time Ron gets home his wife has alerted the Police.

At 8.19 pm Hughes is driving the Richard’s  car with Gill as his hostage.   Gill’s state of mind is beyond  imagination.  She has seen her mother appear at the windscreen of the car and then fall dead in front of her eyes.  She has spent days with a terrifying stranger.  She has not seen her father or her daughter for two days.

The Police assume that Hughes, who had escaped three days before,  was out of the area but now they have  two phone calls from Madge Frost and from the other Pottery Cottage residents, the Newmans, who bravely drove off and contacted the Police from a neighbouring home.

Officers arrive at Pottery Cottage but Hughes has already driven off with Gill.  They find four murdered people.  Richard, Sarah, Amy and Arthur.

The blue Chrysler is moving at dangerous speed along the A619 shadowed by an unmarked Police car.  The shadowing car moves in front.  The Chrysler crashes into a wall.  Two officers run towards the car but halt when Hughes holds an axe above her head: “Back off or I’ll kill her.”

Hughes drags Gill out and demands the officers hand over their car.  He speeds away in the hijacked Marina.  He is heading towards Cheshire and police marksmen are  flood into the area.

At Rainow on the A5002 between Whaley Bridge and Macclesfield police block the road with a bus.  At 10.00 pm Hughes tries to swerve round the bus but crashes into a wall.  Armed officers surround the car but dare not shoot because of  Gill.  Hughes demands another car and safe passage.  For half and hour they negotiate.   Hughes screams: “Your time’s up.”  He raises the axe.  A shot.   Hughes is shot  in the head but continues to move.  Another officer shoots Hughes two times through the body.  A third officer shoots Hughes through the heart.

It is Friday night.  Hughes has been at Pottery Cottage since Wednesday.  There are four murdered people:  Richard, Sarah, Arthur and Amy.

Gill is injured from the axe and from flying glass.  But then she is told that her mother, her father, her daughter and her husband are dead.   Arthur, Gill’s father was killed on the first evening.  Gill had glimpsed his body through a glass kitchen door and Hughes had told her that he was sleeping.  Sarah was killed while Gill drove to Chesterfield for newspapers and cigarettes for Hughes.

When Hughes returned for a map and goes into the house: “to look after Sarah and your dad” he cuts Richard’s throat and Gill’s mother Amy’s throat.  Amy had fallen through a window and survived for a time and bravely, mortally injured attempted a warning.

Let’s pause for thought.  The mystery of other people.   I long to be told that Hughes is insane.  That Billy Hughes, a father, would kill a ten year old girl.   He acted with cunning… making a charade taking soup to Sarah and Arthur who were already dead.  I want to think that Billy Hughes was insane: the alternative is unbearable.


A psychiatrist said that he was: “An explosive psychopath.” Billy Hughes had not lived a blameless life until the time that he was shot four times by armed officers.

When he escaped he had been classified as a low escape risk and not a danger.  This would be surprising except that it was based  on what Billy Hughes had told prison officers.  He had four convictions for violence two of them involving police officers and had been sentenced to a total of fifteen years.  He was on remand for stabbing and a knife-point rape.  While in the prison kitchen he had stolen a knife.  He was suspected of the theft but a search failed to find it and he concealed it when he was searched before the mini-cab journey to court when he escaped.

So who was Billy Hughes…  I want to say how did he get to be like that? But I think that is unanswerable.

Billy Hughes was born in Preston.  He appeared in court at the age of 14, his first of twenty one appearances.  His main crime was theft but he became more and more violent.  He regularly resisted arrest and once killed two police dogs with his hands.


Billy Hughes was living  in Grasmere Road, Blackpool, and working as a property repairer.  When Hughes escaped Blackpool Police, who had vivid memories of Billy Hughes,  moved to protect his separated wife Jean who lived in Loftos Road, Blackpool.

BH wedding


Richard and Jean Hughes

Jean had interesting things to say about Billy Hughes.

After Billy’s death she said: “He was very violent to me and the children but on the other hand he had some pleasant ways about him at times.”

Jean praised the kindness of Blackpool Police who had taken her to a secret location while Billy Hughes  escaped.  The Police had taken Jean’s two children to Revoe Infant School while Jean was in hiding.  Nicola kept asking where her daddy was: neighbours told her: “He’s been hurt… and gone to Baby Jesus.”

According to Jean Hughes, Nicola wrote letters to Billy asking him to come home quickly and she’ll give him medicine to make him better.  Nicola: “loved Billy with her whole heart. ”  So Billy Hughes was loved by Nicola and Jean Hughes: “I used to love Billy.  I don’t now.  I shall never forgive him for what he did but I believe he was ill and needed mental treatment.”

The couple had met in 1972 when Billy had come out of prison and he proposed when she visited him when he was imprisoned again.  She recalled that for the first eighteen months he had been: “Not too bad.”  But he became  violent.  Especially when he drank.  Did Billy Hughes make an effort when he married Jean?

Blackpool Police remembered  Billy Hughes.

He regularly resisted arrest.  In 1972 his car was stopped in Grange Park  and drugs were found in the boot of his car.  There followed a fifteen minute battle which sent two police officers to hospital.  Billy Hughes managed to wreck the back of a police vehicle and there was another struggle.  In the cells he wrecked his cell, wrecked the toilet and headbutted another officer.  He was called: “Mad Billy.”  He was sentenced to three and a half years and been free for less than six months when he was remanded at Chesterfield for rape and Nicola.  Jean said touchingly that Nicola keeps asking where her daddy is.

Billy painstakingly made models out of matchsticks and careful landscape drawings for Nicola.



Billy Hughes…  so much trouble in his lifetime continued to cause problems dead.  First of all his wife Jean wanted him to be buried in Blackpool.  Jean was a practising  Catholic and wanted a service at St Cuthberts on Lytham Road in Blackpool.  The priest agreed to a service.  When he was criticised the priest said that if Billy Hughes was mentally ill he was not responsible for his actions.

Jean prayed every night for Gill Moran.

Billy was to be buried by the state.   Jean found that this would not cover the transport of the body from Chesterfield.  Billy Hughes was to be buried at Boythorpe Cemetery.  There were local protests, the cemetery gate was locked, the grave was filled in. A pub landlord said: “I was disgusted that that they planned to bury the carcass of that animal Hughes alongside the alongside the good living citizens we have here.”

As a result of the protests Billy Hughes was cremated at the same crematorium as the family he had murdered.


bh blackpool mass

Billy Hughes’ ashes were transported to Blackpool.  We do not know what happened next.  My guess is that in keeping with her  intention there was a discreet service at St Cuthberts  for family and friends who hadn’t been able to attend the funeral. If Jean followed her original plan:  the ashes were scattered at St Cuthberts.

Billy Hughes was possessed by rage.  He was not successful as a criminal.  He was impulsive and  strong.  My sense is of somebody not at home in the world.  Other people were there to do what Billy Hughes wanted and if they didn’t agree he could use his strength and menace to enforce his way.  With his  hours in the gym and his powerful physique there is  hyper-masculinity and entitlement.  He was awaiting trial for stabbing a man in the face and raping his girlfriend at knife-point.  What Billy Hughes wants Billy Hughes gets.

Linked to strength and entitlement Billy Hughes was… I don’t know what the pc term is nowadays…  he was  thick.  Or  given his power and capacity to intimidate he hadn’t had to think much…   His hopes of escaping were  hopeless… he couldn’t keep out of prison.  When the car wouldn’t start at Pottery Cottage he said to Gill that they should make a run for it.

Strong, thick,  menacing and in a world  beyond his comprehension Billy Hughes was like a wild creature unsuited to the world around him.  Something would have to go.  Can you feel sad for Billy Hughes?  I think you can feel sorry for Billy Hughes and also for his victims.  Maybe as Jean Hughes said he was let down by the Prison Services.  Jean Hughes attributed Billy Hughes’ crimes to his mental health.

Jean Hughes seems to me  noble.

My guess is that Billy Hughes’ actions were a response to a world which he didn’t understand.  What is the state of mind of a father who cuts the throat of a ten year old girl.

Other minds: how can somebody look and sound like us and be so different?


Of all the people I have ever read about none captures  attention like Gill Moran.  There are people who have suffered worse losses but not many  In two days she lost her husband, her father, her mother and her daughter.  There is a difference in tone in those days.  People don’t suffer from stress or have counselling.  People were stoical, didn’t dwell on things… carry on.

Gill Moran remarried.  Two years after the events she married Jim Mulqueen who was a cousin of her husband and looked  slightly like him.  In 1980 they had a daughter.  Things did not all go well… her husband took to drink.  Possibly tension and grief had an impact.  Eleven years after the events at Pottery Cottage he was jailed for two years for threatening a  publican with a shotgun.

gm and child

Some people say that suffering makes you better but they are mostly wrong.

When Gill came home on Wednesday  12 January, 1977 her world changed forever by circumstances beyond her control…

For a time Billy Hughes actions became a figure of speech:ill do a

Thanks as usual to Blackpool Local History Centre and also to Robert Wright who suggested Billy Hughes as a subject.



Ricardo Sacci, hunger artist. 1929.

This is not a crime but a man died.  If you live in Blackpool you have walked past the spot where he appeared.  You will have walked past the house where he died.

On Sunday November 3rd 1929 Richard Hans Jone died at 19 Cookson Street.  He was 48 years old.  Ricardo Sacci was internationally famous for his fasting activities.  He had spent 65 days in a glass case at 76 Church Street without eating.  He lived on soda water and 20 cigarettes a day.

Why?  Money.  People paid to see Ricardo  whose real name was  Richard Jone.  For his performance he used the name Ricardo Sacco  and I will call him Ricardo.   Ten thousand people a day paid a penny to see him.  He received letters from women all over the world and he was offered work in Philadelphia.  But he was planning to retire in Blackpool.  He was prompted to extend his fast by a week, possibly fatally,  in Blackpool to beat his French rival Moss le Blanc who was also fasting in Blackpool.

Richard Jone was trained as a baker in the Netherlands but as a young man he came to England.  He was a young man of great strength and endurance.  He discovered  fasting before the war where he appeared at Southend.  In 1913 when he was thirty one Richard married Mary Jane Sophia Gifford who was seventeen.

During the First World War he served abroad in the British Army.

After the war he continued fasting.  He made a career out of fasting probably in Europe as well as Southend and Manchester.   Why?  Well for money and because he was good at it and because there was an established tradition of “hunger artists” in Europe.  These originally claimed religious motives and were likely a mixture of frauds and people with mental illnesses.  In the nineteenth and twentieth century these became showmen and were exhibited at carnivals and circuses.  In most cases the motive was money although one American “hunger artist” was independently wealthy and did it as a challenge.  It is slightly jaw-dropping that at the time of Ricardo Sacci’s fast there was another hunger artist in Blackpool and it was rivalry which caused Ricardo Sacci to extend his fast.  The more suspicious amongst us will wonder how we know that Ricardo kept to his fast.  How do we know that when the show closed he didn’t pop out for a well-deserved packet of fish and chips and a nice pint?  We don’t but the evidence suggests that he didn’t.  Later shows…”the Starving Brides” were straightforward frauds, but in this case the impresario… the elusive Luke Gannon… may not have fully taken on the lesson that he later learned… you can exhibit anybody and make any claims…  people pay to gawk not to research.  In any case Ricardo had a reputation  which drew more people in and he was almost certainly genuine in his fast.

Ricardo as the photo shows was a personable gentleman and many of his followers were ladies.  As the West Lancashire Evening Gazette says: “he received hundreds of letters and photographs from women admirers.” Ricardo undertook his fast against medical advice and he extended it for a week because of his rivalry with another “hunger artist” Moss le Blanc.  His fast lasted for 65 days.  I cannot find a reliable record of a longer fast.   Whether it was a record or not it is close to the longest recorded fast.

After his fast Ricardo was unwell.  He had been advised against the fast on account of stomach trouble and more seriously an enlarged liver.  Possibly earlier fasts had compromised his health.  After a fast people are unable to eat normally and have died for  through eating after a  fast.  Ricardo went on a careful diet including milk and eggs.  But after some recovery he became ill again and died at his home at Cookson Street.

His death was headline news because of his celebrity and his adoring followers.  There was an inquest and the details are unpleasant.

At the inquest it was found that Ricardo  appeared in a glass case at Church Street.  The site, an arcade,  was owned by a gentleman called Cohen.  I assume that it was sub-let to Luke Gannon.  Luke Gannon is never mentioned in the Inquest although the Coroner, Harold Parker, makes disparaging comments about the circumstances in which Ricardo was exhibited.  Ricardo’s mother in law, Sarah Gifford, who stayed with him in Cookson Street, testified that he had not been in the best of health. Ricardo Sacco’s fast had started on 29 June.  A Blackpool doctor, Clifford Ward, had advised against the fast because of Ricardo’s known ill-health.  Ricardo’s fast lasted until September 1st when Dr Clifford Ward saw him again.  He was very weak and Dr Ward advised a diet of milk and water.  He was later able to eat custard and stewed fruit and then eggs and chicken.  But Ricardo’s health deteriorated: “I feel I will never get better.”

He died on November 3 1929 from cardiac failure, ascites, dropsy and his liver condition. Dr Ward said that Ricardo’s fast had contributed to his death.

The inquest revealed the squalid conditions at 76 Church Street.  Not only was Ricardo displayed in a glass case but other attractions included bears, monkeys and “funny cats.”  Ricardo  complained that it was a menangerie and was unhappy with the conditions.

The coroner was critical of the manager… the elusive Luke Gannon who it seems was: “Out of town.”  When he wanted to be Luke Gannon could be very present.  The chances are that being a money orientated person he detected an opportunity and was not  displeased by the publicity surrounding Ricardo’s death.  In future he would display the “Starving Brides” where the starving was  fraudulent.  If you don’t altogether like Luke Gannon you have to admire his audacity.  When Mahatma Gandhi went on a hunger strike Luke Gannon wrote to him and asked him if he wanted to do it on the Golden Mile.  And the Empress of Abyssinia protesting against Italian Invasion… Luke Gannon…  well you can guess.  His assessment of the public: : “50% of them are certifiable 30% on the brink and the other 20% living on the others.” …  No sentimentalist Luke Gannon and his shadowy presence and his conflicts with Blackpool Council… who didn’t like him at all… went on for decades.  The Rector of Stiffkey… who was working for Luke Gannon was charged with attempting suicide and imprisoned in 1935.  He was later awarded damages against Blackpool Council (anyone who makes money from Blackpool Council…).   Surely Blackpool Council had Ricardo Sacci in mind.

Richard Hans Jone… Ricardo Sacci… was a pious Catholic.  Following a Requiem Mass at the Sacred Heart.  As the West Lancashire Evening Gazette says: “it was attended by a large congregation nearly all of whom were women! (sic) ” He was buried at Layton Cemetery on Thursday 7 November 1929.  His fifteen year old daughter Sadie  was present as was another “hunger artist”  Raymond Tac who came to pay his respects.

Fasting began as a religious custom and then became a commercial proposition and then it became a political act. Now even Ian Brady has got into the act…

There is a lot we do not know as there is with everything.  Where was Ricardo’s wife?  He seems to have had good relations with his in-laws and his daughter.  And was it more than a money-making proposition?  Was there was some inner compulsion.  But we will never know.

Spare  a second to think Ricardo Sacci when you walk down Church Street.


Psychogeography of Fleetwood

Fleetwood.  I recommend depressives visit Fleetwood.  Visit it when the sky is leaden and a feeble sun plays on the mudbanks of the abandoned docks mocking  hope.    Gloom at this level is enchanting.


There are architectural beauties… Queens Terrace, the North Euston.  And there are the neatest terraced houses I have  seen.




Cardinal Allen who was born down the coast at Rossall Grange advised the Spanish Armada and hoped to become Archbishop of Canterbury when the Spanish Armada restored Catholicism.

Look at the OS map and you will see a Roman Road that is leading to… well possibly Fleetwood.  There is the strong possibility that the road did not exist.  Nobody has been able to find it.  There may even been a pre-Roman port at Fleetwood since there was a  link between Ireland and the Setantii tribe who occupied this area in pre-Roman times.  The mythical Irish hero Cuchulain was a Sentatii and his adventures may have taken place in the North West of England.  But then again they may not.   There may have been a hill fort at Bourne Hill.    The Roman Road on maps happens because Blackpool’s first and wonderful historian the boxing Clergyman William  Thornber managed to convince OS compilers that it was there.   Maybe he said he’d punch them if they didn’t put it in. Discussing the location of Setantiorum (the missing Roman port) is a graveyard for lunatics ( same league as the location of  King Arthur’s kingdom).  So here goes…  on the one hand there is a  lack of archaeological evidence, on the other hand there are three coin hordes and many individual coins found around the Wyre Estuary including at Rossall Point current location of  Fleetwood Golf Course.

Anyway if you like to think that Fleetwood was the location of Setantiorum it does add to the theme of abandonment.  There is in Fleetwood a street called Abbots Walk.  It is said that the name precedes the building of Fleetwood.  Abbots  crossed the Wyre to collect and supervise their holdings in the Fylde.  Rossall Hall was originally a Grange…  monastic land managed by a tenant.

Modern Fleetwood started with Sir Peter Hesketh Fleetwood who was cursed with with the ability to foretell the future inaccurately.   He  believed that a Northern Seaside Resort served by that new-fangled railway  machine was a great idea.  He was wrong in thinking it was Fleetwood.  Decimus Burton was the architect and the beautiful buildings of Fleetwood… Queen’s Terrace where Burton lived and the North Euston.. have a Regency look.





jan-2017-042 Long story short, Hesketh-Fleetwood near bankrupted himself, he was a bad money-manager and his political life… he was a Tory MP kept him busy while his charming steward robbed him.  At the time it was thought that the railway could not deal with the  gradients of Cumbria so that Fleetwood would be the Northern Terminus and travellers to Scotland would go North by Steamer.  More powerful engines made Cumbria and Scotland accessible.  Queen Victoria came to Fleetwood by rail to continue to Scotland by steamer.

Poor Sir Peter lost his wife and his beloved daughter Maria who is in a glass coffin in the family vault at St Chads, Poulton.  He had to sell off his land to pay his bills and became more reclusive.  To add to his troubles he lost an eye following an illness.

They built  a railway from Preston to Fleetwood in 1840.  A man from Preston drank too much and died falling off the train.    Fleetwood thrived although Sir Peter lost money.  Then they built a line from Poulton to Blackpool.  Fleetwood’s career as a holiday resort was over.

Sir Peter died a disappointed man.  He was a Tory and therefore a tosser but he was a  humane man, opposed to capital punishment and slavery and concerned for the welfare of workers.

Fleetwood still survived around the Port and the fishing industry.  The second biggest fishing port in England.  And then it declined.


You realise the loss.  First it was the Romans, then it was the Northern Railway Terminus, then it was the fishing industry and the  railway and the ferry and the Roll on Roll Off Containerport…  Fleetwood is always being abandoned.  Trawlermen were well paid and in the terraced houses there is a feeling of a prosperous past, adornments you do not see in other towns…





The feeling of abandonment is intense round the docks where the huge abandoned remains of the Roll on Roll Off Containerships lie next to the abandoned Fishing Docks in the track of the abandoned railway and all around there are abandoned buildings associated with fishing, the are is dotted with abandoned containers…  and the eerie connection  between abandoned human activity on a giant scale and the muddy Wyre.

There is something tragic about the god awful things that have replaced seafaring.  Freeport with its hair raisingly vapid sketch of a port with a couple of faux lighthouses and the strange empty new housing with skin crawling names like Trawler Close.



System built houses are  engineered to give an illusion of individuality.  And the whole bloody thing is a kind of heritage based pastiche of what somebody thinks is a connection with the past when the houses could be in Shangai or Dar Es Salem or Milton Keynes as if a name confers an identity…

Well maybe it does.  I like to think of those weird unpeopled newly built housing estates with names like Fisherman’s Walk as a kind of Las Vegas.   Maybe this is the future and it is kind of funny…

Fleetwood may have its faults but at least it isn’t  Lytham and it is the most beautiful of the Fylde towns.  And before we get carried away with Fleetwood’s glorious past…   If you take a fishing port the most memorable in its history except tragedy.   There is a monument to the Gault which sank in a storm.  I was surprised to read that the crew did not come exclusively from Fleetwood… one was from Blackpool and one from Preston.  And there is something left over… something noble about Fleetwood.

It is this mixture of  abandonment,  tragi-comic  fake heritage and wonderful architecture that make Fleetwood a powerful antidepressant.  It is a metaphor of elements of melancholy that end up making you feel  elated.  Wherever you go there is the mysterious smell of fish.

I like to bring Marx into things because the old devil’s been abandoned like Fleetwood so let me try this.  Fleetwood workers were dependent for their lives on cooperation and were community minded where Blackpool residents thrived on competition and individualism.

I have been told that (this was in the seventies and eighties) that hard drugs were not tolerated in Fleetwood.   And that Fleetwood did not suffer from the drug fuelled crime that was characteristic of Blackpool.  A bank worker told me that when it was easy to get loans Blackpool people used to ask for a loan for a new kitchen and take themselves off to Benidorm for a month.  Fleetwood residents didn’t.  Of course all this tight knit community malarkey has a downside… intolerance of difference.


Fleetwood Pier along with the aurora boralis and the Taj Mahal is something that you have to see.  Well actually  more important.  You time travel seventy years back.  Mr Harry Allen the hangman who hanged Hanratty gave out change here after he retired from hanging.  John Lennon who took a great interest in the Hanratty case used to go on holidays here as a child.  I am not  unconvinced that Fleetwood Pier was not a creation of Salvador Dali.



Wilfred Owen the war poet spent two  months in Fleetwood in 1916, where he supervised the shooting range, which is where Fleetwood Golf Club stands.   His mother sent him a letter telling him to get a warm coat and he did.  Going to Blackpool (by tram?) to Rawcliffes (?).  There is something infinitely sad that Owen’s mother was concerned about the cold. As if that was the problem.  He died in action on 4 November 1918.





There are many gymns in Fleetwood.  It is as if people try to recreate the physical life of the Port with activity.  And do I like Fleetwood… I don’t like it I adore it.

And who know something might  crop up.  A new port facility?  A hydro-electric barrier?  Here is what I saw walking round Fleetwood.



And  there is Fisherman’s Friend.  It seems that trawlermen were often heavy smokers and that these helped clear there bronchials on deck in the Arctic.  I misremembered Paul Simon: “My father was a prominent frogman.  My mother was a Fisherman’s Friend. ”

With its inquisition supporting traitor Cardinal Allen and Peter Hesketh-Fleetwood’s daughter in her glass coffin, and its lost trawlers, and its jolly change giving hangman on the pier, and its doomed poet Wilfred Owen, those of a morbid disposition , such as me, can find a gothic element.  In February 1989 Harry Baines an odd job man and father of two had been playing snooker in a Fleetwood pub.  He left and he has never been seen since.



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