The murder of Abigail Whalley is an unsolved crime.
Many people will know Robins Lane because it is close to Carleton Crematorium. Traditional Christianity was hostile to cremation because it made physical resurrection difficult. As late as the nineteenth century William Gladstone kept a finger he had accidentally shot off to facilitate his resurrection.
I am dwelling on cremation because its history involves my favourite topics… eccentrics and druids. You don’t really get any more eccentric than Doctor William Price… Welsh Nationalist, Socialist, and druid. When his wife gave birth to a son William Price, aged 83, provocatively named him Iesu Grist. The boy died and William Price, in keeping with his druidic beliefs donned his druidic robes and burned the lad in his back garden. He was arrested but burning a dead child does not break any law, probably because when they made laws they never thought anybody would do it. So we owe Carlton Crematorium to the activities of William Price the most lovably loopy person who has walked the earth. Possibly. Druids still meet fortnightly in Blackpool and the Ancient Order of Druids has a long connection with Blackpool. At the opening of North Pier in 1863 a Bard on a Donkey appeared with sixty members of the Order of Druids .
William Price in Druidic outfit. The greatest Welsh Person?
There were three reasons to be cremated: it was hygienic and progressive, it was a denial of traditional christianity (the Catholic Church did not accept cremation until 1983) and it had a classical status to people brought up on Roman and Greek Traditions.
Abigail Whalley had been a teacher in Manchester. Her sister had died a few years previously and her family was prosperous and distinguished but she had no close relatives. She had twice been married and widowed and had her bungalow, Auburn, built at Carleton. She was eighty-five years old. She gave generously to charities. She had a reputation for eccentricity and miserliness.
She seems to have been lonely. And cantankerous. Her cleaner had left and her bungalow was neglected. She wore old fashioned clothes. She was heard to say that she had so much money that she did not know what to do with it. These words are relevant to her fate. Aged 85 she would walk from Blackpool to Carlton to save the bus-fare. She was seen dragging a large piece of oilcloth home. People were discreet but we have the impression of somebody going quietly out of their mind in Carlton.
On Monday May 11 her neighbours noticed she had not lit her fire or opened the blinds. At the bungalow she was found in her bedroom with a fatal head wound. A strong box had blood on it. Nobody knows what was taken. Possibly money from the strongbox and jewellery. The only thing definitely missing was an old-fashioned silver watch.
The Police launched an enquiry.
The investigators must have felt confident. Abigail Whalley’s home was specifically targeted . This means the robber/killer must have had personal knowledge of her. Since there was no car involved the murderer most walked to the bungalow.
The bungalow had no lighting, gas or electric, so the crime was likely to have been committed at first light. This seems especially the case since many of the neighbours kept dogs but no dog had barked. It comes as a shock to realise that a bungalow in Carleton in 1931 did not have gas or electricity. Carleton was a rural village. The most likely escape route for a fugitive was across the fields to Bispham or North Shore. You can still walk from Kincraig Road to Robins Lane along the newly developed Blackpool North Ponds Trail.
The killing most likely happened early on Monday 11 May.
It looked as if a local man had committed the crime.
But nothing turned up. A set of clothes were found in a public toilet but it turned out that a man had given a tramp a set of clothes and he had put them on and left his old clothes behind. There was suspicion about a lavender seller, this was 1931 and the Depression was at its height. The lavender seller was found and cleared.
Finally the Police were searching for a red haired man who was known in Preston and Liverpool and had a scar above his eye. We do not know why he was a suspect . My guess is that he was somebody known to the Police who had been seen in Blackpool. But it is unlikely that a stranger would have had the knowledge to commit this crime.
The Police looked out for the stolen watch but it never appeared. The Police did not find a murder weapon. It may have been a chisel since this could have been used to break into the bungalow and to break into Mrs Whalley’s bedroom which was locked.
A man breaking into a bedroom must be aware that there is somebody inside. Was he from Blackpool and had he heard about this rich widow? Since Abigail Whalley’s bungalow was targeted amongst other homes he must have known the rumours that she was rich and known where she lived. The most likely explanation is that somebody told him. And that person did not tell the Police. . The investigators must have questioned all known burglars living in Blackpool. Maybe they questioned the killer.
Time for irresponsible guessing. The killer lived in Blackpool, was aged between 20 and 40, may have had a job or worked some hours (because of the need to be at work on Monday morning) may have acted in collusions with somebody else who gave him information. If the killer acted on his own he was unlikely to be married.
On the other hand he may not have been working (and the need for money would be a motive) and he may have come across the information accidentally. He may have met Mrs Whalley and spoken to her. It is certain that the reconnoitred the bungalow before the crime.
Why did he kill her? Dawn is breaking and he has come into the bungalow. Mrs Whalley’s room is locked. He breaks open the door. In dawn light Mrs Whalley is much more active then he has expected and he is afraid she will scream so he hits her with the chisel. He opens the chest. There is nothing much there. He goes home across the fields.
And then what?
Unsolved murders are fascinating because there is an untold story. Maybe he never committed another crime. Maybe he went on to become a pillar of society. Maybe he became Mayor or Chief Constable. He had skills which would serve him well: he was persistent, he was determined and he was discreet.
M aybe he learnt his lesson and stuck to minor crime. Maybe he regretted it every day of his life. Or he never thought about it again. He probably lived in Blackpool and died in the later years of the twentieth century. If you have lived in Blackpool from the seventies you probably passed him in the street.
The enquiry failed because there was no evidence at all to follow and the dispirited investigators had no option but to withdraw from the case.
But the murderer got away with it and Mrs Whalley is buried in Poulton Old Cemetery.
After the murder Mrs Abigail Whalley’s bungalow became a tourist attraction and visitors took all the flowers from her garden and the bolder ones sneaked up to the bedroom window of her bungalow to gaze at the spot where the crime happened. Extra passengers made the bus-route to Carleton more profitable. Somebody stole the street sign.
In 1936 the Evening Gazette reported that a Layton Taxi Driver, Harry Hodge, reported picking up a lady at Blackpool North Railway Station and driving her to Robins Lane. As she was alighting he saw an old man with a Punch-like face, sunken eyes, long dark hair and a prominent chin. The woman passenger screamed and ran off. The man disappeared.
The association of the Crematorium, which had opened in 1935,the loneliness and isolation of the spot and memories of sinister events may have triggered Harry Hodge’s experience. There is something other-worldly about Robins Lane. Basically it is a track joining farms: a survival from a forgotten past.
Thanks to Juliette Gregson’s
“Blackpool’s top ten ghosts” http://www.bbc.co.uk/lancashire/content/articles/2006/04/03/spooky_blackpool_feature.shtml
The events are covered in the Blackpool Evening Gazette.