The worst disaster in the history of the RNLI, 27 lifeboatmen were lost attempting to save the crew of a foundering shipThe Southport and St Anne’s Lifeboat Disaster
(Augusta Carolina Rosaline Wingfield died 12th October 1947)
The Queen of the Spiral – The Belle of the Ball!
One of the most wonderful entertainers to grace Blackpool ~ that you’ve never heard of!
Also known as ‘Alphonsine La Belle Rose’ Queen of the Spiral (or sometimes just plain Mrs Wingfield) Augusta was, in her day, a world renowned artistè who traversed the globe with her Giant Spiral act, performing at such illustrious places as the Folie Bergere.
Her father was the owner of a Russian circus, she was German by birth, but professed to be a french mademoiselle when using her mètier persona!
Putting down roots in Blackpool in around 1914, along with her husband John Wingfield, a Canadian who ran a successful performing dogs act, Augusta continued to entertain the public who visited the seaside town. (John and Augusta appear on the same bill together in 1885 at the Brighton Aquarium so this may be around the time they first met.)
She famously astounded the crowds when performing her spiral ascension act at The Royal Palace Gardens at Raikes Hall. The audience were always delighted, as balanced on a giant sphere, Alphonsine precariously climbed the twists and turns of the circumvoluted tower. . .backwards!
But Alphonsine was also renowned for having a saucy side too -and nothing pleased the Victorian gentleman more, than when upon her decent, she began to discard items of her clothing for titillation purposes, which certainly aroused lots of interest! She often ended these performances completely nude and as she had done this while moving (it seems stationary nudity was okay at the time) she was arrested seventeen times and appeared in court charged with offending standards of public decency.
After a fall from her ball and damaging her back Alphonsine continued with her act, but later, being plagued by back problems tweaked her career performing a less raunchy Serpentine Dance act at the Winter Gardens and Hippodrome Theatre (later the ABC), eventually retiring in 1918.
A full twenty years before her demise Augusta//Alphonsine had purchased not one, but two plots in Layton Cemetery and had the graves ‘hollowed out’ to form an underground tomb. She intended to spend the afterlife in comfort.
Augusta sadly passed away on the 12th October 1947, she reached the great age of 92.
Her funeral was the affair she deserved and hoped for. Dressed in a beautiful white costume from her hay days of stardom and adorned in her finest jewellery she was laid in a white coffin. As the grand cortège travelled slowly to the graveside her awaiting tomb was bedecked in an ocean of pure white blooms . . . which was exactly what she had instructed. In her will she had stated”I have lived like a queen, I shall die like one.”
Today we are traveling just over 30 miles to the city of Lancaster, to hear a tale so iniquitous you’ll be glad we took the trip. We are staying inside the county and within this prose you will discover a tenuous link to Blackpool.
After studying at the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh, Buktyar Rustomji Ratanji Hakim (aka Dr. Buck Ruxton- sometimes spelled Ruston) relocated to England. He was working as a well respected and popular GP in Lancaster, Lancashire by the 1930s. He lived at 2 Dalton Square with his ‘wife’ Isabella Kerr (common law) and their three children. Ruxton’s esteemed reputation was largely down to the fact he often waived his treatment fees if he believed his patients couldn’t afford to pay him.
In addition to the family there was also a live in maid cum housekeeper Mary Jane Rogerson who mainly cared for the children; Elisabeth, Diane & William.
Despite his excellent standing in the community Ruxton was also a wife beater, assaulting Isabella on many occasions, resulting in them both being questioned by the police as Ruxton became convinced his wife was an adutress.
Late on the evening of 14th September 1935 Isabella returned home from a trip to Blackpool illuminations. By the 15th she had disappeared.
A grisly discovery was made on the 29th September 1935 beneath a bridge in Moffat, Dumfriesshire. Susan Haines Johnson encountered four bundles wrapped in clothing which contained slices of flesh, severed limbs, bones, and two heads wrapped in copies of the Daily Herald (dated 6 August 1935). Two forearms were encased in newspaper dated from the 6th August of that year.
A further search revealed more body parts.
Autopsies revealed the bodies of two women, one aged 35/45 the other 18/25. The older woman had sustained five stab wounds in the chest area, she had numerous bruises and several broken bones. Her hyoid bone fracture indicated she had been strangled.
The second woman sustained severe blunt trauma, suggesting she had been bludgeoned to death. Both bodies had their organs removed and had been drained of blood before dismemberment ( a task that would have taken hours)
The unfortunate women were later identified as Isabella Kerr and Mary Rogerson.
Ruxton was charged with both of the murders, it is thought he killed his wife in a fit of rage which was witnessed by the maid so she had to be disposed of too.
He dismembered their corpses in the family bathroom before dumping them across the border.
Following his arrest on the 12th October Dr Ruxton was charged with the maid’s murder, but it wasn’t until 5th November 1935 he was also charged with his wife’s.
He pleaded not guilty at his hearing, claiming the bodies had been miss identified.
He was sentenced to death but appealed against this decision, his appeal was dismissed and Ruxton was hanged at HM Prison Manchester on 12th May 1936.
The gruesome nature of Ruxton’s crime captured the imagination of the public, who avidly followed the story in the newspapers. The bath in which Ruxton had dismembered the bodies was used as a horse trough at Lancashire Constabulary Headquarters, Hutton, Preston.
Ruxton’s house, in Lancaster’s Dalton Square, stood derelict for many decades, the City Council completely refurbished it in the 1980s, making it part of the adjoining Palatine Hall offices. The Grade II Listed Building, opposite Lancaster Town Hall is now home to the city’s Architecture Department.
During the trial the pubic reveled in the ghastly details and in the morbid music hall style of the day, the popular song written by Jimmy Kennedy and made prevalent at the time by Bing Crosby “Red Sails in the Sunset” was modified with these gory new lyrics:
Red stains on the carpet,
Red stains on the knife
Oh, Dr Buck Ruxton, you cut up your wife.
The nursemaid she saw you, and threatened to tell,
So Dr Buck Ruxton, you killed her as well.
September 28th marks the anniversary of the death of Dr George Billing.
Dr Billing was a registered medical practitioner at 121 Church Street, Blackpool, personal physician to the Mayors of Blackpool and the towns pathologist.
George was born in Manchester and his father, John was a surgeon. He went to Liverpool to become a medical student and by 1876 he’s a surgeon’s assistant living in Lord Street, Southport. In the 1901 census he states he is a physician and surgeon.
His name might have been lost in history if it wasn’t for his involvement with the infamous ‘Brides in the Bath’ murders’, for Doctor Billing examined Mrs Alice Smith (née Alice Burnham) not once but twice, both in life and posthumously!
At the insistence of her nefarious husband Alice was taken for a consultation with the good doctor, where Billing noted “She was a short, pale woman and extremely fat. I examined her tongue which was rather foul, dirty and coated, I believe she was suffering from nothing more than constipation.”
Their next meeting was at the Smiths Regent Road lodgings, where Dr Billing had the unenviable job of freeing the body of Alice from the confines of the tub she had been drowned in.
The next day, after a thorough post-mortem examination, he ruled her demise as an unfortunate misadventure and it was recorded as accidental death due to drowning.
In a strange twist of fate Alice & Dr Billing are buried just yards apart in Layton Cemetery.
There are a few of us graveyard detectives who have our own suspicions about the post mortem on Alice Burnham carried out by Billing, particularly his decision that her death was the result of a “tragic accident”. The substantial amount of money Smith stood to gain and the two life insurances he had taken out on Alice should she pre-decease him ought to have raised at least some concern! Smith’s exoneration also meant he was able to continue with his villainous ways and subsequently go on to murder his third victim Margaret Lofty.
Billing was also called to the aid of at least one other Layton Cemetery resident, Edward Dewhurst. In 1906, 37 year old Edward worked at the Willow Pattern Shooting Gallery, by Blackpool’s Big Wheel.
After a customer (James Johnson) took an interest in a particular rifle, Edward invited him to examine it further as it ‘was not loaded’ before proceeding to fix the range’s targets. Unbeknownst to Edward a single bullet had become trapped in the firearm, which went off, the bullet striking him in the neck. Dr Billing attended the tragedy but was unable to save Mr Dewhurst who died at the scene.
After his death George left £17044 3s 8d.
His last address was listed as 25 Park Rd. Blackpool.
Once described as a ‘tragic simpleton’ Alfred Merrifield (husband of the infamous Blackpool Poisoner Louisa May Merrifield) always denied any knowledge of his wife’s nefarious deeds.
Alfred was Louisa’s third husband and 24 years her senior. He was believed to be subjugated & browbeaten by his domineering spouse.
But appearances can be deceptive; Mr Merrifield was in fact cunning, scheming and unscrupulous. He happily claimed his half of Sarah Ricketts bungalow (pictured above) and battled with the Ricketts family for his wife’s share after she was hanged.
Not one to miss a lucrative enterprise, Alfred set himself up as ‘The Murderess’ Husband’ in a kiosk on Blackpool’s Golden Mile, regaling the passing crowds with details of his wife’s atrocious actions! After selling his story he donated Louisa’s clothes to Louis Tussauds Waxworks and received a £200 payment for allowing his wax image to stand alongside hers.
Alfred died on the 24th June 1962 aged 80. His body was cremated at Carleton Crematorium where his ashes were placed in Rose Bed no.1.
Many older churches have a lych gate built over the entrance to the churchyard marking the division between consecrated and unconsecrated ground.
Originally they housed a stone slab or or timber shelf to rest the coffin upon, considering it was the place where the bearers rested before a burial.
Although these gates first appeared in medieval times, the 1549 Prayer Book required the priest to meet the corpse at the churchyard entrance, thus encouraging the provision of lych gates to shelter the corpse and the funeral party for that purpose.
Often coffins had to be carried many miles along routes known as corpse roads because not all communities had their own burial grounds.
The name derives from the Anglo Saxon word ‘lich’ – meaning corpse.
This old postcard features the lych gate at All Hallows’ Bispham.
18th Sept. Louisa Merrifield, The Blackpool Poisoner, executed (1953)
By the age of 46, Louisa had been married three times, her third husband being the 74 year old Alfred. She found it difficult to hold down a job and had already served a prison sentence for ration book fraud.
Somewhat fortuitously (or so it seemed) in the March of 1953, the couple were able to gain the position of companions cum housekeepers to the octogenarian Miss Sarah Ricketts who resided in a bungalow in the sunny seaside town of Blackpool.
Growing tired of providing the care their employer required, the nefarious couple proceeded to employ a range of equally nasty methods, including instigating terrible arguments and withholding food, to persuade Miss Ricketts to change her will in their favour and bequeath her bungalow and substantial savings to the dastardly pair.
At one point Louisa was even overheard bragging to friends that she was heading home to ‘lay out’ her employer, & when one acquaintance, Veronica King, asked when the old lady had died the wicked Mrs Merifield replied ‘not yet, but she soon will be’! In fact, , Merrifield regularly boasted about her impending inheritance, while the deceased was alive and in relatively good health.
Keen to get her hands on the bequest, Louisa Merrifield set about planning the death of Sarah Ricketts – a plan which seemed to present very little difficulty.
Miss Ricketts was very partial to eating jam, in fact she ate little else. She enjoyed it straight from the jar with a spoon, which, on occasion, Louisa would have to administer.
This led the cunning Mrs Merrifield to come up with the plan to add an extra ingredient . . . Rodine rat poison.
A Post Mortem revealed Miss Ricketts had ingested Rodine and a dirty spoon later found in Louisa’s handbag was discovered coated in phosphorus ( an ingredient of the rat poison).
Once poor Sarah was dead and buried, the Merrifields wasted no time in claiming their inheritance from the Ricketts will.
On the 30th of April, Louisa Merrifield was arrested and charged with the murder of Sarah Ricketts. As she was taken to Strangeways Prison in the back of a police car she showed no remorse, feeling cheerful enough to wave through the window at the assembled press photographers.
Alfred Merrifield continued to live at the bungalow and seemed quite content until, when attending a prison visit with his wife, he too found himself under arrest!
After a trial lasting eleven days the jury could not be certain that Alfred had played a part in the murder, and he was released, free to pick up his share of the bungalow and half of Sarah Ricketts wealth.
However, Louisa May Merrifield was found guilty and was sentenced to death.
She was hanged at Strangeways Prison on the 18th September 1953, at 8am, by the most prolific executioner of the twentieth century, Albert Pierrepoint.
By lunchtime that day she was buried in an unmarked grave beside the prison walls.
After her death Merrifield was still said to be lingering within the prison. The apparition of a short woman dressed in black walking on the landing of B wing near to the former condemned cell was reportedly seen by many people, including a prisoner and a hospital officer. The spectre was always accompanied by a sudden drop in temperature.
Following the Strangeways riots of 1990 her body was exhumed (along with others) and taken to Blackley Cemetery for cremation.
But what became of the seemingly innocent man once described as a ‘tragic simpleton’ Alfred Merrifield? That’s a whole new post for another time!!
On the 12th September 1940, eight civilians were killed (many lying undiscovered in the wreckage for weeks) and a further 14 injured, at their homes in and around Blackpool’s Seed Street.
Enemy bombs thought to be aimed for Blackpool North Train Station blitzed the streets from an aircraft that had just raided Manchester. (The site today is occupied by the new Town Hall offices and Sainsbury’s Supermarket.)
This unremarkable, unmarked plot in Layton Cemetery is the eternal resting place of Geoff and Sarah Donovan, who sadly were both killed during the total destruction of their terraced home on that fateful night.
Blackpool suffered only three direct hits during the war (WWII) and this was the most devastating of them all. The German aircraft was spotted by Walter Dutton, who was working as a lift operator at Blackpool Tower. He looked on in horror as he witnessed a single plane break ranks and swoop rapidly downwards, heading inland before discharging a 500lb high-explosive. All but one of the Seed Street houses were destroyed.
The Vickers Factory at Squires Gate (producer of Wellington Bombers) and nearby Lindale Gardens suffered a non lethal bombing. Leopold Grove was also hit, but by some stroke of luck no one was injured.
It is said documents have been found suggesting Blackpool was deliberately spared by the Luftwaffe as Hitler had a special fondness for the resort. The Fuehrer was hoping to become Chancellor of Britain and wanted to keep Blackpool exactly as it was so he could enjoy the town himself and send his battle fatigued troops for some rest and recuperation by the sea!
With a history darker than the blackest pool, Blackpool, Fylde &Wyre (and the surrounding area) have much more to offer than fresh air and fun!
Forget arcades, ice-cream and candy floss, this is the place to discover murder and mayhem, fascinating folklore, ghosts and hauntings: along with the tales behind the tombstones of local burial grounds.
As an amateur historian, cemetery tour guide and paranormal enthusiast I have a plethora of anecdotes, legends and chronicles to entertain and fascinate even the most indifferent of readers . . .