Kindly looking old man was in fact a compulsive pick pocket who targeted a Preston victim

Local historian Keith Johnson looks back at the case of an opportunist thief who picked on the wrtong victim...

Thursday, 21st January 2021, 4:28 pm
The pickpocket was mingling with the holiday crowd in Talbot Square
The pickpocket was mingling with the holiday crowd in Talbot Square

During the August holidays of 1918 two ladies from Preston spent the second week of the month in a boarding house at Blackpool. On the Wednesday afternoon they ventured down Talbot Square and joined the queue to board a tram for a trip along the promenade.

When the tram car arrived Annie Douglas and her sister Mary Jane were in the crush to board and between them was an elderly white bearded man. As Annie moved to get on the tram she felt a tug behind her waist and when she sat down she realised that her pocket was turned inside out and her purse missing.

They observed that the elderly man who had been behind her was walking quickly away from the scene, prompting the sisters to alight from the tram and follow him. They watched him descend the steps of the gents public lavatory and alerted a constable who went to investigate. He could not see anyone acting suspiciously, so the three of them waited at the entrance to the toilets.

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Half an hour later the man appeared and was arrested. Mrs. Douglas stating that in her purse had been two pounds in notes, some silver and two railway tickets.

As they walked to the police station the man appeared to be chewing tobacco, but what he spat out was found to be cardboard used for rail tickets. There was no sign of the purse, nor any treasury notes upon him only a few shillings.

The next day the man who gave his name as John Murray, aged 77, appeared before the Blackpool magistrates accused of larceny and of loitering with intent. According to the police the accused had used the alias of John Woods in the past and was in fact in breach of a police supervision order. A photograph shown to the magistrates revealed a striking resemblance to the accused, but he denied it was him. Whilst the police investigated further he was remanded for another week.

At the later hearing Acting Chief Constable Mr. H. E. Derham told the magistrates that Murray and Woods had been confirmed as the same person after fingerprint examination. He went on to say that Murray had been in court over 30 times and had served at least 15 years in prison. In November 1917 he had been freed from prison in Worcester and had failed to report his locations.

The magistrates after a brief consultation sent Murray to the next Preston Quarter Sessions.

In mid-October 1918 Murray stood in the dock at Preston before the chairman Judge Hugh Sturgess and denied all the charges.

Choosing to give evidence he claimed he had been wrongly accused. He said he was on a day trip from Manchester and that there had been much crushing and pushing as he tried to get on the tram car, so he decide not to bother.

The jury, who were unaware of his criminal past, found him guilty after a short deliberation. Judge Sturges then read out the lengthy list of previous criminal convictions before informing Murray that he was sentenced to three years penal servitude. Remarking that although he had the appearance of a kindly old man he was a compulsive pick pocket who knew all the tricks of his trade.

Mr. Derham was appointed Chief Constable of Blackpool in 1919 and served until his retirement in December 1935 having completed 42 years service with the police. His father Mr. J. C. Derham was the first Chief Constable of Blackpool.