Mother and daughter killed in Preston after inhaling deadly fumes

Local historian Keith Johnson looks at the tragic case of a faulty flue causing carbon monoxide poisoning deaths.

Wednesday, 20th May 2020, 12:30 pm
Kings Arms was popular in the post war era
Kings Arms was popular in the post war era

On New Year’s Eve 1945 Evalyne Sullivan, a 45 years old mother of seven, came to Preston seeking work and arranged to stay initially with her sister Margaret Crombie at her Derby Street home.

Within a couple of days she had secured live in employment as housekeeper at the King’s Arms on Stanley Street. A week later her married daughter Helen Johnson, aged 20, also came to Preston and landlord Thomas Stock engaged her as a barmaid. The two new employees agreeing to share a first floor bedroom.

On the second Thursday of January 1946 mother and daughter, after finishing work, went off to bed by 11 o’clock. The following morning when the two women had not risen at the usual hour the landlord knocked on their room door, but got no response. After a second knock minutes later he asked his wife to enter the room.

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As she entered she observed Mrs. Sullivan lying on the floor under the window and her daughter in the double bed both in their nightgowns. They appeared unconscious and despite the efforts of the landlord and his wife Kathleen they could not be aroused. Prompt medical assistance was soon forthcoming but the pair were pronounced dead. Police enquiries began immediately and Dr. Firth of the NW Forensic Laboratory was engaged to assist investigations.

By the following Tuesday an inquest was held before county coroner William Blackhurst.

Dr. Smith, a pathologist at Preston Royal Infirmary, was called and stated that following the post mortem examinations he had concluded that both deaths were due to carbon monoxide poisoning.

Police Insp Alan Dawson of the Preston Borough Police told the hearing he had gone to the hotel along with two detectives and observed the dead women.

He stated that there had been a strong smell of coke fumes and he had opened the window to clear the room, although the smell lingered for quite a while.

Amongst the other witnesses was Miss Crombie who told the hearing that she had visited her sister on the afternoon before the tragedy and remarked about a peculiar sulphur like smell in the bedroom. Being told by her sister that it was coming from the boiler downstairs.

Landlord Thomas Stock told the hearing that both the women had appeared quite well when they retired on the Thursday night and that nobody, including Miss Crombie, had informed him about a peculiar smell at anytime.

He then went on to say that when he entered the bedroom the following morning he noticed the smell of coke fumes, similar to those he sometimes observed on the landing when he stoked up the boiler.

He concluded by saying that the boiler had been in the hotel when he took over in March 1940 and that he had never had it inspected because he had never had any complaints.

A boiler system expert was then quizzed and he stated that whilst carrying out tests over the weekend he had noticed smoke percolating from the brickwork of the chimney at different levels and in conclusion he stated that faulty brickwork was the problem not the heating system.

The coroner told the jury that there was no evidence of foul play and that a faulty flue had been responsible for the tragic deaths.

The inquest jury returning a verdict of accidental death in accordance with the findings.

The King’s Arms from early Victorian days spent the 1980s as Joplins before returning to its original name prior to closing in 1999 and the building nowadays shows little sign of its chequered past.