Book review: A Grim Almanac of Lancashire by Jack Nadin

There’s an old saying that ‘the friendliest folk in Britain are those up north’.

By Pam Norfolk
Thursday, 17th February 2011, 6:00 am

But don’t be fooled...Lancashire’s symbolic blood-red rose and those ‘dark, satanic mills’ tell another, more chilling story.

Every page – indeed every day of every month – of Jack Nadin’s grim almanac of ghastly tales from around the county reveal a history littered with murders, suspicious deaths, fatal love triangles, hangings, disasters and witchcraft.

And the dastardly deeds are not confined to the cut-throat menace of the big cities; the quiet backwaters of rural Lancashire have produced their fair share of murder and mayhem.

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Nadin’s compelling compendium, which covers eight centuries of nastiness, is not for faint-hearted southerners as it tackles a rough, tough brand of northern crime and horror.

Most of the county’s murderers ended their days on the notorious gallows at Lancaster Castle, so it is rather ironic that a serious of suspicious deaths took place within its walls in 1911.

James Bingham was carrying on a family tradition when he took over as resident caretaker at the castle following the sudden death of his father.

He quickly appointed his sister Margaret as housekeeper and when she too died shortly after arriving, he replaced her with his half-sister Edith.

Within a few months, James also died – after eating a steak cooked by Edith. Foul play was suspected, the bodies of the three Binghams were exhumed and each contained a fatal quantity of arsenic.

Edith was charged with murder but acquitted because her connection to the deaths could not be proved. It comes as no surprise to learn that she ‘retreated into obscurity’.

The last public hanging at the castle took place in March 1865 when Irishman Stephen Burke of Brunswick Street, Preston, paid the ultimate price for beating his wife to death at their home with a 4ft thick bedpost in front of 12-year-old Agnes, eldest of their five children.

Earlier in the century, felons could be hanged for the most trivial of crimes - making off with four hams, stealing a quantity of handkerchiefs and receiving stolen goods.

Christopher Wilcock, a ‘simple-looking’ farmer from Winmarleigh near Garstang, was hanged for defrauding his landlord in 1831. Unfortunately for Wilcock, his landlord happened to be John Wilson-Patten, MP for Lancashire.

Travelling in those early 19th century decades could also be risky. In 1821, a clerk from Preston and a bridgemaster from Burnley had a lucky escape when they were fired at by five highwaymen as they drove their gig through Tarleton.

In 1886, the small town of Kirkham was rocked by the shocking murder of three young sisters aged 18 months, four and six, at the hands of their 31-year-old ex-police constable father, Alfred Bligh.

After his wife died and he was forced to resign from the force when his wife’s sister had a baby to him, he strangled his three daughters before cutting his own throat and jumping out of a bedroom window.

Miraculously, he survived and was found guilty of murder despite pleading insanity. His death sentence was later quashed.

Watling Street Road in Fulwood was the scene of a bizarre double death in 1883 when solicitor’s clerk James Proctor, 22, shot his fiancée, Mary Yates, a 20-year-old servant, through the head as they walked along the street and then turned the pistol on himself.

And in 1838, at the sleepy little village of Inglewhite, near Preston, labourer’s wife Ann Sanderson poisoned herself and her five children using arsenic in a flour pudding after an annuity from her mother ended and she became tormented by her loss of status.

Leisure time often needed a health warning in the 19th century. ‘Up and Down Fighting,’ a game common among Lancashire colliers, had no rules and more often than not ended in the death of one of the opponents.

At a lodging house in Lancaster Road, Preston, in 1872, a game of ‘Bull Fight’ – which involved slapping each other across the face – turned nasty when a man was fatally stabbed in the eye with a clasp knife.

Nadin’s book is a real cornucopia of crime...a baby buried alive on Southport sands, bear-baiting at a Walton-le-Dale inn, deadly explosions at Fulwood workhouse and a woman’s head found in a peat bog at Pilling to name but a few.

With photographs, contemporary illustrations and maps to accompany the terrible tales, this is a year of yarns that will linger long in the memory.

(History Press, paperback, £14.99)