Mystery surrounded poisoning death of popular Preston landlady

St Josephs Church was packed for the funeral service
St Josephs Church was packed for the funeral service
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Local historian Keith Johnson looks at the mysterious death of a licensee whose death remains unexplained...

Shortly after 6pm on the first Sunday of October 1932 a telephone call was received at the surgery of Dr Pimblett in Preston.

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The caller said: “The doctor must come immediately to the Fox and Grapes Inn on Ribbleton Lane. There is not a moment to lose.”

Dr Bateman who answered the call set off immediately to the public house. He found the front door of the inn open, but nobody about and the building in darkness. Making his way upstairs he discovered the licensee Mrs Mary Southworth, aged 34, laying dead on the bathroom floor dressed only in a vest and stockings.

There was a broken hand basin and a strong smell of Lysol in the room. He found two wounds on the woman’s left hand, a superficial cut on the inside of the right thigh and a small amount of blood near the body.

When the police were informed they attempted to trace the mystery telephone caller who had used a public call box at the junction of Ribbleton Avenue and Blackpool Road. One local told the police that she had seen two women in an agitated state in the call box around the time of the call.

The inn itself had no telephone and speculation that Mrs Southworth had made the call herself before returning to the inn was dismissed.

The inquest into the death was opened on the following Tuesday at the Earl Street police station and an appeal for the mystery caller to come forward was issued. Amongst the witnesses called was Elizabeth Sayer, sister of the deceased, who said she had called at the hotel on the Sunday afternoon.

She claimed her sister, who had been a widow for three years, never seemed happier as the pair chatted and laughed. Saying that she had been a healthy woman although troubled with her throat and often gargled with disinfectant.

The police revealed that a bottle of Lysol was found on the dressing room table, but no glass about that had contained Lysol.

Dr Mary Lowry, police surgeon, who had carried out a post-mortem attributed death to asphyxia resulting from an irritant poison. In her opinion it was not a case of suicide.

Some of regulars at the inn were called to testify and it transpired that a number had stayed behind that afternoon after closing time.

The last one’s departing after 4pm and the general feeling being that Mary Southworth had been in good spirits, sharing a laugh and a drink with them.

With the mystery of the telephone caller yet to be resolved the coroner Col H Parker ordered an adjournment of the inquest proceedings for a fortnight.

A couple of days later the funeral of Mary Southworth took place at St Joseph’s Church and over a thousand people lined the route from the Fox and Grapes to the church. After the requiem mass an even bigger crowd were waiting to see the mournful funeral cortège head off to Preston Cemetery.

When the inquest was resumed the police reported that they had been unable to trace the mystery women. Col. Parker stated that there were a good many gaps in the case and felt that an open verdict was the most suitable course.

After a brief consultation the jury returned an open verdict.