THE BLACKPOOL MURDERS THE MYSTERIOUS MURDER OF JOHN GRETRIX 1819 ROBERT PEEL AND THE M’NAGHTEN RULES. ATTEMPTED MURDER OF PRIME MINISTER BY DANIEL M’NAGHTEN DANIEL M’NAGHTEN’S CONNECTION WITH BLACKPOOL
Do your recognise Old Meadows Lane? Probably not. It is an incospicuous lane off Whitegate Drive. It is on the North Side of Whitegate Drive between Glenroyd Close and Knowsley Avenue. One of Blackpool’s most prominent yeomen was murdered there in 1819.
The history of murder in Blackpool begins with a sensational murder of which we sadly know almost nothing. “Mr John Greatrix, who about eighteen or twenty years ago , was barbarously murdered on his return home from Preston market.” So wrote William Thornber in 1837. William Thornber was not a man of few words and it is striking that he passes over this incident so briefly. The spelling of the name is slightly different from the name on the burial record. John Gretrix was the tenant at Whinney Heys, the farm attached to one of the great halls of the area which dated back to Elizabethan times and is the site of Victoria Hospital.
What happened? Blackpool had a population of about 400 at the time. John Gretrix was 49 when he was buried on 27 January 1819 at St Chads in Poulton. What little we know is: The attack was brutal. The victim had been to Preston Market and may have had a drink before his death at the Saddle. The attack happened at Old Meadows Lane. Presumably the attack happened in darkness. If Blackpool was anything like it is now by tea-time the day after the murder everyone in Blackpool would know who did it. Or gossip would have named a murderer. To sum up: one of the leading farmers in the area had been murdered. Everyone would know John Gretrix. The silence is deafening. William Thornber was interested in promoting Blackpool, he was the son in law of Henry Banks, the Father of Blackpool. He wanted to promote Blackpool as a Northern Bath where genteel families could enjoy the health benefits of an area famed for the longevity of its residents, not as somewhere where leading landowners are hacked to death on their way home. If John Gretrix had been to Preston Market he must have been on a horse or a horse and cart. This makes an attack by more than one person more likely. Since it was dark when he was attacked he was probably followed. After all it would be an almighty coincidence if after dark a murderer out for a walk happened to bump into a yeoman on his way back from market. He would have recognised his attackers. Blackpool had a history of wrecking, smuggling and earlier still Catholicism and Jacobitism. Blackpool residents were unlikely to be forthcoming to the authorities. There would have been an inquest but the record is lost. For a generation the murder of John Gretrix must have been a source of gossip. It was the most significant crime in the emerging town. Every household would have named a suspect. The suspect would have greeted his neighbours who would have talked behind his back. The murderer may well have lived in the Blackpool until the 1860s or 1870s and taken his secret to the grave. Blackpool residents entertained themselves with tales of the headless boggart of Whitegate Lane. Later Whitegate Lane and Whitegate Drive as it became the most select part of Blackpool. Most people in emerging Blackpool were farmers and either illiterate or near illiterate and there were two cultures: the polite culture of the wealthier with its dependence on writing and the popular culture which depended on the spoken word hence the strange fact that everybody in Blackpool, Layton, Marton and Hardhorn would have talked about the death of John Gretrix and the murderer and the motive for many years and yet the subject is hardly written about at all.
A walk along Whitegate Drive shows the magnificent homes of early residents. For example the magnificent former Elmslie Girls School at 194 Whitegate Drive was built as a private home. I am always intrigued by a gatepost near Old Meadows Lane. It is not made out of stone, it is made out of metal. Why? I haven’t got the foggiest idea. Edwina, the wife of Louis Mountbatten, lived in Whitegate Drive. She later had an affair with Jawaharlal Nehru the first Indian Prime Minister and the successor to Gandhi. The ever enterprising Lou Gannon who employed the Rector of Stiffkey wrote to Gandhi (and the Empress of Abyssinia) offering them a place amongst his “starving brides to publicise their cause.
One of John Gretrix’s sons, also called John, achieved permanent minor fame by being one of the Seven Men of Preston who signed Joseph Livesey’s declaration of 1832 which started the teetotal movement and the Temperance Movement. He died in Preston on 30th December 1887 aged seventy nine. It is tempting to believe that temperance was a reaction to father’s intemperance. But we haven’t got the foggiest notion if this is true.
ROBERT PEEL The murder of John Gretrix was not investigated. There was no Police Force and the creation of a Police Force was the work of Robert Peel, an occasional visitor to Blackpool. Robert Peel was a phenomenon. He was the Prime Minister of Britain. He was a Tory. He came from the North West. It is said he had a Lancashire accent. Until the 18th Century Lancashire was the poorest part of England. It was undefended from the Scots. Unlike the East Coast there were few ports trading with the continent. It was sparsely populated and the land was boggy. It was traversed by rivers which made road traffic difficult. Until the 11th Century ordinary people spoke a form of Gaelic. When Henry V1 was defeated at the Battle of Townton he wandered around the North West ignored at first and then betrayed, then imprisoned, then restored, then deposed, then murdered. As A J P Taylor said the History of England was the history of the South, at least until the 18th Century. But everything changed. The most neglected part of England the North West was the seat of the Industrial Revolution. The first canals, the first railways, the first engines, the first factories appeared in the North West. Previous Tory leaders had come from the landed gentry but Robert Peel’s grandfather was a small holder and textile salesman. Robert Peel’s father however was a factory-owner. He was a new class of person in England. He employed 15000 workers far more than the greatest landowner. The Tory Party and its successor the Conservative Party is the most formidable electoral machine on this planet. Part of the brilliance of the Tories is to recognise and assimilate the new. So the Tory Party which had recently represented aristocratic landowners especially in the South came to choose a leader whose background was in manufacturing in the North West. Robert Peel Senior was a partner of William Yates and married William Yates’ daughter Ellen Yates. Wiliam Yates went on to buy land in North Shore… the Yates Estate and young Robert Peel, the future Prime Minister, used to visit his father and mother in law. The Yates estate is recalled in Yates Street and also in General Street. One of Yates’ sons became a general. Oddly Blackpool has another connection with the incident which changed British Law and also involved Robert Peel. Daniel M’naghten (the spelling varies but this is the most usual spelling) was the illegitimate son of a Glasgow landlord and wood turner. He was intelligent and able and anxious to improve his education. He was also a Radical. At some point he sold his business and eventually moved to London. It was here that he decided to shoot the Prime Minister Robert Peel. In 1843 he mistakenly shot Robert Peel’s secretary, William Drummond. At first it seemed a slight wound but the secretary died five days later. One writer attributed William Drummond’s death to the actions of the Doctor rather than the assassin… he says that the Doctor bled the Secretary over enthusiastically. For centuries “bleeding” involved opening a vein and drawing blood off. The only effect of this operation is to reduce life-expectancy. It was not until the late nineteenth century that Doctors ceased to have a negative effect on life expectancy. At his trial it emerged that Daniel M’naghten believed that “the Tories” were following him. Possibly they were, it was a time of great unrest. The judge decided that he was not guilty because he was unable to understand his actions. When this was clarified by judges it became known as the M’naghten Rules. These rules have been part of our law since that time. So poor M’naghten lived out his days in an institution.
Meanwhile in Blackpool a Doctor was becoming prominent in the council and was photographed laying part of the tram track for the new tram system. He became Mayor of Blackpool twice in 1880 and 1885. He lived in Queen Street. His name was Thomas McNaughton and he was the half-brother of Daniel M’naghten.