Harry Howell died in his sheltered housing in Ibbison Court off Central Drive, Blackpool, on November 5, 1988. He was died from blows to the head with a blunt instrument. His murderer has never been found. The absence of the killer is tantalising. We can say things about the killer: he was cool-headed, determined, he may have been flustered or disgusted by his actions , and he is absent. It is like a detective story where there are clues but no solution. The events have the inconsistency of real life.
Ibbison Court is named in memory of Ibbison Street. Ibbison Street had been built outside Blackpool’s then boundary probably to avoid building standards which were not enforced anyway. Revoe was a lively community with the atmosphere of a village. Ibbison Street was the site of the: “Donkey Backs.” Donkeys were kept in stables.
But let’s go back to the facts.
Harry Howell had lost his partner, his common-law wife, a month earlier. He had a minor stroke and his eyesight was impaired. He was a little deaf. After his death his neighbours said he was popular but then they would say that about Goebbels if he lived next door and been murdered. He had a routine: betting shops, pubs and cafes.
Harry Howell had worked for many years at British Leyland and he lived with Elsie Flegg until she had died a month before he did. He is said to have kept himself to himself. But he did go out for a drink to the George on Central Drive or Brunswick in Bonny Street or the Royal Oak in South Shore.
He was seventy-four years old. Unfortunately he kept his savings in his flat. He did not trust banks or building societies. And he may have talked about this when he had a drink.
Saturday November 5th 1988 was the last weekend of Blackpool illuminations and a day when people would be leaving their seasonal jobs and their temporary homes in Blackpool. It was the last day Harry Howell was seen alive and probably the day he died.
However it was not until November 22, seventeen days later that his body was found. A window cleaner, a seventy year old window cleaner, called John Johnstone saw the body slumped in a chair and also saw that the door had been tampered with. John Johnstone, former RAF fitness instructor, is one of those walk-on characters you wish you knew more about. Sadly he died within a year.
Harry Howell had been bludgeoned to death with a blunt instrument which was never found. He had been dead for seventeen days. How did this happen in sheltered housing where resident are visited six times a week? It is now that we sense the shadowy absent killer. A notice appeared on the door on Monday 6th November saying:” No milk gone away for two week’s holiday. ” And then the notice disappeared.
The seventeen days between the murder and the discovery of the enquiry difficult. Mr John Johnstone, the seventy year old window-cleaner, had seen somebody knocking at Mr Howell’s door . The man seen by Mr Johnstone was in his 40’s, five foot seven. This was after the murder and the man might well have been the killer. In fact he could have been placing or taking away the note that cancelled the milk and delayed the discovery of the body.
There was another clue. In the flat was a paper bag from Burtons the baker containing the remains of two beef and horseradish sandwiches. On the day of Harry Howell’s murder two beef and horseradish sandwiches were bought by a tall slim man in his 30s at the Burtons on Central Drive only yards from Harry Howell’s home. The man told the shop assistant that they were “for the old man who called there every day for a pie.”
At one time the investigation involve eighty police officers. Six thousand people were interviewed and two thousand statements taken.
To summarise the problems:
Were there really two men? It seems more likely that a single person committed the crime.
Why did the killer, who seems to be deeply calculating disclose the information to the shop-assistant which linked him to the crime?
Investigators discovered two thousand pounds in the flat including eleven hundred pounds on Harry Howell’s person. The killer had taken Harry’s watch and wallet, risky because they are identifiable, why did he not search the body?
Where was the blunt instrument?
It seems to me that the person in the Burtons on Central Drive and the person John Johnstone the window cleaner saw were the same person. Probably it was after the murder and the killer may have been attaching or taking away the note that impaired the investigation. Given that nobody else called on Harry Howell for seventeen days this seems probable. A colleague suggested that the unforced disclosure in Burtons about: “the old man who called there every day for a pie” was because of nerves. The man was about to carry out at least a robbery he may have spoken more than he intended through tensions and accidentally revealed what was on his mind. The sandwich was likely to have been an excuse. If the killer had a casual acquaintance with the victim then the killer may have decided to call at the flat hoping that Harry Howell was out but carrying the sandwich as an excuse for his visit. The killer knocked and there was no reply so the killer forced the door. He entered the flat but then Harry Howell, slightly deaf, appeared. Maybe Harry Howell recognised the killer. The killer used the blunt instrument on Harry Howell’s head until he was dead. He searched the flat and discovered money. He missed one cache and although he took Harry Howell’s watch and wallet he did not search the body where there was another eleven hundred pounds. Was this because of disgust?
Had the killer brought the blunt instrument with him? If he had this suggests that he was at least partly prepared to use lethal violence. The killer took away the blunt instrument which helped deprive investigators of evidence. It could have been something quite normal such as a bottle and would have disappeared before the investigation began seventeen days later.
Then the killer left. Richer but not untroubled. I am guessing that the idea of writing the notice came after he had left Harry Howell’s murdered body. The killer thought furiously about what could link him to the crime. The visit to Burtons Bakery…? The longer the delay in discovering the body the easier it would be for the killer to avoid detection. And the idea of a notice was successful and shows a clear-headedness, a determination and a capacity for thinking which really makes this crime different from many other similar unsuccessful crimes. I assume that the killer put the notice on the door after and separately from the killing because I cannot imagine somebody having just murdered Harry Howell writing out a notice. It seems more like an act after the event when the situation has been reviewed. In putting a notice on Harry Howell’s flat he was also making a calculation. It slightly increased his risk while he was placing the notice but it greatly diminished his risk of being caught in the long run. Similarly taking the notice away.
And that’s about a much as we know. There were two appeals on Crimewatch but nothing significant.
There are two events which cast light. One is that attention switched to Accrington where a jeweller said that a man had tried to sell a similar watch to the one stolen from Harry Howell.
The other event happened almost a year later at Ingleton. On August 3rd 1989 an 88 year old former bus-driver, Jack Shuttleworth, was murdered at Ingleton. He was killed by blows to the head in his garden shed. He was normally a recluse but he had been so taken by somebody he met whilst repairing his car that he invited him into his house. He had been taken in by Brian Newcombe. Brian Newcombe (51) was on a crime and killing spree. He had a long criminal career which did not involve violence and was at the time sought by Nottinghamshire Police regarding the theft of several thousand pounds. Brian Newcombe was able to win Jack Shuttleworth’s confidence because Brian Newcombe was a car mechanic and Jack Shuttleworth was working on his car.
Brian Newcombe was a prodigious thief, liar and charmer. He had robbed his landlady in Scotland and then become engaged to her friend and then fled to York and then killed Jack Shuttleworth. He then went to Preston and then to Glasgow where he met a widow called Margaret McOnie and embarked on a tour of the Orkneys with her. On August 24 her body was found on a hillside. She had died as a result of blunt instrument blows to the head. He stole her her cheque-book. He travelled around the North West… Bolton, Morecambe and was arrested in Mansfield. Ten weeks later Jack Shuttleworth hanged himself in Armley Prison.
The similarities between the murder of Jack Shuttleworth and Harry Howell are striking. An elderly loner is charmed by a stranger, both the victims have backgrounds involving vehicles, a blunt instrument is used, the perpetrator is resourceful. The killings happened within a year of one another and were linked to the North West. In both cases a wallet is stolen. Brian Newcombe had a restless, wandering nature and his crimes were spread out geographically. The loneliness of Jack Shuttleworth and Harry Howell might make them susceptible to a stranger who expresses an interest in their concerns. In both cases there is a strong element of opportunism. The robbery of Harry Howell was planned but the killer presumably made Harry Howell’s acquaintance by chance. No witnesses noticed Harry Howell with a new friend which suggests that the “friend” was not a local person.
Did Brian Newcombe kill Harry Howell? There is no evidence.
The suicide of Brian Newcombe meant that further investigations in that direction became pointless.
Brian Newcombe, supposing that he was not the killer, might have been the kind of person who killed Harry Howell.
What kind of person?
It is hard to look at the case without being struck by the cold-blooded but cunning act of leaving a notice saying that Harry Howell had gone away for a fortnight. It is likely that the killer knew Harry Howell personally. How else could he know where he lived? Maybe he met Harry Howell on one of Harry Howell’s drinking sessions. The killer may gained Harry Howell’s confidence. Perhaps Harry Howell boasted about the wealth hidden in his flat. And brought about his death.
I wonder what people who kill people spend the money on. What pleasure is worth somebody’s death. But we are not all the same and it is possible that the killer of Harry Howell never gave it a thought. Other peoples’ minds may be utterly different.
It is not possible to think about Harry Howell without sadness that this lonely man was not able to live out his life peacefully. Maybe his killer is still at large. You may have passed him in the street.
Is justice possible? The advance of forensic science might mean that evidence can now be recovered from the paper bag from Burtons on Central Drive and handled by the killer.
Many thanks to the staff of Blackpool Local History Centre.
Most of the information comes from the Blackpool Gazette.