THE BLACKPOOL RIPPER : The life of Henry Bertram Starr (1903) | Blackpool


On the morning of Tuesday, 29th December 1903, a notice was posted outside of Walton gaol prison;

“I, Arthur Price, surgeon of his Majesty’s prison of Liverpool, hearby certify that I this day examined the body of Henry Bertram Starr, on whom judgement of death was passed, and that on examination I found Henry Bertram Starr was dead.”

And with this, it would bring to an end the sad tale of how a young man with a promising career in poetry, had ruined his own life by allowing himself to wander down the path of the so-called, demon drink.

Blackpool, I think it’s safe to say, has seen its fair share of violent and gruesome crimes over the last hundred years or so and this next story is no different.

Henry Bertram Starr, born on the 27th January 1872 in Birkenhead, Cheshire where he would live with his mother and father until his father’s untimely death in 1876.   Along with his mother, they would both relocate to Maryport in Cumberland to stay with his grandma for some time.

He would later be sent to live with an aunt with whom he would live for the greater part of his young life.

It seems that from the age of six, Henry’s mother had suffered from symptoms of insanity, brought on by an attack of ‘milk fever’, and she was removed to Garlands Asylum – an imbecile ward of the Cockermouth Workhouse.

Even at an early stage, it was obvious to many that young Henry had a bright future in front of him, always willing to attend school and being a bright and intellectual young boy.

After leaving school, he trained as an apprentice with a man named Mr. Thistle, a draper at Maryport and he stayed with him for nine months until he had to leave due to money issues.

But Henry, being a clever and well educated man, would seemingly find work, no matter the circumstances.

“With agencies of various descriptions, I have earned my bread for the greater, much the greater, part of my days.” he would later write to his solicitor, Mr. J.H. Nicholson of Fleetwood.

Unfortunately though, and before he would turn twenty, Henry would soon find out for himself the terrible ways in which drinking would begin to send his life spiraling out of control.

After two years working for the Pearl Life Assurance Company, he would be removed from his duties due to his drinking habits, with Henry himself saying admitting it was beginning to have an “influence for evil” over his life.

Henry Bertram Starr, 1903

However, keen to try and keep Henry on the right track, his uncle took him under his care, giving him a job as a plasterer.  All was well for two years until his uncle died suddenly after a few days illness.

“Having reached my 21st year, and used to keeping my uncles books etc, in order together with a certain, though necessarily limited, experience of his business, I undertook, with the permission of the owners, to finish the plastering contracts left unfinished.  This proved an unwise proceeding.  A considerable sum, about £300, had gone, debts which I could not pay distracted me, and of course, the matter could not be adjusted – the end being flight.  Again, drink was my ruin.”

In today’s money, £300 would equate to roughly £37, 775 – so it’s no surprise that Henry would be saddled with a huge debt that he could simply not repay!

The next five years, Henry would travel as a travelling correspondent for a well-known theatrical publication called “Era” and he would also work for a publishers by the name of Blackie and Sons.

But it seems drink had now complete control over his mind and body and in 1896, tragedy would again loom large in his life.

On Tuesday, 24th March 1896, a loomer by the name of Arthur Fish was walking along the River Ribble near towards Clitheroe, and at around 2.00pm that afternoon, he noticed something bobbing around in the water around 200 yards from Brangerley Bridge. 

He soon saw for himself upon closer inspection that it was the body of a young woman, who was floating face upwards.  Her feet had snagged on some rocks and other debris and as the water was only around three feet deep, she had come to rest close to the embankment, with her arms partly elevated.

The police were soon called, with PC Stubbs one of the first officers to attend the scene.  He made his way into the water to retrieve the body.

The body was that of 16 year-old, Eleanor Coulthard, a domestic servant who worked for one Mrs Chorlton in the nearby village of Charburn near Clitheroe.

We will come back to this story shortly, but as you have probably already guessed, Henry would be implicated in the drowning and in due course he would be later arrested and charged with her murder.

So, with the scene now set and after learning about Henry and his struggles during his early life, we arrive at Tuesday, 24th November 1903 and inside the premises of Mr. and Mrs. Jane Blagg, number 76 Lord Street, Blackpool and the home she shared with her daughter, Mary and her husband, Henry Bertram Starr.

Henry and Mary had married on the 9th March 1903 at Christ Church, Blackpool  but it had been an unhappy marriage, despite them being married for only eight months. 

And whilst the first couple of months had seemingly been happy; with Henry finally finding some peace in mind, in a loving relationship, holding down a respectable job as a slate labourer and with all his past demeanors now apparently laid to rest, for the first time in his life since leaving school, he was content with the world around him.

But things wouldn’t last and by the end of June that year, Henry would often spend much of his hard earned money on drink, leaving Mary with very little to spend on food and other essentials for their home, leading to many arguments and quite a few threats being made by Henry.

It seemed Henry’s past was again starting to haunt him.

Marriage certificate, Henry and Mary, 1903

With Henry’s drinking now placing a huge strain on their marriage, Mary’s mother, Jane, would confront Henry, telling him in no short terms that it would be best if he left and to go to his aunts who lived nearby on Hardman Street.

Henry took Mrs. Blaggs advise and soon left her home to move in with his aunt, Mrs. Warren,  but this still wouldn’t deter him from seeing Mary.

And on Sunday 16th August, he returned to Mrs. Blagg’s residence at number 76 Lord Street to speak to Mary but he only managed to get as far as the vestibule after being refused entry into the house.

Standing there, he would shock Mrs. Blagg as well as her daughter Mary.

“Mary Hannah, and I have!  BEEN WITH OTHER WOMEN, and I have!” he shouted loudly.

This would come as a huge shock to Mary and whilst she obviously knew what he was like when drunk, she never gave thought that her husband would be seeing other women when not at home.

The following day Mary wrote a letter to Henry, telling him to never to visit her again.

The letter was dated August 17th, 1903 and was written as follows;

“Dear Harry – I send these few lines to say I think it is a most scandalous shame of you to come as you did last night after not coming for a fortnight, and then to come after ten o’clock at night and come to tell me to my face that you had been with other women.  Where is your love for me?  I shall never believe you have a spark of love for me, so you had better stay away altogether until I send for you.  If ever a man tried to put his wife into her grave, you have.  You needn’t come whether you are drunk or sober, for I shall not see you and you will not get in.  Your aunt has been to see me tonight, and I have told her all about it, and also Mr. and Mrs. Terry.  You must not think I am going to stand all I have done and not say anything.  You can answer this letter if you think proper, but don’t come or else you will get thrown out if you do.  I think it is about time you had a bit of sense.  You needn’t blame my mother for this, for she has had nothing whatever to do with it – I remain, your wife, Mary H. Starr.”

The letter would soon be returned with a reply simply showing, “Returned with thanks, H.B.S. (Henry Bertram Starr)”

On the 21st August, Mary would give birth to a daughter they named Lillian, and whilst to many people this would be time to be happy, to Henry it would just be another burden – pushing him further away, it seems, from Mary.

The break would only be temporary and on the 19th September, both Henry and Mary would once again reunite, with Mary joining Henry at his auntie’s house.

However, during this period, Henry would neglect Mary and their child, often refusing to give her any money to help her with day-to-day living, such as buying food or helping with the running costs whilst living with Henry’s aunt.

Despite her struggles, Mary would stay with Henry’s aunt until November 1st but with no income and no other way to support herself and her child, Mary made the decision to return to her mother and father, taking her daughter with her.

A fortnight later and on the 17th November, a letter would arrive, addressed to Mary at number 76 Lord Street.  It was written by Henry.

“My darling wife, – I am very sorry indeed that you went away without telling me of your intention, and cannot express how keenly I felt in the matter.  If you care to come back I am quite willing to forget everything, but if it is your fixed purpose to live apart, then I must tell you that it is my intention to claim the custody of the child of the marriage within a few days after receipt of this letter.  With best wishes, I remain, yours affectionately, Henry Bertram Starr.”

The letter also contained a newspaper cutting that went as follows;

“Veritas – Your wife cannot claim a maintenance order against you so long as you are willing to receive her back.  You are entitled to claim possession of the child at any time, and hold it against the world.”

It was an extremely strange thing for Henry to do, threatening Mary with custody of their child Lilian, if she didn’t go back to Henry.  After all, he had neglected the both of them for long periods of time, leaving them penniless and living off scraps.  Whether or not someone else was behind this threatening letter of intent, it’s hard to tell, but one thing is certain – it seemed out of character for Henry.

Despite the threat to Mary, she would take out a maintenance summons as well as a separation order towards Henry.

He would be brought before the Blackpool Police Court on Monday, 23rd November and ordered to pay 6 shillings per week towards the maintenance of his wife and child and just to add fuel to the fire, the magistrates also ordered that Mary should have sole custody of their child and that she should be bound to live with her husband, Henry.

We can only speculate, but this must have infuriated Henry and whatever was going through his mind no one will truly know, other than at some point, revenge would ultimately be his sole aim.

At  midnight, Henry was seen by a cabman by the name of John Williams in the neighborhood of number 76 Lord Street.  Henry at this time seemed drunk and muttering; “I’ll do it; I’ll do it!” to himself.   The same cabman also saw Henry at around quarter to three the same morning as he passed him by in Exchange Street and this time Williams heard Henry say; “I will go and do it!”

On Tuesday, 24th November 1903, the residents of Blackpool would awaken from their early morning slumber, and news would soon filter through the backstreets and out onto the public pavements that of a brutal murder that had taken place that very same morning.

Just after eight o’clock, Mary had made her way out of her bed and had gone downstairs.  Her mother, Jane would recall hearing Mary shuffling around and after around ten minutes had elapsed, screams of “MURDER, MOTHER – MURDER, MOTHER!” permutated through number 76 Lord Street.

Jumping out from her bed, Jane ran downstairs.

As she made her way into the kitchen, she noticed Henry was standing over Mary with a breadknife in his hand, hacking at her, raining down heavy blows in quick succession.

“Harry, Harry, what are you doing!” screamed Jane.

Upon hearing this, Henry stopped attacking Mary and ran into the scullery that lead to the back door, dropping the knife behind him.

Jane ran after him, wanting to close the door behind him but he turned around, picked up a small desert knife and began stabbing at her.  He caught Jane in the corner of her left eye and also on the right side of her neck.  Trying to defend herself, Jane rose her arms to protect her face but Henry was too strong, taking hold of her arms and dragging her down onto the floor where he began hacking at her arms.

Striking her fiercely, Henry caught Jane on her head several times, leading to deep cuts and abrasions to not only her head but also her arms, legs as well causing bruising to her sides and abdomen.

“Harry, Harry, do let me go, for Hannah’s sake.” pleaded Jane.

It’s not clear why, but Henry loosened his grip on Jane at this point, allowing her to get up off the floor.  He then made his way out by the back door.

As soon as he had done so, Jane quickly bolted the door between the kitchen and the scullery before running out of the front door screaming for help.

Twenty-nine year old, William Shackleton had heard the screaming as he was walking along Lord Street.  Seeing Jane coming out of her house, his first thought was that a fire or something of that kind had occurred so he went into the house.

The first thing he noticed was a woman lying on a hearthrug in the back kitchen and whilst there was very little blood, he at first assumed Mary to be dead, that was until she made a moaning sound.  This would be the last noise she would make as, by 8:40am, she would sadly pass away.

As for Henry, after fleeing number 76, he made his way to the Derby Hotel, a ten minute walk at best, and it was here that he was met by Frederick Birchall, an employee at the hotel.  

Upon entering the building, Henry asked Frederick for a glass of beer and if he could have a wash and something to eat.

Frederick would serve Henry with a glass of bitter, but he refused his request of using a wash room, saying the hotel had no convenience.

He would also reject Henry’s question relating to food, telling him it would be inconvenient as he couldn’t leave the bar area unattended.

Frederick would later go on to say that Henry had seemed pale looking as well as being a little upset, holding his head down all the time he was at the bar.

Henry would finish his bitter before buying a bottle of stout and after finishing his drink, he got up and made his way out of the hotel.

The Duke of York Hotel, which is situated on Dickson-Road is roughly an eighteen minute walk from the Derby Hotel, and, surprisingly, only a few minutes away from number 76 Lord Street and the scene of his attack on his wife Mary.

But it was here Henry would make his way too nevertheless.

Malena Piggitt, a barmaid working at the Duke of York Hotel would, when being interviewed, tell of how Henry went into the smoke-room at around 8.55am and had called for a bottle of stout.

And just as he had done so at the Derby Hotel, he asked if he could have a wash.

Malena supplied Henry with his drink and told him, just as Frederick Birchall had also done only a short whilst before, that it was not convenient for him to have a wash.

Henry spent on a few minutes in the hotel, leaving without even taking a sip of bitter from his glass.

At around 9.15am, a man by the name of Alonza Shaw, an attendant of a gentleman’s lavatory that was situated in Talbot Square remembered seeing a man enter the lavatory.  The man asked Alonza for a wash and a ‘brush up’ and saying he had been out all night and had gotten into a fight.

It was at this point that Alonza noticed the man’s hands and cuffs were covered with blood.

The man was without doubt that of Henry Starr and after washing and had a brush up, he paid Alonza before leaving the lavatory.

During Henry’s visits to the Derby Hotel, the Duke of York and that of the gentlemens lavatory, the police had been called to the scene of the murder at number 76 Lord Street, with those not at the premises receiving instructions to ‘watch for the man Starr’ and it was P.C. William Lambert and Police Sergeant Butterworth who stated that it was just after 9.15am when they saw Henry come up the steps of the lavatory in Talbot Square.

Lambert, proceeding, said he noticed that Henry’s cuffs were stained with blood but he very far from being drunk.

Confronting him, Lambert asked him if his name was Starr to which Henry replied; “Yes.  Is my wife dead ; I will go with you.”

With the assistance of Sergeant Butterworth, Lambert took Henry to the police station in a cab.

Once inside the station, Lambert read the following charge over to Henry;

“You are charged that you on the 24th November, 1903, of your malice and aforethought did kill and murder Mary Hannah Starr, your wife, in the back kitchen of house No. 76 Lord Street, Blackpool, with a knife.”

Henry asked ; “Is she dead?”

The inquest into the death of Mary Hannah Starr would commence on the evening of Wednesday, 25th November and after hearing all of the evidence as well as listening to the barbarity of the nature of the crime, it took the jury less than a minute to arrive at a verdict of wilful murder to that of Mary, and Henry would be committed for trial at the next Liverpool Assizes.

Henry, looking pale and haggard and with a dejected demeanor responded to the charge, saying; “I have nothing to say, gentlemen.  I reserve my defence.”

Layton Cemetery, Blackpool – By Bob Jenkins, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Originally set for Saturday, 28th November, the funeral of Mary Hannah Starr would take place on Sunday, November 29th within the grounds of Layton Cemetery, Blackpool.  It was delayed a day due to Mary’s mother being present at the Liverpool Assizes on the Saturday.

Although the departure of the cortege was fixed for 9.30am, hundreds of people were present hours before, and thousands more lined the route to the cemetery with many more stood amongst the graves, all wanting to pay their respects.

The service at the grave was simple and straight forwards, but Mary’s family and especially her father were very much affected by everything that had and was going on around them.

Once the service had been conducted and the family had made their way out from the cemetery, there was a big rush of spectators who all swarmed to the final resting place of Mary, such was the huge interest in the case.

Mary was buried in an unmarked grave and to this day, is quite hard to find.

On Wednesday, 2nd December 1903 – 31 year old Henry Bertram Starr was indicted before Mr. Justice Ridley at the Liverpool Assizes for the wilful murder of his wife, Mary Hannah Starr.

Mr. Madden, defending, said that communication had been addressed to him by someone who professed to have some knowledge of Henry’s mental condition, and said that Henry’s mother was now in a lunatic asylum.   It seemed that Henry’s defense at this point were going to try and go for a plea of perhaps insanity but they needed more time to prepare their case, saying it was impossible for any of them to do any justice to Henry at the present hearing because they felt that all possible evidence as to his mental condition should be secured and at this time, it was impossible.

Therefore, Mr. Madden would ask for the case to be postponed until the next assizes.

However, his Lordship would decline the request and fixed the hearing for Monday, 7th December.

Stepping into the dock, Henry presented a cool appearance and, surprisingly considering all the evidence against him, he pleaded “not guilty” in a firm voice.

Mr. Blackwood Wright, for the prosecution would go on to tell the jury that once they had heard all of the available evidence, they would be of the opinion that Henry HAD deliberately killed his wife, Mary.

He would then go through the facts of the case, starting with Henry’s early life up to and including the day of his marriage to Mary.  He would then follow this by mentioning Henry’s drinking habits and how he had moved out of number 76 Lord Street to go and live with his aunt, Mrs. Warren.

The letter written by Mary on the day after Henry’s visit the evening before would be read out as would the letter written by Henry to his wife.

But it would be the details of when the attack on Mary took place that would silence the court, with those listening intently breathing sighs of shock when Mr. Wright went through the moments leading upto and after the savage attack on Mary.

Jane Blagg would be one of the first witnesses to take to the stand and she would recall that on the day of the tragedy, the outhouse floor was covered with pieces of cigarettes and matches, which were not there the previous night.

She would also tell the court that it was custom in the Blagg’s house for the first one down in the morning to let out the dog.

As we have already spoken about, Mary was the first down that morning and a few minutes later, the cries of “Mother! Murder! Murder!” would echo through the house.

Medical testimony would be given by Dr. Johnson, who was called to see the Mary immediately after the attack.

He would tell the court that Mary was already dead on his arrival and on examining her body, what he found would be one of the most ferocious attacks he had ever witnessed on another human being.

He found two incised wounds on the nose and a small incised wound on the right side of the cheek.  Another wound was clearly visible above the breast bone which was 1.5 inches in length.  The incision had also entered the windpipe.

In the left breast, there were two incised wounds, each measuring two inches, and one of them, which probably caused death, penetrating two inches inwards.

There were also a number of wounds, varying from half an inch to three inches in length on Mary’s arm. 

The wounds could not have been self-inflicted and it seemed likely that Henry had pinned Mary’s right hand down as he hacked away at her body with his left hand.

Cross-examined, Dr. Johnson told the court that the wounds were numerous with blows being practically rained down upon Mary.

The attack on Mary was so visicious, that the Dr. Johnson was reported at the time to have said that some of the wounds were so big that he could have fit his fist inside them.

Two knifes where produced in court, those that had been used by Henry on the morning of the attack.

The breadknife had a piece broken off due to the force used by Henry.  This was found by Mary’s head on the morning of the attack.  Another knife, a much smaller one was also produced in court and this was the one used on the attack on Mary’s mother, Jane.

William John Blaney, a slater who had worked with Henry for seven months and who had also lodged with Henry would be next to take to the stand.

He would tell the court that he last saw Henry on Sunday, 22nd November and that Henry had been drinking heavily and had “blue devils” and seemed delirious.  He stayed with Henry all night, trying to calm him down and he had to stop Henry from jumping from a window at three times!

Mr. Madden, defending was about to cross-examine Dr. Johnson as to the effect of heavy drinking on Henry’s mental state of mind when his Lordship interrupted, saying that this was the first they had heard of the question of insanity and he did not think the suggestion ought now to be made.

This would conclude the case and no evidence was called on Henry’s behalf.

Mr. Madden, whilst not denying that Henry had committed the crime, appealed to the jury to say that Henry’s mind was in such a disordered state as to be incapable of forming a clear and unqualified intent which would justify them to find him guilty, pointing out that he had been a victim to drink and despite the attack on Mary, he had a great affection for her.

They would argue that he was also recovering from an attack of delirium when he had visited number 76 Lord Street and that he had no intention of murdering his wife, as he took no weapon with him; but a sudden frenzy overcame him thus resulting in her murder.

The jury were not convinced by Mr. Maddens closing statement and only took a few minutes to come to their verdict.  “Guilty!”

Asked if he had anything to say, Henry replied; “Nothing, my lord.”

The judge then donned the customary black cap, and in passing sentence of death, said that he agreed with the verdict of the jury.  “You must make the most of the time you have left to you to appeal to Almighty God for the pardon you cannot expect here.  You will be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and may god have mercy on your soul.”

Henry, who was unmoved during the passing of the sentence, accepted his fate, turned around sharply and disappeared into the waiting cells below.

On Monday, 28th December, Dr. Johnson, at the urgent request of Henry, would visit him whilst in prison, remaining with him for around twenty minutes, in which time Henry confessed to Johnson that he never went to number 76 Lord Street with the intention of killing his wife.

He told Johnson that he merely went to see his child, Lillian, and wanting to kiss her goodbye before clearing out of Blackpool.  Mary refused his request and things became unpleasant.  Being aggravated, he had picked up a knife and stabbed at her.  He could not remember what happened after the first stab, nor did he remember Mary falling or stabbing her whilst she was on the floor.  Neither could he recall stabbing his mother-in-law, Jane Blagg.

Henry expressed his sorrow for what he had done as well as to the pain he had caused Mr. and Mrs. Blagg and said drink was the bottom of it all.

Upon leaving Henry in his cell, Dr. Johnson said; “Good-by, keep your heart up.” to which Henry replied; “Oh, I’ll do that.”

Walton Gaol, 1907

Henry Bertram Starr would be executed within the walls of Walton Prison, Liverpool on the morning of Tuesday, 29th December, 1903.

Despite a late appeal being made and after being rejected by the home secretary, Henry would make his way to the scaffold where William Billington and his assistant, Henry Albert Pierpoint were waiting.

Henry had slept well during the night and from all accounts he partook in a substantial breakfast at around seven o’clock in the morning.  After this, he had a smoke, and then a drink and was immediately afterwards joined by the Church of England chaplain, to whom he appeared quite relaxed.

His cell was only around ten yards from the gallows, and after being pinioned by Billington and Pierpoint, Henry slowly made his way to meet his fate.

He made no sound and there was nothing to indicate in his appearance the awful ordeal he was about to go through.

Billington, after placing the white cap over Henry’s head and adjusting it accordingly, stepped aside and within a few seconds the signal was given.  Henry dropped 6 feet into the abyss below and in the eyes of the law, justice for Mary Hannah Starr was finally done.

The toiling of the bell would soon be heard, notifying those outside the prison walls that justice had been done and for the next 15 minutes, the grim message rang out into the frosty morning air.

Henry’s body would remain suspended for an hour, as was customary for hangings, before it was cut down to await the inquest.

And following the inquest, his body would be interred within the grounds of the prison walls, but the criminals cemetery, being full, it meant his body would be the first to be buried in a new burial place that had only recently been opened.

Remember how we first started this story with that of young Eleanor Coulthard and how her body was found floating in the River Ribble on the 24th March 1896?  

Henry and Eleanor had been acquainted for a short time after the two met whilst Henry was a bookseller travelling around the country.  He had visited Clitheroe and began keeping in touch.

On March 23rd, the two were noticed by several people walking together near Brungerely Bridge on the River Ribble, and not too long after her body was discovered floating in the river, the police focused their attention on Henry, whose clothing was very wet when he was apprehended later that day.  He accounted for this by saying he had fallen into the river due to being under the influence of drink.  However, it seems his answers were contradicting and he was soon charged with her murder.

However, whilst he was taken to court and after all evidence had been placed in front of a jury, he was acquitted of her murder on Sunday, April 26th, 1896, and this was simply down to a lack of evidence against him.  The jury, not satisfied that the evidence produced could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Henry had indeed drowned Eleanor that morning; – well, they could only come to one conclusion and a that being a verdict of not guilty, thus allowing Henry to walk away from court a free man.

Whether or not Henry did indeed murder Eleanor, we will never know; but looking at his history and how it was clearly obvious he had violent tendencies – especially when under the influence of drink, it does seem likely he was behind Eleanor’s death and he was able to walk away where he would eventually meet poor Mary Hannah Blagg and the rest, as we say, well – is history.

On a final note, Henry was a talented poet, having wrote a few poems during 1897 and 1898, with them appearing in several newspaper publications.  But perhaps the most revealing is the one he wrote prior to his execution whilst awaiting his fate in prison and the one he sent to his cousin, Mr. R. McClorry;

Sources used in this story;

Blackburn Standard – Saturday 28 March 1896

Maryport Advertiser – Saturday 02 January 1904

Lancashire Evening Post – Tuesday 24 November 1903

Burnley Express – Saturday 28 November 1903

Workington Star – Friday 08 January 1904

+ many more courtesy of the British Newspaper and

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