Alice Burnham, Joan Long, Madge Leadbetter, Elizabeth Shaw, Mary Starr and Sarah Toomey. These are the names of six women who were murdered in Blackpool and are buried in Layton Cemetery without headstones. Here Deborah Contessa shares her poems honouring them, and Elizabeth Gomm shares images from a memorial held in their honour.

On Sunday 10th March Reclaim Blackpool and Friends of Layton Cemetery joined forces to celebrate the lives of six murdered women, each of them killed by a husband or partner and buried unceremoniously.

The Memorial to Murdered women was led by local historian Deborah Contessa, who has researched the lives and deaths of these women and located their unmarked graves in Layton Cemetery.

Reclaim Blackpool, the project mapping sexual harassment in the town, hosted the event as part of its International Women’s Day festival. It highlighted how violence against women is not consigned to the past, but an urgent problem that needs tackling today.

Women and men gathered by the gravesides to hear the women’s stories lit candles and laid flowers for the women. They also read poems, penned by Deborah. Here we share the poems and stories of these women.

Alice Burnham
Killed 12/12/1913

Money seemed to be the motive of Alice Burnham’s murder. Two months before her death, George Smith had taken out a life insurance policy on her for £500 – about £40,000 today. He also appeared unmoved by his new bride’s sudden watery death, telling landlord Joseph Crossley, “When they’re dead, they’re dead” and burying her in an unmarked common grave.

In the shadowed depths of tragedy’s embrace,
Alice Burnham, a bride of grace.
Bath’s somber waters tell a tale untold,
A heart deceived, a destiny foretold.

Her vows once echoed in the sacred air,
Bound by love, a union meant to bear.
Yet darkness crept, a nefarious scheme,
A murderous plot, a shattered dream.

Beneath the unmarked soil she rests,
Betrayed by the one she held closest.
In sorrow’s veil, her memory abides,
A victim of deceit, where love collides.

Joan Long
Killed 25/7/1944

On the evening of July 25th Joan donned her glad rags and headed out to meet friends. She got chatting to a smart, attractive American aircraft mechanic. She agreed to accompany him around further licensed establishments. Her partially clothed lifeless body was discovered by Princess Parade colonnade, which had been repurposed as an air raid shelter.

In ‘44, amidst the wartime gloom,
Joan Long met a tragic doom.
Beneath North Promenade’s sheltered keep,
A tale of sorrow, buried deep.

A court martial’s verdict, shadows cast,
Manslaughter’s stain, a haunting past.
No marker grand, where Joan rests still,
In Layton Cemetery, quiet and chill.

At twenty-two, her life undone,
A victim beneath the moon and sun.
In whispered winds, her name endures,
Joan Long, a memory that lingers.

Madge Leadbetter
Killed 31/10/1951

Madge’s near naked body was discovered lying probe in the attic of a house on Oddfellow Street which belonged to the parents of her friend, Norman Mitchell. Aged just 27, she had been stabbed seven times and strangled. The jury at his trial considered Norman self defence argument and found him guilty of manslaughter rather than murder. He received a jail sentence of just 10 years.

In the shadowed pages of York Street, a tale of Madge Leadbetter, in sorrow’s retreat. A life, vibrant at twenty-seven, met its cruel fate, a symphony of tragedy, love and hate.

In the attic’s silence, Madge lay bare, a victim of violence, a life cut with despair. Stabbed, strangled, a cruel decree, her youthful spirit, forever free.

Just ten years in prison, a sentence pronounced, for a precious life taken, a destiny announced. Madge Leadbetter, in memory’s gaze, a touching elegy for her numbered days.

Elizabeth Shaw
Killed 3/5/1905

Driven mad with jealousy Robert Shaw planned to slay Elizabeth, his beautiful wife, before taking his own life. Both were both discovered shot through the head on Watson Lane alongside a picnic Robert had packed to them. A suicide note discovered in his pocket claimed “we have arranged to die together”.

In the quiet shadows of Watson Lane, where echoes linger and memories wane, lies the tale of Elizabeth Shaw, a soul that departed on that fateful May morn.

A revolver’s cruel kiss, a tragic embrace, on Watson Lane, love lost its grace. Through mouths it spoke, in silence they lay, the young couple’s journey abruptly swept away.

As tempests brewed within their abode, a love once fervent, now tangled and cold. Wealth adorned their days, but shadows concealed the strife, as vows fractured in the tapestry of their life.

Mary Starr
Killed 24/11/1903

Mary Hannah Starr was brutally murdered by her estranged husband at her mother’s home on Lord Street. She died from more than 20 stab wounds inflicted in a brutal frenzy.

In the hushed echoes of a tempestuous bond, Mary Starr’s tale unfolds, a tragic respond. A shotgun wedding, love’s fleeting spark, soon shattered in the shadows, leaving wounds in the dark.

Vociferous arguments, neighbors as silent witnesses, a fractured union, love’s twisted business. Months passed, a storm brewing within, until Henry, in drunken fury, embraced his sin.

Through the opened back door, a desperate intrusion, fueled by rage, a brutal conclusion. Weapons wielded, a frenzied dance, in the kitchen’s cold silence, Mary had no chance.

In the somber shadow of tragedy’s art, Mary Starr’s elegy etched on a wounded heart. A life extinguished by the hand once held, in the echoes of discord, a mournful tale is spelled.

Sarah Toomey
Killed 13/10/1895

John and Sarah Toomey had been married for 30 years. It had not been a happy marriage and John had deserted his wife a number of times, cohabited with other women, and travelled to the United States. In spite of this they had six children and were still together when he killed Sarah. She worked at the Foxhall Pub and this is where her nefarious husband finally took her life.

In pauper’s rest, Sarah Toomey lies,
A life extinguished by brutal ties.
Her spirit lingers in shadows deep,
Where secrets kept their solemn keep.

Once, love adorned with tender grace,
Now replaced by a darkened trace.
Beneath the soil, in silence bound,
Her tragic tale, deep in the ground.

No marker stands to tell her name,
Yet in our hearts, she finds her claim.

A victim of a cruel disdain,
In mem’ry’s realm, she shall remain.

Deborah Contessa leads cemetery tours monthly. On Sunday 17th March she hosts a tour of Women on Note to continue the Friends of Layton Cemetery’s celebrations for International Women’s Month. More info on their Facebook page.

Reclaim Blackpool - Mapping Sexual Harrasment
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    Antonia Charlesworth Stack is a journalist and editor from Blackpool. She was deputy editor of Big Issue North magazine and is editor of Blackpool Social Club. Antonia is also the founder of Reclaim Blackpool, a women's safety campaign that began life as an article she wrote for Blackpool Social Club. She's a contributing author to the Lancashire Stories anthology with her story about a Blackpool performer, The Call of The Sea. The book is available for free in libraries across the county.

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