Alice Emily Webster; the Missing Lady
‘Miss Webster left her lodgings in this borough about 2pm on Thursday 20th August, 1903, saying she was going to do some shopping, and she has not been seen since.’
‘The above reward (£50) paid to any person giving information as to her whereabouts which will lead to her being restored to her parents.’
When, in late August 1903, some items of clothing were found in a cleft 15 foot down the cliffs at Bispham, ‘a little village near Blackpool’ as one newspaper report described it, Mr George Stoughain, a visitor of Weaste (Salford), thought nothing of them, and handed them into the tram station at the top of Red Bank, behind which he had found them. He had no need of a woman’s Tam o’ Shanter hat, nor a fawn, mackintosh cape with a broken clasp, but they might have meant something to someone, who would want to reclaim them. People did lose things in careless moments. Blackpool was a place where you came to be carefree, and it was a place where you took your clothes off more often than most other places in order to take the waters or the air, for health or for pleasure, openly or clandestinely. You could easily be caught in a careless moment, and lose an item of clothing by the cliffs, just like you could lose or a few pounds from the pocket in buying something you didn’t really want but had been convinced that you needed. We still do lose things, on trams and trains and buses. Sometimes lost property offices are bulging.
But when the clothing that was found was identified as that of the missing young woman, Miss Alice Emily Webster, who had mysteriously disappeared from her lodgings at 8 South Beach in the neighbouring district of Blackpool, a week or so earlier, the speculation of her disappearance took a different direction. And when a tram conductor had claimed to have seen a woman of her description getting off the tram at Bispham in the company of a well-dressed, young man, the speculation increased.
Bispham was an isolated village at the time. It did not become a part of Blackpool until after WW1 and in 1903, there was a distance of farms and fields and unsecured, crumbling cliffs between the two boroughs. Though the cliffs at the top of Red Bank were ‘a lonely and dangerous place,’ it was a much safer place to conduct a secret liaison or, more sinisterly, to commit a murder away from the crowds of the Blackpool seafront. A tram ride from Blackpool, if indeed it was a tram journey she took and not and extended walk, would have taken her past open fields, all soon to disappear in the continuing urbanisation of the once rural area as the land became valuable for development. One of the stops would have been Uncle Tom’s Cabin, famed entertainment venue and which was situated dangerously close to the cliff edge. A large chunk of the Cabin was in 1905 eventually taken away by the fury of the sea, necessitating a rebuilding further inland a few years late. It closed its doors for the final time on October 3rd 1907. Once past the Gynn Hotel, the curling smoke of Baileys, Bank and Cabin farms might be seen a short distance inland in the rise and fall of the land, and that of Knowle farm a little further back still. The last building before the tram stop of Bispham was the dilapidated Fanny Hall, which, like Uncle Tom’s was situated on the shore side of the tram tracks, and soon to be declared unfit for human habitation, would soon suffer a similar demise.
The mystery had begun some time earlier, on August 20th 1903, when the young, 24 year old Miss Alice Emily Webster, on holiday from Birmingham, disappeared from her lodgings and, when she hadn’t returned in the evening as was her habit, it started a frantic police and family search for her whereabouts. For two months, her family anxiously waited for news. Her father, Frederick Webster an earthenware dealer, and her brother, Walter James, a Birmingham surveyor, came up to Blackpool to help in the search from the family home of Cooksey Rd, Small Heath, Birmingham, but they could find no trace of her, neither could anyone give any clue. Mr Webster had to eventually return home, but Alice’s brother vowed not to go back until she was found. It was a deeply concerning affair within an evidently, close and caring family.
It was certainly a baffling disappearance. Alice had come to Blackpool with a friend. She was somewhat frail in health and she had regularly chosen the bracing air of Blackpool for holiday breaks or recuperation. At home in the area that she lived in Birmingham, she was well liked. She was an accomplished amateur singer at many a charity event, and was a teacher at the local, Friends Hall, Highgate, Quaker, Sunday School. In Blackpool she entertained the holiday guests in her accommodation with the piano and her accompanied singing. She would often be seen on the North Pier, quietly reading a book and listening to the music on offer. By all accounts she was a contented young woman and of strong character, who was religiously minded and of a quiet disposition. Her disappearance from her lodgings at South Beach was quite a concern when, on the last day of her visit she had not returned from a shopping trip, and this was highly uncharacteristic of her.
From the time her clothing was found, the story became a much darker one, the speculation was of murder, suicide, abduction or a possible elopement, and the Chief of police, John Derham felt obliged to issue an identikit picture, and a description and a request for information as to her whereabouts. She was 24 years of age and of medium build, about 5ft 5ins in height, of pale complexion, full face and brown hair, and wearing a dark blue skirt, white silk blouse, blue Tam o’ Shanter cap, fawn mackintosh cloak, a white veil and brown gloves. She had a gold watch and chain and two rings, one of which was plain and the other set with stones. She also had a black, chatelaine bag containing two or three sovereigns, a ticket for Blackpool North Pier and a railway ticket to Birmingham. John Derham could ascertain that the cap and cloak, identified by her brother as belonging to her, had since been found. The public were asked to inquire ‘at shipping offices with a view to ascertaining whether she has booked to a foreign port, also at hotels, boarding houses, asylums, and workhouses, or at any place where it is likely she may be detained.’ Any information as to her whereabouts, ‘kindly forward at once to John Derham, Chief Constable of Blackpool; or to her parents at 154, Cooksey Rd, Small Heath, Birmingham.’
The increased speculation on the discovery of the clothes and the case of the missing woman turned into high drama and made all the newspapers. Perhaps she had been lured to the spot by someone who then pushed her over the cliff for robbery or after an attempt at selfish, sexual gratification. Her cape had shown signs of being forcibly removed as the fasteners were broken off. As far as suicide was concerned, it was unlikely as she had always been a stable character and unlikely to have any dark secrets that she couldn’t tell in confidence to anyone. It could have been an accident, as the cliffs were dangerous and there had been accidents before. Or it could have been a clever ruse to fool any investigation into a disappearance to a new life which she wanted to be kept secret even from the closeness of her family. It was also, soon considered unlikely that her body had been in the sea since, in the stormy weather, a body, needing a high tide to collect it, would soon be washed ashore somewhere along the coast. Those that knew the coast well would have been quite easily able to verify that, and nine miles of the coast had been searched anyway. Then, perhaps, she had a secret lover, the tram conductor’s claim to have seen a woman of her description getting off the tram at Bispham in the company of a young man, added fuel to that. But she had been out for drives each day during her week’s stay with only the hotel guests as company, and was looking forward to the prospective drive the following day. She had only gone out on her own on the Thursday afternoon, since her close friend had wanted to go to the theatre and it wasn’t in Alice’s desire to do so. Instead, she had gone to buy presents to take home to her family, as was her habit on the last day of her visits, and that is the last that anyone had seen of her. At that time, when she hadn’t returned for tea, Mr Bury, her landlord, informed the police. The guests must have been discussing her non-appearance for some time and with some alarm.
Miss Webster was fortunate in having a family, and a family that had enough wealth to be able to put time aside to search for her, and also probably able to put up the £50 reward. It was perhaps this £50, or maybe the selfless interest of the man who informed the Chief Inspector of his suspicions of a woman regularly seen walking in Whitmore Reans, an area of Wolverhampton, and not that far from Birmingham not, of course, the sprawling conurbation of today, but a newly built street near the village of Tettenhall. An address was given too, of 65 Court Road, so perhaps, after the man’s suspicions were first aroused, a little further investigation took place, like following her home from a judicious distance maybe. Or maybe it was more innocent than that. Whatever the method of discovery, he sent a letter to the Chief of Police of Blackpool with this suspicion and information, and Inspector Derham accordingly contacted, by express messenger, Detective Inspector Lewis of the Wolverhampton police.
The end was in sight for the mystery of Alice’s disappearance. When the woman, suspected to be Alice was interviewed by Inspector Lewis at the home of a young widowed lady called Mrs Rogers, she immediately admitted that she was indeed Alice Webster, and had no desire to conceal her identity or whereabouts any longer.
As far as the police were concerned, it was the end of the mystery, but the reasons for her disappearance have never been disclosed, being kept quite closely secretive by herself and the family. It is evident that Alice had had an emotional breakdown of a kind. Perhaps her religious expectations were too high or the expectations of her family too much for her. She had needed to retreat into herself. Her brother, in an attempt to explain her behaviour, thought that she had intended to return to Birmingham but, in a confused state of mind, had got off at Wolverhampton instead. Nevertheless, she was able to negotiate the rent of a house without giving away the confused state of her mind to anyone, and was able to make payment for lodgings and whatever else she needed in the ensuing days.
Emily, by all imagination, was an intelligent and sensitive woman. Perhaps, in her evident sensitivity she had been taken up in the changing mood of the era. It was a time in which the country had recently celebrated the end of the Boer War and, even more recently, the coronation of the popular King Edward, an event delayed due to his appendicitis. But there was the growing undercurrent of disaffection among the progressively more organised ‘have-nots’ against the perception of privilege among those who were unfairly materially accommodated, a disaffection that would turn into conflict during the latter stages of the slaughter of WW1.
And this disaffection also included the growing awareness and action of women in claiming their status as human beings equal to that of the male within the society they shared. It wasn’t long before those beaches that had been extensively searched for a potential body of the missing young woman were occupied on occasion by the suffragists ardently announcing from their oratorical stands, the equality of women and demanding, to their audience, their equal rights with men. And they were derided, and physically and verbally assaulted by both men and women alike, having to retreat and take refuge in the shops on the promenade until, in the protection of the police, they were escorted away.
Perhaps Alice wasn’t able to openly confront these issues of the day and, with potential split loyalties, would have risked an irreparable rift with both the family and the closely defined, and materially comfortable society she shared. Perhaps it was something with which she had difficulty in coming to terms with within herself.
Or, maybe it was nothing like that at all. ….. The graves of some people jealously guard their secrets within them.
But she was found safe, and that is good news, and the cliffs of Bispham remained in a dangerous state for a few more years, as they had done since the first human stood on their edges some thousands of years earlier after the Ice Age had left them there. They were eventually absorbed into Blackpool, the neighbouring borough which had the money to repair and tame them, for a few pence extra on the rates.
Sources and Acknowledgements
Almost all the information comes from contemporary newspaper cuttings. Where it doesn’t, it comes from a consultation of the OS map and a short dive into Nick Moore’s history of Blackpool to determine the original date of the construction of the Tramway. ( https://www.blackpoolhistory.co.uk/ )
other stories of Blackpool here
Newspaper image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk).