Date: 17 Sep 1954
Norma Winifred Lancaster was found drowned after having fallen from the North Gare Breakwater on the evening of 5 September 1954.
An open verdict was returned.
She had lived in Oxford Road in West Hartlepool.
She had been walking along the North Gare Breakwater with her boyfriend at the time who said that they had gone out for a walk along the North Gare Breakwater to mark the second anniversary of them having gone out together. Her boyfriend said, 'It was the first place we ever went together'. He was the father of Norma Lancaster's unborn child.
However, it was heard that there were discrepancies in the statement that her boyfriend had made to the police on the morning after Norma Lancaster's death and a later statement.
When the Coroner summed up at the inquest, he said that there was no evidence of suicide or homicide, but said that there were aspects of the evidence that might well raise doubts in the mind of the jury and cause them to return an open verdict.
The pathologist that carried out her post mortem said that Norma Lancaster's cause of death was drowning and that she had two bruises on her head that could have been caused before or as she entered the water. The pathologist noted that Norma Lancaster was about four months pregnant.
The pathologist noted that he found no condition which could account for fits of dizziness, but agreed that that was a common symptom of pregnancy although he noted that that was more usual in the morning than in the evening.
He also added that he found no evidence to suggest that Norma Lancaster had made a prolonged struggle for survival.
Norma Lancaster's father said that he knew that his daughter was expecting a child. He said, 'On the Sunday preceding her death, my daughter and her boyfriend came to our house after church. My wife told me previously about the child. My wife told Norma to tell me all about it and Norma then said in her boyfriend's presence that she was expecting a child and he was the father'.
Norma Lancaster's father said that he then asked Norma Lancaster's boyfriend whether he had told his parents and said that Norma Lancaster's boyfriend told him that he had not. He said that his wife then told Norma Lancaster's boyfriend that it was up to Norma Lancaster if she wanted to marry him, and said that Norma Lancaster said that he wanted to marry her but that his present financial circumstances made it impossible.
A police detective said that he interviewed Norma Lancaster on the morning of 6 September 1954 after he was discharged from hospital where he had been throughout the night and took a statement from him. He said that he then went to the breakwater at North Gare where Norma Lancaster's boyfriend indicated a spot about 135 yards from the landward end where he said Norma Lancaster had fallen over.
However, the police detective said that he noticed two sets of footprints in the blown sand on the breakwater which he said appeared to have been caused by Norma Lancaster and her boyfriend, noting that the footprints were both going out along the breakwater and returning.
The police detective said, 'I asked him to account for this, as they appeared to be his and the girl's, and because he had previously said that she had fallen in as they were walking outwards. He said, 'I want to tell you the truth. I knew at the beginning of June that Norma was pregnant. In July I told her I was not going to see her again and would deny I was the father to get out of it. But a couple of weeks later I decided to keep on going with her. She did not fall in as we were walking out. It was while we were walking back. She was walking a few paces ahead of me when I stopped to light a cigarette. I heard a scream and saw she had fallen in'.'.
The police detective said that they then returned to the police station where Norma Lancaster's boyfriend made an amended statement.
A police sergeant said that he had gone out to the beach with Norma Lancaster's boyfriend where they found Norma Lancaster's body lying at the water's edge. He said that artificial respiration was tried for an hour without result.
It was noted that high water that night had been at 9.41pm and that the depth of the water where Norma Lancaster's boyfriend said that Norma Lancaster had fallen in would have been between eight and ten feet.
When Norma Lancaster's boyfriend gave evidence at the inquest, he said that he had started going out with Norma Lancaster about two years earlier. He said, 'She was going to have a child by me. Her father said I should tell my parents, but I did not want to and I said I would think it over. I said I would think it over for a week and see them next Sunday. I did not tell my mother at all'.
He said that on the night Norma Lancaster died that he met Norma Lancaster and that after going to church they took a bus to Seaton Carew and then walked from the bus station to the breakwater. He said that at the breakwater they walked along the ledge, arm in arm, with Norma Lancaster on the inside. He said that near the end of the breakwater Norma Lancaster complained of feeling dizzy and so they turned back.
He said that they walked about halfway back before Norma Lancaster fell in.
As Norma Lancaster's boyfriend gave his evidence, he was asked, 'After she said she was dizzy you walked quite a distance? To which Norma Lancaster's boyfriend agreed that that was so.
Norma Lancaster's boyfriend went on to say that as they were walking back he stopped to take out a cigarette and said that Norma Lancaster walked on a few steps while he was doing so and walked over towards the seaward edge of the ledge. He said, 'I had just got the case out when I heard a scream and I saw her go over the edge. She went over just in a flurry'.
Norma Lancaster's boyfriend said that he was about two yards away from Norma Lancaster when she went over. He said that he then put his cigarette case back in his pocket and shouted to her to hold on and that he then took off his shoes and jacket and jumped into the water. He said, 'I could see her in the water and I got a life-saving grip on her from behind. I started to swim towards the shore and she was struggling all the time. I don't know what happened then. She was struggling and I lost hold of her, and then I lost sight of her. I swam around for a bit, it seemed like hours, but must have been four or five minutes, but I could not find her'.
Norma Lancaster's boyfriend said that he then scrambled ashore and ran back along the breakwater and put on his shoes and coat and then ran off towards the road hoping to find some people.
He said that he then telephoned the police and then returned to the breakwater when the police arrived.
After hearing Norma Lancaster's boyfriend's evidence, the Coroner asked, 'In your statement to the police you said, 'We were walking along the top of the breakwater and Norma said she was feeling dizzy and I said, 'Don't be silly'. We walked for another five or six yards and I disengaged my arm and got out my cigarette case. Norma was on my left, near the edge'. How did you come to have to vary these statements? You said you were walking seawards and you walked five or six yards and then she went over the edge. How did you come to have to alter that?'. Norma Lancaster's boyfriend replied that he had been in hospital overnight and had had a couple of sleeping pills and put it down to that.
The Coroner then noted, 'You were wrong about which side she was on, too?' to which Norma Lancaster's boyfriend repeated his earlier reply.
The Coroner then pointed out that Norma Lancaster's boyfriend was the only witness and then asked him for his theory on what happened, and Norma Lancaster's boyfriend said, 'Perhaps she did not get over that dizziness, and when she walked to the edge and looked down she fell over. She must have fallen over due to dizziness'.
The Coroner then noted that there was nothing to indicate that Norma Lancaster had intended to commit suicide.
When he summed up he said that it was obvious that her cause of death was drowning and then went on to say, 'It is possible that this girl met her death in three ways, by accident, suicide, or the intervention of a third party, that is, homicide. There are two choices, accidental death or an open verdict, which means that some part of the evidence leaves you in some substantial doubt as to what happened. You need to consider what Norma Lancaster's boyfriend said here today and what he said to the police in statement taken immediately afterwards and weigh and consider the differences between the two. Were these differences substantial? You must weigh the importance of them. One reason for accepting what Norma Lancaster's boyfriend said is that there is no one to contradict him, except in so far as he has contradicted himself. That is a strong reason, but not a compelling one. You may well find aspects of the evidence which do raise doubts in your minds'.
The jury then returned an open verdict.
see Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail - Friday 17 September 1954