Unsolved Murders

Mary Frances Pelham

Age: 37

Sex: female

Date: 27 Jan 1923

Place: 13a Blossom Alley, Portsea

Mary Frances Pelham was found dead in her bed.

She was a flower seller and a prostitute. She was also married to a man who at the time of her murder was in Shorehan but had led people to believe in general that her husband was dead.

She was found dead in her bed by her neighbour the day after she was thought to have been murdered at 1.15pm, lying in a pool of blood. A scarf had been tied tightly around her neck and it was thought that she had then been beaten around the head with a bottle. The woman said that she was passing her door with some washing when she noticed that her windows were still shuttered and her door ajar and so she called in. She said that she saw a lamp still burning and went into her bedroom and saw Mary Pelham in her bed wearing only a chemise with her face covered in blood and terribly swollen with her tongue protruding. She said, 'I nearly fell downstairs in my hurry to call the police'.

She had lived at 13a Blossom Alley. Another woman occupied the three back rooms of the house whilst Mary Pelham occupied another which was connected with a passage.

The woman had her bedroom in the back room on the ground floor and the two upper rooms of her's were not occupied.

She had had a sailor in her house that evening, Friday 26 January 1923, but he had left just after 11pm. She said she had seen him out of her house but not out of the alleyway.

She herself then went to bed just after 11pm alone and was reading until 3pm when she blew out her candle.

She said that she woke up at about 5am when she was disturbed by the sound of some dogs barking at both the front and the back of the house but heard no other disturbance and said that if there had have been a disturbance in Mary Pelham's room she was sure that she would have heard it.

She said that she only knew Mary Pelham casually and the last time she saw her alive was at about 10.55pm on the Friday night as they passed each other at the top of the alley at the North Street end. She said that Mary Pelham had been in the company of a sailor who was about half a head taller than Mary Pelham and had spoken like a north-countryman. She said that he was stiffly built and had been wearing an overcoat and a cap.

The woman said that Mary Pelham had seemed very excited when she was with the sailor and had been dragging him down the alley and said that she thought she was pleased because she herself, Mary Pelham, was a north countrywoman.

She said that Mary Pelham had been carrying a bass bag and that it had sounded as though there were bottles in the bag and that they seemed very happy. She said she heard Mary Pelham say, 'Come on Geordie', and saw the two of them go into Mary Pelham's house.

A woman who had lived at 11 Blossom Alley in the back of the house said that there was a crack in the brickwork through which she used to talk to Mary Pelham. She said that there were three rooms at the back of the house but she only used two of them saying that the ground floor room was used as a sitting room whilst the one above was used as a bedroom and the third one was not used. She said that the staircase leading up from the sitting room to the bedroom met the staircase of Mary Pelham's house at the side where a brick wall divided the two houses. She said that there was a crack there, 'a wee hole in which you could just put three half-crowns. I could not see through it, but Mary Pelham could see when I had a light on the stairs. Often I spoke to her through the hole, nearly every night, and when we were in bed we could talk to each other. She often shouted through'.

The woman said that she had known Mary Pelham since about October or November when she had first rented the house. She said that she last saw Mary Pelham between 5-5.30pm on the Friday night and said that they were good friends. She said that Mary Pelham came over to her house but went away again after two minutes. She said that when she left she had left a man there. The Coroner asked about the man, inferring that he had been living off of her earnings, but the woman said that that was not true. She said that the man left her at about 7pm.

The woman said that later that evening a sailor came to her house and whilst he was there she had left him in the house whilst she went off for some chips but was only gone for about 15 minutes and that they later went to bed together at about 11.30pm and that the sailor left at about 6.55am. She said that she went to sleep that night at 12.30am and woke up at 2am when she had a pinch of snuff and then went back to sleep and didn't wake up again until about 6.45am.

She said that she didn't hear any noise at all that night from Mary Pelham's house. She said that the other man came back to her house again that morning and waited there until she got up at about 11.30am to 12 noon. The man was questioned by the Coroner but was not able to add anything more about the murder.

The Coroner asked the woman about the Voller Street murder adding that he knew that she had lived next door to the woman that had lived there too and the woman said yes. The Coroner said that it was strange that she should live next door to her and the woman said 'Yes, I am the victim of circumstance'. The Coroner asked the woman if a sailor had been staying with her that night to which she replied yes but that it wasn’t the same sailor that she had spent the night with when Mary Pelham was murdered. The Coroner then reiterated 'Are we to understand that it is simply a coincidence that you lived next door to both women?' and the woman replied 'Yes, it is a bit of a shock'. The Coroner asked the woman if she knew any more of the murder of Mary Pelham but she said that she didn't.

Another friend of Mary Pelham said that she saw Mary Pelham at about 10.30pm on the Friday night at a cook shop in Queen Street with a sailor. She said the sailor was a tall dark haired bluejacket. The woman said that she had been with a sailor but at some point later she left him. He was from the HMS Ramillies, but she met him later in a restaurant and said that he told her 'I have seen Flossie, and have got to go up there later'. She said that by Flossie he had meant Mary Pelham. Later they went to Blossom alley and the sailor knocked on Mary Pelham's door but they got no answer although there was a light on upstairs.

The woman said that on the Tuesday night earlier she had been with a friend and two sailors and the friend had given one of the sailors a mouth organ. She later identified the mouth organ as one that was later found in Mary Pelham's house. She said that the two sailors were both bluejackets, one a fair man and the other a short dark man. She said that they were both naval reservists. She went on to say that the following night she saw Mary Pelham with both the sailors and had heard the fair one say to Mary Pelham that he would, 'Do her in', a remark that he had followed with a foul expression.

The police questioned several sailors from the HMS Ramilles. One of the sailors said that he had spent the night in the Royal Sailors Rest but police were unable to connect him to the murder. It was thought certain that Mary Pelham had been with a sailor on the night she was murdered.

A particular clue lay in a manner of speech that Mary Pelham had used to a restaurant keeper at the Galt's Restaurant in Queen Street when she had told the restaurant keeper that she had a man at home waiting for her. The significance of that lay in the fact that women of her class would generally refer to sailors as Mucca's.

It was thought that the motive for her murder might have been robbery because she was known to not infrequently boast that she had jewellery and was also know from time to time to pawn it.

On 5 March1923 detectives from Scotland Yard travelled up to Dundee to meet a ship in order to question a sailor. The sailor had been traced through the medium of wireless to the streamer Baberton which later arrived at Camperdown Dock in Dundee from Windau. When the ship arrived the detectives immediately went on board and returned with the sailor who they questioned in the Harbour Police Office until close to midnight when he returned to his ship.

Mary Pelham had come to Portsmouth from Brighton four years earlier and had first lived on College Street and then in Southampton Row before moving into Blossom Alley. She was known locally as Brighton Mary and for some time had sold flowers and matches in the streets. She was also noted as being born in Sunderland and that she had a son there and that her mother lived in Brighton and was almost totally blind.

A friend of Mary Pelham said that she had frequently warned Mary Pelham to be careful and had reminded her of the Voller Street murder some years before when a sailor had murdered a woman and had got clear away and was never caught, but that Mary Pelham only laughed at her.

Blossom Alley was known as a notorious passage leading from North Street to Cross Street.

The murder referred to in Voller Street had been that of Jessie Dagwell and took place in 1913. Another similar murder, that of Mary Ann MCarthy also took place in Charlton Street, also in 1913 whilst another woman, Charlotte Stallard, was noted for having been murdered in her home in Stone Street, Southsea in 1917. They had all been prostitutes.

*map pointers are rough estimates based on known location details as per Place field above.

see www.truecrimelibrary.com

see Portsmouth Evening News - Thursday 22 February 1923

see Dundee Courier - Wednesday 07 March 1923

see Sunday Illustrated - Sunday 04 February 1923 (images)

see Portsmouth Evening News - Tuesday 30 January 1923 (includes photo of Mary Pelham)

see Portsmouth Evening News - Monday 29 January 1923

see National Archives - MEPO 3/1584

see The News