Murder in the Bungalow

Louisa Merrifield and her son Oswald, image courtesy of the Blackpool Gazette

One of the last women to be hanged in Great Britain was Louisa Merrifield of Devonshire Road, Blackpool. She was executed by the state inside Manchester’s Strangeways Prison on 18th September, 1953. The crime was murder from poisoning.

The Victim, Sarah Ann Ricketts was a sprightly 79 year old widow who had advertised for home help at her Devonshire Road Bungalow. Louisa Merrifield was hired and moved into Miss Ricketts’ home together with her husband Alfred on 12th March 1953. By the end of April Sarah Rickets was dead.

Sometime in 1953, between early March and late April, Sarah’s will was altered, leaving her house and worldly goods to the Merrifield Couple.

According to the rather confusing records available, Dr G.B. Manning, consultant pathologist from the North West Forensic Science Laboratory, conducted a post-mortem and found haemorrhage points on Sarah’s organs and mouth, poisonous substances in her liver and oddly dark fluids in her stomach, all strongly indicating death by poisoning.

On 30th April, Louisa was arrested at the Bungalow after coroner Detective Sergeant Norman Steadman put his theories to the boroughs police chief constable. His men combed the neighbourhood, digging up the bungalow garden in the search for tins of poison, probably ‘Rodine.’

Contemporary newspapers report that while crowds gathered to watch the investigations. Louisa apparently organised songs and refreshments for all and even enlisted the Salvation Army to play ‘Abide with Me.’ People described Louisa as ‘short, thick set, middle-aged,’ in sporty hat and glasses. In photographs Louisa appears combative, confident, even lacking any full understanding of the gravity of the charges against her.

In those days buying ‘Rodine’ for household purposes aroused little suspicion. The previous century had witnessed a surge in domestic uses of poisons, newly available on fly papers on the high street. Displaying similar symptoms to cholera, 19th century poison victims had a good chance of receiving death certificates from doctors. But in the early 20th century, measures controlling their sales and usages were imposed. By the 1950s tinned ‘Rodine’ rat poison was favoured above traditional arsenic or strychnine by those wishing to manage a rodent infestation, or those who wished to use it for something more sinister!

In mid-May, whilst visiting his wife awaiting trial, Alfred was arrested. Louisa’s trial lasted 11 days and took place that July, eliciting evidence of her boasting locally about a forthcoming inheritance. One witness quoted Louisa’s claim of “she’s not dead yet, but she soon will be.” Other evidence about Sarah’s varying states of health during her last months, mentioned tangled tales of various mysterious handbags, sneering allusions to Alfred’s light coloured suits, worries about someone – either Sarah or Louisa- unable to afford insurance premiums, all accounts by various home delivery drivers who regularly visited the victim, and the evidence of the doctors, including the coroner attending Sarah.

Administering the smelly, unwieldy poison probably posed nights of headaches for the murderer, or murderers. Hard to measure accurately or to extract efficiently, the active phosphorus ingredient in ‘Rodine’ is hard to control at room temperature or in water. It nevertheless seemed the best choice at the time.

Alone for 10 years following the death of her last husband, Sarah probably ingested the poison from the jam or rum, both of which she frequently enjoyed at home. Her staple diet of eggs and brandy attracted attention from many of the doctors treating her during the last few week of her life.

Attractive to rats, the especially strong smell of ‘Rodine’ mens disguising its presence from potential victims can be difficult. Alcohol and jam therefore mask the ‘garlic aroma’ perfectly.

On 31st July, after five and a half hours of jury deliberation produced a verdict of ‘guilty,’ Justice Glyn-Jones donned black cap to pronounce the death sentence. On 18th September, Louisa was hanged by the neck until she was dead. Shortly afterwards Alfred was released without re-trial and he moved into the bungalow, in which he now had a half-share.

Newspapers reported Sarah had two daughters, one in Bishpam, the other in Congleton. Both Sarah Ricketts and Louisa Merrifield had married several times, two of Sarah’s husbands apparently committing suicide, according to reports and captions to photographs in the media, which were sometimes unclear about who was related to whom.

Despite pre-murder bragging, Louisa did not confess to the crime after Sarah actually died. No trace of any poison was found at the murder site. Although death certificates were often easily issued in cases of symptoms manifesting those of ordinary diseases such as cholera, the doctor examining the corpse of Sarah Rickets had refused to issue the certificate until a police enquiry was conducted. On the evidence available he gave a verdict of ‘death by yellow phosphorous poisoning.’

Lynne Charoenkitsuksun

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