An Unsolved Murder in Portsmouth, 1923

By Tim Lambert

An unsolved murder happened in Portsea, Portsmouth in 1923. The victim was Mary Frances Pelham, aged 37. According to newspaper reports she was born in ‘the north of England’. During the First World War, she moved to Brighton and later to Portsmouth. She was separated from her husband. Mary was a kind woman, especially to local children. She sold herself although she also sold flowers. She was known as Brighton Mary.

On 27 January 1923, a neighbour found her dead in bed in her hovel. The unfortunate woman had been strangled with a scarf or handkerchief. She was also stabbed or slashed with a broken bottle. A neighbour had seen Mary with a sailor the previous night. The navy held an identity parade and a woman picked out one sailor but he had an alibi and was never arrested. The killer was never found.

The public was shocked, not just by the murder but by her living conditions. She lived in Blossom Alley, an alley 300 yards long and only 4 feet wide. Her home was a ‘one-up-one down’. Built in the 18th century it was one room over another joined by a ladder. The floors were sagging so the ceiling of the bottom room was 6 feet high at one end and 10 feet high at the other. Five houses shared three outside toilets and one water tap. Following the horrific murder, a great deal of slum clearance took place in Portsea.

Photo by Brian Aitkenhead on Unsplash