If you walk into the centre of Carlisle, you will almost certainly notice Dixon’s Chimney. The 290ft structure has dominated the city’s skyline for nearly 200 years, its rust-coloured tower a reminder of Cumbria’s industrial past. More recently, though, the chimney has taken on a new status as a fixed reminder of one of the city’s most shocking deaths.
In the early hours of Monday 28 October, residents woke to the sight of a man suspended in mid-air from the top of the Grade II-listed chimney. He had climbed the hundreds of steps overnight but slipped at the summit, leaving him hanging by his ankle in sub-zero temperatures.
Crowds of onlookers gathered to watch the fraught 14-hour operation to rescue 53-year-old Phil Longcake, a “strong, brave” and popular family man from a nearby village. But by the time emergency workers reached him, using a 90-metre cherry picker rushed down from Glasgow, he was already dead. An inquest recorded his cause of death as hypothermia and cerebral swelling.
The traumatic and very public nature of Phil’s death has deeply affected the people of Carlisle, a city with a bigger sense of community than most small towns. Bouquets of flowers still surround Dixon’s Chimney, a structure as tall as Big Ben, and more than 1,000 people have donated to a local mental health charity for which Phil’s family has raised more than £14,000.
In a statement after his death, Phil’s loved ones paid tribute to a devoted granddad, father and husband. They said he had struggled with his mental health after recently disclosing an earlier trauma, but gave no further details, leading to a frenzy of speculation in the tight-knit towns and villages that surround Carlisle.
Speaking publicly for the first time, Phil’s family have decided to talk to the Guardian to explain the circumstances surrounding his death in an effort to prevent similar tragedies.
In July, Phil told his family he had been sexually abused on a regular basis from the age of eight to 15. The perpetrator, he said, was still alive.
He had kept this secret all his adult life – even from his wife, Andrea, whom he married when they were both 17 – but he eventually opened up after his family noticed a sudden change in his character. “It was instantaneous,” said his son Rob Longcake, 31. “One minute he’s Dad as we know him and then he completely changed.”
Phil reported his allegations to Cumbria police on 3 August. Barely nine weeks later the investigation came to an end. The suspect, who denied any wrongdoing, was arrested and interviewed but later released without charge. In a statement, Cumbria police said they decided there would be no further action on evidential grounds as they could not corroborate Phil’s account.
DCS Dean Holden said: “All cases of this nature are taken extremely seriously by Cumbria constabulary, but any prosecution has to be based on a strong evidential case. Unfortunately, in this instance, there was insufficient evidence to proceed with a prosecution.
“A senior officer from the constabulary – a detective chief inspector and the force lead for rape and serious sexual offences – has visited the family and shared some of the specific details and challenges of the case. It would be inappropriate to disclose further detail wider.”
Andrea said her husband became “more depressed, more withdrawn” after the investigation was dropped. She said she felt police did not do enough to investigate his allegations. “I questioned the police. I said they’ve done nothing because all they’ve done is look into records and spoken to a few people. I think that’s pretty poor actually,” she said.
“They said there was nothing to go off – it was just one word against another. But the way I see it, they didn’t look.”
Rob Longcake, a fire service engineer, said he believed his father planned to end his life on the chimney, Carlisle’s most prominent building, to send a message to his alleged abuser. “It was planned to the detail. He was definitely going up there for one reason,” he said. “You can’t really go anywhere in Carlisle without seeing it. He wanted the exposure.”
The family feel Phil received insufficient support in the weeks before he died, despite telling specialist mental health workers he planned to kill himself. Andrea said her husband saw “four or five” different people from the Carleton Clinic, an NHS-run mental health facility, and that there was no consistency in who was monitoring him.
“I don’t know how they could truly monitor him if it wasn’t the same person coming,” she said. “I know it’s all down to funding but still – that doesn’t work and people are slipping through the net because of it.”
Gary O’Hare, the executive director of Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS foundation trust, said it was undertaking a “thorough investigation into this serious incident” and would listen to the family’s concerns. He added: “We would like to express our sympathy to the family, loved ones and friends of Philip at this incredibly tragic and difficult time.”
The trauma of Phil’s death was compounded, the family said, by the horrific images shared across social media even before they knew whether he was dead or alive. Phil’s daughter Laura Duffy, 27, reported several zoomed-in photographs to Facebook on the day but the social network refused to take them down, saying they did not breach its community guidelines. After being contacted by the Guardian, Facebook immediately removed the images and apologised to the family “for any upset caused”.
Rob Longcake said his dad was the “life and soul” of any party and he still could not believe he was gone. A devoted family man, Phil busied himself with his work as a crematorium technician and his hobbies, playing music, restoring old motorbikes and fell-walking with his dog, Ted.
“My motivation for doing this [interview] is because of what my dad wanted,” he said. “He [the alleged abuser] is still walking about. To other victims of historical abuse, you need to come out with it – the sooner the better.”