DOES the punishment fit the crime?
“This is a cliché often used today, particularly when hardened criminals walk away with little more than a smacked wrist after committing barbaric offences,” said historian Norman Kirtlan.
“But almost 130 years ago, when folks could still be hung for murder or jailed for stealing a loaf of bread, one local case highlighted the shocking inconsistency in punishing offenders.”
The month of June 1886 brought with it soaring temperatures, fraught tempers and a spate of vicious assaults on unlucky passers-by down along the riverside.
But for Inspector Greatrix of the RSPCA, already inundated with animal cruelty cases, June also brought a knock at his Grange Crescent door which chilled his blood – even in the heat-wave.
“You’ve got to come to the Barracks, and double quick!” declared his visitor, a local soldier. “It’s a cat and I think it’s dead!”
The inspector dutifully followed the young man into Coronation Street, heading for Sunderland Barracks. After crossing Warren Street he was led to an open yard, the walls of which were splashed with blood.
On the cobbled floor lay the body of a black and white cat. It did not take Mr Greatrix’s vast experience to realise the poor animal had suffered an excruciating death.
“Who did this, do you know?” Inspector Greatrix demanded of the young lad. “William Hughes,” answered the man.
“The inspector wrote the name down in his notebook and set off looking for witnesses,” said Norman, map archivist for Sunderland Antiquarian Society.
“Four in total would come forward – horrified spectators to an act of senseless barbarism that had shocked the East End.”
One by one the witnesses gave their statements, painting a picture of the events which had led to the animal’s death – and would lead to Hughes being dragged into police custody.
“Hughes, a lad of around 18, had a large mastiff dog as his constant companion,” said Norman. “He and the animal had been wandering the Town End that morning looking for sport.
“When the black and white cat presented itself, cornered in the alley, Hughes seized the opportunity with both hands – catching the terrified animal and tying a rope around its neck.”
As local folk gathered at the end of the yard, watching in horror, Hughes began swinging the animal around his head in great circles – driving his driving dog mad as it jumped up to try and bite the cat. Finally tiring of the “sport,” Hughes swung the poor cat at the wall, dashing it off the brickwork until it was all but dead. He then threw it to the mastiff, which tore the animal to shreds.
“Grabbing hold of the dog, and no doubt fully satisfied with his morning’s work, Hughes wandered off back home to Pallion, dragging the mastiff behind him,” said Norman.
“It was early that same evening when Inspector Greatrix finally finished his file of evidence and decided to pay the Hughes family a visit.
“William had little choice in the face of all of the evidence but to acknowledge his wrongdoing, and he was summonsed to appear before Sunderland magistrates next morning.”
The standard sentence for animal cruelty at that time was three months, or more, in prison. Hughes, apparently, had even resigned himself to a stint behind bars.
“After hearing the appalling evidence presented to them, magistrates retired for a few brief moments before returning to deliver their sentence,” said Norman, a retired police inspector.
“Despite all the suffering he had caused, however, Hughes was just fined one shilling – five new pence – for torturing and killing the poor defenceless animal.”
The case of the cat killing shocked not only Sunderland, but the whole country. Indeed, so brutal was the attack that it merited a rather graphic drawing in the Police Illustrated Gazette.
“Hughes walked away from court a very relieved man. Another cliché perhaps, but as far as the rest of Sunderland were concerned, the law was very definitely an ass in this case,” concluded Norman.
•Norman Kirtlan is the author of several local history books. Copies can be purchased from Sunderland Antiquarian Society, at 6 Douro Terrace, any Saturday or Wednesday morning.
Fines in cruelty cases
ARCHIVE newspaper reports reveal Inspector Greatrix was a very busy man during the blistering month of June 1886.
Indeed, the hard-working RSPCA boss made two or three appearances before the town’s magistrates every week to present animal cruelty cases.
“There was Thomas Killop, a fish hawker from Fulwell, who was summonsed for working an elderly mare whilst in an unfit state in June 1886,” said Norman.
“Constable Adams saw Killop riding the old horse down Sea Lane. The poor beast was obviously lame and limping along in great agony. Killop was fined five shillings for cruelty.”
The same officer was on duty in Newcastle Road later that month when he came upon James Wood, a cow keeper, leading an old horse along towards Boldon.
The animal was pulling an overloaded cart and, when Constable Adams lifted off its saddle, he found open sores, bleeding and oozing “offensive fluids”.
“The horse was clearly in excruciating pain and Wood was fined five shillings for his day’s work,” said Norman.
“Just to put things in perspective, in that same month three ten-year-old boys were summonsed for damaging grass in a farmer’s field at Cleadon.
“Ralph Deacon, William Barker and Thomas Winter were fined fifteen shillings apiece for that piece of mischief. There is no doubt. The law is very definitely an ass.”