Wearside Echoes: Murders most foul

Slum clearance - Sans Street in March 1935 -

Slum clearance - Sans Street in March 1935 - "many a murder" took place in this area

MURDEROUS Mackems abound in a new book packed with old crimes.

Retired police inspector Norman Kirtlan has joined forces with local historians Sharon Vincent and Denise Lovell to scour the archives for grisly tales of bygone times.

The result is Murderous Wearside Volume Two – featuring 128 pages packed with scores of murders, bloody assaults, suicides, foul deeds and unfortunate victims.

“Following on from the success of the first volume of Murderous Wearside, we have once more dipped our hands into the bloody realms of Sunderland’s past,” said Norman.

“From Seaham to Suddick, the harbour mouth to Washington and beyond, there are tales of violence and tragedy that held our Victorian ancestors spellbound.”

Among the gruesome stories uncovered by Norman is the death of brothel keeper Joseph Jackson, who collapsed after being beaten at his house of ill repute in Bedford Street.

Other tales include murders fuelled by alcohol, street attacks, brutal marital fights and the tragic suicide of a man who strangled himself with his own handkerchief.

Among the most poignant incidents recorded, however, are the deaths of several babies – including one thrown out with the fire ash, and another drowned in the River Wear.

“Before the days of TV, our local newspapers filled their columns with every shred of information and tittle tattle that reporters could lay their hands on,” said Norman.

“These reports left nothing to the imagination, often describing events in terms that would make modern readers cringe. But Victorian readers devoured each tale with relish.”

Norman, map archivist for Sunderland Antiquarian Society, was originally inspired by the old newspaper stories to start researching Sunderland’s darker past in greater detail.

And, after being left “astounded at the sheer volume” of murders committed, as well as many other foul deeds, decided to write a book on the topic – quickly followed by a second.

“Gory details were never far from the surface in Victorian newspapers, and “singular horrors” often emerged from inquests held in stuffy public houses around the town,” he said.

“Inside every one of us is a murderer. One day, when things get too much to bear, that’s when we snap. Writing the books has been a fascinating journey into Wearside’s past.”

** Murderous Wearside Volume Two costs £7.99. It can be ordered from Norman on 07765 635 128 and is available from Sunderland Antiquarian Society each Saturday between 9.30am and noon. Alternatively, send a cheque for £8.99, which includes postage, to Norman c/o Sunderland Antiquarian Society, at 6 Douro Terrace, Sunderland, SR2 7DX.


ELEANOR Hall had the privilege of cooking for the inmates of Sunderland Workhouse in January 1893 – one of them being old schoolmaster James Coyne.

The 83-year-old former teacher was obviously starving – or loved her meals – for, on the day of his death, he launched into his lunch even before grace had been said.

Disaster, however, was just a bite away.

Another inmate, Ellen Dryden, was sitting behind James – her eyes closed and hands clasped together in anticipation of prayer – when she heard a gurgling sound.

“Mrs Hall, Mrs Hall,” she shouted, before dashing to give first aid. A big chunk of meat was sticking out of James’ mouth, the rest was lodged in poor chap’s throat.

Despite trying the wrestle the meat from his mouth, and giving James a few claps on the back, it was all to no avail.

“He snored a little,” she told the subsequent inquest, “before changing colour and dying in my arms.” Death by choking was the verdict.

“It was at the inquest that a heart-rending account of James Coyne’s fall from riches to rags was given,” said Norman.

“He had arrived in Sunderland as a successful accountant in the 1860s and, when that venture failed, he became a schoolmaster.

“But he ended up suffering the indignity of cleaning out ash pits. When he became too infirm to work any longer, he was confined to the workhouse.

“Perhaps he should have said grace after all.”


THE “greatest of alarm” was reported to have descended on Sunderland in January 1829 – following attacks by a strangler.

“It has been ascertained that a number of Irishmen, who have no ostensible mode of procuring an honest livelihood, are lodging in the East End,” reported the York Herald.

“Our correspondent further states that a young woman was recently seized near the Long Bank, Sunderland, by a fellow who attempted to strangle her.

“He would certainly have succeeded had her loud cries of distress not brought assistance to her, on which the miscreant made off.

“Various other individuals are reported to have been attacked.” Other strangling incidents reported in Sunderland in bygone years included a case reported by The Freeman’s Journal in December 1865.

“The other day a man sat down on a coil of chain at the river side in Sunderland and deliberately strangled himself with his pocket handkerchief,” the paper stated.

Meanwhile, in December 1905, the Western Times reported: “William Crawford, failing to strangle himself at Sunderland, stabbed himself in the neck and gazed at his reflection in the looking-glass until he fell and died.”

And on April 25, 1913, the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Adviser told readers: “By means of a handkerchief a man committed suicide in a police cell at Sunderland.

“He left a letter stating, “I am in despair while writing this, for I hear my wife shriek and scream. I am leaving you my last sentence.”


WHEN 21-year-old Billy Ray went to sleep that freezing night in January 1893, he really should have picked a better resting place.

“Instead of a warm bed, he kipped down on the cobbled pavement of High Street – despite the bitter cold,” said Norman.

“In the early hours, when his lifeless corpse was discovered by the flash of a copper’s bull’s eye lamp, it was covered in frost and soaked to the skin.

“Billy had to be chipped from the ground before he could be removed to the dead house.”

An inquest heard that Billy and his brother had enjoyed a heavy drinking session the night before – which probably swayed his choice of place to sleep.

“As for a hangover? Well, sadly, Billy Ray would have the rest of eternity to sleep it off,” said Norman.




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