Woman gunned down in Sunderland park

CITY LIFE: Fawcett Street at around the time Mary Emily Rowell was shot.

CITY LIFE: Fawcett Street at around the time Mary Emily Rowell was shot.

MOVE over darling – it’s time for one last tale of Victorian misery.

POLICE Constable William Darling needed a darned good rest in January 1884.

“After all, he had only just recovered from his recent escapades chasing slippery burglars over at the New Arcade,” said local historian Norman Kirtlan.

“The devils had made off across the rooftops and William’s great big size tens went straight through a plate glass roof as he tried to follow, sending him hurtling down towards the stores.”

Fortunately, the quick-thinking officer managed to grab hold of a metal roof truss as he fell, hanging on grimly until help finally arrived.

The accident had, however, left its mark. The stitches were all out now, but a spot of light duties was what the doctor recommended – and Mowbray Park seemed just the place to enjoy them.

“William made his way past the Victoria Hall and crossed over by the pond, heading for the wishing stones up at Building Hill,” said former police inspector Norman.

“The hustle and bustle of shoppers and noisy carts on Fawcett Street and Borough Road were well behind him now, and only the occasional hiss of the steam trains could be heard.

“Oh yes, and those other strange noises in the distance. Bangs they were. Just like the kind of noise made by a ... gun?”

Down by Keeper’s Cottage several more shots rang out – along with screams and shouts for help. William set off towards the yells.

“When he arrived, rather worried and out of breath, he saw a scrum of the town’s finest young gentlemen battling it out with another chap – who was pinned to the ground,” said Norman.

“A small black handgun – still smoking from recent use – was lying on the ground beside the melee.”

Just a few feet away, and in a condition of complete “shock and exhaustion”, lay a young woman.

Her gown had been torn from her shoulders and it became clear to William, the damage had been caused by bullets passing through the material.

“The officer grabbed hold of the offender, James George Rayner, and snapped the handcuffs on his wrists,” said Norman, a member of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

“But the out-of-work confectioner refused to give any personal details and was duly frog marched to the lock-up.”

Gradually, despite the lack of help offered by Rayner, William managed to piece together the background story to the incident.

After treatment for shock and a few minor grazes, the victim – 29-year-old Mary Emily Rowell of Northumberland Street – set about making her statement.

“The lass had been walking through the park to work, at the laundry on Toward Road, when she heard a familiar voice call out behind her just as she reached the fountains,” said Norman.

“Rayner demanded that she come over to him, but Mary knew better than that – and ran off. She got as far as the Keeper’s Cottage when shots rang out from behind her.

“There were five in total, two of which ripped through her outer garments and grazed her flesh. Had Rayner been a better shot, then she would have undoubtedly been dead.”

It was at that point, according to stories unearthed by Norman in newspapers of the time, several local gentlemen – including the park keeper – stepped in to wrestle Rayner to the ground.

“Mary told the police that Rayner, a widower, had persuaded her to go to London with him some time back before the incident,” said Norman.

“But, apparently, her father brought her back to Sunderland and told her never again to speak with the man, as he was obviously ‘round the bend’.

“This then prompted Rayner to tell her that, if she didn’t come back to London, he would shoot her. And he was to keep that promise.”

Once Raynor had been dragged into custody, a search revealed he had been carrying a tin containing upwards of 50 bullets – as well as a cut-throat razor.

“Had the shooting not succeeded, then he was going to get the job done one way or another,” said Norman.

“He found himself charged, instead, with attempted murder and received five years’ penal servitude for his troubles. It was just lucky for Mary that he was such a bad shot.”

l Norman is the author of several local history books. Copies can be purchased from Sunderland Antiquarian Society, at 6 Douro Terrace, any Saturday morning.




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