TODAY we take a look at the “good old days” in Sunderland, when one tragic infant was thrown away like rubbish.
FRANCIS Stubbs didn’t particularly enjoy his cleaning job at Sunderland’s Central Railway Station – but with a family to support, anything was better than nothing.
The job did have its perks though, particularly when tidying up first class carriages – as toffs often left newspapers and all manner of trinkets that could come in handy.
But the debris dropped in third class carriages sometimes turned his stomach. Indeed, there was no denying that some of the stuff left behind could really make him cringe.
“And so it was, on a sunny spring day of April 17, 1895, Mr Stubbs was destined to be seeking career guidance by the end of his shift,” said local historian Norman Kirtlan.
It was just after 2pm when Francis settled down to tackle the third class section of yet another train. Apart from a few apple gowks, there had been little to complain about.
But then, after spotting a large parcel wrapped in a colourful comic paper sitting snugly under one of the wooden bench seats, he stooped to examine its contents.
“Unwrapping the first layer of paper, he came upon a pillow case that was covering an object within,” said Norman, map archivist for Sunderland Antiquarian Society.
“Blood was seeping through the material and, initially, Francis thought that it may have been a joint of meat inadvertently left by one of the railway’s passengers.
“Peeling back the comic, he realised just how wrong he was, as a tiny lifeless face stared back at him. Francis dropped the package and rushed to contact the police.”
By teatime, doctors, officials and local detectives were swarming around the station. Francis Stubbs was now a principal – and very reluctant – witness in a murder case.
An examination of the newborn revealed little however – the only outward sign of violence being a flattened nose, which could have come from being crushed on the floor.
“Dr Burns found that while the baby boy had lived a life independent of his mother, his life had been no longer than a few minutes,” said former police inspector Norman.
“Death had been caused, the medic speculated, by suffocation. As the child had been dead around 10 days, it was obvious he had been stored well away from the train.”
Sergeant Cameron, of the Railway Police, set to work investigating – discovering the train had already travelled between Durham and South Shields several times that day.
Nothing, however, had been seen that would give rise to suspicion of any kind. Thus, his enquiries ground to a very sudden halt – until the sad story appeared in the Echo.
“Four days later, when the postman delivered a batch of letters to Cameron’s office, one anonymous missive provided just the name he’d been seeking,” said Norman.
“A telegram to South Hylton Police Office would, the hard-working police officer hoped, now provide him with a body to go with the name – one Margaret McNells.”
Margaret, 23, was looking after her father’s house when heavy knuckles rapped at the door. As she opened it, she spotted South Hylton’s police sergeant – Officer Johns.
“I am arresting you for the wilful murder of a baby boy,” he told her, prompting Margaret to fall to the floor and sob out her response to the allegations against her.
“The bairn was already dead when it was born,” she cried out, before being led away to the train station. This journey would be very different to the last that she had made.
“Margaret, an unmarried mother from 17 John Street, was interviewed at length, but repeatedly maintained that her child had been born dead,” said Norman.
“The police, however, charged her with wilful murder and concealing the birth of her child. She was then dragged before the coroner to tell her tale on May 10, 1895.”
Margaret, who was described by the Echo as respectably dressed and with pleasant features, revealed to the hearing how she had given birth to the baby boy in secret.
She claimed the child was dead when she gave birth, and she then kept his existence a secret from her widower father Thomas, with whom she lived, due to shame and fear.
“After concealing the body until it could no longer be kept at home, Margaret wrapped it in a pillow case – before boarding the train to Sunderland,” said Norman.
“On arrival in town, she then caught another train – where she had concealed the sad parcel under a bench seat. After that, she left the train and returned home.”
Had the inquest jury returned a verdict of murder, then Margaret may well have hung. However, they could not agree as to whether the child had been born alive or dead.
Instead, after much deliberation – and very much against the findings of Dr Burns – an open verdict was returned. Margaret was once again a free woman.
“Whatever the truth of the matter, there is little doubt that pointing fingers and wagging tongues would accompany Margaret’s every move for years,” said Norman.
“And as for Francis Stubbs, well the collection of flotsam and jetsam discarded by rail passengers would always be accompanied by trepidation and sad memories of that day in 1895.”
l It appears from official records that Margaret lived with her shipyard labourer father until at least 1911. It is unknown, however, what happened to her afterwards.
Maddest of Mackems
A NEW book featuring old crime stories from bygone Sunderland has just been published by Norman.
Pedagogues, Perps, Prostitutes and Piles: More tales of Murder and Mayhem from Old Wearside is being sold at £4 in aid of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.
“Not everything was good in the ‘good old days’ – and my book is packed with tales of murder, mystery, misery, mayhem and intrigue!” said Norman.
l The archives of Sunderland Antiquarian Society, at 6 Douro Terrace, are open to visitors each Wednesday and Saturday morning.