Dark tales from Sunderland’s past

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DEATH is a way of life for local historian Norman Kirtlan. Indeed, as a freelance forensic artist for the police, he makes his living sketching the dead. In his spare moments, he researches stories of the dead.

“Death and taxes are the only certainties in life, as the saying goes – and I find piecing together the secrets behind death quite fascinating,” he said.

BYGONE DAYS: Old sunderland was a 'hotbed of crime' during the good old, bad old, days.

BYGONE DAYS: Old sunderland was a 'hotbed of crime' during the good old, bad old, days.

“It’s my job to help identify unknown victims of crime, and I’m trying to do the same with my latest book; by highlighting tragic deaths from years gone by.”

Norman, map archivist for Sunderland Antiquarian Society, joined forces with fellow historian Sharon Vincent to scour Echo archives for grisly bygone tales.

The result is Pedagogues, Perps, Prostitutes and Piles – a 124-page page-turner featuring dozens of “dire deaths and awful accidents” to befall Wearsiders.

“It’s a collection of murderous Mackem tales from the good old, bad old days – with the best, and worst, of Sunderland’s lads and lasses included,” he said.

Norman Kirtlan

Norman Kirtlan

“We had an amazing response to our two previous books about old local crime cases, Murderous Wearside Volumes One and Two – which both sold out within days.

“And as there is such a wealth of material within the archives of the Echo, we decided to dip our pens into the bloody realms of Wearside’s past once more.”

Among the gruesome stories uncovered by Norman and Sharon is a death by gluttony in 1816 and a man who had two brushes with the Grim Reaper in 1883.

Other tales include the sticky end of a Wearside toffee lady, a man who made a carriage from a coffin, plus brutal fights, street attacks and tragic suicides.

Some breath-taking Victorian cure-alls, clots and culprits are also featured in the book, together with poignant incidents involving murder fuelled by depression.

“From Suddick to Seaburn, the East End, Hendon and beyond, these are tales of violence and tragedy that held our Victorian ancestors spellbound,” said Norman.

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

“The intricate, and often gruesome, reports left nothing to the imagination. Modern readers would cringe, but Victorian readers devoured each tale with relish.”

Norman, a former Wearside police inspector, was originally inspired by reading old newspaper stories to start researching Sunderland’s darker past in greater detail.

His research left him astounded at the “sheer volume” of killings committed in the “good old days” – prompting him to put pen to paper and start writing books.

“I always say that inside every one of us is a murderer. One day, when things get too much to bear, that’s when we snap – and these stories show that,” he said.

“Amazingly, I have been contacted by folks from all over the world who have found very dark skeletons in their closets – murderers all – after reading the books.

“Without doubt, Wearsiders love a grisly tale or two. Indeed, such is the volume of murders over the past century that I have now started on volume four!”
l Pedagogues, Perps, Prostitutes and Piles: More tales of Murder and Mayhem from Old Wearside is on sale at £4 if picked up from Sunderland Antiquarian Society at 6 Douro Terrace, Sunderland, SR2 7DX, on Wednesday or Saturday mornings.

It is also available by post for £5 from the same address – mark cheques as payable to Norman Kirtlan. Look out for more stories from Norman this week.

Cops united to catch thieving magpies

TWO Newcastle lads took team rivalry to a whole new level as Sunderland fought to lift the FA Cup in 1937.

“Roker Park was filled to the gunnels on March 10 that year for a game against Wolverhampton Wanderers in the sixth round of the FA Cup,” said Norman.

“After a one-all draw the previous Saturday, things were a little tense – and despite plummeting temperatures, Sunderland fans were sweating through their flat caps.”

Now, in those days before health and safety – and with 61,796 supporters in the crowd – people had to put up with constant pushing, shoving and jostling. Problem was, among the red and white and gold and black fans were a couple of black and whites – hard at work and doing more jostling than most.

“Jimmy Gibson and his Tyneside mate Robert Maughan were ducking and diving though the crowd, dipping into a pocket here and a pocket there,” said Norman.

“And, as the match ended in stalemate, so the two Magpies left the stadium – tipping their hats to the informed bobbies before heading to the Toon.”
 But, although their pair thought themselves safe and sound as the Roker Roar sounded out, justice was just around the corner. “Gotcha!” came the cry.

“A dozen plain-clothed detectives pounced on the stunned Magpies, ruffling more than their black and white feathers,” said Norman.

“Back at the nick, and with a pile of ill-gotten gains on the custody desk before them, the pair must have wondered how their master plan had been rumbled. The answer was very easy.”

Unlike the Tyne-Wear rivalry on the football terraces, the two police forces – Sunderland Borough and Newcastle City – had no axe to grind when it came to mutual support.

And when the Toon’s Detective Sergeant Schofield received a snippet of information about two of Tyneside’s worst, it was simply a matter of calling up his Mackem mate DCI Middlemist.

The pair were dragged before the courts just a few weeks later where, after their previous convictions were read out, it became clear they would be missing many a football match.

“Not that they would have been bothered about that, as the Toon had been knocked out of the FA Cup competition long before that,” said Norman.

“But the lads at least learned that when it comes to criminals wearing black and white, the boys in blue win every time. And, just to rub salt in their wounds, Sunderland won the cup!”

“I’ll make a funeral of the lot of them.”

THE early 20th century found the Jones family of Southwick struggling for survival – no work, no money, no hope.

Indeed, with four little ones to clothe and feed, unemployed William Jones was at his wits’ end. The future, with mounting debts, looked bleaker by the minute.

“With only a half-promise of possible work at the shipyards, the 34-year-old decided to up sticks and move the family to Millfield,” said Norman.

The family’s new home – two rooms at Back Aylesbury Street – were nothing short of appalling. Cramped, cold, damp and way too close to Millfield Station for comfort.

“As they battled with the constant rattle of trains, tempers frayed through starvation – and, sadly, the family’s desperation was destined to get even worse,” said Norman.

Finally, after an inevitable argument, William threatened to “make a funeral of the lot of them”. The Jones family would soon learn that he did not make idle threats.

In the early hours of June 2, 1910, just five weeks after the Jones moved in, a neighbour at 2 Aylesbury Street was woken by “moans” from the Jones’ residence.

“Concerned that something had happened, he quickly dressed and went into the yard. There was nothing to be seen, but the moans grew louder.”

As his fears for the safety of the Jones family mounted, the neighbour hastened to the door and pushed it open. What he saw would stay with him for the rest of his life.

William Jones was lying in the kitchen in front of the bedroom door, with blood gushing from a wound to his throat. His feeble efforts to stem the flow were useless.

“Beside him on the floor was an open cut-throat razor,” said Norman. “The whole place seemed like it had been the scene of terrible carnage. But worse was to come.

“Pushing open the bedroom door, the neighbour saw what he assumed was Susannah Jones lying on the bed, with her 18-month-old-baby daughter cradled in her arms.”

Susannah’s head had been battered severely, and her throat had been cut so deeply that her head was almost severed from her body, an inquest was later told.

Blood splashed up the walls and dripped from the iron bedstead upon which she and the baby lay. The tot had been battered too, and her throat cut with “great force”.

On a shake-me-down mattress in the corner of the room lay the other three children, five-year-old Susannah, seven-year-old Polly and eight-year-old James.

“They had all been killed in the same brutal way and lay in a pool of blood that covered the bedroom floor,” said Norman.

“On July 22, 1910, William was convicted of five brutal murders He was, as predicted, declared insane and ordered to be detained at the King’s pleasure.”

Equal fights for women

SUNDERLAND’S militant lasses banded together for a very worthy cause in 1908 – the vote and equal rights for women.

Needless to say, in those early days of suffrage, their ride was never going to be an easy one.

“On Saturday, August 13, the ladies arranged for a meeting to take place at 7pm outside the Technical College,” said Norman.

“For some reason, only two were allowed to speak, one of which being Ms Gardiner – the leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.

“She duly took the soap box and belted forth her inflammatory rhetoric, capturing the imagination of the crowd and igniting their passion for change.

“But the blokes present were likewise inflamed, and it was obvious their delicate sensibilities were threatened by those they thought better off behind the kitchen sink.

“Sadly, no matter how much Ms Gardiner raised her voice and thumped out a call for women’s unity, the men in the crowd ensured her words could not be savoured.”

Indeed, the hecklers even called for all women suffragettes to be locked up in the local lunatic asylum – an idea which met with loud applause.

Ms Gardiner refused, however, to be subdued – and only left the podium after having “noxious chemicals” and other unmentionables thrown at her.

“Thankfully, women eventually achieved their objective in securing the vote. Many, however, say they are still fighting for equality – and many would tend to agree,” added Norman.