A Halloween tale to send shivers down your spine began with a cheery farewell in 1916 – and ended in tragedy.
Washington Station lad Joe Thompson promised his dad faithfully that he would keep out of trouble as he went out to play one morning.
“I don’t want the police knocking at my door,” the old man warned, “not now I’m a special constable!”
Sadly, 12-year-old Joe was to be unable to keep his promise. Before the day was out just about the whole of Durham Constabulary was knocking on his door.
“Joe met up with a classmate, Thomas Hartley, and the pair decided to play in the ponds near the brickworks,” said historian Norman Kirtlan.
“But, as the lads skimmed some stones, Joe called out in excitement. Something mysterious was floating on the surface of the water.”
Closer inspection revealed it was some kind of cloth sack, tied with string. The bag had burst open, and a small hand was limply hanging out.
As Joe ran to fetch his father, so a group of girls playing nearby formed a human chain across the pond to drag the sack to dry land.
“It was weighed down with bricks but the youngsters managed to haul it out of the water, where the true horror of their discovery became clear,” said Norman.
“Inside was the decomposing body of a toddler. The poor child, who was well dressed, had obviously been in the water for a several weeks.”
Joe’s father, Special War Constable Thompson, immediately launched an investigation after examining the remains – helped by doctors and detectives. But enquiries revealed no children had been reported missing of late, and that meant only one thing. The murderer must be the little boy’s parents.
“As rumours of the tragedy spread around Washington Station, so the finger of suspicion was pointed at 24-year-old Hannah Wilson,” said Norman.
“Jane Adie, Hannah’s half-sister, came forward to say that Hannah had given birth to a boy called Mathew on August 2, 1914. However, the father was unknown.
“But Sarah Ellen Clark, one of Hannah’s neighbours at Middlefield Row, claimed Mathew’s father had been a soldier who died in France shortly after his birth.
“What both women did agree upon, however, was that Hannah seemed very fond of the boy, although the little chap had not been seen for many months.”
Indeed, Hannah had told several villagers that she had sent Mathew to live with a sister in Felling, as she was too poor to feed him.
But, when the clothes the drowned child had been wearing were put on display, one of the residents came forward to say she had given them to Hannah.
As Hannah was charged with murder, she confessed to officers: “I had a child to a man from Usworth. He followed me about and I could not get rid of him.”
She revealed she had been moved from workhouse to workhouse until, at last, she was sent to live with a lady called Mrs Mullin in Ash Street, Washington.
Hannah then secured work at the coke works, but her pay was insufficient to pay for rent, food or child care. Soon, she and the baby were starving.
“When Mrs Mullin tired of the baby and said she didn’t want to look after him any more. Hannah tried to secure other nurses for the little one,” said Norman.
“But no-one would take on the job, as he was so delicate. Eventually, “out of her head” with worry, she placed the boy in a sack and threw him into the pond.”
Hannah appeared before Durham Assizes on November 13, 1916, where the judge sentenced her to death. The jury, however, pleaded for her to be spared and she was.
“While there was little doubt that she was guilty, her story of extreme poverty touched their hearts,” said Norman.
“I did hear when I was a young copper, from the crossing master at Biddick Lane, that the old brickworks were supposedly haunted.
“He said he’d often heard the cries of a small child, but there was nothing to see. I just wonder if this could have been little Mathew crying?”