Today we take a trip to the mean streets of Victorian Sunderland for the tale of a man who had two murderous meetings with the Grim Reaper
THE Echo has been at the heart of community life in Sunderland for the past 140 years – but front-line reporting in Victorian times often proved a rather grim affair.
“On January 31, 1883, the paper’s crime reporter was issued with an invitation to view a particularly grisly murder scene,” said local historian Norman Kirtlan.
“The remains had been found in Spencely Lane, just off Low Street, and the visit was an experience the journalist would never forget – no matter how hard he tried.”
Climbing in total darkness to the third floor of a squalid tenement, the reporter made his way into a tiny room that measured no more than 8 feet by 10.
Once his eyes finally adjusted to the gloom, he spied an old bed piled high with dirty clothes. Beneath it, in a pool of blood, lay the body of Irishwoman Julia Rafferty.
“A broken plate containing bread and two potatoes lay on the stool. Other meagre sticks of furniture lay broken on the bare floors,” said Norman, a former police inspector.
“Most poignant of all were two pictures hanging above Julia’s body. Each proclaimed the love of God – a commodity obviously in short supply in the Rafferty household.”
Julia had shared her shabby home with husband John Rafferty – a shoemaker by trade, but also a villain who had already served long terms in prison for his misdemeanours.
By the time the reporter reached the crime scene, Rafferty had been arrested on suspicion of stabbing Julia – loudly proclaiming his innocence all the way to the cells.
“Evidence, however, was mounting up,” said Norman. “Indeed, local woman Bridget Welsh came forward to say she had spotted a drunken Julia in Moss Street the day before.
“Julia had been holding a stone and looking for Rafferty. Apparently he had taken a lamp from the house and she wanted to give him a hiding.
“But before she could carry out her threat, two policemen appeared on the scene and ushered the angry woman away. Instead of going home though, she went to the pub.”
Julia and Bridget whiled away the next few hours happily quaffing whiskies at the Northumberland Arms. When Rafferty finally showed up, Julia was ready for a fight.
“She launched straight into a verbal assault, but her husband calmly shrugged off the abuse, and bought her more beer before they were ejected for rowing,” said Norman.
“Once back home, Julia continued to goad John. Eventually he picked up his shoe-making tools and promised to sell them for sixpence in order to buy her more drink.
“According to witnesses, Julia then took a running jump and knocked her husband down three flights of stairs – a feat that took the wind out of the poor bloke’s sails.
“The fall also, tragically, provided the spark that would ignite John’s extraordinary calmness into a rage that sent neighbours running for their lives.”
Scrambling to his feet, Rafferty ran back up to his lodgings and armed himself with a chair – repeatedly clashing with his drunken spouse who also brandished a chair.
After 15 minutes of furniture smashing and screaming, however, neighbours reported that an uneasy calmness descended over the house. Rafferty left soon afterwards.
“At just after two, cord-wainer Robert Carter, of 109 Low Street, was busy behind his counter when a ruffled John Rafferty came into his shop,” said Norman.
“Rafferty was offering a big knife and two awls for sale. Carter wasn’t particularly impressed, but, when Rafferty offered him a rasp as well, Carter handed over 3d.”
A few minutes later, Police Constable Edward Bunting was summoned from his beat by a concerned neighbour, who led the way to the Rafferty’s lodgings.
There the officer found John standing by the fireplace, as “bold as brass”. Julia lay dead at his feet, brutally stabbed in the stomach.
“What do you know about this?” asked Pc Bunting, pointing towards the corpse. The shoemaker merely shrugged his shoulders and muttered: “I know nothing about it.”
An inquest into Julia’s death was held a few days later at the Waterloo Arms in High Street, where the jury unanimously found that the woman had been unlawfully killed.
They added, however, that her long-suffering husband had been “acting under extreme provocation” at the time – thereby reducing the threat of a death sentence.
“On April 18, 1883, at Durham Assizes, 56-year-old Rafferty stood before the judge and threw himself upon the mercy of the court,” said Norman.
“He asked that they be cognisant of the life of hell that he had endured at the hands of his drunken wife. The judge responded by sending the man down for 20 years.”
Rafferty, as records show, was no stranger to murder. But, on the last occasion he and the Grim Reaper had exchanged greetings, he had been a witness for the prosecution.
“Three years before his own conviction, he had been standing outside his lodgings in Brougham Street when a grocer named Thomas Burnett walked past,” said Norman.
“Thomas had been on the way to his daughter’s house after a tipple or two in Stoney Lane. Sadly, he was to be in the wrong place, at the wrong time, that day.”
Drunken hooligans were “engaging in horseplay” in the street at the time, throwing half bricks at each other and even bashing the hat of one of the neighbours – John Perth.
Bottle blower John, at the end of his tether, launched a missile into the darkness – hoping to hit his tormentors. Tragically, it struck 87-year-old Thomas instead.
Perth was subsequently charged with manslaughter, and with Rafferty as chief witness, duly convicted of the offence.
“The case was one of the strangest dishings out of justice that had been heard at Durham Assizes for many a year,” said Norman.
“Perth’s defence was that the hooligans had been ‘clashing his hat’. The jury took pity on him and suggested to the judge that the lad should be shown lenience.
“Agreeing, His Honour Sir James Fitzjames Stephens proclaimed that in the varying degrees of manslaughter, this had indeed been one of the ‘lighter ones’.”
As Perth had already served three weeks on remand, the judge ordered that he serve one more day, just for good measure, before being allowed to go free.
“If that was supposed to be justice, the grieving family of old Mr Burnett would definitely have disagreed,” concluded Norman.
** Sunderland Antiquarian Society will host a Heritage Open Weekend on June 8/9 at 6 Douro Terrace. The event will run from 9.30am-3pm on both days and feature history stalls, exhibitions of old school photos and family history research advice.