Mystery still surrounds death of South Hylton shipbuilder

Railway Terrace on Hylton Bank - where cabman Swan saw Ninian wandering off in the dark.
Railway Terrace on Hylton Bank - where cabman Swan saw Ninian wandering off in the dark.
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The mysterious death of a South Hylton shipbuilder has sparked the interest of a former police inspector – almost 140 years after the man’s tragic demise.

Ninian Gibbon passed away five days after allegedly being attacked. Yet poison, rather than a cut throat, was suspected as his cause of death.

Garden House - home to shipbuilder Ninian Gibbon and his father Mathew.

Garden House - home to shipbuilder Ninian Gibbon and his father Mathew.

“Mystery still surrounds Ninian’s fatal end. I suppose too much time has elapsed to actually get to the bottom of the truth now,” said historian Norman Kirtlan.

Ninian, a 28-year-old with a shipyard at Low Ford, claimed to have been attacked by robbers – who stole his valuables, and left him for dead – on April 28, 1876.

Despite several injuries, including a cut throat, Ninian managed to make his way home to Garden House, where he was found by his father Mathew at 4am.

“Look here,” groaned Ninian, opening his collar to reveal a gaping cut to his throat. “I’ve been badly used, Dad. They’ve taken my money and my watch.”

Speculation was high that the throat-cutters had come back to finish the job; but a post mortem examination added further complications. A strange green substance was found in Ninian’s stomach – hinting the lad may have been poisoned.

Local historian Norman Kirtlan.

Mathew helped his son into bed and a doctor was called. The injuries were pronounced nasty, but not life-threatening, and Ninian was soon up and around again.

Five days later, however, Mathew was woken at 3am by Ninian’s frantic knocking on the front door. Tired and exasperated, Mathew demanded to know what was wrong.

“I’ve been long on the road and am very bad,” Ninian replied before bending double. As Ninian complained of stomach cramps, so Mathew laid his son on the bed.

“Just as he left to fetch a doctor, so Ninian broke out in a trembling fit so violent that he shook the bed. He was dead within the hour,” said Norman. The police at South Hylton had already launched an enquiry into the earlier robbery claim and, following Ninian’s death, the investigation was escalated.

Speculation was high that the throat-cutters had come back to finish the job; but a post mortem examination would add further complications to this mystery.

“A strange green substance, a “bit like gruel” was found in Ninian’s stomach – hinting the lad may well have been poisoned,” said Norman.

Samples of the suspect substance were sent to a laboratory for examination, while police officers took statements from anyone with recent contact with Ninian.

“Cabman Thomas Swan remembered picking Ninian up in Booth Street, Millfield, at 10pm on April 27 – just hours before he was allegedly attacked,” said Norman.

“Ninian had asked to be taken to Hylton Bank Top. No one else was about when Ninian was dropped off, and no one followed him down Hylton Bank towards his home.”

James Horsfield, the doctor who stitched up Ninian after the alleged attack, even went as far as to say he could have even inflicted the wounds on himself.

Indeed, the GP accompanied a policeman to the so-called riverside scene of the robbery – but found nothing to corroborate Ninian’s story.

“Dr Horsfield would later be questioned by an inquest jury regarding the “gruel” in Ninian’s stomach, even though the results were not yet in,” said Norman.

“The doctor claimed that it may have been an irritant poison, perhaps strychnine, as this could cause an excruciating pain when dying.”

On hearing this evidence, the jury were more than happy to return a verdict of suicide by poisoning – but the coroner would not allow such a rash decision.

Over the next few weeks several more complications arose into the strange case of Ninian Gibbon, including the fact his business had been failing miserably.

But, when the results of the medical tests on the “gruel” in his stomach finally came back, no traceable poisons had been found.

“There was absolutely nothing that could indicate a cause of death and, once the inquest was reconvened, an open verdict was delivered,” said Norman.

“Whatever – or whoever – had killed Ninian Gibbon, no one would ever discover. Was he really attacked, or did he commit suicide? No-one could tell.

“To this day, the mystery death remains unsolved.”