TODAY we take a trip back in time to Victorian Sunderland to look at how a toffee seller came to a sticky end.
MEGGIE Darling was known to Barbary Coasters young and old as the Toffee Woman during Victorian times.
“Those who knew her best said she was as sweet as the stuff she sold, but her husband would tell you a different story,” said local historian Norman Kirtlan.
“According to him, life with Meggie left a very bitter taste!”
Mary Darling, to give the 74-year-old her Sunday name, ran a confectionery stall on the north side of Wearmouth Bridge, just up from Dame Dorothy Street.
It was a popular stop for many a sweet-toothed Wearsider over the years, with a ha’porth of Meggie’s best home-made toffee one of the best sellers.
“At the end of a working day, she would head back to her upstairs rooms in Bonner’s Field, where she would share the spoils with 63-year-old husband Bill,” said Norman.
“To friends and neighbours this seemed to be a match made in heaven. Two hard-working souls with never a cross word between them. Appearances, though, can be deceiving.”
On New Year’s Day, 1883, as revellers celebrated in Bridge Street’s numerous pubs, local shopkeeper Elizabeth Atkinson was counting her takings when the front door tinkled. Her new customer was Old Meggie, who threw down a few pennies in exchange for milk and sugar. Groceries purchased, Meggie politely gave her thanks and left.
A few minutes later, the shop door rattled again, and in walked Bill Darling, asking anxiously if his wife had popped in – and if she was the worse for drink.
Mrs Atkinson was quick to reassure the worried man that his wife had been quite sober, to which Bill demanded: “You haven’t given her any drink, have you?”
“The shopkeeper indignantly said she had not, but Bill complained his missus had staggered home drunk, so someone must have plied her with liquor,” said Norman.
“After that, an angry Mrs Atkinson despatched him from the premises with a flea in his ear.”
Mary Jane McPherson, who lived downstairs to the Darlings at Number 7 Bonner’s Field, had also seen Meggie that afternoon – quite sober and quite pleasant.
Thumps and thuds from the Darling’s flat attracted her attention later that same night, when she heard Old Meggie cry out “Oh William, William!” – but she just ignored it.
“Instead, Mary Jane just carried on with her business, and thought nothing else about it,” said Norman, a retired police inspector and author of several local history books.
“But the following day she was called to the Darling’s rooms by another neighbour, Mrs Casey, who told her that Meggie was in a bad way in bed and unable to talk.
“The two women worked together to try and rouse their unconscious neighbour, but all efforts failed. It was then that they noticed a large blood stain beneath the bed.”
Amid all the hustle and bustle of tending to Meggie, Bill Darling just shrugged on his coat and announced he was off to work. “Maybe you can fetch the doctor,” he suggested.
Dr Horan was duly summoned from his practice on Bridge Street. Finding the patient with bruises to her head, and still unable to speak, he promised to keep an eye on her.
Despite his attentions, however, Old Meggie slipped from life before morning.
The next few days saw Bill immerse himself in a flurry of activity, visiting “all and sundry” in a bid to reinforce his reputation as a kind and loving husband.
Shopkeeper Elizabeth Atkinson was the first to get a knock. “How are you, Bill?” she politely enquired, to which the newly bereaved replied “I am very poorly.”
Then, as Mrs Atkinson stood open-mouthed on her door-step, he added: “But you know my character and you know hers – it will only be manslaughter!”
“Bill went on to tell her Meggie had been a bad wife and that she had pawned all of his clothes for drink,” said Norman, a member of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.
“After all, he added as an afterthought, she had fallen out of bed whilst drunk. After hearing his tall tale, Mrs Atkinson once again despatched him with a flea in his ear.”
Undeterred by the reaction of the storekeeper, Bill continued his charm offensive – urging neighbours to tell the inquest Meggie had been a “drunkard and a destroyer.”
“Ejected from house after house, no matter how hard he tried, Darling found not one ally to his cause. It was obvious the inquest could only go one way,” said Norman.
“With that knowledge, Darling was left with just one option for freedom – he legged it. A post mortem would confirm that running away was his best course of action.
“If Meggie Darling had indeed fallen out of bed, as he had claimed to Mrs Atkinson, then she had been helped on her way. With a few kicks to the head along the way.”
It was almost two weeks later when a bedraggled figure presented himself at Newcastle Central Police Office. “I’ve come to give myself up,” he told the officer.
Darling was immediately locked up and, within hours, had signed a confession admitting to his part in Meggie’s death – his version of the tragic truth anyway.
“I am come to give myself up after I put my wife out of bed. I went and sat down at the fireside and looking towards her, she said, ‘you B****** you!’” he wrote.
“I cannot recollect kicking or badly using her at the time, but she began to snore.”
Darling also confessed to lying when he had told police Meggie had fallen downstairs while drunk. “I was excited by her bad conduct and ways of going on,” he added.
The shamed man was duly charged with murder, whereupon he asked when he would go to court. When a date in April was suggested, Darling muttered: “I won’t live that long.”
But William Darling did indeed survive until April, when he appeared before Durham Assizes accused of the manslaughter of his wife.
“At court, he changed his story yet again, telling the jury that he had been in a stupor when he had made the damning confession to Newcastle police,” said Norman.
“He then repeated his tale about Meggie falling down the stairs while drunk, and also made a rambling statement about her drunken behaviour, which the jury somehow swallowed.”
Darling was found guilty following the trial, although the jury concluded the killing had been carried out under “extreme provocation” – due to Meggie’s drunkenness.
Indeed, such was the sympathy for the plight of “poor Darling” that the Judge sentenced him to just 18 months behind bars with hard labour – rather than death.
“He was lucky not to have been swinging from a rope,” said Norman. “Perhaps, after all, he deserved the same sticky ending as that suffered by the Toffee Woman.
“But then again, you can never tell what goes on behind closed doors.”
n Norman Kirtlan is the author of several history books. Copies can be purchased from Sunderland Antiquarian Society, at 6 Douro Terrace on Saturday or Wednesday mornings.