OF all the firms which plied their trade across Wearside in the 1930s there was one, more than any other, which required tact and diplomacy in abundance.
“That business was, of course, the business of death – and funeral director Robert Letbe had his skills pushed to the limit back in 1938,” said historian Norman Kirtlan.
Letbe’s problems began when the telephone at his Durham Road office rang one cold February morning, just minutes after the firm opened for business.
His caller – the grandly named Mr Charles Henry Stewart Stanley – requested that a funeral home representative attend 12 Olive Street to discuss a family bereavement.
“Letbe duly gave his condolences and assured Stanley of his best attentions. With that, he boarded a tram and rumbled across town to keep the appointment,” said Norman.
On his arrival at Olive Street, however, Letbe was left duly baffled.
“I need a coffin for my father,” Stanley told the funeral director as the latter took a seat and jotted down the customer’s requirements.
Coffins, of course, were big business for Letbe, and a glossy catalogue was quickly produced for Stanley’s perusal.
“I’ll have that one,” said Stanley, after a moment’s consideration, pointing at a mid-range model in beech and brass. “And make it for a well-built man of 5ft 10ins.”
At this delicate point, Letbe had to draw upon all of his undertakerly skills as he dropped his voice to a respectful whisper.
“Of course, we can supply such a coffin to your specifications, sir,” he said, “but it is customary to see the deceased in order that accurate measurements can be made…”
Stanley shook his head. “He’s not dead yet,” he informed the open-mouthed funeral director. “Oh, and another thing – he lives in Batley.”
Now this statement clearly required a bit of clarification, and Stanley explained his requirements more fully.
“I want you to send a hearse and a coffin to Batley in Yorkshire to pick my dad up, and then bring him back so he can be buried in Sunderland,” he told Letbe.
There still remained the problem, however, of the coffin’s prospective occupant not yet being dead, and Letbe duly pointed this out to the soon-to-be grieving Stanley.
“Oh but he will be by the time you get there,” promised the Olive Street man.
Still not happy, Letbe suggested it would easier for a Batley undertaker to pick up Stanley’s father when he was actually dead, and then transport him to Sunderland.
But Stanley was unmoved. “I want you to do it,” he insisted.
Letbe reluctantly accepted the commission, jotting down the relevant details before standing to bid his customer a good day.
“Oh, there’s just one more thing,” Stanley said – and asked to borrow “10 bob” for the train fare to Batley. “Just until I get the insurance money, you understand.”
When Letbe pulled out his wallet, however, he discovered he only had a pound note. “That will do,” Stanley informed him, before showing the undertaker into the street.
“If, upon leaving Olive Street, Letbe had one or two doubts, then it is true to say that by the time he got back to the office, he had doubts by the coffin full,” said Norman.
“The telephone at Gillbridge Avenue CID office was soon shrilling out and DCI Middlemist was duly appraised of events of February 20, 1938.”
Meanwhile, having worked up a healthy appetite during his meeting with Letbe, “grieving” Stanley decided that it was time to pop out for a spot of lunch.
“Pie and mushy peas,” he ordered at his favourite cafe, when his turn came to be served. “Oh, and just one more thing…”
“Stanley was no stranger to the shop, and the proprietor was no stranger to Stanley’s lack of money,” said Norman, a member of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.
“But, as usual, out of Stanley’s pocket came naval discharge papers, as collateral for lunch, and a few borrowed shillings – to tide him over until landing his ‘dream’ job.”
Pie and peas in hand, Stanley then headed back to Olive Street to enjoy his meal. Waiting for him, however, was a rather unwelcome visitor – Police Constable Plenderleith.
“The officer seemingly had some bad news for Stanley that would put him well and truly off his steak and kidney pud,” said Norman, a former Wearside police inspector.
“DCI Middlemist had been in touch with the lad’s father back in Batley and, far from being at death’s door, he was very much alive – if not sick to death of his offspring.”
Stanley was led away in handcuffs for lengthy questioning. He was later charged with 23 counts of criminal deception – including crimes at the undertakers and pie shop.
On April 7, 1938, the Yorkshire-born con artist – who already had 21 previous convictions – was dragged before magistrates at Sunderland Quarter Sessions.
“I ask that you temper my sentence with a little mercy!” Stanley appealed. The recorder smiled and tempered his sentence with 12 months’ hard labour instead.
•The archives of Sunderland Antiquarian Society can be viewed each Wednesday and Saturday morning at 6 Douro Terrace.