Sunderland drink-drive tragedy linked to wartime Zeppelin attack

Herrngton Burn Terrace, near to the fatal accident of Elizabeth Stedham.
Herrngton Burn Terrace, near to the fatal accident of Elizabeth Stedham.
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When a man stands before judge and jury accused of taking a life, the role of the court is to determine IF he committed the crime.

The reason WHY he committed such an atrocious act is often left for his own conscience.

Durham Assize Courts February 1934.

Durham Assize Courts February 1934.

“Those who knew James Carter all said the same thing. He was a highly respected citizen,” says local historian Norman Kirtlan.

“Indeed, the 56-year-old had proven his worth to society by serving as an unpaid special constable with the Sunderland Borough Police.

“His appearance before Durham Assizes on February 19, 1949, therefore seemed very much out of character for a man held in such esteem.”

Carter had made his living as a brewer’s representative for years, travelling around the pubs and clubs of Wearside.

And, on November 8, 1949, he left his home as usual in North Ravensworth Street, driving off to start work in Houghton.

“Carter, accompanied by retired glassblower Joseph Smailes, visited at least three pubs,” said Norman, a retired police inspector.

“But then, at 2.10pm, his car was seen driving erratically from Herrington Burn in the direction of Shiney Row. Suddenly, without warning, his car mounted the pavement beside the Co-op building, before violently swerving right and hitting a house.

“Tragically, two-year-old Elizabeth Stedham had been walking along the pavement with her uncle, Jim Guthrie, just at that time.”

Jim was knocked to the ground as the car side-swiped him. Despite being stunned by the blow, he scrambled up to look for Elizabeth. Screams rang out from a lady at a nearby bus stop and, after looking up the road, Jim spotted his niece lying some 20ft away.

“Both he and the lady dashed towards Elizabeth, picking the little girl up and carrying her to the Traveller’s Rest pub,” said Norman.

“An ambulance was called but, sadly, the child was dead long before the emergency crew arrived.”

Police officers were soon at the scene and, after spotting Carter’s car parked outside of Shiney Row WMC, discovered him inside the club.

Carter was “sprawled out and well the worse for drink” when the officers approached. Immediately, he started to apologise.

“He thought he had knocked over two dogs,” said Norman. “When he heard it was a child he screamed out ‘Oh God, no’ before being arrested.

“He was then taken to Houghton Police Station, where a doctor was summoned and confirmed Carter was far too drunk to be driving.”

Smailes, Carter’s passenger, later told the police that he had shouted at his driver, warning him that a dog had run into his path.

The resulting swerve and collision with the wall were due to his avoiding the dog. Neither he nor Carter had noticed a child.

“Neither man had realised that they had dragged Elizabeth along the road, running over her when she dropped to the ground,” said Norman.

Carter pleaded guilty to manslaughter when he appeared at Durham Assizes, telling the court he was a man “doomed to remorse and horror”.

“Although Carter offered up no defence, the court was told he had suffered a seizure on the day of the crash – and that he had been seriously injured in a 1916 Zeppelin attack,” said Norman.

“He had also been blown up in a distillery explosion a few years later and had, of late, been suffering the effects of those events.

“Whether it was the injuries, the alcohol, or a combination that caused him to be overcome by such reckless abandon, we will never know.”

Carter was jailed for four years and led away from court, head bowed, to begin his sentence.

“Elizabeth’s parents maintained great dignity during the hearing. After which they too left the court with heads bowed; to begin a sentence of their own,” said Norman.

l Norman’s book about Wearside crimes, Fetch the Black Maria, is available from Sunderland Antiquarian Society, at 6 Douro Terrace, at £10.