The year 1917 saw war raging across Europe – with thousands of brave Wearsiders putting their lives on the line in battle.
Back home in Sunderland, however, the seedier side of the “war effort” was exposed by the Echo – thanks to the actions of two “hungry” Grangetown ladies.
“Down at the quayside on July 8 that year, several foreign vessels were huddled together for safety,” said historian Norman Kirtlan.
“Barbed wire encased the area and several sailors stood guard, ever watchful for dreaded zeppelin attacks or – worse still – sabotage by fifth columnists.
“But, as the town hall clock struck midday, this security was put to the test – as two shadowy figures crouched furtively beside the perimeter fence.”
The military guard who spotted the suspicious figures was “a good distance away” and could not make out clearly who they were, or what they were up to.
I would love to have been a fly on the wall when Messrs Snell and Clarkson returned home from sea and read the court pages in the Sunderland Echo featuring their wives. Dinner nibbles indeed!Norman Kirtlan, retired police inspector and member of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.
But, when the pair shuffled under the barbed wire and crept up to the quayside, it was immediately obvious that something was very wrong.
Worse still, a small boat was waiting to pick up the two ne’er-do-wells, piloted by a sailor from a nearby Norwegian vessel.
“As the pair were picked up and taken across to the ship, the military guard sprang into action – leaping into his own small coble,” said Norman.
“After rowing furiously across the quay, he boarded the Norwegian vessel, calling out for the suspicious pair to halt and identify themselves.”
Two very red-faced young women sheepishly made their way towards the army officer, who promptly handcuffed them and took the ladies off to Low Street.
Here he handed them to Inspector John Rochford, of the River Wear Police, who knew just what to do with 21-year-olds Jane Snell and Margaret Clarkson.
“The police chief had little doubt what the young ladies had been planning to do aboard a vessel full of red-blooded sailors,” said Norman.
“But, instead of charging them on the spot with solicitation or even spying, he craftily encouraged them to confess to their crimes instead.”
Despite being crimson in the face, Jane managed to stutter: “We were stood on Low Street behind the barbed wire when we saw the sailors waving at us.”
“We waved back,” Margaret added. “And they sent a boat over to pick us up.”
Inspector Rochford nodded. That much he knew.
“And what were you going to be doing once you were on board, ladies?” he asked.
The two women looked at each other before unanimously announcing; “Get our dinner!”
As the policeman tried to choke back his laughter, the women were left in the custody of a matron to jot down a few personal details.
The pair, who claimed to be from Ryhope, had only been married a matter of months.
Their husbands, sailors both, were away at sea helping the war effort.
“Perhaps the girls wanted to help the war effort in their own, unique, way, but they ended up charged with entering a prohibited area without a permit,” said Norman.
Snell and Clarkson appeared before Sunderland Borough Court to face the offences on June 13, 1917, once again offering a lunchtime nibble as their excuse for being on board the steamer.
But Alderman Gibson had little doubt that aperitifs and Scandinavian scoff had not been on the menu that day –and left them in no doubt that he believed them to be there for immoral purposes.
“You should be thoroughly ashamed of yourselves,” he told the pair. “I’ve a good mind to keep you in custody until your husbands come home!”
The case was adjourned for enquiries and, on July 20, the women returned to court – this time admitting they were from Grangetown, not Ryhope.
“They were bound over for six months to be of good behaviour, during which time they were placed under the supervision of the Police Court Missionary, Mr Holliday,” said Norman, of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.
“But I would love to have been a fly on the wall when Messrs Snell and Clarkson returned home from sea and read the court pages in the Sunderland Echo. Dinner nibbles indeed!”
• Sunderland Antiquarian Society is based at 6 Douro Terrace. The archive is open each Wednesday and Saturday morning for research.