Tale of a Sunderland baby snatcher

BYGONE DAYS: Church Street in Seaham - close to where baby Barbara's pram was dumped by Dora Tate.
BYGONE DAYS: Church Street in Seaham - close to where baby Barbara's pram was dumped by Dora Tate.
Have your say

TODAY we return to Wearside crime of the 1930s – courtesy of a scrapbook of stories kept by local lawman Thomas Middlemist

A Ryhope woman went to extraordinary lengths to secure her beau after deciding life would be better with a man at her side, newspaper reports of the 1930s reveal.

The consequences of her strange courtship, however, were to have far reaching effects – and cause heartbreak to an unsuspecting Sunderland family.

“Young mother Elizabeth Smith had decided to do a bit of shopping on April 4, 1938, hoping to treat herself to a new outfit,” said local historian Norman Kirtlan.

“Marks & Spencer in the High Street had a sale on, and the well-stocked department store seemed the ideal place to spend her few savings.”

Elizabeth carefully swaddled her five-month-old baby daughter, Barbara, before placing her in a pram and setting off for town from her Elmwood Street home.

The trouble was, however, that Elizabeth found M&S packed with mid-day shoppers – and taking Barbara into the shop was going to prove tricky.

“The bairn was sound asleep and, as Elizabeth didn’t want to disturb her, she decided to park the pram close to the door,” said Norman, of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

“But, when Elizabeth emerged from the store, she found the baby gone. It is every mother’s nightmare – and Elizabeth’s screams brought passers-by rushing to help.”

Within hours, every police station across the county had been issued with Barbara’s description, and extra officers were drafted in by CID boss Thomas Middlemist.

“All night long, police and members of the public joined forces to search the area – alleys, streets, parks and docks were all scoured without any joy,” said Norman.

Elizabeth and her husband, Robert, refused to give up hope however – and their faith was finally rewarded with a breakthrough in the case.

Barbara’s pram was found abandoned in Seaham Harbour a full day after the baby vanished. Sadly, it was empty – and none of the townsfolk could help any further.

“Meanwhile, at 9 Front Row in Low Moorsley, events were unfolding that would give police the breakthrough they needed to resolve this awful case,” said Norman.

“At 9pm on the day Barbara disappeared, 21-year old Dora Tate turned up at the house of her future sister-in-law carrying a squirming bundle – a baby girl.

“When Dora was questioned by her future relative, she claimed the child was hers, and that this was the reason why her brother should marry her. It was his baby!”

Unfortunately for Dora, her host had read of Barbara’s disappearance in the Echo. Deeply suspicious, she asked Dora to accompany her to Houghton Police Office.

Dora went only reluctantly but, once at the station, broke down and admitted she had taken the baby – to try to reinforce her claim upon the man she wished to marry. “Her plan had failed miserably, but there was someone in Sunderland who would definitely not be miserable when the news was broken,” said Norman.

“As detectives were driving Tate back to Gillbridge Avenue, an officer was knocking on the door of Elizabeth Smith. Barbara was safe and well and on her way home.”

Tate, a domestic servant from Dinsdale Terrace in Ryhope, appeared in court the next day, where she admitted to stealing Barbara and dumping the baby’s pram in Seaham.

But, at her later trial, Justice Goddard decided “no harm had been done” – as Barbara was no worse for wear.

He did not, however, take into consideration the mental harm to her parents.

Instead of being thrown behind bars, Tate was placed on probation for a year and ordered to live at “whatever place or institution” her probation officer thought fit.

“Fortunately, the most important person in this case, baby Barbara, had escaped without harm – Tate having taken great care with ‘her new baby’,” said Norman.

“Whether or not young Dora eventually married her chap and had children of her own isn’t known, but one thing is for certain; next time Mrs Smith went shopping at Marks and Sparks, baby Barbara wouldn’t be leaving her side for a single second!”

•More historical stories from Thomas Middlemist’s scrapbook can be viewed at Sunderland Antiquarian Society, at 6 Douro Terrace, every Wednesday and Saturday from 9.30am to noon

Corss my palm with handcuffs

THE little fortune teller’s pockets rattled with sixpences as she slunk around the back streets of Hendon, offering gullible young women a glimpse into their futures.

“There’s a change of work for you,” she told one lass. “There’s a dark man coming through a long passage and you’ll hear of the birth of a baby boy,” she told another.

The last of the three women the fortune teller had accosted was a bit older and, from the look of her smart clothes, appeared to have “a few bob to spare”.

Clearing her throat, Gypsy Rose gushed: “Oh, my dear, I can see it clearly. You will shortly be going to a place where you will be spoken to by a man in uniform...”

The recipient of these prophetic words nodded slowly. “So will you, missus’”, she replied. “I’m a police matron and I’m just heading into work…”

And so it was that Gypsy Rose – or rather Ellen Marsh from Back D’Arcy Terrace – appeared before magistrates in June 1938, charged with telling fortunes in the street.

“No doubt foreseeing her eventual acquittal and compensation for unlawful arrest, the woman drew on her Romany mystique and pleaded not guilty,” said Norman.

“But, one by one, those who had not met tall dark strangers or become rich overnight, gave evidence – and the magistrates took a dim view of such antisocial conduct.” After fining Ellen, the wife of an unemployed labourer, £2, the chairman of the bench suggested: “You would be well advised to give up on this sort of thing.”

“In a strange footnote to the case, it seems Ellen may have escaped being dragged to the police station if she had not allowed greed to overtake her,” said Norman.

“When police matron Miss Lamb had asked how much she charged for a fortune, Ellen held out her hand and replied five bob!

The others had been only been charged sixpence.”