TODAY we continue our 1930s crime series with the tale of a baby who ended up behind bars after being sentenced to hard labour.
THE Great Depression of the 1930s led to tough times for thousands of Wearsiders – with parents often struggling to feed and clothe their children.
John Barkes knew only too well what pressures many poor folk were under, and he also knew what they would do to get a few extra shillings when times were rough.
“In his capacity as clerk to Sunderland Gas Company, John’s job was to examine what many saw as their personal little piggy bank – the gas meter,” said local historian Norman Kirtlan.
“Feeding pennies into the contraption would give you light and heat for an hour or so, but sticking a jemmy into it would give you enough pennies for one or two extras.”
The meter John examined at Back Salem Street on the last day of June 1939 had definitely been jemmied, and a withdrawal had been made of every last penny.
After documenting the crime, John called into a nearby police station – informing PC Poole that the Gas Company was out of pocket by 13 shillings and 11pence. (70p)
“The property was rented at four shillings and sixpence a week by the McDonald family, who had fallen on hard times,” said Norman, a member of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.
“Mr McDonald had not worked for many a year and the family, which included two toddlers and a newborn baby, had to survive on just 32 shillings a week in benefit.”
But McDonald’s 24-year-old wife, Florence, was no stranger to the police, having been arrested many times for shoplifting. Three stints in prison, however, had failed to reform her.
Indeed, she readily admitted to breaking into the meter when questioned by PC Poole. “Yes I did it a fortnight ago. I was hard up when the baby was born,” she was recorded as saying.
A few days later, on July 3, Florence was hauled before Sunderland Magistrates’ Court, where Chief Inspector Thomas Middlemist prosecuted on behalf of the police.
The McDonald’s gas meter had, according to Middlemist, been broken into four times in recent months without any action being taken. A spell in prison, therefore, was the only choice.
“Of course, there were the children to be considered,” said Norman. “Florence had a three-week-old baby sitting in its pram in the court corridor, while hubby was at home with the other two.
“But up stepped PC Finlay with vital information to help magistrates make up their minds. The McDonald’s home was filthy, she said, and the NSPCC had been called in to make checks.
“Then, after revealing Florence had refused all advice to improve her situation, the officer dropped a bombshell – by saying she thought both mother and child would be better off in prison.”
As Florence burst into tears, the chairman of the bench, Mr Wilson, sentenced her and the baby to three months in prison with hard labour, adding: “I remember well the furore on the last occasion we did this, but we cannot be swayed by the sentiments of mischievously minded persons!”
And so Florence and her baby were bundled off to prison, where they remained for the full three months – despite launching a desperate, but futile, appeal against the sentence.
“Sentencing a newborn baby to hard labour in prison would be unheard of today but the lawmen of the 1930s were determined to crack down on petty crime,” said former police inspector Norman.
“Indeed, breaking into gas meters remained a perennial source of income for many hard-up folk until recent years, when electronic gadgetry replaced the need for monetary deposits.”
•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.
When a light in your window made you lighter in the pocket
BRITAIN was at war by the time Florence and her baby finally left prison – and the priorities of local police officers were shifting away from gas meter thefts.
Indeed, as Pc Harper patrolled Plains Farm on the evening of September 15, 1939, he was focused on a much great priority – wartime blackout rules and regulations.
“It was obvious that one occupant of Primate Road, Mrs Ethel Richardson, just wasn’t trying hard enough to thwart Jerry’s job of bombing our beloved town,” said Norman.
“It was now an offence to show any light from your windows and doors, but there – in the Richardson’s pantry – was a beam of light shining out like a beacon to the Luftwaffe.”
Poor Ethel’s heart must have sunk when she opened the door and found a grim-faced bobby outside. Pc Harper cautioned the 35-year-woman and pointed out the offence she had committed.
“She tried to explain that it had been a friend who had switched the light on, after going into the pantry to get some food, but her plea for leniency went unrewarded,” said Norman.
“Ethel was duly brought before the court on September 20, to answer the charge against her, but luck was finally on her side – when the chairman of the Bench dismissed the case.
“But the others PC Harper had summonsed that night – and there were a good number – did not fare so lightly. A dozen walked away from the court 15 bob lighter in their pockets.”