Theft from onion seller led to death

A French onion seller pictured in Sunderland in the 1940s. They were once a very common sight around the town.

A French onion seller pictured in Sunderland in the 1940s. They were once a very common sight around the town.

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Coroner Crofton Maynard was none to pleased... the inquest at the Market Hotel in Coronation Street was proving a distinctly unsavoury affair.

What with a dozen witnesses – including police officers, doctors, solicitors and, of course the dead body – the least he could have expected was a decent room.

High Street East in bygone days - and the scene of a tragedy in Victorian times.

High Street East in bygone days - and the scene of a tragedy in Victorian times.

But, no. In a cubby hole that was no bigger than a broom cupboard, the tragedy of September 19, 1891 was being enacted – step by bloody step.

“French onion seller Pierre Autret took centre stage in the cramped room as evidence was elicited from his accusers,” said historian Norman Kirtlan.

“Silly thing was, all the poor man had wanted on the day of the big battle was a fried fish. Sadly, he got a lot more than he had bargained for!”

The 18-year-old Frenchman had spent the day of September 19 selling onions, before tiredly trudging up High Street to buy a fish supper at Hanlon’s Chippy.

But, as Autret quietly took his place in the queue, so one of the local urchins sneaked up behind him and stole one of the onions slung over his shoulder.

Passerby Tom Callan spotted the theft and, ever the Good Samaritan, called out: “Mind mister, there’s a little boy trying to steal your onions!”

Autret turned around and glanced at his informant momentarily, before shuffling up to resume his vigil. He said nothing, however, in reply.

“For some reason, Callan then followed Autret into the shop, pulled the string of onions from his shoulder and legged it up High Street,” said Norman. “Poor Autret, it seems, had just purchased his fish lot and was in the process of sprinkling salt and vinegar on his prize when the larceny was committed.

“Deciding against a hot supper in favour of a hot pursuit, he ran out of Hanlon’s and up towards Russell Street, where the onion thief had thus far flown.”

Autret eventually caught up with the crook and, according to teenage witness Tom Telfer, he then stopped Callan in his tracks with a single blow.

Callan, so the inquest was told, immediately fell to the ground. In a strange dance of death, however, he managed to throw the stolen onions up in the air.

“One by one they bounced off the cobbles and disappeared down a cellar,” said Norman, author of Wearside historic crime book Fetch the Black Maria.

“None of the witnesses saw a knife in the Frenchman’s hand, but many testified to the blood that trickled down Callan’s back and onto his thighs.”

As the thief lay bleeding in the street, so Autret ran to fetch a policeman – and even helped the constable carry Callan to Low Street police office.

But, by the time that he arrived there, Callan was dead.

“Autret was subsequently charged with manslaughter and, on December 4, 1891, the case was heard at Durham Assizes,” said Norman, a former police inspector.

“The court was told that Callan had possibly fallen against spiked metal railings and it was speculated these, and not a knife, had caused the fatal injury.

“Eminent police surgeons then declared the fence could not penetrate a man’s flesh enough to sever an artery, but the judge ruled against this evidence.”

Prosecutors proved tenacious in their pursuit of a conviction but, because of conflicting evidence and lack of a murder weapon, Autret was found not guilty.

“Showing no emotion the Frenchman left the court, and very likely the country. I certainly can’t find him on any census returns after this,” said Norman.

“Tom Callan, however, just for the sake of a few penn’orth of French onions, had lost his life. Such was life in the good old, bad old, days in Sunderland.”

l Fetch the Black Maria, by Norman Kirtlan, is available from Sunderland Antiquarian Society priced at £10. The group is based at 6 Douro Terrace, Sunderland, SR2 7DX. It is open to visitors and family history researchers on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 10am-12noon.