Three Sunderland babies poisoned to death in drugs mix-up

The Live and Let Live pub - where the inquest into the death of the three Ayre's Quay babies was held.
The Live and Let Live pub - where the inquest into the death of the three Ayre's Quay babies was held.
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Free access to health care is a service Wearsiders expect today - but it was another matter entirely back in Victorian Sunderland.

Indeed, as three-month-old twins Robert and William Scouler grew ever more fractious on July 31, 1867, their mother Margaret had few options open to her.

Ayre's Quay in Victorian times - once the stomping ground of Nannie Tinker and her deadly potions.

Ayre's Quay in Victorian times - once the stomping ground of Nannie Tinker and her deadly potions.

“Ayre’s Quay was sweltering in a heatwave and by 9pm the bairns were becoming increasingly upset,” said local historian Norman Kirtlan.

“Margaret had two options; either she could see Dr Shaw, who charged an arm and a leg, or she could call on Nannie Tinker – known as the ‘Lady Doctor’.”

Nannie, or Ann Smith to give the woman her Sunday name, was the wife of William Venus Smith – who had a tinsmith business in Back Harrison Street. The 56-year-old “medic” supplemented their living by selling locals the odd drop of medicine, which she bought in bulk from Harrison’s chemist in Bridge Street.

“Many a person in Ayre’s Quay swore by her cure-all recipes - and she only charged pennies for them,” said Norman, a retired police officer.

The babies have been poisoned and they are well beyond my abilities to save.

Dr Shaw, GP for Ayre’s Quay.

“And so it was that 24-year-old Margaret pulled on her shawl that night and left her Crescent Row home to seek out Nannie’s help.”

When Margaret arrived in Back Harrison Street, however, she found Nannie out. Instead Nannie’s husband William answered the door - and offered to help.

The tinsmith listened as Margaret described how unwell her babies were, then produced a bottle of castor oil and tincture of rhubarb and offered it to her.

“William explained how it was the oppressive heat that was causing all the problems, but guaranteed his wife’s medicine would help,” said Norman.

“So Margaret paid tuppence to fill an egg cup with the liquid, then headed back to give her babies the so-called miracle cure.”

Within hours, however, Robert and William had stopped fidgeting and started screaming. As pain wracked their little bodies, so Dr Shaw was finally sent for.

“The babies have been poisoned,” he quickly announced. “And they are well beyond my abilities to save.”

Tragically, the doctor was right. First Robert, then William, slipped from life. And, in nearby John Street, a little girl treated with the cure-all also died.

The devastating news quickly reached Nannie Tinker’s ears, sending her into a frenzied round of collecting up potion remnants from all her neighbours.

She then stormed up Bridge Street to confront the chemist, John Harrison, telling him: “Three children have been taken badly with this medicine.”

Harrison took the bottle from her, and promised to have it tested. The police, however, were by now involved – and seized the potion as evidence.

“Initial examinations on the three babies proved inconclusive and their inquests at the Live and Let Live pub were adjourned for further tests,” said Norman.

“But, even three weeks later, analysis on the stomach contents of the children was still inconclusive - giving no satisfactory reason for their deaths.”

Once the inquest was re-opened, Nannie Tinker readily admitted that she had indeed handed out the medicine - and supplied a bottle for the court’s inspection.

The finger of suspicion then fell of John Harrison - especially after he admitted using just one bowl to mix all his medicines - including the opiate laudanum.

“Harrison was adamant he had cleaned his bowl out properly before mixing Nannie’s potion, and he even disputed the bottle she produced was his,” said Norman.

“In the end, the court could not decide on a specific cause of death other than poisoning. On just one night three babies had died - and no-one knew why.

“So Nannie Tinker went on selling her medicines, and Ayre’s Quay folk went on buying them. Eventually over-the-counter sales of medicines like laudanum would be banned – but it was too late for Robert, William and baby Elizabeth.