Tragedy of Sunderland baby smothered to death by “blind” teen mum

Mallaburn Terrace, Southwick, where teenager Thoasine gave birth "blind and frightened".
Mallaburn Terrace, Southwick, where teenager Thoasine gave birth "blind and frightened".
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The month of November 1890 saw unseasonably high temperatures hit Wearside - though the warm breeze did little to shift a stubborn fog hanging over the town.

As Jane Storey closed the door of her home at 12 Stoney Lane, Southwick, on the morning of the 15th, so the tendrils of mist wrapped around the housewife.

Fred Finkle's shop at Stoney Lane, Southwick.

Fred Finkle's shop at Stoney Lane, Southwick.

But, when she reached her sister-in-law’s home at Mallaburn Terrace moments later, she found herself shrouded in a mystery that lingered far longer than the fog.

“Number 11 Mallaburn Terrace was the home of riveter William Storey and his daughter Thomasine,” said local historian and ex-police inspector Norman Kirtlan.

“Life had not been kind to the Storeys. William’s wife and two of his children had died young, and 16-year-old Thomasine now acted as mother and housekeeper.”

As Jane pushed open the door and walked into the front room, she found poor Thomasine in no condition to look after herself - let alone her father and siblings.

Nobody was in the house when the child was born. I didn’t know what I was doing. It fell on the cloth it was wrapped in – I was blind.

Teenage mother Thomasine Storey

Indeed, the teenager was lying curled up in the settle in front of the window, her face pale and drawn and her breath pained and shallow.

“Are you bad?” Jane asked. Thomasine moaned in response, leaving Jane frantic with worry. The youngster was gravely ill - of that there was no doubt.

“After helping Thomasine into bed, Jane ran from the house and hammered on the door of another sister-in-law, Margaret Storey, asking for help,” said Norman.

“Jane ordered Margaret to look after Thomasine, while she went off to find Dr Stobo. If anyone could help, Jane knew that he could.”

Stoney Lane at Southwick, where Thomasine's sister-in-law lived in 1890.

Stoney Lane at Southwick, where Thomasine's sister-in-law lived in 1890.

Dr Stobo arrived just a few minutes later - and quickly realised what was wrong: “You’ve just given birth, haven’t you, girl?” he asked.

“There’s nothing wrong with me. There never was,” she cried, but the doctor just shook his head. “Where’s the child?” he demanded.

Despite Thomasine’s protestations, Dr Stobo stood up and searched the flat. Finding nothing, he returned and peered under her bed - finding a bundled quilt.

“There, swaddled in the sheet, was a baby boy. It was obvious the child had been dead for a few hours and was well beyond Stobo’s ministrations,” said Norman.

A post-mortem examination was carried out the next day, which concluded the boy had lived for just 30 minutes before being suffocated to death.

Thomasine now found herself answering questions from Inspector Miller, a local police officer, who arrested her for concealing a birth and killing her baby.

“Nobody was in the house when the child was born. I didn’t know what I was doing. It fell on the cloth it was wrapped in – I was blind,” she sobbed in response.

Much argument took place among doctors and solicitors over the next few days and, on December 3, the inquest into the baby’s death was reopened.

It had to be held in Thomasine’s absence, however, as the Echo reported the girl was “gravely ill and not expected to survive.”

“Dr Stobo was unable to give an exact time of death, but it was accepted the child, now given the name John, had indeed died from suffocation,” said Norman.

“But, under pressure from a solicitor acting on Thomasine’s behalf, Stobo was forced to accept that she had been in a terrible state of mind and might well have accidentally suffocated her child due to naive attempts to look after it.”

The inquest found in Thomasine’s favour and ruled that the death had been accidental. A week later, all charges were dropped.

“So, what became of the girl who was last reported to be gravely ill and not expected to survive? Well, survive she did,” said Norman.

“Two years later, when she married shipyard worker John Langan at Holy Trinity Church, she was ready to take on the responsibilities of wife and motherhood.”

Although no one ever got to the bottom of baby John’s death, Thomasine’s mitigation that she was blind at the time of the child’s birth may well be significant. One condition, eclampsia, has indeed been associated with blindness in pregnancy, so perhaps Thomasine was telling the truth,” said Norman.

“She could have been blind, terrified and very confused when the baby was born. Meaning John’s death was a total tragedy.”