Tragic death of a Sunderland youngster

RIVER SCENE: The old East End pictured during Victorian times.
RIVER SCENE: The old East End pictured during Victorian times.
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TODAY we focus on how fear of crime led to the tragic death of a Wearside youngster.

THE name of Crawford has long been associated with the seafaring sons of Sunderland.

Jack Crawford

Jack Crawford

Indeed, most Wearsiders will be familiar with sailor Jack Crawford, hero of Camperdown, whose statue still watches out over Mowbray Park.

Jack’s death from cholera in 1831 left the town in shock – and hundreds attended his funeral at the old Parish Church in the East End.

Almost half a century later however, in 1875, townsfolk would once again don their black armbands and mourn the loss of another Crawford family member.

“This time it was not disease that claimed the life – it was the hand of a child,” said local historian and retired police inspector Norman Kirtlan.

Captain Thomas Crawford, like his famous ancestor, was a master mariner. Success had brought him seven fine sons and a new house in Herrington Street, Hendon.

A life of adventure on the ocean wave still called to Crawford, however, and on January 13, 1875, he was due to board ship and head off once again to foreign parts.

“But recent local events were playing upon his mind, leaving him with a very uneasy feeling,” said Norman, a member of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

“A crime wave had descended upon canny old Hendon, and Thomas had been nervously counting the cost of a string of felonious activities.”

Just five weeks earlier, for example, a railway collector had been knocked down and robbed at knife-point at the end of Crawford’s street.

A dove-cot belonging to a neighbour had also been stolen, together with 28 pigeons, and thieves had even taken the rabbits kept by Crawford’s sons in the back yard.

“Thomas decided he needed to afford his family some degree of protection while he was away, and he had just the tool for the job - his ship’s pistol,” said Norman.

“Normally it was kept in an oily rag and unloaded between voyages but, when the crime-wave hit Hendon, he slotted a few precautionary rounds in the chamber.

“As he was later to tell an inquest at the Mowbray Arms - if thieves came to his property, he would be ready for them.”

Crawford carefully re-wrapped the gun in its cloth, before slipping it into a cardboard box and storing it “high up in a closet” - telling no-one where it was.

Satisfied with his precautions, he decided to go shopping for a few last-minute provisions - asking his wife to ready his things for the voyage while he was out.

“Kitbag and clothes were laid out on the table, but Mrs Crawford realised a cardboard box her husband usually took with him was missing – and there it was in the closet!” said Norman.

“She reached up, took down the box and laid it on top of the kitbag, ready for Thomas’ return.”

It didn’t take long for six-year-old Septimus to discover the box. Lifting out the weapon, he called to his elder brother William, “Come quick, I’ve found Dad’s gun!”

William took the gun from Septimus and began to spin the barrel. It clunked into place. And then the inevitable happened. William curled his finger around the trigger and squeezed.

“The explosion that followed threw him to the ground and left him dazed, but worst still, lying beside him was his young sibling,” said Norman.

“The bullet had hit the poor bairn square in the chest. From point blank range the lad had no chance of surviving. Within minutes he lay dead.”

Young William trembled as he later gave evidence to the coroner’s inquest; he had never held a pistol before and had no reason to suspect that it would have been loaded.

His broken-hearted mother was told that she need not give evidence, but Master Mariner Thomas had no choice but take to the stand.

The sailor’s evidence drew mixed feelings; with one juryman stating that, in his opinion, it was a foolish and dangerous thing to keep guns in the same house as children.

Another juryman, however, corroborated Thomas’ worries for the safety of his family.

“Mr Crawford’s fears are not unfounded,” he told the hearing. “I have been broken into twice since I moved to Hendon; the first time only three days after taking up residence.”

“It is easy in retrospect to apportion blame, but were Thomas Crawford’s reasons justification enough to warrant the charging of a firearm?” said Norman.

“Certainly the jury took no time in affording their condolences and sympathies to Captain Crawford and his family. Septimus’ death was misadventure – pure and simple.

“This was just another case, according to the coroner, where criminal activities had brought about that siege mentality which so often ended in tragedy.

“But for the Crawford’s, this was a tragedy from which they would never recover.”

Jack Crawford

WEARSIDE sailing hero Jack Crawford was born into a life of poverty ay Sandywell Bank – later called Pottery Bank – on March 22, 1775.

“The son of a Scottish keelman, young Jackie was soon employed as a “Pee Dee”, working the rudder or acting as general cabin boy on board his father’s keel,” said Norman.

“When he was no more than 12, his father felt it was time for Jack to spread his wings, and he was duly apprenticed to sea, spending time on the Peggy - a small South Shields merchantman.”

There are many schools of thought concerning Jack’s transition from Merchant to Royal Navy. Some historians claim he volunteered, others that he was press-ganged.

Whatever the truth, the Wearsider found himself stationed aboard the Venerable - flagship of Admiral Duncan - fighting to prevent Holland and France invading Ireland.

“The bloody Battle of Camperdown was to produce an unsuspecting young hero when, on October 11, 1797, in the midst of battle, the Venerable’s colours were shot down,” said Norman.

“Again there is conflict surrounding the events that followed. Some say Jack, drunk on rum, scrambled up the mast without waiting for orders, others that he bravely volunteered to perform his gallant act.

“Whatever the truth, Jack duly scrambled up the rigging. Despite musket balls flying past his head, he was successful in nailing the colours back to the mast, once more restoring English pride.”

Jack was hailed as a hero following his heroic act. Not only was he presented to King George, but a play was written about him and he even toured the nation making personal appearances.

“With a pension of £30 a year, and a huge silver medal to mark his home town’s esteem, Jackie eventually settled down to start a new life,” said Norman.

“Once again he relied on the keels as a source of income and, in 1808, he married his sweetheart Sarah Longstaff. The marriage produced three sons and a daughter.”

A quiet man by nature, Jack rarely spoke of his heroism, unless pressed - instead enjoying the two mariner’s comforts of “grog and baccy”.

But his silver medal would be rarely out of pawn over the years, as he struggled to put food on his table and clothe his children - despite his pension and job as a keelman.

“It was neither drink nor poverty that would eventually finish Jackie Crawford,” said Norman.

“The dark shadow of cholera was to take him and squeeze the life from his body in just a few short days. Jackie died on the 10th November 1831, aged just 56 years.”