Tragic tale of Sunderland gardener who cooked to death in a lime kiln

Lime kilns in Sunderland.
Lime kilns in Sunderland.
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As the skies started to darken over Fulwell Mill, John McQuillan knew it was time to finish his lime kiln shift and head off home – before he got a good soaking.

With the last brick-built oven packed to the brim, he pulled off his leather gauntlets and left. On his return the next day, however, a nightmare awaited John.

Plough Cottage in Tunstall Road - where the deceased lived.

Plough Cottage in Tunstall Road - where the deceased lived.

“The date of January 25, 1882, was one he’d never forget. For it was the day he spotted something suspiciously human in his kiln,” said historian Norman Kirtlan.

“Wasting no time, he ran down to the Blue Bell, where he found Constable Soley out walking. The pair went straight back to the kiln to start investigating.”

But when PC Soley plucked a human-type skull from the lime-encrusted kiln, it disintegrated in his hands. Ribs, arms and spine similarly turned into white dust.

He had more luck, however, with the longer bones of the legs. Other items escaped the burning lime as well - including shoe heel plates, a knife and belt buckle.

“When PC Soley plucked a human-type skull from the lime-encrusted kiln, it disintegrated in his hands. Ribs, arms and spine similarly turned into white dust. He had more luck, however, with the longer bones of the legs.”

Norman Kirtlan, local historian and former police inspector

“None of these things could help identify the victim, but PC Soley wouldn’t give up. He delved deeper into the lime for more evidence,” said Norman.

“Bingo! It wasn’t much, but it was the first precious clue -– a button bearing the supplier’s name; Robinson’s of Havelock House in High Street West.”

Armed with his sack of bones and objects, Soley knocked at doors around the area, asking about suspicious characters hanging around the mill in recent days.

Many spoke of a tramp who had been sleeping rough. Perhaps, they suggested, he had tried bedding down in the kiln – unaware of the deadly dangers of the dust.

Mill Bank at Fulwell, close to the lime kilns.

Mill Bank at Fulwell, close to the lime kilns.

“Then police persistence paid off. A lady living near Fulwell Mill remembered seeing a smartly-dressed man of about 70 alighting from a cab,” said Norman.

“Apparently he paid the cabbie then wandered off towards the kilns. The sighting occurred at around 11pm on January 24 – hours after John finished his shift.”

As darkness fell, so doctors failed to identify the victim. But just across town, a family was becoming increasingly concerned about their grandfather.

Robert Robinson Murray, a 73-year-old market gardener, had left his home at Plough Cottage, in Tunstall Road, the previous evening by cab – destination unknown.

After describing Robert to officers, grandson Charles Stewart added: “Oh yes, and his trousers were bought from Havelock House. The buttons will bear the name!”

Word was quickly sent to Fulwell – PC Soley now had his identification.

“Robert, it seemed, had taken a cab ride to his death; whether intentionally, or not,” said Norman.

“Nothing was ever found to indicate whether foul play had been involved, but all of the circumstances seemed to point to a most horrible suicide.”

John McQuillan later testified at Robert’s inquest, when he revealed he had “piled up” No. 4 kiln just after 4pm in January 24 – and left it to burn overnight.

Anyone who climbed inside it, he told the hearing, would have been burned to death within hours.

“A verdict of suicide was pronounced following the inquest at the Blue Bell. After that, Robert’s few remains were kept for a very special reason,” said Norman. “A full six months on from his death, the matter of Robert’s last will and testament was heard at the High Court of Justice – and his bones were needed.”

Robert had made out his will in favour of his daughters, Caroline Stewart and Isabella Forster, on January 12 – just two weeks before he perished.

Indeed, the High Court heard that the last the women had seen of him was on the night of his death, as he turned out coins amounting to £12 from his pockets.

“After that he told them he was going for a walk,” said Norman. “This was not unusual for Robert, who often disappeared for a few hours on his evening jaunts.

“As to confirming that Robert was indeed dead - well the president of the court was offered a sack containing what bones remained, but refused to look at them. Instead, he announced he was satisfied with the identification, and the court duly granted will probate. But the mystery of Robert’s death still continues today.”