Wearside Echoes: Grisly tales of Victorian Sunderland

BYGONE SCENE: Spring Garden Lane
BYGONE SCENE: Spring Garden Lane
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TODAY we continue our short crime series focusing on gruesome goings-on in 19th century Sunderland.

POLICE constables Yates and Lever must have cursed their luck when they were summoned to a disturbance in George Street in the late 19th century.

“Cries of murder alerted them from their patrols and, with the Town Hall clock striking midnight, they reluctantly offered their assistance,” said local historian Norman Kirtlan.

“Running from Back Lonnen up towards the High Street, they could hear the commotion from several streets away.

“Little did they know, as they ran through maze of alleys and up towards the epicentre of violence, they would soon be fighting for their own lives.”

Details of the incident were uncovered by Norman, map archivist for Sunderland Antiquarian Society, while he was searching through old newspaper articles.

“The disturbance had started several hours earlier, when neighbours Eliza McGoveran and Mary Frances had locked horns over a fivepenny debt,” he said.

“Mary, the wife of a scissor grinder, collared her debtor and demanded the return of the handful of pennies; a debt that had been outstanding for many months.

“Eliza retaliated in the good old East End fashion, picking up a poker and smashing it down onto Mrs Frances’ arm.”

Within minutes, George Street was thronging with locals – who crowded around the women, shouting comments and words of fighting encouragement.

“Not to be outdone, and with her pride very much at stake, Mrs Frances selected her own weapon – a porcelain pie dish – and smashed it down on her neighbour’s head,” said Norman.

“Just to make matters worse, the duel had been brought to the attention of one Jimmy Collins, nephew to Eliza – a young man who was no stranger to Sunderland’s police officers.

“When the constables arrived breathlessly at the scene, they found poor Mary covered in blood and calling out, ‘Jimmy Collins done this!’”

Mary’s allegations prompted a police search of the area, with officers eventually confronting young Jimmy at his home, 13 George Street, and arresting him for the assault.

“Unfortunately for the officers, they were soon cowering from a hail of pots and pans, as the entire Collins family attempted to release Jimmy from their grasp,” said Norman.

“To make matters worse, there were no candles alight in the house, and with the scene lit only by a bull’s eye lantern, the officers drew their batons and swung at anything that moved.”

The arrival of police reinforcements finally saw order restored. The Collins family were dragged to the Central Police Station, where they were charged with assaulting the two police officers.

“Needless to say, there was a good deal of collateral damage that night,” said Norman, a retired Northumbria Police inspector now working as a forensic artist.

“And when PCs Yates and Lever were later questioned at court about the amount of defence witnesses who were bandaged like Egyptian mummies, they coyly suggested that the bad light was to blame.”

A bent poker and a bloodstained broken pie dish were later recovered from the scene. Strange weapons in an even stranger duel.

Just to add to the confusion, one of those who suffered truncheon blows was the main prosecution witness, Mary’s scissor grinder husband Charles. No explanation was offered for this occurrence.

“Mary would never recover from her beating. By 1am the next morning, she lay dead in the corner of her lodgings,” said Norman.

“But, because the police were unable to pinpoint who had caused the fatal blow, both McGoveran and Collins were charged with her murder.”

At Durham Assizes on July 8, 1891, McGoveran was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment, while Jimmy Collins received 12 months.

“Even stranger was the fact that before the fatal assault, McGoveran had given Frances a sixpenny piece and received her penny change. The debt had finally been paid,” said Norman.

* Look out for another grisly tale from Norman in next week’s Wearside Echoes, or log on to his website at www.sunderland-ancestors.co.uk for other stories.

Sidebar: Tragic death

IT’S a weapon which doesn’t feature in the annals of modern of murder - but back in the 19th century the humble poker was the weapon of choice for many.

“On January 2, 1826, Sunderland prostitute Jane Jameson found herself, as usual, short of money,” said Norman. “Custom down on Low Street was quiet and this quarrelsome woman needed a drink.

“The fact that she had three children starving at home meant little to Jane, and she set off in search of someone to lend her the price of a dram.”

It was to her frail old mother, Margaret Jameson, that Jane turned.

“She barged into the small room where her mother lived and demanded money. Despite the old lady not being in the best of health, she stood firm in the face of Jane’s threats,” said Norman.

“Sadly, Jane would not listen to reason. She needed a drink and if her mother would not hand over the money, then she would suffer - and suffer she did!”

Reaching into the fireplace, Jane pulled a red hot poker out of the flames and without warning, plunged it into the old lady’s chest.

“Had the poker been cold, then Margaret would have quickly bled to death. As it was red hot, the flesh around the wound sealed and poor Margaret was doomed to a long and agonising death,” said Norman.

Internal bleeding slowly drained the old woman’s strength over the next few days. By January 6 she was dead.

Despite attempting to blame someone else for her mother’s murder, Jane was brought to trial and pleaded not guilty.

“The jury saw through her lies, and Jane was hanged,” said Norman. “Her body was handed over to surgeons to be anatomised after the execution. A fitting end for one of Sunderland’s worst!”