A FORMER police inspector has turned detective to track down the anonymous author of a booklet which left Victorian Wearsiders in shock.
The writer, known only as Dagoon, documented the town’s seedy pubs, clubs, alleyways, lodging houses and brothels his 1876 publication The Nightside of Sunderland.
Not surprisingly, Nightside went on to become a must-read hit among the upper classes of Ashbrooke and beyond, but the true identity of the author has never been revealed – until now.
“Dagoon’s booklet highlighted a scandalous, and indeed frightening, side to everyday life in Victorian Sunderland,” said retired police inspector and local historian Norman Kirtlan.
“People may regard the Victorians as being prim and proper, but it was a place where thugs, drunks and prostitutes terrorised the rundown streets and narrow alleys that ran off High Street.
“The author even had to have a native guide to keep him safe in the streets at night, but one of the enduring mysteries over the decades has always been who on earth was Dagoon?”
Norman has spent the past few months attempting to unmask the mysterious author and, after trawling the pages of 19th century Echo newspapers, believes he may have finally hit the jackpot.
“There is an account of a weekend spent down the East End in 1886, undoubtedly written in the same hand as our anonymous author,” said Norman, a member of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.
“Finally, this story lays low the cloak of mystery that has endured for almost 140 years. Well, almost.”
The Echo article documents two night-time walks around the town, the first from the Ferry Landing to Central Station – where “brazen prostitutes” offered their services “in every lane”.
One graphically-described scene takes place close to the police station in Bodlewell Lane, when a pregnant woman is described as storming into the Ferry Hotel in search of her errant husband.
“She duly finds him and demands money to feed the family, one of whom, a tiny baby, is clutched in her arms,” said Norman, author of a best-selling book featuring tales of murderous Mackems.
“The man follows her outside in a rage, but the woman remains resolute. She stands in front of the policemen and her husband decides against assaulting her – threatening instead to skin her alive.
“Our guide asks the officers why they did not intervene, but they shrug their shoulders and explain that it is pointless. If they arrest the man and take him to court, the wife will not give evidence.
“Why? Because a 20 shilling fine will see the children starve until the penalty is paid. Best to leave well alone because, they explain, the law cannot reach the skins of ‘these brutes in human shape’.”
Once the excitement was over, the author and his guide made their way to High Street West where, according to the Echo, they came across “another three dozen prostitutes looking for victims”.
“It was not uncommon for prostitutes to lure their victims back home, then dope them with opium before robbing them of every penny and dumping them on the streets,” said Norman.
“More than one such victim perished after this treatment.”
Indeed, after moving swiftly past the ladies of the night, the author found himself behind St Mary’s Church in Pann Lane – where a man was sitting in the street and complaining of a similar robbery.
“He was bemoaning the fact that one of the delightful ladies, who appears to have been built like Geoff Capes, had relieved him of his purse and its contents,” said Norman.
“The ‘modern trend’ of wearing pockets on the outside of one’s trousers was blamed in the article for giving the would-be thief a head start in lifting the chap’s treasures!
“After this little piece of excitement, the author and his guide agreed to head back home. After all, by now it was 8pm and it was considered unsafe to be out on the streets of Sunderland any later!”
The Echo article does not, however, end there. Instead it documents a second walk, which took place the following night, a Saturday, beginning with a trip to Prospect Row.
“Four separate scraps in a 50-yard stretch were being fought simultaneously when they arrived, while a 10-year-old girl was having her ears soundly boxed by her mother,” said Norman.
“Apparently the girl was carrying her baby sibling, who was howling blue murder. Once the mother, and her drunken entourage, disappeared into a pub, the author approached the child.
“The waif explained that ‘Me mother knew the bairn was varry bad, but she didn’t care as lang as she got her beer!’ The girl then made her way home, no doubt to wait for another good hiding.”
Very little, it seems, had changed since Dagoon’s original adventures of 1876, when he had written of the evil reputation of some streets, where “suspicious-looking characters dodged warily about”.
But as to the unmasking of Dagoon himself – Norman is convinced he was no other than the Sunderland Echo reporter who wrote the Weekly Echoes column.
“His name? Well, there in lies another mystery, for he simply signs his column Asmodeus!” said Norman. “Will we ever know the true identity of this intrepid East End explorer? The search goes on.”
Get your copy
WEARSIDERS interested in the darker side of the city’s history are being offered the chance to snap up a new copy of an old classic.
The Nightside of Sunderland has just been reprinted by Norman for Sunderland Antiquarian Society, complete with contemporary illustrations.
“Dagoon takes us on a tour of them all and almost gets scared witless in the process. It really is an amazing account of life in the squalid slums of old Sunderland.”
** Copies of Nightside of Sunderland cost £3.98. Cheques should be sent to Norman Kirtlan, c/o Sunderland Antiquarian Society, Sunderland Minster, High Street West, Sunderland, SR1 3ET.