Wearside Echoes: Tragic baby deaths

ON TRACK: Staff at Sunderland Central Station circa 1895. The body of a baby girl was dumped in left luggage at the station just five years later.

ON TRACK: Staff at Sunderland Central Station circa 1895. The body of a baby girl was dumped in left luggage at the station just five years later.

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THE sad deaths of three babies - one thrown away in the street, one abandoned in left luggage and a third pushed up a chimney - are the focus of today’s Wearside Echoes.

A TINY bundle wrapped in a bonny blue and white hankie caught the eye of Monkwearmouth shipyard labourer Billy Riggs as he pottered down Portobello Lane in 1892.

“After spotting the strange object in an alleyway, he was intrigued and carefully untied it. Immediately, he wished he hadn’t,” said local historian and retired police inspector Norman Kirtlan.

“Inside was the body of a baby girl. Billy took a step back and leaned against the workhouse wall to catch his breath. In all of his years, he had never seen anything like this before.”

Once the shock of the discovery had worn off a little, Billy attempted to stop a passer-by for help.

One look at Billy’s troubled face, however, and the stranger hurried away.

Eventually, a lamplighter shuffled into view, carrying a set of ladders on his shoulders. Billy tried again to seek help, and this time his plea was answered.

“For a while, they both stared at the pitiful bundle. A polis! That’s what they needed, a polis,” said Norman, who unearthed details of the tragic story in old newspapers.

So upset were the two men that neither would stay with the infant.

Instead, they left the little girl behind and ran together to Barclay Street, where they hammered on Sergeant Thompson’s door.

“It was still early and the sergeant had not started his rounds yet. He pulled on his uniform jacket and headed back to Portobello Lane with the two distraught informants,” said Norman.

“The officer took a close look. This wasn’t just a stillborn child who had been abandoned. The marks around the poor mite’s neck told a very different story.”

Sgt Thompson carried the tragic tot carefully back to the police station, where she was examined by police surgeon Dr Wood.

“The cause of death was clear – strangulation. The poor child had definitely been born alive, as there was air in her lungs,” said Norman, a member of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

“This strong and healthy little girl must have been witness to the evil individuals who took her life.”

Officers were immediately despatched to carry out door-to-door interviews, calling at the nearby workhouse, the Ship Inn and all of the crumbling cottages which lined Portbello Lane.

Investigations, however, drew a blank.

Just a few days later, on February 3, 1892, an inquest into the baby’s death was held at the Oddfellows Arms. According to newspaper reports of the time, the coroner was clearly upset by the case.

“This had been a remarkably strong and well-developed child,” he told the hearing. “It has been deliberately deprived of its existence.”

The jury returned a verdict of wilful murder by persons unknown and police officers vowed to arrest the killer.

“Sadly, the inquiries ran, like the location of the victim, into alleys that were barren of all but emptiness. The murder was never solved,” said Norman.

l Look out for another tragic tale from Norman in Wearside Echoes soon. More can also be found on his website at www.sunderland-ancestors.co.uk

Sidebar:

VICTORIAN businessman William Theakstone was doing very nicely, thank you.

His East End pawnbroking business was thriving and, at last, he was able to afford a decent home for himself.

“He needed a place where the bustle of life was just around the corner, but also somewhere one could find that inner peace so necessary in the refined gentleman,” said Norman.

“Number 3 Ettrick Place, a three-storey des res situated in a pleasant oasis twixt Golden Alley and Chipchase Street, seemed the ideal location.”

Some years later, after deciding his rambling home needed a good spring clean, Theakstone sent for maids, painters and a chimney sweep.

Just minutes after starting work, however, the sweep dislodged a strange object from a ledge within one of the chimneys.

“Why, it’s just a coconut,” Theakstone exclaimed after a cursory glance, not getting too close just in case it exploded.

“It’s got hair on it” the sweep persisted. “This ain’t no coconut!”

After closer investigation, the pair were horrified to find it was a skull. A very small one.

“Theakstone called a passing policeman, who gingerly felt around the cavity in the chimney flu,” said Norman.

“One by one, several small objects were recovered. Each a piece in a skeletal jigsaw that made up the body of a small toddler.”

Several doctors examined the remains, but age and heat had taken their toll. Most of the bones just crumbled in the hands of the investigators.

“Had the child been murdered? Had it simply died and been concealed because its parents could not afford a decent burial,” said Norman.

“No one would ever know what horrors had befallen the Chimney Baby.

“Its secrets had simply turned to dust.”

Sidebar:

ON Wednesday, October 10, 1900, staff at Sunderland’s Central Railway Station became suspicious when an item deposited in left luggage started to give off an “offensive smell”.

“The porter, who nonchalantly fetched the master keys, expecting to find an item of carelessly discarded food, got the shock of his life when he pulled out a cardboard box,” said Norman.

“He found himself staring at the body of a newborn baby girl. Sadly, the poor child had been long dead.

“Looking back over the records, it was discovered the depositor had been someone named Hind.

“Needless to say, Hind was never traced, and the poor baby was never reclaimed.”