Wearside Echoes: Washday body blues

BYGONE DAYS: Low Quay - Sunderland's East End
BYGONE DAYS: Low Quay - Sunderland's East End
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IT will all come out in the wash – or so Wearside investigators hoped after the discovery of a body in a wash tub.

“Sometimes, investigating a death is like putting together the pieces of a jigsaw,” said local historian and retired Northumbria Police inspector Norman Kirtlan.

“The problem is, as anyone who loves jigsaws will tell you – more often than not there is one piece that just will not fit. The death of Mary Boville in 1902 certainly set a few heads scratching.”

The month of July that year had been hot and humid and, down in the East End of Sunderland, women went about their chores weighed down by long frocks and heavy pinnies.

“Edwardian ladies were encumbered by more than just modesty – even the fashions of the day were designed to make everyday living as uncomfortable as possible,” said Norman.

“Mary Boville may not have had much to brag about, but at least she could sport the latest high, tight collars and cloying, heavy dresses.”

And so it was, on Wednesday, July 12, that a smartly-dressed Mary left her lodgings in Grey Street – announcing to landlady Annie Spargo that she was “off for a stroll and a trot around.”

“Annie had known Mary Boville for some years, and her tenant did have one or two problems. Drink being the worst,” said Norman, who unearthed details of Mary’s story in old newspapers.

It was Mary’s custom to visit her friends at No 2 Villiers Street South once a week, where her 10 shillings allowance was delivered by registered post, and it was to this house that she set off.

“This 10 shillings came from her estranged husband William, who had grudgingly entered into maintenance when Mary’s heavy drinking had ended their marriage,” said Norman.

“On the occasions Mary called at Villiers Street, it was common for her to visit the women in the back yard wash house. There she would sit on the poss tub and enjoy a canny bit craic with her friends.”

Agnes Stewart, who lived at No 2, later told investigators that she had spoken to Mary – who was all dressed up in her finery – when she came to call on that sweltering summer day.

But, after handing over the registered envelope, Agnes revealed Mary had then wandered off “for a good sup” in one of the East End’s numerous hostelries.

“The following morning, when Agnes made her way to light the wash house boiler, she noticed something in the poss tub that definitely wasn’t there the previous evening – a pair of legs,” said Norman.

“Nervously, she edged closer to the wooden tub and peered inside to see if there were any other foreign objects in there. Sure enough there was! A head.

“Agnes didn’t hang around to see if there were any other strange bits among the dirty washing; she scuttled off as quickly as her legs would carry her, looking for a polis and crying murder most foul.”

Sergeant Johnson was the unlucky officer to be collared up on High Street. After listening patiently to the unlikely story of a body in the poss tub, he finally agreed to take a look for himself.

“Sure enough, Agnes had not fabricated the story. Nor had she been addled by drink – unlike the body in the wash house,” said Norman, a member of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

“Mary Boville’s legs were sticking out of the tub and her head lay just beneath the rim. Her face was crushed against her thighs, and the stiff white collar that she had been so proud of the previous day had all but severed her throat, so tightly had it been fastened around the poor woman’s neck.”

Sgt Johnson hauled the body out of the tub and laid it down on the wash house floor. He then summoned police surgeon Dr Beveridge, who examined the corpse.

“Murder or misadventure? It was a hard call to make,” said Norman. “The face and head were swollen and bluish black in colour. All very normal for someone asphyxiated in such a confined space.

“But upon removing the tight collar, Beveridge noticed a deep groove around Mary’s neck. Deep enough to restrict the air to her lungs and bring about a slow and agonising death as she struggled to escape.”

Mary’s inquest at the Edinburgh Castle pub heard many anecdotes of her drinking; her nights on the town, her habit of staggering home, and even the sailor’s hat she left, while drunk, in the wash house.

All very mundane – but investigators also heard some conflicting, and rather puzzling, stories about her relationship with husband William.

“William told the inquest he had not seen his ex-wife for over a month,” said Norman.

“But the landlady said that, upon Mary enjoying one of her late nights, she was invariably with William.

“So was it fashion or foul play?

“The inquest ruled in favour of accidental suffocation – but one thing is for sure: Many years before the famous torso in the tank murder, Sunderland had a mystery of its own – the corpse in the poss tub!”

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