Dastardly (and sometimes funny) deeds proclaimed in Wearside handbills

THE murderous, amusing and downright mysterious history of Wearside is recorded in a collection of 150-year-old handbills. Today SARAH STONER takes a look at a few of the dozens of bills now being catalogued by Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

ONE can only guess at the reason why a husband put his wife up for sale in Monkwearmouth in the 19th century, but he did – and there is a handbill to prove it.

The murderous intentions of a drunken pitman, however, are clearly documented in another handbill from the same period. He was drunk – and his best pal got in the way.

And then there is the sad "Last Confession" of a Sunderland farmer, who was "swayed by ambition" to murder a relative. He paid the ultimate price – death by hanging at Durham Jail.

"Handbills provide a fascinating and important glimpse into the past," said Sunderland Antiquarian Society archivist Ron Lawson.

"Some are remarkably detailed, like the accounts of murders and hangings, while others give just brief details of articles for sale.

"All of these details are important, as they add to our knowledge about what Sunderland was like back in the 19th century."

Mr Lawson has spent the past few weeks cataloguing the dozens of handbills collected by the Society since it was established in 1899.

There are bills by the dozen advertising items for sale, from ships to shops, clothing and factories, and even the one for the wife in Monkwearmouth.

Political bills also feature strongly in the collection, with councillors and businessmen swapping insults and libellous comments quite freely on the aging scraps of paper.

But the tales of murderous and mysterious crimes are probably among the most interesting. The documenting of last confessions before hanging seems to have been a popular choice for bills.

"Bills were extremely popular before the mass publication of newspapers," said Mr Lawson. "They were posted in the streets and those who could read would help pass the message on."

Handbills are recorded as being in existence from the 14th century – publicising everything from wars to health concerns.

Performances by strolling players were often announced by town criers and hand-written advertising bills in the Middle Age.

And even the words to America's national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner, were first published on a handbill in 1812.

Most of the handbills in Sunderland Antiquarian Society's collection date from the early 19th century and Mr Lawson added:

"I think my favourite is one from the Primitive Methodist Chapel in June 1825, as I can't imagine why it needed to be printed at all.

"It describes how a strange 'whizzing noise' which had alarmed the congregation was found to be a breaking clock string. I don't know why they didn't just tell the congregation this!"

l Sunderland Antiquarian Society meets most Saturday mornings at Southmoor School. The collection of handbills will be made available for viewing if an advance request is made.

The stories behind some of the handbills

The murder of Henry Curry

A HANDBILL from 1824 carries a detailed account of the murder of Fatfield pitman Henry Curry by Thomas Atkinson – who "cruelly killed him with a rail."

"We have the melancholy task of recording the perpetration of another horrid and appalling murder committed in the county of Durham," the bill reveals.

Atkinson, according to the writer, was already drunk by the time he arrived at a pub kept by George Hepple in Birtley on April 11, 1824.

When the landlord refused to sell him any more liquor, Atkinson grew quarrelsome, hit several pub customers and stole cash from Robert Curry – brother of his victim-to-be Henry.

As Atkinson grew ever more dangerous, so the police were called and a constable managed to wrestle the drunken man out of the pub.

Seconds later, however, Atkinson burst in through a window and threatened to kill the first man to leave the pub. It was a threat he was to keep.

"He then, being possessed of the devil, procured from the hedge a large rail and waited for the first who might come out of the house," the handbill reveals.

"Henry Curry was doomed to become the victim of this man's fury."

Although Atkinson and Curry, both 22, had been brought up together and were life-long pals, it did not stop Atkinson's furious reign of terror.

He smashed his friend with the rail at least twice, with the "tremendous blows" being heard inside the pub. Curry's body was left "bloody and mangled."

"Thus ended the earthly career of this young man," the handbill revealed. "One minute he was hale and strong, and the next he was breathless and without motion."

Atkinson was immediately arrested and, at the time the bill was printed, was being held in a correction house until an inquest on his victim was carried out.

The handbill described Atkinson, a miner at Sheriff Hill King pit, as a man of loose habits, given to drinking and gambling. Death would have probably been his fate.

The 'dreadful and barbarous' murder of Richard Taylor

SHOEMAKER Richard Taylor was in his 79th year when his head was "beaten till it was almost flat and his brains were scattered about the ground."

Richard Gardner and George Graham, who travelled the country claiming to be shipwrecked sailors, were arrested on suspicion of "this horrid act."

A handbill from 1836 describes how Taylor had made several routine calls around Lumley, collecting money from customers, before stopping off for a drink.

After supping some ale, he then headed home. His body was discovered in a country lane next morning by two boys, who quickly raised the alarm.

"The unfortunate old man, who was much respected in his neighbourhood, was robbed of between 10 and 20 shillings of silver," revealed the handbill.

Beggars Richard Gardner and George Graham were apprehended at Mr Yates' lodging house in Chester-le-Street within just a few hours.

"Suspicion also rests upon three other men, a father and two sons who live at Lumley, who were seen drinking with the deceased," the handbill claimed.

"But it will require further evidence before they can be arrested."

The dying confession of Robert Peat

A HANDBILL from 1822 details the dying speech of Sunderland murderer Robert Peat, who was executed at Durham Jail on August 9th of that year.

Peat, born "of humble though honest and respectable parents," had become a farmer after leaving school and was known as a sober, religious and industrious man.

After struggling through life for 50 years, however, he "horribly murdered" a close relation, also called Robert Peat, for which he was sentenced to hang.

He reacted to the sentence with "utmost firmness, without betraying the least symptoms of fear, and appeared "perfectly aware of the justness of his sentence," according to the handbill.

His dying speech, given to those who witnessed his execution at the New Drop in front of Durham Jail, was recorded as:

"You behold one that has been swayed by ambition, deluded by avarice and prompted to commit acts at which nature revolts, humanity shudders; by which I am become a murderer.

"Should any of you have wandered from the path of virtue, I with my dying breath beseech you to return to it quickly and let my dreadful end be a warning to you all the days of your lives. May God Almighty have mercy on my Soul."

With those last words uttered, he gave the signal and the drop fell. "He was launched into Eternity," the handbill recorded.

The history of handbills

Handbills are recorded as being in existence from the 14th century onwards in Britain – and were used to publicise everything from wars to health concerns.

The opening of England's first public theatre in London in 1576 was announced with the use of handbills.

Handbills advertising condoms were common in the 1760s, after Dr Condom invented a contraceptive from ram's intestines for King Charles II.

The tune of America's national anthem of America, Star Spangled Banner, was written by Gloucestershire man John Stafford Smith. The now-famous words were added later by Frances Scott Key, who published them on a handbill in 1812.

Handbills were a favourite advertising tool prior to the 1850s, after which newspapers became used. Washing and cleaning products were highly popular.

A million handbills were issued during the Government's first mass-marketing campaign in 1876, to alert the public to the virtues of saving schemes, life insurance and annuities.

Handbills by the dozen were issued between 1888 and 1891, when Jack the Ripper stalked London's East End. None of the appeals for help, however, was successful.

Sunderland-based printer Thomas Summerbell, of Green Street, printed official handbills about the General Strike of 1926. Work was almost abandoned, however, when the strike started, as the workers were not officially allowed to carry on printing.