The best-dressed conman in Sunderland

The Infirmary and Burn Park
The Infirmary and Burn Park
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THE skies were heavy with snow and thick frost covered the trees of Burn Park as James Kerr took a quick look out of his window on December 19, 1888.

It was obvious the warmest items in his wardrobe would be required that day – especially as his job as master of Lambton Staithes took him outside a great deal.

“At 8.30am, togged in his best Astrakhan coat, he waved goodbye to his wife and left for work,” said Norman Kirtlan, map archivist at Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

“But, as he set off, he was completely unaware a pair of covetous eyes were watching his every move – following him to Chester Road and down towards Ayre’s Quay.”

Dusk was falling when a knock sounded at the front door of James’ plush home at 23 The Royalty. His wife, Ellen, answered the summons – and was left worried sick.

Standing humbly on the threshold was a “funny little chap”, obviously a junior clerk by the cut of his clothing and the cheap bowler hat he was holding to his chest.

“It’s your ‘usband,” said the man. “He’s fallen between a couple of staithes. He’s OK, but he’s ripped his coat. Needs a needle and black cotton to fix it.”

Mrs Kerr immediately darted back into the house, returning with another of her husband’s fashionable winter coats.

“Never mind the needle and cotton,” she said. “Take this to him – it’s his Sunday best. And here’s a sixpence for your trouble.” The chap doffed his bowler and disappeared.

“At 6pm, tired out after a long day at work – and one that did not involve slipping down staithes and tearing his clothes – James returned home,” said Norman.

“The teatime conversation was not as he’d envisaged. Bowler hatted clerks? Slippy staithes? He hadn’t clue what his wife was talking about.”
Eventually, after realising he had been conned out of a coat, James called the police. But enquiries drew a blank – no similar crimes had been reported.

Some days later, however, fate took a hand – when a thief was arrested in Hartlepool after helping himself to a few trinkets from a local department store.

“Now I don’t wish to generalise, but one would expect the miscreant to sport the Victorian equivalent of a shell suit, baseball cap and trainers,” said Norman.

“But this chap was wearing a top hat, neat black trousers, shiny shoes and a cracking Astrakhan coat. Something was very definitely wrong.”

When asked by police for his calling card, the well-dressed thief could produce nothing more than a few pawn tickets and a receipt for a cheap lodging house.

Eventually, after attempts to track down the real owners of his posh togs failed, the criminal – John Stewart – was given three months in Durham Jail for shoplifting.

“Meanwhile, police in Hartlepool were still in possession of the stolen finery, and determined to find their upper crust owners,” said Norman.

“Admissions made by Stewart indicated he made a habit of standing on street corners, waiting for well-dressed chaps to leave for work early in the day.

“He would then follow them to their places of employment, gathering sufficient information to make himself a convincing “junior employee”.

“After that, he’d do his conman knock and beg for the trousers, shoes, coats or whatever togs he needed. It was certainly an ingenious ploy.”

The case of the missing coat was finally cracked when Hartlepool officers sent out telegrams to all local police stations, describing Stewart and his stolen clothing.

Detective Innes, the Wearside officer investing the coat theft, immediately recognised Stewart’s description – and met him at the prison gates on his release.

But when Stewart was hauled before magistrates on April 23, 1889, charged with obtaining property by deception, he threw himself upon the mercy of the court.

“He claimed he was “in drink” at the time and hoped Mr Kerr “would not do much to him”. No such luck. Kerr wanted blood and nothing less would suffice,” said Norman.

Indeed, in a plea to the court, Stewart’s defence solicitor claimed the inventive criminal would not be where he was if his skills could be put to better use.

The chairman of the bench, Alderman Potts, agreed wholeheartedly. “You can put your skills to excellent use for the next three months smashing rocks,” he ordered.

Stewart was led in chains from the dock, before being taken straight back to Durham.

“He’d have been wearing nice new clothing when he arrived at the prison, although the Astrakhan had been swapped for something a little less glamorous,” said Norman.

“A canvas overall with fetching black arrows stencilled upon it were among his new togs. Standard uniform for a thief like him.”

The archives of Sunderland Antiquarian Society at 6 Douro Terrace are open to the public each Saturday and Wednesday from 9.30am-12noon. Admission free.

They’ll pinch anything

THE night of August 29, 1904, saw Alex Anderson set out from his home in Southwick’s Thomas Street for a High Street drinking session with pals.

By midnight, and rather the worse for wear, he found himself stranded in the town centre – with no trams in sight and a very long walk home.

“He chose not to venture back across the water, settling instead in an alley off Church Street in order to catch forty winks,” said Norman.

“When he did eventually open his eyes, he was a little surprised to notice he was being closely observed by a wee urchin.

“Alex attempted to haul himself to his feet, whereupon he was surprised to notice something else. Someone had nicked his boots.”

The urchin grinned a toothless smile and pointed up the street. “If you want your boots, mister, Terry McGuire’s had them away!”

Alex decided, probably wisely, that a Suddick lad had better steer clear of the East End streets without protection, and duly sought out the local policeman.

“The bobby’s ears pricked up at the mention of Maguire’s name and, a few minutes later, he was hammering at his home in Warren Street,” said Norman.

“A sheepish McGuire, a well-known local criminal, answered the door and reluctantly admitted to being the wanted man.”

After an impromptu identi-shoe parade, Alex identified his best footwear upon the mucky feet of the Irishman – who was duly arrested for theft.

Next morning, the bare-faced and bare-footed criminal stood before magistrates for the 11th time and awarded one month’s imprisonment for the shoe snatch.

“As for Alex, it’s a fair bet that the next time he got smashed, he chose a safer place than a back snicket down Church Street to crash out!” said Norman.

Photo catchlines:

NPSE WENORMAN 1.JPG : WORK PLACE: Lambton Staithes in Januray 1967, just before the site was closed. This was where coat theft victim James Kerr worked as a manager in Victorian times.

NPSE WENORMAN 1 (1).JPG: OLD SCENE: The Royal Infirmary can just be seen behind the trees of Burn Park.