THE craze of “tramping” was introduced to a stunned North East more than 100 years ago – with almost fatal results.
Indeed, when George Fazzi arrived in the region in an ash wood coffin mounted on bicycle wheels on March 13, 1887, he caused a riot.
“The word tramping probably conjures up images of country walks or itinerant gentlemen for most people,” said local historian Norman Kirtlan.
“But Mr Fazzi took the idea of tramping the country to a whole different level; using a vehicle that was quite literally a death trap!”
George, who was described by local newspapers as a gentleman of Arabic origin, made South Shields his first port of call in March 1887.
Crowds of spectators gathered to stare as he rode into town on his macabre contraption, expertly propelling himself with pulleys and chains.
“His amazing machine even featured a brass coffin plate engraved with his name and 1844 date of birth,” said Norman, a retired police inspector.
“But the space after the word ‘Died’ was left blank. Next to the plaque was a slot, into which George hoped people would insert their pennies.”
George told the gawping onlookers of his plans to travel to London via Sunderland in the coffin, using donations from well-wishers to live on.
But, for some reason, the crowd took great exception to his coffin mobile - showing their disapproval with flailing fists and violence aplenty.
“George had only just started pedalling when a volley of stones bounced off the coffin. He escaped with the aid of several policemen,” said Norman.
“Indeed, it was only when he reached Westoe that his journey was allowed to proceed in relative calm and safety - at least as far as Harton.
“Here his wheels were trashed and had to be hastily repaired - along with the damage to his person.” Once back on the road and heading through rural Cleadon, George’s thoughts turned to the canny folk of Sunderland - and his hopes of a better welcome.
After arriving in Fulwell at teatime, the prospects looked good. A few curious looks apart, he was allowed to travel unmolested up towards the Mill.
Once at the Wheatsheaf however, still sporting bloody bandages as souvenirs of his travels through Shields, things took a definite turn for the worse.
“Now Barbary Coasters are said to be a hardy lot, but those who gathered around Fazzi were obviously of a very sensitive disposition,” said Norman.
“For some reason, the sight of the mobile coffin incensed the locals, who responded by pelting poor George with stones, mud and snowballs.
“He was then chased down Thomas Street where, protected by a few bobbies, he slunk into the Bridge Pub for a spot of refreshment and comforting safety.”
George wisely waited until it turned dark before showing his face again and, at 8pm, the adventurer attempted to resurrect his great journey.
Unfortunately, no sooner had he poked his nose out of the pub then he was pelted unmercifully once again - before being chased down Zetland Street.
After being pushed from the coffin by ruffians, George watched helplessly as it was thrown over a wall. He refused, however, to give up on his dreams.
Working furiously through the night, George managed to repair the damaged casket - sensibly setting off at dawn in order to wrong foot angry locals. “The crowds were still there alright, but their numbers were in no way as large or threatening as they had been the previous day,” said Norman.
“In fact, the great majority were still in bed, having set their alarm clocks for a battle that they anticipated would occur much later.
“Around 50 or 60 Monkwearmouth locals helped Fazzi on his way over Wearmouth Bridge with the now customary stones and mud, be he managed to escape.”
It is not recorded how far George managed to travel, or if his sojourns through other towns and cities proved to be so upsetting to sensitive locals.
But the Echo reported: “Should the Coffin Man’s experiences in other towns prove similar to those in Sunderland, it is possible his coffin may be put to its proper use sooner than he anticipates.”
Just a few days later, on March 17, 1887, George penned a letter to the Shields Gazette, informing townsfolk that he had finally given up on his journey.
“He complained that after the Echo’s blow-by-blow account of his Barbary Coast experiences, it was obvious reception committees would be waiting for him at every point,” said Norman.
“Signing the letter ‘your humble servant’, the poor chap confessed not to know why his endeavours should have met with such unmitigating hostility.
“Bearing in mind that a contemporary chap who runs miles with a fridge strapped to his back is met with cheers and charitable donations aplenty - I have to say that I agree with him!”
l Read more of Norman’s stories of old Sunderland on his website: sunderland-ancestors.co.uk