Bleak winter deaths in Sunderland

SQUALOR: The dock area of Sunderland at the time of the two deaths.
SQUALOR: The dock area of Sunderland at the time of the two deaths.
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A DOUBLE dose of misery and squalor left Wearside bobbies feeling blue in 1874.

Indeed, by the evening of November 10, officers from Sunderland River Police were wishing they had never offered a hand of friendship to their Borough Police comrades.

“It started as just another miserable winter day, but ended up thoroughly miserable for all concerned,” said historian Norman Kirtlan.

The first signs of trouble came as Constable Low and his colleague Sergeant Howes clambered from their river launch on to the quayside – where a woman stood waiting.

“It’s me neighbour, old Mrs Nicholson,” stammered the woman. “I think she’s dead!”

The River Police officers, usually more at home on the water than land, immediately offered to investigate – quickly covering the few yards from their boat to Low Street.

It was not, however, a pleasant journey – as the address in question was not in one of the most salubrious part of town. In fact, the term squalid was ‘too good’ to describe it.

“After negotiating a narrow alley off Low Street, the policemen found a dark passage from which the flagstones had been removed some years earlier,” said Norman.

“Rats scuttled about their feet as they clambered over the rubbish-strewn ground. An open door led to a hall and a flight of stairs that had long since rotted into oblivion.

“The only pane of glass that was still in place was covered in cobwebs, and the smell of filth made even these hardened officers retch. It was way, way, beyond squalid.”

Low and Howes continued their journey, however, eventually finding their way to a tiny dwelling– fashioned using a sheet of wood to wall off part of the second landing.

But, after clambering through a hole in the wood which served as a doorway, the men were horrified at what they found – the body of a naked, flea-infested old lady.

“The only furniture in this tiny space consisted of a battered kitchen table, two soap boxes, a cupboard and a sprinkling of wet straw that served as a bed,” said Norman.

“The stench was overpowering, but worst of all was what lay on the rotten floor beside the straw. The poor old woman, covered by only a thin jacket and one sock.”

Sgt Howes immediately stooped down to try and feel for a pulse. Nothing. But, as the body was still quite warm, he dispatched Low to fetch East End medic Dr Brady.

Before the pair could return, however, an old man scrambled through the hole in the wood. John Nicholson, an old tailor, looked “quite mad” the sergeant later revealed.

“He was, in fact, the woman’s husband, and the pair had been living in this squalid little hole for over two years,” said Norman, of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

“When questioned by the sergeant, Nicholson claimed his wife had been ‘quite alive’ when he’d left her that morning. Dr Brady, however, found her to be quite dead.

“But it was obvious there had been no foul play and so the officers lifted the woman back on to the straw, covering her with a black shawl borrowed from a neighbour.”

John Nicholson was ordered to remain with his wife until the Borough Police had been contacted. Officers, he was told, would be round shortly to take statements.

But, when the Borough boys arrived at the scene, they found only Mrs Nicholson. Both her husband, and the borrowed shawl, had disappeared.

“We know the shawl was pawned for drink, but no sign was ever found again of John. To be fair to the lad, he didn’t have a great deal to return home to,” said Norman.

On the same day, just a mile up the road at 26 Cumberland Street, another old lady met her demise in the most unusual of circumstances.

Mary Rowell, who numbered some 80 years, was nothing short of an eccentric old hermit who would never – upon pain of death – allow anyone to enter her rooms.

Nor would she ever leave the premises to buy food, or any of life’s other necessities. Indeed, many of those who lived on the same street had never seen her.

“So concerned about her welfare were her neighbours, that they had taken to leaving plates of food and drink outside of her door,” said Norman.

“Once they had disappeared from sight, Mary would scuttle out, grab the food and take it inside – where it would be consumed before the dishes were returned.

“Communication had to be undertaken through the door, but it was rare indeed for the old lady to answer her neighbours’ calls.”

Thus, on the morning of November 10 – as the River Police were investigating the death of Mrs Nicholson – Sanitary Inspector Dixon was making his way to her home.

“Mary hadn’t paid her rent that week, which was very unusual – as she usually shoved the money under her door for the landlord to collect,” said Norman.

“When he had knocked on the door, there was no response. But the smell emanating from within caused him enough serious misgivings to get in touch with the police.”

When Inspector Dixon eventually forced his way into the old lady’s room, he found her behind the door, in a squatting position – and stone cold dead.

“It was as if she had been trying in vain to open the lock – something she never, ever did when fit and healthy. Sadly, she had been dead for several days,” said Norman.

“Two tales of tragedy, misery and squalor in just one day – something Sunderland’s boys in blue had to cope with all too often in the ‘good old days’.”