SPARE the rod and spoil the child. That was the belief of one Wearside father – until his “lawful chastisements” saw him thrown in jail.
“It was a fact that ten-year-old Jimmy Sirmond had been ‘rather wayward’ for some time,” said local historian Norman Kirtlan.
“In fact, on October 6, 1937, the young lad appeared before Sunderland Juvenile Court charged with half-a-dozen shop burglaries.
“But the chastisement handed out by his step-father, Thomas, was certainly harsh. There was no rod spared in his Monkwearmouth house.”
Indeed, young Jimmy was “too scared” to go home following his court appearance – obviously fearing a “good talking to” from his dad.
Instead, the lad camped out all night – using the wee small hours to break into a cafe and office in Fulwell, netting a few quid in cash.
“Before first light however, PC Webb collared Jimmy and two of his young pals – the eldest just 11,” said former police inspector Norman.
“The officer dragged all three back to the nick for another grilling, where the criminal gang admitted a further five offences of burglary.
“When Jimmy was finally delivered to his Rendlesham Street home in a police squad car, his step-father Thomas simply snapped.”
Thomas’s brother-in-law, Fred Barnett, delivered the first part of the punishment – lashing the schoolboy several times with a leather belt.
After declaring his own part in the punishment duly delivered, Barnett then handed the belt over to Thomas - urging him to take his turn.
“Thomas took the belt, turning it around so that it was the buckle - and not the strap - that came into contact with his son,” said Norman.
“As Fred held the boy, Thomas began his punishment. According to a neighbour, Mrs Cummings, the thrashing and screaming lasted a full 15 minutes.
“Another neighbour, Mrs Blenkinsop, agreed - later revealing to magistrates that she could hear the howls from two doors down Rendlesham Street.”
At the end of this brutality, Jimmy was barely able to stand. Indeed, he had to be examined by a Dr Johnson, who would later give evidence in court.
“There were so many injuries that the child was a mass of black and blue,” said Norman, map archivist for Sunderland Antiquarian Society.
“His left eye was almost closed, and there were cuts and bruises all over his face, as well as the entire surface of his body.” Thomas and Barnett appeared before court following the beating. “Corporal punishment is one thing, but brutality is another,” Dr Johnson told the hearing.
Barnett denied having told his brother-in-law to escalate the violence, and told magistrates that he would not be held to account for the injuries.
Magistrates begged to differ, however, and convicted him of aiding and abetting the vicious assault on his nephew.
“He was given a hefty fine, when really, he should have been sent down for a considerable period of time,” said Norman.
Thomas Sirmond also tried to deny the severity of his actions, but magistrates threw out his arguments and sentenced him to three months with hard labour.
“If you think that is where the story ends, you’re mistaken, because our victim still had to go back to court to face up to his misdemeanours,” said Norman.
“Chief Inspector Middlemist, who appeared to prosecute on behalf of the police, would normally have said a good word in the lad’s favour.
“However, the little gangster was overheard to tell his accomplices he still had more places in mind to burgle as soon as they got out of court. Some folk never learn!
“Nowadays, thankfully, the belts that were used for lawful corporal punishment have been hung up and banished from the hands of parents.
“Sadly, prison with hard labour has also been confined to history – perhaps it should be brought back for one or two of our less savoury characters.”
•More stories from Thomas Middlemist’s scrapbook can be viewed at Sunderland Antiquarian Society, at 6 Douro Terrace, every Wednesday and Saturday from 9.30am to noon.
Epidemic of cigarette thefts
THESE days many folk frown upon smoking but, back in 1938, a packet of cigarettes was considered an essential part of everyday life.
In fact, cigarette thefts accounted for over half of all property taken from burglaries and shops across Wearside in the years before World War Two.
“In May 1938, Sunderland coppers found themselves with a weighty problem, all brought about by the evil weed,” said Norman.
“Cigarette vending machines were sited on almost every wall, as tobacconist shops hoped to catch the trade of their customers, even after closing time.
“For a shilling, your packet of Craven A or Wild Woodbines would be safely delivered and your chesty cough was guaranteed for at least another few hours.” The problem was, however, that cigarettes cost elevenpence ha’penny - which meant that customers were entitled to a ha’penny change.
“Shopkeepers got round this problem by slipping a ha’penny in with the box and completing the transaction.
“That’s when the clever thief stepped in,” said Norman.
“With a packet of fags purchased, and a ha’penny in his hand, the thief would get out his toolbox and file the ha’penny down to the same size as a shilling.
“Into the slot machine this would go and, Hey Presto – another packet of fags for your ha’penny. And so the criminal recycling continued unabated.”
By summer 1938, police officers were fed up with complaints from disgruntled shopkeepers - and had even taken a bag of 500 filed down ha’pennies into custody.
Chief Inspector Middlemist, then head of Sunderland CID, decided on a proactive approach, sending out extra officers into Fulwell to tackle the problem.
Within days the plan paid off.
“Mere Knolls tobacconist Fred Rees returned to his shop at 9.30pm on May 8 and saw two teenagers obtaining cigarettes from his vending machine,” said Norman.
“As they walked away, Fred quickly opened up the cash box to find three filed down ha’pennies. Jumping into his car, the shopkeeper gave chase.”
Eighteen-year-old Henry Stonehouse, of Cobham Square, denied any wrong going when Fred eventually caught up with him –but officers were quickly on the scene.
Stonehouse and his teenage pal, Benjamin Glover of Dwyer Square, were arrested on the spot – charged with theft of cigarettes by means of a trick.
“Despite denials, the lads were fined £2 each, which is worth more than £100 today,” said Norman.
“The chairman of the bench issued a stern warning and intimated that he knew they were responsible for a lot more than the three packets of fags they had been caught stealing.
“Unfortunately, the other thefts would have to remain on file.”