A WEARSIDE man with an explosive temper hit the headlines in Victorian times – after blowing up his daughter-in-law with tragic consequences.
Henry Brownless was known throughout Houghton for his belligerent nature and ability to hold a grudge. His actions, however, would make him notorious nationwide.
“The house in which Henry lived with his family in the 1860s was little different to any of the other mining cottages in Houghton,” said local historian Norman Kirtlan.
“Henry’s bedroom in the attic was accessed via a ladder, while downstairs the living room and back kitchen gave way to the front garden and a small back yard.
“But under Henry’s bed lurked more than the usual commode. It was a quarter cask of gunpowder – something the 53-year-old used during his daily toils underground.”
Henry, a heavy-drinking and often grumpy man, shared his home with his son and daughter-in-law – Mary Ann – to whom he took a strong dislike in the winter of 1866.
His other arch nemesis was next-door neighbour Ann Reed, against whom he held a grudge – although his feelings were not supported by any misdeeds by either woman.
“Although Mary Ann and Mrs Reed did nothing to upset Henry, his grudges seem to have manifested during a month when he just ‘didn’t feel right’,” said Norman.
“Having said that, the amount of rum the man quaffed ensured that he rarely did feel right but, of late, the feelings and funny turns seemed to be increasing steadily.”
The month of October 1866 saw Houghton Feast celebrated in style, with Henry drinking steadily – and quarrelling fiercely with Mary Ann – throughout the event.
“She’s having men in behind your back son,” he shouted one afternoon during tea, launching at poor Mary with his fists and knocking her off a wooden bench.
Henry junior sprang to his feet, grabbed his father around the neck and threw him out of the house – quickly locking the doors to give his sobbing wife a little peace.
But belligerent Henry continued to scream and shout outside, banging on the windows and repeating defamatory remarks. “She is the worst enemy you have son,” he yelled.
Finally, after calming down and mumbling his apologies, Henry was allowed back into the Prospect Row house. His son and Mary Ann left, however, soon afterward.
“The couple went to stay with Mary Ann’s mother and, when Henry met Mary Ann the next day, he begged her for forgiveness,” said Norman, a former police inspector.
“He claimed his outburst had meant nothing, and blamed it all on drink. The young couple eventually relented and moved back in with him. It was not a happy time.”
Indeed, over the next few days Henry seemed to get worse; spouting passages from the scriptures, mostly made up, and ending each with “She will burn, she will burn”.
Friends and neighbours even heard him plotting against Mary Ann and Mrs Reed as he tramped the streets – muttering loudly that his enemies would perish together.
But it wasn’t until October 17, when he emerged from his bed at dinnertime to find Mary Ann alone in the house, that the situation took an explosive turn for the worse.
“She spent the day washing and drying clothes, on Henry’s orders, before he sent her to get some rum,” said Norman, map archivist for Sunderland Antiquarian Society.
“Mary Ann duly obliged, before setting about making a meal. Henry, meanwhile, quaffed the lot in one go, yelled at her a bit – and then ordered her to fetch more rum.
“Again she agreed to do his bidding, stopping only to stir the coals in the range with a poker before leaving to buy supplies – making sure to leave the poker to cool first.”
On her return, however, she noticed two wine glasses standing on the table – and that the poker had been pushed back in the coals. By now, the end was glowing red hot.
“Go next door and get Ann Reed,” Henry ordered. “She is a hearty woman. Shout her in.” Again, Mary Ann did as she was told, returning quickly with her neighbour.
The invitation for Mrs Reed to “sup together” with Henry was not an unusual one, as the pair had often shared a drink. This time, however, things would get dangerous.
“Henry locked the door as the two women, as well as Mrs Reed’s toddler daughter, filed past him. He now had his enemies exactly where he wanted,” said Norman.
“As quick as a flash he reached over and pulled the burning hot poker from the fire, simultaneously grabbing his daughter-in-law’s dress to prevent her from running.
“He then plunged the poker into the cask of gunpowder, causing a huge explosion that blew the roof from the back room. Part of the wall even collapsed into the yard.” Mary Ann and Mrs Reed were left with their clothes on fire and skin burning as the smoke cleared. Flames also licked at two-year-old Ann Marie as she lay on the floor.
As Ann snatched up her daughter and ran through what was left of the back wall, so Mary Ann stumbled behind her – still on fire and half-blind with dust.
Luckily, quick-thinking neighbour Joseph Smith tore the clothes off both women. He then smothered the flames on Ann Marie, before running into the Brownless house.
Henry had by this time taken a cutthroat razor and sliced open his throat, moaning “Let me die”. He also enquired callously if his two sworn enemies had perished yet.
“As the smoke cleared from the rooftops, police and ambulance men arrived from the pit, carrying the injured to the workhouse for treatment,” said Norman.
“Sadly, poor little Ann Marie was beyond any help and she slipped from life before the day was over. Henry’s two intended victims were appallingly injured, but survived.”
After being dragged to court for murder, Henry tried to claim the poker had been dropped accidentally, and that the death of the toddler was in no way his fault.
The jury did not, however, believe him and he was sentenced to death. “And may the lord have mercy on your soul!” the judge stated, after announcing his decision.
“But mercy, it seems, would be delivered. As Henry languished in his prison cell, he found out his death sentence had been changed to life imprisonment,” said Norman.
“Apparently, after his case had been reviewed, it was decided Henry may well have been mad at the time of the murder. Of that, I think, there is little doubt.”
l Look out for another gruesome tale of days gone by tomorrow in Wearside Echoes.