THE early 20th century found the Jones family of Southwick struggling for suvival – no work, no money, no hope.
Indeed, with four little ones to clothe and feed, unemployed William Jones was at his wits end. The future, with mounting debts, looked bleaker by the minute.
“With only a half-promise of possible work at the shipyards, the 34-year-old decided to up sticks and move the family to Millfield,” said local historian Norman Kirtlan.
“Perhaps a new start in a new area would mark a turning point in the luck of William, his wife Susannah, their three daughters and young son. Or perhaps not.”
The family’s new home – two rooms at Back Aylesbury Street – were nothing short of appalling. Cramped, cold, damp and way too close to Millfield Station for comfort.
“As they battled with the constant rattle of trains, tempers frayed through starvation – and, sadly, the family’s desperation were destined to get even worse,” said Norman.
“Indeed, when the promise of work failed to materialise, William’s mood darkened still further and, according to his sister-in-law, he seemed to be troubled by the devil.”
Finally, after an inevitable argument, William threatened to “make a funeral of the lot of them.” The Jones family would soon learn that he did not make idle threats.
In the early hours of June 2, 1910, just five weeks after the family had moved in, neighbour Ralph Hutchison was woken by “moans” from the Jones’ residence.
“Concerned that something had happened, he quickly dressed and went into the yard – peering out towards the dawn,” said Norman, of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.
“There was nothing to be seen, but the moans grew louder. “Why did I do it? Will no one come to my assistance?” The voice was unmistakably that of William Jones.”
As his fears for the safety of the Jones family mounted, Ralph hastened to the door and pushed it open. What he saw would stay with him for the rest of his life.
William Jones was lying in the kitchen in front of the bedroom door, with blood gushing from a wound to his throat. His feeble efforts to stem the flow were useless.
“Beside him on the floor was an open cut-throat razor,” said Norman. “The whole place seemed like it had been the scene of terrible carnage. But worse was to come.
“Pushing open the bedroom door, Ralph saw what he assumed was Susannah Jones lying on the bed, with her 15-month-old-baby daughter Alice cradled in her arms.
“They seemed calm, as if sleeping, but it was still dark with the blinds pulled shut. When Ralph opened the blinds, the full horror of the nights events unfolded.”
Susannah’s head had been battered severely, an inquest into her death was later told, and her throat cut so deeply that her head was almost severed from her body.
Blood splashed up the walls and dripped from the iron bedstead on which she and the baby lay.
The tot had been battered too, and her throat cut with “great force.”
On a shake-me-down mattress in the corner of the room lay the other three children; five-year-old Susannah, seven-year-old Polly and eight-year-old James.
“They had all been killed in the same brutal way and lay in a pool of blood that covered the bedroom floor,” said Norman, a former Wearside police inspector.
“Ralph ran from the room, calling for help. Neighbours and a police officer were soon at his assistance – all greeted by a scene so grim it took their breath away.”
Indeed, the young constable who first ran through to the bedroom, hoping to give assistance, was quickly back out in the yard – where he collapsed onto the ground.
But, when more experienced officers arrived, they demanded that Jones’ neck be bandaged – before throwing him into a police ambulance and taking him to hospital.
“He was chloroformed on arrival, before being treated for his injuries. It was touch and go whether or not William would survive,” said Norman, now a forensic artist.
Although murder squad detectives had their killer, they needed a motive. Scrawled on the kitchen wall was a chilling message which provided a clue: “Revenge is sweet!”
“William apparently believed his wife had another man,” said Norman. “But between begging for pennies and helping her children, Susannah had little time for other love.
“What’s more; even though neighbours knew little of this Southwick family, they had been seen laughing together only the previous day as they scrubbed the yard together.
“It soon became apparent that there was no real motive, just madness in William’s troubled mind.”
Tributes flooded for Susannah. She was described as a “decent little body,” who looked after her children and kept them as clean and as well fed as she could.
Descriptions of William’s character, however, were muddied by reports of suicides in his family and a propensity towards drink. Some papers even called him insane.
“The inquest into the deaths of poor Susannah and her four beloved children came and went, along with five solemn burials at Sunderland cemetery,” said Norman.
“And then on July 22, 1910, when William was predictably convicted of five brutal murders, he stood silently before the judge at Durham Assizes awaiting his fate.
“He was, as the newspapers had predicted all along, declared insane and ordered to be detained at the King’s pleasure.”
Today Aylesbury Street still stands, just beyond the railway embankment at Millfield, but the tiny hovel in which five souls perished a century ago is long gone.
“Desperation, starvation and a touch of madness all combined with disastrous consequences,” said Norman.
“The Jones family may well have been forgotten over the years, but one thing remains – the constant reminder murder is never far away. Just ask young Ralph Hutchison.”
l Look out for another tale of misery tomorrow.