Mystery death on Sunderland’s Kaygill Stairs

DEADLY: The cliff which was once home to Kaygill Stairs - a man can just be seen walked down the treacherous steps.
DEADLY: The cliff which was once home to Kaygill Stairs - a man can just be seen walked down the treacherous steps.
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AN appeal for information has been launched after the story of a tragedy which left a Wearside family in mourning was unearthed – more than a century later.

Father-of-five John Dobson fractured his skull after stumbling on the “dangerously steep” Kaygill Stairs in Bishopwearmouth in January 1892.

Now the gas foreman’s great-great-grandson Gary Innes, who recently came across details about the accident while researching his family tree, is appealing for help.

“I’ve asked people who have lived in Bishopwearmouth about the Kaygill Stairs, as well as searched for the steps on the internet, but just can’t find much at all,” he said.

“The only details I’ve managed to find so far come from an Echo news report at the time of John’s death. Any little piece of information would be much appreciated.”

John, son of Whitburn Bents fisherman Cuthbert Dobson and his wife Thomasina, was born in the village in 1844. Sadly, he lost his father less than a decade later.

The youngster went on to train as a plumber and gas fitter and, by 1881, he was married to his sweetheart Margaret, had five children and lived at 12 Hind Street.

“By the time of his fatal accident in 1892, John had moved to 7 Hind Street and was employed as a gas foreman at the nearby Sunderland Gas Company,” said Gary.

An unconscious John was found lying crumpled at the bottom of Kaygill Stairs – which lead from Panns Road to East Cross Street – late on the evening of January 30.

First on the scene was beat officer Pc Thornborrow who, after spotting how badly hurt John was, took him straight to the Central Police Station for urgent medical help.

When Dr Wood arrived, however, he realised poor John needed hospital treatment – fast. Within minutes, he was on his way to Sunderland Infirmary – but it was too late.

“On admittance, according to the old story, John was found to have serious injuries. But, after the first examination, few hopes were held out for his recovery,” said Gary.

Indeed, the Echo of February 1, 1892 reported: “The patient lingered until the early hours of this morning, when death supervened (occurred).

“On the night of the accident he was seen to mount the first flight of the stairs, to stagger, and then to roll to the bottom. An inquest will be held.”

If an inquest was held, however, the results appear to be buried in history. The reason for John’s death remains a mystery – as do any great detail of the stairs that killed him.

“I’d very much like to know more about the steps and what they looked like,” said Gary. “Any snippet would be good, and it would be great if someone had a photo.

“I’ve been told mountaineers would have struggled on the steps, as they ran down a cliff face. By the end of the 18th century, they were worn, dangerous but still in use.”

l Do you have any close-up photos of the Kaygill Stairs? Email