Pea shooter craze blamed for death of Sunderland boy

The Wheatsheaf Hotel can be seen to the left.
The Wheatsheaf Hotel can be seen to the left.
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Dozens of toys have sparked store sell-outs and parent pandemonium over the decades – from Cabbage Patch Kids, to Beanie Babies and Bratz dolls.

But back in the 1870s it was a metal tube called a pluffer which proved the latest must-have for youngsters – perhaps better known today as a pea-shooter.

The Wheatsheaf Hotel,  Roker Avenue.

The Wheatsheaf Hotel, Roker Avenue.

“The shops of Sunderland were quickly running out as kids queued up for the chance to buy their very own shooter,” said local historian Norman Kirtlan.

“All over the town, from Seaburn to Southwick, youngsters were shooting at each other with carling peas. Sadly, the craze would end in tragedy.”

March 16, 1876, dawned as a run-of-the-mill Saturday for foreman blacksmith Robert Wrightson and his family, who lived at 77 Devonshire Street, Monkwearmouth.

Robert, who worked long hours at Thompson’s shipyard, enjoyed a day of relaxation, while his sons – aged 13, nine and five – had a whale of a time with their new pluffers.

Not for the first time a child would die because of a new craze, and sadly pea shooters would claim many more young lives over the century that followed. Even more surprising, they are still on sale today!

Norman Kirtlan, map archivist for Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

“In the middle of the kitchen table was a bowl of freshly steeped carling peas, no doubt destined for the family’s Sunday lunch the following day,” said Norman.

“Robert watched in amusement as the lads snaffled some, sticking them with pins and dropping them into their pluffers – firing them at each other and squealing with excitement.”

Leaving the kids to enjoy themselves, Robert retired to his bedroom to read the newspaper. Seconds later, having only just sat down, he heard a scream from the kitchen.

This time, however, it was not a squeal of laughter, but of pain and panic. Robert threw the paper aside and sprinted out of the room.

Norman Kirtlan.

Norman Kirtlan.

“In the kitchen he found his youngest child, five-year-old William, clutching at his throat and obviously in a state of panic,” said Norman, of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

“Realising that the little boy had inhaled a pea by accident, Robert picked up the sobbing lad and dashed out into the street to seek help from local doctor Blumer.”

But, although Dr Blumer carefully examined the child, he could find nothing wrong with him. “Are you in pain?” he asked the youngster, but William shook his head. “No doctor.”

After giving William a drink of water, the doctor noted that it was swallowed without difficulty.

“I think the child is simply frightened,” Blumer told Robert. “Now take him home, give him some opening medicine (a laxative) and put him to bed.”

The good doctor firmly believed that whatever William had had stuck in his throat must now be in his stomach and “quite safe”. But, once back home, Robert and his wife remained concerned.

“None-the-less, they followed the doctor’s orders and gave William a spoonful of castor oil before despatching him to bed,” said Norman, a retired police inspector.

 “But, an hour or so later, the pair heard William shriek and ran into his bedroom to find their son blue in the face and suffering from some kind of fit.”

 Once again Dr Blumer was summoned, but this time it was his partner Dr Watson who came to the house. It took no time for the medical man to make his diagnosis – the child was choking to death.

 “Would you allow me to cut his windpipe?” he asked of the lad’s parents. “If it will save the boy’s life,” answered Robert.

 But Dr Watson did not have his instruments with him and, by the time he had returned from his surgery after collecting his bag, the little boy was dead.

 The inquest into William’s death took place at the Wheatsheaf Inn on March 19 and the result was clear cut – the lad had died after the pea swelled in his throat and stopped him breathing.

“But there was a sting in the tragic tale, and one that only emerged following the post-mortem examination,” said Norman.

“It seems William not only swallowed the carling pea, but also the pin that the lads had been using to load the peas into their pluffers. It was this that had stuck in William’s throat and prevented it from moving.

“Not for the first time a child would die because of a new craze, and sadly pea shooters would claim many more young lives over the century that followed. Even more surprising, they are still on sale today.”

• Sunderland Antiquarian Society, at 6 Douro Terrace, is open to visitors each Wednesday and Saturday morning.