Sunderland man set house on fire after row

SOUTHWICK: At around the time of the "Great Fire of Southwick" in 1939.
SOUTHWICK: At around the time of the "Great Fire of Southwick" in 1939.
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KEEP the home fires burning – that was the motto of Wearsiders during the gruelling and bloody years of the First World War.

But, in the hot and sticky days of August 1939 – just a month before the outbreak of World War Two – the burning of the home fires was not such a joyous occasion.

“It is not so very long ago that the ‘boys in blue’ saw disputes between man and wife as no-go areas,” said local historian and former police inspector Norman Kirtlan.

“These so-called ‘domestics’ were things to be left behind closed doors and, once the couple had calmed down a little, the bobbies made a hasty exit.”

One unfortunate constable bit off more than he could chew, however, when called to a house in Southwick in 1939. Indeed things got rather heated – and that’s a fact.

“Following a sticky summer’s day, Sunderland Borough’s night shift officers turned out onto the streets of old Southwick with a deal of trepidation,” said Norman.

“On nights like these, when the locals had slaked their thirst with one or two more beers than was normal – or wise – trouble was very definitely in the offing.”

At a few minutes past midnight on Sunday, August 13, their fears were realised.

After arriving at Southwick Green on patrol, Pc Houlsby was alerted to the fact his services were required by the shrieking figure of Mrs Hobbs from Ellis Square.

“It’s our John!” she shouted in a high state of agitation, descending upon the Green at a great rate of knots. “He’s set the house a’hadd!”

“There was no mistaking the urgency in the poor woman’s voice, or the Suddick vernacular for a fire that was out of control,” said Norman, now a forensic artist.

“Officer Houlsby and Mrs Stobbs immediately ran up to 12 Ellis Square, where, sure enough, black smoke was billowing out of the open front door.

“In a scene that must have resembled something from the Keystone Cops, Constable Houlsby set about jumping up and down on the seat of the fire – a pile of newspapers.

“But 54-year-old John Hobbs had other ideas and, in between punching and pushing the jumping bobby to knock him off the bonfire, ran around building up the inferno.”

Houlsby soon tired of the interference to his fire extinguishing heroics, and set about “using only as much force as was necessary in order to restrain Mr Hobbs.”

“This, of course, is old-time police jargon for landing a few punches of his own,” said Norman. “Hobbs then ran off into another room and re-emerged brandishing a poker.

“Now, as we all know, a poker is a useful implement for allowing oxygen to re-kindle dying embers – on the other hand it is also a canny tool for thumping someone.”

Pc Houlsby correctly guessed that Hobbs had the latter in mind after the angry man came running at him yelling murder most foul.

But, when the terrified copper made a dash for the front door and the relative safety of Ellis Square, it was only to discover that it was even more dangerous outside.

“A large number of residents had gathered in the moonlight, just in case there was adventure to be had,” said Norman, a member of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

“As soon as the bobby appeared, followed by the poker-wielding Hobbs, the crowd broke into riotous uproar and chased them both back into number 12.”

The shriek of Houlsby’s police whistle made its way around old Southwick in a hopeful attempt to garner reinforcements.

And, despite struggling with Hobbs with one hand while fending off the baying crowd with another, the officer managed to hang on grimly to his prisoner until the cavalry arrived.

Minutes later, and with Mrs Hobbs’ best proggy mat lying in blackened ruins, the crowd was shooed away. Order resumed long enough to transport Hobbs to the nick.

“On August 23, having had a couple of days to sober up in the cells, Hobbs appeared before magistrates charged with causing a breach of the peace,” said Norman.

After pleading guilty, Hobbs appealed to the warm hearts of the judges. “I am heartily sorry. I didn’t know what I was doing. We had a family quarrel,” he told them.

“The bench fined him ten quid and warned him that he would go to prison for a month if he re-offended,” added Norman, who is researching crimes of the 1930s.

“He, unlike the proggy mat, lived to fight another day. Summer nights in Southwick were restored to their usual state of calm – at least until the next domestic dispute.”

•Norman will host a six-week crime scene investigation course starting this week. The first session will be held at 6pm on May 1 at the Bangladeshi Centre in Tatham Street. Contact 0747 337 3339 or 212 6100 for further details. All welcome.

‘Summer of madness’

THE long and hot “summer of madness” in 1939 saw dozens of overheated Wearsiders brought to court – often after resorting to “eggs-traordinary” crimes.

Indeed, on August 1 a group of 13-year-olds were feeling the heat when they gathered around the window of Moore’s Grocers on Hylton Road.

“A few feet from the glass, arranged in a nice neat pyramid, was a pile of fresh eggs designed to tempt the taste buds of passers-by,” said Norman.

“The teenager’s attentions were certainly gripped by the display, but it wasn’t their taste buds that were whetted. It was their appetite for mischief.

“The daft lads came up with a plan to see if they could smash any eggs by tapping on the window. Vibrations, they had heard, were pretty powerful things.”

And so, the experiment commenced with each of them tapping on the plate glass with their fingers. Nothing much happened and the pyramid held firm.

The taps turned to bangs as punches were tried. Still nothing happened.

Finally one of the lads decided that vibrations of a much greater velocity were required. He took off his shoe and smacked the plate glass window with his heel.

“Needless to say, the pyramid still remained in place – unlike the window, which shattered into tiny pieces and fell around the lad’s feet,” said Norman.

“A call from a passer-by led to a frantic chase down to Trimdon Street, where one of the egg boys was captured and handed over to police.

“The other four lads simply disappeared, and magistrates could only award a fifth of the £10 damages against the boy’s parents. A shilling a week was his fine.”

Even dafter that August was the case of a dozen eight and ten-year-olds, who went on an unauthorised tatie picking expedition at Canal Farm in Humbledon.

Fed up with so much damage being caused to his crops, the eagle-eyed farmer was lying in wait and quickly nabbed the miniature agricultural thieves.

But, if their crime was daft, their explanation in court was even dafter.

“We weren’t nicking them,” said one. “We was just digging them up to see how big they were!”

The lad’s father argued the children were too young to know they’d done wrong, but the farmer pointed out just how much the daily “innocent” damage was costing him.

“The bench agreed and fined each of the lads half a crown with a shilling damages,” said Norman.