Sunderland man was found beaten to death in a haystack

Threshing  June 1955 old ref number 23-2598'The scene at Mr John Colley's Bents Farm, Whitburn, yesterday as work proceeded on threshing oats  June 8 '1955''Calendar Caption'JUNE: Threshing oats at John Colley's Bents Farm at Whitburn in June 1955.''SUNDERLAND ECHO CALENDAR 2011
Threshing June 1955 old ref number 23-2598'The scene at Mr John Colley's Bents Farm, Whitburn, yesterday as work proceeded on threshing oats June 8 '1955''Calendar Caption'JUNE: Threshing oats at John Colley's Bents Farm at Whitburn in June 1955.''SUNDERLAND ECHO CALENDAR 2011
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FRIDAY is traditionally the unluckiest day of the week – at least according to ancient customs.

Those who die on a Friday are said to go straight to hell – and any Friday that falls on the 13th of the month is definitely a day to stay in bed.

Sadly for 34-year-old Millifield man Samuel Foster, the date of Friday July 13, 1900, was destined to prove all three customs correct.

“The day didn’t start off too badly for Sam, who finished his shift as a shipyard riveter and returned home to 52 Wilson Street,” said local historian Norman Kirtlan.

“After turning over his earnings to his wife, Sam washed, changed his clothes and waved goodbye to family – announcing he was off out to the race track at Grindon.”

Back at the turn of the 20th century, the Grindon Mill pub stood in the middle of rural fields – with nearby Chester Road a favourite turning point for local runners.

And, according to archive records, it wasn’t unusual for dozens of locals to stand and watch the racers hurling past – before popping in for a pint or two.

“Sam Foster, it seems, had more in mind than watching the sport; for he first called in at the Willow Pond pub for a few jars,” said Norman, a retired police inspector.

“Here he met up with his best pals Alf Marley, William Dickman, David Rathband and William Ireland and, by 9pm, the lads had drunk their way up Chester Road.

“When they finally made it to the Mill, landlord Tom Stewart served them with fresh pints of bitter and listened to their friendly banter about football and relationships.

“An hour later, full of plans to go mushroom picking, the pals supped off their drinks, bought a bottle each for the road and said their good-nights before staggering off.”

Dawn on July 14 found a very worried Mrs Foster wringing her hands and looking anxiously out into Wilson Street, frantically searching for any sign of her husband.

At the same time, up at Grindon, pub licensee Mr Stewart – who also farmed a few acres of fields – set out, scythe in hand, to tend to the grass verging his hayfields.

“After a few hours he arrived at fields bordering Grindon Lane, where he noticed one of his haystacks had dramatically changed appearance over night,” said Norman.

“In fact, it had acquired appendages that no respectable haystack should be seen to sport – a head and a pair of shoulders.”

Believing the figure to be a drunk sleeping off the excesses of the night before, Mr Stewart shouted: “Look out there, if you don’t want the reaper to go over you.”

Tragically, a reaper had already visited the poor haystack dweller – the Grim Reaper.

“When Stewart got no response to his shouts, he decided to take a closer look at the so-called drunk,” said Norman, map archivist for Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

“The chap’s face had been covered by his cap and it was only when the licensee took the garment off to try and rouse him from his slumbers that the penny dropped.

“Not only had the poor man been beaten badly, but he was also very dead.”

County constables from nearby South Hylton were called to the scene, taking Sam’s remains to a nearby hay barn – where he was examined by the coroner.

His verdict was simple: Murder. The riveter simply could not have beaten himself black and blue, then slipped into a haystack and covered himself up with a coat and cap.

“By teatime, Sam’s drinking pals of the night before – Marley, Ireland, Rathbone and Dickman - were helping the bobbies with their enquiries,” said Norman.

Under questioning it was revealed that the men had left the pub in good spirits – all looking forward to picking mushrooms at dawn.

And, once settled in the mushroom field, they whiled away the hours drinking beer and singing hymns until the sun finally appeared on the horizon.

“Unfortunately, after tiring of singing, the lads had begun to spar, with Sam Forster’s horseplay overstepping the mark as he punched Ireland,” said Norman.

“Ireland had been minding his own business until then, but retaliated and hit Sam twice. One blow knocked him onto the ground, where his head clattered off a stone.

“It was this, according to a barrister when Ireland appeared at Durham Assizes, that would be the fatal blow.”

After the fight, and with the lads allegedly unaware that Sam – a father-of-six – had died, the four hymn-singing mushroom hunters parted company and trudged home.

“It would be Ireland who faced a judge and jury, as it was his blow which had brought about Foster’s death,” said Norman.

“But on November 22 that year, he walked from court a free man – the jury accepting that Sam’s death had been caused accidentally and without his knowledge.

“How Sam ended up in a haystack was never gone into. One has to assume the lads knew their badly beaten friend was a goner and tried to cover up their tracks.

“But whatever happened that day, one thing was certain. Friday 13th was definitely an unlucky one for Sam Foster.”
l Norman is writing a book on the farms and stately homes of Sunderland. Can you help him out with photos? He can be contacted email at or 077656 35128.