Terrible times in Victorian Sunderland

HIGHFIELD HOSPITAL: Where Henry Reay was confined - and died - in the Insane Ward. It is pictured here in 1950, when it was used for social care. It later became part of Sunderland General Hospital.
HIGHFIELD HOSPITAL: Where Henry Reay was confined - and died - in the Insane Ward. It is pictured here in 1950, when it was used for social care. It later became part of Sunderland General Hospital.
Have your say

TODAY we return to the good old, bad old days of Sunderland.

THE woman who stood breathlessly before the station sergeant at Hylton Road Police Office on March 1, 1881, knew exactly what – and who – she wanted.

“I need to speak to Harry Reay,” Mrs Theobald demanded. “My husband’s gone off it. Tell him my Henry is smashing up all of the furniture.”

Constable Reay, however, was still out on his beat. After being told he would pop round “sharpish”, the shaken lady nervously returned to her Percival Street home.

“Shipyard labourer Henry had indeed caused trouble that day, threatening the lives of his wife and daughter before smashing things up,” said historian Norman Kirtlan.

“First he set about breaking up their best table and chairs, then set fire to his bed – while still in it. Officer Reay, a trusted local copper, was the family’s last hope.”

Once Reay had been told of the Theobald problem, he immediately headed off to the family home – but fortuitously ran across 51-year-old Henry near Millfield Station.

The pair stopped to talk, with Reay stating that Henry’s actions had made him appear insane. But Henry merely shrugged and said: “I’m going to the docks for my money.”

Reay, however, was determined to take Harry in for questioning. With the help of other officers he managed to frog-march the labourer back to Hylton Road Station.

A quick search of Harry’s belongings revealed two pounds and ten shillings. He was then thrown in a police cell and charged with being a “wandering pauper lunatic.”

“Meanwhile, the officer – as was practice those days – went off to speak with a local doctor and appraise him of the situation,” said Norman, a former police inspector.

“Dr Berwick, without examining the evidence, signed a certificate to say that Henry was indeed a lunatic – and should be taken forthwith to the workhouse.”

Within hours poor Henry found himself locked up in the lunatic ward at Highfield Workhouse – a site which later became part of Sunderland Royal Hospital.

Two examining doctors certified that the man was unmarked, apart from a cut to his finger and marks from the use of handcuffs, and therefore ordered him to bed.

“It is very likely Henry was indeed suffering from mental ill health and, had this been more modern times, he would’ve been cared for by trained specialists,” said Norman.

“But this was 1881 and Henry was placed in the care of two “trusted workhouse paupers.” Henry Finch being a sane pauper, and Tommy Robson being an insane one.

“Needless to say, things were destined to go very wrong.”

The first two days of Henry’s confinement passed relatively calmly. But, on the third day, he decided he no longer wished to be cared for and tried to jump out a window.

His escape plan failed, however, and his punishment included being thrown on his bed, restrained in a straight jacket and then beaten up by his pauper ‘carers’.

“Black eyes, bruises and other injuries were testament to his treatment – or lawful restraint as it was described,” said Norman, of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

“Pauper Finch mitigated that the patient had “grabbed him by the muffler” during the melee. The following morning Henry Theobald was found quite dead in his bed.”

The sudden death of yet another “insane pauper” caused shockwaves to reverberate throughout the authorities.

Indeed, only a few months earlier the Echo had taken up the case of James Gall, a brassmoulder who had been found dead after being transferred to Sedgefield Asylum.

“Heads should have rolled and coroner Crofton Maynard demanded a review into the horrendous system of ‘care’ in the workhouses of Sunderland,” said Norman.

“But those at the enquiry closed ranks, with doctors agreeing they often gave insanity certificates without examination and paupers confirming they had charge of patients.

“Perhaps the biggest mockery on the system was that Tommy Robson, already labelled as insane, gave evidence as to his role and care of Henry Theobold.”

But, changes were destined to happen – with padded cells eventually replacing beds featuring high-sided wooden walls – which had often served to confine violent inmates.

Lunatic paupers were never again left in sole charge of others either, and a “singing bird” was provided to give comfort and a feeling of homeliness to the Insane Ward.

“But things would only really change a decade or so later when work began on Cherry Knowle Hospital in the 1890s,” said Norman.

“It is a pity that many helpless and vulnerable folk had to die in order that changes would be made, but these were, in the words of one Charles Dickens, Hard Times!”

Visiting hours

REPEATED reviews of Wearside’s workhouse overcrowding problem eventually prompted an emergency transfer of 16 ‘insane’ patients to Sedgefield Asylum in 1887.

“The Echo caught wind of the story and immediately dispatched two journalists to ‘catch a glimpse’ of their local insane ward and report back to readers,” said Norman.

“But, when the reporters arrived at the High Barnes site and attempted to get their scoop, they were met by asylum guardians shouting: ‘You ain’t coming in!’”

Negotiations were struck up and, eventually, the journalists were allowed into the corridor outside in order to get a feel of the place. They would not be disappointed.

“They were given a rare treat when Jack the Sweep, one of Sunderland’s most famous local characters, wandered past and engaged them in conversation,” said Norman.

“Jack, or John Pybus as was his real name, had witnessed the execution of his murderess mother as a boy back in 1808, and in consequence had ‘a weak intellect’.

“As a beggar, Jack would take coppers – but never silver. Having witnessed the Press Gang at work, he feared the King’s shilling long after the Pressmen had disappeared.”

Following their conversation with Jack, the reporters found themselves surrounded by other inmates – who even queued up to shake their hands and tell their stories.

“Most professed their innocence and sanity, and one even delivered a Salvation Army sermon for their benefit,” said Norman.

“It was only when one inmate pointed to the ward master and told the journalists in no uncertain terms what would happen to him on his day of reckoning that they left.

“They did report, however, that the inmate had said this with a wink – and concluded that ‘the distraught at the workhouse are treated with kindliness’.

“Undoubtedly, many were.”