The husband who got away with murder

OLDEN TIMES: Fawcett Street at the time of the dreadful case of neglect.
OLDEN TIMES: Fawcett Street at the time of the dreadful case of neglect.
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A TALE of murderous neglect 160 years ago is the focus of Wearside Echoes.

IRISH tinker John Smith appeared care-free and happy as he tramped the streets of Sunderland selling his wares.

Indeed, back home in Hendon’s Arrass Lane at the end of a hard-working week, shillings jingling in his pocket, there was nothing Smith liked better than to blow the lot on drink.

“Neighbours talked of his nights on the booze, of how he would get ‘stinking drunk’ while relaxing with his mistress Isabella Johnson and daughter Lettie,” said local historian Norman Kirtlan.

“But the neighbours also told of other goings-on at 14 Arrass Lane, much more sinister happenings. In fact, these goings-on would shock every decent man and woman in Victorian Sunderland.”

It was not the drunken behaviour of Smith, or even the fact his paramour had set up home with him, which set tongues wagging. Instead, it was the welfare of Smith’s wife which concerned people.

“Where once Ann Smith could be seen shuffling along to the shops on High Street, or down at the Butcher’s Market at Coronation Street, these days she appeared to have vanished,” said Norman.

“It was common knowledge Ann had been in very poor health; arthritis had crippled her and, even worse, she’d lost her sight. She had long been badly used by her husband too, particularly when he was drunk.

“But, like so many wives whose husbands are fond of using their fists, Ann did not dare complain about her treatment. After all, she was now completely dependent upon any small mercy Smith might infer.

“Sadly, that John Smith tended not to have a merciful bone in his body would soon become apparent.”

As concerns for the safety of Mrs Smith mounted in November 1852, so a note was slipped through the door of Mr Hedley – the parish overseer – urging him to pay a visit to Arrass Lane.

Hedley and his colleague, Mr Banks, duly made their way to the house a few days later – hammering at the door. When no-one answered their calls, the pair forced it open and entered the dwelling.

“They found a narrow hallway separating two rooms,” said Norman. “One room, that occupied by Smith, Isabella and Letty, was warm and cosy. Across the corridor it was a completely different story.

“The two inspectors were confronted by a sight the likes of which they had never seen before. Lying on a box, shrivelled up in agony and near naked, was the pathetic figure of Ann Smith. The room was freezing cold, and the poor woman was covered in only a piece of canvas sail. Her body bore many marks of violence, and her legs were drawn up and horribly twisted through chronic arthritis.

“Worse still were the lice and insects which infested her. As rats scuttled around their feet, the men tried their best to question Ann, but she was reluctant to tell them the reason for her condition.”

Eventually, however, the frail woman admitted she had been ‘badly used’ by her husband, who had then left her to rot while enjoying the good life with his mistress.

Smith was sentenced to a month in prison for neglecting Ann, as well as allowing her to become a burden on the parish. He promised to mend his ways, however, and Ann was granted an allowance to help out.

But, despite his promises, neighbours continued to be concerned for Ann. On March 4, 1853, two local women took it upon themselves to visit – and what they found left them in shock.

“Hannah Archbold had known Mrs Smith for many years, and had visited the woman 18 months earlier, when she had first been confined to her bed,” said Norman, a member of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

“On that occasion, half starved, Ann had begged Archbold to fetch her a turnip, as she had not eaten for days. The only comfort Ann had was an old clay pipe, in which she was smoking dried seaweed.

“Ann had apparently asked her husband to allow her into the front room to get warm by the fire, but John had raised his boots and threatened to kick her should she dare come across the threshold.

“It seemed that little had changed as Archbold now stood before the dying woman and surveyed what years of neglect had done to a fellow human being.”

Braving the vermin which crawled over poor Ann, Mrs Archbold tried desperately to force some bread between her lips. But Ann, who was now unable to talk, could not summon the strength to swallow the morsel.

“The parish nurse was summoned and she attended with Dr Evans, who prescribed some wine and beef tea,” said Norman. “Ann managed a few sips, but her condition was so grave she was taken to the workhouse.

“Two days later, poor Ann passed from this world into the next. John Smith would be charged with her wilful murder by neglect.”

The inquest was an undignified affair, however, with a chap described by journalists as “a blackguard-looking gypsy” shouting threats and oaths as each witness took the stand.

“Neighbours told the hearing that, although they wanted to help Ann during her years of misery, they dared not because the ‘gypsies’ who frequented the house were a violent lot,” said Norman.

“But these same ‘gypsies’ turned up at Durham Assizes and told the judge what a wonderful, kind man Smith had been, especially to his poor dead missus. John Smith subsequently walked away a free man.

“Talk about rough justice.”

l Norman’s crime books Murderous Wearside Volumes One and Two are available at £7.99 each.

They can be ordered from him on 07765 635 128 and are available from Sunderland Antiquarian Society each Saturday between 9.30am and noon.

Alternatively, send a cheque made payable to Norman for £8.99 per book, including postage, to Norman c/o Sunderland Antiquarian Society, at 6 Douro Terrace, Sunderland, SR2 7DX.