A mammoth volume of unmitigated Wearside misery has just been published. Sarah Stoner takes a look.
CHRISTMAS may traditionally be a time for peace and goodwill to all men - but not for a trio of Wearside historians.
Forensic artist Norman Kirtlan has joined forces with Sharon Vincent and Denise Lovell to publish a bumper book featuring the foul deeds of murderous Mackems.
Gruesome tales of bloody deaths and grisly goings-on fill the 140 pages of Fetch The Black Maria, a book combining volumes one and two of Murderous Wearside.
And the authors, all members of Sunderland Antiquarian Society, have also included “extra Mackem mayhem” – to add to the “mammoth amount of unmitigated misery”.
“Following on from the success of the Murderous Wearside books, we have once more dipped our hands into the bloody realms of Sunderland’s past,” said Norman.
“Not only have we reprinted both volumes in one mammoth volume of misery, but we have also uncovered another batch of unfortunate victims and deadly killers.
“From Seaham to Suddick, from the harbour mouth to Washington and beyond, there are tales of violence and tragedy that held our Victorian ancestors spellbound.”
Death is a way of life for former police inspector Norman. Indeed, as a freelance forensic artist for the police, he now makes his living sketching the dead.
In his spare moments, however, he researches stories of the dead – dipping into the archives of the Sunderland Echo to find grisly tales from bygone days.
“It’s my job to identify unknown victims of crime, and I try to do the same with the books – by highlighting cases from the good old, bad old days,” he said.
“Before the days of TV, our local newspapers filled their columns with every shred of information and tittle tattle that reporters could lay their hands on.
“Gory details on inquests held in local pubs were popular too; pubs that often played host not only to reluctant witnesses, but also to the poor dead chap too.
“Licensees must have clapped their hands in glee upon hearing of a dastardly crime nearby, for it was the local pub that made a canny profit from a coroner’s visit.
“Imagine popping into the Blue Bell, Dun Cow or Grindon Mill for a swift half, only to share your afternoon with a decomposing corpse and a posse of lawmen.”
Among the tragic tales uncovered by Norman, Sharon and Denise include the violent death of a brothel keeper and a man who “enjoyed murder for breakfast”.
Other stories feature fights, street attacks and suicides, as well as people who ate or drank themselves to death - such as the vicar of a Monkwearmouth church.
Body-snatchers, mass murderers, thieves and vagabonds and are also featured in the book, together with poignant incidents involving killings fuelled by depression.
Perhaps saddest of all, however, are the stories of illegitimate babies who were simply thrown away with the rubbish, in soap boxes, ash pits and poss tubs.
“The intricate, and often gruesome, reports of murders and deaths left nothing to the imagination. Victorian readers devoured each tale with relish,” said Norman.
“You often hear people harking back to the “good old days”, but were they really so good? Sunderland could be a dangerous place, with many a brutal death reported.”
Indeed Norman, who once pounded Wearside’s streets as a bobby, has been left “astonished by the sheer volume” of killings committed during the “good old days”.
“I always say that inside every one of us is a murderer. One day, when things get too much to bear, that’s when we snap - and these stories show that,” he said.
“We have been amazed by the number of folk who have contacted us to tell us that some of the murderers featured in our books were actually their ancestors.
“One poor chap, related to Monkwearmouth’s only Victorian mass murderer, needed a few stiff whiskeys when he learned of that particular skeleton in his cupboard!
“Happy days indeed, and you are cordially invited to another bloody soiree with our ancestors in Murderous Wearside. It’s a dream, or a nightmare, of a book...
“Without doubt, Wearsiders love a grisly tale or too. Such is the volume of murders over the past century that I have now started on yet another book on the topic!”
• Fetch the Black Maria is on sale at £10 from Sunderland Antiquarian Society, at 6 Douro Terrace. The society is open to visitors each Wednesday and Saturday morning.