The sad death of a £3 Sunderland baby

OLD SCENE: Coffin Row - where an inquest into the death of the baby boy was held at the Swan Inn.
OLD SCENE: Coffin Row - where an inquest into the death of the baby boy was held at the Swan Inn.
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TODAY we take a look at a strange tale from the archives of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

Pausing only to don their winter coats, the Shiney Row ladies headed off for Newcastle on the train - dreaming of a spot of retail therapy and a special lunch out.

“The toon was heaving when they arrived on that damp, dark day in 1888,” said local historian Norman Kirtlan, a member of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

“News bills screamed out about another murder in Whitechapel; carriages and trams clattered through the streets and the city wrapped the travellers in its cold embrace.

“By mid afternoon however, the two women had satiated their need for a bit of foreign travel, and duly dragged their heavy bags back to the Central Station.”

After paying for two Third Class singles to Penshaw, the pair took their time selecting a nice, and peaceful, carriage – a situation which would not last long.

“A posh woman soon joined them, assisted by two porters, and then an elderly lady entered to hand the well-to-do woman a baby – before taking her leave,” said Norman.

“The peace of the carriage was soon shattered, as the bairn started to exercise its lungs and screamed blue murder all the way from Tyneside to Wearside.”

Nothing particularly unusual there, one may suppose, but when the two shoppers stood up after the stop at Cox Green, the well-to-do woman did something quite strange.

As the train drew closer to Penshaw, she pushed her sickly baby towards Caroline, begging her: “Eeh, honey. Could you look after the bairn... just for a week or two?” Caroline and her mother barely had time to exchange surprised glances before the train started drawing to a stop. Quickly Caroline nodded her agreement – and took the boy.

“Here’s three pounds to tide you over,” the posh woman said, before taking down Caroline’s address. “Bye, honey and thank you... I’ll be in touch,” she added.

Back at home, Caroline’s pitman husband looked on suspiciously as his wife and mother-in-law took off the baby’s blanket.

Clad in the best, and warmest, of garments, it was obvious the tot came from good stock – but he still hadn’t stopped yelling.

“Eeh, the poor thing looks badly, doesn’t he?” Caroline’s mother observed. “We’d better fetch the doctor, just to make sure.”

Doctor Loraine duly arrived and, after a thorough examination, concurred with the women’s diagnosis. The little lad was indeed very poorly.

“Whatever was wrong with the bairn, one thing was for sure, medical attention had not been previously sought for his maladies,” said Norman, a former police inspector.

“Four times the good doctor returned, and each time he lavished his best attentions on the tiny patient. Within just 24 hours, however, the lad was dead.”

An inquest into the baby’s death was held at the Swan Inn on Coffin Row, where Caroline and her mother once again told the unlikely story of the £3 baby.

“Why on earth did you take the child?” asked the coroner. “For compassion’s sake, sir. And on account that the woman couldn’t look after it,” Caroline tearfully replied.

Sadly, although Constable Porter and Sergeant Masterman tried to track down the ‘posh lady,’ the trail went cold after she left the train at Stockton and disappeared.

“As incredible as the tale sounded, it was clear that Caroline’s trip to Newcastle had given her a day she would never forget as long as she lived,” said Norman.

“The nameless little boy, unwanted and unloved, was laid to rest in the cemetery at Penshaw. At least the poor little mite met a guardian angel on his journey to Penshaw.

“Let’s hope he met another on his journey to heaven.”

•The heady days of steam and the clatter of Sunderland trams feature at a Sunderland Antiquarian Society event this weekend. The group will open the doors to its HQ at 6 Douro Terrace on Saturday and Sunday, from 10am until 3pm.