Tragic Wearside deaths in Victorian Sunderland

Rose Street in Penshaw.
Rose Street in Penshaw.
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If it’s the sinister, the tragic and the downright unfortunate that you are interested in, look no further.

There’s a new book out which looks at the dark side of the old County Durham - including Sunderland.

The cover of the new book by Sharon Vincent and Norman Kirtlan.

The cover of the new book by Sharon Vincent and Norman Kirtlan.

Two partners in historical crime, Sharon Vincent and Norman Kirtlan, have teamed up to examine some of the sad, strange, tragic inquests to be held in Victorian Sunderland and Durham.

These two are no strangers to historial research. Following on from Fetch the Black Mariah and The Dressmakers of Fighting Cock Lane, comes, Death From…

It promises a poisoning, gluttony, Zeppelin spotting, and violence ... maybe.

Norman said: “One case involved a miner from Penshaw called Thomas Elliott.

Inquests were held in public houses in Victorian times and licensees must have clapped their hands in glee if there had been a murder or strange death nearby

Sharon Vincent

“The poor man was awoken from his slumbers one frosty morning in February 1874.”

The commotion that awaited him was coming from the hen coop which he kept in his yard. Norman added: “He found that a large retriever dog had somehow climbed into the yard and was now causing merry mayhem.

“To make matters worse, the mangy animal bit Thomas on the arm and wouldn’t let go. Thomas grabbed hold of a poss stick and hit the dog with it, forcing it to release its grip.”

Thomas was treated for his wounds by a local doctor, and “although the wound seemed to heal well in the next few days, by the end of February the unfortunate man started to show signs of hydrophobia or rabies as we now call it,” said Norman.

By April, despite the efforts of some of the area’s top medical men, Thomas died.

The Sunderland Echo carried a story about the inquest, and 34 year old Thomas’ exploits as a local bare-knuckle fighter.

Read more in Death From... which is available from the Sunderland Antiquarian Society in Douro Terrace or from the email address below.

Norman added: “In the book, there are many more stories - cases like the boy who tripped and fell to his death while watching a Zeppelin attack during the First World War, and a child who died from eating poisoned candy.

Sharon explained how the process of investigating a death in the Wearside area was much different more than 100 years ago.

“Inquests were held in public houses in Victorian times,” said Sharon, “ and licensees must have clapped their hands in glee if there had been a murder or strange death nearby.”

Another case from Old Trimdon Village in 1870, saw a case of “misdirected kindness” go tragically wrong.

Pitman John Drummond fancied an afternoon pint on hot June day and on the way to the pub he bumped into a couple of five year old girls whose mothers were friends of his. He invited them along to the pub without speaking to their parents, and once there bought himself a pot of whisky.

Sadly, the foolish man decided that the girls needed cooling down too, and shared the liquor with them. Needless to say, by the time that the drinking session was over, neither of the girls was capable of standing.

Sadly, one died although the other thankfully recovered.

The inquest heard that both mothers were in the habit of giving their children intoxicating liquor and would not have objected to Drummond taking them to the pub. The Coroner felt that this was simpy an act of misdirected kindness.

“It is a fascinating collection, and will be the subject of the Sunderland Antiquarian Society talk in September,” added Sharon.

Watch out for more details on Death From .... in the days to come.

The books costing £6 are available from the Society which is open every Wednesday and Saturday morning from 9.30am to 12pm in 6 Douro Terrace.

Get along to take a look at the society’s vast collections of documents, maps and photographs.

Copies of Death From can also be posted.

If anyone wants a copy posted to them, contact Sharon via email at