Death may have been a common place affair in Victorian Sunderland – but the demise of two Wearsiders linked through love and hate hit the headlines.
“As River Wear policeman Henry Warren rowed out to investigate reports of a body floating between the piers one bleak February day in 1880, he could not have realised the dark tragedy which lay behind the discovery,” said local historian Norman Kirtlan.
“But, then again, the officer could never have imagined that his own death – which would take place before the year was out – would be equally tragic.”
The body pulled from the river on February 3 was that of a young woman, dressed in fine clothes and adorned with jewellery including a jet necklace. She still had “signs of warmth about the breast” – indicating only a short time in the water – and next to her heart a gold clasp held several letters.
It was these tender notes that would tell of the events which lead to her untimely death.
“Elizabeth Maria Cole was 19 and very much in love with a lad named Henry Anderson, a 20-year-old painter from West Street,” said ex-police inspector Norman.
“It was Henry with whom she had been corresponding and the letters naively spelled out the blossoming love, the hopes and then the dashing of this young love.”
Elizabeth’s heart had been broken just a day before her body was pulled from the Wear – when Henry called off their romance.
After mumbling something about “not wanting to be blamed for keeping her out late”, he called time on the courtship – and announced he was off for his tea.
“Back home in Milburn Street a devastated Elizabeth penned a letter to Henry, wishing him well and hoping that God would take her into His home,” said Norman.
“She then walked down to the High Street, where she posted the letter, before calmly making her way to the quayside – where she jumped into the icy waters.”
Police Constable Warren was no stranger to death and his job – hauling out bodies from the Wear – must have hardened him to the darkest side of humanity.
And perhaps, as he read out Elizabeth’s suicide note and told the inquest about the girl’s last hours, he was already contemplating an end to his own career.
“By the autumn of 1880 Henry had left the police and was enjoying civilian life, which included a regular tipple in local pubs,” said Norman.
“But tragedy was just around the corner. A simple drink in the town centre ended in a street brawl which saw the ex-officer perish.”
On October 9, shortly after 11pm, Warren and an “old man” were spotted staggering up Bridge Street – “well the worse for drink”.
When a cab pulled up beside them, the old chap said his goodbyes and climbed in. But Henry, for some unknown reason, did not want the man to leave.
Indeed, as Henry belligerently demanded the cab driver’s number and began shouting, he drew the unwanted attentions of a gang of drunken passers-by.
“Aren’t you the polis who lost his job?” asked one. Henry quickly pushed him aside, but a new tormentor faced him – and hit him over the head with a lead pipe.
Cries of “off now” rang out around Bridge Street when Henry crashed to the ground unconscious. As the crowd melted away, so PC Nelson arrived at the scene.
Kneeling down to examine Henry’s injuries before summoning a local doctor, a voice in the officer’s ear whispered: “It was Bobby Spence who hit him”.
Spence was arrested, but denied any wrong-doing, claiming to have been asleep at the time of the fracas. His alibi proved water-tight and the case went cold.
“PC Henry Warren had often during his working life filed reports on the demise of unidentified drowning victims. These reports were simply stamped ‘Undetected’ before being consigned to history,” said Norman, of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.
“How poignant his own fate would be sealed by the same rubber stamp. ‘Undetected’.”