Wax keys and Turkish baths – Sunderland’s own Great Victorian Bank Robbery

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Today we look at the Great Sunderland Bank Heist of Victorian times

THE Lord Mayor of Sunderland had good reason to be in a celebratory mood back in 1897.

With the recent incorporation of Monkwearmouth into the Borough, William Burns’s empire had just grown by a sizeable chunk – and his status had risen accordingly.

In addition, the councillor’s grocery business – which spread from Hendon to Southwick and all points between – had become one of the most successful in town.

All in all, 1897 should have been a good year for His Worship. Sadly, however, it was a year that Mr Burns would have very much liked to forget.

“Strange things were happening on both sides of the river during February of that year,” said Norman Kirtlan, map archivist for Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

“Over on Southwick Road, the manager of one of the Mayor’s 15 grocery shops was reading a letter that had just arrived on the doormat.

“The author of the communication was unknown, but whoever had written it seemed to be desperate to let the Lord Mayor know about something that was afoot.

“A bank robbery? In Sunderland? Never! The shopkeeper shrugged and slipped the letter into his pocket, forgetting all about it.”

Over at the North Eastern Banking Company on Fawcett Street, at around the same time, young Ralph Ord – the manager’s son – was looking over some recent accounts.

“One had been opened by a nice man called ‘Mr Richards’, with a sizeable deposit,” said Norman, a former police inspector and author of several local history books.

“And not only had Mr Richards bestowed his custom on the bank, he had also treated Ralph and Mr Kane, a junior teller, to a few visits to the Turkish Baths in Newcastle.

“Of course, the lads had needed to strip off and leave their suits hanging in the locker room, but they’d taken the precaution of hiding the bank keys in their inside pockets.

“No one would find them there, of that the boys were confident. Mind you, it’s funny how there were bits of wax on them afterwards though.”

On March 2, 1897, as it pelted down with rain, night-shift coppers found shelter in doorways and alleys – grateful when the Town Hall clock finally sounded out 6am and home time.

But, as the officers were climbing into bed, so young Mr Kane was about to receive a rude awakening. As he slipped his key into the bank’s door lock, he found it already open.

Inside was a scene of devastation. All the safes had been opened during a daring raid – and £7,000-worth of gold and silver, as well as several £100 notes, had been taken.

“By mid-day, detectives were looking through a long list of stolen property – but the caretaker and his wife, who lived upstairs, had heard nothing,” said Norman.

“The sum of £7,000 back in 1897 would equate to more than £6million today. The country was soon buzzing with news of the Great Sunderland Bank Robbery.

“The only clue left behind by the thieves was a length of orange peel. That, and a few waxy keys. Detectives worked day and night putting together fragments of evidence.”

The names of two suspects soon came to the fore. London-based tricksters Fred Smith and his accomplice, the Turkish Bath frequenter Arthur Armstrong.

Both were traced to a flat in a seedy part of Soho and observations commenced. Sooner or later, one of them would pass a £100 note – and then they would be caught.

“It was actually in a jewellers shop in Paris where the first note turned up,” said Norman. “Armstrong was identified as the culprit and Scotland Yard informed.

“A team of detectives swept into action and pounced on the robber’s HQ. While Armstrong took little overpowering, Smith was an incredibly nasty piece of work.

“He put a number of officers in hospital before he could be apprehended and thrown into the Black Mariah. Problem was, the rest of Soho turned out to watch.

“Police officers weren’t very popular in that part of the capital and the Mariah ended up on its roof; the officers were beaten up and the robbers managed to escape.”

It was June before Armstrong was once again apprehended, and he was escorted back to Sunderland to an incredible reception at the Central Railway Station.

“Half the town had turned out to greet the arrival of Detectives Purdy and Ridley as they stepped off the train with their blanketed captive,” said Norman.

“And, despite claiming he had written the anonymous note to the Mayor, warning of the impending robbery, Armstrong was sentenced to ten years in jail for his part.”

His accomplice, Fred Smith, would remain free until well into the new century – and his eventual trial in Liverpool, where he was arrested, ended up as a complete farce.

Indeed, magistrates complained loudly that the evidence against him was too old to take into consideration – and then freed Smith to return to his criminal activities.

“The anonymous letter received by the Mayor back in February 1897, despite naming the time, date and place of the robbery, was treated as a hoax at first,” said Norman.

“It was only when the prediction came true that the shop manager even passed the note on to the Mayor – sparking the investigations which finally led officers to Smith.

“And as for young Ralph Ord – well I’m pretty sure he never visited another Turkish bath as long as he lived.”

n Sunderland Antiquarian Society will host a Heritage Open Weekend on June 8/9 at 6 Douro Terrace. The event will run from 9.30am-3pm on both days and feature history stalls, exhibitions of old school photos and family history research advice.