Wearside Echoes: A knife, a sheet and a pair of knickers

FENCE HOUSES: The railway crossing at Fence Houses - a village left stunned by a brutal murder in 1901.
FENCE HOUSES: The railway crossing at Fence Houses - a village left stunned by a brutal murder in 1901.
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MARRIED life was anything but happy for newlyweds Ernest and Elizabeth Wood.

The spring of 1901 had promised so much as the pair moved into their new home in Herrington, but those promises soon turned into dust.

“Workshy Ernest, a farm labourer by trade, drifted in and out of jobs, eventually finding work as a casual labour down the pit,” said retired police inspector Norman Kirtlan.

“But, by the time that Ernest had swapped his pitchfork for a pick, the marriage was in ruins. Once Christmas came around, the pair were living apart.”

A heavily pregnant Elizabeth sought refuge with her sister, Mary Ann Bruce, at Railway Cottages in Fence Houses. Ernest followed, but was evicted after several quarrels.

The 24-year-old was forced, instead, to settle for lodgings at nearby Bankhead – while the family possessions were placed in storage at Bournmoor.

“Despite their separation, Elizabeth’s placid nature ensured she never held a grudge or rejected him during visits,” said Norman, author of new book Murderous Mackems Volume Two.

“At any rate, with her confinement almost upon her, she had more important things to worry about than Ernest and his wasteful ways.”

Ernest was apparently keen to keep the marriage together, despite his inability to find real work, and on March 9, 1902, penned a long lament to Elizabeth.

“If you live with me, I promise that you can have your own way of doing things, dear wife. Don’t leave me like this. I am broken-hearted. Let us be friends,” he wrote.

“We are united for life you know. I have never done anything to you and never will. I am your best friend and everlasting loving husband. E.Wood.”

By the time the letter arrived, however, Elizabeth had given birth. As she waited for the doctor to tend to her, so Ernest was hatching a deadly plan several miles away.

“On that morning Ernest waved goodbye to his landlady, Mrs Swan, telling her that he was going in to work at the pit,” said Norman, a member of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

“In fact, he had no intention of doing so; instead he collected three items from the Bournmoor storage premises – a white sheet, a sharp knife and a set of Elizabeth’s underwear.”

Ernest then returned to his lodgings, where Mrs Swan handed him a letter. It was his love lament to Elizabeth – marked “Return to Sender.” Ernest was none too pleased.

“At his subsequent trial, the defence would say that this rejection was the catalyst which fired the dastardly crime that was to follow,” said Norman.

“But the prosecution would claim the knife he had retrieved earlier was to slit her throat, the clean underwear was to dress her in and the sheet was to shroud her dead body.”

Regardless of the legal arguments, archive records show that Ernest set out for Fence Houses soon after receiving the returned letter – with “a smile on his face” for everyone.

“The kitchen was still full of Elizabeth’s friends and relations, all milling around busily, when he arrived. The doctor was upstairs tending to his patient,” said Norman.

“Ernest smiled ingratiatingly and offered to run any errands that they had. There were no requirements of him and he relaxed as one by one the ladies went on their way.”

When the doctor eventually made his way downstairs, Ernest waylaid him to ask after his wife’s health. Elizabeth needed peace and rest, the medic replied, for a full recovery.

“Ernest smiled his thanks; knowing full well that peace and quiet were two commodities that poor Elizabeth would find in very short supply this day,” said Norman.

“He then turned his attentions to Mrs Bruce, Elizabeth’s sister. He handed her the parcel that he had brought with him, and asked her if she would open it.

“The woman had no reason to suspect foul play. But, when she turned her back to him and unwound the string from the sheet, she was seized from behind and thrown to the ground.

“Cold steel slashed at her neck as Ernest attempted to slice her throat. Whether by good fortune or poor knifemanship, she managed to scramble to her feet and run from the house.”

Ernest was now alone with his sick wife. Putting Mrs Bruce from his mind, he climbed the stairs to carry out the final piece in his plan.

“Neighbour Mrs Howe was the first to arrive at the scene some minutes later, and she bravely ran up stairs to find out what was going on,” said Norman.

“She saw Ernest in front of the fireplace, attempting to slice open his own throat. She fled, leaving railway signalman John Norman to venture next into the breach.”

But, by the time Norman reached the bedroom, Ernest was lying draped across his wife; her throat had been cut deeply at both sides and she was obviously beyond the help.

“What have you been doing, here?” asked Mr Norman, rather unnecessarily.

Ernest, still clutching the letter he had penned the day before, raised his head and indicated he could not speak due to the injury to his throat. Instead, he wrote another note.

“We have to be parted so that we may die together. Her father advised her to leave me. Send word to my brother at Penshaw – Penshaw Tilery Farm.”

But, although the first part of Ernest’s plan tragically proved a success, the second half – killing himself – failed. After hospital treatment, he eventually recovered.

The murder trial saw Ernest plead not guilty. Once the prosecution and defence had finished arguing, however, the judge pronounced his verdict – guilty.

“Death by hanging was the plan, but this story is littered with failed plans,” said Norman.

Indeed, Ernest would cheat the hangman by an incredible twist of fate – after Edwardian officials decided he simply could not swing due to his neck injury.

“The last one to drop at the gallows with a cut throat had caused a splash – literally – when the neck wound ripped open, spurting out blood over all and sundry,” said Norman.

“No, that would never do, they argued. Ernest Wood was reprieved at the last minute. He would spend the rest of his days in prison instead.

“Strangely, no mention was ever made of the fate of the baby born to Elizabeth. Let’s hope that the poor little mite lived to see happier days than its first.”

** Murderous Wearside Volume Two costs £7.99. It can be ordered from Norman on 07765 635 128 and is available from Sunderland Antiquarian Society each Saturday between 9.30am and noon. Alternatively, send a cheque for £8.99, which includes postage, to Norman c/o Sunderland Antiquarian Society, at 6 Douro Terrace, Sunderland, SR2 7DX.