Wearside Echoes: A story of biblical proportions

RELIGIOUS RELIC: The bible found in a loft in Red House, along with items preserved inside it.
RELIGIOUS RELIC: The bible found in a loft in Red House, along with items preserved inside it.
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AN old family bible which lay hidden in a loft for decades has opened the door to tragic events over a century ago.

When Echo reader Dickie Rush discovered the dusty tome mouldering away in the loft of his Red House home, he initially presumed it was rubbish left by a previous tenant.

But, after blowing off the cobwebs to take a closer look, he found the ornately-covered book was packed with history – literally.

“Dickie brought his find to Sunderland Antiquarian Society, in the hope we might trace its history and hopefully unite it with its rightful owners,” said member Norman Kirtlan.

“The bible was printed in 1837, the same year Queen Victoria came to the throne, and from inscriptions written within, it appears that the Roxby family acquired it soon after.

“Roxby is a famous Sunderland name, with records dating to the 1500s. This branch of the family appear to have been pit folk, working in and around collieries of County Durham.”

The first bible entry, carefully written in ink on the inside cover, relates to Margaret Ann Roxby, who was born in August 1849 to John Roxby and his wife Jane, of Kelloe.

“Year by year the bible records family births and deaths including, in 1854, the third child - and possibly the first son - of John and Jane,” said map archivist Norman.

“Thomas Henry Day Roxby was born in December 1854, but sadly he would not survive his third year. The next son to be born in the family was also named Thomas Henry Day.

“He, too, died in infancy. The third to be so named survived into adulthood, only to be cut down in the last actions of the First Word War. He was buried in Flanders Fields.”

Scripture readings, tea labels and even a shopping list were found in the bible too – although the grocery items could have proved a recipe for disaster in the wrong hands.

“Written on a scrap of paper are three items: Laudanum (opium), Hartsthorn (ammonia) and soap liniment,” said Norman, a former police inspector who is now a forensic artist.

“The quantities show that this was a recipe for an ancient cure for aches and pains. Old miners frequently suffered from rheumatism after working in damp conditions for years.

“Perhaps this was John Roxby’s weekly relief-giving rub!”

Another document discovered within the bible – a subscription to the Northumberland and Durham Miners Permanent Relief Fund – places John Roxby at Seaham Colliery in 1866.

“Fourteen years later, on September 8, 1880, a huge explosion at the colliery cost the lives of upwards of 160 souls,” said Norman.

“The fund, which by that time had amassed £80,000 in donations, was quickly put to good use, providing relief to the bereaved widows and orphaned bairns of the lost miners.”

John, however, had been dead for five years by the time of the tragedy; leaving his two sons to support the family – now living in Shildon – on their meagre pit wages.

“Census records show John as being born in Washington in 1811, to parents Robert and Ann, and we know that he later moved to Kelloe Colliery with his siblings,” said Norman.

“Their growing families seemed to spend most of their lives in and around the Durham pits, from Peterlee to Seaham, eventually ending up in the Fence Houses area.

“But where did the family go after this, and how did their treasured family bible end up in a Red House attic? That puzzle is something we hope Echo readers can solve.”

An appeal has now been launched by Sunderland Antiquarian Society for help in tracking down present day members of the Roxby family, and Norman concluded:

“We would love to reunite the bible with its rightful owners. Anyone with Roxby connections is invited to visit us, in order to establish a pedigree going back to John Roxby.”

** If you are a descendant of John Roxby, or just wish to view the bible, visit the Society at 6 Douro Terrace. The heritage centre is open each Saturday from 9.30am until noon.


THE death of one of the Roxby family – who worked as a church sexton at Holy Trinity in the 19th century – was recorded in local newspapers of the time.

Mr Page, the parish gravedigger, witnessed the death and was later called upon to give an account of what happened at an inquest.

In typical Mackem vernacular, Page told the coroner: “If ye please, sir, aw was at his bedside when he deed.

“He axed for a drink of watter and aw propped him up with pillows. Aw got him a drink of watter and he stretched out his arms and gave three flackers and deed like an angel.”

Mr Page was a well-known character in Georgian Sunderland. Struggling for years with a disability, he could often be seen hobbling through the streets with a crutch.

“In 1822, Page took up residence in cramped rooms above the Coronation Street ‘Kitty’ – the local jail or lock-up for the area’s less desirable residents,” said Norman.

“It was here that thieves, vagabonds and drunkards were thrown to sober up. How many were awakened by the eerie sound of Page’s crutch tapping on the floorboards above?”