Wearside Echoes: Crime Scene

VICTORIAN SCENE: A policeman on duty in Sunderland during Victorian times
VICTORIAN SCENE: A policeman on duty in Sunderland during Victorian times
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TEMPERS flared as Wearside temperatures soared in the summer of 1878.

“June 26 was one of the hottest days of the year, and the Port of Sunderland lay idle as the ships awaited a breeze to fill their sails,” said local historian Colin Clifford.

“The crew of the sailing ship William Leckie were left exhausted as temperatures topped 90 degrees. All they wanted was a wind to drive their ship to Montevideo in South America.”

On returning from business ashore, Captain Lumley Fletcher was angered to discover his cook, a badly scarred Seaham man named John Vest, slumped on the deck mumbling incoherently.

Assuming he was drunk, Fletcher ordered Vest to pack his kit and leave. As Vest stumbled towards the galley, the ship’s pilot, John Wallace, jokingly shouted out: ‘Lay aft boys and put him in irons’.

“By evening the temperature was still over 90 degrees and, as Wallace passed the galley, Vest’s mind snapped. He grabbed a 10-inch knife and ran after the pilot,” said Colin.

“He slashed at Wallace’s throat and stabbed him in the stomach. As Wallace tried desperately to remove the knife, he screamed ‘Boys, I’ve been stabbed’.”

Captain Fletcher and his crew tried desperately to save Wallace, using a primitive combination of bandages and rum. Within seconds, however, the 62-year-old sailor was dead.

As the crew covered him with the ship’s ensign, Fletcher ran up a distress signal for assistance. The call for help was answered by Inspector James Larkin, of the Low Row River Police, an hour later.

“Vest was heard to mumble ‘I hope the poor man’s soul is in heaven’ while being held prisoner. He also talked of how he had suffered from nightmares of murder and hanging,” said Colin.

Vest’s dreams were to become reality.

“He was taken to Durham Assizes on July 12 where, in front of his wife and five daughters, he pleaded not guilty to murdering Wallace,” said Colin, of Grangetown.

“The hearing was told he had been severely injured whilst serving with the army in the Crimea, and that the injuries were ‘severe enough to cause loss of sanity in hot conditions’.

“The prosecution, however, disputed the evidence provided by Vest’s brother and a doctor, and said his actions were due to alcohol – despite the fact no one had seen him drinking.”

The jury eventually found Vest guilty, but recommended mercy “in the hope he would be sent to Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane”. Their hopes were misplaced.

Donning his black cap, Judge Justice Baggley told Vest: “The law imposes upon me the duty of passing sentence of death upon every person convicted before me of the crime of wilful murder.”

The decision to hang Vest caused outrage. Petitions of protest were raised and money donated for his destitute family in Seaham. It was all, however, to no avail.

“On July 30, 1878, Vest walked to meet his fate with tears running down his cheeks,” said Colin. “As the hangman, Lincolnshire cobbler William Marwood, went to tie his arms and legs together, so Vest begged to be allowed to shake the hand of everyone present.

“Once the trapdoor opened, Marwood collected his £10 fee and set off home.”