Wearside Echoes: Murderous Mackems

RIOT ACT: The River Wear from Austin's bank in the 1950s. This area was once the scene of a violent riot in 1825.
RIOT ACT: The River Wear from Austin's bank in the 1950s. This area was once the scene of a violent riot in 1825.
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THE summer of 1825 saw an uneasy stalemate strike up between Sunderland’s seamen and the powerful ship owners.

From the Blyth to the Wear, a new union was demanding better pay for dealing with ballast, but ship owners would have nothing to do with it. Trouble was, most definitely, in the offing.

“The sailors mounted a picket, using threats and various other unlawful means to board ships and “persuade” their colleagues to join the strike,” said local historian Norman Kirtlan.

“On August 3, things took a turn for the worse. Black leg labour and young apprentice boys were used to sail a large fleet of coal-laden ships out of the Wear.

“Striking sailors and keelmen quickly boarded these vessels and forced their crews to shore. Those who dared to stand against the strike were cruelly beaten for their troubles.”

Special constables were hastily sworn in and, at 6pm that evening, the Busy – a small vessel owned by Rowland Metcalf – set sail. As many constables as she could safely hold swelled her crew.

The strikers quickly drew up alongside and made their demands. The ship owner and constables responded with pistols and handspikes.

“After a short struggle, the strikers managed to board the Busy and force the crew to shore. After loud applause from watching crowds of spectators, the strikers left the ship,” said Norman.

“Within minutes, crew members who had been concealed below deck weighed anchor and sailed out to sea. The strikers were incensed.”

Later that day, the Mary sailed from Hetton Staithes and was likewise surrounded. Ship owner John Hutchinson was in no mood for compromise, and duly levelled a brace of pistols at the unionists.

This show of force, and the owner’s determination to continue in the face of any hostility, intimidated the union men sufficiently for them to back off to the north side of the river.

Meanwhile, John Davison – a formidable Justice of the Peace – had turned up at the Exchange building; to be greeted by Dragoon’s Lieutenant Philips, 24 soldiers, ship owners and merchants.

“Justice John told the expectant crowd that he was ready to discharge his duty as a magistrate, and marched the men off down Bodlewell Lane and on to the old Fish Market,” said Norman.

“It was there that the Justice read the Riot Act, which empowered the soldiers to use military force if they deemed that necessary. He duly commanded the rioters to disperse.”

They didn’t.

In a show of force, the soldiers then drew their sabres – leaving the south side mob to see sense and flee.

Those from the north side of the river were made of sterner stuff, however, and stood firm. Indeed, the river was thronged with small ships filled with militant sailors armed with sticks and stones.

“Justice John led his small army aboard a ship and rowed off for the opposite side of the river.

Despite being stoned by the sailors, his soldiers managed to release several ships,” said Norman.

“But, as the rioters’ mood darkened, several soldiers suffered head wounds from the stones. Davison ordered them to fire above the crowd’s heads, in an attempt to scare them. It didn’t.”

As the rioters continued to revolt, so the order was given to fire directly at the crowd. Amidst screams of pain and shouts of anger, the crowd quickly dispersed and an uneasy calm followed.

Justice Davison was able to release the remaining vessels and they, too, headed out to sea. During the next few hours, the magistrate was able to count the cost of his show of force.

Three men lay dead; another lay mortally wounded and would die in the following hours.

“Richard Wallace, Thomas Aird, John Dover, and Ralph Hunter Creighton all perished that fateful day,” said Norman, a former police inspector and member of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

A verdict of justifiable homicide was recorded on Wallace, Dovor and Hunter, but Creighton had not been a striker – he had only been sitting on a joiner’s platform watching the day’s events unfold.

“In his case, a dubious finding (by today’s standards) of accidental death was recorded. Accidental murder more like!” said Norman.

“Shortly after the incident, yet another man died: a labourer who had been shot whilst on his way to work. No one knows how many were injured. The majority crawled home to lick their wounds.”

While some compromise was eventually reached, with ship owners taking on an extra man per vessel to deal with the ballast, many seamen lost all that they owned during the bitter conflict.

Indeed, some were even convicted of riot at the Durham Sessions, being sentenced to long terms of imprisonment with hard labour.

“Records show that the Justice was also a coal-fitter and ship owner. Perhaps in this case, Justice was an inappropriate title for the man,” said Norman.

“One thing was for sure, however. No-one in Sunderland would ever doubt the murderous convictions of ‘Justice John Davison’.”

** More tales of muderous mackems can be found on Norman’s website at: www.sunderland-ancestors.co.uk

Sidebar: Trouble

The month of October 1903 saw storms raging off the North East coast. Roker and Seaburn were closed to walkers, and Seaham Harbour lost tons of its sea wall to the violence of the ocean.

“Across in Monkwearmouth, Police Constable Allon was battling a storm of his own,” said Norman. “One that almost cost him his life.”

There was little to do one Friday afternoon but shelter from the rain and howling wind. Tiles flew from roofs, and those who ventured out were in danger of getting an overturned tram on their heads.

Wearmouth pitman Joseph Cutter was fortunate. He knew a few good places to shelter, and all of them sold alcohol. The Royal Hotel on Bridge Street seemed a decent place to start.

At 3pm he ordered his first drink. Several more followed, before he staggered off into the storm to visit other local hostelries. When he later returned, he was very much the worse for wear.

“Shouting, swearing and threatening customers wasn’t exactly the mode of conduct that pub manager Thomas Howey expected from his clientèle,” said Norman.

“And when Cutter slapped a few pennies onto the bar and noisily demanded more liquor, he told the drunkard that neither he, nor his money, were welcome.”

Cutter was unceremoniously marched into the street.

Once outside, and with his pride very much dented, Cutter pulled a knife and stood defiantly at the door. ‘I’ll do for you,’ he spat, waving his knife threateningly at the nervous manager.

Half an hour later, and after being refused drink everywhere else on Bridge Street, Cutter returned to the Royal. Howey once more decided to eject the nuisance, but enlisted the help of the police.

Constable David Allon booted the drunkard out and Cutter grudgingly staggered off. Had the officer known the pitman was now equipping himself for battle, he may not have let him off so lightly.

“Sometime later, Constable Allon came across Cutter, even drunker now, who was causing an almighty disturbance in Dundas Street,” said Norman.

“The officer had little choice but to give the idiot a few words of prescriptive advice but, without warning, Cutter pulled an open razor from his pocket and slashed wildly at him, slitting his throat.

“The policeman staggered momentarily backwards, as blood splashed from the gaping wound to his neck, but Allon had no time to feel sorry for himself,as Cutter made for him again.”

The two men fought and fell to the ground, where Allon managed to use his bulk to overpower the drunk – grabbing his razor-wielding hand and holding it at a protective distance .

As officers from house of a nearby doctor. Ten stitches were needed to stem the flow of blood.

While Allon recuperated at home, Cutter, a married man with six children, was hauled before the courts charged with attempted murder.

On November 26, 1903, he appeared at Durham Assizes, telling the court he was previously of good character but had been adversely affected by intoxicating liquor.

The jury, swayed by a heart-wrenching appeal by Cutter’s wife, accepted a defence motion to reduce the charge to one of GBH. He was ordered to serve 12 months with hard labour, rather than hang.