Wearside Echoes: Suicide in the shadows

ON LINE: The railway lines of the Margaret Pit at Philadelphia.
ON LINE: The railway lines of the Margaret Pit at Philadelphia.
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THE Margaret Pit at Philadelphia was still in shadows when Police Constable Pudney crawled under the coal tubs and pulled a bloody head from the cinders in September 1889.

“The rest of the body was a few yards away, on the side of the track,” said retired police inspector Norman Kirtlan, author of new book Murderous Wearside Volume Two.

“Railway guard William Greenway had raised the alarm and was green-faced as he watched the body of his marra being reassembled for transport back home to number 17 Shop Row.”

William had spotted his soon-to-be-dead pal, Bill Walker, just after 6am, standing close to the lines. There was nothing strange about the sighting, as Bill was a pit horse keeper.

Indeed, the guard and the pitman exchanged friendly greetings. “What cheer, Bill?” called out William, “What fettle?” had been the standard, and expected, reply from his friend.

Just one minute later, however, Bill’s neck was severed as 15 coal wagons ran over him. The poor man was very dead, and this was certainly no accident.

“Police officers not only had to put the body back together, but they also had to fit together pieces of a story telling the journey of Bill Walker’s untimely demise,” said Norman.

That story, as archives reveal, had started just over nine months previously at the little Methodist Chapel in Newbottle – when 45-year-old Bill married widow Eliza Wilkinson.

“The marriage was not a particularly peaceful affair, particularly as both enjoyed a bit too much liquor than was good for them. Bill ‘went wild’ once he had a drink,” said Norman.

“In July of 1889, the inevitable happened and the pair separated. Eliza moved into the home of another miner, John Park, who had recently lost his wife to a fever epidemic.

“John’s cottage in Spring Gardens was just a few yards from Eliza’s old Shop Row home. Bill was less than pleased, and announced that if she didn’t come back she would be killed.”

Eliza refused, however, to accept Bill’s reconciliation pleas, although they continued to meet for drinks – the last time being at the Lambton Castle Hotel on Philadelphia Lane.

“It was after 11pm when the pair returned to Shop Row that night,” said Norman. “Eliza was the worse for wear and her 12-year-old stepdaughter Mary later described her as ‘drunky’.

“The couple sat with Bill’s three children in the kitchen and, during this time, Bill was seen to sharpen a knife on a piece of steel and put it into his pocket.

“The pair then left and the kids went up to bed. At around five in the morning, though, the door downstairs clattered and Bill was seen dragging Eliza into the house by her hair.

“She was perfectly still and the kids feared she was dead. As Bill lifted Eliza’s head and placed a pillow beneath it, he warned them not to say a word or he’d cut their throats.”

When Bill left the house less than an hour later, the children – as warned – stayed put. Their father would return home in a colliery ambulance not long afterwards. In pieces.

“The post mortem and inquest were as clean cut as the decapitation that had taken Bill’s life; Suicide – but with insufficient evidence to prove his state of mind,” said Norman.

“Eliza’s demise was a lot more complicated and much speculation followed in local papers. The Echo claimed she was poisoned, due to the presence of soaked phosphorus matches.

“Her body, however, indicated she had been suffocated – but how? One explanation was that she had collapsed into a drunken stupor and, covered by a heavy shawl, slowly suffocated.”

Accident or murder? What of Bill’s threats to take Eliza’s life – and where did the pair go for the missing five hours? Many questions remained unanswered.

Eventually, the coroner returned suffocation as the probable cause of Eliza’s death but, as in Bill’s case, without sufficient evidence to further qualify the cause.

“Surprisingly, the inquest at the Lambton Castle Hotel attracted only a few curious loiterers. In just three hours the verdicts were returned and the bodies released,” said Norman.

“The Walker children, who had suffered so much throughout this awful tragedy, were taken in by a widowed aunt – but they would have borne the scars of that day for years to come.”

l 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.