Wearside Echoes: Tragic death of mother and baby

INQUEST SCENE: The Saddle Inn, High Street East.
INQUEST SCENE: The Saddle Inn, High Street East.
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THE Christmas of 1888 should have been a joyous time for Mary Duff as she prepared for her daughter Catherine’s visit home to Middlesbrough.

But, as local historian Norman Kirtlan has discovered, the unscheduled visit of a policeman was to bring celebrations to an abrupt end – and change her life for ever.

“Within hours Mrs Duff was sobbing uncontrollably as she identified her daughter’s body at the Sunderland pub where Catherine’s inquest was being held,” he said.

“What she would hear in the next few hours would break her heart even further.”

Tragedy, Mary was told, had struck for the first time on December 1, 1888, when midwife Sarah Fullard discovered Catherine lying on the floor of her Drury Lane lodgings, crying in agony.

The body of a tiny baby lay beside the sobbing woman.

“Catherine told the midwife that she had been “badly used” by her boyfriend, Michael Smith,” said Norman, who uncovered details of the incident while searching through old newspaper articles.

“But when Smith turned up at the lodgings, Catherine’s attitude changed. She would say nothing more about his involvement in the baby’s death.”

In a strange turn of events, and faced with a tangibly hostile atmosphere, the midwife picked up the tiny body and placed it in a halfpenny matchbox.

“She told Catherine that she would call back to see her in a few days, before making her way to the parish graveyard where she dug a hole and placed the matchbox inside.”

Sarah kept her promise to Catherine, making repeated calls to 4 Drury Lane over the next few days. Her diligence, however, proved fruitless.

“For some reason, she was never allowed to see Catherine, whose friends – including Michael Smith – were anxious that she should have nothing more to do with the matter,” said Norman.

“Sadly, without medical attention, Catherine’s condition was to worsen. In just a few days she was dead.”

An inquest into Catherine’s death was later held at the Saddle Inn, a High Street pub, and newspapers of the time reported there “was no shortage of witnesses”.

“Many of them described in graphic detail the abuse that poor Catherine suffered at the hands of muscular thug Michael Smith,” said Norman, a member of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

“Neighbours told how Catherine would often come to their homes in the early hours to escape Smith’s violence. Often she would have suffered awful injuries.

“On every occasion Smith would drag Catherine back home, where she would face even more punishment.”

Just two days before the loss of her child, so the inquest was told, the couple had been drinking in the snug of the Saddle Inn – which lay in the alley at the end of their Drury Lane lodgings.

After a jealous row, Smith had dragged his pregnant girlfriend home – punching her in the side, and knocking her into the fire grate.

“Before Catherine could climb to her feet, Smith kicked her in the stomach as hard as he could. It would be that blow that would bring about the loss of her child and eventually, her own death,” said Norman.

“As she lay on the floor clutching her stomach in agony, witnesses heard Catherine call out, ‘Oh Micky Smith, you have killed me!’.”

Catherine’s midwife Sarah was also called on to give evidence – and was asked by the judge why she had acted “so unprofessionally” by burying the dead child herself.

“She told the court that it was to prevent Duff’s friends from putting the body down the sink, and promised to learn from her mistake,” said Norman.

Smith was brought to trial – although he appeared to feel no shame. Indeed, he treated his appearance at Sunderland Police Court on a charge of manslaughter like a day out – laughing at witnesses and sitting with his hands in his pockets throughout.

“At Durham Assizes, Smith would find even more to laugh about when the sentence was passed,” said Norman, a forensic artist for the police.

“For causing the deaths of Catherine and their unborn child, he was sentenced to just six months in prison. While Mrs Duff spent the Christmas of 1889 mourning the first anniversary of her beloved daughter’s death, Smith was back on the streets of the East End, celebrating his freedom.”

* Look out for more grisly tales from Norman on to his website at www.sunderland-ancestors.co.uk