Wearside Echoes: Vice den murder scandal

STREET SCENE: Bedford Street - where a "house for fallen women" once operated.
STREET SCENE: Bedford Street - where a "house for fallen women" once operated.
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THE back streets of Victorian Sunderland were a hotbed of violence and murder – at least according to local newspapers – but reporters remained very prim and proper about one particular vice.

Indeed, when a savage beating led the death of a brothel owner in 1869, one paper merely made reference to a “house for fallen women” – and left the rest to the imagination of its readers.

“This house at 8 Bedford Street seemed to be a very lively place indeed, according to reports,” said retired police inspector Norman Kirtlan, who has just published a book featuring local murder tales.

“On the night of July 20, 1869, a group of “girls” had gathered together in the parlour for supper. Among their number were Margaret Scott, Agnes Sutton and the subject of our story, Mary Jackson.

“As the supper plates were being cleared, a tipsy Joseph Jackson, brothel keeper and husband to Mary, sat down to enjoy a pipe of baccy before wishing the girls a good night and retiring to bed.

“His wife, however, chose to lie on the sofa and, as the night was drawing to a close, one by one the girls retired to the attic – where they slept if they were not entertaining their gentlemen friends.”

At about 11o’clock the next morning, Margaret Scott saw Joseph take some water into his room, where his wife and teenage son were still resting. Shortly after he returned with his face dripping wet.

“He asked Margaret for a towel, but refused the one she offered, for some reason,” said Norman. “He then apparently told her ‘For two pins I have a good mind to fell you!’ – which led to a quarrel.

“Up stepped Mrs Jackson, who stood between the arguing pair. She told her husband not to strike Margaret – and then smacked Joseph four or five times around the head, before grabbing his hair.”

Mary still had hold of her husband when their son, Robert, arrived on the scene. Within seconds he, too, was hitting Joseph – who eventually managed to break free and stagger from the room.

“But Robert wasn’t finished, and jumped once more at his old man, knocking him to the floor. This was his mother’s cue to pick up a poker and commence another onslaught,” said Norman.

“She smacked him about the back and finally prodded the end into his ribs. During the lull that followed, Joseph shouted ‘Finish me at once’ – before collapsing.”

Concerns were voiced among the ladies of the house about Joseph’s well-being and his daughter, Mary Ann Winter, helped him to bed – where she bathed his wounds and “made him comfortable.”

Over the next few days, Joseph’s groans could be heard throughout the building. The concerns of the girls, however, were met with a dismissive ‘I’ll see to him in a minute’ from Mary Jackson.

“Margaret Scott was later to testify that, after entertaining a number of clients, she returned to find Mary very reserved, surrounded by pillow slips and bed sheets drying out by the fire,” said Norman.

“The bloodstains on the bed linen were still very obvious, despite their recent sponging.

“The reason for Mrs Jackson’s rather reserved manner was pretty obvious too. Mr J was well and truly dead.”

An inquest into Joseph’s death was held at the Garrick’s Head pub, where Dr Abrath told the hearing that he had died of a lung haemorrhage – probably, but only probably, brought on by the fight.

Mary denied starting the row, claiming Joseph had threatened her with an axe, but both she and son Robert were charged with “having been concerned” with his death – and ordered to stand trial.

“This trial took place in March 1870 and, as could be expected, the quality of evidence proffered was dubious to say the least – the chief witnesses being the lovely lasses from No. 8,” said Norman.

“The coup de grace, however, came when evidence was given as to the deceased’s physical state at the time of his death. Joseph Jackson, not to put too fine a point on matters, was worn out.

“Had he been a healthy specimen, the pair would have swung. As it was, they left court laughing. Joseph had abused his body to such a degree that it was unclear if he would have died anyway – but not without a little help from his family – perhaps.”

** Norman’s new book Murderous Wearside costs £7.99. It can be ordered from him on 07765 635 128. Alternatively, send a cheque for £7.99 to Norman Kirtlan, c/o the Sunderland Antiquarian Society, Sunderland Minster, High Street, Sunderland SR1 3ET.