Wearside Echoes: World of pain turned man into human time bomb

PENSHAW VILLAGE: Where Christopher Alderson and his new wife Ruth made their home in 1895.
PENSHAW VILLAGE: Where Christopher Alderson and his new wife Ruth made their home in 1895.
Have your say

A WORLD of pain was pitman Christopher Alderson’s lot in life – and it turned him into a human time bomb.

“His big problem was the pain in his head: No matter what he did, it just wouldn’t go away,” said local historian and retired Northumbria Police inspector Norman Kirtlan.

“Alderson had tried doctors, but they were of little use. He had tried banging his head off the wall too, but this didn’t help either.

“At just 24, he even tried to hang himself, but his stepfather John Beaney discovered him and cut him down.”

Despite these health problems, Alderson tried to lead a normal life. In 1895, he married sweetheart Ruth Miller, settled in Penshaw Village and became the proud father of baby Ethel Ann.

“To his marras at the pit, he must have seemed to be a very strange young man,” said Norman, who unearthed details of Alderson’s story in old newspapers.

Just two years after his marriage, however, Alderson’s suffering must have overwhelmed him once more, as he tried again to take his own life.

“This time he took a knife to his neck and tried to cut his own throat,” said Norman. “Once again, the attempt failed. But enough was enough for Ruth.

“She and the baby moved back to her parent’s house a couple of doors away in Pit Row. Alderson was left to stay in the care of his stepfather.

“One thing was for certain – Alderson was nothing short of a human time bomb. On Wednesday, April 7, 1897, that bomb would explode with catastrophic results.”

Alderson took to his bed early that day, complaining of “funny feelings” in his head after returning from the pit.

When Ruth popped round later with baby Ethel, to see how he was doing, he asked if she could bring him a bottle of ginger beer from the local shop.

After handing 15-month-old Ethel over to Alderson, Ruth told him: “Mind the bairn til I get back. I won’t be long.”

But, just minutes after Ruth left, John Beaney and Alderson’s sister Jane were alerted by the baby’s screams.

“Jane went to see what was wrong with her but, as she mounted the stairs, Alderson appeared on the landing, white faced,” said Norman.

He said nothing as he pushed past her and made his way down to the kitchen.

“Jane went to the bedroom and froze – she could not believe what she saw before her.”

As Alderson entered the kitchen, he came to a halt in front of his stepfather and told him: “I’ve killed the bairn! I’ve killed the bairn.”

John refused to believe the distraught miner, however, telling him: “Get away!

“What are you making folks believe such a thing as that for?”

Alderson said nothing more. In a daze, he walked out of the house and, according to police, headed for the river to try and drown himself.

“John Beaney rushed upstairs and found Jane, still speechless, staring in horror at the carnage before her on the bed. Baby Ethel was lying on her back, her stomach ripped open,” said Norman.

“The bed sheets were covered in blood and, lying beside the poor child, was Alderson’s work pick. It too was covered in blood. The poor bairn was still alive, but only just.”

John gently picked up his granddaughter, carrying her downstairs to seek help – just as her mother returned.

Ruth’s screams brought neighbours racing to the scene and, within minutes, Dr McGarrity from Penshaw surgery was in the living room trying his best to save the baby’s life.

“There were three deep gashes in her abdomen. Poor Ethel soon fell unconscious from the injuries and shock to her system. Within the hour she lay dead,” said Norman.

With Ethel’s murderer on the loose, and the community up in arms, it was imperative that the village constables found their man before the locals did.

Pc Sanderson and his colleagues wasted no time launching a search, eventually apprehending Alderson as he walked the streets “in a daze.”

He was arrested for the murder of his daughter and taken by train to Houghton police station.

“The subsequent inquest at the Bird in Hand pub heard the tragic tale of young Christopher and the illness that had blighted his life,” said Norman.

“A broken-hearted Ruth told the inquest that her husband had never before so much as raised a finger to the baby.

“When the pick was later produced in evidence by Pc Sanderson, Alderson made a dash to grab it, but was restrained by other officers.”

On July 21, 1897, Alderson was convicted of murder and sentenced to a life in Broadmoor, a prison for the criminally insane.

l Look out for more tragic tales from Norman in Wearside Echoes soon. More can also be found on his website at www.sunderland-ancestors.co.uk