While George was down the pit, wife Mary killed herself – and their baby

RYHOPE COLLIERY: Where George Lumsden was working while his wife murdered his baby daughter, then killed herself.
RYHOPE COLLIERY: Where George Lumsden was working while his wife murdered his baby daughter, then killed herself.
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TODAY we launch a new series featuring tales of tragedy from a Wearside former pit village.

THE dawn of the 20th century found the Lumsden family of Ryhope apparently in fine fettle – with a new baby and bright job prospects to celebrate.

But although 42-year-old George seemed happy enough with his healthy brood of kids and regular pit work, his wife Mary Jane was slipping into a deep depression.

“To those looking at the family from the outside, life at 43 Tunstall Street could hardly have been better,” said historian Norman Kirtlan, a former police inspector.

“A baby girl, steady work and food on the table – those were things to be proud of. But life has a nasty habit of turning things upside down, as George was to find out.”

It was 4am on July 3, 1900, when the knocker-up hammered on George’s bedroom window – reminding him that his services were required for an early turn at the pit.

By 4.45am hewer George had dropped the latch in the back yard, and was on his way for another day of hard graft at the pit face. Tragically, it was one he would never forget.

“Mary Jane Lumsden had woken with her husband that morning, but had not slipped back into her slumbers as his footsteps clattered away on the cobbles,” said Norman.

“Instead, the 40-year-old was deeply troubled – and had been for many months. Pain wracked her body, and she’d convinced herself that cancer had her in its grip.

“The poor woman never, however, sought medical help – or even neighbourly advice. Those around her attributed her mood swings to melancholia. And that was that.”

As her 12-month-old baby daughter Mary Ann slept peacefully beside her, and the first rays of sunshine lit up the neat colliery house, Mary Jane’s thoughts darkened.

Pushing aside the bed covers, she slipped quietly to the bare floorboards. There was only one way to end this misery – and poor Mary Jane thought she knew the answer. “By now George would have been descending into the darkness of Ryhope pit. That darkness, however, had nothing on what his wife found herself in,” said Norman.

Just a few hours later, at 8.30am – as Ryhope basked in the warmth of a fine summer morning – a milk messenger boy hammered at the Lumsden’s door. There was no answer.

Something was obviously wrong. The Lumsden children were playing inside, but there was no sign of Mary Jane – who would normally be on time to give her milk order.

“Neighbour Lizzie Surtees obviously agreed as, when the milk boy revealed he’d had no answer at Number 43, she set off immediately to investigate,” said Norman.

“After failing to gain access to the house, Lizzie strode into the yard. There was still no sign of her neighbour, but the lid from the rainwater barrel was on the floor.”

A course linen apron covered the barrel instead and, after peering into the container, Lizzie spotted something floating around. To her horror, she realised it was a baby.

“She pulled the baby, whose head was wrapped in a nightgown, from the water. After unravelling the cloth, she found herself staring into the face of little Mary Ann,” said Norman.

“The child’s mouth fell open and Lizzie thought for a moment the bairn was alive. But, as Mary Ann lay limply in her arms, it became obvious the poor child was long dead.”

As Lizzie ran away screaming, still clutching Mary Ann, pitman Thomas Stewart came to her aid – ushering away a curious crowd and searching for the baby’s mother.

Looking down at the flag stones beneath the netty, he saw a trickle of blood flowing from under the door.

“Pushing open the door, he found Mary Jane lying on the ground.

“She was in a heap on the floor; a cut-throat razor lying at her feet, alongside a blood-soaked handkerchief,” said Norman. “Her throat had been brutally sliced open.

“Blood stained her night garments and Mary, like her baby girl, had obviously been dead for some time. It was a terrible tragedy – one felt by the whole of the village.”

A police inquiry was immediately launched, led by Constable Stanley and Sergeant Dodds. The first to be interviewed was a white-faced George – just back from the pit.

It quickly became obvious, however, that Mary had taken her own life – just after killing her baby. There was nothing left to do but notify Coroner Crofton Maynard.

“A heartbroken George Lumsden would tell the inquest at Ryhope’s Blue Bell pub that his wife had been in a state of depression for quite some time,” said Norman.

“But, he assured the jury, she was a gentle woman and loving mother.

“She had never so much as raised her voice in anger to him or the children – until that fateful day.”

Both Coroner Maynard and the jury agreed that Mary Jane, believing herself to be cancer-stricken, wilfully murdered her baby while in a state of ‘mental derangement’.

As the “darkness of insanity descended,” she then went on to kill herself – leaving poor George a widower and the rest of their terrified children without a mother.

“Life would never be the same again for George. This was a tragedy which would have been felt within the family, and village, for decades,” said Norman.

•Look out for more old photos of Ryhope next week, as well as another tale of tragedy.

Diary dates

June 30: A talk on how to use oral history to record your family history will be held at the Donnison School, Church Walk, at 1.30pm. Admission £2.50.

July 8: The history of Sunderland Volunteer Life Brigade will be under discussion during a talk at Wearside Field Club, Fulwell Community Centre, at 7.30pm. £1.

July 12: A talk on how Nissan was brought to the North East will be held at Sunderland Museum from 2pm. Admission £1.

July 13: A free Flower and Butterflies Walk will be held at historic Tunstall Hill at 2pm. Meet at changing rooms car park, near Leechmere Road. Contact: 528 6476.

July 16: A talk on Durham Cathedral will be given by Maureen Martin at the Sir Tom Cowie Lecture Theatre, St Peter’s Campus, at 2.30pm.

July 21: Paul Pearson will give a talk on a trip on a mail ship – warts and all – at South Hylton Local History Society, Tansey Centre, at 7pm.