Thieves struck as fire raged through Sunderland

Wearside historians have unearthed documents which shed new light on a major Sunderland incident.

Thursday, 21st December 2017, 11:49 am
Updated Thursday, 21st December 2017, 11:50 am
Fawcett Street where looters stole pianos, trumpets and organs.

Old documents have been found in the archives of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

They reveal just what went on behind the scenes on July 18, 1898 – the night of the Great Fire of Sunderland.

Matlock Street, where a thief was nabbed with a bucket on his head.

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Society member Norman Kirtlan told the Echo all about it.

The great fire caused devastation to the town and, as well as bringing out the best in local people, it also brought out the very worst.

By eleven ‘o’ clock on that summer night, every available police officer was either at the scene of the fire or hurrying towards it.

Huge crowds had already gathered to watch the conflagration and throngs more were on their way to see the event of a lifetime.

Matlock Street, where a thief was nabbed with a bucket on his head.

Round the corner in John Street, a local postman was hurrying to work, intending to join a group of his colleagues who had gathered on the roof of the building in order to fight off sparks that were now threatening to set fire to the post office.

A dozen more posties were returning from a route march and they formed a human barrier across John Street in order to prevent sightseers from getting too close to the danger over at Mackie’s Corner.

It was then that they heard windows breaking nearby and realised that this was not the result of fire damage, but the work of looters who were making the most of the police force being otherwise engaged.

The brave posties ran towards the scene of the crime, Donkin’s music shop in Fawcett Street, just in time to see dozens of enterprising locals manhandling pianos, organs, trumpets and all manner of musical instruments through the gaping front windows.

The post office lads tackled some of the thieves as they trundled long St Thomas’ Street, wrestling the biggest of the booty from them and storing it to the post office for safe keeping.

Despite their valiant efforts, however, many Sunderland homes acquired instruments free of charge, courtesy of the Great Fire.

All through the night, as heroes rescued and tended to the injured and exhausted police and firemen tackled the blaze, others helped themselves to whatever they could, openly carrying off their swag and making good their escape.

Some of the thieves were not so lucky, however, and two teenagers were nabbed red-handed carrying 20 shillings worth of stolen shirts from the back of a shop in Fawcett Street.

In mitigation, they told magistrates that as so many others were helping themselves, they thought it was quite alright to do so.

They would both be imprisoned.

Another man was nabbed running down Matlock Street with a stolen ladies dress, a basket and a bucket on his head. Despite the disguise he was identified and hauled before the court.

Another man who couldn’t resist a freebie grabbed a stolen football while one policeman’s back was turned. His colleague spotted him, though, and a smart rugby tackle brought a swift red card to his game.

By morning, with most of the town’s buildings in ashes, the costs were being counted by businessmen from Bridge Street to Burdon Road.

Others, however, were counting their ill-gotten gains, with one street in East Hendon exhibiting brand new curtains in every window. The police had done their best, but with efforts focused on the preservation of life and extinguishing the flames, there was a limit to what they could do.

Strangely, while many folks in town condemned the looters, others wrote strongly worded letters to the Echo complaining that the prison sentences handed down for these “petty crimes” was far too harsh.

To find out more about the Sunderland Antiquarian Society, visit its base in Douro Terrace, which is open on Wednesdays and Saturdays between 9.30am and noon – or go to