Ancient Sunderland Crimes

To begin with, this is a page that explores some ancient Sunderland crimes. Obviously, some of the charges may appear a little strange. But, the times were different then. Indeed, some of the sentences may appear a little harsh too.

So, let us take a look at some ancient Sunderland crimes from the 1800’s through to 1963. The following crimes are all in brief. However, we do document many ancient Sunderland crimes in more detail here.

Ancient Sunderland Crimes:

Jane Atchison

Sunderland County Petty Sessions in November 1872, saw Jane Atchison fined ten shillings. This was because on the night of the 13th people discovered her lying on the flags outside. Moreover, she was in a ‘beastly state of drunkenness’. She was so much under the influence, they used a butcher’s stretcher to take her to the police station.

Mr Cunningham

In September 1879 Joseph Cunningham was in court. His charge was permitting drunkenness on his licensed premises in Southwick. A police officer upon entering the public house found three women drinking, one of them very drunk was Sarah Forster.

When Mr Cunningham appeared in court, they dismissed the case. Indeed, the defence pointed out that Sarah Forster was actually hit over the head with a glass. Because of this she became dazed. Indeed, this is what had made the police officer believe she was under the influence.

John Smith

John Smith from the East End of Sunderland, was up before the bench for stealing a handful of hay. Indeed, this was from the High Street East Corn Market. His sentence for the crime was, the hand that had stolen the hay would be forced into a burning fire.

Thomas Stones

It was June 1842 when Thomas Stones an 11 year old from Wood Lane appeared in court. His charge was throwing stones at the scholars of the National School, Bishopwearmouth. His sentence was if he was ever in trouble throwing stones again he would have a fine of 5 shillings. It was either that or he would serve 14 days in the house of correction.

Tumbler Pigeons

In November 1911 two 12 year old boys and two 10 year old boys all from Southwick appeared in court. They were guilty of stealing eight tumbler pigeons from a pigeon loft in Southwick. When they appeared at the County Juvenile Court, they each received six stokes of the birch rod. We did say that some of these ancient Sunderland crimes would shock you!

Indecent Behaviour

1885 in Gateshead 18 year old Matthew Oliphant was looking after the 7 year old daughter of his landlady. As he was putting the little girl to bed he sexually abused her. Then he threatened to thrash her if she told anyone. But she did and they arrested  Oliphant.

He was charged on the 28th March with carnally knowing and abusing 7 year old Elizabeth Harrison. After the case, they discovered that Elizabeth was also suffering from a sexual disease. Indeed, it turns out that Matthew Oliphant passed it on to her. He was guilty of indecent assault and his sentence was 15 months hard labour.

Robert Forbes

In February 1842, Robert Forbes was only 10 years old but still appeared in court. Robert, from High Street, Sunderland was guilty of stealing 3/6d from a lady. When he appeared in court his sentence was to have a whipping.

George Mills

15th August 1879 George Mills was guilty of riding a bicycle on a footpath at Southwick. When he appeared in court the magistrate said: These bicycles are an intolerable nuisance. They dismissed George’s case on condition he put ten shillings in the poor box.


Police Sergeant Flynn came to Southwick to combat crime (year not established). He started boasting to a gang of locals that within a few weeks there would be no thieves in his patch. So imagine how he felt when after his boasting he discovered a pickpocket had stolen his watch and chain.

William Hamilton

In 1839 chimney sweep William Hamilton was guilty of the murder of William Cain. Mr Cain was a workmate who worked in the East End. They were working at Fosters Yard when they started to argue over selling some soot. William Hamilton struck William Cain in a rage and the blow was enough to kill Cain. Hamilton then had to attend Durham Assizes for a trial. Mr Justice Coleridge decided against the death penalty and sentenced Hamilton with transportation.

No Knees Please

In 1963 two Sunderland girls holidaying in Majorca unexpectedly found themselves on the wrong side of the law. Their crime was failing to observe a ‘no knees please’ ruling. This is because they went shopping in Palma wearing shorts which were less than knee length. After the police arrested them, their fine was the equivalent of 24 shillings. Their hotelier’s fine was the equivalent of £3. Indeed, this was for failing to inform his guests of the ruling on the island.

A Dogs Dinner

On 19th January 1942 a Sunderland man got a two month jail sentence for wasting food by giving his dinner to the dog. The food control committee had brought a joint prosecution under wartime regulations. The other half of the prosecution came from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. The court also heard how the unemployed man often returned home to his wife and seven children worse for drink.

On one occasion when his dinner of roast beef and vegetables, he put it on the floor for the dog. At other times he had given the dog 1/4lb of cheese and a full tin of salmon, despite the fact the children were going hungry. The court heard that the man would lock food away in a sideboard and the children had poor clothing. They also had light bedding which was inadequate for the winter weather. The man got a further six months imprisonment for neglecting his children, the two sentences running together.

A Prostitute and a Bully

Ale houses and bordellos were dangerous places in any town of course. But add to this, beer thirsty seamen your bound to end up with trouble. April 1879 in an ale house in Bishopwearmouth, Selina Robson, 20 years old, agreed terms with James Lennard the mate from a schooner the ‘Sarah of Mistley’. Back at Selina’s place in Charles Street the couple were quick to undress.

James was up to the occasion but could not reach to base. Sarah worked with a bully by the name of Thomas Bell 23 years old, he would hide in the house and wait. When Sarah returned with James, Thomas with his heavy boots and huge hands, set upon James without showing any mercy. Thomas who had only been free for one month, after serving a twelve month sentence for a similar crime, was quickly caught. And, repeat offenders also got harsh sentences.

Indeed in those days you had to serve the whole sentence. In this case Bell got 7 years. So, Thomas Bell’s sentence meant he would be 30 years old before release. Corporal Punishment was also in use those days, but only on men, and so Thomas Bell also got twenty strokes of the ‘cat’. As for Selina for her part in the crime, she received twelve months in prison.

Behind Henrietta

In 1925, John Strong, an unemployed boilermaker from Hendon, and his sweetheart Henrietta Rackstraw, the local midwifes daughter, were found dead at the home of her mother at Henry Street East. George, Henrietta’s brother went to his mothers house and saw what he thought was red paint leaking under the front door. In fact, this was blood.

The ruling was that John Strong had come behind and cut Henrietta’s throat before killing himself. At the inquest next day, they heard that Henrietta was a very jolly and happy girl. Some said that the couple were very affectionate to each other and others said John had threatened Henrietta’s life. This was because he thought she was seeing another man. The jury gave a verdict of wilful murder against John Strong and a verdict of suicide.

Bully Boy

Miners would probably say the opposite, but some say that drinking and assaulting police officers was their favoured pastime. On Sunday 14th February 1873, George Tarry and a friend decided to go on a drinking spree. The two miners went from Durham to Sunderland not missing a single pub on route, they ended up at the Ship Inn, in Sunderland High Street.

Though tired the two friends considered themselves well travelled and well and truly drunk. The landlord of the Ship Inn however would not allow the men in, at which time George Tarry fell into the gutter. A passing policeman went to help him up. Tarry thanked the policeman by swinging at him with his fists and pulling the buttons from his uniform. Tarry’s friend had enough sense to leave the scene and as Tarry would not name him, he spent a sober month in prison on his own.

Demons Of Drink

In July 1875, the charges against William Armstrong, a miner from South Shields, was for assault on Margaret Short and Mary Ann Moses. After a good drinking session William then decided to go to Margaret’s home and ask if she needed a man. When Margaret refused William punched her in the face three times. Mary Ann had tried to get in between the couple when William called her a ‘long nosed bastard’. Mary Ann told William not to insult her by saying that again, which of course he did.

To add to his insult he poured the rest of his whisky over Mary Ann’s head. For this assault he got a he got a fine of ten shillings and he got a £1.00 fine, for his assault on Mary Ann.

Fury in Sunderland

Thomas Fury, a visiting ship’s cook, murdered one of Sunderland’s most notorious prostitutes, 31 year old Maria Fitzsimmons, by stabbing her ten times. As his victim was a prostitute, it was easy for Fury to evade capture. Thirteen years later Thomas Fury, known now as Thomas Cort was arrested and charged with unrelated crimes of robbery and attempted murder.

His sentence was 15 years in Pentonville, where conditions were very harsh. But, Fury Cort determined to play the ultimate gamble and own up to the murder of Maria Fitzsimmons, 13 years earlier.

At the last moment he pleaded ‘not guilty’, in hopes of gaining sympathy from the jury. But his sentence to hang for his night out in Sunderland. His last days included reading and writing while his executioner drank ale in the local ale house. On the 16th May 1882 following breakfast of tea, toast and jam, the hangman did his job on Thomas Fury. They refused him any last words on the scaffold.

Hetton Horror

In 1885, pitman, Thomas Smith and his girlfriend Edith Dyer, had been living together in Sunderland for 12 happy months. However, later that year, Thomas lost his job. Needing money, Edith’s mother told the couple to sell their worldly goods, which they did. Then Edith who went home to her mother in Hetton.

This left Thomas with no job, money, furniture and now, no girlfriend. After a few days of brooding with anger and resentment, Thomas made his way to Hetton and forced his way into the Dyers home. Here, he started to slash at the throats of three of the females of the household. Edith escaped to a neighbours house where Thomas, now a mad man, would no doubt have killed her if help had not arrived.

His charge was a triple murder attempt. The defence lawyer told the judge that Thomas had been happy before losing his job. Also Thomas resented Edith’s mother and blamed her for Edith leaving him. Then came a plea for clemency on the grounds that Thomas was acting under an aberration. However, they rejected this and Thomas got a sentence totalling 7 years.

Poker or Porker

Lodging houses in Sunderland were often full and crowded. Indeed, arguments and assaults were an everyday occurrence and treated as normal behaviour in the late 1800’s. In February, 1878, in one such crowded lodging house, run by Mr Burns, a typical argument turned to murder.

The heat and group of people in the kitchen trying to cook and eat, brought tempers to the boiling point. At which time a woman shouted at a man to leave the kitchen. Being obviously hungry, the man was reluctant to leave. The woman shouted at him and this brought his blood to the boil. He picked up the poker and fatally stabbed the woman though the neck. That is as far as the story goes. Even after a feature in the Illustrated Police News, nobody took punishment for the crime.

Sick for Something

On the 16th September 1870, a 20 year old sailor, John Hind faced charges charged of sodomy in Sunderland. Mr Hind did not have anyone to defend him, his sentence was 15 years in prison.

The punishment for crimes of sexual acts are not always so severe, though in this next case perhaps it should have been. In Sunderland 1885, 26 year old Frederick Baker faced charges of criminal assault.

With the promise of pretty things, a four year old girl and her younger brother went to a timber yard with Frederick Baker, where the offence took place. Even after some lads saw him committing the offence, Baker still pleaded ‘not guilty’.

His defence suggested another reason for the injuries, to the little girl such as an accident while she was playing on pit props on the dockside. They may have also been a result of scarlet fever. The judge was not happy as he could only sentence Frederick Baker to two years in prison, the maximum he could give at the time.

To Sum Up

As we can see, some of these ancient Sunderland crimes seem trivial. For example, stealing a handful of hay. Obviously, the resulting punishment seems archaic to say the least. However, they were different times then.

If you have any information of other ancient Sunderland crimes, why not let us know. Obviously, be brief but give as much information as you can. You can also see more crime stories from Wearside here.

Ancient Sunderland Crimes - Upper High Street, Sunderland in 1883

Of course, at this point we need to show an old picture of Sunderland.


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