Friday, 24 August 2012

Distant Voices, Still Lives

A fascinating set of old police mugshots, Newcastle-upon-Tyne criminals of the 1930s, has been published on Flickr by Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums. I was pointed to this by a centre-spread treatment in the Guardian today. One of the many burglars, William Jones, had a hand-written note across the index card that accompanied the photo: "Dead. Died in action. Benwell Hotel".

This caught my eye as I used to live, between the ages of 9 and 14, on Bentinck Road, just off the Elswick Road. The latter morphs into Adelaide Terrace where the aforementioned pub stood (I believe it's boarded-up today). I used to pass it on the bus to and from my primary school, St. Bede's, out by Denton Burn. I don't recall it being more notorious for its "action" than any other pub, of which there were many on a long road that runs along the top of the north bank of the Tyne, parallel to the Scotswood Road along the river's edge.

I can only speculate on the choice of words. Perhaps an ironic reference to Jones being fatally clobbered by the landlord when he tried to break in, or maybe the police caught him red-handed and he "resisted" (there's a suggestive comment on Flickr to this effect). It might just mean he drank himself insensible and then choked on his vomit. Rock 'n roll. Seen en masse, it's not difficult to imagine that many of those featured in the series might have had a difficult relationship with the booze. Though the photos are arresting, it's the incidental detail on the index cards that is most thought-provoking, such as their average height being around 5'6". The tallest is only just over 5'10" and quite a few were barely over 5 foot. These were mainly men in their 20s and 30s. The comparable cohort today would be 5'10", though I believe the statistical average is 5'9", due to lots of little old men. It's easy to forget the dramatic impact that an improved diet and better housing had on the health of the young from the 40s onwards.

The flat we lived in (from 1969) on Bentinck Road was in an old Victorian house that had been converted, with a housing association office on the ground floor, where we went to pay the rent, and another flat above. It was knocked down and replaced by a BT building in 1974, at which point we were decanted to Washington New Town and the joys of central heating. In the old flat we still had coal fires and one of my occasional jobs on getting in from school was to haul a fresh bucket up from the coal shed in the back yard, which meant clambering up and down a cast-iron fire escape in the rain (it usually rained). The flat above was occupied by a couple who I imagined were as old as the building but were probably in their 50s, with working daughters in their 20s (one got married while we were there and we kids were invited up to look at her trying on the white dress). Both of the parents were tiny, she dark and pinched, like a field vole, he round and gleaming, like a Christmas bauble. I think he liked a drop or two, which also prompted him into lusty renditions of Blaydon Races (yes, Geordies really do sing this at the drop of a hat).

Many of the featured criminals have Irish, Scottish or Welsh names, reflecting the continuing itinerant stream from the periphery to the industrial regions: Gallagher, Lavery, Kelly, Casey, Quinn, Muir, Finlay, Murray, and Jones. There was one exotic, a Jew, James Isadore Epstine (sic), whose trade was recorded as "billiard marker" (the graduate of a misspent youth). Most had their trade recorded as labourer (a casual trade which usually meant unemployed), with a couple of miners and a miscellany of hawkers, carpenters and news vendors. According to the police notes, most thieving was done from pubs, shops and warehouses, with remarkably little house burglary, though this probably just reflects poor pickings in the days before DVD players. Quite a few are marked subsequently as dead. Alexander Murray bears the inscription "RIP London Blitz, 1940". Perhaps he was an innocent bystander, perhaps he'd become a fireman, or perhaps he was still a burglar, employing his favoured method: "enters by means of skylight in roof".

1 comment:

  1. By Gavin Havery, Reporter (Derwentside & Tyneside) .

    The Northern Echo: KILLED IN THE ACT: Hotel burglar William Jones (Hall)
    KILLED IN THE ACT: Hotel burglar William Jones (Hall)

    THE mystery behind a 1930s mugshot has been solved with a little help from the other side of the world.

    The police picture of William Jones, alias Robert Dodds, was found recently in a junk shop by a member of the public and donated to Tyne and Wear Archives.

    It is marked with the words ‘Died in action Benwell Hotel’, but no further explanation.

    His crimes were described as “larceny, burglary, house and shop breaking. Uses various methods of entry. Works alone. Plays violin outside public houses. Conviction in America for shooting a man”.

    The image was uploaded to Flickr as part of a set of images.

    Carolyn Ball, archives manager, said: “Denise Murphy, in Australia, found an article from The Times dated August 30, 1932, telling the story of a man who was killed falling from the roof of a house following an attempted break in at the Benwell Hotel.

    “The name of the man was William Hall, but the other details of the story seemed to fit so it was another alias.”

    A search for the coroner’s report into his death confirmed it was the same man.

    Mrs Murphy said: “What is quite exciting for me is the process of how this has come about. A puzzle is posed, which leads the reader to check some online resources using a research strategy and a bit of luck.”

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    Staff from the archives researched the story further and discovered a report from The Evening Chronicle dated August 29, 1932.

    The article says 54-year-old Hall, from Newcastle, with an accomplice, James Biscoff Whitehead, attempted to break into the Benwell Hotel via the glass roof of a lavatory at the back.

    The men were spotted on the roof and the police were called and it led to a rooftop chase on top of neighbouring houses.

    Mr Hall is alleged to have thrown slates and masonry at police, even stopping to break up a chimney stack to provide more ammunition.

    He slipped from the roof of a house, landing in the back yard and fracturing his skull.

    He was taken to the Royal Victoria Infirmary, but pronounced dead on arrival.

    His accomplice managed to get down from the roof into a back lane, but was arrested.

    The article features the same mugshot of Mr Hall.

    Ms Ball said: “It is amazing that the lead which helped us came from the other side of the world. This just shows the importance of using online resources such as Flickr to open up our collections and share them, not just locally but nationally and internationally.”