PART 5: Desecration of St Hilda's Churchyard

In 2006 as an aspect of my research on the churchyard I obtained newspaper records from Durham County Record Office and transcribed them. Research is now so much easier as both of the extracts can be readily accessed on my desktop through my subscription to the British Newspaper Archive.

The graveyard was evidently neglected without respect or indeed nostalgia for their ancestors. The second transcription provides a humorous perspective about a sorry situation. It is unfortunate that almost twenty years after copying the story, I have been unable to credit the author; someone with literary skills, as well as senses of both irony and humour!

Item 22 - Durham County Record Office

Page 2 6iv Shields Gazette: date about 1885 regarding the neglect of the Churchyard

Many of the tender memories associated with the graveyard of St Hilda's Church, and therefore it must be indeed saddening to many of our townspeople to see the neglected state in which it is now. I am not exactly sure who is responsible, or whether anyone at all is responsible, for keeping the old burial ground in decent order, but its present condition is not at all calculated to inspire feelings proper to God's acre. Broken bottles, fish heads, old boots, tin pans, and pieces of paper strewed about among the graves, are not things which one would look for in such a place.

PHOTO 1: Church Row and St Hilda's Graveyard (South Tyneside Library)

This rubbish should be cleared away, and someone be sent to prune the trees, or in a short time the place will become a positive disgrace to the town. Would it not be well, also, to have the low wall which supports the iron paling raised two or three feet, which would to some extent prevent the graves on the side next to Church Row being made a deposit for all kinds of objectionable materials? Willie Wouldhave's burial place at least, ought to receive a higher respect from his townspeople than its present surroundings indicate, but the flowers on his grave only tend to throw into stronger contrast the utter neglect which seems everywhere else to prevail.

Durham County Record Office

Page 2 6v Shields Gazette: 2nd June 1886
A humorous article about the neglected Churchyard written from the perspective of a dead person who had been interred in the Churchyard many years before


Last night, while I kept watch and ward over my narrow tenement in the churchyard of St Hilda, and vainly strove to deter the heedless passers from aiming contributions of discarded whiskey bottles at my venerable tombstone, the new clock musically chimed the midnight hour.

As I am under no obligation to retire to my domicile before the first streaks of dawn illumine that portion of the horizon which is visible at the further end of Chapter Row, I sat dodging the missiles flung by unsteady hands, and mournfully contemplating the heaps of rubbish which the lapse of time and the target practice of the thoughtless have added to the desolation of my abiding place.

The night breeze faintly sighing through the stunted bushes and rustling scraps of paper over the tombstones of my ghostly brethren wafted towards me a fragment of the Shields Gazette. I seized this token from the outer world, and by the dim light of the stars read the words which my brother "Odd Man Out" had there set down anent the city of the dead. Fifty years have come and gone since I took Up my abode in this unsightly place, and I have marked and learned to know the footsteps of those who passed without. Some, with quick elastic gait, have passed at early morn or late at night, aiming fragments as they went; others, with slower pace, have paused to peer through the iron railings at the rubbish which bestrews this place, and drew back affrighted, as if the thought of lying here added one more pang to dissolution.

All unseen by mortal eye I have watched the progress which the workmen made with tower and clock and bells, and I awaited, breathlessly, the day when some kindly soul should give direction for the renovation of our resting-place. But the days went by, the heaps of rubbish grew a main, while the grass, untrimmed, uncared for, withered away, and left only bare, unsightly patches. Truly, it seemed as if we were forgotten by the world. But the words read renewed the hope within me that some dweller in the borough by the sea, not content with keeping our memories green, would strive to extend the verdancy to the earth which covers our remains. Filled with this idea, I resolved to call a meeting of my brethren to discuss the means by which we might draw attention to our neglected domain. One by one the tenants of this region assembled round the pole which stands in the centre of the churchyard, and seating themselves on such parts of the lop-sided slabs as were free from orange peel and broken grass, awaited further proceedings. We began by voting to the chair, a venerable brother who was known, whilst in flesh, to have paid his rates and taxes with eccentric punctuality, and who, without preliminary, attacked the matter in hand.

As the self-elected secretary to the conclave, I read over the words which had inspired me to seek ghostly counsel, and I was pleased to observe that the desponding gloom which has so long characterised our community gave place to a gaiety of soul and lightness of demeanour which was very surprising in persons of usually a funereal aspect. We all felt that we were not quite forgotten, and the possibility of seeing perchance, a few modest flowers spring up in the places not wholly given over to fragments of provisions and disorganised old hats animated the mind of each successive speaker and urged him on to supernatural oratory.

The chairman, in spirited address, pointed out the necessity for immediate action in the matter, if the folks of Shields desired to avoid the reproach of having in the heart of their busy borough a grave-yard compared with which the burying-ground of heathens in far-off Constantinople was an earthly paradise. At this point a spirit who had in mortal days seen many distant lands; rose to order and begged to point out that the Turks kept the last resting-places of their departed in very good condition. Each grave was marked by a wooden post, painted blue, so that the Turk had a long start of him the speaker), because his tombstone had disappeared several years o under a heap of dust which, coming from the four winds of heaven, settled here. The grass too, in Turkish cemeteries was judiciously cropped by goats who browsed at will over the graves. Some of his hearers might not like the arrangement, but, in his opinion, if something must prowl about a graveyard he preferred, a Turkish goat to a Tyneside cat, or a mongrel cur from Thrift Street. If he (the speaker) had known as much twenty years ago as he did now, he would have been buried at sea, where, at least, he would have been secure from the indignity of old hats and the fag ends of ham sandwiches. The third speaker, whose remarks were interrupted by two belated wayfarers playing duck stone with the remnants of a tin kettle and several crusts of bread, said that the matter should be treated with the gravity becoming its importance. The question was-who is who is responsible for the present disgraceful condition of affairs? He had heard it said, what time he was in flesh, that the Rector and the Church wardens had the duty imposed on them of keeping the place in order, but he was able to show by means of a formally worded and shabbily painted board that the responsibility did not rest with the governing body of St Hilda's, but with some people who were ironically termed Christians. A churchyard was the last place in the world for making jokes, but as an illustration of the fine sense of humour which animated some people, he called attention to the legend conspicuously affixed to the gateway leading to the churchyard, and which reads as follows:-

This Churchyard is committed to the Christian care
of all who enter it.
Walk not on the grass.
Suffer no one to play.
This place whereon thou standest is holy ground.

As there was no grass worthy of the name, and children did not play, but contented themselves with firing things through the rails, the humour of all the preachment would be evident to all. The sanctity of the place so moved the custodians that they had fastened the gate with a rusty padlock and chain, lest some intruder straying in should desecrate the spot by placing a flower on some little mound of earth, or pass the fleeting hour by gathering up the brick-bats that lie promiscuously around. The last sentence appeared to be a figure of speech which in some measure atoned for the general asininity of the proclamation. Another brother caught the chairman's eye, and rising slowly from the broken crockery that adorned his tomb-stone, emphasised his observations by waving a cabbage stalk, which had been cast as a floral tribute from the hand of an urchin on the previous day. A sepulchral smile lit up the countenances of his hearers when he said in solemn tons that there was not a ghost of a chance of the Church wardens doing anything to remedy existing evils. Nor from the Corporation-so called on account of its having neither body nor soul-could they hope for much. Many friends of his audience had striven with loving care to beautify the graves, but nothing short of an eternal watch and never-ending labour in pitching rubbish out as fast as it was fired in could keep the place in order. He knew that many folks were moved to indignation by the signs of neglect which everywhere met the eye in this, the most desolate of God's Acres. Only yesterday he heard a tall, bearded man at his corner of the churchyard repeating to himself, in tones of mingled irony and sadness, this epitaph on a brother who lies elsewhere-

"Here lies I at the chancel door;
Here lies I because I am poor.
The higher you go the more you pay;
Yet here lies I as warm as they."

Another spectre disentangling himself from the paper bags and wind-tossed straw that surrounded him rose to call attention to a point which had escaped the notice of previous speakers. He had suffered much inconvenience, and on several occasions had disagreements with his neighbour, on the account of the difficulty experienced in finding his own particular grave on returning from a visit to the scene of his youthful gambols. His tombstone had sunk below the surface of the earth, and he was, therefore, in order to avoid mistake, obliged to note carefully the number of hats and broken saucers that adorned his freehold. It had happened on several occasions that returning before dawn; he had found his landmarks substantially increased in number and variety, with the result that he was quite unable to distinguish between his neighbour's grave and his own.

The approach of daylight warned us that our conference must end, but before we retired it was unanimously resolved that a report of the proceedings be sent to the Shields Gazette and that the meeting adjourn till the next new moon, on which date, if somebody in power does not move in the direction of remedying the evils of which we complain, we shall go forth from this plague spot in solemn procession, and this section is missing.

Item 23 - Durham County Record Office

Date: January 22 1889
Shields Gazette: Page 64 and 66

Desecration of the Churchyard-lead stolen from graves (grave-railings) by juveniles on a number of occasions and sold to the owner of a shop at the Alum House


PHOTO 2: St Hilda's and the Market Place (South Tyneside Library)

Today at South Shields Police Court, John Johnson (14), Thomas Proctor (11), and David Jones Dowell (14), were charged with stealing 3 cwts of lead, from St Hilda's Churchyard, the property o0f the churchwardens of the chapel of St Hilda. Mr T. Tinley Dale prosecuted, and Mr T. D. Marshall represented the prisoner Dowell. Mr Dale said that from information received, Supt. Moorhouse was communicated with, and he sent a constable to the churchyard, where, a large quantity of lead was secreted, and the prisoners were seen to go to the spot for the purpose of taking it away. There were fifteen graves which had been deliberately smashed, and a very large amount of damage was done in the churchyard, and a quantity of lead had been stolen. That would be the subject of a subsequent charge. In the meantime he had to ask the bench to remand the prisoners till to-morrow. P. C. Alderson was called, and stated that yesterday afternoon at 3.15.


In the west corner of St Hilda's Churchyard, when the prisoners, Johnson and Proctor, got over the gate in Coronation Street, and went to where the lead was concealed under a tombstone. He came out of the place to see whether the lads got the lead, but they saw him, and ran off. He followed them across the churchyard, towards St Hilda's Lane, and caught Johnson, but Proctor succeeded in getting over the wall. He took Johnson back, and he replied that he had got over the wall to seek for a pipe. He then took the prisoner to the police-station; and afterwards in company with Inspector Patterson, he apprehended Proctor, and brought the lads together. They then said they went over the wall to seek pot bottles. They afterwards


Off the lead, and said there were more boys concerned than themselves, and gave their names. Cross-examined by Mr Marshall: He did not see Dowell there.-Inspector Patterson deposed that after the prisoner Johnson was in custody he went with P. C. Alderson and arrested Proctor, who admitted having been in the churchyard. He took the prisoner there, and he pointed out the graves the other lads had broken, He examined the place himself, and found that the railings and iron work of about fifteen graves all damaged. Proctor took them to a tomb where the lad was concealed, and said "That is the lead Johnson and I hid there." Proctor was then taken to the Police Station, and Dowell was arrested last night. He was confronted with the other two prisoners and admitted having been at the churchyard and having got once twopence and another time a penny for the lead which had been sold.- Other evidence having been given, the


In order that the authorities might consider what was the best course to pursue. The magistrates agreed to accept bail.----Mary Cooper (40) of 16 Elizabeth Street, marine store dealer, was then charged with receiving, well knowing the same to have been stolen, about 3 cwt. of lead. Mr Dale prosecuted in this case also, and Mr W. L. Thurgood defended the prisoner. Mr Dale asked for a remand, and Mr Thurgood, applied for bail.- Supt. Moorhouse and Mr Dale both opposed the application, Mr Dale observing that it was a very serious charge, amounting almost to sacrilege.----The bench declined to offer bail, and the prisoner was remanded, to come up with the other prisoners tomorrow.


On a visit to the churchyard this afternoon, the extent of the damage was found to be of a most extraordinary character. It is chiefly confined to the south side of the burial ground. In at least half-a-dozen cases the iron railings surrounding the graves have been bodily torn away. In some instances the stonework in which the palings were embedded are smashed clean in two. Only the corner posts in one or two cases have been forced away, and the rest of the iron-work left intact, but in general the vandals have carried out the


in a most thorough manner, and the whole four sides of paling are levelled with the ground. As the thick iron bars are often snapped clean in two, it is hard to imagine that the damage could have all been done by boys of the age of the prisoners. No less than ten graves were counted in which the desecration had taken place, which would lead to the supposition that the thieves have been at their work over a lengthened period. As the place is overlooked by houses in Coronation Street and Station Road it is surprising how the destruction could have taken place without the attention of the people residing there being attracted, unless it was done at nightime.


The three boys, Johnson, Proctor, and Dowell were brought today before the South Shields magistrates on the charge of stealing about 3 cwts. Of lead from St Hilda's Churchyard-- Mr T. Tinley Dale prosecuted on behalf of the Chapelry of St Hilda, and Mr T. D. Marshall represented the prisoner Dowell.- Mr Dale said that after hearing the evidence against the boys, he would ask the magistrates to suspend their judgement until the case against Mrs Cooper, the person charged with receiving the lead was disposed of.- P. C. Alderson repeated his evidence given on Tuesday, describing how he was concealed in the churchyard, and his capture of the prisoner Johnson, who had come with Proctor to take away some lead they had stored under a tombstone.- Inspector Patterson also repeated his evidence as to the arrest of the other boys, Proctor and Dowell, and of their admitting their complicity in the charge of stealing the lead. Yesterday he went and examined the graves in St. Hilda's Churchyard, and found


He should judge that about 3 cwt. of lead had been taken away. It would be worth about 30s.- The damage to graves must be between £100 and £200.- Mr Marshall said he should reserve his defence of Dowell until the conclusion of the second case. - Mary Cooper (40), marine store dealer, Ferry Street, was then charged with receiving during the past two months about 3 cwts. of lead well knowing the same to have been stolen. Mr Dale prosecuted, and the prisoner was represented by Mr W. L. Thurgood. - John Thomas Carrol, a boy living in Ferry Street, said that about a month ago he met the prisoners in the Market Place. In consequence of something he said he went to Mrs Cooper's Shop at the Alum House Ham. He spoke to her, and

SHE GAVE HIM 1s 6d Page 66 for some lead. She asked him to give the money to Johnson's father. Johnson was with him at the time. He gave the money to the boy in the Market Place, and he got sixpence changed and gave him 2d. Cross-examined: He (witness) was 18 years of age. He took no lead to Mrs Cooper's. Johnson's father is a mason. Re-examined: He was perfectly clear Mrs Cooper said the 1s 6d was for lead.- John Thomas Price, a boy living in Coronation Street with his parents, said he had been in St Hilda's churchyard with Johnson and Proctor. They broke the railing round a tomb and took the lead off. That was a fortnight ago. The lead was taken from the bottom of the rails. He went with Johnson and Proctor to Mrs Cooper's, and she bought it. She gave 1s 6d for it, after weighing it. She gave the money to Johnson. That was the only time he (witness) was there. The lead was not like any of that produced. He did not see Dowell there. Cross-examined: When he went with the other boys to the churchyard it was in the afternoon. He (witness0 sold rags and bones for his father to Mrs Cooper.- Thomas Proctor, one of the prisoners in the previous charge, aged eleven, living in Wallis Street, said he had been going to the churchyard. He got some lead from a grave. He first went about six weeks ago since. He


The first time he got 1s 6d. The second time they got 2s, and the third time 3s. The fourth time he got again 3s. Cross-examined: He (witness) did not break the railings; that was done by Johnson. The latter carried the lead in a basket over his shoulder.- John Johnson, another of the prisoners, living in Coronation Street, a sturdy boy aged twelve, said he broke the railings down, and got the lead out of the sockets. He first went two months since. He had been there about nine times, and took lead away on each occasion to Mrs Cooper. He remembered meeting the lad Carroll in the Market Place. He got him to go to Mrs Cooper, and he got 1s 6d, that was for the first lead that was taken. He had since got 2s, 3s and 3s 6d. On the other five occasions, he always got money from Mrs Cooper. The lead when sold, was like that produced. It was sometimes carried in a poke, and one time in a basket.- Cross-examined: They used to leave the churchyard by the gate in the afternoon.- Re-examined: he had received


From Mrs Cooper for lead taken from the churchyard.- David Dowell, living with his mother in Coronation Street, aged 14, said he had been twice in the churchyard when Johnson broke the railings. Johnson and Proctor took the lead in to Cooper's, and he (witness) stood beside the ferry. He got 2d from Johnson the first time, and 1d the second time. By the Mayor: They went in and out of the churchyard by the wooden gate, which anybody could open.-Inspector Patterson said in pursuance of a warrant, he went on Monday afternoon to Mrs Cooper's store, and searched for lead. He found none. He examined her book for entering purchases of metals, but found no entry of the purchase of lead in the last two months from these boys. At the Police Station


With the four boys, Dowell, Proctor, Johnson and Price, and she was asked by Mr Moorhouse if she knew the boys. She said, "No I have not seen them before." Asked if she had made any entry in her book of purchases from the lads, she said "No, I have never bought anything from them." Proctor said in her presence "About six weeks ago Johnson and I got some lead from the churchyard and sold it to Mrs Cooper for 1s 6d. We sold some for 2s and some for 3s twice." Johnson confirmed this statement in her presence, and Dowell said he was twice there with Johnson and Proctor, and helped them down to Mrs Cooper's with the lead, but did not go in. Price made a similar statement. Mrs Cooper said, "It's a lie; they never sold me any lead." He thereupon charged her with receiving the lead, well knowing it to have been stolen, and she replied, "I can take an oath I have bought no lead from those boys." - Mr Thurgood addressed the Court on behalf of his client, and Mr Marshall, on behalf of the boy Dowell, pointed out that his share in the case was very slight indeed, and that he had a good character.- The Bench discharged Dowell on his friends entering into recognizances for his future good behaviour. Johnson and Proctor were ordered to receive each twelve strokes of the birch rod. Mrs Cooper was committed for trial. Bail was allowed in one sum of £50 and two sureties of £25 each.


It seems unlikely that the youths had arranged for the removal of the lead themselves. The churchyard was easily viewed from the properties that were in close proximity yet there was seemingly no intervention. This suggests that a local intimidating criminal gang coordinated the entire venture.