The little lad on the mangle.
Was a child’s death a case of starvation or wilful murder? That is the question a Coroner’s Jury had to decide back in the winter of 1876. It would not take them long to reach their conclusion.
Widow Mary Ann Calder had lived in the Hendon area of Sunderland for just over a year when she met John Moss, a labourer at the docks. Within a few weeks the couple had moved in together, along with four young children, three belonging to Mary and one, a five-year-old boy called George Pickering Moss, the only son of John Moss.
It would seem that Mary Ann took an instant dislike to little George, and while her own children were well dressed and fed, she would whip the lad mercilessly and refuse to feed him.
When neighbours called the police to their house in Surtees Street, PC Rathey attended and, finding George in a terrible condition, called Dr Francis. The doctor noted that George was sitting on a mangle in the corner of the room wearing a filthy vest and nothing else. The child in contrast to his half-siblings was freezing cold and in a deplorable condition.
The doctor told Mary Ann that the child was starving and needed nourishment. Mary Ann told him that “it refuses to eat!”
Neighbours told tales of George escaping in the early hours before the family were up and begging pieces of bread. Some neighbours remonstrated with Mary Ann, but she warned them that if they interfered, she would stab the child or drown him. She also threatened to kill her neighbours if they interfered.
Over the next few months, five doctors attended the house, all of whom simply ordered Mary Ann to feed the child. The last doctor to attend ordered brandy and water as the little boy was clearly dying. Before the day was out, George had indeed died.
Only the week before, neighbours had heard the child being whipped in the back yard.
The inquest would find Mary Ann and John guilty of such gross neglect and maltreatment that they had brought about the death of this small child. They would each be sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment.
The case would end up at the Home Office, as the judge could not believe that so many chances had been presented to doctors to have the child removed from its cruel tormentors. Even the grim Parish Workhouse would have been better than the hell that was Surtees Street.
So many opportunities to save little George’s life had been passed by, with tragic consequences.
A local family researching their family tree discovered George was a relation, they were so moved that they clubbed together to give his unmarked grave a headstone. Such a sad tale that is all too common.