IN THE FAITHFUL DISCHARGE OF HIS DUTY
At 29 years of age with five years’ service behind him, Police Constable No 58, John Graham, of Gateshead Borough Police had every reason to be pleased with himself for now he had “arrived” as the sole residential constable in the then almost isolated village of Wrekenton.
His career had made a false start when he first joined the force on 7th September, 1883, leaving on 8th December that same year only to rejoin on 8th January, 1884 and was soon advance to Constable First Class since when he had seen service in all parts of the Borough. For the two years prior to his posting at Wrekenton the greater part of his service had been spent in the Teams District where he had proved his reliability in any emergency, the Chief Constable, John Elliot, (known as ‘The Journeyman’ and foremost thief taker of his day), describing him as ‘exemplary, truthful and honest’. It was a mark of his own trust and faith in this officer that Mr Elliott had appointed him, an ex-miner, to a miner’s village.
John was known for his forbearance, ever the peacemaker, he never resorted to harsh measures, even to summoning, until all else had failed and within three short months of his arrival he was already a favourite and well accepted in this close knit community.
But not everyone loves ‘the polis’ and such a man was Edward Wilkinson who was known for miles around as ‘The Flying Butcher’. Wilkinson, who originated from a family of butchers living in Colliery Row near Fencehouses, had broken from the family tradition and for a while worked as a forge man at Philadelphia Pit but now earned his living taking casual butchering jobs, usually in the North Durham area, hence his title. His brother Thomas had been left to carry on the family business which he did for a while until he joined the Durham County Constabulary, later transferring to Sunderland Borough Police which he had left after a while to return to butchering but sometime after 1887 dropped out of sight and no more heard of him.
On the night of Wednesday, 16th January, 1889, PC. Graham was on duty in High Street, Wrekenton when he was called to Wilkinson’s house where the ‘Flying Butcher’ was in the process of evicting his wife. Wilkinson was of course ‘spok’n to’ and ‘advice given’ which first appeared to calm him down but suddenly found himself confronted by Wilkinson waving a poker at him and threatening ‘to do’ for him.
Once again he was pacified but again returned to his door snarling abusive and obscene language at the officer. Enough is enough! and Wilkinson found himself summoned to appear before Gateshead Magistrates on Friday 25th January, where he was fined 2/6d with 6/- costs, a considerable sum for the day.
Not at all pleased, Wilkinson commented that he would sooner pay than spend a fortnight in goal and turning to the Chief Constable, John Elliot, he said, ‘I will fettle you’. The Mayor who was chairing the bench was all for calling him back and punishing his insolence but Mr Elliot merely remarked, ‘Never mind, it is only his way’.
The fate of PC Graham was now sealed. Both men made their own way back to the village some three miles distant from the court PC Graham arriving at ‘The Princess Alice Inn’ on the outskirts of the village at about 3.20pm, where the landlord invited him in but politely declining the invitation, the officer made his way home to Springfield Terrace where he lived with his wife and four children.
Like many a policeman, he discussed his court appearance with his wife (Alice), telling her about the case and saying of Wilkinson, ‘Mind, he was impudent to The Chief,’ but did not give any indication that he thought himself to be in any danger. If he did have some idea of the mischief to follow, it did not prevent him from leaving the house shortly afterwards on a patrol of the High Street.
There was an entirely different scene taking place in the Wilkinson household where Edward was raging at his wife after his visit to the magistrates and, arming himself with a knife, threatened to kill PC Graham who had just walked by the house. Mrs Wilkinson, although terrified of her husband did not hesitate to rush out after him as he went in pursuit of the officer only to be knocked to the ground by her husband who followed up with several punches to the face.
Although PC Graham seems to have been unaware of what was happening behind him, not so several of the villagers who, learning of Wilkinson’s intentions, followed at a safe distance. By now of course Wilkinson was hurrying after the officer but slowed down as he got nearer, then, taking PC Graham’s arm from behind, he swung the officer around and plunged the knife deeply into the right side of the officer’s chest, close to the armpit.
There are two versions of what followed next. Some witnesses were to claim that as PC Graham reeled across the road from the blow, he drew his truncheon but collapsed before he was able to use it, others said it was more likely that he sensed the attack and was drawing his truncheon when he was stabbed. Whatever the case, he did stagger across the road to fall on the grass verge, his truncheon still in his hand, and there is no doubt that Wilkinson seized the staff and rained several blows at the head of the defenseless Graham as he lay dying. Numb with horror and shock, the onlookers, terrified by the wild appearance of Wilkinson, could only watch as he made his way down the village, his knife in one hand, the officer’s staff in the other, announcing to the world at large that he had killed one policeman and was now on his way the Eighton Banks, (the home of the County Policeman, PC Dodd's), to kill another.
At least The Rev. Samuel Atkinson, the Vicar of Eighton Banks knew what had to be done, the police would have to be informed, but, as the nearest telegraph system lay at either Birtley or Low Fell, he was in a quandary. Luckily he remembered that there was a telephone in Springwell Village and by this means news of the murder was passed to Gateshead Borough Police and Superintendent Harrison of the County Police at Gateshead.
Mr Atkinson then organised parties of young men and sent them off in different directions in search of Wilkinson who had been last seen heading in the direction of Birtley before going off with that party himself. Arriving there, he gave the information to Birtley Police concerning the murder but learned that a grocer’s boy had already passed the message and that the local Sergeant, Sergeant Hutchinson, was now searching the area on horseback.
The story of John Elliott has yet to be told but suffice to say that the man was a brilliant detective and one hundred years ahead of his contemporaries in his approach to police duties but even he had to sit down and compose himself having viewed the body of this young constable who had been murdered within one hundred and fifty yards of his own home (to which he had been brought), and now lay, stretched out on his bed, a corpse, his distraught wife by his bedside.
Elliott had arrived in a two horsed carriage accompanied by two constables having first circulated the surrounding police areas by telegraph and was soon in pursuit of Wilkinson tracing him through Black Fell towards Washington. Not that Wilkinson was difficult to follow. Calling at three public houses en-route he openly boasted that he had killed one policeman and there were more to follow. The trouble was that Wilkinson was known to make outlandish statements and few were prepared to believe him.
It was whilst Elliott was making enquiries at Washington Police Office that a local publican called to ask whether or not there in fact been a murder as ‘The Flying Butcher’ had been in his house only ten minutes previous claiming to have killed the Wrekenton policeman and had produced a knife and two pistols which appeared to be loaded. Hot now on the trail, Elliott pressed with his enquiries as far as Oxclose where he learned that Wilkinson had been only minutes before but was now on his way to Fencehouses. Deep now into ‘County’ territory, Elliott contented himself that the search was being pursued with diligence and returned to Gateshead via Birtley.
Passing through Cox Green, Wilkinson had followed the foot road running alongside the River Wear until he reached South Hylton where he met a fellow workmate named Spencer and together they adjourned to ‘The Railway Tavern’. Here, after several drinks, Wilkinson became involved in an argument with the landlord. He must have really upset the landlord because when he asked if it would be possible to obtain lodgings in Hylton he was told the only lodgings he was likely to find would be in Cambria Street, (the local police station).
It was shortly after this argument that PC Lambert of Cox Green in company with two officers from Birtley knocked at the door of the landlord’s quarters and asked if any strangers were in the bar to be given the description of a man by the landlord who he felt sure was Wilkinson.
With all possible exits covered, PC Lambert then tapped Wilkinson on the shoulder and asked him to accompany him to the police station ‘on suspicion of murdering PC Graham at Wrekenton’ to which he replied, ‘If that’s it I’ll go but stop till I drink my beer’.
To give the officers their due, they were gentlemanly enough to give him time to finish his drink but he made no attempt to do so, he was arrested and taken to the police station where he denied any connection with the murder. It was then about 8pm.
It was Sergeant John Johnston who discovered the actual murder weapon concealed down Wilkinson’s trouser leg. The prisoner appearing restless, and knowing his character, the Sergeant asked him if he had been searched to which Wilkinson replied that he had handed over all his property. Directing PC Lambert to stand behind him, Sergeant Johnston bent over to lift Wilkinson’s trouser leg and found the knife strapped there between his garters. Handing the weapon to PC Lambert the Sergeant stood up just in time to avoid a vicious attack be Wilkinson.
Wilkinson’s trial for murder was held at Durham Assizes before Mr. Justice Denman on 26th, February, 1889, and lasted for three hours, but the jury, without retiring, took three minutes to find him guilty.
If Wilkinson had been uncivil to the magistrates he was even more so to his lordship. Donning on the black cap, the judge began pointing out the certainty of the prisoner’s guilt, the gallows which awaited him, and his need to repent, only to be interrupted by Wilkinson calling out ferociously, ‘Oh let’s have it! It’s no use bothering……’
Unable to punish him further, ‘His Lordship at once passed sentence in the usual form,’ but Wilkinson was to escape the gallows being later reprieved on the grounds of insanity.
The funeral of PC Graham who was a native of Greenhead, took place on the morning of Tuesday, 29th, January, 1889, with full civic honours, all available officers from the borough force attending. Headed by Inspectors Harris, (a future Chief Constable), and Mills, they were marched four abreast to Springfield Terrace where they lined the road and formed an avenue leading from the hearse to the house.
Just before 11am the coffin was handed through the window by three constables to four of their fellow officers who place it in the glass sided hearse with its black, plumed horses, and by the time the wreaths and other floral tributes had been added, it was difficult to see anything but a mound of flowers, so great was the esteem held for this officer.
The crowds which thronged the streets (where the window blinds had been drawn as a mark of respect), maintained an orderly and sympathetic silence as the procession moved off headed by ‘Mr J Aymer’s Royal Exhibition Band’ playing The Dead March followed by the hearse, two mourning coaches, the police contingent, eighteen other carriages containing civic representatives, seven private coaches and then the pedestrian mourners. In all, the procession was over three hundred yards in length leaving Wrekenton but grew even more as it progressed down Sheriff Hill and along Durham Road to West Street.
By now the streets had filled with so many people that it was difficult for the coaches to get by but having reaches the High Level Bridge, the public part of the procession was dispersed leaving the mourning coaches to make their way to The Central Station where the occupants transferred to a train, special carriages and a luggage van having been retained for them and the coffin.
It was the wish of Mrs Graham that her husband should be interred in his native village and today there stands in the churchyard a stone erected to his memory erected by the subscriptions of the police forces of England, Scotland, Wales and even Australia, stating he ‘was cruelly murdered in the faithful execution of his duty.’
The public too were to subscribe to two funds organised for the relief of both families by the Rev Atkinson, Graham having left a widow and four children whilst Wilkinson’s six young children were also left without a provider other than their mother who was described as a ‘hard working and industrious woman.’
Addressing the inaugural meeting of the Relief Fund, and in reply to a previous speaker, The Mayor pointed out that by Act of Parliament the Borough was unable to grant a pension unless the officer had been in the force for 25 years but he believed there would be sufficient sympathy, ‘not only in the locality, but in the country to provide for his wife and family.’
Alice Graham never remarried and remained in the Haltwhistle district until the early thirties living on her police pension which had then been granted but for a while she had lived in Holmfirth, West Yorkshire, where she died in 1935 but she had not been forgotten by her friends in the Gateshead Force.
Although her direct connection with the force was now broken, she continued to receive visits from a sergeant and his wife who were particularly memorable for the sergeant’s taste in sandwiches, nasturtium leaves being his favourite.
At the time of his death John Graham, (known to his friends as Jack), had four children, Frederick aged seven, Elizabeth aged five, Blanche aged three and Thomas aged one.
Frederick was to serve in the Royal Navy in World War I and later wrote political articles under the pen name of C.Larion, eventually moving to the south of England.
Elizabeth married a Northumberland man and her grandchildren are still living in the Northumberland area.
Blanche was to die in Haltwhistle at the age of nine in 1895.
Baby Thomas was brought up by childless relations living in Whitley Bay but emigrated to Canada before World War I joining the Canadian Army and later working on the Canadian Pacific Railway. He died in Vancouver in 1966.
Genealogy is quite a popular hobby today and it was a query from one of Jack’s modern relatives which brought to life once more his murder committed over one hundred years ago.The press of the day clearly states that Jack Graham had four children, but Alice, his wife, had five, another daughter named Ann who claimed her birthday to be 1894! No record of Ann’s birth or christening has yet been traced but in tales to her own grandchildren she was adamant that her father had been a policeman, and that his name was Jack, and that he had died before she was born.
Was Alice pregnant then at the time of her husband’s death and had Ann made a mistake in calculating her date of birth?