Updated: Dec 14, 2020
One Saturday evening in March 1867. Margaret and her daughter, Ann, were walking near the mushroom gangway in the Ouseburn area of Newcastle, gathering sticks for the fire. Out of the darkness, the killer struck. Ann convulsed and fell to the ground. Margaret bent down to help. Her daughter didn’t seem to have any visible injuries, but she was limp. Unconscious. Margaret gathered up her child and carried her home. Dr Mordue was sent for. But, he could do nothing to help. Ann lay unconscious for two days. Then, in the early hours of Tuesday morning, she died. Ann was 12.
Margaret gave evidence at the inquest. She told them she knew the culprit. Some of her other daughters had fallen foul of this killer…
It’s 1851, Ouseburn, Newcastle upon Tyne. Buildings rise tall all around us. Some are industrial works that throb and hum with activity. Others are tenements, damp and dilapidated, where the working families of Ouseburn live and play. Streets are narrow and rutted. Everyone is busy.
All around us are the sounds and smells of 19th century industry: the rancid tang of the tannery; acrid smoke from the lime kilns that stings your eyes and burns your throat; waste from countless industries; lead, pottery, bone factories and manure. And most of all, the smell of poverty.
The noise too; the hammering and clanking of machinery from industries like the foundry and engineering works, the carts rattling back and forth, and the clatter of cargoes being loaded onto wherries on the nearby Tyne.
The house we’re standing outside is 46, Wood Entry. It’s the home of Margaret and Thomas Varley, living with them are his widowed mother and six children. Later that decade, two more mouths to feed, Ann and Christiana, would be born.
Thomas was a house painter, a dangerous job because of the close daily contact with the lead paint he used. Over the ensuing decades, painters lobbied for greater wages and protection. But by the time that happened, it didn’t matter. Not to Thomas anyway. He was dead.
For a ten-hour day, 6 days a week, Thomas earned about 18s, less in winter. Margaret and her mother-in-law earned a little as seamstresses. The eldest two children also worked. Elizabeth aged 16 was a domestic servant and John, 13 was an errand boy.
Rents were notably high in Newcastle, despite the substantially poorer housing conditions here. So, about a third of their wages would have gone in rent, and of course, there was the cost of fuel too. What was left was spent on food. The family would have had about 12 shillings to feed themselves each week. Much of it was spent on bread; a loaf of bread cost 3d [old pennies], so was a cheap way to feed many mouths. But, their diet would probably have included broth, porridge, cheese and potatoes. Families like the Varleys could afford meat perhaps, once a week. This would have been saved for Sunday lunch, and most of it given to the men of the family.
Life was far from easy. During the late 1850s, Margaret and her son, John, embarked on various criminal enterprises to supplement their income. Their plan unravelled when they were found to be the ringleaders of a major burglary. At Easter 1859, John was sentenced to 18 months and Margaret to three years penal servitude.
But that was just the beginning of their troubles. Early in 1860 while both were still in prison, Thomas, the family’s main breadwinner, died aged 50; a death likely accelerated by his contact with lead paint.
This was the final straw. It scattered the family. The youngest children Jane, Ann and Christiana were sent to the workhouse. The others, Isabella aged 20, Margaret, 18 and Thomas, 14 found a home with their married sister Elizabeth and her husband, Michael. They were living with their two children in a couple of rooms in a tenement in Ouseburn. To make matters worse, none of the Varley lodgers had jobs, and Isabella, although unmarried, had two young children of her own, one only 2 weeks old. This meant Michael‘s meagre wage as a labourer had to feed and shelter nine people. They survived. Mostly. But later that year, tragedy struck again when Isabella’s baby died just a few months old.
After her release from prison, Margaret remarried in 1864. Her new husband, Matthew Hume, was a painter like her previous one. By then, Ann and Christiana were working at Ford Pottery in Ouseburn. Ann was a ‘gatherer’ to the man who dipped the pottery into the glaze, so her hands were in constant contact with the red lead and other glazing chemicals.
For a while, life stabilised.
They didn’t realise that a killer had walked into their lives.
This brings us back full circle to 1867. Everyone is gathered in the Royal Sovereign pub on Cut Bank for the inquest into Ann’s death as Margaret testifies that she knew her daughter’s killer. She was certain Ann had been poisoned. Red lead was the culprit. She recognised the signs; some of her other daughters had suffered in the same way. It’s likely that she was referring here to Margaret and Christiana, as Elizabeth and Isabella had been in service. It’s unclear what work her other daughter, Jane, was doing.
Signs of lead poisoning were well-known. Often, the women in the leadworks and potteries developed a distinctive blue line around the gums; a tell-tale sign that lead was in their bodies. Other common symptoms were headaches and anaemia. In more serious cases, like Ann’s, the poison would cause convulsions, severe stomach pains, blindness, and even, paralysis.
Dr Mordue confirmed that death was due to lead poisoning absorbed through Ann’s hands from the red lead she worked with at the pottery. The jury agreed. The coroner noted the number of deaths caused by the same culprit. He urged local firms to provide protection for their workers.
But that didn’t stop this killer.
Not a year later, George Armstrong was walking by Glass House Bridge one January night when he heard a splash and people yelling that someone was overboard. He ran to the Ouseburn and saw a woman floating on the water, her basket bobbing behind her. She drifted about 20 yards thrashing against the current. Then, threw her hands up into the air, cried, ‘Oh,’ and slowly sank. George ran to look for a boat, but he couldn’t to find one. Instead, he returned with some grappling irons. The woman was dragged out of the Ouseburn half an hour later. Dead. A witness said it seemed as if she’d walked into the water accidentally.
The drowned woman was Christiana Varley who had been sent out that night to buy coals at the depot near Glass House Bridge. She never returned. She was 16.
Her step-father told the inquest that Christiana had almost lost the sight in one eye and could only see very poorly with the other. Although the inquest returned a verdict of accidental drowning, it’s very likely that her loss of sight was caused by lead poisoning from her work in the pottery.
Another strike for the Ouseburn serial killer. But not the last.
The story is taken up by Elizabeth Minto. In 1872, she was eighteen and living in lodgings at Catterick Buildings, Byker. Unlike Ann and Christiana, Elizabeth worked in the leadworks.
There were two main leadworks in 19th century Ouseburn. Ismay and Sons, Northumberland Lead Works, which stood at the corner of Lime Street and Stepney Bank, and Ouseburn Lead Works, owned by James and Co. Ltd. which lay further north. It was here that Elizabeth worked.
So did the killer.
Each morning, Elizabeth dressed for work: a handkerchief bound her hair, a sacking overall covered her body and a woollen scarf over her mouth were her only protection. Women like Elizabeth worked with bare hands and often bare feet.
Ahead of her was a ten-hour day in the stacking room. The stack was built up by first a layer of ashes, then a layer of bark, 2-3 ft deep. On top of this, Elizabeth and the other women would set rows of earthenware pots five inches deep containing strong vinegar. Then, on top of the pots, they placed six sheets of thin lead, topped with a covering of wooden boards.
This series of layers was known as a bed. Elizabeth and her fellow workers would stand on rough, staging to erect the beds. Each bed contained about 1,600 pots and four tons of lead.
A series of beds would be built on top of each other. Typically, a stacking room held 7-8 beds.
Once erected, the room was closed and left for 3-4 months. When it was re-opened, the lead sheets had a coating of white lead which Elizabeth and the other women would break off and collect by repeatedly flexing the metal sheets. As they did this, lead dust filled the air getting into eyes, noses and mouths, settling on them like snow. On average, the women handled about 25 tons of lead a day. And all they had to protect them was a woolly scarf.
The killer rubbed its hands in glee.
On Sunday 5th May 1872 Elizabeth was so ill, Dr Newton was called in. He found her lying in a bed with another girl, both in a state of collapse from lead poisoning. The following day, she was still extremely ill. Dr Newton reported her condition to her employer, Mr James Jnr. He asked Mr James whether he’d given permission to call the doctor; he wanted to know if the company would be paying his fees. James made it very clear that he had not, and he would not. As far as he was concerned, the girls were well paid and if they needed a doctor, it was up to them to pay for it. Later that day, Elizabeth died. She had worked at Ouseburn leadworks for just seven months.
At the inquest, Jane Fall, a fellow worker, said she had come forward to give evidence because the company didn’t provide so much as soap and water for them to wash their hands. As the dinner room was unfit for use, meal breaks were often taken where they worked or not at all, So the women would eat their food with hands covered in lead, amongst dust and chemicals. She went on to tell the inquest that the factory used to provide a doctor, but no longer did so, despite the fact other leadworks, like the Gallowgate works provided proper arrangements for their workers.
The jury criticised Ouseburn Lead Works for not providing sufficient protection to prevent workers from being poisoned, and ruled Elizabeth’s death as being caused by lead poisoning.
The serial killer of Ouseburn laughed.
These stories are remarkable only in that they are utterly unremarkable. Pick up any 19th century newspaper and you’ll find more. Work was long, arduous and often dangerous for the working families of Ouseburn. So many must have spent a life exhausted and hungry. These people were the muscle of the Industrial Revolution in Newcastle, yet they reaped few of its rewards.
What strikes me most is how many lives ended before they’d ever begun. Just pause and think about Ann Varley’s life. Her early years were disrupted by her mother’s spells on remand for various thefts. By the age of five, one parent was in prison, the other was dead. Parted from much of her family and sent to the workhouse. Then, off to work in the potteries. Dead by 12.
The dangers of lead were known, but there was reluctance to take action. The struggle to end this killing spree, and the authorities’ attitude towards it, is another story, for another time. Enough to note here that James & Co Ltd felt no responsibility towards their workers, particularly if it was going to affect their profits.
And in the meantime, the workers of Ouseburn provided rich pickings for a serial killer…
This piece of creative non-fiction was written by Dorothy Whittaker. Dorothy began writing creatively several years ago when volunteering with the Peregrini Lindisfarne Landscape Project and wrote a chapter for the book the project produced.
In Dorothy's words.. "Our relationship with the land and how it shapes our identity fascinates me and I explore this through writing. I love our local history and folk tales, so I enjoy turning them into creative non-fiction.
I’m happiest walking among the Cheviot hills and this inspires the poetry I write.
I can be followed on Twitter @amongthehills60. I also run Blyth Creative Writers group in our local library.
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