So, what is your connection to the once turbulent Tyneside town of Jarrow? Perhaps the roots of your family tree, like mine, are bound to the streets once lined by rows of terraced houses with multiple occupancies? Are your ancestors buried in the walled cemeteries close to the River Don or were their names permanently cast in newspaper print because they brawled, murdered, pilfered, or drank? Were they victims of Victorian violence or avid readers of the Jarrow Express? What is your relationship to Jarrow’s past and what do you know about the people who once walked its cobblestoned and wildly chaotic streets? 

My own connections to Jarrow had begun in 1847 when John Windham and Dorothy Chipchase crossed paths and remained acquainted until they created scandal laden waves with two illegitimate children. By 1853, they chose to marry in Tynemouth, possibly to shun gossip and embrace members of the bride’s North Tyneside family. John and Dorothy, originally from Alnwick, Northumberland, and Stockton-on-Tees, County Durham, returned to Jarrow where John swapped a labourer’s position for the title of a police constable in the service of the North Eastern Railway. Tediousness banished from his working life, he battled drunken rail passengers while he and Dorothy raised their eleven children. By the mid-1870s, further ancestors of mine arrived in Jarrow – the Scots-born Glennies who worked at Springwell Paper Mill, followed by the Robsons who moved from Hexham, Northumberland, and sold coal and worked as butchers, coachmen, and dressmakers.

Victorian Durham Constabulary belt fastener. (Courtesy of Malcolm Smith)

The history of Jarrow may have commenced with the religious spectacle of a monastery, Viking invasions, and a devastating mining disaster, but those Tyneside Victorians, with their shipbuilding skills and innovativeness, unintentionally founded the wild west of the North East. A thriving business trade failed to outshine the sweeping reports of daring criminality or tales of the Durham Constabulary police officers gallantly wandering the night on foot in pursuit of danger. Jarrow inhabitants such as William Craggs, Billy Hoy, Robert Upton, and Mary Ann Bentham swiped the spotlight with the support of the Jarrow Express staff who merrily tallied visitors of the local police court. The resident reporters and their editor were the gatekeepers of the town’s gossip, and frequently shared harrowing stories of trauma with their readership who were enthralled by news of brutality and delinquency. 

Riots, scuffles, and drunkenness among houses of ill repute, neighbourhood brawls and the stoning of police officers were weekly occurrences in Victorian Jarrow. Dismayed by the frequency of crime, the magistrates in their stone-built courtroom beside the police station on High Street were determined to condemn petty criminals to community reprimands, extensive fines, or hard labour. They battled to reclaim the streets from those they branded troublemakers, and with the aid of tabloid ink, created and preserved a vivid record of Jarrow’s descent into tempers frayed and weapons drawn. 

St Paul’s Church, Jarrow, from a glass slide. (Source: Natasha Windham)

My grandparents left South Tyneside in 1980. Only my great-aunt, a tranquil woman called Jenny, remained in the town of our ancestors. She was thoughtful, forever kind, and insisted on gifting me bundles of Jelly Babies every time I visited her home along Greenlands in Hedworth. Born in Jarrow in 1915, she was eventually christened as “Jane” because the priest in the hallowed grounds of St Paul’s Church and Monastery had offended my great-grandparents by declaring, ‘Jenny is not a real name! Go home and think of something else to Christen your daughter as.’ Jenny, much like my grandad, was fond of discussing timeworn drowning deaths in the North Sea, and it is a testament to the way tragedy etched on the minds of those who carefully pored over the newspapers of the day. 

When I untangled, explored, cultivated, and fortified my family tree, it drew me closer to the Jarrow of the past. As I laid flowers at the foot of John and Dorothy’s unmarked grave or read articles from the faded pages of the defunct Jarrow Express to my dying grandad, I realised history didn’t belong to the stone buildings that were consigned to rubble – it lingers in the British Newspaper Archive, rests in census records, remains housed in archives across the country, and journeys through the generations as family folklore.

History is volatile and unforgiving, it’s riotous and challenging, and the Tyneside town was scandalised by its unruly reputation. In Dark Crimes of Jarrow, William Craggs, Billy Hoy, Robert Upton, and Mary Ann Bentham’s stories are entombed in spirited text while criminality is balanced by crimefighters such as Inspector Padden and Sergeant Merrells. Every page is a gathering of the past and chronicles lives lived during periods of instability or spates of deadly violence. Their stories are painful and poignant, and ultimately, Dark Crimes of Jarrow seeks to paint the history of the tumultuous town one page at a time.

Natasha Windham's book Dark Crimes of Jarrow is available for purchase now.