Shocking Disclosures

A Case in which public indignation has been aroused, and which was described as about the worst and most disgraceful that had ever been before the Barnardcastle magistrates, was on Wednesday investigated at the Courthouse in that town, where John STIRK, of Cockfield, a man forty or fifty years of age, was brought up in custody and charged “for that, on the 27th May, at Cockfield, then being the parent of James STIRK, aged eight years, and John STIRK, aged six years, and such children then being in his custody, unlawfully and wilfully did neglect to provide adequate food, medical aid, lodging, and clothing for such children, he (John STIRK) then having
adequate means and ability so to provide such food, medical aid, and lodging, whereby the health of the children was, or was likely to be, seriously injured.” Mr Bainbridge, clerk to the Teesdale Union Board of guardians, prosecuted on behalf of that body, and the prisoner pleased guilty.

Mr Bainbridge stated that the prisoner was written to by the guardians on March last, and warned that if he
persisted in cruelty and neglect to the children he would be prosecuted and sent to gaol. The prisoner, however, seemed to have disregarded the warning, and the matter was brought before the guardians two or three weeks ago, and Dr. Oliver, medical officer for the Staindrop division of the union, was directed to visit prisoner’s house and report to the guardians, and that report was laid before the board last week.

Dr. Oliver, called into the witness box, then proceeded with the narration of evidence which frequently elicited hisses, and created considerable sensation on court. He visited the house on the 25th May, and found it perfectly destitute and empty, the children being lodged in the coalhouse. They were more or less covered with ulcerating sores, and did not seem to have been washed for weeks. Their persons were discoloured and covered with weals,
and when questioned they stated that their father had flogged them. The marks were seen all down the children’s backs. Asked if they had anything to eat, the children pointed him to a ham bone, which appeared to have been boiled a fortnight ago. There was a mattress in the house, but not a vestige of covering. The children’s lives were imperilled by starvation, and the case altogether he regarded as one of the most disgraceful he had ever had to do with. Witness’s assistant visited the house in March last, and from what that gentleman saw, this destitution and cruelty must have been going on for a long time. The Justices (Mr Headlam and Captain Horne) expressed regret
that steps had not been taken sooner.

Mr Bainbridge explained that the case had been before the Staindrop Guardians, and it was in consequence of what was then ascertained that representations were made to the prisoner. – Superintendent Thompson mentioned that the police had also taken cognisance of the case.

Prisoner’s defence was that he could get no one to come to the house. He denied that the marks on the children were the results of flogging, and imputed thore discolourations to a rash. He dig flog the elder boy (John Henry Wade) severely. – It was stated to the court that the children were now in the Workhouse.

Prisoner, hearing this, eagerly said he was willing to pay for their maintenance there what he could afford. – Mr Headlam : But nothing can excuse your neglect. – The bench told the prisoner he was fortunate the little things were now alive, and that he was not now charged with a more serious crime.

The prisoner was then further charged for “that he was unlawfully did assault and beat a certain male child not exceeding the age of fourteen years – to wit, of the age of ten years – named John Henry Wade.”

This little fellow, when put before the bench to give evidence, seemed terrified, perplexed, and almost unable to give information. Superintendent Thompson, however, elicited the story, which was that on 25th May he was late with Stirk’s dinner, for the reason that there was no bread in the house. Arrived at the pit, the prisoner seized him, got a rope, knotted it three times, doubled the cord, and belaboured the child without mercy. The boy managed to get away. but prisoner seized him by the foot, and renewed his violence to the child, who subsequently went to his sister’s, who examined his body, and afterwards took him to the police.

Mrs. Richardson (Wade’s half-sister and prisoner’s daughter) gave evidence as to the black marks she found on
the lad, but said the skin was not broken. – Prisoner, when questioned, said he had nothing to say, but immediately afterwards he said that in correcting Wade he was ” ower rough when he did start.” He then commenced to whine, and affected to be deeply moved by his own pitiable condition and that of his family, and said that though he had been rough himself he should not like any one else to ill-use the children. – The Chairman, in passing sentence, said
this was a most melancholy case, and it was dreadful that these unfortunate children should have fallen into such hands. There could be nothing worse than the accounts the bench head heard. The prisoner was liable to imprisonment for six months on each charge, but the bench did not wish to inflict the fullest penalty, though in some respects the bench felt it would be their duty. The prisoner would be sentenced to four months’ imprisonment on the first charge, and two months on the second.

The prisoner affected to be deeply distressed, and was then removed.

Durham County Advertiser 11th June 1880 (5th Column)