A small red cross which has just been repainted on the wall facing the cricket ground on Blaydon Bank has given vent to some startling theories among the younger generation and even some of the newcomers to the area. The origin of the cross, which also had a date-stone inscribed 1860 beside it, makes a fascinating story, which was linked with the unsolved murder of Dr. Stirling at Rowlands Gill five years before.
On the evening of Monday, 5th November 1860, a slater living at Cuthbert Street, Blaydon, by the name of John Batey, a man of 38 years of age, married with three children, left home to attend a shooting match at the New Inn, Blaydon Burn.* He was dressed in a suit of clothes almost new, and during the match was seen with a large amount of money. It was believed that he had some two or three pounds in gold in his hand. Leaving Blaydon Burn, Batey, with other members of the company including Henry Hurst, a blacksmith, proceeded to Winlaton. He spent the night drinking at Mrs. Jane Parker's (Crown and Cannon) with William Winship, Douglas Swan and Richard Bagnall. They left there at 12-15 a.m., after Mrs. Parker had refused to serve them with a gallon of ale, as the company was becoming very rowdy. Batey was seen leaving the Crown and Cannon by Zachariah Scott, who combined his duties of lamplighter with that of a shoemaker. In his testimony at the inquest he said, "I was standing about forty yards from Jane Parker's door. Eight or ten came out, two men came up to me and asked what I was doing and I said 'Putting out the lamps'. I put the lamps out and went on to put the Oldwell Lamp out. I never saw them any more. They went in the direction of Clogger Parker's". ‡
Two young men, William Wardle, a chainmaker, and William Whitfield, were returning home from a dance at Scotswood, and were coming up Blaydon Bank, when, at the spot where the cross is now, they saw what they supposed was a drunken man lying under the hedge on the opposite side of the road to that used by pedestrians as a footpath. Whitfield pointed out the body, which they could easily see by means of the moonlight reflecting on its underclothes. He was lying on his face. They shouted "Hello" to him, and then went away. The reason they left him was that Whitfield had got into a scrape from meddling with a drunken man some before this. Later on at 4 a.m., George Nixon, a blacksmith, going to work, found the body, and ascertaining that he was dead, returned to the village and informed P.C. James Kelly who had the body removed to the Commercial Hotel where the inquest was held.
The police were soon on the case, and they arrested a keelman named Edward Armstrong for an assault on the police; the assault having been committed by him when in company with the stranger who had accompanied the unfortunate Batey from the Public House on the night of the murder. The stranger it seemed, went by the name of Thomas (Lankie) Smith. For some time the police had held a warrant against Armstrong for poaching upon the ground belonging to Joseph Cowen of Blaydon Burn House. On the same night as Batey was murdered they attempted to take him while drinking at Blaydon. With the assistance of Smith, Armstrong resisted, and injured the sergeant of police very seriously by using a heavy life-preserver. Armstrong had been
skulking about Blaydon Burn and Winlaton all day on the Tuesday and when arrested that night the police were fairly certain that he knew where Smith was. Armstrong eventually made a statement that on the morning following the murder, Smith was at the house of Thomas Bilclough in Winlaton. When Armstrong called there, Smith consulted him as to the best means of avoiding arrest and Armstrong remarked on Smith's wearing a fresh suit of clothes. They went for a walk through the Windy Fields, and Smith told him everything that had occurred, stating that he had knocked Batey down with a Morgan Rattler (club) with the intention of robbing him, and had no idea he had left him for dead until he had heard of it afterwards. He had changed clothes with Batey, hiding his own clothes not far from the body in a hedge, where they were later recovered by the police. When they reached the Knobbies, Smith hid the club, which was also recovered later by the police acting on Armstrong's information. Armstrong, fearing to be seen with his companion after the confession, gave him a shilling and last saw him heading south with his dog. Smith had lodged with Ellen Atkinson of Blaydon, but he never returned there after the fatal deed.
It was remarked at the time that Smith was one of the men, under an assumed name, who had left the district without receiving his wages at the time of Dr. Stirling's murder. Smith was a notorious poacher and Dr. Stirling was shot and dragged into a wood frequented by sportsmen of that order.
A week after the murder, Smith was arrested whilst working in an iron mine at Whitby. He was recognised by a fellow workman from a newspaper description of Batey's clothes which he was still wearing.
Smith was very contrite after his arrest, and he expressed great sorrow at the deed. He seemed to have no relations, as the only people who came to see him in the death cell were the people with whom he had lodged. The lawyer who defended Smith played upon the point that Batey maybe had attacked Smith first as Batey was a hefty well-made man. Nevertheless Smith was sentenced to death, and, notwithstanding a recommendation for mercy, was executed on December 28th, 1860, in public, at Durham Jail.
* 1. The New Inn stood at the foot of Sandy Banks on the left hand side going towards Greenside. It was the meeting plate for many shooting matches and all the crackshots of the district shot here at one time.
‡ 2. William (Clogger) Parker kept the Black Boy Public house in Winlaton. It stood at the east end of Front Street on the site of the telephone box, exactly opposite the Congregational Chapel.