Alice in Sunderland

A short story 

I have known Alice Shields forever. We are tangentially connected, both having lived in the same street albeit at different times, Alice being one of Eden Street’s more exotic residents.

Eden Street no longer exists, but when it did you could find it in Sunderland’s East End. Like most East End’s in big towns it’s contrasts were violent, which is to say it had an infection in it that could induce either lethargy or madness.

I have created a legend in my mind and consequently believe it to be true, that Eden Street at one time had been the scene of a dark mystery which put the street on some celebrity status at one time.

The mystery began on 14th January 1949 – before I was born – concerning a certain Alice Burslem who was a thirty-three year old dancer and entertainer who adopted the stage name Molly Moselle. To avoid confusion, I will call her what most people called her: Alice.

Alice was appearing at the Sunderland’s Empire Theatre in an Ivor Novello show called The Dancing Years and was infatuated with a performer in the show. What his feelings for her was is not recorded.

To most of Eden Street’s residents it’s dullness was soothing, a place that grows on you every day, but to Alice it’s atmosphere shed a gentle melancholy upon her soul like the darkness that comes with the night.

There was always plenty to do to keep her busy when not working at the theatre: endless housework chores like dusting, polishing, ironing, or (in her mind) running down Eden Street full pelt screaming all the way.

She gave the impression of one trapped inside a cloud, forever in a state of tranquil and lethargic sedateness which effects were similar to that brought on by valium. This mundane existence suited the majority of Eden’s residents although not Alice, who periodically found herself under some pressing obligation to be anywhere else but where she actually was.

To ease the effects, Alice took to going for long walks. First, about town and not always with an appointed destination in mind but using ideas for maps. Sometimes she would end up at her mother’s house. At other times, and often at night, it would be the turn of some other not so close relative, bemused as to what the meaning of a visit at such an unsocial hour could be. In all cases however, it was always within the narrow compass of the town boundary.

Later though, she began to expand her horizons. What started as almost a recreational pursuit, soon hardened into something of a walking phenomenon until finally, she became a fully-fledged traveller and walked clear out of town and didn’t come back.

It was as if Alice and Molly were two difference people. While her fellow performers at the Empire theatre described the women they knew as Molly as a “happy woman with a strong personality”. Away from the theatre her Alice persona was just the opposite, her unhappiness manifest on her brow.

As the rumours about her and what might have happened started to arouse suspicion, the Sunderland C.I.D. thought perhaps that she had lost her memory and was safe, somewhere in England.

The police followed other suggestions such as suicide, or perhaps she had fallen into the river and drowned. Popular opinion had it that she had run off with a “fancy man”, one of the cast from the travelling show. The “fancy man” however, that Alice had her eye on was still around and could not assist the police in their enquiries. They found nothing

When the disappearance of Alice hit the headlines, Sunderland police had no shortage of offers of help to find her. They searched the town looking for her but nothing was to come of any of the alleged sightings.

But on the afternoon of Wednesday 12th October 1950, the police motor launch made a grisly find in the River Wear. A note from the inquest said the body was that of Alice.

On Monday 17th October 1950 her mortal remains were laid to rest in Bishopwearmouth cemetery. This concise summary of the facts is all I have been able to learn. Such is the contagion of popular opinion hereabouts that Alice was murdered and so many hooded figures of the female gender had on occasion been seen in these environs, that there either there must have been a veritable convent of hooded women or some other explanation must be sort.

And so it was with no knowledge of the above episode or the mysterious hooded woman, that my family, and I with them, moved to the former home of Alice Burslem at 12 Eden Street in Hendon in the middle of October 1955 from Pallion, as the Register of Electors, Polling District N of that year, will testify. I was 5 years old.

I cannot reconcile the ghostly fancies of a few impressionable people in our own enlightened times, but one night in my bedroom I had a night fancy of my own. I saw a strange woman where no strange women should be. I remember her face, her hair, and her bare feet and clothes which were wet, yet she left no imprint on the bare floorboards. There were no words spoken, only an awkward trembling that I knew should not be noticed.

Another detail which almost escaped my notice, had it not so contrasted so sharply with the pale pallor of her skin, was the crudely bandaged wrists, which effect was similar to that which Duncan awoke in Lady Macbeth when she marvelled at his having so much blood in him. I reached under my pillow and brought out a silver half-crown, the sum of all my worldly goods, and offered it to the dread lady.

This is the most ghostly time of night when even the shadows shrink from themselves; a very dead time of the night. There is too, a tranquil quality about this hour, as familiar objects begin to emerge from the slowly changing shadows of night and the raving from the lower floor has ceased. But apart from that, there is too, an awful feeling of stillness and solitude.

Sometimes late at night, voices droned up to the loft where I slept from the room below. At that age, night time can seem like the deadliest time. In the darkness, when these conferences of the night were going on, it seemed that either people were totally unconscious or wildly raving. I was prone to night-mares and drifted somewhere in between waking and sleeping. My breath would come in short and shallow gasps as I lay quite still listening with a hushed and solemn fear.

Quite possibly I was imagining it all. Sometimes when we are in that disturbed state of mind between sleep and wakefulness and troubled by night terrors, do we not have something in common with the insane in that we jumble events and personages, times and places like a mad person? And do we not try vexedly to account for them or excuse them just as the insane do in their waking delusions?

There was an strange inconsistency in that time of quiet. The silence grew in that gloomy darkness into something very oppressive. As to my exact age, I cannot tell except that I seem to remember that I slept in a cot at this time and the bars of the cot increased my sense of isolation.

The more silent it became the more I imagined that I could hear noises. To overcome this I made my own noise, rocking myself rhythmically to and fro while the cot advanced across the floor by degrees until it hit the wall with a gentle bump and went on bumping to the rhythm of my heart beat.

A slight movement appeared in the chest of drawers but no remark issued from it. In the gloom, I lay looking at it unable to move, every faculty that I possessed gathered up and lost in that one seeing faculty. Let it be remembered that solid furniture is not easy to move and that it has this advantage in consequence, that there is no fear of upsetting it.

I shared the same bedroom with my 2 brothers at opposite ends of a cavernous loft. There was just a suggestion of some hint of something monstrous hiding underneath the bed.

There was another smaller room, mostly filled with the paraphernalia of war: gas masks, rusty old junk, and live rifle rounds. Both rooms were within sight of the other, with an intervening dark tract of passageway. At the top of this, was the great void of a dark stairwell hiding like a murderous trap for the unwary which curved it’s way down to the gloomy lower landing.

Then came a composite sound, partly of the purring of an immense cat, and partly as if someone was taking a rasping file to a piece of wood which echoed at regular intervals around the room. It was the sound of my brother snoring.

The furniture too seemed alive. Turning away was no help, for what was in daylight a harmless chest of draws, in the night turned into a stealthy vicious thing which aspect was horribly out of temper. Together we out-watched the long night until presently, I fell fast asleep until the rising sun slanted in through the curtains in the broad daylight.

Some memories are like your teeth which never stop tormenting you from the day you cut them. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as I remember it. Maybe it was worse. Such are the impressions that such things stamp themselves on a childish heart. I did not fully understand what was going on at this time. There was only a strange sense of the frustrated energy of dam about to burst free and when it did, all would be swept away before it.

Many things acquire bad names undeservedly and every house has noises. But if you are the kind of person who wanted to believe in things that go bump in the night without any body having bumped them. And if you had a liking for hearing footsteps on stairs, where no feet were treading. And as you are lying in bed in the half-light, if you saw faces in the wallpaper which had striking resemblances to human looks, why 12 Eden Street, Hendon, would be the house for you.

At this late stage, I am more inclined to be more unsure than ever of the frontier between real events of the one that I have created in my head. The bare facts we realise, do not tell the whole story. We need the assistance of fiction to do justice to the truth. Not in every case can cause and effect be satisfactorily joined together by any theory of mine. There are mysteries in life, and the conditions of it, which human science has not fathomed yet.

Dreams have obsolescence built in. Our dreams, hopes, and aspirations are still preserved there in the past, like coins thrown hopefully down a deep dark wishing well waiting for us to retrieve them. Mostly we will grow out of them. Those wishes sometimes prove themselves to have been miserably imperfect and are likened in later years to the petrified votive offerings of stone teddy bears, hats and old socks at Mother Shiptons Cave in Knarsborough. Sometimes they come back to haunt us.

The mortal remains of Alice lie not 5 yards from a favourite bench in Sunderland’s Minster’s churchyard, overlooking what used to be St. Mary’s school. My school. Once the pole and axis of the old town, it is a good place to sit and reflect. That the inscription on the gravestone can be easily read is down to skill of the mason and more particularly, because of its situation in the lea of the Minster, formerly known as Bishopwearmouth Parish Church.

Alice’s simple stone monument is unremarkable amid all the others save that it tilts drunkenly at a precarious angle, as if trying to the attract attention of passers bye and threatens to topple over at any moment, oppressed both by force of gravity, the weight of ages, and perhaps too by that sadness that was her burden in life.

It reads simply:

                                                               In memory of






The Two Great Stimulants


Come morning, any morning, when you feel like your brain belongs to a sleep-over guest at a drunken house-party; still partly in-thrall to the carnival madness of Dream Land gradually waking up to the promise that a new day holds: to rise, shine, and be reborn; it inaugurates the first of two daily sacraments.

In the radiant glow of morning benediction and you stare into the bathroom mirror, as the sun slowly inches its way up, the new day is best enjoyed with the communion wine of the irreligious. Coffee: close buddy and steadfast friend of both hemispheres of the brain.

As the divine exudative stimulant, drains warmly into the stomach, you greet the dawn as eagerly as a puppy pounces on a shoelace, ready for whatever the day has in store. Outside, the tragedies continue. But inside, all is calm. All is bright. Thus enlivened, the mind sparkles as ideas arrive at full gallop, providing the day’s first opportunity for transgression.

In the bath or shower, we yield to a brief moment of escapism; the mind temporarily waiting at a junction with its indicators on, while the natural gravity of the mind, which dual nature and silent power struggle of good and evil, can be simultaneously at both ends of the human spectrum (bestial and spiritual) deciding which way to go. As when you contemplate the sublime, suddenly and inanely, you belt out a song, and for a brief moment, establish a connection with the annihilated lost child.

That part of your brain that dares you to do something stupid to get it out of your system thus tamed, you are the Philosopher King of the morning rush-hour; the Zen Master of the office or factory floor,

In the evening, the second holy sacrament of absolution comes with the setting sun, where wine absolves and satisfies, bringing forth your inner lunatic and clown, enjoying the intoxication of the jolly sailor, without leaving the comfort of you own home for the rolling main.

And before I can think twice about it, I press Send.

Ripon Workhouse

“Hush-a-bye baby, on a tree top;
When you grow old, your wages will stop.
When you have spent the little you made;
First to the poorhouse and then to the grave.”

The rhyme is a précis of the fate of many who entered the Gatehouse arch of the Ripon Union Workhouse, which has stood on the site since 1776.

Inside, is almost a self-sufficient world of its own, with garden, laundry, chaplain, doctor, teacher, infirmary, cookhouse, and “Death House” which contained the coffins that for many, was their only way out of a life of degrading and grinding poverty.

It was interesting to note, that it was not only labourers who entered its gates. There were numbered among its inmates, a former master wheelwright, a former gentleman servant, farmers, a master shoe-maker, and many more who had either migrated en masse from rural areas or from Ireland to escape the Irish Potato Famine to the towns, or simply found themselves in old age, or having been widowed, in a similar predicament to abandoned children, vagrants, tramps, prostitutes, and sundry undesirables that society would see out of sight.

The museum is the former Male Vagrants building with a Receiving Ward with 14 cells where the unfortunate down and outs were locked in for the night.

Vagrants were many, and were housed in a separate block of buildings where they were given temporary lodgings for the night and a meal in return for the completion of a designated task. It had nothing in common with the youth hostels of today.

Vagrants were kept on the move – hence tramps – and the Unions collaborated to fix routes along which they traveled, which helped keep track of them for sanitary reasons.

They were given tokens, which they exchanged for food at bread stations along the vagrant routes. Sometimes, these stopping-off places were police stations, but more often they were shops, trusted by the authorities to exchange tokens for bread and not alcohol. The shops recovered their money by returning the tokens to the workhouse.

The workhouse kept a restraining chair in a room to control those who became violent or deranged, and its own van to transport lunatics to asylums elsewhere if they were deemed out of control and a threat to public order.

The workhouse system was the answer to the classic doctrine subscribed to by the social reformer and political moralist Jeremy Bentham: that people would do what was pleasant, and would tend to claim relief rather than working.

This, together with Bentham’s principal that the success of any idea could be measured by whether it secured the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, was what underpinned the drive to discourage people to claim relief, by making the workhouses act as a deterrent by making them as unpleasant as possible.

There are some who feel that Bentham’s doctrine of utilitarianism is alive and well today. It was Bentham’s theory that reformed the country’s poverty and relief system to become The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, with its infamous provision of “less eligibility” – that the situation of able-bodied paupers (read those in receipt of benefits) was to be inferior to that of the poorest worker.

The new Poor Law created controversy then as does the austerity measures does today. The greatest hostility was in the north of England, who said: “We will not live on water and gruel . . . and we will not endure the idea of men rolling in luxury, prescribing to us the most extreme line which can keep body and soul together.”

The importance of the Poor Law declined with the advent of the Welfare State in the 20th century, and the installation of the National Assistance Board acted as a relief agency.

We can see in the implementation of austerity measures, similar solutions applied to the same problem. The benefit system of these modern times is seen as self-defeating, removing the pressure of want from the poorest in society while leaving them free to live a life of leisure and increase their families with help from the State, thus leading to an unsustainable drain on resources and undermining the living standards of those in work.

Ripon holds a special significance for me, but this my first visit to the Workhouse. It is altogether, a harsh insight into the reality into what real poverty was like and what it meant to be poor in Victorian England.