by Terry Middleton, O.B.E.
Lintz Green Station should have been the perfect spot for a quick robbery. Very isolated, mid-way between Newcastle and Consett on the North Eastern Railway’s Derwent Valley Branch in County Durham. There was not much there – the stationmaster’s house and, about 400 yards away behind the down platform, four railway houses occupied by platelayers. The station itself had two platforms, a mere shelter on the down side, small but more substantial buildings on the up. It was situated three miles from Burnopfield, two miles from Rowlands Gill and a mile from the tiny hamlet of Lintzford. The insignificant station was surrounded by trees and shrubs and was well-hidden from sight and sound.
The stationmaster, Joseph Wilson, was a man of regular habits. Aged 60, quiet and respectable, he was a life long Methodist, a man in the words of the Preacher at his funeral “who wore the white flower of a blameless life.”
Why he met his death on the night of Saturday 7th October 1911 remains a mystery to this day, as does the identity of his assailant. Theories abounded, but no satisfactory explanation was ever forthcoming despite one of the most intensive murder investigations ever carried out in the North East of England.
The night in question was very dark moonless and cloudy. Three men waited at the station for the last train from Newcastle. Joseph Wilson, the stationmaster, Fred White, booking clerk and the porter, John Routledge. There were no passengers, but that was not unusual. Routledge had finished his duty and was waiting for the train to take him home. White had extinguished the lights on the up platform leaving a solitary lamp burning in the booking office across the tracks.
The down platform was lit and the train was late. That sometimes happened on a Saturday night, one of the busiest in the NER’s schedules, running extra trains taking late-night revellers home from the pubs in Newcastle to the surrounding mining districts.
When the train eventually arrived at 10.42 pm four passengers alighted. Samuel Elliott, Robert Wailes, Thomas Middleton and Charles Swinburne. Swinburne waited on the platform for Fred White to finish his duties before accompanying him down the narrow lane to Lintzford. Elliott, Wailes and Middleton made their way to the east end of the platform, crossed the line and took a footpath to their homes at Low Friarside, a mile away
Wilson handed the driver the token for the single track section just to the west of the station, crossed the line under the bridge and entered the booking office. White extinguished the lamps on the down platform, crossed the tracks and joined the stationmaster in the booking office. Wilson wished White “good night”, left the office by the back door and made his way the 50 yards to his house. White was in the process of locking the booking office when he heard a loud shot. Accompanied by his friend Swinburne he ran out of the office, towards the direction of the shot. Because of the pitch black night, they could barely see to run, but they hurried towards the house, where they saw a light burning in the stairhead window. Bertha Wilson, the stationmaster’s daughter, emerged from the gloom shouting “Fred, they have shot at my father.” White and Swinburne were by this time petrified by fear, but help was at hand. Middleton, Wailes and Elliott had stopped a little distance down the path to Low Friarside to obey a call of nature. They, too, had heard the shot and had quickly returned to the station.
Middleton stumbled across the body of Joseph Wilson just inside the gate leading from the rear of the station to the house. He and Elliott carried the still breathing body into the house and laid him on a sofa. Middleton was well experienced at handling bodies; as well as being traffic manager at Low Friarside Colliery, he was a trained and skilled ambulanceman. He knew what to do in an emergency. but all his years of experience had not prepared him for the sight of sheer horror that he encountered in the light of the Kitchen that night. The body was covered in blood, still alive, but only just. Middleton loosened Wilson’s tie, gave him a sip of brandy and said, “Mr Wilson, speak, speak, say who did it.” However, according to the accounts of the time, Wilson “gurgled” and expired.
In a panic White ran to the Booking Office, and made two telephone calls, one to the Police Station at Consett and another to Dr. Boland at Burnopfield. Within the hour, Superintendent Dryden arrived from Consett and the doctor from Burnopfield.
The next morning, Sunday, saw feverish activity. Chief Constable Morant of the Durham Constabulary arrived to take charge of the investigation, passengers on the Derwent Valley Branch trains strained their necks to catch a glimpse of the scene and dozens of local residents peered over the bridge at the west end of the station. While Dr. Boland conducted his post mortem, the police investigation began. The doctor concluded that Mr Wilson had been killed by a single bullet from a large calibre revolver. The police search discovered the bullet, fifteen yards from the body, a small bag containing sand, footprints in the garden and a linen cloth shaped in the form of a gag.
The motive appeared to be robbery – there could be no other, for Mr. Wilson did not have an enemy in the world. Anyway, everyone knew that he was a creature of habit. Every night, after the last train had gone, he would take the day’s takings from the Booking Office to his house in a leather pouch. Every night except this last night.
For some reason, that night he had taken the money to his house after the last up train had gone, an hour earner.
The inquest was opened on the Monday morning in the First Class waiting room. Coroner Graham of Consett heard evidence of identification from Thomas Shotton, Mr. Wilson’s uncle, and from Dr. Boland. He then called Fred White, who gave am outline of the events leading up to the murder. Ironically, the room in which the inquest was held was decorated with certificates awarded to Mr. Wilson as winner of the North Eastern Railway’s ‘Best Kept Station’ award for several years past. Mr. Graham adjourned the inquest until 8th November to allow the police time to conclude their investigations.
By now, over 200 police officers were involved in the biggest murder hunt in the North East for many years, but to no avail. The local press became restless – why was there no progress, no clues? The Durham County Advertiser was particularly scathing – why were bloodhounds not employed, surely they could have picked up something. Anyway, everybody knew that Lintz Green was in a mining district, populated by rough elements; surely somebody local must have done it?
On the Tuesday after the murder the sun shone as crowds turned out for the funeral. They brought Joseph Wilson’s body out of his house and laid the coffin on two chairs outside his front door, just a few yards from the scene of his murder. The Rev. J. Griffin Hodson from Hexham conducted the service, while the stationmasters of Rowlands Gill, Scotswood, Ebchester and Shotley Bridge acted as pallbearers. Hundreds of local people attended and followed the cortege the three miles to the cemetery at Leazes for the interment.
The police hunt continued. They drained a well at the rear of the station buildings, scoured the countryside for miles around, questioned hundreds. Then suddenly, on the Wednesday, action. At 9.00 pm, they made a positive move. Inspector Gargan from Consett, Detective Inspector Tate and Detective Sergeant Gibson from Newcastle called at 138 Kirk Street, Byker, Newcastle. They wanted to interview Samuel Atkinson, aged 25, the relief porter at Lintz Green.
Family members present said that he was not in, could they call ten minutes later. Not satisfied, the police officers forced their way into the house, climbed the stairs and found Atkinson asleep on a bed in the kitchen. The questioning that followed was to be of great significance at the subsequent trial. With their suspicions well and truly confirmed, the three officers arrested Atkinson, detained him overnight in the cells at the police station in Pilgrim Street, Newcastle, and conveyed him by car to Consett the next morning.
Atkinson was placed on an identity parade in the yard of Consett Police Station in Parliament Street. He was clearly identified by three of the four witnesses called as having been seen hanging around the station long after he had claimed to have left work and gone home. The fourth witness was not sure, but felt that it could have been him.
The same evening, Atkinson was accused of the wilful murder of Joseph Wilson before Magistrate Potts at Consett Police Court. His solicitor, Mr. Clark, closely questioned Supt. Dryden about the circumstances of the arrest and especially at what stage had Atkinson been cautioned. During questioning, it emerged that the suspect had not been cautioned at all and that any statement made by him as to his whereabouts on the evening in question must be inadmissible in court. Despite this the magistrate remanded Atkinson in custody for a period of seven days.
A week later, Atkinson appeared again before Consett Magistrates when Mr. Clark returned to the question of the lack of caution at the arrest. Atkinson’s statements to police at Newcastle and Consett could not be introduced as evidence and without them the police had no definite reason to charge him with murder. However, a further remand was granted, this time to the Assize Court in Durham on 9th November.
The day before Atkinson’s appearance at Durham, the resumed inquest into Wilson s death was held at the Temperance Hall in Burnopfield. After hearing the evidence from the doctor who attended the scene of the crime, he concluded by saying “It is a murder most foul, most horrible. But murder will out, and sooner or later, the halter will be placed around the neck of him who committed this dastardly act”. He finished the hearing by hoping that such a satisfactory conclusion would be reached at the Assizes in Durham on the morrow.
The next day, Atkinson was brought into the dock of the court at Durham where, much to his astonishment, Chief Constable Morant appeared, saying that he was to offer no evidence against the accused and requesting that Atkinson be discharged. Mr. Clark, for Atkinson, then requested a sum in compensation for his expenses in preparing a defence that was now to be unnecessary. He had no criticism of the police; they had performed their duties well, but his client had suffered great distress and deserved compensation from the court. This plea was rejected and the case dismissed.
That was to be the end of the case. The police quite deliberately stopped the investigation and, after a while, the rumours and gossip subsided. Joseph Wilson’s brutal murder was forgotten and the guilt or innocence of Samuel Atkinson was never satisfactorily resolved.
The scene of the murder remains; Wilson’s house is very much as he would have known it. The platelayers’ cottages across the way remain, but improved and extended under their new private ownership. But of the station, very little is left. The Derwent Walk passes through it, the platforms just visible to either side, but the buildings, the booking office, the waiting rooms are all gone. There are rumours locally of the ghost of a tall man with a lantern, suddenly struck down behind the station. But that is all.
© Copyright John Terence Middleton 1991, 1999