The Mystery of Doctor Robert Stirling

by Thomas William Pears

On Thusday, 1st November, 1855, Dr. Robert Stirling left the surgery at Burnopfield where he was employed, to visit patients at Garesfield and Spen. He was a native of Kirkintilloch, eight miles from Glasgow He had studied at Glasgow University, and was working with Dr. William Henry Watson as his assistant, to gain some experience before joining the Turkish army as a doctor in the Crimea. He was a cheerful young man of 26, smartly dressed in a black suit, who was noted for his fast striding pace, and his habit of twirling his walking stick when on his daily rounds. He had only been in the district for ten days, but had already endeared himself to many of the patients with his friendly manner.

When he left the surgery that morning, he carried his medical bag containing his lancets. He had with him a splendid watch, given to him by his father. It was described as silver with a silver face, decorated with a floral pattern, like a wreath, with gold Roman figures, and was stamped by the makers, “J. and W. Todd of Trongate, Glasgow, No. 3846”.

He completed his rounds at the home of Mrs. Corn at Low Spen. leaving there about 2 p.m. When he failed to return to the surgery, his employer became worried. The next morning he informed the police, and sent a message to Dr. Stirling’s father. The police mounted a search and when Charles Stirling and another of his sons, Andrew, arrived, they too joined in the hunt, After a long search, the body of the doctor was found by his father and Thomas Holmes, a local man, in a small wood near the bottom of Smailes Lane, Rowlands Gill.

Smailes Lane (the section where the murder took place has since been renamed Stirling Lane) was on the route taken by tenants of John Bowes, M.P., on their way to Gibside Hall to pay their rents. The hall was not occupied by John Bowes, but by his step-father and former teacher William (later Sir William) Hutt, M.P., who had married the dowager Countess of Strathmore. One theory put forward was that Dr. Stirling had been mistaken for one of these tenants, possibly John Errington, landlord of the Bute Arms at High Spen, who also farmed North Farm there, who was due to pay his rents on that day. Errington took this idea seriously, and refused to leave his house for months afterwards

A reward of £500 (over £30,000 today) was offered for the discovery of the killer or killers. The inquest opened on Wednesday, 21st November and after two adjournments, finished on 9th January 1856. It was conducted by J.M. Favell, the coroner; also present were Mr. Hudson, deputy coroner; G.H. Ramsay, J.P. of Derwent Villa; Major White, Superintendent of Durham Rural Police; William Hutt, M.P. and R.S. Surtees of Hamsterley Hall. The jury had assembled, but the foreman, Thomas Burnett, was absent. The coroner severely censured his conduct and fined him £40 (£3,000 today). Evidence was given by Dr. Watson and one of his students, G.S. Thompson, regarding the time Dr. Stirling left the surgery – shortly after 9.30 am. Thomas Holmes told of finding the body. Then William King Eddowes, surgeon of Derwent Cote House, described the wounds on the body : gunshot wounds in the right abdomen, with a spread of shot about the size of the palm of a hand. There were knife wounds on the left side of the face, 2 inches long and 2 1/2 inches deep. The face was badly beaten, and the nose was broken.

Witnesses told of seeing Dr. Stirling on his way from Low Spen to Rowlands Gill. Joseph Stobbard, an elderly farmer and cattle dealer from Closegill, Cumberland, had been visiting his sister Sarah at Crookgate, near Burnopfield, a mile uphill from the bridge over the Derwent at Rowlands Gill. She left him at the bridge, and he began to walk to Blaydon Station to catch his train to Carlisle. He saw two men, rough and unkempt, looking at him. One was carrying a gun or a stick. Stobbard was wary, as he was carrying some money. As he moved on he saw the fast-striding Dr. Stirling coming towards him. “This is a fine day, sir” said Joe, assuming, for some reason, that this was a local landowner, Sir Richard Lamb of Axwell. “Yes, it’s a very fine day” replied the doctor as he passed. Minutes later, Stobbard heard a gunshot. He turned round, but saw nothing and walked on. The shot was also heard by potato pickers in a field of Low Friarside Farm. One of the hands, William Coxon, was nearest to the path. He heard a voice call out “Hoy! Hoy!” followed by a sound he could only describe as hand-clapping. He thought it was local sportsmen and their dogs. He carried on working, unaware that he may have heard the last words of Dr. Stirling. Mary Robinson, a dressmaker of Burnopfield, was also passing at the time, and she, too, heard the cries.

During one of the adjournments, it was announced that John Cain, alias ‘Whisky Jack’, had been arrested by Superintendent Jabez Squires on a charge of smuggling whisky at Sherburn Green Wood, about a mile from the murder site. A search of Cain’s house was made by the superintendent. He found a knife, and a scarlet waistcoat with four buttonholes but only three buttons. These buttons were blue with copper shanks and brass tops, somewhat scratched. An associate of Cain’s, Richard Rayne, a blacksmith from Winlaton, was arrested and a third man, William Gladdis, was also taken into custody. Farmer Stobbard was brought by train from Gilsland to identify the men he had seen. He hesitated in identifying Rayne, until he saw him walk, and then he was sure. He was also positive in his identification of ‘Whisky Jack’. The three were brought before the magistrate at Gateshead Police Station. Gladdis was dismissed and the others remanded for a week.

During the inquest, Samuel Bennett, a lad of 14 from Winlaton Mill, told how he had been near the scene of the murder the day after the crime. He had found a blue button, a yard or so from where the body had lain, which he handed over to Thomas Turnbull, sergeant of Police, stationed at Winlaton, who confirmed this. The button was identical to those on Cain’s waistcoat, only more scratched. Alice Raine, wife of a pawnbroker of Gilesgate, Durham, told of a man who called at the shop, trying to sell a silver watch for £1/10/=. She refused, as they were not licensed to buy silver. He seemed eager to sell it and came down to 4/=, but she would not change her mind. She described the man, who resembled Rayne, and the watch as Dr. Stirling’s. Thomas Jackson, clerk, attested to the fact that on the day in question, he saw ‘Whisky Jack’, whom he knew by sight, with another man in Gilesgate. (When this evidence was given during the trial, Cain said, “I shall be capable of proving you a perjured witness”.) Dr. George Robertson, M.D., said that the blood on the blade of Cain’s knife was the same as that of Dr. Stirling, and the wound in his neck could have been caused by the knife. Three men said they had seen Rayne in Winlaton on the day of the murder, but an employee of Rayne’s, John Watson, known as ‘Tinker Jack’, aged about 14, said that Rayne had not been to work on the day concerned, and his mother Ann Watson confirmed this. Thomas Salter, a police officer, produced trousers worn by the doctor, with marks of gunshots, also pieces of a penknife handle. Another witness was Coffee Johnny, of Blaydon Races fame, who said he saw Rayne the day after the murder. The jury returned a verdict of murder against Cain and Rayne.

A notice appeared in the ‘Newcastle Courant’ on 11th January, 1856, stating that the Secretary of State, Sir George Gray, offered a free pardon to any person taking Dr. Stirling’s watch for pawn or sale.

The trial opened at Durham Spring Assizes on Tuesday, 4th August, under Mr. Justice Wilkes, with Mr. Overend, Q.C., Hon. A. Liddell, Mr. Brunton and Mr. Greenhow appearing for the Prosecution. Mr. Monk defended Rayne and Mr. Davidson defended Cain.

The evidence was much as that given at the inquest. Elizabeth Wilson, servant to Mrs. Kirtley, who kept the Castle Inn in the Castle Garth in Newcastle, said she had only worked there for a few weeks. She had seen Cain deliver whisky to Mrs. Kirtley and be paid for it. She arose between 6 and 7 a.m. on the morning after the murder, to find Cain asleep in the kitchen. He awoke and asked her if she would wash a shirt for him. She agreed to do so if it were alright with her employer. When he took the shirt off, the sleeve was covered with blood. Another man who was with Cain gave her a handkerchief to wash, which was also covered in blood. They said they had been skinning a hare.

The case, although well presented by Mr. Overend, seemed to be slipping away from the Prosecution. It became increasingly apparent that there was not enough evidence to justify the case. Each of the witnesses brought by the Prosecution was countered by the Defence. The trial lasted just over a day. The jury returned in a heatwave, the temperature being 90°, after 2 hours and 20 minutes deliberation. Their decision was unanimous. Both men were found Not Guilty. The Newcastle Chronicle reported that “On the foreman pronouncing a verdict of not guilty, the frame of Cain seemed for a moment to quiver, while Rayne, more composed than his companion, bowed twice to the jury, after which both men were removed. The disappointment experienced by all in court was apparent.” An editorial in the Durham County Advertiser suggested that the Scottish verdict of ‘Not Proven’ would have been more appropriate.

Many stories were put forward. One reported a Quaker juryman as saying that there was a long chain of evidence, but not one sound link. It was also whispered that somebody had been bribed. Another story was that three men had left the district without waiting to collect their wages soon after the murder.

John Cain was a colourful character. Born in Mildenhall, Suffolk, about 1813, he became a smuggler in Norfolk. When this became too dangerous he moved to the Scottish Highlands, where he began to distil illicit whisky. He moved to the Northumberland Coalfield, then to Rowlands Gill, each time just ahead of the law. He had many encounters with the police, sometimes being caught, and he defended himself in court. After his acquittal of the murder, the police kept such a close watch on him that he could not ply his trade. He was reduced to near penury. He was given a job as gardener by Joseph Cowen, M.P. at Stella Hall. He married a maid from the Hall, Elizabeth Robson, whether before or after getting the job is not clear, and they had six children. He became an authority on gardening.

Cowen was an industrialist, and owner of the ‘Newcastle Chronicle’, who was also a radical, supporting characters such as Garibaldi, who visited him many times. Cain could read and write and had a fair knowledge of Chemistry and mechanics. With Cowen he was a founder member of the local Co-operative Society and advocate of the Co-operative movement having mills to process its own corn into flour. He toyed with the fad of the time, perpetual motion. He does not appear to have been the ‘dissolute criminal’ which the newspapers labelled him during the trial. In 1866, crippled with rheumatism, he sailed to Australia, hoping the climate there would cure him. His fare was paid by Cowen. The family did not go with him, and some of his descendants still live in the area. In spite of reports of him being seen in America, or of being buried at Ryton, he died in Australia.

There were many confessions to the murder, but none were consistent with the facts.

Another assistant of Dr. Watson’s moved to Edmondsley about 10 miles away, some years after the murder. This Dr. Hall was of a nervous disposition. When called out at night, he insisted on being accompanied by a man of the family both to and from the house. Was it just nerves? Had Dr. Stirling been mistaken for John Errington? Or was there some other more mysterious or sinister reason behind the killing?

We move on to 5th November 1860. A small red cross was regularly repainted until quite recently on a wall facing Blaydon Cricket Club on Blaydon Bank. The origin of this and a small date stone recall another murder. John Batey of Cuthbert Street, Blaydon, was murdered after a pigeon shouting match at Blaydon Burn. He was wearing a new suit of clothes and had a large sum of money with him (about £2 or £3, – a month’s wages). His body was found at the spot where the cross was afterwards painted. After information from another crook, a man was arrested, tried and hanged for the murder. He was Thomas (‘Lanky’) Smith, a slater from Lancashire, who was arrested at Whitby still wearing Batey’s suit. He was one of the three men who left the area after the Stirling murder. He was a poacher, and the spot where Dr. Stirling was killed was a favourite place for poaching. He lodged in Cuthbert Street, Blaydon, with Matthew Atkinson and his wife Eleanor, who were his only visitors when he was in prison.

Then in December 1864, when living in High Spen, Matthew Atkinson murdered his wife Eleanor. He, too, was hanged in public at Durham, following a rebuke in the ‘Times’ for the people in the village for their lack of care for somebody in trouble, and a rope which broke during his execution, which almost caused a riot. But that is another story.

Cuthbert Street in Blaydon seemed to attract ‘characters’. In 1860, ‘Whisky Jack’ and his wife and family, John Batey and his family, Matthew and Eleanor Atkinson and their son, along with their lodger Thomas ‘Lanky’ Smith all lived there.

An article in the ‘British Medical Journal’ in 1984 re-opened interest in the case of Dr. Stirling. Dr. Andrew Smith, a G.P. from Whickham, told of a doctor at Burnopfield who was left a silver watch by a poor old spinster lady, who was one of his patients. Surprised by a watch of such quality being in the possession of such a poor lady, he made enquiries. He found that she was descended from one of the men tried for the Stirling murder. Dr. Steve Bolland, an amateur watch mender, checked the watch against the description given at the trial, and found that they agreed and, moreover, it bore the initials “R.S.”, a fact not mentioned at the trial. The watch has since gone missing again. Dr. Bolland died, leaving no family. Dr. Smith has no idea where the watch can be.

That is the mystery of the murder of Robert Stirling. It is still debated in local bars, and many solutions are put forward. Can you see a solution? Which is the correct one? Who knows?

© Copyright Brian Pears 1986, 1999

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