Interview by Grace Keane
Gateshead, April 1866. Five-year-old Sarah Melvin was walking along Split Crow Lane when she disappeared. Later that night a couple walking home from the pub tripped over her body.
Thus begins the true story of a shocking local murder. In The Apprentice of Split Crow Lane, author and historian Jane Housham unpicks the grisly truth behind the crime and shines new light on the region’s history. I spoke to Jane about the book.
You first uncovered this story because you were looking into your family history. Had you ever visited Gateshead before you started researching the book, or was the first time you saw the place in real life through the lens of the events of the Carr’s Hill Murder?
Yes, my father’s family came from Newcastle and Gateshead but I grew up in Richmond, in Yorkshire. Richmond is only about fifty miles from Newcastle/Gateshead and when I was growing up that was the big city where we went Christmas shopping. When Eldon Square opened in 1977 there were quite a few bus trips there: we had given up trying to drive there after my father got frustrated trying to find a parking space on one trip and drove straight home again, leaving my Mum and me to catch the train home. Later we would be wowed by the Metro Centre when it opened in turn. But these visits to the commercial centres tended to bypass the residential areas, so it was only really when I went to stay in Gateshead to research the Carr’s Hill murder that I was able to explore the network of streets around Carr Hill and Windy Nook and get a real sense of the place.
I know that you used a lot of local archives to find out more about what happened, including Durham University where your Durham Book Festival event will be held. How difficult was it to piece together the facts, and as you were uncovering the story did you feel like you were investigating the crime all over again?
It was rather difficult to piece together the facts because none of the ‘actors’ in the murder were important, socially, and the story had been forgotten fairly swiftly. But it was the ferreting out of separate incidents and reports, which, hitherto, no one had linked to the murderer that really fired my interest. I looked into a whole slew of crimes that had been happening in the area around Gateshead in the months before the murder and I felt there were indications of a possible pattern of behaviour that might well have culminated in the murder. I also found references (for example, in a newspaper editor’s memoir, and in a government report) to unnamed individuals who I identified with my murderer by comparing various records and documents. It was really exciting. I did feel that I had pieced together a bigger sequence of events than was looked at at the time.
Whilst this is a factual account, it does at times read like a crime novel. Did you make a conscious effort when writing and structuring the book to draw out the suspense? Were you ever tempted to make it a big reveal at the very end?
My overriding motivation was to set out as true a picture as I could and to show every scrap of evidence I could muster, but at the same time, yes, I wanted to make it into an absorbing narrative for readers. Structurally, there is the fact that the crime itself is ‘resolved’ quite quickly by the murderer’s confession, so I was never looking at recounting a thrilling police investigation: the police really didn’t seem to do very much beyond an initial search of the crime scene. I thought quite hard about whether there was a way to tell the story that kept the ‘whodunnit’ element back, but it just didn’t seem possible to manipulate the sequence of events in that way. I felt that the story of the murderer’s life was so fascinating that it was best to show its complete trajectory from unhappy child to his wretched fate as an adult, and also how he fits into the history of madness and forensic psychology.
The crime at the heart of the book is obviously extremely shocking, but I also found myself shocked by some of the normal practices of the time – in particular that it was custom to carry out the post mortem of a body on the family’s kitchen table. What shocked you the most when researching The Apprentice of Split Crow Lane?
I agree that there’s a great deal that’s shocking in the book. The thing that shocked me the most was just how explicit the reports of the crime in the newspapers of the time were. Indeed, it’s only because they were so morbidly factual that my account is able to be so frank. And I think this presents a reality that’s in sharp contrast to the view we commonly have of the Victorians as buttoned-up prudes. On the contrary, in an age of sensationalism, it seems they liked nothing better than a detailed report of a post-mortem or a murder.
Without giving too much away, the murder at the heart of the book is ultimately solved because of a confession. I’m aware that you did a lot of research into the leading police officer on this case, John Elliot – knowing what you do now about him and about the justice system in general, do you think he would have eventually solved the crime?
I have a sense of respect for John Elliot — the Journeyman, as he was known locally, in tribute to his long and rock-solid career in Gateshead police force. I believe that he quite quickly had the murderer in his sights as a suspect but he and his colleagues clearly carried out their duties by the book and they were not able to connect him to the crime by evidence or witness and so they held off from arresting him. It was a very lucky break that he decided to confess. Even after the murderer had indicated his desire to make a statement, Elliot and his men observed the rules then in place about not questioning the suspect but simply took down his (chilling) words when they spilled out of him. When I first read them, I actually experienced that cliché of ‘the hair standing up on the back of my neck’ for the first time in my life.
Thank you Jane for answering my questions! Jane Housham will be appearing at Durham Book Festival on Saturday 14 October at Palace Green Library (4pm-5pm). If you’d like to hear more about this Gateshead true crime, The Apprentice of Split Crow Lane, you can buy tickets here