The Camperdown Poisoning Case in 1856

An interesting story appeared in some of he local newspapers during 1856 which gives a fascinating glimpse into the little-regulated world of small retailers in North-East villages and of 19th century medicine.

Mrs Elizabeth Short ran a small general dealers in the mining village of Camperdown in South East Northumberland. In 1856 she stood trial before the Coroner suspected of having poisoned three children from the village.

The inquest was reported in several newspapers over the days evidence was taken. This snippet from the Newcastle Guardian of 19th April 1856 gives an account of the witness' testimonies:

Newcastle Guardian 19th April 1856

There were several other testimonies given from villagers who had purchased sulphur from Mrs Short and been violently ill, although they had eventually recovered. The report concludes with the cross-examination of Mrs Short:

Newcastle Guardian 19th April 1856

The conclusion of the inquest was reported by the Morpeth Herald on17th May 1856:

Mrs Short held the shop from 1856 until sometime after 1861. Mary Ann Bell, mentioned in the testimony to the coroner as the previous owner of the shop, was listed in the Whellan Trade Directory of 1855. In the Kelly Directory of 1858 and the census of 1861 Short was listed, although not Elizabeth Short, it was Edward Short who was named as proprietor. When Mrs Short gave evidence to the inquest she is described as being a shopkeeper, the wife of Edward Short, a labourer.

 This confusion as to who is the proprietor of the shop occurs frequently on the census returns and trade directories of the mid 19th century. Many of the publicans of the period are also listed as females, but in the case of the Grey Horse pub, which is on the same street as Elizabeth Short's shop, Christopher Wanless was the publican and also a miner. This duality of roles occurs not just in the North East but countrywide.

Location of Short's' Shop between Camperdown Inn and Travellers Rest, Property now demolished

In the case of my GG Grandfather, John Fryer, he was a long-standing and respected mining manager who then invested his considerable earnings into property, shops and pubs. He then delegated the running of these ventures to various family members. But it seems strange that a labourer, such as Edward Short, would have the capital investment to start a commercial activity of this sort. I read several of the published works on the culture of mining villages by the likes of Norman McCord, Frank Atkinson and Robert Colls but no example was given.

A case study that may be relevant and similar to Edward and Elizabeth Short's situation is that of Richard Fynes, a miner who was blacklisted from working in the collieries during the 1840s for unionist activities. He set up a business selling groceries from a cart, travelling round the local villages. After some initial struggles the business flourished and he was able to open a shop in premises in Blyth and then later in life a Theatre.

Many miners and labourers had supplemented their income through the hawking of songs and poetry or through playing and singing music if they had a talent for this.