“IT is my unpleasant duty to place before you today evidence of a crime as despicable, as revolting and as repugnant to all feeling of human decency as one could imagine,” began prosecutor JC Park, appearing for the Chief Constable of Durham at Darlington magistrates court 75 years ago this month.

“The accused are charged with stealing coffin lids from Darlington crematorium – charges which involve the interference with the sacred rites of the disposal of the remains of those who have been dear to the people which I shall have to call as witnesses.”

This must be one of the most sensational cases reported in this newspaper’s 183 years. Accused was Paul Bowman, 59, of Bates Avenue, Cockerton, who had been employed as the furnaceman at Darlington crem for 10 years, and joined and undertaker William Hirstwood, 49, of Eastbourne Road, Darlington.

The Northern Echo:

It was alleged that at the end of a funeral service, the coffin was placed on the catafalque and Bowman, waiting behind a screen, wound an endless belt which removed the coffin from the sight of the mourners into an ante-chamber in front of the furnace. This, said Mr Park, was the “final journey” which the mourners had every reasonable expectation would come to its conclusion in the furnace.

But, no. As soon as the congregation had left the chapel, it was alleged that Bowman set to the coffin, unscrewing the lid and the name plate, before sending the unlidded coffin, complete with its human contents, into the gas jets.

Then Hirstwood would arrive with his hearse, and take the lids back to his yard, where police had found 31 coffin-shaped pieces of wood, some with white drapes for Anglicans and mauve drapes for Catholics still attached, and all with screw and nail holes down the sides and on the top where a plate would have been affixed.

The lids were found to have the name of undertakers on them from Barnard Castle, Staindrop, Middlesbrough, Whitby, Northallerton, Shildon and Ferryhill, and a couple had scorchmarks on them.

This had been a systematic theft over a number of years, said Mr Park.

“As long ago as October 1943, there was a pile of some 30 coffin lids in the back garage of Hirstwood’s premises and no matter how often or how many of them were used, the pile never got any less,” he said.

“It is the revolting horrible desecration and a ghoulish interference with what most people regard as the most sacred rites in the whole of the Christian faith.”

However, the defence claimed no crime had been committed.

Each lid was only worth 30 shillings, and there was no evidence that any money had ever changed hands and no evidence that Hirstwood had re-used any lids.

It was normal, it was claimed, for fittings to be removed prior to cremation so that the metal did not have to be raked from the ashes.

Well known Darlington solicitor Charles Hinks, for Hirstwood, said Mr Park’s emotive language had been designed to inflame opinion against the two men.

“The set purpose of the prosecution is to appeal to the sentimental prejudice and sanctimonious humbug of the very worst type in order to bolster up the case – a case against these men which is not there,” he said.

Mr JE Brown-Hulmes, defending Bowman, said that Mr Park’s lurid language had catapulted the defendants into newspaper headlines the length of the country.

He said: “My friend Mr Park was not describing Burke and Hare of infamous memory. He was describing William Hirstwood and Paul Bowman, citizens of Darlington, men who until a week past Wednesday had never had the finger of scorn and shame directed towards them, who had never had one breath of suspicion raised against their character of ability.”

Darlington magistrates disagreed, and sent the men for trial at Durham Assizes in June, where Bowman was found guilty of the theft of coffin lids and Hirstwood was found guilty of handling hot coffin lids.

“No doubt you thought it would be the last thing in the world if you were discovered,” said Mr Justice Stable. “No one, except a person of morbid imagination, would have suspected you.”

He commended the police’s detective work, and sentenced the two men to 18 months each in gaol.