HENRY CHRISTER lived in the heart of Darlington’s iron-working community 150 years ago, when times were tough and life was cheap.

Memories 554 told how in December 1871, Henry had sought help from the Albert Hill doctor when his father-in-law, Alexander Parias, had drunkenly drunk some poison. Because of the patient’s intoxication, the doctor had refused to attend Mr Parias, even though Mr Parias paid him 2d-a-week for “medical attendance”.


Instead, the doctor's assistant gave Henry an emetic to administer to Mr Parias in the hope it would flush the poison out.

It didn’t, and Mr Parias died a few hours later. The jury at his inquest concluded that it was an accidental death, caused by consuming laudanum while under the influence of alcohol, but said the doctor was “highly censurable in not attending immediately”.

“I read the article with great interest as Henry Christer is my great-great-grandfather and this is not the first time he was involved in a mysterious death,” says Peter Giroux, of Darlington, whose photographs have often graced this site.

The Northern Echo:

A 1960s aerial view of Croft, with the branchline the straight line in the top right hand corner and the River Skerne meandering between the fields a little to the left of it

Five years earlier, on August 3, 1866, Henry and two ironworker friends – Michael Burns and Michael Bagley – had been walking along the Croft branchline, which was a coal line that followed the course of the River Skerne as it ran from Bank Top station into a depot behind the Comet pub in Hurworth Place.

As they passed Blackbanks Chemical Works, they noticed that stones had been pulled into the river as if to make a jetty into the centre.

About 400 yards south of the works, Henry spotted some debris in the river. He fished it out and discovered it was the body of a ginger-haired baby “wrapped in the clout”. Floating nearby was a blanket and a feeder bottle, which was still warm and referred to as a “tit”.

Henry informed the police. A doctor examined the baby and concluded that it had drowned in the river.

Suspicion immediately fell upon Caroline Freeman, 19, who had given birth to a baby boy with “a sort of ginger cast” in Alnwick workhouse three weeks earlier. Caroline claimed that the boy, whom she called Leonard, had died in Alnwick of “frog in the mouth” after two weeks and she had buried him there.

The baby’s father was said to come from Richmond but he had not given Caroline any money or assistance.

Indeed, on the day in question, Caroline was seen getting off the 1pm train from the north at Bank Top station with a baby which was crying. She then seen walking down the Croft branchline and when she was spotted outside the Comet Inn in Hurworth Place, she did not have a baby with her. At 6pm, she arrived at Mr Mackey’s Bloomfield Academy at Cockerton, where she was due to take up a position as a servant, but again she had no baby.

The Northern Echo: The Comet, Hurworth Place.

When police searched her luggage, they found baby linen from Alnwick workhouse in it. The authorities in Alnwick, though, had no record of Leonard dying or being buried in their neck of the woods.

Caroline was charged with murder. Her motive, it was alleged, was that Leonard would have prevented her taking up her employment at the academy. And when it became known that she had built a walkway into the middle of the river so that she wouldn’t get her dainty feet wet when drowning her baby, Darlington was outraged.

However, attitudes seem to have changed by the time Caroline appeared at Durham Assizes four months later. If she were found guilty of murder, the judge, Sir Robert Lush, would have had to have sentenced her to death.

All the evidence stacked up against her. Her defence was that the ginger-haired baby found in the Skerne was nothing to do with her because her ginger-haired baby had died in Alnwick, even though she couldn’t prove it. It didn’t hold water.

Except there was one line in Henry Christer’s evidence that made the jury chuckle and perhaps gave the members cause for thought. When asked if the gingerish baby he had found in the river looked like a three-week-old, Henry replied: “I am married. I have never had a child myself, but the wife has had nine (laughter).

“It was a very large child. I took it to be two or three months old.”

The jury retired for 20 minutes and returned a verdict of not guilty. “The announcement was received with loud applause and the prisoner was acquitted at once,” said the Darlington & Stockton Times.

Perhaps the jury was reluctant to send a young girl, abandoned by her boyfriend and at her wits’ end, to the gallows, however heinous the crime she was alleged to have committed. Perhaps Henry’s quip had given them the opportunity to doubt whether the baby in the Skerne was the same one that Caroline had given birth to.

Peter is able to complete the story. “On October 10, 1868, 22 year-old Caroline married John Smith in Halifax. One year later, she gave birth to her son, James, and in 1871 the Smiths are living in Sowerby Bridge. Caroline died in 1897.”