Unravelling stories that lie in our cemeteries

JOINED ... above and below, the memorial to Annie Baylass and her children, in pieces but still together. Bottom, Michael Mulhern.
JOINED ... above and below, the memorial to Annie Baylass and her children, in pieces but still together. Bottom, Michael Mulhern.

IN most cases, each headstone conveys only a brief family narrative to fleetingly intrigue the passer-by. Yet our cemeteries are actually vast repositories of untold stories.

As well as documenting changes in social and cultural history, they harbour tales of romance, intrigue, humour even, and, occasionally, terrible tragedy.

One such story turns out to be told by a small poignant grouping of stones in Harton Cemetery in Shields.

More than a century later, the events they reflect still have a modern resonance, not least the aspect of a Service veteran left mentally scarred by war.

The catastrophe that overtook the family in question at their home near Westoe – a mother and her two children shot dead by a relative who then turned the gun on himself – has been brought to light by Michael Mulhern.

Michael, a retired bank adviser who lives in Shields, is currently building a gigantic searchable database which allows people to trace forebears, locally, through stories, photographs, public notices etc in the Shields Gazette.

The database, which is available only at the library, already contains hundreds of thousands of entries covering the first quarter of the 20th century.

But now Michael has added an extra dimension by photographing almost 26,000 legible headstone memorials in graveyards in the town.

“Eventually, the death notices in the database will be searched against the names on the memorials and any matches will be highlighted, thus informing researchers that, in addition to the Gazette article, there is also a headstone, should they wish to visit the cemetery to view it,” he says.

“Many stories in the Gazette beg to be further researched and most of the headstones understate the heroics or the tragedies surrounding the persons interred in the grave.”

The headstone you see here now lies in three pieces and would instantly suggest a tragedy to the observer, recording, as it does, the death of Annie Henderson Baylass, 32, and her children Walter, three, and one-year-old Olive, all on the same summer day in 1906.

The family lived in Stainton Street, off Imeary Street in Shields. Annie’s husband, James, was a well known and highly respected constable in the River Tyne police, whose offices were at the Mill Dam.

On the morning of August 13, he was on duty, but was due home for his dinner at midday.

When he had gone to work that morning, he had left his wife and two children in the upstairs flat, along with his mother, Jane, and his brother, Walter, who had been lodging with them for some weeks.

Jane Baylass had gone to sit at the bottom of the backstairs when she heard the report of a revolver from the kitchen. She ran back upstairs to find Walter standing with a gun in his hand.

His sister-in-law and the two children, it would later emerge, had all been shot in the head – the baby while still in her cradle, and Annie as she sat at her sewing machine.

Jane Baylass then ran back downstairs to get help but heard three further reports, followed by a thud. Walter Baylass had killed himself.

The two children were still alive when help arrived and were taken the few hundred yards across to the Ingham Infirmary, but died soon after arrival.

James Baylass, arriving home expecting his dinner, instead found himself confronted by unimaginable horror and loss.

At the subsequent inquest, James told the Coroner that his brother Walter, 33, had earlier kept a chemist’s shop near Morpeth, but their mother had become concerned about him and it had been decided to bring him to stay with the family in South Shields.

Four years earlier, the Boer War had ended, in which Walter had served for almost the whole duration of the three-year campaign in South Africa.

He had served with what was known as Brabant’s Horse, which took its name from Sir Edward Brabant, the South African Colonial Military Commander, and which was a troop of irregulars made up of South Africans, Australians, British and Canadians.

One of the actions in which it was involved was when it held Jammersburg Drift, at Wepener, against a superior Boer force.

James Baylass said his brother told him that, during his years of service, he had had three horses shot from under him. On the last occasion, he had been thrown from the animal and suffered head injuries.

The subsequent funerals for the family were attended by large crowds.

At the base of Annie and the children’s memorials are words inspired by the Song of Solomon: “Until the dawn breaks and the shadows flee away.”