‘Luck of the Irish’ led to escape from the gallows

BYGONE SCENE: Cleveland Road following the bombardment of World War One. Just a few decades earlier it was home to tragic Bridget Kelly.
BYGONE SCENE: Cleveland Road following the bombardment of World War One. Just a few decades earlier it was home to tragic Bridget Kelly.
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ALICE McCarthy never stirred as her sister banged at the door of her West Hartlepool home in the early hours of May 29, 1881.

As poor Bridget Kelly kept on knocking, however, one of Alice’s children eventually ushered her inside the Cleveland Street house – and not a moment too soon.

“Bridget was clearly in pain, but she put a finger to her lips and told the young lad not to wake his mother,” said local historian Norman Kirtlan.

“Instead, she grasped hold of his shoulder and followed him into a bedroom – where she lay down on the bed and slept fitfully until morning.”

When Alice finally awoke that Sunday morning, she found Bridget already sitting downstairs, holding her back and complaining bitterly about the pain she was in.

Alice, however, had heard similar gripes before.

Indeed, having witnessed an inebriated Bridget rolling along the street just the day before, she put her sister’s pain down to drink.

“It was 9am before Bridget was persuaded to go home. But, instead of heading back, she shuffled across the street to see neighbour Bridie O’Hare,” said Norman.

Bridie, a cousin to Bridget, from one of many Irish families settled in Hartlepool, took pity on her, and listened as Bridget poured out her woes.

But despite being fed and watered, Bridget couldn’t get comfortable. Eventually she begged for powders to ease her pain – which Bridie set out to procure.

Upon returning, she found Bridget apparently dozing. After a few moments, however, the woman opened her eyes, took hold of her cousin’s arm and whispered:

“If I should die before tomorrow, Preston Billy did this to me. He kicked me and beat me this previous Sunday. I’m done for, Bridie.”

A shaken Bridie summoned help and put her cousin to bed. But, within minutes, Bridget had slipped from consciousness – and by the time night fell she was dead.

“Preston Billy was actually Bridget’s common-law husband John Tomlinson. Witnesses testified to seeing a violent confrontation between the pair,” said Norman.

“But an inquest into Bridget’s death, held in the Justices Room, at Hartlepool Borough Hall, on June 1, unearthed a very confusing story of her final days.”

Indeed, just the previous Saturday, Bridget had been spotted staggering out of a Hartlepool pub – “extremely drunk” – with blood pouring from a cut to her mouth.

One witness, Alice Croaudace, revealed she had seen Bridget lying on the ground later that night, swearing at Billy as he asked where all his money had gone.

“Billy, upon getting no satisfactory answer, nudged Bridget in the chest with his foot,” she added. “Bridget did not cry out or complain about the blow.”

The violence then escalated and, as Bridget denied spending any of Billy’s money, he finally snapped – dragging her to their home and locking her inside.

“It was not long before Bridget was making good her escape, smashing doors and windows with a hammer,” said Norman, author of several local history books.

Perhaps the most important of the inquest evidence, however, was given by Dr Benthal, who found several marks of violence on Bridget’s thighs, back and face.

This may have been enough to send Billy to the gallows – had the doctor not decided to examine Bridget’s internal organs a little more closely.

“He found the likely cause of death was peritonitis. The condition is caused by an infection which can rapidly spread around the body,” said Norman.

“It was this evidence which swayed the jury. Death had not been caused by Preston Billy and his violent assault, they decided, but by simple illness.

“So why then had Bridget implied it was Billy who had brought about her death?

“Was it the malicious allegation of a woman who spent every penny on drink or had Preston Billy delivered a fatal blow overlooked by the jury?

“Amidst the confusion of the courtroom, Billy walked free –- his whole life ahead of him. Perhaps the luck of the Irish had been with him all along.”