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Joseph Bland Pearson - A Shocking Railway Fatality

Thought to be Joseph Bland Pearson, auctioneer from Nesham Place, Houghton-le-Spring
The following article was covered by the Sunderland Echo on Thursday April 23rd 2009:

As you enter Houghton Hillside Cemetery the first memorial you are presented with is a chunky cube, on the left hand side of the plateau.
Copyright © Books of the North 2009 - 2012.
There was once a beautiful hawthorn tree growing nearby (it was indiscriminately felled in 2008), and one snowy day I took a photo of it. The view was quite picturesque, and I decided to make it into a Christmas card, copies of which were sold in 2005 to help raise funds for the cemetery restoration.

The name upon the memorial was Joseph Bland PEARSON.

The name struck me as odd, as I have never come across ‘Bland’ as a name; to me this meant something that was, well, indifferent or plain. But its unusualness stuck in my mind and proved useful when trying to locate records about this individual.
Copyright © Books of the North 2009 - 2012.

Joseph Bland Pearson's memorial, covered in snow, c2004

Joseph was born in Durham in 1832. He married his wife, Elizabeth, in March 1850 in Durham. Elizabeth originated from nearby Great Lumley. An 1895 directory lists Joseph as an auctioneer in Neasham Place, but over the years his occupation was listed as hairdresser, barber, pawnbroker and the eventual auctioneer.

In 1881, 49-year-old Joseph lived at 1, Mautland Street, Houghton-le-Spring, along with: his wife, Elizabeth, aged 51 years; daughter Maria, 22, a pawnbroker manageress; son Joseph, aged 10 years; and other daughters Elizabeth, 19, Sarah, 17, Margaret, 15, and Isabella, 13.

It can only be imagined how this family of eight coped with living in a two-up- two-down terraced house, and as an auctioneer, Joseph probably was an avid collector of trinkets and antiquarians. The little house must have been bursting at the seams! (In later years the house, which was opposite Mautland Street Methodist Church, became Balmer’s wine shop).

As a sign of his success, ten years later, Joseph, his wife, son and married daughter Isabella Curry were living in the (considerably) more affluent Nesham Hall, located in the area of Houghton known as Quality Hill.

Memorial for Joseph Bland Pearson in the 1970s

Joseph suffered a shocking death on August 4th 1897 at South Hylton railway station and his cause of death is listed on his death certificate as:

Accidentally ran over by the down train having fallen out of carriage on off side of up train. Certificate received from George Saltbed, Deputy Coroner for L V Easington Ward Durham. Inquiry held 6th August 1897.

The death was reported in the local press, including the Durham Chronicle of August 13th 1897:

Late on Wednesday night Mr Jos. Bland Pearson, who for many years carried on an extensive business as a pawnbroker in Houghton-le-Spring, met with his death near South Hylton Station.
It appears that the deceased, who was 65 years of age, after having completed business in Sunderland, left the Central Station by the 10:45 train for Fence Houses Station. As the train was leaving South Hylton, a passenger in an adjoining compartment had occasion to look out of the carriage window, when he saw the door of the next compartment open, and deceased fall out.
He informed the officials at Penshaw Station, and they telegraphed to South Hylton, where the stationmaster (Mr Melville), in company with Sergt. Porter and others, went along the line and found the deceased's body in a shockingly mutilated condition, the head being severed from the body, and lying in the six foot way.
The deceased was a large property owner, and one of the oldest inhabitants in the town. He leaves a widow and grown-up family.

The Durham Advertiser of August 13th 1897 carried details of the inquest into Joseph’s death:


A shocking fatality occurred on the North Eastern Railway near South Hylton Station on Wednesday night ???
It seems that Mr Joseph Bland Pearson, a pawnbroker, of Houghton-le-Spring left Sunderland by the 1045 train on Wednesday night ?? for Fence Houses.
Just after the train had left South Hylton Station a passenger noticed that the door of a compartment ?? the train suddenly open, and Pearson fall headfirst on to the line. As soon as the train reached Coxgreen, the next stopping station, information of the occurrences was telegraphed to South Hylton and a search being made the body of Mr Pearson was found lying in the six foot way.
The body was shockingly mutilated, the head being severed. Deceased has evidently been run over by a down train which passed in the meantime. Mr Pearson, who was formerly in business in Durham, was 65 years of age and leaves a widow and grown family.


On Friday an inquest was held at Mr Laws Railway Tavern, Hylton ??ing the death of Joseph Bland Pearson, whose death under shocking circumstances occurred on the railway at Hylton, at a late hour on Wednesday night.
William Marshall, bricklayer, Washington Staithes. said that he was a regular traveller by the 1045pm train from Sunderland. Witness looked out of the window to see if the down train had passed. They were then leaving Hylton Station.
Witness saw something resembling the figure of a man lying on one of the rails of the down line about 50 yards from the station last ???
Witness also observed one of the carriage doors open on the off side from the platform. The carriage was near the engine.
Witness pulled the communication cord for about half a minute but got no response. Witness then saw the down train coming. This was about a minute and a half after leaving Hylton Station.
Witness could do nothing more until the train got to Pensher Station, when he reported what he had seen to the guard. He asked the guard if he heard the signal, and the latter replied that the cord was not connected, and that, as a rule, they did not use it on such short journeys.
Other evidence bore out the facts published above and the jury returned a verdict that the death of deceased was the result of misadventure.

Joseph was buried at Houghton Hillside Cemetery four days later in the same grave as his first wife, Elizabeth Phyllis, who had died in November 1891.

Memorial for Joseph Bland Pearson, in 2003

Joseph’s ‘chunky memorial’ is in fact separate from its nearby base, though photos from the 1970s show that it was still intact then. The inscription reads as follows:

In loving memory of ELIZABETH PHYLLIS wife of JOSEPH BLAND PEARSON who died 10th Novr 1891.
In loving memory of JOSEPH BLAND PEARSON who died 4th August 1897 aged 65 years.
Copyright © Books of the North 2009 - 2012.

Further members of the Pearson family were buried at Hillside including:

:: Elizabeth Pearson, Joseph’s daughter, died on August 11th 1883 at the age of 22 years, and was buried at Hillside Cemetery (damaged memorial discovered by Paul Lanagan in August 2010).

:: Absalom Hay, the first husband of Joseph’s daughter, Margaret, was buried at Hillside Cemetery on April 17th 1887, aged 22 years.

:: Joseph’s son, also Joseph, was buried at Hillside Cemetery on October 29th 1900, aged 30 years.

Memorial for Joseph Bland Pearson, in 2008

In April 2009, one of Joseph’s treasures, a silver pocket watch, went up for sale, quite fittingly, in an auction.

The watch featured a fusee, a cone shaped pulley used in older spring-powered watches. Fusees were used from the 1400s to the early 1900s to improve timekeeping.

Joseph Bland Pearson's silver pocket watch, 2009

The watch was in very good condition for its age, and featured a solid silver coined edged case, along with a diamond balance jewel. Weighing at 132g and measuring 54mm, the watch was inscribed with the words: BLAND PEARSON, HOUGHTON-LE-SPRING.
Copyright © Books of the North 2009 - 2012.

The watch sold for $202 (about £136). The seller, Doug Makos, said at the time:

“That watch is in darn near perfect shape, it is a beauty. Years ago it would have sold for $800 but the bottom has fallin’ out of the fusee market.”

Doug, an antique watch dealer in Wisconsin, USA, did not know the history of the watch at the time of sale. Upon discovering details of the watch’s previous owner he said:

“I am an avid history buff myself, and I cannot get enough of the knowledge or the material things. It drives the old girl crazy! You know how they have to have everything in its place? Not me I want it all out so I can look at it and touch it.”

The winning bidder of the watch was James Nieh, an associate professor at the University of California, San Diego, who is interested in the evolution of communication in social bees. James said of his win:

“I was delighted to have been able to purchase this watch because I am a beginning watch collector. My fascination with mechanical watches began as an undergraduate at Harvard, when I took a course on historical timekeeping. At that time, I never could have dreamed of owning a beautiful watch like this, so I am happy that I was able to purchase and preserve this watch for the future.”

Joseph Bland Pearson's silver pocket watch, 2009

Joseph no doubt acquired the silver watch during his work as an auctioneer or pawnbroker, and I wonder how many times he looked at it to check the time while busying himself away in his business premises in Houghton. We have his unusual middle name of Bland to thank for the marrying up of the information and silver watch.

This small journey we have just taken with Joseph, showing his success at moving on from the cramped Mautland Street up to the grand Nesham Hall, has highlighted the importance of preserving headstones and their inscriptions. The story of Joseph and his watch should be an inspiration to us all. Copyright © Books of the North 2009 - 2012.


Article and research by Paul Lanagan, local historian

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Paul Lanagan wishes to place on record his thanks to the following:

This article is dedicated to the memory of Joseph Bland Pearson. Appreciation is noted for Dorothy Hall’s help with the provision of a photo of Joseph Bland Pearson, her great-grandfather, and details of his death. With thanks to Linda Bromfield, Douglas Makos of Wisconsin, USA, James Nieh of San Diego, CA, and Ruth Scott for help and information. Explanation of a fusee from


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