Danger: Deep Water

While the tidal Thames has seen great loss of life – most notably through the sinking of the Princess Alice in 1878 and, more recently, the Marchioness disaster in 1989 – the upper river has also been the scene of many personal accidents and tragedies. 

Coroner’s inquests and newspaper reports record countless accidents, suicides, drownings and the occasional murder.  By the end of the 19th century the Thames had become a popular place to visit, with hordes of Londoners travelling upstream to enjoy a day on the water.  Maidenhead was particularly popular and on any weekend between June and August there might be more than a thousand visitors, many of whom would hire small boats and canoes to paddle on the river.  These visitors were often novice boaters and a large proportion could not swim.  Boats regularly capsized and their occupants required rescue by fellow tourists or the lockkeepers. 

An article in The Berkshire Chronicle of 6 July 1889 records one such rescue at Boulter’s Lock: 

‘On Saturday evening a serious accident happened near Mr Woodhouse’s launch house at Bray. It seems that a small boat containing four gentlemen was coming down stream, when, from some cause or other, probably owing to the occupants changing seats, which they were seen to be doing just before, the craft capsized, and the gentlemen were precipitated into the water…. Joseph MacGraw, manager at Woodhouse’s Bray establishment, observed the boat capsize, and with remarkable promptitude jumped into Herbert’s [a fisherman] punt and pushed off to the drowning men’s assistance…. MacGraw with some difficulty rescued one of the gentlemen, who weighed fourteen or fifteen stone. Meanwhile one of the other gentlemen, with another clinging tenaciously to his thigh, struggled alongside the punt, and managed to clutch the side of it. Herbert succeeded in reaching over him and securing the gentleman clinging to him, and both were eventually got into the punt. The fourth gentleman managed to swim ashore. The water was very deep where the boat capsized, and there is no doubt that but for the praiseworthy promptitude of MacGraw, three of the gentlemen would have been drowned… Great praise is due to MacGraw, and we understand that efforts are to be made to bring his conduct to the notice of the Royal Humane Society’.

Black and white photograph of a crowd of men and women in Edwardian dress stood or sitting on the steps next to the riverside and small boats on the Thames.
A packed Boulter’s lock with many boaters and onlookers, c.1890s-1910s, D/EX177/12/2/7 

However, not everyone was so lucky.  On Friday 6 June 1924 Martha Bull, 55, and her husband Oliver, travelled from east London to Bourne End to rent a canoe for the Whitsun Holiday.  They were caught by a current that forcefully pulled them downstream. A man on the bank saw them and shouted “You will never get back. Shall I throw you a rope?”, but before he could do so the canoe hit Cookham bridge, and Martha and Oliver were thrown into the water. Oliver was carried away but caught hold of Odney Weir and was rescued by the Cookham assistant lock-keeper.  Martha’s body was discovered in the river a week later. 

Maidenhead Division Police Report to the Coroner for Martha Mary Bull, aged 55, whose body was found in the River Thames at Maidenhead. She lived at 4 Hermon Hil, Wanstead, and was married to Oliver Bull, Jeweller.
Police report after the discovery of Martha Bull, 14 June 1924, COR/M2/1/6
Hand-drawn colour plan showing Cookham Lock and Odney Weir. Includes lock-keeper’s house.
Conservancy plan of Cookham Lock and streams, 1886, D/TC/C3/39/1/2]

The river was not only dangerous to those who were on the water.  On 12 May 1904 Henry Mullins, 25, and Gladys Nudds, 17, had a free afternoon from their work as shop assistants in Oxford.  They walked to Kennington and spent the evening at the Tandem Inn with friends.  At 10pm, they began the walk along the towpath back to Oxford, with their friends a few hundred yards ahead of them. No shouts of alarm or splashes of water were heard but they never arrived home. At 7pm the following evening their bodies were discovered in the weir pool at Iffley.  Both the deceased were recorded simply as ‘Found Drowned’. 

Inquisition taken place at The Isis Tavern, South Hinskey, 14 May 1904. The inquest concludes that Henry Robert Mullens and Gladys Hudds came to their death on 13 May 1904 in South Hinskey and they were found drowned in the River Thames.

‘It is conceivable that Mr Mullins and Miss Nudds were walking arm-in-arm, and one of them tripped over the rail [at the bridge], dragging the other into the water. Neither of the unfortunate young people could swim, and the water in the Pool being 30 feet deep, there was little chance of their escaping.’

Salisbury and Wiltshire Journal, 21 May 1904

Coroner’s Inquest for Henry Robert Mullins and Gladys Nudds, 14 May 1904, COR/A1/29/4

Colour plan showing Iffley, Iffley Lock, Iffley Mill, St Mary’s Church, Court Place, Berry Mead, Radley, Sunningwell, Kennington, St Michael or Kennington Island, Swan Inn, and Heyford Hill.
Conservancy plan of the River from Iffley to Kennington, c.1888, D/TC/C5/1/6

This was the common verdict for those who died in the upper Thames. Unless there was a witness to the tragedy it was impossible to work out what had happened. Bodies could remain undiscovered for days, weeks or even months and many coroners’ inquests were held on ‘unknown’ men and women who have never been identified. 

Finding a dead body in the river was an unpleasant and traumatic experience and one that many lock-keepers had to deal with. Jerome K Jerome describes such an incident in his journey in Three Men in a Boat

‘George noticed something black floating on the water, and we drew up to it. George leant over, as we neared it, and laid hold of it. And then he drew back with a cry, and a blanched face. It was the dead body of a woman. It lay very lightly on the water, and the face was sweet and calm.’ 

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome, first published in 1889 
Police report on the death on an unidentified man, Maidenhead Division, Cookham Police Station. Report states that at 11:30am on Sunday 18 January 1931, Joseph Davis of Bourne End, Buckinghamshire, was fishing with his son, Linford, in the River Thames near Townsend’s Wharf, when his son’s fishhook caught onto the body of a man. Seargeant Tocock removed it to Cookham Mortuary, and found arms and legs tied with cord which could have been done by the deceased himself. The body had been in the water about a month.
Coroner’s Inquest for unknown man found drowned at Cookham, 18 January 1931, COR/M2/11/4 

The Conservancy worked hard to try and prevent accidental drownings. Notices were erected in dangerous places and around weirs to warn boaters and swimmers to keep their distance.  In the summer of 1910 they employed the Royal Life Saving Society to train their staff in how to support someone safely in the water and how to perform resuscitation.

The Royal Life Saving Society letter to the Thames Conservancy and a page of The Royal Life Saving Society’s report, 1910, D/TC/A1/10 

The first training events attracted much attention along the river, with locals and visitors gathering to watch and take part.  A life-saving display was presented at Teddington Lock to the Conservators on 31 August. 

The Conservancy staff went on to perform many rescues over the years and their heroics are all detailed in the board’s minutes.  In October 1953 three staff were given the Conservators’ Award of Merit, a gratuity of £4 4s and recommended for commendation by the Royal Humane Society. 

Minutes regarding recent rescues from downing by Conservators’ Staff. Includes a rescue of a boy at Teddington by Mr H. F. Langrish; a woman at Hambleden Lock by Mr W.C. Coggins; and a boy by Mr J.G. Malham and Mr S. H. Petter.
Thames Conservancy Board minutes, 12 October 1953, D/TC/A1/26

One thing the Conservancy staff could not prevent was intentional harm.  On 30 March 1896, a barge on its way to Caversham Lock spotted a package floating in the river.  Once unwrapped, the package revealed the body of an infant girl, no more than a year old, and whose neck had been tied tightly with a piece of tape. 

The child was one of many – no one is sure of the exact number – killed by the notorious ‘baby farmer’, Amelia Dyer.  It was the discovery of other, similar packages near Caversham Lock that led to her confession, trial and execution. 

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