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’.
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.
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’.
‘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
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
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.
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.