“I am a labourer, and reside at Stillingfleet; I am one of the singers at the parish church, and went along with the deceased persons … to sing the Christmas hymn … We were the singers at Stillingfleet church…”
John Fisher, giving evidence at the inquest, 27 December 1833.
Of all the stories I have ever told – and ever will tell – of my ancestors, this one is the one that means the most to me. Like most genealogists, I have my favourite ancestor. He was John Fisher, 1793 – 1878. He was a labourer. He lived in a one-room cottage a few fields from where I sit writing this. I descend from his younger sister, Mary. Here’s his story. People like John rarely got a voice, or got to tell their story. But something amazing – and terrible – happened to him one night in 1833. Which meant that nearly 200 years on, I can read his actual words.
Disclaimer: I should say that in the years I was researching the Stillingfleet Tragedy, I had no idea I was connected to any of the protagonists. It was several years in, that I found out I am closely related to one of the survivors, more distantly to one of the victims (Clara Sturdy) and also to Stephen Green, the hauling man. (Stephen’s mother in law was Isaac Moses‘ sister, for those who enjoy the internecine).
Passing Stillingfleet church in 2001 we spotted a huge gravestone. I made a mental note to stop one day, and go have a closer look. And at some point, we did.
This mass grave is unique; commemorating 11 church singers, who died when their small boat was overturned in the River Ouse, at Stillingfleet, Yorkshire, on Boxing Day, 1833.
My family had lived in Stillingfleet and the surrounding Vale of York villages as far back as the records go. So when we started, I thought the odds were that I might have some connection with the Tragedy. Yet none of the victims or survivors had any of ‘my’ surnames, as far as I knew, at that point. For some unknown reason, as time went on, the story gripped us. I wanted to disentangle what really happened, that Boxing Day at dusk, on the river. And the closer you looked, the more the story seemed to find its fulcrum on this man, John Fisher, who had the presence of mind to try and grab the tow rope, just before the boat capsized. He fascinated me. The story had always been told (little monograph, odd press cuttings on anniversaries, etc) with no real sense of forensics – yet accounts contradicted eachother and, when you disentangled it – John Turner seemed to have done something verging on the crazy, that caused the whole thing. But no-one wanted to come out and say that.
The victims were: William Bristow, (parish clerk) 55; Thomas Webster, 44; Clarissa Sturdy, 15; John Turner, 55; Jane Turner, 16; Christopher Spencer, 36; Henry Spencer, 44; Elizabeth Spencer, 14; Elizabeth Buckle, 15; and finally, both Sarah Spencer and Sarah Eccles, ‘Accidentally drowned and not yet found, 16’.
From the newspaper accounts, we saw there were three survivors; John Fisher, George Eccles and Richard Toes.
The girls included Clara Sturdy, the village schoolmaster’s daughter. Clara was the first to be pulled out of the water, actually on the night of the accident – maybe because as the more middle class, she was wearing lighter, silk clothes as opposed to the heavy woollen ‘stuffs’ worn by labourers’ daughters then.
Poignantly, the inquest was held at the White Swan. The landlord’s daughter, Elizabeth Buckle, was one of the victims.
We cannot know what instruments the men played, except for survivor, Richard Toes. Local folklore – a story told to the 1930s choir- had it that one of the three survivors lived only because he was carrying a ‘cello’ strapped to his back, that trapped the air! In fact, according to his own account, given to the Gazette, Toes had a ‘small violin’.
What were the girls and men doing on the river, that night? Stillingfleet was a parish consisting of several villages, split by the river. It seems, rather than try and get a ferry to come out on Boxing Day, they made the fatal decision to use fisherman John Turner’s small boat. In 1829, Turner’s brother and nephew had been arrested and remanded at Beverley Gaol – for stealing roof lead and concealing it in the self-same boat. They were let off with the judge hinting he thought they’d had a lucky escape from hard labour! John Turner came from a long line of Ouse fishermen – but in Regency times, suddenly took to reporting himself in parish records as ‘yeoman’, not fisherman. At this date, several banks went spectacularly bust and I have wondered whether Turner didn’t have financial problems, that night in 1833, and decided to commit suicide? His act of sailing into danger when they were already well clear, seems suicidal.
At the 1833 inquest, the jurors – all Stillingfleet men – were gathered together then solemnly trooped from house to house, viewing the bodies, which were laid out in their own homes. Most of the jurors were related by blood or marriage to one or more victim, we discovered. In 1833, this was seen as a positive advantage at an inquest.
John Fisher was the first to give evidence and the only witness who was re-called to the stand more than once. He described the boat as being in the centre of the river and almost within sight of Stillingfleet landing, their destination, when the accident happened:
“‘…George Eccles and I were rowing the boat; we met a vessel soon after we got into the boat, coming up the river. It was drawn by a horse and a line. Eccles and I wanted to keep on the off-side of the vessel, that is towards the Stillingfleet side, the horse being on the Acaster side. John Turner said, we were to row to the other side. I told Eccles to ease his oar, and I would pull…’”
George Eccles’ account backed John’s:
“‘…Turner was accustomed to the river, being a fisherman, and it being his boat, we complied with his directions; because we thought that he understood it better than we did… We went on the inside…’”
Perseverance was a heavy coal barge, fully laden with coal, and with its sails up, but the tide, a ‘sharp ebb tide’ according to Fisher, was in the small rowing boat’s favour. The whole thing happened in seconds with the wind behind the vessel and the current behind the Singers’boat. There was confusion about who said what, whether to tighten or lower the horse’s tow line. Some of the inquest accounts contradict others, but none of the discrepancies were explored during the inquest.
Fisher was called back to the stand, to clarify whether the hauling man, Stephen Green, was at fault. Fisher stated no blame could be attributed to Green. Green testified:
“‘…I cannot say whether the boat would have gone over the line or not, if the men had not lifted it up…’”
Fisher was, like Green a Cawood man by birth. In fact, their baptisms are on the same page of the Cawood Parish Register. John lived in Cawood until he was around 13. He would undoubtedly have known Green. Green’s wife was related to my Cawood Moses family. The two Cawood men can’t not have known eachother.
The York Gazette is the only paper that seems to have got to the third survivor, and Toes said very little but in the little he did say, he exonerated Fisher:
“Toes, who appears to have but an imperfect recollection of what took place after he was in the water, gives a very similar account to that of the watermen. He gave it as his opinion, if Fisher had not seized the rope, the accident would still have happened…”
John survived because as the boat capsized, he still held on to the rope. A sailor shouted ‘Hold thy hold, lad!’ from the bank, and Fisher and the unconscious Toes were dragged out still tangled with the rope. In the confusion, Perseverance’s small boat broke free of its moorings so the sailors couldn’t rescue the girls and men in the water. Meanwhile, some of the Singers had clambered on to Turner’s upturned boat and were being swept down river. George said:
“‘…I also got onto the boat, which was upsidedown, and I then got hold of her with my other hand… William Bristow had likewise hold of her, and the boat turned over several times, and he and I at length got into her, she then being full of water. In that state, we went down the river about two hundred yards. She then turned over again, and we both lost our hold of the boat, but I still continued to hold by the oar. I never saw any more of Bristow after the boat turned over… [George was rescued by another boat, then]: … I saw something floating before us, and I desired the captain to assist me in reaching it. We first overtook two hats, the next was the body of Clarissa Sturdy, who was floating on the surface of the water, and we took her into the boat. She was quite dead. I afterwards got into the cabin of his vessel, and sat by the fire, until we got to Acaster ferry, and I then went on shore, and two neighbours led me home. My own daughter was drowned, and her body has not yet been found…’”
In years to come, one of George’s daughters was a servant to John Fisher’s sister, Jane, in Kelfield. Although John – like his father before him – was a labourer, Jane made a good marriage to local farmer, Robert Guy and lived at Kelfield Hall. My own direct ancestor, Jane and John’s sister, Mary, also made a good marriage to a Cawood yeoman farmer, John Cleveland. In fact – this is the puzzle about John Fisher. His younger brother, William, became a substantial farmer in his own right. All three of his sisters married wealthy farmers, despite their elderly parents living to extreme old age in Kelfield, being described as ‘Paupers’ on their last census. How the paupers, Elizabeth and John Fisher, managed to bring up almost all their children to marry well, and do well – is a mystery, given the social set-up of the time. John and youngest brother, Henry, alone seem to have remained labourers. I have often wondered how much that night in 1833 must have haunted him. Some newspapers mention the cries of the young girls drowning, with the mariners and survivors helpless to save them.
Clara Sturdy’s body was the only one brought out of the water on the night of the accident.
By first light, Green was back, helping where he could:
“…Early in the morning, Green, the hauling man, came to Stillingfleet, and immediately rendered every assistance in his power…
All morning and into the afternoon, the bodies came up at different places. Turner’s and Webster’s bodies were pulled up in one drag, “clasped in each other’s arms….”
The upshot of the inquest was that no-one was blamed for the accident, but the boat was fined a deodand (a fine on account of the accident causing death) of 1 shilling. In the time it took a stagecoach to get from York to London, the story went national, but the victims were already buried by the time first reports appeared in the London Times.
No-one seemed to publicly question Turner’s bizarre decision – when he was already safely in the centre of the river, to make George and John row to the Acaster side, and try and go between a barge with a tow-line and the bank. Yet it seems willfully crazy. Neither has this ever been commented on in the occasional media stories re-living the event. Maybe it was kept quiet at the time because of the fear of speaking ill of the dead. And the fact Turner had sons and daughters left behind. It is notable that the Turners eventually all left Stillingfleet – either emigrating to the US, or disappearing into the anonymity of London. John Fisher seems to have received no blame at the time for being the one to seize the rope. I see it as he was the only one aboard quick thinking enough to try and act to avert the disaster. I am proud of him. Toes went out of his way to exonerate him, denied a voice at the Inquest. And George and he remained firm friends, it seems, long after that night, living as neighbours and Jane Fisher employing George’s daughter.
Although the vicar bought their mourning clothes and Lord Beilby-Thompson paid for the lavish funeral, several large families were left with no provider. The Spencers were devastated by the loss. Christopher and Henry were brothers and between them, had many kids. Checking the patchy York Poor Law records, we found by the 1840s at least one of Spencer’s children applying for poor relief.
John, George and Richard lived on – Toes into his late 70s and John and George well into their 80s. According to censuses, John and George were neighbours in a little stand of one-room cottages called ‘Who’d Have Thought It?’ for many years after the accident, alongside victim Thomas Webster’s family.
Only Richard has a gravestone in Stillingfleet churchyard. Censuses show he moved away in old age to live with a son, in a distant village. When he died, he was brought home. George, too, is home. Somewhere in an unmarked grave in the churchyard.
We tracked John’s grave down to York Cemetary. He died in York Workhouse, in the winter of 1878. He had been living with his younger son, William, on Union Terrace, York, in the shadow of the workhouse. John was buried in a public grave with 13 other people. York Cemetery’s public graves would be open for a month, then filled in. Quite appropriate John should set sail for his final jouney in the company of 13 others. The grave is in a disused part of the cemetery; covered with brambles. Apparently, the grave sites right next to public graves were very popular as the lack of memorial on the public grave meant more room for a rich man’s imposing marble stone! The genealogists at York Cemetery told me the public burial cost a few shilling – and not everyone could even afford that. Many elderly working class people would be taken reluctantly by their loved ones, to die in the workhouse hospital – before there was an NHS, for wokring people who needed to continue working, there was little choice. When John’s wife, Mary, lay dying the Census recorded there was a ‘Nurse’ in the house – presumably paid for by John’s employer (probably Beilby-Thompson). But years later, in York, far from his old village and community, John had to die at the workhouse. At least there was some rudimentary nursing. And John’s son and daughter in law would have had to continue working, to pay their rent. A death certificate signed from the workhouse does not necessarily mean your ancestor was a regular workhouse inmate: just someone who died there.
For all his years as a Church Singer, this great-grandson of a Stillingfleet Parish Clerk, received no thanks and when he died, he was the only one who had been on that boat that night in 1833, never to make it home. I wonder if he made his way from Union St to the Minster, of a Sunday, and listened to the choir; which, with an organ, replaced the York singers way back in 1829.
Six years after first unearthing the story of the Stillingfleet disaster, I sent for my great-grandfather, John Henry Thompson’s birth certificate. His mother was Eliza Cleveland. I dug a bit further and discovered her mother was Mary Cleveland, née Fisher born in Cawood, in 1802. Sister of survivor John Fisher. This man I’d felt compelled to research for years – was my 4x great-uncle.
The York Gazette is held at York Library, where you can search the indexes by person and subject, between the years 1819-1898.
York Central Library, Museum Street , York YO1 7DS
T 01904 552815
Also on microfilm at the Borthwick Institute, York University.
A version of this article was published in ‘Family Tree Magazine’.