Accident site, from Acaster side



TWO questions seem to spring to mind immediately. Firstly, why did the Singers not use the ferries? Secondly, why did Turner make them row into danger, when the boat was already positioned safely on the river? “Instead of crossing the river in the Acaster ferry boat, they all (14 in number) got into a boat the property of a man named Turner, a fisherman. As they were crossing the river, a vessel, belonging to this city, laden with coals, was coming up, hauled by a horse.”[York Herald, December 28th 1833.]One question that often comes up is – why didn’t the Singers use the ferry?

We know from almost contemporaneous accounts, that the ferries across the river were plentiful, at the time. So why would the singers choose Turner’s small fishing boat? An 1834 survey of the river crossings gives some idea why it maybe seemed a good idea. The very fact The Perseverance was on the river on Boxing Day, suggests Dec 26th was a working day, like any other, on the river. The fact, George Eccles was picked up within minutes by another boat coming up towards Stillingfleet, bears this out, too.

Money might have been another consideration. Turner’s boat was free – the ferry would have cost. Also meant a wait, as some farm-lad who doubled as ferryman had to be peeled away from his day of rest, or maybe even find time between his never-ending work!The Ouse provided plenty of work for those who needed it, often old farming families down on their luck. At various times, John Fisher’s own father-in-law, John Shillito, had worked as a ‘haler’ (hauler, leading the horses that pulled heavy barges and commercial traffic) despite being the son of a prosperous yeoman farmer; and much later, John Fisher’s younger son William is described in a York Census as ‘haler’.

Stephen Green, the Cawood man who was leading Perseverance’s horse, also came from a family where the men had to turn to the river for a living, when their farms were no longer profitable. Green’s wife’s family, the Moses family from Cawood, were prosperous haulers.

The York Gazette mentions Green by name as one of those who came from surrounding villages at dawn on the Friday morning, to help drag the river for bodies:

Early in the morning, Green, the hauling man, came to Stillingfleet, and immediately rendered every assistance in his power.

Cawood and Stillingfleet parish records have many burials of un-named bodies found in the river, and pulling decomposing bodies from the river would have been a regular, grim task for watermen. Green and Fisher appear a couple of entries apart in the 1790′s Cawood baptism register, yet there is no reference anywhere extant to prove Green and Fisher knew eachother in the 1830s. But it’s entirely possible they did. (John’s family crossed the river to live in Stillingfleet when he was around 13 or 14, so John must have known Stephen at some point in childhood, even if they didn’t immediately recognise eachother in the dark and confusion on the river bank that night in 1833). John says it was one of the sailors, not Green, who shouted ‘Hold thy hold lad!’ to him, from the river bank, as he clung for dear life, onto the tow-line.  

So much for the halers and watermen of the Ouse. Turner made a living another way. To understand something of John Turner, the man who made the decision to put the Singers between Perseverance and the far-side river bank, it might be useful first to see what we can reconstruct of his life and background.

There were two John Turners born to Edward and Mary. The first John Turner and his twin Joseph were born February 1st, 1775, but like so many twins in the parish records, presumably perished as although they don’t appear in the death records, the next John Turner was born to Edward and Mary on January 29th, 1778 – making Turner around 20 years senior to anyone else on the 1833 boat – apart from Bristow. There is some evidence that John Turner had a couple of acres of land, hence ‘yeoman’ but there is something not quite right with the designation, considering the context. He consistently self described as ‘yeoman’ but others described him as ‘fisherman’. Even so, Turner doesn’t seem to have owned enough land for himself or his children to appear on any tithe apportionment map we have yet found, for example.

Yeoman farmers like John Fisher’s brother-in-law Robert Guy, at Auburn Hall in Kelfield (a part of Stillingfleet parish), had tens of acres – two fields alone of his were mortgaged for £400 around this date, that being a fraction of the land he held onto, unmortgaged. Guy’s cousin Barnard Clarkson owned hundreds of acres in the Bubwith area, Stillingfleet and Kelfield in 1811. Turner’s entire parcel of land was likely equivalent to an orchard or two – fractional, upto the true yeoman farmers of the district who could count their acreage in the tens or hundreds, and their properties on more than one hand. 

Yeomen also commonly appear in the Poll Books, as anyone with enough land could vote, or enough income – even tradesmen. To date, we have been unable to locate Stillingfleet Turners in the Poll Books for the early 1830′s elections.

It could be Turner was investing and making money in one of the many get-rich-quick schemes of the times, such as the railway shares the newspapers were so full of. We cannot know.When John Turner was a young man, and now fishing the river himself, for a living, in 1794, his father, Edward seems to have committed an indiscretion, as he fathered an illegitimate child with Ann Raimes, daughter of the pauper, William Raimes of Escrick. Raimes features strongly in J.P.G. Taylor’s excellent monograph, ‘Escrick, A Village History’, in Chapter 17. ‘The Parish and the Poor: Welfare at the Turn of the Century’, Mr Taylor looks at Raymes in great detail, and says this:…..

The parish does not neglect the inner man:July 11 1801 Wm Rames 3 Pints of Ale 9d…. In addition to free clothing (and occasionally, ale), William was receiving a regular payment in cash at this time.

In 1799, 1800 and 1801, for example, he was being paid 2s.6d. a week, every week of the year….. William disappears from the records for a year or two. Then we read this in the parish registers: The Stillingfleet parish register records his daughter Ann in this way, in the record of little Mary’s birth: The full names appear to have been excised at a later date – possibly by John Turner, when he became a church singer and may have had some access to the registers via the parish clerk, or maybe it was done unilaterally by a sympathetic parish clerk, at some later date. We have to remember that these were Georgians, not Victorians, and as mores and societal attitudes changed, the period in question was one where people often seem to have had a more down to earth approach to illegitimacy. The heavy handed attempts to confer anonymity, in a later hand, could be to protect the sensibilities of the Raimes family, and/or the Turners. As Turners remained in the parish and Raimes didn’t, my money’s on the Turners!

There are numerous references to illegitimacy in the 18thC parish records, but very few have been censored by later hands. As a Church Singer, Turner would be accounted amongst the most respectable and important of the villagers. But back in the 1790s, Ann Raimes was either, in the eyes of her contemporaries, a ‘fallen woman’, or worse by her father’s death and, whatever Ann’s circumstances, it would be unlikely she could have been in much of a position to help her poor father. Although it’s possible she did, given the gap between William’s date of death and his last receipt of poor relief. Either way, given what we know of the Raimes family, this doesn’t reflect well on Turner Sr, a man with a large established family in Stillingfleet, to have fathered little Mary Raimes in January 1794, from the pauper’s daughter.

Having a half sister ‘on the parish’ is also far from desirable for any respectable ‘yeoman’, although we do not know the baby’s fate and whether she even survived infancy or, if she did, remained in the village.

Turner himself fathered an illegitimate child when he was 19. The parish register for 1797, reads:

Jane Smith. Natural daughter of John Turner… [Mother] Ann Smith. Born December 11th, 1797. Christened December 20th, 1797

The short gap between birth and christening can sometimes be instructive. Either baby Jane Smith was ailing, or it’s possible her mother was going to leave the parish. We couldn’t find a death or marriage record for Jane Smith, but many villagers we know for a fact to have died do not appear on the IGI or in the parish records. A young woman, alone with an illegitimate baby, is likely to have tried to find a relative to care for the baby, and disappeared into service in the nearest big city or further afield, guaranteeing anonymity. The search isn’t helped by the name ‘Smith’! Coincidentally, Smith was the surname of one of the Cawood watermen who found Turner’s boat the following morning, floating upsidedown. When they righted it, Turner’s net was still inside.  No ‘yeoman’ would have any use for a fisherman’s net…

We hear nothing further of Ann or the child, and have no way of knowing who Ann was. Whoever Ann was, Turner clearly felt she was not for marrying and at that time, marriage was still a considered, financial transaction. Turner’s step-mother, Jane Heslegrave seems to have brought a couple of acres to the family, so it is unlikely Turner would want to make what they then called a ‘poor’ marriage, given that patrimony. The interesting thing about Turner’s first child is, how odd that years later, he was to name another daughter Jane. She would perish with him, that evening in 1833.

We do not know when or where Turner married Sarah, but it’s entirely possible she came from another parish and may have never known of Jane and Ann Smith. In the parish throughout the 18thC and early 19thC, most folk seem to have married aged around 21, rarely much younger or much older for a first marriage. For some reason, Turner did not marry Ann Smith, but by around 1804, he must have been married to Sarah as their first child, Mary Ann, was born in 1805.John Turner seems to have been a fisherman all his life, given the rather poignant description of his net found in the upturned boat, at Cawood.

In ‘Memories of Cawood in the early 1900s’, text transcribed from tapes, John Bernard Kettlewood described watching the Cawood fishermen (some of whom were also Turners in the early 19thC), using their nets to catch salmon:….

They used to have a great, long net, oh about a hundred yards long and about eight or ten foot deep, I think. They used to have sinkers at  bottom, and some floats at top, and they used to go so far up river, nearly to the bend at Wharfe mouth. Then one man used to row the boat out: he used to have the net on a board at the back of the boat. One of ‘em would start and row across and the other would walk on the bank-side with a long rope to the net and he’d keep pulling… He’d go about three parts way across river with the boat and then… he’d come in real sharp…jump out on to the side and then he’d start to pull t’net in ….allus were coming with the water, never against it….


Turner’s marriage cannot be found in the parish registers and only possible ones can be pinpointed on the IGI. However, we know his wife’s name was Sarah, as she appears in the burial register for Stillingfleet:

1828. Sarah Turner, Stillingfleet, November 21st, 46 years

In conclusion, throughout the registers, as Turner’s younger children were born, he often self reported as ‘yeoman’ although he appears to have remained a fisherman.

We come to the most intriguing aspect of the disaster – why did Turner compel John and George to row into the path of danger? By all accounts, they were almost within sight of Stillingfleet Landing. Various accounts suggest they were in the centre of the river, presumably about to row to the Stillingfleet side, and the safety of the landing.

Both George Eccles and John Fisher said it was ‘dusk’. At least one newspaper account said the river was moving at 5mph; apparently, fast, with the current going in favour of the small boat, the wind in favour of the large vessel – which explains the speed impact must have happened.   The newspapers of the week following report hurricanes, and there are accounts nationally, that week of the appalling weather conditions.

On Thursday, an inquest was held before Mr Carter, at the Tiger’s Head, Lee-green, on view of the body of Mr Edward Green, a highly respectable farmer, who resided in Shoreham, Kent… the unfortunate gentleman was returning home in his chaise on Monday evening last, and was warned by several persons not to pass through a running stream at the back of the Tiger’s Head, the same being dangerous from the first heavy rains; the caution was however disregarded, and the deceased was found on the following morning , together with his horse, quite dead. Verdict – ‘Accidental death.’ 

[From 'The Times', December 29th, 1833].

And from The York Courant of January 1834, we get a sense of some unusual weather systems, only two days after the funeral:

THE LATE HURRICANE …. ON Tuesday last, this the the adjacent counties was visited by one of the most tremendous hurricanes ever remembered…. YORK. The hurricane raged here with great violence, uprooting six old elms, on the New Walk, and doing much damage to the roofs of the houses…. The water in the river presented a singular foaming appearance, and the wind was so powerful at times, as to raise it in clouds of mist to the height of a good-sized house. RICCALL, NEAR SELBY – The storm of Tuesday was very severely felt in this village… the chief injury was sustained at Riccall Hall. No fewer than six of the large and beautiful trees, near the Hall, were torn up, and three of the majestic elms in front of it, were levelled to the ground in less than 10 minutes. They fell with a tremendous crash…


So, our Singers were out on the river in cold, dark and possibly dangerous conditions. Although not in the full throes of a hurricane, clearly, the weather that week was unusually inclement. That said, even given – especially given – the conditions, Turner as an experienced waterman, would have had to assume Perseverance was probably being hauled by a line. Especially as the accident happened close to a bend in the river, so no vessel could rely on its sails, rounding bends.

John Fisher said:

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….


George went a little further, saying:

John Fisher and I were rowing the boat towards the off-side of the vessel, when John Turner called out for us to keep at the inside; Turner was accustomed to the river, being a fisherman, and it being his boat, we complied with his directions, because we thought he understood it better than we did, as we were quite unacquainted with managing the boat; we went on the inside; some one called out to the hauling-man to lower the line of the vessel; the line was lowered and John Fisher and, I think, John Turner also, got hold of the line to throw it over our heads, but the current was so strong, and the boat went so fast, that they could not clear it….

[Inquest as reported in The York Courant, December 28th, 1833].

Turner would have known which side the tow paths were on at this point in the river as apparently, on this stretch the tow paths were on one side only. He’d known it all his life. Even in the dark, he would have known that the barge in full sail, bearing down on them fast and with the wind in its favour, might still possibly have a towline attached – especially if it had the current against it AND was approaching a bend…

It’s hard to understand why Turner insisted the two farm labourers rowed into danger, knowing all this? As Rogerson pointed out:

in endeavouring to pass the vessel with the boat they should not have come on the inside; they ought to have been on the off-side; in that case it is probable no accident could have happened, as the rope could not have touched them, and there was plenty of room for them to have passed.

The 1830s was a boom and bust time, when banks were crashing, for example: the Selby bank of Messrs. Scholfield, Clarkson, and Co crashed around this time. The Clarksons had lived in the parish and had relatives still in Kelfield – it’s possible some locals put their trust and money into it. (Amazingly, Clarkson was a distant relation of John Fisher’s brother-in-law).

Investments in new technology like the railways sometimes failed to come good. Maybe a self styled ‘yeoman’ had made some unwise investments? We can never know, but maybe should bear it in mind, that Turner may have been preoccupied, for some now unknowable reason, that night.

In case anyone should think the Singers were tipsy, John Fisher addressed this directly at the inquest, ending his initial statement by saying:

we had drunk a little ale during the day, but we were all perfectly sober, and every one was as capable of helping himself or herself, as though we had not had any.

John appears to have been a deeply honourable man, being clear that Turner – like the hauler Green – called out to lower the line, and he, erroneously, to tighten it. John was also insistent that he and he alone raised the tow line, despite the fact his fellow survivor and someone on the bank, believed it was done by more than one person – we can’t help thinking how many hours a modern inquest would spend on clarifying that question alone.

On the other hand, the other victims’ descendants and the three survivors, lived as neighbours for many more decades, the Fishers, Eccles family and Webster descendants living next door to eachother for many years after that night in 1833, Spencers and Toes and Buckles also remained in the village. There are Spencer and Fisher descendants in the parish to this day. Every family but the Turners, in fact, remained in the parish or neighbouring ones, for decades after the disaster.

The fact the Turners – who had lived as long as the Fishers in the parish, since the early 18thC – are all gone from the parish in the years following the disaster, is suggestive.

The last ‘Why on earth did they….’ issue I’d like to address is the one closest to my own heart! As a Fisher descendant, I’ve had a few jokey comments about my ancestor being the ’cause’ of the disaster, by lifting the rope, and a brief Sky TV item on the disaster in the late 1990s, perpetuated the erroneous idea that ‘one of the men lifted the rope and the boat was swept over’. But again, the contemporary accounts are not so straightforward, or blame-apportioning. Whilst John Fisher took responsibility entirely on his own shoulders for lifting the rope, Stephen Green and George Eccles both thought the line was lifted by more than one man.

At least one local newspaper blamed the sailors of Perseverance, presumably because their failure to moor their own rowing boat meant that once Richard and John were pulled out, they were unable to save the other victims, whose cries could be heard from the bank:

We fear that much blame is to be attached to the people in the vessel, but censure of the living can be of no avail to the dead. Their own consciences, if blame be due, will be sufficient source of punishment

.[York Herald, December, 1833]

The jurors, seemed to be starting from the assumption that no-one on the boat was to blame, as all they seemed to consider was whether any blame was attributable to the ‘vessel’ (ie: Perseverance), or Stephen Green. And let’s not forget had blame been attributable, to Stephen or someone else living, there was a very real risk of criminal proceedings, possibly ending in transportation.

.BY A JUROR – I cannot say that there was any blame to be attributed either to the people on the vessel, or to the hauling-man.

[York Herald, December 28th, 1833].



One thought on “WHY ON EARTH DID THEY….?

Leave a Reply to Freyalyn Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>