About the Stillingfleet Tragedy…

Close to the accident site, Acaster side of river.

This site is about the Stillingfleet Tragedy – an accident on the river Ouse in Regency Yorkshire.

On Boxing Day, 1833, Stillingfleet’s fourteen Church Singers – all of them middle-aged men and young women – took a small boat to sing “The Christmas Hymn” round various local houses, at Moreby, Acaster Selby, Kelfield and Stillingfleet. The parish was then split by the river. The boat was owned by fisherman, John Turner and at the oars were gamekeeper’s assistant/farm labourer John Fisher and his friend, fellow labourer, George Eccles.

Unused to the river, both men were safely in the centre of the river and within sight of their destination, Stillingfleet Landing, when Turner directed them to row to the opposite bank, between a coal barge bound for York, called ‘Perserverance’ and the horse and rope that towed it, on the tow path on the opposite bank to where they were going.

The horse was led by Fisher’s fellow Cawood-man, Stephen Green. The tide was behind the small vessel and a strong wind was behind ‘Perserverance’.  The tow rope refused to sink in the tide and the wind, and the small boat was capsized, despite Green’s best efforts to avert disaster and John Fisher’s quick thinking, in seizing the rope and attempting to go under it when it was obvious the little boat couldn’t clear it in time.

There were only three survivors to the tragedy – the oarsmen, George Eccles and John Fisher and Fisher’s fellow gamekeeping assistant at Moreby Hall, Richard Toes. For a while, survivors heard the desperate cries of the young girls and the men in the water, only for them to fall silent, one by one. It was impossible to rescue them as the small boat attached to ‘Perserverance’ had come loose from its rope, and floated off.

That same week, the newspapers reported devastating hurricanes in the area, and it must have been bitterly cold. Only one body was found on the night of the accident – Clara Sturdy’s. The other bodies were dredged up the following morning. Sarah Eccles’ shawl was found in one dredge, but her body and that of Elizabeth Spencer, remained lost so the grave contains only nine of the victims. The Websters, Eccles family and Fishers were to remain neighbours for decades. Turners left the village in the years that followed the tragedy – for London and to the US. There are still Spencer and Fisher descendants living locally. Apart from fisherman, Turner, the men who died were all farm labourers. We know that survivors Richard Toes and John Fisher also worked as watchers for the gamekeeper at Moreby Hall.  Clarissa Sturdy was the village schoolmaster’s daughter; Elizabeth Buckle the local publican’s. (Poignantly, the pub then stood in the churchyard and the inquest was held there). The other girls were farm labourer’s daughters. It is likely the girls sang and the men played instruments, like the church bands Thomas Hardy was later to write about. Thomas Bristow was acting Parish Clerk at the time of his death.

Those who died were: Henry Spencer, Christopher Spencer, Elizabeth Spencer, Sarah Spencer,  Sarah Eccles, Thomas Bristow, Clarissa Sturdy, Thomas Webster, Elizabeth Buckle,  Jane Turner and John Turner.

I was compelled to research this for several years, after spotting the 1833 gravestone in Stillingfleet churchyard but as none of the victims’ or survivors’ names were ‘my’ known family names, thought I had no connection with the Tragedy, for a long time.  It wasn’t until I sent for my great grandad’s birth certificate that I realised his grandmother was Mary Fisher, sister of survivor, John. John Fisher was my great-great uncle. Later, further research uncovered that I am related to victim Clarissa Sturdy’s family, as well as the horse marine, Stephen Green’s. I am also related to the Turners on the other side of the river, also fishermen.

If Yorkshire history or genealogy is your thing, you may like my other site, http://theknittinggenie.com/

I will be adding articles to this site, slowly and steadily, so do check back with us.

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