Stillingfleet Tragedy near York, Boxing Day 1833

View of St Helen's Church Stillingfleet across the River Ouse, York
St Helen’s Church Stillingfleet, across the River Ouse, York
Image credit: Pen Hemingway


On Thursday noon, about half-past one o’clock, the singers attached to the parish church of Stillingfleet, and who consist of the most exemplary persons of the village, left their happy homes, for the purpose … of visiting the principle farmers in the parish… and were proceeding at half-past four o’clock, in a boat to Kelfield, when … the boat was swamped, and out of a party of fourteen, no less than eleven human beings, five men and six young women, were drowned…”.

Yorkshire Gazette, 28 December 1833

Chances are you will only be able to read a working class ancestor’s actual words, if they were involved in a court case, or inquest, in the 19th century. Before the 1870 Education Act, many people couldn’t read or write. Middle class people leave a trail for genealogists – in property deeds and wills, maybe even letters and journals. But working class people are often “names writ on water”. I found one labourer ancestor’s story in the 19th century newspapers. Twice in 1833, he was involved in newsworthy events: giving evidence as a witness in January 1833 in a trial, and in December of the same year, giving evidence at an unrelated inquest. I was lucky to be able to hear a voice that usually would have been lost to me.

Although Isaac Pitman didn’t develop his famous shorthand system till the later 1830s, early journalists and courts made use of versions of shorthand that mean we can, occasionally, read our ancestors’ actual words, verbatim. Dickens learned the Gurney system of shorthand in the 1820s. Pitman was later to travel the UK, including visiting York, promoting his shorthand system, and it superseded earlier methods like Gurney’s. It’s likely my ancestor’s words were recorded with the Gurney system; his inquest evidence appears verbatim across numerous newspapers, local and national, from the first week of 1834.

The Stillingfleet Tragedy is the story of a group of largely working class people, who died trying to promote the decidedly upper class vicar’s hobbyhorse. Boxing Day would have been, for the men – mainly farm labourers – one of their few days off in the year. They spent it travelling the larger farms, “singing The Christmas Hymn”. Experts on early 19th century church music tell me it is not known, for sure, which carol this was.

“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

On Boxing Day 1833, 11 people were drowned in an accident on the river at Stillingfleet, a few miles south of York when the small boat they were in was capsized by the towline of a larger vessel, the Perseverance, being towed by a horse. At the time of the accident, the singers’ boat had been heading back to Stillingfleet, away from York; tragically, the accident happened within sight of the village’s landing. The vessel had been heading in the opposite direction, towards York.

The story hit the national press and was dubbed “The Stillingfleet Tragedy”. The victims were the village’s church singers. In the days before choirs were fashionable and churches had organs, a group of singers (often young women) and musicians (often men of varying ages) provided music in church. They would normally work under the direction of the parish clerk – one qualification for that job being that you had some musical ability.

In many parishes, the singers were working class men and women. In an era before state education, when many people were illiterate, church singers would have to be able to read, and also read music. Prized instruments like violins or serpents were handed down in the family. My own relative – gamekeeper’s watcher and labourer, John Fisher – was one of the church singers in Stillingfleet in 1833. His grandfather, Thomas Fisher, had been the parish clerk in the 1750s. This was a now forgotten aspect of working class life in the past.

Image of a serpent musical instrument - it's a large wind instrument, the size of a grown man - related to a cornett but shaped like a snake
Serpent musical instrument at the Dales Countryside Museum in Hawes Picture: Pen Hemingway

On Boxing Day 1833, Stillingfleet’s vicar, the Rev David Markham, sent out his church singers to sing round the larger houses and farms in the parish. Markham had a passion for “the old ways”. York Minster got its organ just several years before, in 1829, but Markham wanted to stick with the old style church singers – musicians and young women providing the music in church rather than choirboys. The singers were something of a pet project of his. The parish consisted of three villages separated by the River Ouse. As one of the singers – John Turner – was also a fisherman, the singers set out on his small boat to visit the grand houses on the other side of the river. Eleven of them were never to return alive.

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”. The two Sarahs’ bodies were never recovered – the river is tidal, fast and treacherous at this point. All 11 victims are remembered on a large headstone in Stillingfleet churchyard.

Picture of the gravestone showing the names of all 11 victims
Image: Pen Hemingway

There were three survivors: John Fisher, George Eccles and Richard Toes. All three were labourers. Fisher was pulled out from the water at the scene of the accident; Eccles was found clinging to an oar, floating some way downstream; and Toes was pulled out of the water, unconscious, at the scene. Within five minutes of the accident, all the young women and the older male musicians were dead. Survivors were haunted by the screams and cries for help.

The young women 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 she was more middle class, she was wearing lighter, silk clothes as opposed to the heavy woollen ‘stuffs’ worn by labourers’ daughters at the time.

In the 19th century, inquests were held quickly, on site. York’s coroner, John Wood, travelled to the village and a solemn troop of coroner and inquest jurors – all Stillingfleet men – moved from house to house, viewing the nine recovered bodies, each laid out in their home, as was then the custom. Most of the jurors were related by blood or marriage to one or more victim. In 1833, this was seen as a positive advantage at an inquest – that jurors should know the victims and even, in the case of murder victims’ inquests, the possible murderer.

The inquest was held at the White Swan. The landlord’s daughter, Elizabeth Buckle, was one of the victims. The White Swan no longer stands; it was adjoining Stillingfleet’s churchyard and was later demolished for the churchyard to expand. Elizabeth’s family would have been able to look out from the pub’s windows, to see their daughter’s grave.

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, which trapped the air and floated. In fact, according to his own account, given to the York Gazette, Toes had a small violin. And he survived because his legs got caught up in a towline. He was hauled to safety by the crew of the vessel that had smashed into the little fishing boat.

Why were the singers 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 that time, several banks went spectacularly bust and it’s possible that Turner decided to commit murder-suicide; a little like the rare phenomenon of pilots who crash planes deliberately. When researching the tragedy, I discovered that Turner’s boat had been safely in the centre of the river, and was nowhere near the oncoming larger vessel – it was almost across to Stillingfleet landing – when unaccountably, he made the two oarsman row into danger, trapping the small boat on the other side of the river entirely, between the large vessel and its tow rope. They need never have even been there. Turner’s act of sailing into danger when they were already well clear, certainly seems suicidal.

John Fisher was the first to give evidence and the only witness who was recalled 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 Selby] side. John Turner said, we were to row to the other side. I told Eccles to ease his oar, and I would pull”.

In other words, Turner asked them to row towards a point on the river where they didn’t even need to be. They weren’t landing on the Acaster side.

The account of the other survivor who had been pulled conscious out of the water, George Eccles, backed Fisher’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 towline. According to Fisher’s evidence, he called out for it to be tightened (so they could limbo under it), and Turner simultaneously called out for it to be loosened (so the boat could go over it). Some of the inquest accounts contradict others, but none of the discrepancies were explored during the inquest. Interestingly, the men on the riverbank did Fisher’s bidding, not Turner’s, as they tried to raise it.

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”.

Living his adult life in Stillingfleet parish, Fisher was, like Green a Cawood man by birth. (Cawood is a neighbouring village, on the opposite riverbank). In fact, their baptisms are on the same page of the Cawood parish register. Fisher lived in Cawood until he was around 13. He would undoubtedly have known Green, and they were later to be connected by marriage. In fact, the two Cawood men can’t not have known each other, being the same age and growing up in a very small village. This too, was never mentioned at the inquest.

Green will also have recognised Turner, and known the boat was his. The Turners were a fishing family for many decades, on both riverbanks. On both sides of the river, Turners had run-ins with the law, including Turner’s own brother a couple of years earlier, maybe using this very boat to steal some of Henry Preston’s roof lead during a refurbishment of Moreby Hall, spiriting it away downriver. Not wise, as Preston was also Lord High Sheriff for Yorkshire in the 1830s (he was also Fisher and Eccles employed, as I discovered later).

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”.

Toes and Fisher were both gamekeepers for Henry Preston. Earlier that year they had given evidence at a court case where they had described being attacked by poachers. Toes had had his arm broken, and Fisher – according to that court evidence, his nickname was ‘Fish’ – had taken on the poachers, then helped Toes back to the safety of Moreby Hall gun room. No mention was made at the 1833 inquest about Toes’ arm, injured months earlier, but this may be why he was unable to free himself from the tangled rope. The fact that Fisher had the guts to take on armed poachers indicates he had quite a commanding presence, which may account for why the men on the riverbank did his bidding, not Turner’s.

Fisher 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 caught with the towrope. In the confusion, Perseverance’s small boat broke free of its moorings, so the sailors couldn’t rescue the girls and men now screaming for help in the water. Meanwhile, some of the singers had clambered on to Turner’s upturned boat and were being swept down river. Eccles said:

“I also got onto the boat, which was upside down, 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”.

Henry Preston later build a row of one-room cottages, where the two survivors Fisher and Eccles’ (his employees) became neighbours for many years, along with the family of one of the victims, presumably also Preston’s employees. The cottages – long since demolished – were called “Who’d Have Thought It”. (Preston was famously mean spirited, so the name of the labourers’ cottages might have been a wry joke). There is now a long hedgerow a few metres from a lane, in an otherwise empty field, where ‘Who’d Have Thought It’ once stood, a short distance out of Stillingfleet.

I have often wondered how much that night in 1833 must have haunted the men. 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.

Turner’s bizarre decision – when he was already safely in the centre of the river – to make Eccles and Fisher row to the dangerous Acaster side, and try and go between a barge with a towline and the bank when they were already well clear of it and not even heading towards that bank, was not even referenced during the inquest. Yet it seems wilfully strange. Neither has this ever been commented on in the occasional media stories reliving the event. Maybe it was kept quiet at the time because of the fear of speaking ill of the dead and the fact that 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. It seems as though he was the only one aboard quick thinking enough to try and act to avert the disaster. Denied a voice at the inquest, Toes went out of his way to exonerate Fisher when interviewed by the press. And the two men remained firm friends it seems, long after that night.

There was an initial flurry of aristocratic benevolence, with a benefit ball held in the York assembly halls to raise funds for the victims’ families. In addition, the vicar bought their mourning clothes and Lord Beilby-Thompson paid for the lavish funeral. But social class was to play its part in the aftermath of the disaster, and several large families were left with no provider. Despite being promised aid in perpetuity and told they’d “never be forgotten”, the Spencer family was devastated by the loss. Christopher and Henry Spencer, who were brothers, between them had many kids. Checking the patchy York Poor Law records, I found that by the 1840s (not long after the tragedy) at least one of these children had been forced to apply for poor relief. The parish told the child they would not support her with any financial relief, as at 13 or so, she was perfectly capable of supporting herself.

This is reminiscent of Scrooge’s words in ‘A Christmas Carol’ (written at the same time, in 1843):

“‘Are there no prisons?’ asked Scrooge.

‘Plenty of prisons’, said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

‘And the Union workhouses?’ demanded Scrooge. ‘Are they still in operation?’

‘They are. Still’, returned the gentleman, ‘I wish I could say they were not’.

‘The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?’ said Scrooge.

‘Both very busy, sir’.

‘Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course’, said Scrooge. ‘I’m very glad to hear it’.”

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, 1843

As for David Markham, the vicar who put the singers on their collision course that Boxing Day afternoon, he went on to become the personal chaplain to Queen Victoria. His words about the singers were widely quoted in the national press. Speaking to The Yorkshire Gazette, he called the dead parishioners “the best of people”. As grandson of a former Archbishop of York, he was already a prominent and well-connected churchman.

The parish records are fascinating. Until December 1833, Markham usually did all the christenings, weddings and burial services personally, and recorded them meticulously in his own handwriting. After the accident, he seems to have increasingly deputised these jobs, as the handwriting is clearly someone else’s; he was a broken man. He was to stay a few more years, before moving to a parish in Essex. His church there is now almost derelict (left empty because of bats!); his grave is overgrown and forgotten, with traffic thundering past endlessly. It feels a million miles away from the peaceful, well-kept graveyard here in Yorkshire.

Image of the well-kept graveyard in Stillingfleet
Image: Pen Hemingway

John Fisher, George Eccles and Richard Toes lived on – Richard into his late 70s, and John and George well into their 80s. Of the three survivors, 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.

I tracked John’s grave down to York cemetery. He died in York workhouse, in the winter of 1878. He had been living with his younger son, William, on Union Terrace, in the shadow of the workhouse. John – who narrowly evaded being buried with nine others in 1833 – is buried in a public grave in the city, with 13 other people. York cemetery’s public graves would have been open for a month, before being filled in. The grave is in a disused part of the cemetery, covered with brambles. Apparently, gravesites right next to public graves were very popular at the time, as the lack of memorial on the public one meant more room for a rich man’s imposing marble stone. Quite appropriate that John should set sail for his final journey in the company of 13 others.

Genealogists at York cemetery told me that a public burial cost a few shillings – and not everyone could even afford that. Loved ones would often take elderly working class people reluctantly to die in the workhouse hospital. A death certificate signed from the workhouse does not necessarily mean your ancestor was a regular workhouse inmate, just someone who died there. Before there was an NHS, for working people who needed to continue working there was little choice. When John Fisher’s wife Mary lay dying, the census recorded there was a ‘nurse’ in the house – presumably paid for by John’s employer, Henry Preston. But years later in York, far from his old village and community, John had to die at the workhouse.

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 the boat that night in 1833 never to make it home. I wonder if he made his way from Union Street to the Minster of a Sunday and listened to the choir, which with an organ replaced the York singers, way back in 1829.

I was first drawn to the story around 2000, when we spotted the large gravestone in the village churchyard, where the nine victims of the 1833 tragedy were buried and all 11 commemorated. So far as I then knew, none of the victims of survivors were relatives, as I didn’t recognise any of the surnames from my family tree at that time. Coming from a long line of Cawood and Stillingfleet farmers, this was still not too surprising. Yet, I felt compelled to keep researching, piecing together information about the winds and tides, Turner’s background, the survivors’ children in Poor Law records and figuring out who the victims and survivors were.

Years later, I sent for my great grandfather’s birth certificate. His grandmother was Mary Fisher, John Fisher’s sister. It turned out I am also related to the schoolmaster’s daughter, victim Clarissa Sturdy, and the Cawood hauling man who was on the river bank that afternoon, Stephen Green. I am proud of my great, great, great uncle, for having the presence of mind to try and avert the disaster, even if he failed to do so.

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