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Friday
Aug272010

Clayton, William (c1861 – 1877); Fensom, Albert(c1863 – 1877); (S)Craxton, William (c1860 – 1877). GALE TRAGEDY

Clayton, William (c1861 – 1877); Fensom, Albert(c1863 – 1877); (S)Craxton, William (c1860 – 1877)

 

The start of the third quarter of the nineteenth century was marked by extreme weather which caused much hardship and grief across England. Baking hot summers and wet harsh winters meant bad harvests and miserable working conditions, especially for the agricultural labourers.

The winter of 1876-7 was remembered particularly, for the terrible storms that pulsed across the islands that year. The Times weather chart for Tuesday 30th January 1877 (printed the next day) showed the strong westerly winds of the previous day veering to “squally” north-west winds which raked across the country. All over England, from Liverpool and Hull to Bath, London and Portsmouth a trail of destruction was reported. Scaffolding collapsed in Lett’s Wharf Lambeth where the City Commissioners of Sewers were erecting buildings for the sorting and storage of the dust and refuse collected in the city of London. One woman was killed and many injured.

  

 From The Times 31st January 1877

Also on January 31st, the Manchester Guardian recorded some of the devastation that had been caused when the storms had hit the north in the early hours of the previous day. In Manchester itself, part of the roof of the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway Company’s Potato Market gave way and the River Irwell was some 8-9 feet above its normal level. The force of the winds can be seen by its description of the damage done at a local public park:

A large semicircular iron roof which covered the grand stand at Abbey Hey Gardens, Gorton was carried away by the wind. Such was the violence of the gust that it lifted the foundation stone at the bottom of the solid iron columns, the wall plates to which it was fastened and the whole roof intact over the adjoining wall. Three men who were under the roof escaped.

Similarly, at Preston, at 7.15 am:

A terrific gust of wind…..tore off the whole of the western side of the [railway] booking offices, which had been previously loosened, and turned it upside down, broken into fragments.

Two men were killed at Milnrow when a mill roof collapsed and at Liverpool boats and the pier were damaged. It was at sea in the west that the greatest loss of life occurred. In the Irish Channel the steamer Alexandra of Glasgow sunk with the loss of twelve lives. Everywhere across the country there was a similar pattern of damage and deaths. The national newspapers at the time missed the worst of the tragedy which was the loss of many fishing smacks from the Norfolk and Suffolk ports. It was only later that the full story emerged as fishing vessels failed to return to port.

The Norfolk News for the 10th March 1877, in a sentence reveals the terrible happenings of that January night when it reported:

An appeal for the Widows and Orphans of men lost in fishing vessels in the Gale of 30th January 1877; 116 men and boys: 50 widows, 11 aged parents and 115 children destitute.

These storms, which continued into February, were part of a winter of wind and rain. An observer at Castle Ashby noted for January 1877

Excessive rainfall, which, following the very heavy fall in December 1876 of 5.42 inches produced almost continuous floods in the Nene Valley

It would have been a miserable time for farm labourers, slogging away in the cold wet mud to earn enough to survive the winter and help keep their families from the workhouse. Three of these families concern us in this story and we need to briefly tell a little about them.

Pearcy (or Peacy or Piercy or Pearsy) Childs had been baptised in the local Baptist Church and married Thomas Craxton (or Scraxton) in 1853. Unfortunately they seem to disappear from the 1861 Census and are certainly not recorded in Ringstead but we know that they had at least four children, Robert, Benjamin, Samuel Carrington and Ellen. I have not yet found the baptisms of the older boys but the two younger children were both baptised in Ringstead, Samuel on July 25th 1864 and Ellen on May 21st 1868. It is possible, therefore that they returned to the village in the early 1860s. Then tragedy struck and Thomas died on July 21st1869 aged just 39 years. The 1871 Census shows newly widowed Pearcy on Parish Relief and living in Butcher’s Lane in Ringstead. All her children, even Robert who is thirteen, are put down as scholars. The 1870 Education Act had just made attendance compulsory at school until the age of twelve years for all children. It may be that Robert was just finishing his time at school or it is also possible that he had not managed to obtain work because of the poor state of farming. Benjamin was just ten years old and presumably attending the National School which had been erected in 1874 at a cost of £860 and was further enlarged in 1874 when it had an average of 100 pupils attending.

It must have been a difficult time for Pearcy and perhaps she hoped the worst was over and her life might gradually return to some sort of normality as her children got older and could help support the family.

In 1861, Stephen and Charlotte Fensom, lived at New Road, Denford with their son John. By 1871 they had moved to Spring Gardens in Ringstead. Stephen was now 35 and Charlotte 31 and they already had five more children, Thomas, Albert, Herbert, Amelia and Joseph. Stephen was a shoemaker and his eldest son, Thomas aged 12 was a “Shoe Boy”, probably helping his father as an assistant, errand boy, and perhaps fetcher and carrier to the factory. The other children are not put down as scholars, even Albert who is 8 years old. Other children, on the same page of the Census, who are eight are called “Scholars”, (a term that sometimes merely meant, “not working”). This could be an oversight or perhaps they did not go to school. At this early stage, after the 1870 Act it was patchily applied. Denford had built an Infants. School in 1872 for 60 children and had an average attendance of 40 in 1885. The older childreen, however had to walk to Ringstead. Albert would have been born too late to attend the new school. He would have had to walk the flat but often flooded road to Thrapston or, more likely, the steep climb up the hill to Ringstead.

Another mother and her family were living further up the Nene at Rushden. Sarah Bailey, daughter of a mat maker, had married William Clayton, a labourer on the 27th September 1853 in St Mary's Church, Rushden. The 1861 Census shows the couple in Church Lane, Rushden, with their children, Mary Ann, Elizabeth, Hannah, and William who was just one month old. By 1871 William, the father, is a gardener and they have moved to Duck Street. The oldest girl Mary Ann has presumably left home but Elizabeth (16) and Hannah (15) are in shoe work. William, now 11 years old, and his younger siblings, Eliza, Herbert and Fred are still "scholars". There is also another baby, Emily just five months old.

{I need to confirm that this is correct Clayton family. Cannot find another one with correct age for William}

At the end of January in 1877, boys from each of these families find themselves together in that miserable winter of rain and wind. Benjamin Craxton and William Clayton were sixteen and Albert Fensom was just fourteen years old. All had probably been at work for a number of years. They must have wished that they were working in the dry with their siblings, many of whom were in the shoe trade. The three of them had managed to get some work with William Dearlove the young farmer who had taken over the farm on the death of his father, Joseph on November 5th 1874. Joseph  had been born in Yorkshire of a well known “County” family and had moved from a farm in St Neots to one of 500 acres in Ringstead. He was a widower in 1871 with a family who seemed in no hurry to get married and leave home.  His death at the early age of 60 had left William running the farm although it is more likely that, Mr. Warren, his bailiff, would have been the man the boys would have been hired by. They were working in what would have been part of  the old Ringstead Field before the Ringstead Enclosure Act some 38 years earlier. They would have made their way through the dark of the early morning and were probably soaked to the skin before they arrived at the field to work. Below them the Nene valley was flooded and the field would have been wet and muddy and facing into the driving north-westerly winds. There was a large group of men and boys working on the field so what could they have been doing on that January day?

The Handbook of Farm Labour by John C Morton, written in 1861, gives a calendar of operations on a farm. For January it lists:

Drainage operations; carriage of manure to heaps in fields, also of lime and marl, also of grain to market; threshing grain for sale; ploughing, probably the last of the stubbles for root crops; applying clay and marl, carrying lime etc; attendance on cattle and sheep road and fence mending; to-dressing pastures.

The February list is not dissimilar, for the early part of the month, for the labourers with the addition of "gathering stones off the meadows which are to be mown". Of course it is possible that the bad weather had delayed operations. The Victoria County History in 1937 records that much of the parish was under grass but the chief crops were wheat, beans, barley, oats, turnips and roots. Looking back at the various Directories it was not dissimilar in the nineteenth century. The 1885 Kelly's Directory gives the same list but without the oats. Could they have been harvesting turnips and swedes, after the sheep had eaten off the tops, like the tragic heroine of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

We can only guess at the work they were doing in Ringstead Field. We do know that on that Tuesday morning the storm began to increase in fury. The Northampton Mercury of the 3rd February later reported:

Tuesday last will long be remembered in this village [Ringstead] as a day of hurricanes, for storms of wind, hail, rain and snow came rapidly one after the other with scarcely any intermission. Trees were uprooted and large branches blown off others along the Ringstead-road, and many pranks played during the height of the various gales. In fact it was with difficulty that people keep on their legs and maintain their equilibrium.

About 9 o’clock on that Tuesday morning of 30th January 1877 the men and boys working in the fields decided to have what the Northampton Mercury called a “luncheon break” although it was an early hour for lunch even for farm workers. It is likely that the force of the wind and rain had made working almost impossible and they hoped that things might improve later. Certainly the Peterborough Advertiser reports that they had "taken refuge from the rain."

They all made for the shelter of the farm buildings and gathered in a small hovel and watched the rain lashing down in the increasing gusts of wind. They had not been there long when "the wind blew such a gale as to take the tiles from the roof". The younger ones decided that it was time to move and five of them, ranging in ages from 12 to 17 years ran into a nearby barn where they hoped that they would be safer. It seems as if it was a substantial structure because the Advertiser describes it as "stone built and thatched and stood in an exposed position." The Mercury continues the story: 

This barn stood with its frontage to the south-west and with the doors open. No sooner had these boys and young men got into the barn than the storm had attained the terrific force of a hurricane; a few moments more there came a whirlwind of such force as to at once take the roof completely off the barn, and threw it into the farm premises beyond. One of the gable ends immediately fell in and also the side walls burying three of them in the ruins.

High winds and hidden fears often produce high spirits in young men and you can imagine them joking and jumping about as they watched the gale lashing about them. Then in an instant their small world fell in on them. Those still in the hovel saw the barn cave in and they rushed to the scene as the storm still raged.

Two of the boys had managed to escape. One was near the door and got out uninjured. Charles Scraxton, Benjamin’s younger brother, had been injured but also managed to get out of the ruins. Three of the lads, Benjamin, William and Albert, were buried under the debris of thatch, beams and masonry. The storm would still have been howling about them and one can imagine the group, with the wind catching and driving loose debris about them, as they dragged aside the fallen timber and masonry to find the boys. Someone was sent to fetch Dr. McIntyre from Raunds while they searched frantically for the three who were buried. The Advertiser tells us that:

The news of the accident speedily spread and a force of men from the adjacent ironstone diggings at once set to work to clear away the rubbish.

Albert Fensom and William Clayton were first pulled out but seemed already dead. Finally Charles’s elder brother, Benjamin Scraxton was drawn out, still alive but with a fractured skull.

Dr McIntyre, when he arrives, seems to have gone quietly about his business among the chaos of the storm. He checked the two boys and pronounced them dead from suffocation. The Mercury says that the bodies of the two boys were taken home to their families. Benjamin and Charles were also taken home. Charles was not too badly injured and soon recovered but Benjamin only lingered a few hours, possibly until the Wednesday morning, when he also died of his injuries.

A week later the Northampton Mercury reported on the inquest that had been held on the three deaths at the Axe and Compass Inn in Ringstead. A verdict of “Accidental Death” was returned. It also reported on the funeral.

On Friday the bodies of William Clayton, aged 16; Benjamin Scraxton, aged 16; and Albert Fensom, aged 14, were interred in the parish graveyard in one wide grave side by side. Amongst the followers were Mr. W. R. Dearlove and his farm bailiff, Mr. Warren; also the Misses E. and M. and A. Dearlove. There was a very large number of people present, estimated at not less than 500, and many were the tears of those who witnessed the last tribute of respect paid to those who had been cut off in the morning of life by that melancholy tragedy. Wreathes of immortelles were placed on each coffin by the Misses Dearlove as the coffins were lowered side by side in their last resting place.

The old bass bell, cast in 1682, would have been tolling out from the church tower, rattling the windows of the school next door. The inscription on the swinging bell read, ' I to the Church the Living Call, I to the Grave do Summon All'. The funeral is not mentioned in the School Log Book but one cannot believe that the children did not, in some way, acknowledge the deaths.

In the national press, the deaths of the three boys does not appear to have been reported. Perhaps notice of the deaths came too late to be considered "news" among all the terrible loss of life caused by the hurricane across the country. Locally, however, they made a deep impression on the local communities and sermons were preached on the tragedy at Ringstead Parish Church on the following Sunday afternoon and at the Wesleyan Chapel in the evening, on both occasions to packed, weeping congregations. The Reverend Oyston also preached at the Raunds Wesleyan Chapel the following Tuesday.

A Committee was formed for defraying the funeral expenses and £23.11s was raised, any surplus to be distributed among the families. The reports of the funeral and the collection only mention the great and the good. It is the three Misses Dearlove, unmarried daughters of the late Joseph, who place the “wreathes of immortelles” on the three coffins in what must have been a touching scene. We hear nothing of the grieving families or even whether they were at the funeral. We hear nothing about the boys who were killed.

A few days after this tragedy a young boy aged 12 called John Ball, from Denford was also killed in the driving wind and rain. After finishing his work at Woodford Lodge he was walking along the London & North Western Railway towards where it crossed under the Midland Railway. He was going to meet his father who worked on the Midland line. In the noise of the wind and rain he did not hear the train coming behind him and was killed instantly.

In the turmoil of the three boys’ deaths, his single death almost went unnoticed, as did the death of Ambrose Fensom, aged 4 months a little over three weeks later.

Some deaths seem to affect a community or a nation and stir them into grief whereas others leave the families to grieve alone.

 Photograph of the grave near the gate into the church yard taken September 2010

The quotation at the base of the headstone reads:

 "What is your life. It is even a vapour that

 Appeareth for a little time and then vanisheth away,"

References

This story was prompted by an article written by Janice Morris for Strapetona (Thrapston District History Society) which she kindly sent me)

Manchester Guardian 30th & 31st January 1877 (via Cambridgeshire Libraries online)

The Times 31st January 1877 (via Cambridgeshire Libraries online)

Norfolk News 10th March 1877 (http://foxearth.org.uk/)

West Northamptonshire Strategic Flood Risk Assessment 2007 Level 1 Report (on Castle Ashby Flood Report)

Labouring Life in the Victorian Countryside. Pamela Horn (Alan Sutton Publishing 1987)

Whellan’s Directory 1874 (Northampton Record Office)

Kelly's Directory 1885 (NRO)

Victoria County History: A History of the County of Northampton Vol. 4. L.F. Salzman (ed). 1937 pps. 39 -44  (www.british-history.ac.uk)

Ringstead Parish Registers

Censuses for 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881 and 1891 (Ancestry.co.uk)

Northampton Mercury 3rd & 10th February 1877 (Northampton Library)

Peterborough Advertiser 3rd  November 1877 (Peterborough Library}