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Full story of the tragic couple who drowned on a works trip to Matlock

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: March 10, 2014

By Gavin Jones

  • The gravestone in All Saints churchyard

  • The fragile memorial card to the tragic couple

  • The original envelope from the memorial card

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THERE is a West Bromwich gravestone, as we mentioned on page 17 of our 6 February edition, which hints at a tragic tale.

Bearing the names of Thomas Evans and Elizabeth Emson, it states that the pair were drowned while boating at Matlock Bath on 12 July 1892, and that the stone was paid for by the workers of George Salter's works in the town.

West Bromwich reader and regular contributor Olive Bedworth supplied us with a photograph of the grave, and asked if anyone could shed any light on what was clearly a sad story. You can always rely on the Bugle readership, and both Clive Smith and Lynne Wilkins have emailed us with original newspaper reports of the tragedy which have allowed us to tell the story of that day in harrowing detail.

According to the 15 July 1892 edition of the Birmingham Daily Post, issued three days after the accident, an inquest was held at the Fishpond Hotel, Matlock Bath, on the day after the drownings, before a coroner by the name of Taylor. Thomas Evans' age was given as 28, and Elizabeth Emson's as 19. Both were from West Bromwich, and "were drowned on Monday, owing to the upsetting of a boat on the Derwent."

The report states that Thomas's brother James Evans, of 14 Newhall Street, West Bromwich, identified the bodies, and told the coroner that the deceased pair were engaged.

The Evans brothers and Elizabeth were in Matlock Bath on an annual excursion of Salters employees, and it seems that many of the revellers had hired small boats and gone for a row on the river.

At some point between half past four and five o'clock in the evening, James Evans estimated, he noticed that the boat carrying his brother and Elizabeth had capsized, and he could see Thomas clinging to it in the water. There was no sign of his girlfriend, and he saw a man dive into the water to try to help.

According to the report, Thomas Evans was prone to having fits 'when excited', though he was clearly not in the grip of one at this point, as his brother heard him shout 'Never mind me, so long as she is alright.' Soon after, however, Thomas did appear to have some sort of seizure, and 'went to the bottom of the river like a stone'.

William Ratcliffe, the boat proprietor, believed that the boat was turned over when the occupants had tried to swap seats. Another witness, John H Alexander, a travelling inspector for the Sunlight Soap Company, told the hearing that he had been heading along the Derby Road when his driver pointed out that there was something happening on the water. Alexander, as witnessed by James Evans, ran from his vehicle (presumably a horse-drawn carriage) on seeing Thomas clinging to the upturned boat, and dived into the water. He told the coroner that Thomas called out 'Save my love and not me' just before he hit the water. But the boat was in the middle of the river, and at first he could not see her. Then, still some way off, he saw her rising to the surface directly underneath Thomas, who in his panic didn't realise what was going on …

"Evans's legs prevented her rising to the surface, and he was drowning her gradually without knowing it," the inquest heard. John Alexander eventually reached the boat and found that the girl had sunk. He dived after her but couldn't find her, and on coming back up for air found that Thomas had now gone too.

Newspaper reports included far more detail in those times, and rarely held back with the gruesome aspects of a story such as this. As such, Mr Alexander's account makes pretty grim reading …

"He could just see his back in the water, the boat having righted when he left it. He went to him, and immediately Evans caught hold of him and took him down with him to the bottom of the river. Evans had not the slightest idea of what he was doing. As soon as they touched the bottom witness made an effort to push himself and Evans up to the top again, but he soon found that he would not be able to do. As soon as he discovered that if he remained with the young man he would have to die as well, he took measure to loosen his hold and all he could do was hit him; and this he did on what he thought was his forehead.

"The water was about ten or fifteen feet deep where they were. As soon as he struck the blow he felt Evans's hold loosen, and he rose to the surface completely exhausted."

John Alexander, in what must have been a difficult statement, especially in front of the family of the deceased, told the coroner:

"I hit him as hard as I could with my right hand, while I had hold of him with my left. It would have meant death to me as well if I had not done so."

The jury returned a verdict that the couple were 'accidentally drowned while boating', and praised Mr Alexander for his efforts to rescue them. The coroner also eulogised Mr Alexander, and announced that he would be bringing the matter to the attention of the Royal Humane Society.

Lynne Wilkins has also supplied us with a curious item which relates directly to the event, telling us:

"I have a rather tattered memorial card relating to these two people, which was among my grandmothers papers – I believe it belonged to an aunt of hers, as her name is pencilled on the envelope.

"We do not know of any family connection to either of the two deceased, so assume they were friends or workmates.

"I attach a copy of the card, which I thought you might find interesting."

The memorial card, still in its envelope, was a very delicate design, which makes its survival all the more remarkable. It bears a short verse, which reads:

We little thought when they left home

That death that day would be their doom;

But true it is the Scripture saith

In the midst of life we are in death.

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