Article dated : Mon, 18th February 2002
Tragedy at Hartlake Bridge - 20 October 1853
Whilst the post of Registrar of Births and Deaths held a certain local status within the communities of Victorian England - the nature of the work did on occasions present its own stress - none more so than registering deaths. In a society very different from our own where the population did not move very far from the family or ancestral home, it was likely that the Registrar would either know, or be related to, or have knowledge of a great many of the people that he would register. In deed the legislation setting-up the Service in 1837 made it the responsibility of the Registrar to ensure that deaths were registered. He therefore had to know his District well, and all the people who lived and worked in it.
Tragedy strikes at all ages - the young, the middle-aged, and the old. But it is usually single deaths. Picture the situation confronting William Ware, the Registrar of Births and Deaths for the Tonbridge District, in October 1853. when he was required to register the victims of the Hartlake Bridge Disaster. According to the "Kentish and South-Eastern Advertiser" 35 persons lost their lives but William Ware only managed to register 25. The victims ranged from Centenia Herne, aged 4 years, to Sarah Taylor, aged 69 years.
The tragedy took place on the evening of Thursday 20 October 1853, at Hartlake Bridge on the track that ran from Golden Green to Tudeley. The facts, as reported by the "Advertiser" on 25 October, were "few and simple".
A number of hop-pickers, employed by Mr Cox of Thomson's Farm, Golden Green, Nr. Hadlow, were lodged at Tudeley and each day they passed to and from the hop fields by crossing the River Medway at Hartlake Bridge. There had however been heavy rain for some days and as a consequence the countryside, particularly near the river was "submerged to the depth of several feet". On the fateful day the hop-pickers finished work "about six o'clock or a quarter past" or as William Clearly, a labourer (from County Cork, but late of Woolwich) recalled at the Coroner's Inquest "day and night were barely parted". Mr Cox had "kindly furnished them with a waggon and horses in which they were driven through the flood without getting wet". The waggon, pulled by two horses, made two journeys that night - the first was completed in safety, the second was to end in tragedy.
On the second journey the waggon was packed with men, women and children. The flood water was unusually high and eye witnesses stated that for the whole of the journey from the hop-gardens the wagon was submerged up to its axles.. The waters also reached the foot of the bridge on either side of the river and it must have been a frightening experience for the travellers, in the gathering gloom. The "Advertiser" takes pride however, in pointing out that "there does not seem to be any foundation for the statement furnished by some mendacious correspondent of the Times, and published in that newspaper, that the women and children were alarmed and that their screaming frightened the horses".
The bridge was high and narrow, and was made of wood. On each side a fence or hoarding had been built following another fatal accident 27 years earlier when a farmer and his wife had drowned when their cart had fallen off the bridge. Evidence given at the Coroner's Inquest showed that the wood, particularly of the fence or hoarding was rotten and that the whole structure was in a perilous condition.
The horses pulling the waggon were harnessed one behind the other and normally the waggoner would walk beside the fore horse both to control and lead him. However, the flood waters were so high that it was impossible to walk and so he rode on the fore horse, and another labourer rode on the hind horse. The waggon reached the top of bridge safely but as it moved across the tragedy struck. What actually transpired is lost in the mists of time and the speed of the events. One of the horses appears to have stumbled - at the Inquest Benjamin Hearn, a labourer, who was riding the hind horse stated that "as they were going over the bridge on the other side, the hind horse tripped against one of the irons on the bridge, and before he could recover himself - being heavily loaded- the ground gave way and the waggon went over...". This was confirmed by in his evidence by John Waghorne, the waggoner. "The hind wheel sank into the ground before the front wheel touched the fence. The waggon fell bodily over upon the side fence breaking it right through. Nearly all the people were thrown into the river..."
The "Advertiser" painted a ghastly picture - " crack, crack went more of the hoarding, and the waggon with its living freight toppled into the swollen and turgid river. The scene must for a brief space have been fearful. The screams and shouts of those who were not immediately taken below the surface - the fierce struggles of the horses ...... the momentary struggles and "bubbling cries" of the drowning - the efforts of those who were safe to rescue others - and then , in a few seconds, when the eleven survivors stood again upon the bridge, their blank dismay at the utter disappearance beneath the surrounding waste of waters of so large a body of their friends , who a few moments before were as hale and lifelike as themselves." ... "The first silence after that frightful struggle must have been awful indeed to those who survived, for of the eleven only that escaped, out of so large a party, each of them, except the waggoner had father, mother, child, brother or sister lost. At length arose a wailing cry for help, so loud that it reached the Bell Inn, fully a mile distant. Mr Eldon, the Landlord, and a party of the neighbours sallied forth, but from the extent of the inundation were unable to reach the spot".
The extent of the flood made the search for the bodies of the victims very difficult and by Saturday 22 October, only six had been recovered from their watery graves. In fact there appears to have been no real effort to recover the bodies, no boats had been obtained and neither had any plan for dragging the river area been put into operation. The only help available were friends and relatives with long poles. "The poor fellows with their poles, who ran hither and thither at the call of the relatives and friends of the deceased, were pictures of hopeless, aimless, exertion".
The Inquest into the accident and the deaths of the six poor unfortunate hop-pikers whose bodies had so far been recovered was held on Saturday 22 October 1853, at the Bell Inn at Golden Green. The Inquest was presided over by Mr J N Dudlow, the Coroner from West Malling, and a jury of 13 local men under Foreman Thomas Kibble Esq. were sworn-in to consider a verdict. The Medway Navigation Company, who were responsible for Hartlake Bridge were represented by Mr Gorham, Solicitor, and Mr Hallowes, one of the managers of the Company.
Mr Dudlow opened the Inquest by briefing the jury as to their duties - "If death were occasioned by the gross negligence or carelessness of any party, that in the eye of the law constituted manslaughter, and it would be their duty to decide from the evidence whether such gross negligence or carelessness had in this case caused so fearful a catastrophe, or whether it was solely the result of accident ....." The jury then viewed the six bodies so far recovered and visited the site of the tragedy to inspect the bridge.
After hearing evidence from the survivor's the Coroner summed-up the evidence as follows- "It was shown in evidence that although many persons had complained of the insecure state of the bridge, yet they had kept their complaints to themselves, and had not communicated with the company, or any of its officers; but no doubt that now, when a most appalling accident had occurred, there were many complaints, and they could all see what was actually wanted. One of the witnesses was particularly asked whether he had considered the bridge to be in a dangerous state, said, that he had not so considered it. Now the fence was broken they could easily see how rotten it had become, but previously there can be little doubt but that to a superficial eye the bridge would appear to be in a perfectly safe condition. It must be considered that there was a weight exceeding two tons resting against the fence, and it was from the pressure of so great a weight that the fence gave way. Now that the fence was down it was easy to perceive that it was not safe. Evidently, the result had shown that the bridge was not safe, or in a proper state; it had wanted attending to before".
The jury returned the following verdict - "That the deceased were accidentally drowned, and in the opinion of the jury the accident arose entirely from the defective state of the road and the wooden bridge, and their dangerous construction, which ought to have been before remedied, and they recommended that the bridge be forthwith replaced by a substantial construction either of brick or stone". The Inquest was then formally closed.
This Inquest did of course only deal with the deaths of the six pickers at that stage recovered. Following the verdict of the Inquest these six deaths must have been registered almost immediately by William Ware, the Tonbridge Registrar, as the Death Register shows the date of registration as 22 October, and registered on the authority of the Coroner, J N Dudlow. The cause of death is shown as "accidentally drowned". From these facts it can be surmised that William Ware must have journeyed from Tonbridge to attend the Inquest. He was therefore showing due diligence in performing his official duties to the letter of the law. A further examination of the Death Register actually shows that seven entries were made on 22 October. The seventh being Louisa (also called Loomey) Hearn whose body was found whilst the Inquest was taking place.
Over the next seven days a further 18 deaths were registered as bodies were found. In each case they were registered either by one of the survivors as "present at the death" or by someone "who identified the body".