Tuesday 27 December 2016

Regent's Park Catastrophe 1867, by Janie Hampton

When I was a small child my grandmother told me of a terrible event that she had witnessed. ‘My father took me to Regent’s Park,’ she told me. ‘We walked across the frozen lake. As we stepped off onto the bank, the whole lake tipped up, and all the people skating slipped into the water. Then the ice tilted back, with the people underneath. There was nothing anyone could do. Father and I were so lucky. We got off just in time.’ Her words stuck with me but it was another 50 years before I found an eye-witness account of this disaster which occurred 150 years ago next month. It was by Francis Henry Skrine, the 19 year old son of the Rev. Clarmont Skrine of Wimbledon, and went as follows:
‘Regent’s Park is, indeed, the chief glory of north-western London, and it owes much of its beauty to an artificial lake of vast extent, studded with islets, and the chosen home of a variety of wild fowl. On the 15th January 1867, the Regent’s Park water, as this lake is termed, presented an animated scene. Three days of sharp frost had covered its ample bosom with a sheet of ice, apparently firm enough to support the crowd of skaters and sliders with which it was thronged. The spectators on shore numbered thousands, and a roaring trade was being done by lenders of skates; and vendors of hot chestnuts, “brandy balls” and oranges. The great interest, however, centred round the “hockey on ice” – a game of which I was then an enthusiastic votary. It is played as hockey on dry land, with the exception that the rubber ball is replaced by a disc of cork: and when the pace is hard and the players numerous, it is a highly exhilarating if somewhat risky form of sport. So exciting was the game that I entirely failed to notice the dangerous condition of the ice, and the fact that it was gradually being deserted by all but the most adventurous skaters. 
'It was not till 1.30 p.m. that I paused for an instant to rest. I glanced round me, and saw at once that I was lost. I was exactly in the centre of the lake, 200 yards distant from the islets, or the shore; on a spot too, where I knew the water to be at least 12 feet in depth. The treacherous ice was everywhere a perfect maze of cracks, through which the water was oozing, as the surface bent and undulated under the skaters. I looked for a means of escape and saw close by an employee of the Royal Humane Society with cork life-belt and ladder, making his way gingerly towards the shore; but my entreaties to be allowed a share of his life-belt in case of a break-up, were answered by imprecation [cursing], and the remark that “he would have enough to do to save himself”. To strike out for safety would have endured instant immersion; I therefore lay down on the ice, and awaited the inevitable catastrophe. It was not long in coming. A party of 15 strong men were engaged, a few yards off, in a fierce struggle for the hockey ball. Their weight proved too much for the rotten ice, which gave way, engulphing the entire group. A wave swept over the surface of the lake from the scene of this catastrophe; the ice broke up in all directions and I found myself struggling in the water. I managed to grasp a floe about four feet in diameter, and, clinging desperately to it, shouted “help” with the full force of my lungs: but my despairing appeal was drowned by those of scores of other victims around me. My hands grew number from contact with the slippery ice, and I was burdened with my saturated overcoat, and dragged down by my heavy skates. I felt my grasp slowly relaxing, and knew that I must soon lose hold, slip between the miniature icebergs around me, and sink to rise no more.
‘At this critical moment, I observed, floating a few feet from me, the ladder of my friend the ice man, abandoned in his hasty retreat, and without hesitation, I left my floe, and struck out for the surer support. It was a terrible and almost hopeless effort. Twice I was engulphed amid the floating ice, and twice I emerged breathless from the dark water. But at length utterly exhausted, I reached the ladder, and clung to it with all the strength of despair. I was now in a position of comparative safety and able to glance at my surroundings. The entire surface of the lake was covered in human heads, their owners clinging desperately to ice-floes and rending the air with their entreaties for help. The shores were fringed by a yelling mob of spectators, intensely excited, but utterly unable to assist their perishing fellow-creatures close by. A stalwart fellow who had been one of the most eager and profane of our hockey-players, was praying fervently for mercy. Seeing my ladder, he implored me to push it within his reach, and after great exertion, I managed to do so. The groaning wretch abandoned his temporary support and clutched at my ladder; but the effort was beyond his powers. He went under, and the last I saw of him was two clenched fists slowly sinking between two adjacent floes.
‘A stout individual was lying at full length on an island of ice barely large enough to support his weight and shouting “A thousand pounds to the man who’ll get me out.” This appeal to their cupidity was too much for the “roughs” of whom the most ashore was largely composed. A chain was speedily found, and a score or two, hand in hand, darted into the icy water. After several fruitless efforts, the capitalist was rescued from his perilous position. (I afterwards learnt that he decided not to “execute”, and offered his salvors the paltry sum of £10; that they sued him for the entire amount but they lost, the judges holding the non-existence of a contract!)
‘One after another, the heads around me slowly disappeared, the shouts of the mob grew fainter, I felt a delicious dreaminess invading my sense, and sunk into a profound slumber, the result, doubtless, of the flow of blood from the head.
‘On awaking, I found myself in a comfortable bed, surrounded by kind and solicitous attendants. Collecting with a great effort my scattered senses, I ascertained that it was past 11 p.m. and that I was the guest of a resident in one of the splendid terraces overlooking the park. I learned that, after a prolonged delay, boats had been launched, and the survivors picked up and taken, for the most part, to the infirmary of the Marylebone workhouse. I had been actually the last to be rescued, after an immersion which had lasted towards of four hours, and had been conveyed to my kind hosts, at the suggestion of a friendly park-keeper. I had clutched the ladder to which I owed my life too firmly to allow of its being taken from me, and I was carried to my temporary quarters still holding it in my grasp.
'Medical men were in prompt attendance, and after unremitting exertion on their part for upwards of five hours, I was restored to consciousness. Beyond the loss of my finger-nails, I suffered no ill-effects from my terrible experiences and two days later was able to assist in the mournful task of dragging the lake for victims.
‘Forty-two bodies, mostly youths in the heyday of life, were recovered from the oozy depths, their hands full of weeds and mud grasped in their death agonies. The catastrophe was undoubtedly due to the incompetence of park officials and the police, who should have cleared the lake as soon as the dangerous condition of the ice became manifest. Its repetition has been rendered impossible by a reduction in the depth of the lake to a maximum of four feet. But the 15th January is still a sad anniversary in many an English home. F.H.S. Calcutta, December 1884.’
Maybe my granny saw this and believed it was her?
A year after this event, Francis Skrine joined the Bengal Civil Service and eventually rose to become British Commissioner of the Chittagong Division. The Regent’s Park catastrophe seems to have affected his entire outlook on life. During his 27 years in India, his colleagues were impressed by three water-related achievements: he designed a new system of embankments in the Nadiya District; excavated a great drainage canal at Rangpur; and constructed water-works at Arrah. He was noted for his efforts during three major famines and for his ‘energy and devoted efforts to save life during a very serious cholera epidemic’. Even though this was written 17 years after the catastrophe, the details were still vividly remembered. Maybe that is why my granny recalled being there – after reading this she was convinced she saw it all. I say this because, when I found Skrine’s account among her papers, I realized she was not born until 20 years after it had taken place. So much for oral history!


AnnP said...

It is certainly a very vivid account - amazing that he survived. I'll certainly think about it next time I'm there.

Sue Bursztynski said...

A very powerful account! But I wouldn't be too annoyed with your grandmother. It's amazing what you could swear you remember. Now, I have a vivid memory of hearing about the drowning of our Prime Minister Harold Holt, from another student, who cried, "The Prime Minister has drowned!". I remember being in a shed at school, working on the set for a school play. Later, I realised it couldn't have happened as I remember it, because it happened during the school holidays, in December. Yet I still remember it. I have no idea how or why.

Leslie Wilson said...

Gripping! And a powerful example of how memory cannot always be trusted.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Fascinating post and comments! And it sounds much worse being ENGULPHED by icy water than merely engulfed! ;-)