WEEKEND WEB: The boat with a tragic back story

The boat involved in the Sutton Bridge tragedy of 1893.
The boat involved in the Sutton Bridge tragedy of 1893.
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LOOKING BACK: By Long Sutton Civic Society

Several of my recent tales have had a nautical theme and where there is water there is invariably, eventually, tragedy.

There have been several serious incidents on the River Nene involving ships on their passage to Wisbech or Port Sutton Bridge, but fortunately few have caused serious injury or loss of life.

In December 2000 for 
example a coaster carrying over 2,250 tons of steel ran aground while turning at Port Sutton Bridge. As the tide fell, she broke her back on the river bed, blocking the river for six weeks.

Last year a ship passing through the swing bridge made a navigating error and struck a pontoon, damaging boats and slightly injuring two pilots.

Looking back though, these accidents, while serious, are nothing compared with the significant loss of life that occurred on August 22 1893, when nine people drowned in a boating accident at Sutton Bridge.

It was a Tuesday afternoon. There had been a fishing competition in the rivers and dykes locally in the preceding days that had drawn people from across the country.

A group of anglers from Sheffield had hired a small sailing boat at Sutton Bridge to take them on a pleasure cruise and fishing trip and also to pick samphire on the marshes.

There were two families and an engaged couple on board. The weather was windy and there were rain showers, but the boat was in the capable hands of local river pilot Edwin Burton and his son Bernard.

The party left before lunch and sailed down the river to the lighthouses that guide shipping down the channel into the river mouth.

On the way back, the boat was caught by a sudden squall and apparently capsized, throwing all its occupants into the river. Some children collecting samphire saw people in the water and raised the alarm. Despite the efforts from many in the community there was only one survivor.

Contemporary reports say that emergency medical treatment was administered to the survivor, a Mrs Smith, by the local doctor by way of an injection of ether, which was apparently used at the time to stimulate the heart.

The vessel that capsized appears to have had a jinxed past. It had been bought by Edwin Burton in King’s Lynn after the boat had been found drifting at sea with corpses of three sailors on board. Where the boat had come from and the identity of the sailors was never established.

Edwin Burton (41) and Bernard (12) were buried in the same grave in Sutton Bridge the following Friday. The victims from Sheffield were presumably repatriated to their home city for burial.