Drownings & Burials in 18th Century Deptford
I’ve been spending quite a bit of time lately poring over the parish records for St Nicholas’ church in Deptford searching for the burial of an ancestor, shipwright William Saword (b. 1700). His wife Deborah was buried there in 1772 but I can’t find any burial for him. However, the burial records make for truly fascinating reading.
St Nicholas stands very close to what was once a royal dockyard. It was a hub of maritime industry, a major military & naval centre, and a connection point for international travel and trade. In 1730 its parish was split with the new St Paul’s; St Nicholas’ parish was smaller than St Paul’s, but with much higher population density.
This evocative passage from The Republic of Pirates (Colin Woodard, HMS Books, 2008) paints a colourful picture of the chaotic and industrious Thames of the early 1700s:
‘The city’s main artery, the Thames, was even more crowded than the streets. Upriver from London Bridge – under whose narrow arches the tides poured like waterfalls – hundreds of watermen rowed boats ferrying passengers and cargo up, down, and across the river, into which flowed the contents of a half million chamber pots; the blood and guts of thousands of slaughtered livestock; and the bodies of cats, dogs, horses, rats, and just about anything else wanting disposal. Downriver from the bridge, hundreds, sometimes thousands of seagoing vessels waited to load and unload their cargoes, often tying up three or four abreast, a floating forest of masts extending nearly a mile. Coastal trading sloops brought heaps of coal from Newcastle; two and three masted ships disgorged lumber from the Baltic, tobacco from Virginia, sugar from Jamaica and Barbados, and salt cod from New England and Newfoundland. Further downriver, on the outskirts of the metropolis at the naval yards of Deptford and Rotherhithe, the warships of the Royal Navy gathered for orders, repairs, or reinforcements.’
The church’s burial records give us a snapshot of this hectic melting pot. Although baptisms and marriages were primarily of parishioners, burials tell a much broader story. Among local residents, who were predominantly mariners, shipwrights, watermen, and lightermen, were people with ‘exotic’ names that suggest they or their parents had not been born in England. Some were named as palentines – refugees from the lower Rhine region of what is now Germany. Many people of colour are also mentioned. By the middle of the century, burials included scores of the unfortunate poor from the local workhouse, from ‘nurse children’ (infants) to adulthood. However, many of those buried had come from other parts of Britain, and the rest of the world. They included soldiers, mariners, traders and travellers. Some came from Sick Quarters, where men would go after being taken ill at sea. Some came from prison ships, which had been headed to America until prevented by war, and were now stuck in dock on the Thames. Some had presumably died at sea, and been brought to the nearest burial site as soon as the ship came into land. Strangers traveling on land were also found deceased in Deptford, often on the side of roads. For many out-of-towners, Deptford was the end of their journey, and they were to be buried far from home – some without even a name.
The records also show how dangerous and precarious life could also be for people living in the town of Deptford at that time. On the very first page of the records, Robert Ford, a tailor, was buried 14 June 1718, after he had been ‘found dead in a ditch.’ Then on 20 June, we have a burial of four men – John Cosens, Edward Bickerfield, Thomas Bryant, and Richard Harris – who were ‘found killed accidentally in chalk pit in Deptford and all buried in one grave.’ Many other accidental deaths are documented, including falls on ships, men crushed by timber or scalded by fat. There are also suicides, and even a hanging at Tyburn.
With the sheer number of burials, it’s not surprising that a charnel house was built for the church in 1697. This was a repository for bones that had been unearthed when new graves were dug, which must have been a very frequent occurrence. The charnel house at St Nicholas is still standing, a Grade II listed building, though it no longer contains any human remains.
There are so many fascinating entries, but I noticed in particular a macabre trend: on almost every page there seemed to be a burial of someone who had drowned in the Thames.
From 1718 to 1786 (the span of one volume of the parish burial registers), a total of 125 burials were reported as people who had drowned. The highest number in one year was ten in 1785.
Who were these unfortunate people, and why did so many of them lose their lives in this horrible way?
Gender and occupation provide some clues: the vast majority of bodies with an identified gender were male. Only seven of the drownings were noted to be women or girls. This must reflect the fact that many of the drownings were work-related accidents.
20 of those drowned were stated to be mariners (i.e. seamen/sailors). This may be surprising, but in fact, very few people knew how to swim in this period, and this included people who worked near or on the water. Unless they grew up near a safe swimming area and had sufficient leisure time, there simply wasn’t the opportunity to learn. It’s ironic that some of these men, who had travelled hundreds or thousands of miles across the oceans, drowned so near to dry land. Others were employed in work that brought them regularly onto the Thames or to the water’s edge, including two shipwrights, a waterman (transported passengers across or along the river), a joiner (ship’s carpenter), a customs officer, a coal porter and a rigger. The very nature of their work made them more susceptible to a watery death. Leisure time was also hazardous; with so many inns located close to the water, a ‘drunken sailor’ could easily miss his step in the dark, with fatal consequences.
Nine of the victims were described as boys, and two girls, in most cases exact age unknown. Most boys were probably working alongside the men. However, all people who lived near the water were at higher risk of drowning, especially children. In some cases, the children who drowned may have fallen into the water when simply walking or playing nearby. I wonder if this is what happened on 5 June 1774, when James Buckley and John Sergent, both watchmakers, and John Williams, a boy, were all buried after having drowned in the Thames. It reminds me of a story I investigated in California; in 1906, a young cadet was struggling in the water in the San Francisco Bay, and two teachers rushed in to help him. All three died. (That tragic event turned out to have a fascinating back-story and a Hollywood ending – you can read it here). Did Buckley and Sergent attempt to rescue young John? Sadly, no newspapers from Greenwich for this period are available online to tell us what led to the tragedy,
I’ve found several newspaper articles reporting drowning incidents in the Deptford area during this period. Although the victims in these cases are gentlemen and ladies enjoying travel and leisure, and not reflective of most of the drownings that seem to have occurred, they do show how dangerous the Thames could be for passengers in small vessels:
Most chilling and puzzling of all is that the identity of more than half of the burials was unknown; many entries simply say ‘a person unknown drowned in the Thames.’ In a few cases, they were stated to be a man or boy, and in just one case a ‘woman unknown’. How was it possible for so many to drown anonymously? They must have been carried there by the river from further afield, and/or were unrecognisable after being in the water. Presumably, drowned corpses needed to be buried as quickly as possible, making it hard for loved ones or fellow workers to have a chance to identify them. It would also have been very difficult to determine the cause of their drowning. There were no police to make enquiries, and coroner inquests were rare. It is possible that inquests were opened into some of these deaths, both for known and unknown victims, but the burial records only reveal one – a coroner’s warrant had been issued for John Little, a mariner and Deptford resident who drowned in 1729, which allowed him to be buried. It’s shocking to think the discovery of an unidentified body was so commonplace that it probably attracted little attention.
In Peter Ackroyd’s Thames: Sacred River (Vintage, 2008), the chapter River of Death explores the river’s long association with drowning, with specific reference to Deptford:
‘The Thames is in many respects the river of the dead. It has the power to hurt and to kill. … There were steps known as Dead Man’s Stairs at Wapping where, by some accident of tide and current, the corpses of the recently drowned tended to congregate. There is a U-Bend between the Isle of Dogs and Deptford, where the drowned may be delayed in their course towards the sea. It was once known as Deadman’s Dock, the name given because of the number of corpses that were found there when the dock was being constructed. If the body missed these fatal junctions, and drifted down in its decomposing state past Lower Hope Reach, then there was no hope. It would disappear for ever.’
Ackroyd provides examples of drownings recorded in the register of Henley Church, and states: ‘The registry of every church by the banks of the river will have similar testimony to the dangers of the Thames’. Indeed, the pages of the register of St Mary Magdalene in Woolwich (another ancestral church), four miles east of Deptford, are also filled with drownings; between July and October 1787, three ‘drownded’ men and one boy were buried there.
Very poignantly, Ackroyd explains that many people were drawn to the river because they wanted to exit the world anonymously. The treacherous waters made suicide ‘easy’. Afterwards, it was rarely possible to prove a motive of suicide, which was considered a sin. The river also made it easy for criminals to dispose of their murder victims. No wonder Ackroyd says that the Thames is ‘a river of the disappeared’.
In fact, I have seen one record from St Nicholas of a murder victim – on 9 Jan 1798 there was the burial of ‘a drowned man unknown, murdered by a person unknown.’
Presumably, his injuries made it clear that there had been foul play. In July of that year, the Marine Police Force (Thames River Division) began operating, making them the oldest police force in England. However, as I discovered while investigating the career of my ancestor Detective Inspector George Read of the Thames Division, the chief concern of river police was theft and smuggling rather than murders and drownings.
The burial of one unidentified person in 1784 was noted to be paid for by the parish. I assume all of these lost souls were buried as cheaply as possible in unmarked, probably mass graves.
All of these nameless victims (and presumably many more whose bodies were never found) must have had loved ones who never knew their fate. Perhaps one of them is someone whose burial you’ve never been able to find. Perhaps one of them is mine!
The Docks in this part of the Thames are still dangerous. In 2010, a 14-year-old youth tragically drowned in Rainbow Quay, the oldest of London’s riverside wet docks – in Rotherhithe. According to a news report, the water was ‘shockingly cold’, even on what was a hot day, and very murky. It was also an area ‘notorious for submerged objects’. I am sure that this was the same for the unfortunate men, women and children who fell into the black waters of the Thames 300 years ago.
In honour of the people who lost their lives in the Thames and were buried at Deptford, I’ve compiled a list of drowned people buried at St. Nicholas, Deptford, from the register covering the years 1718-1786 (viewed on ancestry.co.uk).
Drowning Burials at St Nicholas, Deptford 1718-1786
- Between 1735-1762 only six drownings were recorded. I assume this is due to different record-keeping, since from 1763-1786 there were 4.5 drownings per year, on average. About a dozen entries recorded a name or gender next to the term ‘accidental’, including two with a coroner’s warrant – these could possibly be drownings.
- After 1786, drownings continued, of course. In the first four years of the next register, five burials of drowned people were recorded.
- I have endeavoured to transcribe all relevant entries but it is possible that I have either missed or mistranscribed entries.
20 Aug – John Headman, Smith a Drown’d man from Upper Towne
1 Jan(?) – James Goodey a poor Drowned boy from the Upper Water Gate
7 Jan – Eliza Heath found Dead in the Water by the Tide Mill
3 Aug – a Drowned man from the ship Goyle? Charles Small Commander
14 Aug – Robert Anderson Riger [rigger] who was Drowned from the Green
? Jun – Margt D. of Thomas Phinnis a Drowned Child from the Tidemill
? Jun – a Drowned Man being a Stranger from the Red House [the Red House was the victalling and supply centre]
? Jul – A Boy about 13 or 14 years of age taken out of the River near the red House
17 July – a Drowned Man
18 July – a Drowned Man Grove St
27 Dec – Jno Little Marriner Grove Str Drowned w/ Cor[oner’s] Warrant
? Nov – Charles Cook drowned
24 Jul – John Murray labourer drown’d
8 Oct – a drowned Man unknown
11 Aug – William Ringseed drownd
? Jun – James Hall drowned
3 Nov – a drownd man unknown
28 Apr – John Miller a drowned boy
13 Oct – A drown’d Man unknown taken out of the Thames
? May – A drown’d Man taken out of the Thames unknown
23 Jul – A drown’d man unknown taken out of the Thames
29 Nov – William Wilson Joiner from King Street drown’d
30 Dec – James Olliston? A Dane & Mariner drowned
25 Aug – A drowned Man unknown taken out of the Thames
8 Sep – A drowned Man unknown taken out of the river
30 Jan – William Styles drown’d in the Thames
6 Feb – A Man unknown taken out of the Thames
26 Feb – Two Men unknown taken out of the Thames
6 Mar – John Fagan Mariner drown’d in the Thames
5 Jun – William Docklerly a boy drown’d in the Thames
13 July – A Blackmoor* name unknown drown’d in the Thames
8 Aug – A Man Unknown taken out of the Thames
? Dec – A Person Unknown taken out of the Thames
11 June – William Klaasen a Dutchman drowned in the Thames
20 Dec – Susanna Westley drown’d in the Thames
22 Dec – Thomas Goodall Mariner drown’d in the Thames
1 Jul – John Prince drown’d in the Thames
1 Jul – A Person Unknown drown’d in the Thames
24 Oct – John Limbourgh Mariner drown’d in the River Thames
17 Jul – Anthony Tassania Mariner drown’d in the Thames
5 Oct – A Person unknown taken out of the Thames
9 Apr – A Person unknown, who was drown’d in the Thames
21 Apr – Henry Dykes Mariner drown’d in the Thames
12 May – A Person unknown drown’d in the Thames
16 Feb – A Person Unknown drown’d in the Thames
26 Feb – Walter Archbald Mariner drowned in the Thames
8 Aug – A Boy unknown, drown’d in the Thames
24 Oct – A Man unknown drown’d in the Thames
24 Jan – Peter Goodman Mariner drown’d in the Thames
11 Mar – A Man unknown drown’d in the Thames
21 May – A Man unknown drown’d in the Thames
27 Jul – Two Men unknown drown’d in the Thames
23 Aug – A Person Unknown drown’d in the Thames
27 May – George Richardson, Taylor, drown’d in the Thames
5 Jun – James Buckley, Watch-maker, drown’d in the Thames
5 Jun – John Sergent, Watch-maker, drown’d in the Thames
5 Jun – John Williams, a Boy drown’d in the Thames
16 Mar – Hugh Molton, drown’d in the Thames
24 Apr – A Person Unknown drown’d in the Thames
6 Aug – Philip a Negro* drowned in the Thames
20 Aug – John Drummond drown’d in the Thames
31 Aug – William Bradfield Customs House Officer drown’d in the Thames
24 Mar – A Person unknown drown’d in the Thames
26 Mar – A Person unknown drown’d in the Thames
3 May – A Man unknown drown’d in the Thames
18 Jul – A Man unknown drown’d in the Thames
2 Sep – A Man unknown drown’d in the Thames
? Oct – A Person unknown drown’d in the Thames
18 Nov – A Person unknown drowned in the Thames
2 Dec – A Person unknown drowned in the Thames
16 Feb – A Person unknown drowned in the Thames
16 Apr – William Davis, Coal Porter from the Bone House, drown’d
20 Jul – A Person unknown drowned in the Thames
18 Sep – A Person unknown drown’d in the Thames
1 Jan Arthur Woolcott, drowned in the Thames
9 Apr: – A Man unknown, who was drown’d in the Thames
? Aug – A Person unknown drown’d in the Thames
8 Sep – George Davidson, Mariner, drown’d in the Thames
9 Sep – John Davidson, Mariner drown’d in the Thames
12 Sep – John Towell, Mariner drown’d in the Thames
10 Mar – John Fagan, Mariner, drown’d in the Thames
12 Apr – A Man unknown drown’d in the Thames
26 Apr – Peter Chandler, Shipwright drown’d in the Thames
6 Jun – Two persons unknown drown’d in the Thames
? Mar – Robert Downs, drown’d in the Thames
? Mar – A Person unknown drown’d in the Thames
10 Jun – Edward Jones, Shopman to a Stationer, drown’d in the Thames
3 Nov – Thomas Cullin, Shipwright drown’d in the Thames
19 Mar – George Buxton, Mariner drown’d in the Thames
? – Thomas Elgrin, Mariner drown’d in the Thames
? – John Wilson, Mariner drown’d in the Thames
? Oct – A Person unknown drown’d in the Thames
? Feb – A Person unknown drown’d in the Thames
? Mar – Thomas Cane, Mariner drown’d in the Thames
30 Mar – A Person unknown drown’d in the Thames
9 Apr – A Person unknown drown’d in the Thames
21 Apr – James Barber, drown’d in the Thames
4 Nov – A Person unknown drown’d in the Thames
18 Apr – A Person unknown drown’d in the Thames
May 24 – A Person unknown drown’d in the Thames, by the Parish
29 Jul – John Johnson, Mariner, drown’d in the Thames
30 Jul – Joseph Salisbury, drown’d in the Thames
2 Aug – Ann Jones, drown’d in the Thames
13 Aug – Philip Matthews, Mariner Drown’d in the Thames
17 Aug – John Bruce, a Boy Drown’d in the Thames
? Feb – William Bares Drowned in the thames
4 May – William Butler A Boy Drowned in the Thames
6 May – A Person Unknown Drowned in the Thames
12 May – A Person Unknown Drowned in the Thames
14 Jun – A Person Unknown Drowned in the Thames
22 Jun – Ann Woodward Drowned in the Thames
5 Sep – Francis Roberts A Boy Drowned in the Whet[Wet] Dock King’s Yard
3 Oct – William McCraw A Boy Drowned in the Thames
14 Oct – A Person Unknown Drowned in the Thames
31 Dec – Joseph Smith Mariner Drowned in the Thames
5 Jun – Eliz. Daugr of John Gould Mariner Drowned in the Thames
2 Jul – Patrick Sloan Mariner Drowned in the Thames
5 Jul – A Person Unknown Drowned in the Thames
9 Jul – A Woman Unknown Drowned in the Thames
19 Aug – A Person Unknown Drowned in the Thames
25 Sep – Thomas Williams Drowned in the Thames
10 Oct – James Riley Waterman Drowned in the Thames
12 Oct – Robert Crook Drowned in the Thames
*terms transcribed from original documents; apologies for any offence caused by their inclusion here
All images of burial records taken from the St. Nicholas, Deptford 1717-1786 register, viewed on Ancestry.co.uk