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The River Hull in winter. Fourteen people died not far from here when their ferry capsized.

Death on the River Hull – the Brewhouse Wrack ferry disaster

On a dark December day 170 years ago, an east Hull street was in mourning.

At number 12, Hood Street, the Durr family was trying to come to terms with the loss of three girls – Mary, Catherine and Maria – drowned just yards away in the River Hull. Next door, 21-year-old newlywed William Smith had also been lost.

All four had been on their way to work at the giant new Kingston Cotton Mills, when tragedy struck. ¹

They had caught a popular early morning ferry, known as the Brewhouse Wrack, which crossed the river from the Groves – an infamous district of tightly packed slums – to Wincolmlee. ²

As the crowded boat reached the middle of the fast-flowing river, it capsized, throwing about 30 people into the water. Fourteen drowned.

In the days to come, thousands of people would turn out to mourn the dead and watch their funeral processions.

But despite the disaster being one of the worst in the history of Hull, little was done to improve safety in its wake. For the authorities, the blame was to be placed on the unfortunate victims themselves.

The Brewhouse Wrack ferry took workers across the river from the Groves to Wincolmlee. Many worked at the Kingston Cotton Mills (Google Maps / 1855 Ordnance Survey / National Library of Scotland)
The Brewhouse Wrack ferry took workers across the river from the Groves to Wincolmlee. Many worked at the Kingston Cotton Mills (Google Maps / 1855 Ordnance Survey / National Library of Scotland)

An accident waiting to happen

The factory bell was already ringing when the passengers boarded the ferry at a few minutes to six, on the morning of Thursday, December 7 1848. ³ At the time, the nearest bridge was North Bridge, half-a-mile to the south, and small boats were the quickest way to cross the river.

Business was booming for the Brewhouse Wrack and by 5.45am, the wharf was crowded with workers hurrying to the morning shift at the huge Kingston Cotton Mills, which had opened earlier that year in the Sculcoates district.

It was still dark and passengers climbing into the little 12ft-by-6ft boat found themselves packed “nose to nose”.

Trouble started when the ferryman tried to push off, only to discover that the stern was grounded. He got out and shoved the boat into the river but the delay allowed more people to jump aboard.

The newcomers were “anxious to get over” because they were afraid of losing “a quarter” – 25 per cent of their day’s wages – for being late for work.

A sketch of the River Hull from North Bridge, by Frederick Schultz Smith, gives an idea of the landscape of the time.
The River Hull from North Bridge, by Frederick Schultz Smith, who sketched Hull in the late 19th century

Back in the boat, the ferryman pushed upstream, fighting the current, to avoid being swept past the landing stage on the opposite bank.

What happened next is not entirely clear: several survivors said a panic broke out when water started coming over the gunwale of the boat; the ferryman insisted his passengers were “unruly” and upset the vessel. In any case, as it reached the middle of the river, a scream went up that the ferry was sinking and a number of people rushed to one side.

“A move to the opposite was instinctively, though foolishly made, and the boat at once capsized,” the Hull Advertiser reported.

“Shrieks were heard long distances in every direction. Many embraced each other and speedily sunk…”

Sunset from Scott Street Bridge
Sunset from Scott Street Bridge, close to the site of the ferry disaster (Imagaril / Public Domain)

Terrified men, women and children were thrown into the dark and freezing water.

“The scene which followed baffles all description,” the newspaper said. “Shrieks were heard long distances in every direction.” Some struggled to shore but “many embraced each other and speedily sunk.”

“After a few moments, nothing was heard but a few splashes, which only made the silence more awful.”

Passenger James Clark described the moment the ferry capsized.

“The boat was really crammed – our noses might be said to touch … a cry was then set up that the boat was sinking.

“A scream was then set up by the women, which created considerable confusion, it being very dark.

“Feeling alarmed, I sprang into the river, when, on nearing the Groves side, I found myself surrounded by four or five boys, all endeavouring to get ashore.”

His 17-year-old daughter was on the ferry and he was unable to save her: “I thought that she and the other females would cling to the boat, and thereby be saved. When I scrambled on the shore, the screams were deafening.”

John Woodhead, a worker at the Kingston Cotton Mills, told the Advertiser: “I was thrown into the water amongst the rest. The boat made an eddy, which spun me round … till I was dizzy. I was under water four times; two persons had a hold of me, one by my hair and one by my coat.”

He managed to swim to the shore, where he collapsed with cramp. “As I landed the screams were awful, but all soon grew quiet, and it seemed as though nothing had happened.”

He ran home, changed his clothes and then went straight to work. His colleagues had been told he had drowned and were amazed to see him.

As the disaster unfolded, hundreds of people gathered on the banks and watched in horror (the approximate location is shown above in a Google Street View image). They “thronged to the shipyards and staiths on the riverside; but, amidst the darkness and consternation which prevailed, no effectual help could be rendered,” the Advertiser said.

“The scene was truly heart-rending,” the Hull Packet reported, “parents searching for their children, brothers for sisters – none knowing who was lost, or who was saved.”

Two men who worked nearby, Edward Pickering and Charles Heale, found a boat and clambered across a muddy bank to launch it. By the time they reached the water, it was too late. They eventually picked up the bodies of two women, along with many clothes, four shawls, a cloak and “a breakfast, wrapped up in a handkerchief.”

A boy was heard screaming in the water but by the time a boat reached him, he had disappeared. Another victim, a young woman, was found dead downstream, clutching a rope attached to a boat. It was believed she had survived for some time.

The Brewhouse Wrack

The Brewhouse Wrack was named after breweries near its crossing between the Groves and Wincolmlee – the stretch of river between the present-day Scott Street and Sculcoates bridges. In the mid-19th century, it served the mills, factories and slum districts springing up on either bank (see the images above for sketches of the immediate area by Frederick Shultz Smith, drawn in the 1880s).

According to newspapers of the time, the ferry was based in Wilkinson’s Ship Yard, “opposite the end of York Street”, in Church Street (now Wincolmlee). Men paid sixpence a week and women fourpence to cross as often as they liked.

The ferry is mentioned in notices for an auction of properties along Church Street in 1842, when it is described as: “A well frequented and lucrative FERRY from [Wilkinson’s ship yard] to the opposite side of the River.”

A pub called the Ferryboat Tavern survived next door in Church Street, from as early as 1842 until 1936, long after the ferry had been made obsolete by Sculcoates Bridge (built in 1875) and Scott Street Bridge (1901).

Mourning the victims

As dawn broke over the Groves, shock turned to despair.

In Hood Street, the Durr family had lost sisters Mary, 22, and Catherine, 20, and their cousin Maria, 18. Another sister, Bridget, 17, was the only woman to survive the disaster. She was lucky to do so; according to the Hull Packet, she was seen floating down the river by another survivor who thrust out his leg and told her to grab it. He drew her to him and they held onto a wooden pile until rescued.

Hood Street and the Groves in 1910 and today (National Library of Scotland)
Hood Street (right centre) survives today but its neighbouring streets in the Groves are long gone (National Library of Scotland)

Next door at at number 11, Mary Smith was mourning the loss of her husband, William. They had been married just a few weeks before and that morning she had been due to catch the ferry with him. William, who worked at the Kingston Cotton Mills, had been the last to board, just as the boat pushed off. He asked Mary to take his hand and leap on, only for the ferryman to stop her. She watched helplessly from the jetty as the boat capsized.

Another victim, Anna Burke, of Howard’s Row, had been working at Kingston Cotton Mills for nine months but was planning to emigrate to America in the spring. Her sister had refused to take the ferry because she thought it was dangerous.

Sisters Elizabeth Jackson and Emma Place were both lost. Elizabeth’s husband was unwell that day and unable to work – a coincidence that may have saved his life.

Initial reports suggested at least 17 had died, including 14 workers from the Kingston Cotton Mills. Officially, however, the death toll was placed at 14 and the names and addresses of the victims were published the following day. They were young – the eldest was 24, the youngest just 12 – and all but two were women and girls.

 

BODIES FOUND

Willliam Smith, 21, of 11 Hood Street
Mary Durr, 22, of 12 Hood Street
Catherine Durr, 20, of 12 Hood Street
Maria Pye, 14, of 3 Cheapside
Frederick Hutchinson, 12, of 10 Providence Place
Anna Burke, 13, of 14 Howard’s Row
Eliza Ann Williamson, 15, of 1 Sutton Row
Jane Moore, 23, of 18 1st Line, Sutton Bank

 

BODIES MISSING

Maria Durr, 18, of 12 Hood Street
Maria Clark, 17, of 2 Sutton Row, Sutton Bank
Hannah Moore, 18, of 18 1st Line, Sutton Bank
Sarah Wood, 22, of 5 Wilmington Row
Emma Place, 15, of 27 5th Line, Sutton Bank
Elizabeth Jackson, 24, of 25 5th Line

 

On the following Sunday, thousands of people turned out to watch a funeral procession for the victims.

“The Groves presented a mournful spectacle,” the Advertiser recorded. “Immense multitudes assembled to witness the mournful procession.

“The Rev. Henry Ward, after performing the funeral rites over the remains of young [Frederick] Atkinson, delivered an impressive address to the assembled multitude. It bore direct reference to the duties of children and parents, and the preparation of both for eternity. Many persons were moved to tears.”

A fund for the families raised close to £100 (about £8,000 in today’s money). The directors of the Kingston Cotton Mills (pictured below) donated £8 8s, but the poor workers proved the most generous, giving a total of £8 15s.

Sketches of Kingston Cotton Mills, Cumberland Street, Hull, by Frederick Schultz Smith, circa 1888
Sketches of Kingston Cotton Mills, Cumberland Street, Hull, by Frederick Schultz Smith, circa 1888

Who was to blame?

A few days after the tragedy, an inquest into the deaths was held in front of a jury at the Reindeer Tavern.

The official version of events, as heard by the coroner, rests at least in part on the evidence of the ferryman, Charles Ireland, a 33-year-old mariner who lived in Church Street (now a part of Wincolmlee) with his young family.

Ireland rejected the idea that the ferry was overcrowded and insisted that the disaster was caused by the passengers moving about.

He told the inquest that his passengers began to “jump about and crowd on one side.”

“I told them many times to be quiet, but they would not, and when we got into the middle of the stream the boat capsized,” he said.

A headline from the Hull Advertiser on December 8, 1848
A headline from the Hull Advertiser on December 8, 1848

The young factory people were “generally very unruly and disorderly” and there “would not have been the least danger if they had been quiet.”

Ireland gave a more detailed description to the Hull Advertiser, telling the newspaper: “The boat is a new one and I have had as many as thirty people in it several times.

“At a quarter before six o’clock I had the boat nearly full but as I was shoving off, five or six more jumped in. The [factory] bell was ringing at the time, which made them anxious to get over.

“I shoved upstream against the tide, in order not the be carried beyond the landing opposite. As the boat turned to cross, those that were in it went to one side. I begged them to be still, and said, ‘If you will only stand still we shall do.” I said so, for I had taken more than them across at once.

“When they went to one side the boat slanted, and they ran to the other, so that when we got about the middle of the river the boat capsized. Some were on the seats, and walked on them, which helped make the boat capsize. They all seemed to come over my head. The boat went over like a saucer.”

John Yates, a cotton-spinner who was on the boat, broadly supported Ireland’s version of events. The boat was much fuller than the ferryman wanted, he said, but no one would volunteer to get off because they were afraid of being late for work.

The Hull Advertiser recorded his testimony. “When the people got into the boat they behaved very roughly – a set of young things who thought of no danger – and they were quarrelling,” he said.

Looking from Lime Street across the River Hull to High Flags Mill (built 1856), close to the site of the ferry tragedy (Google Maps)
Looking from Lime Street across the River Hull to High Flags Mill (built 1856), close to the site of the Brewhouse Wrack ferry tragedy (Google Maps)

“When the boat was in the middle of the stream they were wranglesome; some stood on the seats, and some were treading on each others feet; the boatman told them to be quiet, but they would not; and in a minute the boat gave a lurch, and heeled over.”

This evidence was enough for the coroner, John Thorney, to declare that no blame should be attached to Ireland. “However melancholy” the incident, its cause was exceedingly simple, he said, and was “evidently attributable rather to the conduct of the poor people themselves than to any other reason.”

The jury then returned a verdict of accidental death.

Today, 170 years on, we would no doubt see such a tragedy through different eyes: an overcrowded boat, crossing a tidal river in the dark, with just one crew member to navigate and keep order; even from this distance it looks like a recipe for disaster.

And that is exactly how one survivor described it immediately after the event in 1848. James Clark made the following points:

  • The boat was simply too full for the ferryman to properly do his work, which included having to push off at the bow and then make his way to the stern to scull across with an oar;
  • The tide was too high for the ferryman to make use of a guide rope which he usually stretched across the river to help him swing the boat across;
  • Passengers were often disorderly but the ferryman lacked the authority to limit the number on board or to refuse to set out if the boat was overcrowded.

“When in the boat at such times I never felt safe,” he said.

An unnamed witness, quoted in the Hull Packet, reported that panic began when water was seen coming over the gunwale (the upper edge of the side of the boat), suggesting that the ferry was simply too heavily laden.

It is tempting to wonder if prejudice or disdain towards the poor cotton mill workers (many of whom were Irish immigrants) may have played a part in the public verdict on the disaster, but the lack of an effective health and safety culture appears to have been largely to blame. Despite several urgent calls for a new bridge, it would be another 27 years before the Sculcoates Bridge was finally built just to the north in 1875.

The River Hull in winter, seen from Scott Street Bridge (built 1901), not far from the site of the ferry disaster
The River Hull in winter, seen from Scott Street Bridge (built 1901), not far from the site of the ferry disaster

A forgotten disaster

The slum houses and terraces of the Groves are long gone and little remains to remind people today that this was once a poor but bustling community. Hood Street is now home to a construction firm and backs on to the Spiders nightclub, a location for countless trysts in the early hours of Sunday mornings.

The Brew House Wrack tragedy is largely forgotten as well. December 2018 marks its 170th anniversary but, sadly, no memorials stand for those who died.

We are fortunate, however, to have the reporting of newspapers such as the Hull Packet and Hull Advertiser – which gathered tributes to the victims – as a lasting record of the human cost of one of the worst industrial disasters in our city’s long history. The brief stories collected in these pages, available to read on the British Newspaper Archive website, give a glimpse of young lives, hopes and dreams cruelly brought to a sudden end in the cold waters of the River Hull.

Read more: East Yorkshire had nuclear missiles powerful enough to destroy a city

 

NOTES

1. Some ages and spellings of names differ between reports, so I have used the most consistently reported version. The Durr family is named “Dorr” in the official list of victims, but “Durr” in initial news reports, in the 1841 census and in burial records.

2. Contemporary reports of the tragedy do not refer to the ferry as the Brewhouse Wrack. However, James Sheahan, in his ‘General and concise history and description of the town and port of Kingston-upon-Hull’ (1864) describes the disaster as happening on the Brewhouse Wrack ferry, and a Hull Daily Mail report in 1903 also calls it the Brewhouse Wrack. Elsewhere in his book, Sheahan suggested there were two ferries in the “Wapping” area (the ancient part of Wincolmlee near the outfall of Barmston Drain) which does leave a question of whether the Brewhouse Wrack has been correctly identified (see these notes about local pubs by Robert Barnard for more on the two ferries).

3. Sheahan refers to the tragedy as happening on December 8, but the Hull Packet and Hull Advertiser were both published that day (Friday) and refer to the disaster as happening “yesterday morning”, i.e. Thursday, December 7.

4. The contemporary descriptions of the disaster are taken from the Hull Packet and Hull Advertiser newspapers, both published on Friday December 8, 1848.

5. The 1842 reference to the ferry appears in the Hull and East Riding Times, published on August 2, when a number of properties along Church Street, including the Ferryboat Tavern, were listed for auction. The information about the lifespan of the Ferryboat Tavern is taken from Paul Gibson’s website.

6. The day after the disaster, the Hull Packet placed the death toll at 17. It listed the names of 30 people it believed were on the boat, 14 of whom had died, and said there were “three other persons lost who were passing over but did not work at the [Kingston Cotton Mills].”

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