Boating tragedy of the Oxbird

 Following the growing reputation of Burnham on Crouch as a tourist destination and the opening of the Crouch Valley Railway Line in 1889 many people used the railway line at weekends and holidays to escape the grime of  London.

Great Eastern Railway offered special excursion rates every Sunday and on Bank Holidays for 2 shillings and six pence return from Liverpool Street  and other London stations to Burnham on Crouch.

To service the tourists many locals used up to 50 small boats to offer pleasure trips on the Crouch. While some of these people were skilled many were unskilled in boat handling and rented boats for short periods to make a little extra money. At the time there was no regulation covering the use of pleasure boats on the Crouch.

pleasureboatquayA pleasure boat similar to Oxbird laden with passengers leaving Burnham Town Steps

One such person was Albert Victor Whiting who was the son of agricultural labourer, Stephen Whiting and widow Ellen Mary Chitticks nee Balls. Although Albert used the surname Whiting he was registered as Albert Victor Chitticks on his birth in March 1869 with his parents marrying 9 months later.

The 1891 census shows his family living in Providence, Burnham on Crouch near to the river and although Albert's father was still a labourer, Albert and his brothers listed their occupations as  mariner.

Albert was noted as a good swimmer although he was not popular having a reputation as a reckless young man who flouted safety rules.

In December 1892 he married Mary Outen  and lived in a cottage in Silver Road, Burnham on Crouch.

Unless employed by the powerful Oyster Fishery or regular sailing vessels the lot of a mariner in Burnham was very seasonal with plenty of work in the summer , crewing the large yachts and providing pleasure boats but there was very little work in the winter.

Albert worked the summer of 1892 by hiring small craft and offering pleasure trips on the river , often to Creeksea and back.

The Oxbird was a small one sailed sailing craft that was owned by William Wilkinson, William Wiseman and George Bourne. The boat was used in the summer for the pleasure boat trade although suitable for a maximum of 12 people..

By March 1893 Albert has been out of work for several months and Mary was pregnant with their first child so with Easter coming in early April he struck a deal with William Wilkinson to use the Oxbird for half of the money that he took from passengers.

The boat was in poor condition have been laid up in the yard for the winter and as the first occasion that it was used had some leaks which may well have contributed to the disaster to come.

The Oxbird had been used by dredger man William Wilkinson as a pleasure craft in the past and in his opinion was suitable for up to 12 people. He was later to say that one one occasion he had 17 passengers but the boat felt so unsafe that he returned to shore and unloaded some of the passengers. He felt that Albert was an experienced waterman and so fatally he did not pass on that information when he hired the boat.

By 2 o'clock on Easter Monday, 3rd April 1893 the Oxbird was tied up at the Town Steps on Burnham Quay. Albert  had five paying passengers aboard who had agreed to pay six pence each for a one hour sail on the river when he was approached by a party of 13 people  who wanted to join the trip. All of the people climbed into the boat although conditions were so cramped that some passengers had to sit on others laps.

Albert's income was a direct reflection of the number of passengers that he carried so that his half of the income from five passengers would be one shilling and three pence whereas for 18 people its would be four shillings and six pence. This vast difference encouraged Albert and the other boatmen to take overloaded boats into the river.

Mr Morris from Canning Town who was one of the original passengers complained about the overcrowding but Albert lied by saying that he had carried twenty passengers in the boat before.

As the boat cast off at high tide onlookers on shore were concerned about safety as the boat was low in the water due to the leakage and the number of passengers. George Gale, innkeeper from the White Harte Inn shouted out the dangers but Albert abruptly replies " Go to hell, I know my business so mind your business."

A small crown gathered, including Police Sergeant Chandler and Doctor Gorton Coombe, to watch the boat slowly move away from the Quay and move up river towards Creeksea. Sergeant Chandler was concerned as he had warned Albert and other pleasure boat users about the danger of overcrowding their boats during the previous season but he was powerless to stop the boat leaving as no law was being broken even though the gunwale was only 6 inches above the water.

The journey continued for over a mile until the Oxbird reached Creeksea Hole which is up to 30 feet deep and a place noted for its dangerous eddies which often affected the passage of boats especially just after a high tide.

The Oxbird sailed straight over Creeksea hole and as it did so the vessel quickly sank  first and the passengers were all thrown into the cold water.

Luckily the Willow Wren and Emmie fishing boats belonging to Mr Patmore and Mr Rogers were nearby and went to the aid the the people in the water.

The crew of Edwin Kingsbury, John Bacon, Jesse Hawkes, Alfred Hawkes, George Wilkinson, John Barker and George Tunbridge managed to pull 15 people from the water.

Most of the people rescued were unconscious so the crew began to rub the bodies to resuscitate them. When they were no more bodies visible the crew made for Burnham as fast as they could row .

The casualties were transferred to the Star and Anchor Inns and Dr Coombe from Southminster and Dr Downham from Burnham were sent for. After several hours of care all 15 people were conscious and out of danger.

Local people provided a clothing for the victims as their own clothes were damaged, lost or unwearable due to the waterlogging.

At this time it was known that Albert Whiting had not been picked up but it was not known if there were any more casualties still in the river.

The surviving victims recovered enough to be able to catch the evening train home.

Names recorded for the casualties include:- Mr George Morris of 10 Oak Crescent, Canning Town, William Chaplin of 59 Copenhagen Place, Limehouse, Mary Maid Chaplin aged 6 of Southminster, Jessie Plain of 24 Streetfield Place, Limehouse, Ruth Coe of 577 Romford Road, Forest Gate, Annie Covenoy of Limehouse, Thomas Baker aged 14 of Forest Gate,  Michael Brian and Mary-Ann Brien( father and daughter) of 10 Samnel Street, Limehouse, Anne Mahoney of 7 Commercial Road and Albert Skinmore of Limehouse.

Burnham boats returned to the scene to look for bodies and used hooks on ropes to raise the Oxbird in expectation that some of the bodies may be trapped in the boat. The Oxbird was raised but contained no bodies.

The search was abandoned at nightfall and resumed the next day.

By this time Police had received reports of 3 men who had travelled to Burnham-on-Crouch but not returned home.

The new search party consisted of Alfred Cole, Charles Boreham, William Wilkinson, William Wiseman, George Bourne, Josiah Wilkinson, Alma Warren, George Franklin and Arthur Bridge. Police Officers Superintendent Halsey , Sergeant Chandler, Sergeant Rowberry and Constable Reynolds were also involved in the search.

The first body to be recovered was that of Albert who had some facial damage received during the wreck . This was followed by the recovery of two more bodies which accounted for the known missing people. Albert was taken to his house in Silver Road while the others were placed in an outhouse at the rear of the Star Inn.

The men were identified as Alfred Aston, 21 years, of 59 Copenhagen  Place, Limehouse and  William Edward Clarke aged 52  of 4 Louise Cottage, Vicarage Road, Tottenham.

That evening at a scheduled meeting of Maldon Rural Sanitary Authority the incident was raised by Mr C W Parker and there was agreement to ask for Government approval for the power to make by laws governing the use of pleasure craft on the River Crouch.

On Wednesday the search resumed by Alfred Cole, George Franklin, Jubal Hawkes, Joseph Walsh, Charles Boreham and Charles Pudney who found a third body which was identifies as that of  John Burke aged 17  of 50 Northumberland Street, Poplar.

The Inquest opened on Wednesday 5th April 1893 at the Star Inn, Burnham on Crouch where the bodies were identified and then adjourned to await a full inquest.

Later that day at a meeting of the Burnham Ratepayers a fund was set up in aid of Whiting's widow and the other casualties. A committee of eight people was established and £6 was pledged from people at the meeting.

The inquest was resumed on Friday 7th April 1893 when Mr J Harrison ,the Coroner, heard from witnesses.

In summing up the Coroner paid tribute to the rescuers, searchers and to the support given to the casualties by the people of Burnham. He commented on the lack of regulations governing the use of pleasure boats on the River and commended the decision by the Maldon Rural sanitary Authority to apply for the power to enact a bylaw governing their use.

The Jury returned a verdict of accidental death with a rider that the owners of the boat showed great negligence in letting the boat to Whiting who was a most  incompetent person to manage it.

 The funeral of Albert Victor Whiting took place at St Mary's Church, Burnham on Crouch on Saturday 7 April 1893. The coffin was carried by six watermen with relatives and the three owners of the Oxbird walking after the coffin. The service was taken by Rev Govett with a large congregation of mourners present.

On 14 November 1893 Maldon Rural Sanitary Authority were able to pass regulations governing the use of pleasure boats on the river despite the opposition of some residents lead by Mr Charles Read.

In September 1893 Mary gave birth to Albert's son who she called Albert Victor Whiting.

In June 1894 she married William Watts a dock labourer from Grays Thurrock and together they raised a family although sadly Albert junior dies at the age of 12 years.



View Peter Layzell's profile on LinkedIn