The trains from Norwich had been crowded as people travelled from far and wide to witness the great spectacle which was to take place at Great Yarmouth on May 2nd 1845. As the people gathered along the banks of the River Bure in excited anticipation, no one could have predicted that the day would end in great tragedy with the loss of 79 lives, many of them young children. On the anniversary of that disaster, I thought it would be a poignant reminder to look back at the events of that fateful day.
In a widely advertised publicity stunt which was designed to draw in the crowds, Nelson the Clown, a performer with William Cooke’s Circus, had undertaken to swim in a barrel drawn by four geese from Haven Bridge at Hall Quay to the Suspension Bridge at North Quay. He began his feat on the flood tide and, as he drew nearer to his destination, an estimated 300-400 spectators had rushed onto the suspension bridge in an effort to get a better view as he passed beneath. When one of the rods gave way a cry went out to evacuate the bridge, but it came too late and as the chains began to snap along one side, the bridge tipped over, catapulting its occupants into the waters below. There was a scene of absolute panic as the horrified bystanders attempted to rescue those who were struggling to reach the banks, others managed to scramble ashore by themselves. A call was immediately put out for every medical person in the town to attend and the injured were treated in Vauxhall Gardens on the west side of the Bure and in private houses along the east side. As the rescue proceeded it soon became clear that not everyone had survived as, one by one, the bodies of those unfortunate victims who had either drowned, or had been crushed by falling bodies and sections of the collapsed bridge, were pulled from the river.
As the evening progressed the full horror of the death toll became apparent as the bodies of the victims were laid out in the Norwich Arms Inn, Admiral Colingwood and Swan public houses. The youngest, Mary Ann Lake and Charles Dye, were just two years old. The oldest, Mary Ann Ditcham, was 64. Of the 79 who lost their lives, 58 of them were aged 16 or under. A report in the Norwich Mercury on the 10th of May said; “In every street are to be seen one or more bodies extended on biers, returning to that home from which but short minutes before they had passed in health and life. The consternation – the agony of the town is not to be described – it is as if some dread punishment was felt to have fallen upon its inhabitants – every face is horror stricken – every eye is dim.”
Many of the victims were buried in St. Nicholas’ churchyard in the town and there is now a campaign to provide a permanent memorial to those who died near to the spot where the suspension bridge once stood. The full transcript of the original report on the disaster from the Norwich Mercury can be found in this PDF document on the Broadland Memories website.