12 November 1844 was set to be a great day for Northampton. A chance to welcome Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. to the town. However, two tragedies would occur. It was a visit of convenience for the royal couple, who were passing through the town en route to Burghley House the residence of Marquess of Exeter.
They left Euston station at 09:22 aboard the Royal train.1 Stopping only briefly at Tring for the engine to take on water, they progressed north-bound arriving at Weedon at 11:43. In 1844 there was no railway line to Northampton, as Bridge Street station was not to open until the following year; Weedon was the nearest convenient station.
Why the Queen was taken to Weedon and not Blisworth could have been due to two reasons. The new railway from Blisworth to Northampton and Peterborough was under construction in 1844, Blisworth therefore was probably, in part, a building site. Weedon, arguably, also offered a better connection via the turnpike to Northampton.
From Weedon the Royal party proceeded by horse drawn carriages towards Northampton. We get a vivid picture of the day as the Northampton Mercury2 describes the scene on entering the town.
Approaching nearer to the town. Her Majesty first passed under a very pretty arch formed of laurel and other evergreens, and extending across the road at Mr. Hamson’s, the Green Man, St. James’s End, from whose house also projected a large and very handsome banner. Northampton, it must be confessed, cannot boast of the grandeur of its approaches, and St. James’s End with its abrupt, narrow, and dirty turn, is one of the worst but Mr. Hamson’s pretty device was full of lively promise, and before the pleasant picture could have passed from the mind the turn was made and the West bridge with its triumphal arch, covered with evergreens and flags, burst upon the Royal view. Here the cortege was met by the municipal body, the magistrates and the clergy, and a strong muster of the gentlemen of the town. At a quarter to one salvo of artillery from the ruins of the old castle announced that Her Majesty had arrived. The bells of all the churches rang merrily, the band struck up the National Anthem, and the general enthusiasm approached its height. In the following order the procession now moved up Black Lion-hill and along Marefair and Gold-street, to the George Hotel.
This depiction of Northampton’s castle is particularly interesting. The actual castle had long been demolished and the site had been in ruins for many years, the grounds were being used as an orchard and for grazing. What is shown here is a wooden replica that was erected on the site. The drawing was from a viewpoint close to the River Nene, probably from a property called “Nen Villa”.3
St Peter’s church, an accident
Shortly before the Queen arrived in the town an accident had occurred at St Peter’s church, again recorded by the Northampton Mercury reporter:
About half-an-hour before Her Majesty’s arrival a singular accident happened at St. Peter’s Church to the parish clerk. He was engaged in showing the bells to some strangers, and had placed himself on the floor close to the tenor bell; at the same moment some unlucky person below pulled the bell-rope. With a degree of presence of mind, to which he owes his life, the clerk threw himself flat upon his back, and the bell swung over him, inflicting two or three severe lacerations on the head and legs in its revolution. The visitors immediately gave the alarm, and he fortunately escaped without more serious injury. The bell weighs 13 cwt.
The unnamed parish clerk was James Smith, aged 56. He was parish clerk of St Peter throughout the 1840s and lived near the church in Marefair. He died in 1863 and is buried at Upton.
Along the route every house was decorated from base to parapet with evergreens, and a number of gorgeous banners extended across the streets. Windows, balconies and platforms, were crowded with eager and delighted spectators. The principal shortcoming of Gold Street – ts narrowness – was in one respect an advantage; the flags and evergreens from either side actually formed a canopy. At All Saints’ Church, its portico was festooned with laurels, with the Royal Standard floating from its tower. The procession included members of the Town Council, local Clergy, and Freemasons, the Odd Fellows (friendly societies), and other Societies forming a dense but orderly parade. Of course, however, the carriage of the Queen and her Royal Consort was the object towards which every eye was turned. The vehicle, which was drawn by four beautiful horses, was without ornament of any kind, and perhaps throughout the line of procession there was scarcely a lady habited with more simplicity than our beloved Sovereign. The slowness with which the carriage moved onwards allowed ample opportunity for every spectator having anything like a vantage point, to see Her Majesty and Prince Albert. The Queen looked remarkably well, and was evidently gratified with the heartiness of her welcome. Both Her Majesty and the Prince acknowledged continually the acclamations which greeted them. Arriving at the George Hotel, the royal carriage halted in front of All Saints’ Church where the Mayor read to Her Majesty a loyal address to which the Queen responded.
The procession once more moved on around the front of All Saints’ Church, under the triumphal arch at the end of Mercers’ Row and along the long line of Abington Street, which like the other streets, exhibited a profusion of laurels, banners, and other decorations. At the end of this street was a final triumphal arch. The Royal couple proceeded on their journey to Burghley House.
All Saints’, a second tragedy
The press report appearing four days after the visit4 includes brief mention of a second accident: “the breaking down of some seats erected in front of All Saints’ Church for the accommodation of the charity children. … Happily the children all escaped more frightened than hurt, but a poor man received a severe hurt.”
That description of events was an understatement. The following week’s newspaper recorded the full details of the inquest into the death of George Mason, a local carpenter and the circumstances around the collapse of the stage on which the children were seated.
The first witness was Mr. E. F. Law5, a local but well known architect, employed to erect a stage for the accommodation of the Sunday School children in All Saints Church Yard, on the occasion of Her Majesty’s visit. The newspapers records:
Two stages were previously erected to the one in question, on planks, and the one in question was being proceeded with when an order was received from the Mayor and Corporation to the effect that it must be lowered or taken down altogether. It was taken down, and [the] witness (Mr. Law), in consequence, sent in his resignation. The building went on under the direction of the builder and the Rev. W. Wales, and on the evening of Saturday the Mayor requested him (Mr. Law), as a personal favour, to resume his superintendance. He did so, and the stage was completed. It was calculated to accommodate 4,000 children.
Subsequent events show that the design and construction of the stage were a significant factor in its collapse when put to use. It appears that the original design by the architect was too high for the Vicar of All Saints and the Mayor who intervened in its construction. Not surprisingly Mr. Law resigned from the role only to resume responsibility.
The inquest continued turning to event on the day of the Queen’s visit.
On the morning of Tuesday witness (Mr. Law) was engaged in placing the children; about 2000 of them were on the stage when Mr. Elkington, the schoolmaster, said he thought he felt it move. Witness (Mr. Law) replied “Good God no; it is impossible; three inch planks cannot break.” Mr. Elkington said he did not think the planks were breaking, but that the stage was moving.
[Mr. Law] examined and found that it was indeed sinking, and further examination showed that many of the perpendicular supports had gone into the ground; one or two of the grave stones were broken to pieces, and the uprights had gone through into the grave. Witness got assistance from a man named Thompson, who had been engaged in erecting another stage, and [George] Mason, the deceased, who was standing near the North gate of the church yard, and they placed planks and fresh pieces of upright timber as supports, in hopes of staying the evil.
Witness (Mr. Law), Thompson, and the deceased [George Mason] were under the stage so engaged, when witness (Law) heard a band playing, a great shouting, and stamping of feet. The stage then sunk rapidly, and [Law] exclaimed, “Good God we shall all be killed.” He made a rush towards the front to escape and saw nothing more of the others. It was the centre of the stage that fell; the two ends remained firm. Every grave stone on which an upright was placed was broken, and almost every other stone.
The Coroner correctly concluded:
“It was not a safe plan to place these uprights on the grave stones. They ought to have been placed on planks on strong pieces of timber laid parallel to the ground. How it was that this was not done he could not conceive, unless it was in the hurry and confusion, because he had originally erected the stage upon such a platform. The second stage, with which however he had nothing to do, was also erected on a platform.”
Another witness, Mr. Ireson who together with his foreman superintended the construction of the last stage.
Witness (Mr. Ireson) was present when some of the uprights were placed on the grave stones. Cannot conceive how he should have overlooked the danger of doing so, except that he was so dreadfully excited and worried by the many alterations required, that he hardly knew what was doing. There were six or seven ministers insisting upon having it one way, and the Mayor and Corporation insisting on having it another. Has no hesitation in saying that the stage could not have fallen if it had been placed on a platform.
Observations were made by a Juror:
The stage must ultimately have given way without the stamping. If we had thought at all, but there was no thinking, we might have known the ground could not support such a stage. We were so pressed for time and so excited we hardly knew what we were doing.
The Coroner commented further:
The object of the alterations was principally to afford a better view of the Portico.
Thomas Thompson, a journeyman carpenter as described by Mr. Law, was on duty as a constable at the front of the church, was also called as a witness.
Mr. Law came and told him the stage was sinking, and begged him to go round and see what could be done. He and the deceased [George Mason] went immediately round and placed pieces of wood to support the stage. Mason took a sawing stool under to support the plank, and Thompson was by him when the stage gave way. Thompson was knocked down and stunned for a moment. When he recovered his senses he saw deceased on one knee with his head jammed between two planks. Thompson crawled out upon his hands and knees, and told John Smith, who was assisting the children off the stage, that a man was under it. Smith and some other men went and released him, and took him to the Infirmary.
Mr. Mash, House Surgeon to the Infirmary was then called:
He said the deceased was brought to [the Infirmary] a little after twelve o’clock. Mr. Nash was at the West Bridge when he heard of the accident. He went up immediately and saw deceased.
George Mason had suffered two serious head injuries from being crushed under the stage. He appears to have died the following Tuesday.
John Smith, referred to in Thomas Thompson’s evidence, was a Shoemaker of St. Edmund’s Terrace, and he too was a special constable on the day in question.
[He] was standing near the church when he heard two loud reports, which people at first took to be the cannon announcing Her Majesty’s arrival. But directly after it was said that the stage was falling. Witness (Smith) went into the church yard and saw poor Mason lying under the planks. His head was jammed between two planks. With some difficulty witness released him and brought him out to the edge of the pavement, and gave him into the hands of some persons who took him to the Infirmary. He bled very much. Witness’s own child was on the platform, and called out to him, “Father, save me.” He left [the] deceased to go and save his daughter.
Mr. Charles Ireson, builder, was employed in constructing the stage gave additional evidence.
It was not by his direction the uprights were placed on ground. He “found labour and stuff”. He thought it was oversight that planks were not used. It was a mystery altogether. Planks were used to the other two stages; they were essential to the safety of such a building. Could only suppose they were omitted in the hurry and confusion consequent on the alterations. [He] was not present when the building was begun, but certainly saw the props on Monday, sad the fact did not strike him that the planks were not there.
The Coroner, in his summing up, said:
… it was evident that if the platform [under the supports] had been used the accident would not have happened; but although there was negligence, yet there were extenuating circumstances in the fact of the hurry and difficulties under which the last building was erected.
In hindsight, it is perhaps surprising that “hurry and difficulties under which the last building was erected”, presumably referring to the change of design initiated by the Vicar and Mayor should be considered as “extenuating circumstances”.
The jury, after a brief consultation, returned a verdict of Accidental Death with a deodand of one sovereign on the timber. A deodand was an archaic legal process in which a fine was paid if an object or animal, for example, had caused a person’s death. The practice was abolished in 1846.
George Mason, the unfortunate deceased, was 45 years of age. He was brought up as a tailor, but had not worked at his trade for many years, and had gained a livelihood by jobbing about. He was unmarried and lived with his parents in Gregory Street and was buried at All Saints.
© 2021, Graham Ward. All rights reserved.
- Queen Victoria had only travelled by train for the first time in 1842. On this occasion she would have travelled in the new Royal coach that had been built a year earlier by the directors of the London and Birmingham Railway. A similar coach, Queen Adelaide’s coach, also built by the London and Birmingham, is preserved in the National Railway Museum.
- Northampton Mercury, 16 November 1844
- Information supplied by James Sorrie
- Northampton Mercury, 23 November 1844
- Edmund Francis Law practiced in Northampton from 1837 until 1882 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edmund_Francis_Law