Too Late the Hero – and the Heroines

In the link I posted on Wednesday that directed you to a brief account of The Tragedy at Reighton Gap, Ces Mowthorpe said that a young nursemaid had charge of the five children who drowned. The nursemaid survived and, pitying her for the burden of guilt she may have carried for the rest of her life, I looked for her in the records. She proved to be a figment of Ces’s imagination, as were the “strong, fit country men” who were “washed off their feet as they tried to reach those who were marooned”.

Lavinia TAYLOR and her three children – Lily, 12, Clarissa, 9, and Elsie, 7 – had spent a month at Reighton with sister in law Hannah, her husband William WEBSTER and their two girls, Martha Alice, 11, and Hannah Mary, 3. The cousins had spent many happy hours playing on the sands and this was to be their last time together before the Taylors returned to their home in Leeds.

About two in the afternoon, the mothers settled themselves on the beach at Reighton Gap to knit, chat and watch the children build sand castles on the nearby sandbank. About half an hour later one of the children called out. The two women went to investigate the cause of the alarm and saw that the rising tide had filled the ditch encircling the sandbank. The photograph below, taken on 20 March 2015 from the path down to Speeton Sands, will give you some idea of the topography. (The line of concrete blocks on the beach are relics of the Second World War but the smudges closer to the sea on the right are remnants of the steam schooner Laura, wrecked in 1897. There would have been more of her visible in 1902.)

The mothers removed their shoes and stockings, hitched up their skirts and waded into the ditch. It was about twelve feet wide and the water was soon up to their shoulders. They were forced back to the beach. Realising they could not save their children, they looked around for help. There was not a soul in sight. They quickly came to a decision that seems incomprehensible to me. Hannah Webster set off north to Filey – three miles away – and Lavinia Taylor made for the cliff path up to the Coastguard post at Speeton.

About a mile north, Hannah met a married couple in their mid to late thirties, riding bicycles. After explaining her plight, William Henry CASS thought it best that he went to the children and that Hannah should take his wife’s bicycle and ride to Filey for more help. William had not gone far when his chain came off and he had to run most of the way to the sandbank, with Ruth following.

Meanwhile, Lavinia had met a woman walking south from the Speeton White Cliffs. Lavinia asked if she would kindly dash up the cliffs to Mr Chapman’s farm for help. Miss HARPER, as she is called in all newspaper reports, explained that it was beyond her ability to do so, following a serious accident she had suffered some years earlier – but she had just passed a lady who she didn’t know but who might be able to oblige. The woman, unnamed in the newspapers, did Miss Harper’s bidding. Miss Harper then said she would save the children and strode into the ditch. She came quite close to the girls before her feet gave way. She tried again from a different starting point but failed again to reach the children.

William Cass arrived then and, without removing his clothes, strode into the water. He could not swim and, well short of the children, he dropped into a a hole and briefly disappeared  from view. Somehow, he made it back to the beach and, as he was being helped out of the water  by Ruth, a wave swept the children from the sandbank.

The alarm Hannah Webster had raised in Filey brought people who could only search for the bodies of the children. Four were recovered close by from the “lays” (ditches). Three-year-old Hannah Mary Webster was carried three miles to Filey Brigg and found the next day in a shallow pool on Filey Brigg. She was buried in God’s Acre with her sister. The Taylor girls were taken home to Leeds. School friends carried their coffins to graves in Holbeck Cemetery.

The following month, William Cass, Miss Harper and Miss E M FENWICK received Awards for Heroes from the Royal Humane Society. Miss Fenwick must have been the woman who went to Mr Chapman’s farm for help. Her initials have not been enough for me to trace her. And all I could find out about Miss Harper was that she seemed to earn her living by renting property in the Reighton area.

The desperate sadness of this story does not end with the children being laid to rest. David Taylor, Lavinia’s husband, died five years later, aged 43. Lavinia was living alone in 1911 and this is what she wrote on the census form.

She died in 1928, aged 62.

Hannah Webster was only fifty when she died in 1913. The 1911 census form states the couple had five children, with three still living. I have not been able to find the trio in the records.

In the shadows of this story there is a villain. A man who could have saved all five of the children but chose instead to leave them in their place of danger. At the first inquest there was this exchange:-

Coroner: Did they wade across shallow water to reach the high and dry part?

Mrs Taylor: No, when we saw them at play they were quite safe. We sat down, and were knitting, and heard the Reighton coastguardsman say to them as he passed down on his way to Speeton Well, ‘You are enjoying yourselves.’ Evidently he saw no danger or he would certainly have told them.

That very morning, about ten o’clock, a young man called Harry SCOBY went for a swim from Speeton Sands with a friend. The tide was near full ebb. Harry got into difficulties in deep water and drowned. The friend went to the village for help and, when he returned with some men, he found Harry’s body had washed up on the beach. The tide had turned. It is inconceivable that the Reighton coastguard was unaware of this event, the incoming tide that mid-afternoon – and the dangers presented by the Reighton leys. I wonder if he lived on with a burden of guilt.

Beach 130 · Reighton Gap

Just after the solar eclipse