The Regent’s Park Tragedy 1867

On Tuesday the 15th January, 1867, around two hundred people were pitched into the icy waters of the lake in Regent’s Park, when the ice on which they were skating suddenly broke up.

Although the majority of them were rescued, forty people lost their lives in what was dubbed at the time the worst weather-related accident in Britain.

The Norfolk News published a gripping account of the skating tragedy in its edition of Saturday, 19th January, 1867:-

FEARFUL ACCIDENT IN THE REGENT’S PARK. LOSS OF LIFE

Oa Tuesday afternoon, a fearful accident took place on that part the Ornamental Water in the Regent’s Park immediately opposite Sussex-terrace, by which a large number of persons lost their lives.

On this part of the lake, which is the broadest, several thousand persons had been skating during the forenoon without any accident taking place, although the ice was looked upon by the experienced icemen on duty as very unsafe, from its being principally snow ice.

About half-past three o’clock in the afternoon there were near the same spot about 500 skaters, among whom were many ladies, there being at the same time on the banks from 2000 to 3000 spectators.

The ice gives way as people skate on the lake.
From The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, 19th January, 1867. Copyright, The British Library Board.

THE ICE GAVE WAY

Suddenly, and without any warning, the ice at the sides of the bank became loosened, and was drawn from the edge. Within a minute the whole sheet of the ice over the full width of the lake gave way, and split into fragments a few yards square.

The consternation and alarm of the skaters and other persons on the ice may be well imagined, and a general rush was made for the banks. Unfortunately, this broke the soft ice into still smaller pieces. Numbers of persons fell through the crevices into the water, which is at least twelve feet deep, and several appeared at once to be sucked under the ice.

At least 200 persons were struggling in the water, and screaming for help.

THE HORROR OF THE SCENE

A few, with great presence of mind, threw themselves flat upon the surface of the pieces of ice, and were thus not only instrumental in saving the lives of many of those in the water, but preserved their own until assistance came to them.

The screams of those struggling and sinking in the water, and the shouts of the people on the banks, added to the horror of the scene.

The icemen, of whom the full number were on duty, did all that it was possible to do under the circumstances, and three of them narrowly escaped from drowning, having, when in the water, helping the people out, been seized by others drowning and pulled under the ice.

Several of the parkkeepers and spectators rendered all possible aid, and more than one hundred persons within a few minutes of the accident were got on shore, the great number of whom were so much exhausted that they had to be taken to the Humane Society’s tent and placed under medical treatment.

People rescuer skaters from the water,
From The Penny Illustrated Paper, Saturday, 26th January, 1867. Copyright, The British Library Board.

SINKING EXHAUSTED

While this was going on, several persons who were in the water in the middle of the lake, and whom it was impossible for the ice-men to reach, the ladders and boats being rendered almost useless owing to the state of the ice, were seen to sink back exhausted, evidently benumbed with cold, after vainly endeavouring to support themselves by clutching at the rotten ice, which crumbled away in their grasp.

NO POSSIBILITY OF SAVING THEM

What made the scene the more dreadful was that the female relatives of many of those who fell into the water saw their struggles from the bank without the possibility of saving them.

One lady saw her husband sink and lose his life, while two sisters were sending forth piercing screams and calling on the people to save their brother. He was drowned, and the two ladies were taken away in the most pitiable state, and sent to their home in a cab.

THE POLICE ARRIVE

Shortly after four o’clock, a strong body of the D division of police, and an additional number of icemen from Hyde Park, arrived, but too late to render any aid except in getting out the bodies of those drowned, all the persons alive having by this time been rescued and taken to the tent.

Some had suffered simply from the immersion and fright, but forty were lying more or less exhausted.

MEDICAL MEN ASSIST

Several of the medical men in the neighbourhood had hastened to the scene of the accident on hearing the news, and by unremitting attention on their part, under the direction of Dr. Obre, of Melcombe-place, Dorset-square, the surgeon of the district for the Humane Society, they had sufficiently recovered by five o’clock to be taken away in cabs, some to their own homes, some to the hospital, and others to the workhouse.

The inhabitants of Sussex-terrace vied with each other in sending over to the tent all the necessaries required by the medical men.

THE MOST MOURNFUL PART

The most mournful part of the accident is now to be recorded.

As soon as the ice was cleared, a body of icemen and labourers with great difficulty got out the boats to that portion of the water where it was known that several persons had sunk.

Before dusk several bodies had been recovered, but it was known that there were many more under the ice.

These were not dragged for until the following morning, as it was quite certain life was extinct.

The bodies, as they were brought one by one to the shore, were taken to the tent, and their pockets searched for the means of identification, but in no case was this successful.

One body was that of a gentleman aged 30. The others were those of young men. apparently of the middle class of life, from 18 to 20 years of age.

All the bodies, when recovered, had skates upon their feet.

At seven o’clock, the bodies were removed on stretchers to the Marylebone Workhouse, where they were laid for identification.

At ten o’clock at night it was reported that some more bodies bad been taken from the water, making ten in all.

The dormitory in a casual ward.
The Interior Of The Casual Ward At Marylebone Workhouse in 1869.

POLICE AID

The officials of the Humane Society loudly complain that they do not have the aid of the police in keeping people off the ice when it is in a dangerous state, and they add that if police aid is given after an accident has taken place, it ought also to be given to prevent accidents taking place.

FURTHER PARTICULARS

The scenes that occurred in consequence of the above recorded catastrophe were most startling and harrowing.

Women rushed about on the banks screaming out that their children, or husbands, or brothers were drowning, and imploring the bystanders to save them.

Boys and girls stood hysterically crying and wringing their hands, and between their sobs exclaiming, “Oh, look at father! Oh, father, father!” and giving expression to other heartrending exclamations; and strong men convulsively appealed to those who had no means of help, and pointed out friends and relations struggling in the agonies of death.

Only those who, like the writer, were on the spot, and saw with their own eyes what took place, can form an adequate idea of the calamity which in an instant placed 200 persons at the very gates of death, almost within arms’ reach of those who were related to them by the closest ties, but who were yet in most cases obliged to stand helplessly by and see them fighting desperately for life, and gradually succumbing or waiting passively, clinging to pieces of ice till they became insensible and lost their hold.

People watch as skaters are rescued from the waters of the lake in Regent's Park.
From The Illustrated London News, Saturday, 26th January, 1867. Copyright, The British Library Board.

THE ICE WAS UNSAFE

While sympathy and regret moves all who hear of the sudden and painful death of so many human beings, it must be recorded that the death they met with was the result of their own excessive foolhardiness in remaining upon the ice to steal a few extra moments’ enjoyment at a fearful risk, when thousands of persons saw and appreciated the fearfully unsafe condition of the ice, and congregated on the banks with the certain expectation of seeing large numbers immersed in the water.

By halt-past 3 o’clock, the ice showed unmistakable signs of breaking up. It was cracked to such an extent that there was not a sound piece of more than a foot or so broad, and the cracks were clearly marked by the water which rose through them.

These alarming symptoms were noticed by everybody, and many who had sense enough made the best of their way off, expressing their opinion as they did so that the ice would not last many minutes longer.

Even these in many instances got a wetting in getting out of danger, for with hardly an exception the ice had parted from the shore right round the lake.

THEY WENT THROUGH THE ICE

Notwithstanding the warning signs, more than 200 persons still remained on the ice skating and sliding.

Shortly before four o’clock, three children and two men went through the ice together at about a dozen feet from the south-western shore. A gentleman immediately plunged in and brought to the shore the three children, who clung round so as almost to drown him.

Here one of the Royal Humane Society’s men excited a great deal of indignation. He went a foot or so into the water, and there waited till the children were brought to him, and then, with another, claimed to have rescued them.

One of the men who had fallen in scrambled out, and the other was taken from a boat by the Royal Humane Society’s man.

Immediately after this, several other people fell in, but they were soon got out.

Somewhat awakened to their position by these accidents and the shouts of the people on the banks, a few other persons left the ice, not, however, without in most cases falling through when near the shore.

PANIC ON THE ICE

At this time a dozen people on the north-eastern side, near the boat-house, who were standing close together, watching the misfortunes of the others, next fell together. This was witnessed from all parts, and created a panic among all who remained on the ice, and they all with one accord rushed towards the opposite shore.

Before this movement commenced, numbers were seen dropping through the ice in all parts.

As the frightened groups made for the banks the whole field of ice gave two or three heaves, and then simultaneously broke up over the whole of the broad part of the lake.

CONFUSION AND DISTRACTION

In an instant, 200 men and children were thrown into the water.

A fearful cry of dismay proceeded from them as they fell, which was mingled with a loud shout of horror from the thousands who lined the banks.

Then all was confusion and distraction.

For several minutes nothing effectual was even thought of, and there in the water could be seen children of from eight to twelve years of age clinging to the edges of the broken ice, crying every moment in frantic voices for the assistance which those who witnessed their sufferings were powerless so render them, and in a brief time giving up their short lease of life with a few last faint waves of the hands above the water.

Those who witnessed these scenes cried and shrieked with even greater exhibition of feeling than the sufferers themselves.

The first shock over, men rushed wildly about, seizing upon everything in the shape of a rope or spar to throw to the struggling and drowning; but by this time all direct communication with them was cut off by the general breaking-up of the ice, and very few were reached for a long time.

BOATS WERE BROUGHT

A cry was raised of ,”The boats, the boats!”, and hundreds of willing workers ran off to return with the boats on their shoulders, but when they got them into the water the greatest difficulty was experienced forcing them through the ice.

Ropes were rapidly joined, and then one end of each being carried across the bridge they were stretched from shore to shore and dragged along.

A few persons managed to grasp them, but they could not be dragged ashore and had to remain holding on to them till the boats picked them up. Some of them failed to hold on enough, and the spectators were horrified to see, every now and then, a man thoroughly exhausted gradually relax his hold and sink.

INDIVIDUAL BRAVERY

Many instances of individual gallantry took place.

One man, at the most imminent risk, plunged in and brought several children safely out.

A DARING RESCUE

A gentleman, who broke through near the south-western shore, fell so that his head and chest rested on a large block of ice, while his feet were in the water. There he lay smoking his pipe for a long time while the boats were farther out picking up as fast as possible those in a worse position.

He began, however, to realise his position, and, removing his pipe from his mouth, he called out, “50 shillings to anyone who will fetch me out.” Several abortive attempts were made to reach him with ropes, poles, and ladders.

A man, with the aid of a ladder, reached a small piece of sound ice, and endeavoured to throw a rope to him, but it fell short. He then managed to push the ladder to a piece of ice further out, and standing on the former he again threw the rope. In doing so he fell, and in clinging to the ladder he hurt himself, and was drawn ashore.

A gentleman then got into an escape fitted up with barrels at the end. When pushed out as far as possible, he got into the water and endeavoured to push the escape along, but he did not succeed.

Eventually a man stripped to his shirt and trousers, and a rope having been fixed to his waist, he desperately fought his way through the ice, and seizing the skater round the body, they were both dragged to land amid tremendous cheers.

The man with the pipe sits on the ice as people are rescued.
From The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, 26th January, 1867. Copyright, The British Library Board.

GOT INTO THE BOAT

A man named Moore, who received a medal two years ago for saving people under similar circumstances, was very active, and saved several persons.

Just as one of the boats approached a sufferer he sank, but a young man in the boat plunged after him into the water, and brought him up.

They were both got into the boat.

MANY LIVES SAVED

Mr. Wenzell, the proprietor of the boat, was most energetic in his efforts, and many persona are indebted to him for their lives.

A young man stood on a solitary piece of ice at the centre of the lake for an hour and half, and was at last fetched off by a man who reached him in a boat

Within about half an hour of the breaking of the ice, large bodies of police began to arrive, and rendered great assistance dragging ropes that had been caught by some of those in the water, fetching and launching boats, and keeping idlers back.

All this time the excitement was kept up by the frequent sinking of those who had lost all power to support themselves.

Mournful cries were constantly heard of, “There goes another poor fellow! See, see, there’s another sinking – he’s gone.”

One gentleman succeeded in raising himself out of the water to the ice, and was making his way to shore, until cries of, “Stop where you are” arrested his progress, and, obeying, he remained until a boat could be got near enough to take him off.

BODIES REMOVED

Up to eight o’clock, eight bodies, which had been recovered from under the ice. were deposited in the dead-house of Marylebone Workhouse, while there were fourteen inmates of the infirmary, under the care of Drs. Randall and Fuller, the surgeons of the institution.

Among the visitors about this period was Dr. Hardwicke, the Deputy Coroner for Central Middlesex, one of whose pupils, known to have gone to the park for the purpose of skating, was missing, but he was not among those lying in the dead-house, and was subsequently identified at St. Mary’s Hospital, to which it appears he had been conveyed.

BODIES IDENTIFIED

Mr. Inspector Burrows (acting superintendent of the D division of police), with Mr. Inspector Hines, attended to take descriptions of the eight deceased persons who lay in the dead house, but while in the performance of this labour five out the eight were identified.

They were:- Thomas Harvey, jun., about 18, of 38, Springfield-place, Leeds, but staying with friends at 56, Torrington-square. A young gentleman named Woodhouse, aged 17, of Bedford-house, Tavistock-square. Charles Jukes, aged nine years, of 8, Dorset-buildings, New-street-mews, Dorset-square.

Shortly after nine o’clock, when the doors of the dead house were opened under the direction of Mr. Douglas, the master of Marylebone Workhouse, to the public, the fourth body identified was that of Mr. Macintyre, of 48, Highbury-crescent, Islington.

The fifth body was identified as that of Mr. James Crawley, of 28, Sherborne-street, Blandford-square.

Bodies laid out in the Workhouse.
From The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, 26th January, 1867. Copyright, The British Library Board.

SCENES OF GRIEF

An elderly gentleman, who had found his son, refused to believe that he was dead, but grasped Mr. Douglas lightly, and said, “Oh, but he can’t be dead; he only left me two hours ago, strong and cheerful.” The sad truth at length became too evident for disbelief, and the father went his way, convulsed with grief.

In similar fashion the other bodies were recognised, and then removed from public gaze.

Three persons were conveyed to St. Mary’s Hospital.

One was a gentleman living in Elgin-crescent, Bayswater, who was recovered and enabled to be conveyed home.

The other two were dead on their arrival, and identified – the first by Dr. Hardwicke, the deputy-coroner, as his pupil, W. Davis, who resided with him at 70. Mornington-road; the second as John Broadbridge, about 10 years of age, of 15, Little Exeter-street, Lisson-grove.

DRAGGING FOR BODIES ON WEDNESDAY

Thousands of persons thronged the Regent’s Park on Wednesday morning, and despite the precautions taken to prevent the admission of other than those provided with keys and those engaged in the melancholy duty of recovering the bodies of those unfortunate persons who have perished by the lamentable accident, an immense number of persons climbed over the park railings and proceeded at once to the mound the in cow-park to the northeast.

The appearance presented was extraordinary, the rising ground was literally covered with human beings, who watched with the greatest anxiety the efforts of those engaged in the boats.

The operation of dragging for the bodies was resumed at daylight this morning, but the work was of the greatest danger and difficulty, as the broken ice during the night had been refrozen into one complete sheet, and before the drags could be put into operation the ice had again to be broken up.

People in boats drag the lake for bodies.
From The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, 26th January, 1867. Copyright, The British Library Board.

LITTLE OR NO PREPARATION

The men of the Humane Society, the park keepers, and a number of other persons manned the ice boats, and commenced their work in right good earnest, but the means at their command were of the most primitive description.

There seemed to have been little or no preparation for the work they engaged in, and beyond one or two men being provided with a pickaxe, and another or so with a mallet, no other means appeared to be at hand to make channels through the ice for the seven boats engaged in the work.

Even this morning there was a deficient supply of rope, and, in some cases, work on board one or two of the boats was suspended for a time consequence of the want of such a very common article.

The result of the operations being carried on on so small a scale was that nearly as fast as the small space around the boats was cleared of the ice the water again froze, and the work had to a certain extent to be performed over again.

To many persons it did not appear to have been an impossibility to have conveyed a couple of empty barges from the Regent’s Canal, and by means of boards being laid from one to the other some more powerful and effectual means could have been called into requisition to break up the frozen surface and allow the drags to be used with greater freedom.

However, such was not the mode of operation, and taking into consideration the nature of the work in which the men were engaged, and the hearty and willing manner in which they performed their laborious task, they each deserve commendation and praise.

Rescuers drag the lake for bodies on the Wednesday morning.
From The Illustrated London News, Saturday, 26th January, 1867. Copyright, The British Library Board.

THE WILDEST EXCITEMENT

In a short time after the drags were in operation the bodies of two young men were brought to the surface, and when the fact became known to the thousands of persons who, by this time, had thronged the banks, a scene of the wildest excitement ensued; hundreds rushed from the different sides to the spot the boat containing the bodies was making for, with the desire of catching a glimpse of the unfortunate deceased.

The police, however, the instant the bodies were landed, threw a blanket over each, and then, laying them on stretchers, carried them to the dead-house of St. Marylebone Workhouse.

Divers enter the water to search for bodies.
From The Illustrated London News, Saturday, 26th January, 1867. Copyright, The British Library Board.

THE NUMBER OF BODIES

In a short time after,  another body – that of a lad about sixteen years – was recovered; and, later on, twenty other bodies were found, making in all twenty-three in addition to the ten recovered the day before.

The total number of bodies recovered to Wednesday night was thirty-three.

Of course, there was no skating an any portion of the Ornamental Water on Wednesday, yet a number of persons, amongst them being many ladies, attended evidently for that purpose, from the fact that they each carried a pair of skates.

A HEART-RENDING SCENE

The scene at St. Marylebone Workhouse on Wednesday morning was heartrending.

Mothers and fathers were constantly arriving at the gate, begging for leave to see the bodies of those lying in the dead-house; and although Mr. Douglas, the master, whose conduct throughout has been above all praise, informed them that all the bodies had been identified, such was their anxiety, as some of their relatives had been from home during the night, that refusal would have been unkindness; and he, therefore, in the most humane manner, not only granted what they required, but did all that was possible to quiet their alarm.

These inquiries were not confined to the humbler class, but in a variety of cases carriages, with rich armorial bearings emblazoned thereon, brought anxious inquirers after missing relatives.

A MELANCHOLY SCENE

The scene within the dead-house was melancholy in the extreme.

The bodies lay side by side, and as identification took place, a blanket was thrown over the frozen corpse, and his name and address was pinned thereon.

All the bodies presented the same appearance – the features fixed in a most determined aspect, the lips compressed, and the hands firmly clenched.

Around some of the unfortunates the parents stood in a despairing way, weeping in the most pitiable manner.

As an addition to the number of the dead was made, hundreds passed through the place to identify, and when the body was recognised a piercing shriek was generally the only thing that for some time announced the fact that the body had been owned.

AN INQUEST NEEDED

The most distressing appeals were made to Mr. Douglas for permission to remove the bodies from the workhouse, but of course such could not be done till the Coroner (Dr. Lankester) had made his inquiry; and on Mr. Douglas informing that gentleman of the great desire that existed amongst the relatives of those lying dead at the workhouse, he at once consented to open the inquest on Wednesday evening, as far as the identification of the bodies, which would enable the friends to remove them to their own homes.”

THE REGENT’S PARK MURDER

In May, 1888, Regent’s Park would be the scene of a notorious gang murder when twenty-two-year old Joseph Rumbold was stabbed whilst walking in the park with his girlfriend.