Tragedy At Three Mills

In a previous post we discussed the East End tragedy of Soloman Galaman, aged 11 who was run over on Commercial Street whilst saving the life of his little brother and who is now remembered on a poignant plaque on the wall in Postman’s Park in the city of London.

However, Soloman Galaman’s isn’t the only act of East End self-sacrifice to be remembered by a memorial tile on the wall in Postman’s Park. Indeed, several of those remembered here died in the East End and, in today’s blog, we visit the scene of one such incident that occurred in Stratford on 12th July 1901, close to the site of, what is now, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic park.

The memorial commemorating the sacrifice of Godfrey Nicholson and his fellow workers.
The Memorial to Godfrey Nicholson in Postman’s Park London

A LOVELY EAST END HAVEN

The Three Mills complex, which sits close to the location where athletes from around the Globe wowed us in 2012, occupies an almost rural setting, hemmed in as it is by Three Mills Green – a peaceful and airy haven that contrasts wonderfully with the busy Bow Flyover alongside it.

THE HELPING HANDS MEMORIAL

On the green is located a curious and poignant monument that consists of a pair of clasped hands, once apparently attempting to lift the other from the precarious jaws of some unseen hazard. Titled Helping Hands and carved  by Alec Peever, this simple, though powerful, memorial was unveiled in 2001 to commemorate the centenary of a tragedy that had taken place close to this spot on July 12th 1901.

Two clasped hands remember the Three Mills Tragedy and the men who died here.
The Helping Hands Memorial

Around the hands are fragments of stones from a previous memorial on the site, one of which urges:-

“Of your charity pray for the souls of Thomas Pickett, Godfrey Maule Nicholson, Frederick Eliott and Robert Underhill, who lost their lives in a well beneath this spot on 12 July 1901. The first named while in the execution of his duty was overcome by foul air. The three latter successively descending in heroic efforts to save their comrades shared the same death.”

A LONG AGO SUMMERS’S DAY

July the 12th 1901 was just another working day for the group of men as they approached a well in the corner of the Three Mills site in Stratford East London.

At the head of the group was Godfrey Maule Nicholson, Managing Director of the Nicholson Gin Distillery, the then owner of the Three Mills site and scion of the famous gin family whose name still adorns many of the pubs around London today.

A view of the Three Mills complex in East London
Three Mills

THE SEALED WELL

Ten years previously well had been sunk in the corner of the site with the intention of collecting groundwater for use in the cooling process at the distillery. However, when two years before, the London County Council had built a sewer nearby the well had dried up and the Nicholson distillery had lost a useful source of cooling water.

But Nicholson had recently learnt that the council were no longer going to use the sewer and, consequently, he wondered if there would be any potential in re-opening and reusing the well and, to that end, he now led a work party – consisting of himself Albert Dawkins, the yard foreman, Thomas Pickett and Joseph Barber, both of whom were labourers – to look into the possibility.

THE TRAGEDY UNFOLDS

Armed with a ladder and an 11 foot measuring pole, the work party approached the site of the well, opened it and let the ladder down into its depths.

The first to descend was Thomas Pickett who took with him the pole, and having measured the depth, he passed the pole to Dawkins.

Suddenly Pickett slumped backwards and this is companion looked on in horror he fell from a ladder and plummeted into the well. Godfrey Nicholson cried out “Good Heavens” and quickly clambered into the well where he found Pickett lying unconscious in the water. Grabbing him he managed to manhandle him towards the foot of the ladder but, no sooner had he reached it, than he too passed out and slumped into the water.

Albert Dawkins then went to climb down the ladder but he was halted by Joseph Barber who warned him that the two companions might have been overcome by gas and that, if he was going to descend, he should at least take a rope in order that he could be pulled out if he were too succumb to the noxious fumes.

As the two men searched desperately for a rope they sighted another worker, George Frederick Elliott – a tunman at the distillery – and called him over to assist. As Dawkins hurried off to find a rope, Elliott said that he would go down and help the stricken men, dismissing Barber’s entreaties to await their companions return and telling him “I’ll go down, I am used to a little gas.”

Ignoring his workmates warning not to descend too far, Elliott climbed to the bottom of the well and Barber watched in horror as he to slumped unconscious into the dark water.

Overcome now by the seriousness of the situation, Barber began crying despearately for help and soon a small crowd of distillery workers had gathered around the well. One of them, a labourer by the name of Smale, lent over the well and quickly recoiled back, crying as he did so, ”good God, mate it is full [of gas] now.”

His warning, however, was ignored by another labourer, Robert Arthur Underhill – who was due to be married in less than a month’s time –  who, without any thought for his own safety, scrambled onto the ladder, took a deep breath and headed down into the well’s depths. Moments later witnesses heard a splash and then came a deathly silence.

JOB VANNING’S RESCUE ATTEMPT

Shortly thereafter Dawkins returned in the company of Job Vanning, a co-worker at the distillery. A rope was duly tied around Vanning and he was lowered down into the well, the idea being that whichever of his stricken comrades he spotted first he would tie the rope around them and the two of them would be hauled to the surface. He later recalled that he had felt perfectly well as he was lowered down and commented that he had neither smelt nor tasted any gas. However, no sooner had he located one of the bodies than he was overcome by a feeling of drowsiness and he later recalled how he felt like he was about to fall asleep. He too had soon lost consciousness but, as it transpired, was more fortunate than the others. Realising that something was amiss, his workmates hoisted him to the surface and laid him unconscious on the ground where he was revived, although he had no recollection of having passed out, nor of having been pulled from the well.

THE FIRE BRIGADE RETRIEVE THE BODIES

Soon after, the fire brigade arrived and it was they who retrieved the bodies of the four men. Local doctor, George Hilliard arrived at the scene at around 1 pm, but found the men to be beyond any medical help and he duly pronounced them dead.

ACCIDENTAL DEATH

At the subsequent inquest into their deaths, held at Stratford town hall, Dr. Hilliard stated that the cause of death in all four cases had been asphyxiation due to carbon dioxide poisoning. It was revealed that, when the well had been sealed, rotting weeds had been left in its depths and, as they began to decompose, they had given off gas which had subsequently accumulated beneath the water. When Thomas Pickett disturbed the water with the measuring stick the gas had escaped, rendering him unconscious and his subsequent fall into the water caused more gas to leak out, and this, in turn, asphyxiated Nicholson, Elliott and Underhill.

WHY WASN’T A CANDLE LIT FIRST?

Walter Attwater, the coroner, questioned one of the senior distillers, Charles Drake, as to why, as was the normal case in these circumstances, a lit candle had not been used first in order to test the air prior to any of the men descending into the well. Observing that, with hindsight, such a course of action would have been sensible, Drake pointed out that, at the time, there had been no reason to suspect the presence of gas and there had, most certainly, ben no sign of it when the well was initially opened.

THE THREE MILLS MEMORIAL

Thus it was that the Three Mills tragedy drew to a close as a verdict of accidental death in the case of each of the four men was returned. The Coroner commended The bravery of the men who had successively gone down the well to rescue the others praised Job Vanning for the courage he had demonstrated.

The memorial to the men who died in the Three Mills tragedy

A memorial to the men was duly erected over the site in east London and this, in turn, was replaced by the aforementioned Helping Hands Memorial in the centenary year, 2001. This memorial was moved 50 m to the west in 2011 the exact site of the well is now marked with a stone disc carrying the inscription ‘in memoriam’ together with the initials of the four men whose lives ended so tragically beneath this spot on July 12th 1901.