Birthday tragedy under city’s medieval bridge

The history of Rochester Bridge is as long and meandering as the river it crosses. The bridge and the Medway are the main reasons Rochester exists and they are chronicled elsewhere on this website.

Here, however, is a tragic tale that happened under the bridge in the last years of King George III’s long reign.

What we call Rochester Bridge is in fact three — two road bridges (one formerly a rail bridge) and the other a rail-only crossing. The road bridge carries the only trunk road in Britain that has not been taken over by a highways authority. Bet you didn’t know that.

There has been a crossing at Rochester since Roman times but the earliest surviving written evidence is in a 12th-century register of the Bishop of Rochester. The bridge was — and still is — so important that the bishop made 54 parishes, manors, and estates surrounding Rochester responsible for repairing and maintaining it.

That, in a nutshell, is what still happens. During the reigns of Richard II and Henry IV the bridge’s guardians were given lands in London, Kent and Essex, so the income from them could keep the bridge. Much of the original endowment remains in the portfolio of Rochester Bridge Trust, including land at Dartford, Faversham, and Grain, buildings in Rochester High Street, and woodland still known as the Bridge Woods.

The current bridge — which has just undergone a facelift — was built in 1914 and replaced a Victorian iron bridge constructed in 1856. Before that was a much-mended medieval bridge that started life in 1387. It was much nearer the castle than today’s bridge (in front of the bridge chapel, to be precise) and, after its replacement was completed, was dynamited by Royal Engineers.

Some way to treat our history, eh? But the Victorians were infamous for destroying heritage when they perceived it to be getting in the way of social and technological advancement.

Celebrations on Friday the 13th for drapery firm’s young master

In many ways, they were right. The old bridge was getting dangerous — and the narrowness of the arches, spawning a fierce rush of water, caused many accidents, none worse than one on Friday, 13 September, 1816.

Thomas Gilbert, scion of family that ran a successful linen and drapery firm in Chatham, was celebrating his 21st birthday. He had just completed his apprenticeship and was looking to become part of the business in his own right.

For his birthday celebrations he organised a trip with boatman Thomas Lear up the river to Halling for his close family and nine girls from the boarding school that his father had founded in Chatham some years before. After several hours spent at Halling, the party of 15 returned to the boat to for the journey back to Rochester.

Fatefully, that morning workmen had placed a length of timber across the central arch of the bridge as part of a programme of repairs. On the journey upstream, the Gilberts’ boat passed safely over the beam on the full tide. On the evening ebb tide, it had become exposed. The boat struck the timber at speed and all its 15 occupants were tipped into the current. Only the boatman Lear’s dog succeeded in swimming to the shore.

Thomas Lear was buried in Frindsbury churchyard after a public funeral where he was honoured by more than 80 of his fellow watermen.

Mrs Elizabeth Gilbert had declined her son’s invitation to join the party and in doing so had lost that son, her two daughters, her son-in-law and her only grandchild.

Grief-stricken, and now the sole surviving member of her family, she paid tribute to the dead with a memorial stone in the Baptist Church in Clover Street, Chatham. This stone is now on display in the Guildhall Museum, where it still serves to commemorate the “15 young persons swept into Eternity in an unexpected moment”.

Word of the tragedy spread far and wide, with even the clergy cashing in on it. A small notice in the columns of The Times advertises a funeral sermon delivered at the Ebenezer Chapel, Chatham, by the Rev Joseph Slatterie on the “occasion of the recent dreadful catastrophe… to which is prefixed a Succinct Account of the above Melancholy Event. It has been justly remarked ‘that this pathetic appeal should not be confined to the inhabitants of the county of Kent, but is of a nature that ought to find its way into the bosom of every family in the kingdom.” It cost 1s 6d.

Mystery of Victorian victims’ final resting place

Many of the victims were buried at the Baptist Church in Clover Street, Chatham. Where’s that? I hear you ask. Yes, the church — just behind Allders — was demolished in 1999, but the huge headstone from their grave has been preserved.

Andrew Freeman, of Rochester Guildhall Museum’s technical and design staff, was there to salvage it.  “The church had an undercroft for burials, down steps at the front and with a ceiling height of 7ft or so. The memorial stone was huge — and the full depth of the vault, vertical, against the wall,” he said.

The contractors, however, had a problem, because the stone was fixed firmly into the floor. After all, those Georgians had not foreseen a time when churches would be demolished for commercial gain. “Sadly,” Mr Freeman said, “the stone had to be cut at the bottom, which lost the bottom line of the inscription — although the words were preserved. Then the stone split in two as it was removed.”

Happily, it was successfully rejoined at the museum and although you can see the join, the words are still crystal clear. See the transcription below.

I began to wonder about the Baptist church and what happened to the bodies after it was demolished. Help came from Reg Hughes, who was connected with the church.

He wrote: “A congregation of Baptist Christians formed a Church in 1741. The date of 1644 appeared over the doors of the demolished building, but cannot be supported from evidence.

“Originally a wooden structure was built on the site in Clover Street, and a fruitful source of income towards a new building proved to be by payments for burials within the borders of the site and under the building. It was not unusual for nonconformist chapels to have their own burial grounds, as nonconformists could not be buried in consecrated ground.

“Complete records of the interments exist from 1785-1837. Almost 500 burials were made until 1837. In the mid 19th century, when the municipal cemetery was opened below the Great Lines (now known as Town Hall Gardens, opposite Medway Magistrates’ Court) few further burials were made in the Clover Street site.

“In 1821 the ‘new’ building was erected at a cost of £1,300. The building was used for the last five years of its life by Medway Family Church, but a survey deemed the building to be unsafe and it was closed. The site was sold by the Trustees of the building, and Walderslade Baptist Church (Chatham) became the ‘inheritors’ of the Baptist work in Chatham as the population declined in Chatham centre and continued to move to the south of the town.”

But what of the victim’s bodies? Mr Hughes says: “The last remains of the tragedy have not been denied a final resting place. I understand that those that died in the river consisted of members of the family as described in your article. The ‘schoolgirls’were pupils from a private school held in a house that existed on the opposite side of Clover Street. This school was run by members of the Gilbert family.

“There is no record of any of the victims being buried on the chapel grounds. Their burials were made in one of the local Anglican churches, but the large memorial stone was deemed to be too large for erection in the churchyard, and the Baptist Church agreed to place the memorial in its crypt. I was present at the removal of the stone to Rochester Museum.

Gruesome mementos of a family destroyed on the rushing river

The museum has some other interesting artefacts of the tragedy, including a mourning ring. It would have been worn either by Mrs Gilbert or perhaps her son-in-law’s mother. It is, to modern tastes, quite awful — gold and black enamel with an image of Rochester Bridge and a boat under a weeping willow. A small section of crystal or glass might have held a lock of hair. The names of the dead are recorded on the back.

The museum also has a sampler made by Eliza Gouge, one of the girls who drowned. This has the usual alphabet and the lines: “Education. ‘Tis education forms the common mind, Just as the twig is bent, the tree’s inclin’d; Jemima Gouge November 16th 1813.”

Steve Nye, assistant curator at the museum, adds: “Another sampler is by her sister, Eliza, who embroiders her numbers and the rather prophetic lines: ‘Mark well my shade and seriously attend, the silent lesson of a common friend, since time and life speed hastily away, and no one can recall the former day, improve each fleeting hour before ‘tis past, and know each fleeting hour may be thy last; Eliza Gouge April 18th 1816’.”

Chilling indeed.

The inscription on the tombstone

Beneath this Stone are deposited the Mortal remains of Mr THOMAS GILBERT of this Parish, who fell asleep in Jesus July 10th 1814, in the 63rd Year of his Age. Alfo ELIZA his Daughter Aged 25, and THOMAS his only Son Aged 21, These two lovely young person my most distrefsing Providence, were Drowned under Rochester Bridge Sepr 13th 1816; the Day on which THOMAS came of Age; Together with their only Sister Mrs MARIA MILLS, Aged 27; their brother in Law Mr ALEXANDER MILLS Aged 27 and their only Child ANNA ELIZA WARTON MILLS, Aged 3 Years besides 9 young Ladies the pupils of Mrs MILLS and Miss GILBERT; none of whom had attained the Age of 15 Years. Alfo the Waterman who had Charge of the Boat which being overset was the cause of the Melancholy event. Thus by the awful stroke were fifteen young persons swept into Eternity in an unexpected moment. Therefore be ye ready for in such an hour ye think not the Son of Man cometh. This stone is designed by the bereaved widow and mother of the above to perpetuate the remembrance of the once prosperous but now extinct family

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