The Bedfordshire Times and Independent, Saturday 12 August, 1882 page 6 reported as follows:

‘On Sunday morning an event occurred which, looked at from whatever point of view, seems to be as worthy of honourable recognition as any hitherto brought under the notice of societies whose function it is to reward and hold up for emulation deeds of well-directed bravery. A lath-render named Thomas Farmer, in the employ of Messrs. Green, and residing at Bedesman’s-place, has saved, at imminent risk to his own life, and at some little injury to his health, three little children from a watery grave. It appears that at about half ten on Sunday morning three children – William Clarke, aged 13, Esther Clarke, 5, and Emma Clarke, 3, living in Bedesman’s-place were, with others, playing near the mill-race of Mr. Harrison’s Flour Mill.            (See Article)  A low wall separates the stream from the road, and a high hoarding formerly prevented persons from falling over. A flood washed away part of the hoarding, and a balk of timber has been placed in the gap. Anglers and small children, however, persist in getting over the obstruction, not-withstanding frequent cautions as to the danger they incur. Mr. Harrison and others have several times driven away the children, but they as often return, and it would seem that the parents themselves are not given to over-carefulness in the matter. At the spot indicated the water is from eight to ten feet in depth, but more probably the former at the time in question, when, it should be added, the mill was fortunately not going. The youngest child, Emma, tumbled in first, and the boy, William, in attempting to catch her, was also dragged in. Then the girl, Esther, in endeavouring to help her brother, also fell in. All three sank and would assuredly have been drowned but for the circumstances we are about to describe. The screams of the children on the bank attracted the attention of Thomas Farmer and a companion named Thomas Wright, who were in the backyard of their house some 180 yards away. Both men at once ran to the spot, and Farmer, divining what was the matter, divested himself of his coat and other encumbering clothing on the way. On arriving Farmer, without hesitation, plunged into the water, dived, and soon reappeared with the girl Emma, whom he handed to Wright, who, not being able to swim, was standing on the bank, but there proved very useful. The spot where the boy had sunk was then pointed out. Farmer again dived and recovered the body, which was handed to Wright. Farmer partly got out, not knowing that there was another child still in the water. The mother then ran up in a frantic state of mind, and exclaimed, “There’s another one,” at the same time a hat was observed by Farmer floating on the water. Thoroughly exhausted, Farmer appealed to the bystanders, asking if any of them could swim, but it appeared they could not and were unwilling to undertake the risk. He again took the plunge, and after some moments’ absence came to the surface with the missing girl, who was then carried home in an unconscious condition. Insp. Haymen and others then came up, and efforts were made to restore consciousness but the same time they were in vain. Meanwhile Mr. Robinson, surgeon, was send for and he at once despatched his assistant who, on his arrival applied the approved methods of reviving animation under such circumstances, working the arms backwards and forwards to induce respiration. Under the prompt treatment of an unknown bystander the child had already partly recovered consciousness, and she was soon pronounced out of danger. At the time the eldest and youngest of the children seemed little worse for the ducking, but we hear that the boy has since suffered from shock to the system. Farmer was unable to attend his work on Tuesday on account of some indisposition arising from his having plunged into the water while in a heated condition caused by his running. He is, we understand, an expert swimmer and diver. It is said that he once before saved a man’s life at Wisbeach. The recent incident in which he has played so conspicuous a part will therefore sufficiently illustrate the utility of indulging in such exercises or of acquiring some practical knowledge of the natatory [swimming] art. The matter is, as it assuredly deserves, to be laid before the Royal Humane Society, and we sincerely endorse the wish that it may be suitably dealt with.’

Duck Mill (Harrison’s Flour Mill) c 1880

It is easy to see why this area close to Bedesman-place attracted young people, with the mill itself, an open grassed leisure area, a roller skating rink and the river. However, much to the Writer’s frustration no evidence of the family living in this area can be found, despite the detail given in the article. With no trace of the family, no deaths and burial details can be found. It may be concluded that they were visiting Bedford at the time of the incident. If they were Bedford residents then they would most likely have ended their days in Bedford Cemetery.

Despite failing to trace this family, the article serves to highlight just one other almost fatal accident and a most incredible rescue which saved three young lives.

‘Another rescue from drowning, which took place on the same day at twenty minutes to five in the afternoon, was equally successful, though perhaps the circumstances did not call for the same display of self-sacrifice. A little girl named Florence Bush, aged 5, residing in Lime-street, fell off the embankment wall into the river. The water was not very deep, but older persons have been drowned in a less depth, and to a little girl, terrified by the situation, the accident might have proved fatal, had not Mr. Goatley promptly came from the other side in a boat, and, with the assistance of P.c. Askew, got the child out. Florence then went home with her sister, but otherwise seemed little worse for the wetting.’

This article illustrates once again the grave dangers posed by the river. One wonders why compulsory secondary education did not include on the curriculum, instruction in swimming. Thomas Farmer was indeed a most courageous man, and it was only thanks to him that these three children Emma, Ester and William Clark survived.

Copyright: Brenda Fraser-Newstead
30 January 2020

The Bedfordshire Times and Independent, Saturday 12 August, 1882, p. 6

Maurice Nicholson and Linda Ayres


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