John Fraser Handford – River Ouse Incident 26th April 1879

John Fraser Handford - River Ouse Incident 26th April 1879

It was a fine Saturday afternoon in April 1879 when a happy group of friends and relatives gathered at Mr Goatley’s boatyard near Bedford bridge to collect their hire boat for an excursion down the River Ouse. This was not the first time they had ventured onto the water and although the water level was high they set off at about 3 pm with confidence, seating themselves comfortably in the craft. The party consisted of five siblings, an aunt and two of the friends they had known since their time in India, where all five children were born. There were two sisters, Amy Handford aged 13 and Jane (known as Janie) Handford 11, who took the oars; there were a pair of sculls on board for the purpose of propelling the craft. Brothers Walter Handford aged 14, William Handford 16 and John Handford, 9, the youngest of the family and a pupil at Bedford Grammar School, were present, along with an aunt, Amy Walton 27. Their friends were Gerard Burge, master of a school near Maidenhead, and his younger brother Hubert Burge, who resided with their mother at 18 St Peters Street; the related group resided with their mother, the widowed Mrs Jane A Handford, at Oakfield Lodge in Kimbolton Road. The children’s father, The late Mr William Handford, had been Director of Public Instruction, Oudh, and he and the Late Mr Burge, father of Gerard and Hubert had lived together in India at one time. The friendship between both families began when they all lived in Lucknow, India.

All went well as Amy and Jane rowed the considerable distance from Bedford bridge but on the approach to Castle Mill, Goldington, they wisely changed places with their aunt and brother Walter, to prepare for the return journey. In the process of changing over and as they neared a hazardous part of the river [which has been developed over time into a narrow lock and a very wide weir], the boat drifted in the strong under-currents and the occupants lost control. They were seen to be about ten yards from the flood gates at this time. They had successfully carried out this manoeuvre only a few days earlier but on this occasion were unaware that the boat was being carried forward. It was seen by witnesses being broadside on to the [presumably sluice-] gates [capable of being raised, thus allowing some water to be released and channelled in order to bypass the mill] and so they were ‘swept onto the gates at which the waste water is discharged and when [the boat] came into collision with the wall Hubert Burge managed to jump onto the bank.’ Because of the proximity to the bank [and wall] it was not possible to row and the boat crashed against the archway [leading under the mill], capsized and was smashed.’

It seems all of the occupants were ejected into the water and were swept down under the gates and over a ledge some four feet deep, into the mill pit and under the arch. Six were rescued by the use of ropes and the assistance of Thomas Allen, a mill worker and witness to the accident. Sadly John who could not swim, was carried away down the stream some considerable distance away from the scene of the accident.

On visiting this point only recently, the Writer noted that the water level was approximately 15 feet with the possibility of rising even higher. It was Mr Josier, a shepherd, who saw an arm around one of the ‘staunches’ about three-quarters of an hour after the incident; he noted that the head was about three inches under the water. The distance between the mill and the staunch was said to be two or three hundred yards. Three other men were called to help pull the little boy’s body from the water and lay it in the Cople meadow until the police arrived. PC Stockbridge assisted to remove the body to the Swan Inn, Goldington.

An inquest was held at the Swan Inn, Goldington on Monday 28 April 1879, before Mr M Whyley, coroner, and a jury of thirteen members was sworn in. Mr Robert Kinsay, Bedford surgeon, who had examined the body, concluded by stating that the ‘immediate cause of death was suffocation.’ The jury returned a verdict of ‘Accidentally drowned’. At the close of the inquiry Mr William B Walton, the grandfather of the Handford children, entered the proceedings to make a case for action to be taken to prevent accidents in the future. After some discussion it was suggested by Mr Horrell that a public notice should be erected warning people of the danger. This suggestion met with the approval of the coroner and all the jury, who expressed a desire that this was done. Following the inquest, the child’s body was taken to his home in Kimbolton Road to remain in the drawing room awaiting the funeral at Bedford Cemetery.

The funeral took place on Wednesday 30 April 1879 at Bedford Cemetery, when the child’s coffin was conveyed on a handsome funeral car, followed by firstly a carriage drawn by a pair of greys carrying Mr Walton [presumably the child’s grandfather] Miss Walton, The children’s aunt, and brothers William and Walter Handford. The second carriage conveyed Messrs Gerard and Hubert Burge and the Misses (2) Burge. Many others were in attendance including Mr J M Phillpotts, Headmaster of the Grammar School. Mrs Farrar’s brougham transported the lady and her two sons, and at the cemetery the procession was joined by Dr Prior, the medical attendant of the family, Dr Steinmetz, the Rev. W E Bolland and Mr Dymock, Masters at the Grammar School, Colonels Cross and Macadam, and others.

Eight fellow pupils from the Grammar School carried the coffin with dignity, by means of white tassels, four pupils each side; the violet pall fringed with white silk covered the coffin which was spread with colourful wreaths of flowers in moving tribute from grieving family and friends. The young pall-bearers, named as Masters Kennedy and Prior, Sergeant and Hatchell, Piper and Hill, McNiel and Cockburn, placed a number of floral crosses on the coffin.

John’s grave is not far from the entrance to the cemetery and close to the Bedford Park. It is sheltered by a beautiful shimmering red copper beech tree. The white marble memorial, flecked with black, is maintained and regularly cleaned by The Friends of Bedford Cemetery.

Rest in peace John Fraser Handford, and know that you are not forgotten.

Author’s Note:

The Handford family were representative of the large proportion of Bedford residents associated with India and the Colonies in the 19th century. It is believed that the majority of these families were attracted to the town owing to the fine reputation of the many educational establishments and the Harpur endowments.

John Fraser Handford’s brother William Boycott Handford born 5 November 1862 attended the Grammar School 1872-1881 and Walter Walton Handford born 21 April 1864 attended 1872-1883. Both boys were athletic ‘as well as being scholars’, with William going on to Christ’s College, Cambridge on a scholarship and Walter to Trinity College, Cambridge; he graduated at Trinity and after serving curacies at St Giles’s, Cripplegate, and East Grinstead, became Vicar in 1906. He died of pneumonia at East Grinstead on 18th January 1918. (Morning Post). It appears that Walter had two sons, Claude and Basil.

William eventually returned to India and in January 1902 a notice appeared in the Bedfordshire Mercury announcing that ‘The Rev. William Boycott Handford MA, chaplain of Peshawar, was appointed to Dalhousie, Punjab, India.’ He married Margaret Emma Peard of Edgecombe, Croydon, on 28 August 1890, with his brother Walter assisting the Rev. R.W. Hoire, Vicar of St Michael and All Angels, Croydon. After a lengthy career in England and India, William returned to England in 1911 and served in the Great War and World War II.

John’s sister Janie E Handford was married at St Paul’s Church, Bedford in July 1899 to Mr Wrey and the Bedfordshire Times and Independent reported on 14 July 1899 as follows:

‘On Wednesday afternoon a fashionable wedding took place at St Paul’s Church when Miss Janie Handford of 14 St Michael’s road, was married to Mr Wrey. An extraordinary number of carriages brought the guests to the Church, and after the ceremony, about 350 were entertained in Mrs. Shaw’s ball-room, St. Cuthbert’s street, which was handsomely decorated and upholstered. Miss Handford was secretary to the High School Guild, who presented her with a silver Queen Anne tray and other gifts. The bridegroom’s presents to the bride were, a diamond and ruby ring, Indian silver bangles with mounted tiger claws, Indian silver bowl, modele de luxe bicycle, silver and gold dress embroideries, Indian sunshade, and Encyclopaedia Britannica on revolving stand. The other presents were numerous and valuable. The newly-wedded couple are going to India. When they started for the station, they were pelted with rose-leaves, confetti, rice, and satin slippers, of which one was fastened to the coachman’s whip, another to the pole, and a third in the top of the carriage.’

The marriage of Janie to her ‘Mr Wrey’ was short-lived since the 1911 census reveals that Janie E Wrey was widowed, aged 43 and head of the family. She was living with her mother and aunt Amy, who was still single.

As for John’s sister Amy Elizabeth Handford, she married Claude Herbert on 10th November 1895 at Bedford. Her husband was an Indian Army Officer holding the rank of Major. Their only son, Claude Handford Herbert, was born on 16th September 1896 at Dharmsala. Their daughter Doris Geraldine was born four years later. Their son Claude died on 11th November 1918; he is buried in the Staglieno Cemetery in Genoa.

Amy and her husband returned to England sometime between 1918 and 1922 when their daughter, Doris Geraldine, married on 6th September at St Paul’s Church Addlestone, Surrey, where the family had made their home at Holmdale in Church Road. Amy died on 18th March 1943 at St Peter’s Memorial Home Woking.

Whatever the achievements of John’s siblings, there is no doubt their grief at losing their little brother in such a cruel way would have followed them throughout their lives.

In conclusion, the following article is taken from The Bedfordshire Times and Independent 14 July 1939, page 12:

‘These two pictures show what has happened to one part of the river in the course of sixty or seventy years. Above is a picture of a boating party on the Ouse well back in the Victorian age. The clothes worn by the people in the picture were the sports attire of that date. The place where the photograph was taken will probably be recognized by no one, and without the information supplied by Mr. Frank Smith, of Oxford, who supplied the print, our photographer would not have been able to supply a comparative picture of the spot – reproduced below – as it is now.

‘It is the staunch situated just below Castle Mill, Goldington, whence the party had apparently rowed from Bedford. Another interesting point is revealed by the old picture. In those days the staunch was bridged in order to carry a footpath across, and, to judge by the bystanders on the planks at the time this picture was taken, it was a well-used footpath. It ran between Renhold and Willington, and many people will regret the disappearance of this footpath and, in fact, of all the footpaths crossing the river in that vicinity. The reaches of the Ouse in that direction are unknown to most people.

‘One townsman who remembers the staunch as it was in the last century is Mr. John Rogers, of 5 Merton Road, Bedford, who was born at Castle Mill and is one of the family of millers. In those days the river was still used for transport, and the lighters going up to Bedford were a familiar sight at the Mill. Owing to the shallowness of the river at the point where the picture is taken, lock gates were placed a little lower down and these were closed when the lighters wanted to get over the shallows. The effect of the closing of the lock would be to form a little pool below the staunch pictured here, and although the lock-gate has gone now, the river still swells in the form of a pool at this spot today.

‘The modern picture shows how much attention has been paid to the staunch in the interval. The bridge and the footpath have gone, and trees surround the spot. Brick walls have been added to strengthen the staunch – and boating parties go there never.’

It is very clear that this part of the river was hazardous at the time the article was written, and was even more so at the time of the Handford family’s accident and of John’s untimely death.


Bedford Parish Registers
1871, 1891 and 1911 Census
The Bedfordshire Times & Independent Friday 14 July 1899/British Newspaper Archive
The Bedfordshire Times & Independent 14 July 1939 p.12
The Bedfordshire Mercury Saturday May 3, 1879 and Friday 17 January 1902
Foster Hill Road Cemetery Plan 074
Burial Record grave reference Section E.2203
The Ousel [Bedford Grammar School magazine] Old Bedfordians Club, Bedford School
OS map (NLS website) Lhps:// Bedfordshire XII.SW pub. 1885
Bedford Record Office archives – Castle Mill Goldington
University War List, Crockford
Surrey Mirror 6 September 1890


The Bedford Grammar School, St Paul’s Square, Bedford 1877 (Ms Gina Worboys, Old Bedfordians Club, Bedford School)
Boats for hire on the River Ouse before 1900 Copyright unknown (M Nicholson)
Photographs taken 1939 of the Ouse at Cardington Mill (The Bedfordshire Times and Independent)


A special mention of my gratitude to Linda Ayres, Maurice Nicholson and Colin Woolf for their valuable help and support.

Copyright: Brenda Fraser-Newstead
1 August 2019