Saturday, 12 December 2015

The tragedy of White Cross Bay, Windermere.

Most, to a greater or lesser extent, know the recent history of White Cross Bay, Windermere, by it's association with the building of Sunderland MkIII Seaplanes during WWII and a commemoration stone exists at the Holiday Centre, which now stands on the aerodrome site, to display this important piece of local history.

The bay though was already known by that name and one has to look to a slightly older time for the explanation. The name derives from an actual cross that looks out over the lake near Ecclerigg Crag, on the lake side of Cragwood House (now a country house hotel), not an area frequented by the majority of tourists.

Cragwood House
The White Cross

 This Cross is inscribed with the names of the men and the words:


This is a biblical quotation from Matthew 25:13 and is a part quotation. To give the full quote one must add:

'.... wherein the son of man cometh'

The realisation of the white cross's meaning can begin to be understood by looking to Fleetwith Pike and the cross erected there in memory to Fanny Mercer, the servant girl who died on the fells whilst holidaying with the family she worked for. (For details see other incident logged November 2015.) Most know a brief account of this tragedy and so it is a similar commemoration in the case of White Cross Bay, Windermere; namely to the death of individuals.
The biblical quotation can be loosely interpreted to warn to be prepared for meeting one's maker at a time unexpected, especially the young to whom death always seems so far off a journey, but unknowingly may be far closer than one dares imagine. It would be used in sermons to remind people to always live a kindly, Godly life, ready for that visitation whenever it may uncalled for come.
It was on Tuesday 13th September 1853 that the families of Ralph Anthony Thicknesse Esquire, the Member of Parliament for Wigan, and H. Woodcock, the brother of John Woodcock Esquire, a banker, of The Elms, Wigan, were holidaying on the shores of Windermere. Mr H. Woodcock and his family were there for a period of weeks and were later joined by their nephew, Thomas, who was John Woodcock's eldest son and was 19 years of age. Thomas was an articled clerk with the solicitors firm Woodcock, Just & Scott of Wigan and was also a lieutenant of the 3rd regiment of Royal Lancashire Militia.  Thomas's cousin Ralph Thicknesse (the only son of Ralph Anthony Thicknesse) was staying with the party also; he 20 years of age and was entered into Trinity College, Cambridge. The families were very closely related, indeed Ralph Anthony had married his cousin Mary Ann Woodcock.
Both the cousins, Thomas and Ralph, set off together at about 11:00 am in a paired oared skiff owned by James Robinson of Waterhead and it was their intention to sail to Bowness where they expected to meet other members of the family holiday party. The skiff was long yet narrow and it was the local belief that only the most practised of navigators should endeavour to venture in such a craft. In skilful hands they can cut through the water at speed, yet the slightest of movement was likely to upset the skiff's balance.
At approximately 3.30 pm on the afternoon of Tuesday 13th, John Taylor of Ecclerigg near Windermere, a corn-dealer, was fishing from a boat in the Ecclerigg area when he noticed the two young men in the skiff, sailing on the lake. It passed about 100 yards off him and they were nearing Ecclerigg Point. It was at this time he heard noise as if a boat was scraping rock and he looked across to the skiff; one of the two gentlemen was now standing up in it. He watched them clear Ecclerigg Crag and once done, he turned his gaze away from them. Shortly after him turning away he then heard a shout from that direction, looked up once again, but nothing appeared to be there. He then became aware of something splashing in the water and crying out; fearing a tragedy he made for the area as quickly as possible. The cries of the two young men continued and he himself shouted as loud as he could for assistance, but no other boat was in the immediate area to witness the event and offer such aid. When he arrived at the site of the sinking, both men had disappeared under the water and the skiff was floating keel upwards with clothing and other debris on the water. He looked down into the lake water, but the water was ruffled and he could only see a foot under the surface, he could see nothing of the two men. He had no boat hook to grapple with and hastened to Ecclerigg for help. He gained the assistance of a Mr Swinburn who brought a dragging iron.
The lake at the point of the accident is usually between 12 to 15 feet in depth, though due to recent rainfall was supposed to be higher than usual, although the weather that day was calm.

James Layland of Wigan was a coachman in the service of Ralph Thcknesse Esq., and was with the family at Windermere. At around 4:00 pm that day he was sailing in a boat on Windermere near Ecclerigg Crag  when he saw the lake being dragged. When he rowed towards the area he was told by the draggers, one being Mr Swinburn, that it was Mr Woodcock of Waterhead, Ambleside. The dawning of a tragedy for the family he was in service to must have struck him and he assisted in the search; within five to ten minutes of him arriving at this calamity, the body of Mr Woodcock was raised. He was hauled into a boat and taken as quickly as possible to Low Wood Inn, over a mile in distance away. James continued to assist in the search for Mr Thicknesse and within three minutes his body was also discovered and removed to the same location. (The Low Wood Inn would the be the scene of the inquest, held in the presence of Mr. R. Wilson Esquire, the next day. The watches on both bodies were late found to have ceased to work at 3.30 pm.)
Immediately after arrival of both the drowned men, every effort was made to restore life, yet despite three medical men being called and in attendance, working on both for over two hours, all efforts were proved futile and they were beyond recovery. (In a modern age this effort after that length of time in the water seems pointless, yet even now resuscitation continues, irrespective of time, until a doctor or paramedic declares life is extinct.)
Very shortly after the sinking a young man by the name of Fleming, who was from Ecclerigg, had been at the scene of the accident. He left before the bodies were recovered, to try and organise grappling irons be brought to assist in the body recovery. He was heading to Bowness when he came upon another boat going towards Ambleside and hailed them to seek their assistance in conveying the sad tidings to the family and organise further grappling irons be got ready to assist. Unfortunately aboard this boat was Mr Thicknesse, the father of Ralph, Mr H. Woodcock, (the uncle of Thomas) and other family members so the tragedy was then compounded with this unwitting method of delivery of the distressing news to their loving families, who were thrown into a state of great alarm. They at once landed and Mr. Thicknesse accompanied the ladies of the party, with the exception of Thomas's aunt, home. Mr and Mrs H. Woodcock remained with the drowned young men and accompanied the recovery party to Low Wood Inn, until nothing further could be done for the now deceased Thomas and Ralph.
Mr H. Woodcock left the town by the night mail train to bear the sad tidings to his brother, John Woodcock, Thomas's father. He then returned with some servants and another uncle, a Mr Harrison, to Windermere on the 3.00 am mail train.
The inquest commenced at Low Wood Inn at 1:00 pm on Wednesday and the relatives were permitted by the coroner to begin the sad journey by special train, of escorting the bodies, back to their Wigan homes of Beech Hill and The Elms; the families travelling with their deceased loved ones. The people of Wigan were waiting at the station and on the streets to receive the return, in its unlooked for and unwanted form, but felt it necessary to join in the sad commemoration with the grieving families.

The funeral of the two young men took place on Monday 19th September at Wigan. The families were well respected gentry in the area and the shops of the Market Place were closed during the time of the funerals, the townspeople in their thousands lined the streets and were present at the burials as they were both placed reverently in their family vaults at All Saints Parish Church, Wigan. The rear church wall bears the following inscription:


On 28th October 1853 the below verses were printed in The Liverpool Mercury Double Supplement. I have repeated the whole poem, putting in italics, after the title, the papers explanation (although it is in the same section as the newspaper placed it). It seems to suggest that the title itself was not with the verses, but clearly refers to the drowning.

(The rough copy of these verses was picked up in the Park-road and no doubt refer to the above unfortunate youths.)

Winandermere! no face of fear
Did thy Blue Waters wear;
'Twas with a smile thou didst beguile
The destined pair!
The Elder bore the barb of war,
His friend the scholars Gown;
The syren wave became their grave,
With few to see and none to save,
They both went down!

O Langdale! shroud thy twins in cloud;
Scawfell! thy forehead veil:
Sad echoes, wake! from Curwen's brake
To Loughrigg Fell!
Urge, Brathay, slow thy sweet streams flow
Along its crystal bed;
And Tarn and steep conspire to weep
The silent mound where softly sleep
The early dead!

Ye braes! unclose each flower that knows
Its season of the year;
Bring forth, O lake! thy hoards to deck
With gems that bier!
And all ye leaves, that nature gives
To bank and bush and burn,
Break out - too late - too soon - forget
The cycles of your wont, to wet
With dew that urn!

Come, mountain ash! your red tears dash,
Up where the eagle sails;
And hyacinths strew, both white and blue,
Your tremulous bells!
And staider flowers, in rich men's bowers
By all your variance seen;
The pansy neat, the rose so sweet,
The passion-flower, and fuschia, meet
For graves so green!

But who will bring his harp to sing
The story of the drowned!"Twere sure not hard to find a bard
These lakes around!
Alas! not so; uncharmed we go
From Loughrigg to Lodore,
And call in vain for one last strain
From hands that sweep the strings again
Shall never more!

The "dove" that pressed you soft, warm "nest"
Has flown aloft to sing,
And Grasmere's lyre can magic fire
No longer fling. On Greta's wall no numbers fall,
And Rydal, too, is dumb;
For time can warp each favourite harp,
Though strong the strings, or sweet, or sharp,
The chords have come!

But linger long the wings of song
That flutter 'mid the hill;
Even yet through fell and scar and dale
Their echo rings!
And liquid notes from silent throats
Shall swell one last refrain,
Then mount to skies where never dies
The song that can immortalise
The hapless twain!

Yon bird that brings on loaded wings
Subsistence to her young,
And left her nest on mountain's crest
Securely hung -
Shall she not cry and steerless fly
O'er all she lived for - lost!
When closed and dead each beak she fed
Lies underneath, with dust o'erspread,
And feathers tossed!

And she that floats to bugle notes
So unsuspecting by,
Content to turn aside, and learn,
"What means that cry?"
If hearts can break, tis time, O lake!
The unenvied meed to wear,
She looked - she saw the floating oar -
The cap she knew - the coat he wore -
The streaming hair.

North Wind! arise, and drown the cries
That sting our startled ear:
Canst thou not quell that voice of wail,
O Windermere!
Furrow thy face, but o'er one place
Forbear, at least, to rave;
By yonder bank, where down they sank,
Preserve a circle calm and blank,
As marble wave.
J. W. H.
Liverpool Mercury.

I have been unable to discover who J. W. H. was as a poet, though the words are poignant and were repeated in The Westmorland Gazette. The above italic insert of the time seems to suggest the paper also did not know the author, yet printed the poem. 

As earlier stated, Ralph Thicknesse was the only son of Ralph Anthony Thicknesse and the tragedy struck the father deep to his soul. In the days of the son taking over the family inheritance and business, this long family line had now been broken and he was left with one daughter, Ann.
In August of 1854 Ralph Anthony and his remaining family went to go to Harrogate, the Spa town in the north of England, taking up apartments at The Dragon Hotel, intending on stopping there for some weeks; he would be 54 years of age. Although appearing well, on Sunday 20th August he was seized with pain and withdrew to the hotel. Despite Dr Kenyon (of Harrogate) calling on the help of Dr. Simpson from York, Mr Thicknesse deteriorated on Tuesday morning and died shortly after 11:00 pm that night from a heart condition. On Wednesday his body was transported back to Wigan and conveyed to Beech Hill, the family Home, arriving at 9:30 pm and, like his son, a large crowd had gathered for the sad homecoming, the local church bell tolling the journey from the railway station to Beech Hill.
Mr Thicknesse was born in 1800, the family being renowned in the area, through mining and banking. In 1828 he had married his cousin Mary Ann Woodcock and they had three children, two daughters and Ralph the son. He lost his youngest daughter and then lost Ralph, his only son. This left one daughter, Ann. She was to marry Francis Henry Coldwell who by Royal Licence, took the name Thicknesse and the family crest. In this fashion the family wealth went to Ann and the family name of Thicknesse was carried on. He led a life in the clergy and upon his death had he had become the oldest Anglican Bishop. He and Ann bore five sons and two daughters, hence the Thicknesse name continued and did not die out so tragically with the death of Ralph Anthony Thicknesse.

It is a tragic tale, both deaths emanating from the same close family, yet it has at least shown some hope to the end. There have been many such deaths in the Lake District, not all have left their mark in the landscape, such as the memorial to the young men and the place-name of 'White Cross Bay'. 



  1. Another well researched and presented article, thank you :)

  2. Hi Raymond.
    I write for Windermere Now. I have sent you a message on Facebook. Could you have a look for it? Thanks
    Phil Brown

  3. My granny was a Thicknesse and I've known a little about this story - it's really good to have found such a thorough and extensive piece of writing about this awful tragedy that is part of my family history. Thank you! I'm visiting windermere in May and will look for the memorial.

    1. Thank you Lucy. I think I may have sent you an email but just check. I am pleased to have helped.

  4. Our trip to Windermere was successful and we eventually found the white cross in the grounds of Cragwood House Hotel after a bit of a scramble through scrub and huge abandoned inscriptions in stones. I took photos and sent them to my mum and aunt who were so pleased we'd found the cross! We couldn't get close enough to read the inscription but it was just good to be there. Thank you for making this possible with your excellent information Ray. Best wishes.