Monday, 21 December 2020

The St. Bees Head Lighthouse Tragedy of 1822


St. Bees Head Lighthouse, by W.H. Bartlett, drawn in 1842

There has been a lighthouse at St. Bees Head since 1718 and it was the last one to be lit by coal fire, which was highly inefficient, requiring a lot of maintenance and supervision. It was high on the cliffs of St. Bees Head with only Tarnflat farm as the only building that was in view from the premise, at a distance of roughly half a mile. In 1822 the keeper of the remote lighthouse was William Clark; he was married to Mary, who was by then 32 years old and they had five children, with Mary also pregnant with a sixth. The oldest was Christine (or Christina) who was 12 years old, then Isaac (9), John (7), Jane (5), and James (3). The Clark family had a routine of visiting Tarnflat each morning and evening to obtain their milk from the farmer.   On Thursday 17th January William had gone into Whitehaven, which was about three miles away, for the purpose of visiting the market, and was accompanied by his 12 year old daughter. (Copied burial records suggest the oldest was a son called Christian, but news reports state William went to Whitehaven with his 12 year old daughter, not a son, so I have assumed the burial record was not very legible and was incorrectly copied as 'Christian'. Due to current  COVID restrictions I am unable to fully verify). On his return that evening he was perfectly sober and made his way back to his home. 

The first hint of something unusual came about when no member of the family had gone to Tarnflat farm for the Friday morning milk supply but no great concern was initially attached to this anomaly. Later that evening however the farmer realised that the beacon of the lighthouse was not lit. That was a serious concern to him, as he knew this was something William would never neglect to do. Due to this, the farmer and others went to the lighthouse and found the place locked, with a strong smell of smoke emanating from the premise. Despite their constant banging on the door they could raise no-one. Fearing the worst, they forced their way in and found Mary with four of her five children all unmoving, and in the same curtain sided bed; strangely none of these bed curtains had caught alight. There had clearly been a fire within the premise and the occupants of the bed were all dead. Only the youngest suffered burn marks to its leg, from the ankle to the knee; the fifth child was in a room above and had also died from smoke inhalation. William himself was lying on the floor and was alive, yet insensible. He was also burned on his right arm and down the right side of his torso; it was supposed that the draft of air from under the door had been sufficient to maintain his life, but it was despaired that he would succumb to his injuries. 

An inquest was held at Tarnflat the next day, Saturday 19th, by the coroner Peter Hodgson Esq., in the presence of a jury. The above circumstances were inquired into and the court had been unable to establish a time of the incident. It was supposed that the fire had commenced following a spark from the beacon coal fire having caught in the clothing of the father and somehow had begun smouldering when all the family were asleep. Had anyone been awake it was supposed would have aroused all the others. A verdict of 'Death by Suffocation' was returned by the jury. 

Mary Clark and all her children were interred at St. Bees churchyard on Sunday 20th, a great crowd of local people attended to pay their respects, moved by the tragic circumstances of the whole loss of a family, with the exception of the father. 

The newspapers reported that William, against all medical expectations, began to recover. He recalled only that some of the children appeared to be sick, likely from the smoke of the fire, but could offer nothing as to the cause of the fire itself. No doubt this account was formed following his rousing, before he himself succumbed to the smoke and he fell into unconsciousness. Although the community were relieved at William's continued recovery they feared for what kind of life he would live from then on. He was known to be a loving, caring husband and father, but was now bereft of the whole of his family. 

The tragedy finally brought about change of the beacon for the improved safety of the seafarers plying there inherently dangerous trade  along the Cumbrian coast. The corporation of Trinity House, London, caused the erection of a new lighthouse for the purpose of exhibiting the new Argand lamp and reflectors. It was reported in mid December that the first showing of the new light was expected to be on Wednesday 1st January 1823. This device had been patented in 1784 by the Swiss inventor, Aime Argand, and was an oil burner which utilised a wick between two metal tubes, the light of which was reflected to sea. The use of this system meant that navigators of the Solway Firth entrance could see both the St. Bees light and the one on Douglas Pier when passing between them, creating a far safer journey for both the vessel crews and their vital cargoes and passengers.



Wednesday, 2 December 2020

The Deaths of John Litt in 1880 and William Litt in 1895, of Keswick.


John Litt was born in Keswick around 1832, the son of Thomas and Mary, nee Porter. His parents were both born around 1806 and were married on 28th June 1829, in the parish of Crosthwaite; Thomas is known to have been a tailor. John appears to be the first child, born in 1831. He was followed by Thomas jnr. (1834), Joseph (1836), William (1838), and Henry who was born and died in 1841, prior to the 6th June first national census of that year. William died in the second quarter of 1842 and a Ann was born in the third quarter of that year. Jane was born in the last quarter of 1845, then a second William was born in the last quarter of 1848.

Little is known of John in his early life but in1851 he was known to be a boot cleaner at the Royal Hotel, Keswick, and unmarried. Ten years later he had improved his position to that of Groom and on 16th October 1862 he married a Sarah Davidson, of Underskiddaw, in Crosthwaite Church and was then a bus-driver at the Prince of Wales Hotel, Grasmere.

On Saturday 20th July 1867 John was before Keswick Magistrates following being reported by PC Roche* for furious driving the Royal Oak Omnibus around the corner of the hotel itself, so he must have moved employers but in the same role of driver. When the officer remonstrated with him for nearly knocking over an old woman if the horses had not been stopped, he used foul language towards the constable. The magistrates fined him £1 with 9s 6d costs, or 14 days imprisonment in default. 

John and Sarah were to have three children, John (1863), Mary Hannah (1866) who sadly died 18th October 1868, and William (1868). 

John was a keen follower of the hunt and on the morning of Tuesday 9th March 1980, with a friend called John Vickers he attended the Blencathra hunt when it went into the area of The Bog, near mere's Gill, between Raven Crag and Threefooted Brandeth, near High Seat, Keswick. This is the fell group between the Thirlmere Valley and Borrowdale. He has appeared fatigued but did not complain, and the hunt moved on to the Borrowdale area. After the completion of the hunt his family became increasingly concerned that John had not returned that evening or night, so on Wednesday morning they  alerted the hunt followers. Mr. David Powley immediately went to Mr. Oliver, who was the shepherd of Castlerigg and believed to be the last person who had seen John. The only hope they had was raised by the knowledge that Mr. Vickers had also not returned and could the two still be together somewhere on a task or jaunt? While others searched different parts of the fells the two men, with a dog, immediately went to the area where Mr. Oliver had last seen John, which was in the Mere's Gill area. Unfortunately his body was found by the two men only about 15 yards from where Mr. Oliver left him; he was lying on his back, with his head pointing down the valley; his body was quite cold and stiff. The other searchers were contacted and attended the area. At a little after 12noon the searchers constructed a bier out of their mountain sticks and carried John's body to the nearest place a horse and cart could be accessed. It was taken home to his grief stricken family at 3pm. 

Doctor O'Reilly had treated John and had no hesitation declaring that he had suffered from disease of the heart. The coroner was informed but deemed it unnecessary to hold an inquest. John was laid to rest in Crosthwaite Church graveyard. 

At some stage it was decided to commemorate John by the erection of two stones at the place where he died at mere's Gill.

I decided to visit the memorial and add to the Litt history as much as I could, to give as comprehensive account as was possible and place an easy to locate map reference for others. 

Standing next to the John Litt Memorial.
Inscription: 'IN MEMORY OF J. LITT WHO DIED MARCH. 9. 1880.'

The two stones together, looking to Raven Crag. 

The second stone with an uncipherable inscription.

The John Litt Memorial Map Ref: NY296186

The stile over the fence to the east of High Seat. The green forested areas ahead are Raven Crag (right) and Sipling Crag (left). The light green area between the two has two small bumps, the right one has the memorial plaque.

Sarah went on to earn a living as a laundress. Sadly tragedy was again to follow as their son John died on 4th May 1884, aged only 20 years. William, the only surviving child of John and Sarah, died on 5th May 1915; Sarah was to live until the age of 77 years, dying on 15th March 1917.  All the family are commemorated on the same headstone in Crosthwaite Churchyard. 

Although the the death of John Litt was the more well known incident, with the erecting of the memorial and modern walkers visiting it due to its reference in walking books, it was not the most tragic occurrence within the Litt family. 

John's brother William went on to become a joiner in the town at Gatey Court. He was married to Mary and they had at least six children. On Tuesday 30th July 1895 the newly elected MP for the Mid-Cumberland area, Mr. James William Lowther, arrived with his wife and children at Keswick Railway station, to reside over the summer. A reception had been organised by local dignitaries and the whole town turned out to greet him; it had been done against James Lowther's wishes. A carriage was brought to the station and the horses were unhitched, with local men then pulling the conveyance along to the Royal Hotel, halting temporarily on the south side of the upper market square. It then proceeded down the street past the town hall and was passing opposite Greenhow's Dining rooms, which was on the north side of the Market Place. Large crowds had also gathered there to offer their congratulations, and the intention was for the carriage to be pulled to Derwent Hill, where the Lowther's were to take residence for the summer. William was at the dining rooms talking to a local builder called William Cowperthwaite; he then crossed the road to assist in pulling the carriage, which was travelling at a moderate speed of around four miles per hour. In making a grab for the rope he missed it, overbalanced, and fell, causing three other men to fall over him, two of whom were a waller called Joseph Pearson, and a carter by the name of Robert Wren. The two carriage wheels passed over William's head, crushing it and almost immediately killing him, such was the horrific nature of the injuries caused. Mr. Pearson was also injured, but was able to make his own way home. Gatey Court was nearby and William was taken to his residence and grief stricken family. Two doctors had been nearby and at the house one thought he detected a pulse, so reanimation was attempted, but with no success. Mr. and Mrs. Lowther had been shocked and visited the widow on the Wednesday morning to express their deep sympathies, leaving a substantial sum of money to defray any immediate expenses. 

The inquest was held in the courthouse on the afternoon of Wednesday 31st and following the formal identification of the deceased by his brother Thomas, the evidence of the accident was given by various witnesses. These included Michael McNicholl the coach driver, Mr. Pearson, Mr. Cowperthwiate, and other witnesses who saw the accident occur. Police Inspector Logan of Keswick had also been at the victory procession. All stated that the carriage was not travelling fast and managed to stop within three yards of the accident occurring. Although the verdict was one of 'Accidental Death', the coroner was critical of the usual practice of the unhitching of horses and the drawing of it by human power alone. The inquest jury and the witnesses agreed to hand their fees and expenses to William's widow.